Mystery Series Catch-Up, Round 2

Here’s a snapshot of my crime fiction reading from recent months – old series I’ve been following for years plus one or two newbies. They are all so completely different from one another, it makes you realise how varied the mystery genre is.

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths
Norfolk seems to be such a boon for Griffiths with its atmospheric tidal zones, archaeological sites and old ghost stories. We had the lantern men last time (apparitions that led you to your swampy doom) and this time we’ve got the Black Shuck (a huge black dog who foretells your death). Meanwhile academic Ruth Galloway and DI Harry Nelson deal with more crime – this time the body of a young man found on the beach by the Night Hawks – a group who go on midnight forays with metal detectors. When the detectorists happen on some ancient bones and weaponry, Ruth’s not best pleased – they could interfere with a Bronze Age burial site. But soon there are connections with the dead man and of course one or two more murders keeps the story on the go. This was such an easy but engrossing read. Griffiths writes so well for this genre, and at number 13 in the series, still manages to come up with terrific storylines and interesting character development for her two sleuths.

A Divided Loyalty by Charles Todd
This is the twenty-second in the series, which is surprising in that we’re still only in 1922. But since his return from the war, Inspector Ian Rutledge has had no end of perplexing murders to solve, often, as with this one, where the outcome will cause displeasure to his boss. Never one to opt for the most obvious solution, Ian always has to dig deep and this causes ructions. All the time, he hears the voice in his head of Hamish McLeod, the subordinate officer he’d sent to the firing squad during the war. In this book, a woman found murdered under one of the Avery standing stones draws a blank from one of Scotland Yards best DCIs. Sent to reinvestigate, Ian discovers she was foreign, possibly French, and had connections to someone he has respect for – hence the title. It’s another brilliant read in this well-researched series that brings post-WWI Britain to life.

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
This is such a terrific series, combining intelligent mystery plotting, thrills and danger with historical detail. One of the best things about it, though, is the pair of sleuths: young government agent James Marwood and would-be architect Cat Lovett. When Richard Cromwell, son of the late Lord Protector, slips into England from exile, James is tasked with finding out his motives. His appearance could trigger a movement to defeat the monarchy of Charles II and more civil war. Meanwhile Cat is drawn into the circle of the Cromwells, having known the family as a child. As usual, both sleuths play a dangerous game of their own, caught up in intrigue, sometimes working together, but keeping secrets too. There’s an emotional bond between them, but with James’s work for the Crown and Cat’s marriage to her elderly husband, any deepening of their relationship seems remote – for now.

A Brazen Curiosity by Lynn Messina
I picked up this bargain ebook – the first novel in the series, which features Regency heroine Beatrice Hyde-Clare, with a nod to Jane Austen. Beatrice, at twenty-six, is considered past her prime and an old maid when she accompanies an aunt and cousins to a country house party. One night she wanders down to the library in search of a good book, where she comes upon the eminently eligible Duke of Kesgrave, as well as a dead body. The local magistrate deems the death a suicide, but both the Duke and Bea know better. The two form an awkward team to hunt down the real murderer, which in a grand house full of grand guests, can only make them unpopular, well Bea anyway. His loftiness, the Duke, is above all that. The story is a light, fun read, with plenty of Austenish banter and lively characters. Plenty more books in the series, too.

Dead on Dartmoor by Stephanie Austin
When I picked up this, the second in the series, I didn’t expect it to be so action packed. It begins when Domestic Goddess Juno Browne’s van catches fire, almost roasting a wee dog. If you remember, Juno does odd cleaning jobs and dog walking for people, as well as running an inherited antique/junk shop. Fortunately, James Westerhall, owner of Moorworthy Chase, arrives to the rescue, and is so magnanimous as to invite Juno and chums to run a stall at his upcoming garden fete. But when one of them goes for a walk and ends up dead, Juno begins to wonder if there is something going on at the Chase that’s worth killing for. Another madcap adventure that builds to a thrilling conclusion, with Juno having to do a lot of skullduggery along the way. Great fun.

Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

I’d heard so many good things about Anxious People that it’s been on my Must Read list for a while. And yet a book about an attempted bank heist which turns into a hostage drama isn’t my usual cup of tea. But this is no crazy Bruce Willis and thugs with sub-machine guns story. It’s about ordinary people, strangers who get caught up in an interesting situation and kind of get to know each other.

As the title would suggest, they’ve got problems. The bank robber, following a broken marriage is also suddenly unemployed. No income means no means to pay the rent and that means no home for the kids. The bank won’t lend the robber money either. The story is also about Jack and Jim – the two police officers called to the scene of a hostage situation at an apartment hosting an open home. It’s New Year’s Eve, not an ideal time for an open home, but the door’s open, so that’s where the bank robber escapes to. We learn Jack’s story – how he mightn’t have joined the police, alongside his father, Jim (a bumbling but kindly officer), if he hadn’t witnessed a suicide on a bridge.

The suicide’s story is similar to the bank robber’s. How the banks lost the victim’s savings and assets, which left him with nothing and a family to support. Jack tries to stop him, and fails. The next day visiting the bridge he stops a young girl from jumping too. The girl is later revealed as a character in the story, unbeknownst to Jack, as is the bank manager who couldn’t help the first victim. Jack’s experience as a fifteen year old drives him to want to help people, though these days he mostly just seems to help his father.

Meanwhile the story of how the bank robber escaped and the backstories of the hostages are explored as the book progresses. There is plenty of humour and philosophical meanderings. Thoughts on what makes a happy marriage, a happy life are mulled over by the bank robber and the hostages as they all start getting to know each other. There’s a ton of quotable moments – if you want a snapshot just check out those listed on GoodReads.

“They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.” 

The hostage drama turns into quite a nice little get-together over pizza. Fortunately for all concerned there’s a massive traffic jam on the highway out of Stockholm and the designated police negotiator takes a long time to arrive. So everything’s left to Jack and Jim, and the hostages themselves, to work out a solution.

Anxious People is a quirky, feel-good read with plenty of twists, secrets revealed and interesting connections. The story jumps between character to character, dips back in time and allows the hostages to tell their stories and come up with answers. I haven’t read Backman’s previous books (A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asks Me to Tell You She’s Sorry are two titles that spring to mind), but now I’m keen to read more. This one’s a four out of five read from me.

More New Books on the Horizon

There’s been quite a bumper harvest of terrific books recently – perhaps they were delayed because of lockdowns and now we’re catching up. Anyway, here are some new titles by authors I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past and so naturally I’ve added them to my Must Read List. It’s a pretty varied list, but that’s books for you.

First up is The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson. You might remember this author’s debut, the feel-good novel told in letters, Meet Me at the Museum (click on the link for my review). With a title like this, The Narrowboat Summer sounds instantly appealing, echoing Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, with it’s a story of three women and a dog on a canal boat. Eve’s escaping her career of thirty years to become a free spirit; Sally is taking a break from an indifferent husband and the two are rescuing Anastasia, who needs a life-saving operation. I don’t know what the dog’s problem is. It’s a novel of second chances and the power of friendship. Another feel-good read promised.

In Snow Country Sebastian Faulks returns to themes relating to the First World War and its aftermath – good news for all of us who fondly recall Birdsong – with a novel set in a sanatorium surrounded by snow and on the banks of a silvery lake. Journalist Anton Heideck is commissioned to write a story about the mysterious Schoss Seeblick where Lena had escaped Vienna to take a menial job. ‘A landmark novel of exquisite yearnings, dreams of youth and the sanctity of hope‘ promises the blurb. The setting and the rumblings of another war will be sure to add to the atmosphere. Snow Country is out in September.

The Heron’s Cry by Anne Cleeves is the second in the author’s Two Rivers series set in North Devon. Detective Matthew Venn is called to investigate a very staged looking murder – a woman stabbed with a shard from one of her glassblower daughter’s vases. Another similar murder and complications involving Matthew’s partner, Jonathan – well, it’s a small town after all – and you can tell it’s going to be another page turner. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book. I loved The Long Call (catch up with my review here), but as Cleeves has her Vera Stanhope series on the go as well, it’s been a long wait. Cleeves writes engaging character-driven crime novels with plenty of twists and secret motives. Throw in some interesting detectives and colourful English settings and what more could you want?

Mrs England by Stacey Halls is the latest from the author who brought us the historical novel about witch hunts, The Familiars. In her third book, this time with an Edwardian timeframe, Ruby takes a job caring for the children of a well-to-do Yorkshire family when strange things start to happen. What begins as a fresh start for our protagonist soon looks like history repeating itself and Ruby finds herself ostracised and alone. Big houses and chilling settings, women battling the powerlessness of their station in life – these seem to be recurring themes for Halls who could be following in the footsteps of Susan Hill, Daphne du Maurier and Wilkie Collins. ‘Simmering with slow-burning menace,’ says the blurb for the new book.

Trio by William Boyd is a novel some pundits are picking for the Man Booker Longlist and it nearly slipped under my radar. Definitely time to put it on the list then. Set during the turbulent year of 1968 – a time of student protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobbie Kennedy, the Vietnam War – it follows characters caught up in a movie being shot in Brighton. Efrida is struggling with writer’s block and drinking too much; glamorous Anni can’t figure out why the CIA should have her on their watch list; while Talbot has a secret. It looks like classic William Boyd territory – the lives of everyday people made extraordinary by circumstances and the politics of the day. Might have to bump this one to the top of the pile.

Book Review: Death of a Nightingale by Lane Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis

This novel is the third in the Nina Borg series which began with The Boy in the Suitcase. It’s also the only one I have read. Oh, no, nags the little voice in my head – you should read them all in order! Stilling the little voice, I was soon engrossed in this engaging example of Danish noir.

Nina Borg is a nurse who has worked in some dangerous places in her role with the Red Cross. Now she’s working at a Copenhagen refugee camp, where she feels driven to save those who have fled some horrific situations in their countries of birth. Her tendency to disregard her own personal safety has meant that now she’s cut off from her husband and children and living in a dreary flat. There’s a large digital clock on the wall which triggers thoughts about what her children might be doing at any time in the day.

Nina is one of those characters you want to shout at. She’s always going it alone. ‘Call the police!’ you want to scream. ‘Get some help.’ You can see how her commitment to wanting to help people drives her. But being a maverick sleuth can be lonely. Sometimes she brings home a Swedish doctor colleague for the night, who’s also a bit lonely, but this only makes her seem even more solitary. Already, she’s an interesting main character before we even get to the story.

Flip to Natasha – a runaway from Ukraine, wanted by police at home in connection with the death of her husband, and now in Copenhagen for the death of her fiancé who is a bit of a thug with an eye for her young daughter. It’s not surprising Natasha lashed out. But somehow now he’s dead. Natasha is desperate and being on the run in a Danish winter notches up the tension. Nina is concerned because Natasha’s daughter, Rina, is very sick and isn’t doing well away from her mother. Will Natasha risk everything to see her daughter? The authorities are alert to her possible return, but somebody else is too – somebody who might wish her dead.

There’s a police officer on the case who teams up with Nina when Rina’s safety is compromised. The story also switches back to 1930’s USSR where two young girls live in a village, battling hunger and the difficulty of being a good Soviet citizen. The book captures the period following the great famine when families struggled to feed their children, and hoarding food was an offence that would see you off to the gulags, or worse.

So Death of a Nightingale has plenty of threads in a complex storyline, peopled with a large cast of characters and some interesting twists. How the grim backstory has left its mark on Natasha and her countrymen keeps the reader guessing, and isn’t made clear until the end. But before we get remotely close to that revelation, there’s plenty of action and dicing with death.

I’m glad I picked this one up, even if it is number three in a series of four. The characters are vividly drawn and the story keeps you on your toes. The scenes in Soviet Russia make for sobering reading and remind you how terrible state-led indoctrination can be with repercussions that last a lifetime. I did find the final scenes a little rushed and the complications around the point where the past catches up to the present could have been clearer. Yes, I shall probably check in with Nina Borg again, but I’m not in any hurry. A three-and-a-half out four read from me.

Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s new book begins in 1944 Italy, as English troops are engaged in the push back agains the Germans. We’ve got a meeting between two unlikely friends: Evelyn Skinner a sixty-something art historian sojourning in Tuscany with fellow lesbian Margaret; and a young soldier, Ulysses Temper. Temps, as his mates call him, chances upon Evelyn and introduces her to his erudite Captain Darnley and the three discover a painting which has a big effect on the young soldier.

Oh, drop the Miss, for God’s sake, said Evelyn, sitting down next to him. My name’s Evelyn. And yours?

Ulysses.

Ulysses! How wonderful! And is there a Penelope waiting for your return?

Nah. Just a Peggy. And I doubt she’s waiting, and he turned the ignition and the jeep pulled away.

Temps is from London’s East End, the son of a globe-maker, a fitting occupation for a man named Ulysses. He paints delicate versions of the Earth on carefully prepared spheres, but his experiences in Florence will stay with him long after his return. A chance interception of an attempted suicide will bring him back here, but not before we’ve been introduced to his fellow Eastenders who make up a kind of family, and the 1940s spin into the 1950s.

Winman creates some wonderful characters here, all of them centred on the Stoat and Parrot – the pub owned by Col, a cantankerous publican with permanent dyspepsia. Col runs through girlfriends in alphabetical order, blaming the Shakespeare-spouting parrot for the desertion of his wife. But he’s got a disabled daughter to raise, a naive innocent. Fortunately Peggy’s on hand, taking the girl under her wing along with old-timer Cress who talks to a tree and keeps an eye out for everyone.

Peggy is Ulysses’s wife – a hasty marriage brought on by the start of war, but his time away has Peggy form an attachment to American soldier, Eddie, and left her with a daughter, Alys. When Eddie fails to return, Peggy belts out her blues in song at the Stoat and Parrot, accompanied by Pete, when he’s not in a show. The reader gets enough of the gritty post-war London with it’s slow rebuild and pea-soup fogs to want better for this odd family of characters. It comes in the form of a legacy which has Ulysses, Cress and young Alys (who Ulysses loves like his own daughter) move to Florence accompanied by Claude, the parrot.

From here, the story weaves through the decades, and Ulysses makes new friends and learns to love the Italian lifestyle. He chucks out his demob suit for a sharp Italian look and Cress learns to cook pasta. Our friends from the Stoat and Parrot will drift here for visits and longer stays, watching the big world events play out – the moon landings, student demonstrations, assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK – as the world recreates itself after the recent wars.

Still Life is a feast for the senses. The food alone in this book is worth reading it for – I pulled out an Italian cookbook destined for a second-hand fair, determined to revisit some of these classic dishes. As well as the food and wine we have sweltering summers, scented gardens, wonderful art (and poetry), the music of the day, romantic attachments of all kinds, shown with sensitivity and warmth.

I loved the characters, but particularly Ulysses, who unlike his namesake, is sensitive, charming and caring, quietly missing Peggy who he can’t seem to forget. Still Life is a lively book full of lifelike people who learn to live and love again in a wonderful new place (there’s also a quirky lack of punctuation when it comes to dialogue, which took a bit of getting used to). It’s also a hymn to Florence, and if you’ve been there before, Still Life will bring it all back for you. A book that charms on many levels, it’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Felicity McLean’s debut novel novel has been described as The Virgin Suicides meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. Set in small town Australia, the book is told in two time frames, and begins when Tikka Molloy returns home to reconnect with her sister Laura who isn’t well. She can’t stop thinking, had they did the right thing twenty years ago when their friends, the three Van Apfel sisters vanished. She looks back on that sweltering summer when she was eleven and the events that led up to their disappearance.

Tikka is a great child narrator – she reminds me a little bit of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, if we’re thinking of book comparisons here. She’s smart and imaginative and comes from a loving family. At the corner of their street live the Van Apfels and Tikka and Laura spend a lot of time there as the family has a pool. The Van Apfels attend a fundamentalist church – their dad, though outwardly genial, is particularly strict and this causes tension with his wayward thirteen-year-old daughter Cordelia.

There’s a lot of Tikka trying to make sense of her world and understand what’s going on with the grown-ups, and the tension that seems to lurk at the Van Apfels. There’s a new teacher, Mr Avery, who has a mysterious past that may have included a stint in prison – as rumour has it. So along with the simmering heat there is plenty of simmering tension as the school plans its big, Showstopper concert at an outdoor amphitheatre, for which Tikka has written her own skit and where events build to a climax.

In true Aussie Noir style, the landscape plays a big part in this novel. The mangroves around a brackish estuary create a sinister backdrop (Tikka complains of an unpleasant smell); the empty landscape beyond; the heat bouncing off the tarmac. It all adds to the mood and tension of the book. And there is a hint of the unreliable narrator about Tikka. How accurate are her memories from childhood? Even now as an adult she still can’t help looking for Cordelia (Cordie) at railway stations, at busy intersections, her blonde head just disappearing around corners, failing to stop when called. The Van Apfel girls may have disappeared that summer, but a part of Tikka seems to have been lost as well.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is an impressive debut, a character driven mystery that is also quite the page-turner. There is plenty of humour with the way McLean re-imagines childhood, the rivalry between sisters and between classmates, the rumours and the secrets, the superiority of the older kids. This balances out the sadness of what happens and the feeling of lost innocence which runs through the story. Not a long book, McLean’s novel is well worth picking up, and heralds a promising new author to look out for. A four out of five read from me.

New Books from Old Favourites

Twenty twenty-one is turning out to be a wonderful year for me as a reader as several authors I really enjoy return with new books after a bit of a hiatus. It’s interesting seeing what they come up with after an interval and compare the new books with old ones. And it also offers the chance to reread some old favourites and think about why you liked the earlier books in the first place.

Marika Cobbold‘s Guppies for Tea was a heart-warming, family story about Amelia and her struggle to care for her much-loved grandmother, now showing signs of dementia. She’s also battling a mother with an obsession with germs and a defecting boyfriend, but Amelia finds help in unexpected ways. I really enjoyed this novel, and would also recommend Shooting Butterflies as well as Cobbold’s previous book Drowning Rose, both of which have characters revisiting the past in a way that changes their view of their lives. It’s been a quiet ten years from Cobbold since then, but just published is On Hamstead Heath. Here’s what the blurb says:

“Sharp, poignant, and infused with dark humour, On Hampstead Heath is an homage to storytelling and to truth; to the tales we tell ourselves, and the stories that save us”.

Sarah Winman‘s latest book, Still Life, is only her fourth in ten years and therefore something to be excited about. When God Was a Rabbit was one of those love it or hate it books, if GoodReads is anything to go by. I found it brilliant and original, so that puts me definitely in the ‘loved it’ camp. Now I have a reader’s copy of Still Life and the first page has me hooked already, even though I’ve three other books already on the go. What to do?

Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

Esther Freud‘s debut novel, Hideous Kinky, is a story from Freud’s own childhood and concerns a woman living the hippie dream in Morroco with her two young daughters. They live a hand-to-mouth existence and the reader feels for the girls who really need more stability and well, safety. It was made into a film starring Kate Winslet (also worth a watch). There followed a string of very readable novels, her last outing, Mr Mac and Me (2014), set during WWI and has a basis in the true story of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, a mysterious visitor to the south of England as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Coming soon in July is I Couldn’t Love You More, which according to the blurb is:

A sweeping story of three generations of women, crossing from London to Ireland and back again, and the enduring effort to retrieve the secrets of the past.

Out of interest, Freud’s lineage includes the painter Lucian Freud (father) and Sigmund Freud (great-grandfather).

Andrew Martin has been busy. He’s always got some new project on the go, it seems, fiction and non-fiction, but it’s been a while since he abandoned, or so I thought, his wonderful Jim Stringer railway detective series. The series has taken us from the early 1900s with Jim as a mere teenager, through marriage and war service, to France, the Middle East (The Bahgdad Railway Club is a particular favourite) and to India. The mysteries are full of wonderful north of England wit, odd-bod characters on either side of the law, enough action to keep things humming along and, well, trains. Jim is always battling the establishment, various railway bosses, while attempting to keep ‘the wife’ happy. Eight years after Night Train to Jamalpur was published, here we suddenly have a new Jim Stringer mystery to look forward to. Powder Smoke comes out in November.

Clare Chambers has been one of my favourite authors in the field of contemporary fiction, particularly for her warmth and wit and quirky characters. I’ve already reviewed her new book, Small Pleasures, which wove a story around a couple of historical events from the late 1950s – an interesting departure for this author but still showcasing her gift with characters and humour, but with a darker theme this time and a powerful emotional punch. It sent me off to her previous works and I enjoyed myself hugely rereading In a Good Light as well as The Editor’s Wife. I seriously hope she doesn’t abandon her writing desk for another decade before releasing a new novel, as she’s just so talented.

Book Review: Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

When winter starts to bite, there’s nothing like a book cover showing a summery scene to make you want to pick it up. Kathleen MacMahon’s latest book, Nothing But Blue Sky describes a succession of summer holidays spent abroad, mostly on the sunny Costa Brava. 

David Dowling is recently bereaved – his wife, Mary Rose, killed in a plane crash while she was on her way to a wedding. Ever since they were newly married, the couple have holidayed at the same Spanish seaside town, visiting the same restaurant over the years, the same bar for their pre-dinner aperitif. They’ve people watched, making up stories in particular about a glamorous French family.

In many ways, this is the story of a marriage. David is a cynical foreign correspondent, who doubts his capacity for happiness. His parents seemed to live in a loveless marriage, his father bullying his mother, just as his older brother bullied David. When David meets Mary Rose, he is swept up into the world of his girlfriend’s family, a home full of joy and conversation and people who actually seem to like each other. David discovers another way to live, but can’t quite shake off his inner doubts, his bad cop to Mary Rose’s good cop routine.

When Mary Rose dies, David’s grief is all-consuming. He revisits the events of his marriage – Mary Rose’s goodness and optimism, their childlessness, the way they just seemed to gel, their disagreements. The book weaves their story together in chapters that read a little like a succession of short stories highlighting different aspects of their relationship.

A summer holiday with friends, soon after the air crash, is a miserable affair for David, so he bravely takes himself off to Aiguaclara one more time, and the possibility of starting again takes shape. 

MacMahon draws you slowly into the novel, and in David has created a brilliant character study. How do you deal with feelings, when you’ve spent a lot of your life suppressing them? David is a difficult character but oddly likeable, and you want him to learn a little empathy and trust. This is such a sensitive portrayal about love and loss, about happiness and grief, nuanced and yet also very entertaining. 

The book reminded me a little of novels I’ve read by Anne Enright as well as Andrea Levy. I can’t wait to read more by MacMahon. Nothing But Blue Sky earns a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton

I listened to Home Stretch as an audiobook, and this is a terrific option in this case as the book is read by the author. Graham Norton has a warm and vivid reading style – he has the kind of voice that sounds friendly and the humour never seems all that far away, even when the plot takes a serious turn. Which it does quite often.

The story concerns young Connor, who is caught up with a bunch of local teenagers on the eve of a wedding, tagging along on a trip to the beach. He’s the son of a publican in one of those tiny Irish coastal towns where everybody knows everybody and there’s no hiding any secrets, or so we might suppose. When the car crashes and three are killed, including the bride and groom, another girl left fighting for her life, Connor carries the shame of being the driver responsible.

After the court case, Connor is sent to Liverpool to work for a cousin’s building business and sets out to forget his family, his town and all that has gone on before. But Connor has another secret – he is gay – something he has never been able to mention to his family; this is 1987 after all. When fate conspires to send Connor to London and later to the US, it seems like he can never go home.

The story weaves between Connor’s and that of his sister, Ellen, rescued from shame by Connor’s fellow crash survivor, Martin, the doctor’s son. Martin seems to be the white knight, dazzling Ellen with thoughts of new beginnings. Things don’t quite turn out for Ellen as she may have hoped, and eventually the past will come back and secrets will emerge. Can Connor ever make his way home again and find acceptance in his family?

The story switches between viewpoints and jumps through the decades to the time of the referendum that voted for legalising gay marriage in Ireland. Even Connor’s dad put up a ‘vote yes’ poster in the pub, so the book mirrors changes in society as well as several dawning realisations among the main characters. I felt this was perhaps a more personal story from this author, and it is easy to imagine Norton weaving in some of his own experiences and insight about the gay scene and the shifts in public perception over time.

My only reservation was that sometimes we seem to be fairly galloping through the years and I could happily have stayed awhile longer here and there. But at least this keeps the reader hooked on the story, wondering if Connor will ever make it home to face the past. The book is told with very real feeling and any parent will relate to the fear of never seeing their child again. Norton has such a deep empathy for his characters, even the ones we are not supposed to like are not painted entirely black – there is understanding for them as well.

I loved the dialogue which is very real and lively – Norton having a keen ear for the way people express their personalities in speech. And then there’s the humour, just twinkling away in the background, caught in the banter of characters’ interactions, the way they perceive themselves, the foolishness of youth, the misunderstandings. Home Stretch is a heartfelt and entertaining read, and I thoroughly recommend the audiobook version and Graham Norton’s splendid performance. A three and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

This is such a different sort of novel from Wood’s earlier work, The Natural Way of Things, which was a dystopian novel with an underlying tone of menace. I thought it was a stunning read and was happy to hear she had a new book out. The Weekend is a more character driven novel, told with wit and insight, following three women in their seventies who have lost their former glory, are bitter or desperate – is it too late to recover, recharge and reinvent themselves?

The women are old friends who are missing the fourth of their circle, Sylvie, who has recently died. They gather at Sylvie’s beach house just on Christmas to clean it and clear out the junk, ready to sell. First there’s Jude – she’s the bossy one who likes things done properly. She’s worked in a fashionable restaurant, makes a terrific pavlova, and has been the mistress of a wealthy married man for decades. After the house clear-out, she and David will steal a precious few days together. Jude is the first to arrive, but where are the other two? So typical of them to let her down.

We catch up with Wendy, who has car trouble, sweltering as she waits for the breakdown service – we’re in Australia and Christmas is in summer. Adding to her discomfort is her ancient dog, Finn, seventeen, blind, deaf and incontinent – a raft of conditions that make him constantly fretful. If only Wendy would listen to her daughter and have the dog put down. But Finn has been her consolation ever since her husband passed away. It’s hard to imagine Wendy is an academic of some repute who has written books on feminism that have been received with widespread critical acclaim.

Then there’s Adele, an actress who keeps missing the train, facing a bunch of problems including imminent homelessness, and a lack of available stage roles which is galling for someone who dazzled with her Blanche DuBois, Mother Courage, Lady Macbeth – so many brilliant performances. Then there’s the lack of cash – at least she’s well turned out, her figure still good for her age, her stunning breasts still shapely, her recent pedicure money well-spent.

Most often when Adele was exposed, or shamed, she turned for courage to the moment every actor knew: the moment on stage, entirely yours, waiting in the pitch-dark before the lights came up, the most powerful privacy a person could have. The fear drained away and adrenaline replaced it, and you were ready on your mark, in the darkness….In that moment of taut, pure potential, everything, everyone, was yours.

Jude doesn’t expect a lot from Adele, but has made a list none the less and the three crack on, each imagining the past, their petty grievances, their fears and insecurities. They don’t seem to be getting along at all – was it only Sylvie who kept them all connected?

The Weekend is a wonderful story about friendship and the odd ties that bind it, the feelings that threaten to break it, told in brilliant, witty prose. I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I did, but found myself drawn into a story about three women in the autumn years of their lives – a time when there may not be many more chances for new horizons, but still, who knows? There is just enough plot to keep things bubbling along, with some revelations towards the end that bring things to a head.

I loved the way Wood creates physical discomfort that mirrors the discomfort of the characters’ interactions: the rusty inclinator – a lift-like contrivance that clunks its passengers up to the house; a drenching storm; Wendy’s uncomfortable sandals; Adele caught out needing a pee at the beach with no facilities in sight; anything to do with the dog, Finn. And clearing out a house you have all those years of accumulated junk – the flotsam and jetsam that make a life – now decaying and useless.

It all adds up to a brilliant read, which reminded me a little of Jane Gardam, another writer who has created some brilliant older characters (see Old Filth trilogy), or maybe it was the similar wry tone. The Weekend earned Wood a spot on the Stella Prize shortlist and I will be keeping her on my radar, eager to see what she comes up with next. A four and a half out of five read from me.