Review: A Keeper by Graham Norton

a keeperI’ve had numerous recommendations to read A Keeper, the much talked about second novel by Graham Norton. And the premise of the story is interesting enough to make you want to pick it up too. Elizabeth is a divorced academic living in her New York apartment with a teenage son when her mother dies suddenly in Ireland. Elizabeth must fly back to where she grew up, not very happily, to sort out her mother’s estate.

In the old family house that is now hers, Elizabeth finds a bundle of love letters written by the father she never knew. A surprise inheritance sends her to a remote farmhouse by a ruined castle – was this where Elizabeth was born? The story switches between Elizabeth’s search for clues and her mother Patricia’s story.

Patricia was the dutiful daughter who gave up her freedom to care for her invalid mother. When at last her ma dies, Patricia, still single and over thirty, embarks on a plan to find love and answers a letter in the lonely hearts column of a farmer’s gazette. Edward is the only possible contender – Irish farmers could learn a lot from Edward about how to write a letter to a potential love interest. Patricia takes the long train journey to visit him on his farm. Edward has a car while Elizabeth hasn’t but he can’t leave the cows it seems. Edward is painfully shy but kindly; it’s his mother who’s the problem.

I barrelled through A Keeper wanting to know what happened, which is just well, as I couldn’t help but feel that the book could have done with a bit of work. The prose is a little loose at times, some of the imagery jarring and characters’ actions aren’t always terribly logical. On the other hand, this is an Irish novel, and who knows what goes on in those remoter corners of the Emerald Isle. The other problem was no matter how I tried, I couldn’t help but hear Graham Norton’s voice reading the narrative in my head. For a while, I didn’t mind, as I rather like Graham Norton on the telly, but it somewhat interrupted my connection to the characters.

The plot is full of surprises, well-paced and builds to a satisfying ending, particularly for Elizabeth. Poor Patricia’s story is more heart-rending – the things that happen in that farmhouse make your hair stand on end. Overall, I enjoyed A Keeper, and will probably pick up another book by Norton as he is very much an entertainer in more ways than one. Three out of five from me.

The Charm of Being Read To

y648 (1)Recently I discovered audiobooks. I had previously discounted them because of time. Someone reading to me out loud means the story will take so much longer. And that’s still true. But then again, what’s the rush?

Our library is running a winter reading challenge for adults called Turn Up the Heat. One of the challenges is to read a book in a format you wouldn’t normally choose, and having read loads of print books, ebooks and even a few graphic novels, I thought I’d bite the bullet and opt for an audiobook. I downloaded a Charles Todd mystery from the library website onto my phone (which was fairly painless using the Libby app) plugged in my earbuds and off I went. Literally.

I went off for a walk, I went off to hang out the washing, I went off to prune the roses, and I went off to clean the kitchen and the bathroom. I accomplished such a lot over the weekend and ‘read’ a book at the same time. This was a revelation. Continue reading “The Charm of Being Read To”

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

nowI am so glad I read Miller’s latest as an ebook because such is the dramatic tension he maintains throughout, that if it had been a regular book, I would have been flipping to the end to see what happened. 

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a young English cavalry officer, sent home to recover from terrible events during the retreat from Portugal – we’re talking about the Peninsula Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s barely alive, but under the care of his housekeeper, recovers his health enough to plan a visit to Scotland in search of old folk songs, taking his violin, but also his pistol. He shouldn’t really be doing that – he’s supposed to report back to his regiment. The war is still going and they need all the men they can get.

Another cavalry officer comes looking for him to tell him this but gives him a bit of extended leave. Meanwhile, in Spain, there are reports of a horrific atrocity against a village – rape, pillage, murder, etc. during the retreat. Desperate men do desperate things but someone has to pay to appease the locals. Somehow Captain John Lacroix becomes their man. They send brutish Corporal Calley to deal to him and the infinitely more refined Spanish officer Medina to make sure he does. Continue reading “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller”

Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

familiarsStacey Halls’s debut novel, The Familiars, concerns the Pendle witch trials which occurred in Lancashire in 1612. It’s a topic Hall has always been fascinated with, according to her author blurb, and it shows. The novel is well-researched and instead of taking the easy path and writing a story around her own made-up characters, virtually all the book’s personnel really existed.

First off there is Fleetwood Shuttleworth – a seventeen-year-old noblewoman, whose main role in life is to produce an heir. She’s had three miscarriages already, and just when she begins to feel she might be pregnant again, she finds a doctor’s letter to husband Richard to say that giving birth is likely to kill her.

Still pale and sickly from her last miscarriage, Fleetwood is helped by her unexpected friendship with midwife Alice Grey and gradually she begins to hope she may survive to be a mother. But when Alice is accused of witchcraft and murder, Fleetwood has to fight back if she wants to save both her friend and her own life. Continue reading “Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls”

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

normalNormal People won the last Costa Award, as well as being long-listed for the Man Booker and the Woman’s Prize for Fiction. So I knew it would be good. And it is in many ways. The novel concerns Connell and Marianne, two young people who at the outset of the novel are in the same year at school. They kind of click even though Marianne’s family are wealthy and Connell’s mother cleans their house.

The story follows their on and off again relationship over their last year at high school and through university – they both go to Trinity College in Dublin. What gives the book its dramatic tension is that both characters are damaged – Connell being the kid from a bad family, with all the insecurities which that implies, while Marianne feels unloved, is mocked at school and suffers abuse at home. Throughout, they somehow remain friends, see other people, do a lot of soul-searching and struggle with their emotions. Continue reading “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney”

Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

bagYou may remember Crooked Heart, Evans’s novel set during World War II about a middle-aged grifter on hard times and Noel, her young evacuee. The story provides an original view of wartime life, smart and witty with some brilliant characters. Among them is Mattie, Noel’s godmother who makes a brief but memorable appearance at the start of the book. So memorable in fact, that Evans has devoted a new book to her: Old Baggage.

The story takes place in 1928 as the suffragette movement finally sees franchise for women on equal terms with men. (When women got the vote in 1918, it was for property-owning women over thirty only). Mattie Simpkin is a former suffragette in her late fifties, who with old campaign chum Florrie, puts on talks about the battle for the vote and holds forth to anyone who pauses to listen. Ever the campaigner, the story concerns Mattie’s discovery that there’s no point giving women the vote if they have no knowledge of politics, history or the world at large. She starts a group for young girls called the Amazons who learn vigorous activities on Hampstead Heath (javelin throwing, slingshots and archery) as well as taking educational excursions, camping out and debating. Continue reading “Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans”

Some Hot New Books to Look Out For

If your reading appetite is a little jaded, try these new books by authors who are masters of their craft.

Kate Atkinson has a new Jackson Brodie novel just out, nine years after last one – something I never thought I’d see. In Big Sky, ‘old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking novel by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today’ according to the blurb and yes, I imagine they do because when she isn’t writing crime fiction, Atkinson has made a name for herself as a master of literary fiction, winning a host of literary awards. So she’s not going to be the author who pumps out a couple of page-turners a year just to keep her Jackson Brodie fans happy. The reason they’re so good is that they’re written by a literary author, and not just any literary author. Atkinson is the master of the interesting sentence, which melds into the interesting paragraph, and from then into the surprisingly good chapter and you know where this is heading. So yes, I’ll be happy to get my hands on. Very happy.

We all remember The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon’s breakout novel about a boy on the autism spectrum who sees something suspicious next door. It was a brilliant piece of characterisation, laced with humour and insight. There have been a few books since, but The Porpoise has whetted my curiosity in particular as it is a reworking of the Shakespearean story of Pericles, one of the least known late plays, so quite a new direction for this author. There’s a missing child, pirates, shifts from present day to ancient times with elements of fantasy. So never a dull moment, I should imagine.

I loved Anna Hope’s previous novel, The Ballroom – an original story around two marginalised characters who find themselves incarcerated in a mental institution and who unexpectedly fall in love. It’s 1911, and people have been talking about eugenics and sterilisation of the ‘unfit’, although in England at least, it didn’t quite come to that, fortunately. Hope’s new book, Expectation is a contemporary novel about friendship – in particular, about two women who at the outset have youth, energy and high hopes for the future. Ten years on, they are still struggling to have a meaningful life. Maybe this isn’t the most original of premises, but I shall be eager to see what Hope does with it.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is about the family of a Philadelphia property magnate, particularly his two estranged children told over five decades. Once wealthy, the brother and sister are left to fend for themselves – something of an evil step-mother scenario here – and the bond between the two will either save or ruin them further. Since Commonwealth and State of Wonder, Patchett is on my must-read list. She writes such amazing characters and gripping, suspenseful storylines, so I can’t wait for this one which has a September release date.

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith would seem to have some of the same key ingredients as his stunning 2011 book, Bright and Distant Shores. The new book takes us to Fort Lee, New Jersey and the beginnings of cinema in the US as well as Paris – City of light – plus the Belgian battlefields of World War I. History and personal obsessions collide in this sweeping drama. Smith is a consistently good historical novelist and this is sure to be a worthy addition to the pile on my bedside table.

 

Swords, Daggers and Pistols: My Favourite Historical Mysteries

Good historical mysteries are hard to beat. You have the puzzle of figuring out whodunit, plus the bonus of being immersed in another time and place, and if they’re well researched, learning a little history along the way. I recently discovered Andrew Taylor’s stunning new series set during the reign of Charles II (see review for Ashes of London here) and it reminded me of what I enjoy so much about this genre. Here are some series I particularly recommend: Continue reading “Swords, Daggers and Pistols: My Favourite Historical Mysteries”

Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summerMany readers will remember Helen Simonson’s popular debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s a contemporary story about a man recently widowed who rescues a golf-course from developers and has a second chance at love. The Summer Before the War is similarly set in rural England, but the war of the title is World War 1. Protagonist Beatrice Nash has recently lost her father but through a well-connected but disapproving aunt secures a position to teach Latin at a grammar school in Rye.

Beatrice aims to be self-supporting, to earn a living through teaching and writing, and to never marry. She’s a striking and interesting character, in a book full of interesting characters, including Agatha Kent, who takes Beatrice under her wing and helps her settle in. She sends her nephew, Hugh Grange, to collect Beatrice from the station and the two strike a slightly awkward friendship.

Hugh is in his last year of training as surgeon under the brilliant Sir Alex Ramsey, who has a lovely young daughter, Lucy. She has many admirers among Ramsey’s students, but Hugh rather hopes he could be the frontrunner in the race for her affections. He has a dream of taking over Ramsey’s busy London practice and Lucy would be the perfect wife. Continue reading “Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson”

Book Review: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

ashesHalf of London is watching as St Paul’s burns during the opening scene of The Ashes of London – Andrew Taylor’s first book in his historical mystery series featuring investigative clerk, James Marwood. We are there in the crowd as the rats scamper for their lives and the beloved cathedral begins to collapse. Out of the crowd, a boy runs towards the conflagration, and Marwood dashes to stop him. Only, he turns out to be a she and instead of explaining herself, the girl bites Marwood, making off with his cloak.

Yes, it’s 1666, the year that brought the Great Fire of London. You can feel the heat as Marwood views the scene he must report on to his bosses.  It’s not easy being the son of a Fifth Monarchist, a follower of a faith that believes the current monarch (Charles II) should die in order to bring about the second coming of Christ. Marwood senior has served time in the tower for his beliefs, and this has left him frail and suffering from dementia. Young James has to manage his father, keep his demanding job at Whitehall, and investigate a murder – in this case, a body discovered in the ruins of St Pauls, with distinctive wounds – expertly stabbed at the top of the spine, hands tied together by the thumbs. Continue reading “Book Review: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor”