Book Review: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – a delightful read inspired by Shakespeare

A few years ago the publishing house Hogarth, commissioned some well-known authors to write retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays in novel form. Jo Nesbo did Macbeth, Gillian Flynn Hamlet and Margaret Atwood The Tempest – among others. Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of a Shrew. This play sounds somewhat old-fashioned today with its story of a ‘difficult’ young woman softening into an obedient wife. Even the word ‘shrew’ is a hard term to swallow – is there even a male equivalent?

Tyler manages this by allowing Kate Battista, the heroine of her story, to remain a forthright and no-nonsense kind of person until the end. She meets her match in Pyotr, her father’s research assistant, but being Polish, he’s used to women like Kate, in fact he much prefers them. With his limited English, it’s easy to understand what Kate says because she doesn’t bother with the niceties. In Pyotr, Tyler has created the one man who will accept Kate as she is. So not tamed – not at all. The story then hinges around Kate coming on board with her father’s idea of an arranged marriage.

Tact, restraint, diplomacy. What was the difference between tact and diplomacy? Maybe “tact” referred to saying things politely while “diplomacy” meant not saying things at all. Except, wouldn’t “restraint” cover that? Wouldn’t “restraint” cover all three?”

At twenty-nine, Kate is still living at home, working in a kindergarten, where she’s often in trouble for being too blunt with parents, but the children adore her. Her mother long dead, it was mostly left to Kate to help bring up her much younger sister, Bunny, who at fifteen is everything Kate isn’t. Bunny is flirty, charming, and ditsy, but that doesn’t stop her from being a little cunning. Kate dropped out of college when she fell out with her professor. But she’s obviously smart. Maybe even as smart as her academic father, Dr Battista, who is hoping soon to make a breakthrough in his research.

The problem for Dr Battista is that Pyotr needs a green card to stay in the States, his three year working visa about to expire. Pyotr is a brilliant scientist and without him, their work on autoimmune disorders would flounder. But if Pyotr were to marry an American, the green card would be no problem. So the morning when her father asks to bring her his forgotten lunch, left at home in the kitchen, is a surprise for Kate. Even though Dr Battista often forgets his lunch, he usually doesn’t worry, because he hardly ever knows it’s lunchtime. He just carries on working. Of course, it’s just an opportunity for Pyotr to meet Kate. Kate is soon suspicious and then appalled.

“Well, in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously. He had been walking a couple of steps ahead of Kate, but now he dropped back and, without any warning, slung an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to his side. “But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.” 

The story is told from Kate’s point of view, and while she’s prickly and a bit odd at times, she soon gets under your skin. Tyler is always brilliant with odd-ball characters, quirky families and people who are not society’s shining stars. And I love her for this. An assortment of support characters – an attractive fellow teacher, the drop-out next door that is supposedly tutoring Bunny in Spanish, uncles and an aunt – add colour as well as complicate the plot, which builds nicely to a dramatic and hilarious climax. I’m sure Shakespeare would have approved.

Vinegar Girl is a quick, light read but so delightful and fun it really brightened my day – it only takes a day to read it. The novel may not have the complexity or the heft of some of Tyler’s more acclaimed novels, but it’s still a lovely little story and well worth picking up. I am so glad I did – it’s a four star read from me.

Book Review: The Homes by J B Mylet – a gripping Scottish orphanage mystery

At the back of the book, J B Mylet explains how he was inspired to write this novel by his mother’s own experiences as a child in an institution very like the one in The Homes. As a young girl she thought all children were brought up in similar set-ups: a cluster of houses in a purpose-built of village with twenty or thirty children per cottage with ‘house parents’ and a cook to feed them all. She didn’t realise that most children grew up with their biological families.

And at first it’s the same for Lesley, sharing a room with five other girls, including her best friend, Jonesy, all about the same age. But now she’s twelve, she knows better. She at least gets regular visits from her grandmother, who though kindly, is unable to care for Lesley, and neither can her mother who visits a few times a year. Lesley is bitter about her mother and finds it difficult to believe her when her mother says she’s hoping to bring her home to live with her one day. Jonesy is there is because the state has considered her mother an unsuitable parent.

There are other rooms in Lesley’s house with more girls of different ages and in charge are the Patersons, a childless couple who do their best. But Mr Paterson is not above taking his belt to the girls, in fact it’s expected. Jonesy gets it more than most. She’s just so lively and unstoppable. And everyone is terrified of the Superintendent, Mr Gordon. Jonesy’s non-stop chatter is a foil to Lesley’s quieter intelligence. Meanwhile Lesley escapes into her studies, one of the few children who bus to a local school.

Fears of punishments and schoolyard bullies all fade into the background when an older girl, Jane Denton, goes missing, her murdered body found some days later. When another girl disappears, Jonesy determines to find out who the murderer is, while Lesley acts as a sounding board and is dragged into Jonesy’s sleuthing, throwing the girls into danger. What follows is a fairly classic mystery with plenty of secrets and hidden motives.

And while this is entertaining, it is the characters of the girls, especially Lesley’s narrative voice, sensitive and smart but also easily led down blind alleys, that make the story interesting. That and the strikingly original setting. It’s difficult to forget that these are vulnerable children who deserve so much better. Fortunately not all the adults are unsympathetic. Eadie is the kindly therapist who listens and offers advice; there’s a friendly detective and Lesley gets help just in the nick of time from an unexpected quarter.

The Homes makes for a compelling story, part mystery, part social commentary, that will have you riveted until the last page. But the story behind the story is just as interesting. I wonder what Mylet will come up with next. This book gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Wildflowers by Peggy Frew: a haunting, witty and compassionate story about sisters

You can be forgiven for wondering what you’ve got yourself into a few pages in with Wildflowers. The narrator, Nina, is clearly not coping and while she’s brilliant at bringing you into the story, the vivd way her world is brought to the page through all the senses, she seems bent on self-destruction. You can’t help asking yourself, how will she make it through the next three hundred odd pages. Peggy Frew has created a brilliant character study of someone at the end of her rope.

In the past month, Nina has boxed up all her clothes, her curtains, her cooking utensils and anything useful, apart from the frypan and spatula she uses to fry her evening egg, eaten out of the pan. She gets her outfit for the day not from her wardrobe but from bags of donated clothing outside a charity shop, raided under cover of darkness. Nothing fits properly and yet she manages to hold down her admin job at the hospital, the staff cafeteria providing left-overs nicked from newly vacated tables

Her Dunlop Volleys flapped a bit. They were better with the Explorers; Archie McNamara’s socks were too thin. Under the tracksuit pants the seam of the satin shorty things seemed intent on bisecting her, and the lace on the too-tight bra was irritating the skin near her armpits.

What has brought Nina to this? The book flips back to the past to describe the events of Nina’s life and in particular her relationships with her sisters, Meg and Amber. Elder sister Meg was always the sensible one, chastising her laid-back parents over how they allow little sister Amber to run wild. Amber is dazzling, gloriously pretty but also with a charisma that is perfect for the stage and she’s soon a child actor in a film. What happens here eventually drives Amber to drug addiction.

Nina is the smart one, but she’s also a ditherer, uncertain what to do with her life. While Meg chooses her study path and makes a go of it, Nina finds student life daunting, blazing through her studies but strangled by shyness. She doesn’t know how to be.

The tremulous romanticism by which she’d been so strongly affected upon first leaving her family – which she’d always felt, but which in the lonesome splendour of her cobwebbed room and with the aid of her poetry classes had crystalised from a homely, unexplained presence into something not unlike a calling – this had not receded. It was melancholy, that’s exactly what it was: a sadness that was exquisite. She was kind of addicted to it. And she found that she couldn’t – simply could not – reveal this aspect of herself to anyone.

She drifts through unsatisfying relationships with men, a habit that continues well into her adult years. While she’s smart, Nina’s not so good at life so it’s not surprising she leaves the Amber problem to her mother and to Meg – until, that is, after years of Amber problems, Meg enlists Nina’s help in a last ditch attempt to cure their little sister.

The novel is threaded through with humour – I love the description of Nina pretending to listen to Meg’s hectoring voice on the phone while cleaning the grout on the bathroom tiles with baking soda, only to discover she’s out of white vinegar and furtively googling whether or not balsamic would work instead. Not everyone enjoys this odd mix of despair with wit – Meg Mason’s utterly splendid Sorrow and Bliss seemed to polarise readers – but for me it it works a treat.

Throw in some lovely, evocative writing – whether describing the rainforest retreat where the girls try to cure Amber, student flats or city scapes, Frew brings Nina’s world to life. This makes her story seem very real and adds to the huge compassion we feel for her as readers. I love this sort of book, and can happily add Peggy Frew’s name to a list I’m gathering of Australian authors, which include Charlotte Wood and Toni Jordan, as well as New Zealand born Meg Mason, who I’m keen to read again. Wildflowers gets a full five stars from me.

Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – an entertaining look at women’s issues in the ‘sixties with an unforgettable protagonist

We’re starting off the new year with an entertaining read that will make you laugh, as well as think, and teach you a bit of chemistry as you go.

There’s something unusual about Elizabeth Zott. She’s a chemist, she’s fiercely intelligent as well beautiful and fearlessly determined. You would think that these would be helpful attributes, that for someone like Elizabeth Zott, the world would be her oyster.

But Bonnie Garmus has set her debut novel in the late 1950s/early 1960s California. This is a period where women found it difficult to break out of the stereotypes that had held them back for centuries – in particular that a woman’s place is in the home; also that academia – particularly lectureships and professorships as well as leading any kind of research – were for men. Elizabeth has escaped her dreadful parents, rescued by reading and study, only to encounter the worst kinds of misogyny at university.

When we first meet Elizabeth, we’re a few years down the track and she’s a TV cook on the afternoon programmes designed for housewives. She’s supposed to follow the script but instead she introduces her audience to chemistry. Because cooking is chemistry after all. Supper at Six is hugely popular, probably because along with the chemistry, viewers also get a good deal of common sense and empowerment.

Sometimes I think that if a man were to spend a day being a woman in America, he wouldn’t make it past noon.

We are also introduced to Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, a precocious child who is just as smart and outspoken as her mother. The only other member of the household is Six-thirty, the dog, who not to be left in the shade by his super-smart owners, can understand a huge vocabulary.

The story weaves back to the past to events that bring Elizabeth to the Hastings Research Institute in Commons, California, where she meets her future partner and encounters more of the sexism that prevented her working on a PhD. Calvin Evans’s IQ is off the chart and he’s already been nominated for a Nobel Prize. True chemistry happens between them and Calvin teaches Elizabeth to row. Rowing is the reason Calvin chose a crumby posting at Hastings, that and a grudge.

What I find interesting about rowing is that it’s always done backwards. It’s almost as if the sport itself is trying to teach us not to get ahead of ourselves.

This is a wry comedy of a book, full of quirky characters and the laughs you get from the tense situations Elizabeth creates around herself when just trying to be her own person. Desperation drives her to be a cooking show host, but like the rowing, Elizabeth gets on with it and makes it work. Amid the laughs are the shadows of loss and grief, and a world that is overdue for a darn-good shake up.

Reading Lessons in Chemistry, I couldn’t help humming to myself ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ as Elizabeth adapts when she hits a roadblock and takes no prisoners. Madeline is also entertaining as one of those outspoken kids who ask too many awkward questions. The character of Harriet Sloane, the helpful neighbour happy to babysit and escape her unpleasant husband adds a layer of maternal common sense desperately needed in the household. Six-thirty steals every scene he’s in.

I couldn’t help thinking this novel would work well on the screen and yup, you’ll be able to see it soon if you subscribe to Apple TV+. But as I always say: read the book first. Lessons in Chemistry gets four out of five from me.

Book Review: Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders – a haunting tale of shipwreck and survival

Who isn’t fascinated by survival stories? I mean look at all those Survivor series on TV. But Survivor doesn’t dump its contestants in a locality like the Auckland Islands – windswept and rugged, and at 360 km south of New Zealand, inhospitable to say the least. In her latest book, Cristina Sanders explores the true story of one of New Zealand’s most intriguing shipwrecks and the fate of the fifteen survivors who washed ashore there.

In 1866, the General Grant was sailing from Australia to Britain, carrying assorted cargo including a quantity of gold as well as some of the miners who had worked for it. Among them, Joseph Jewell, is planning to use his bundle of nuggets to buy a holding in Devon and build a future. He is recently married and his young wife Mary, the Mrs Jewell of the title, the only female survivor. But before we get to that, the novel describes Mary making friends with the other families on board, the wives and their children, while Joseph works his passage as a seaman.

This sets the scene for the terrible events of the shipwreck as the General Grant is driven irrevocably towards cliffs and sucked into a cave which cripples the ship and causes it to sink. If it hadn’t been dark, if there wasn’t such a swell, the lifeboats might have been launched in time to save more of those onboard. Cristina Sanders brings the horror of the situation to life and you’re there with Mary as she is pushed overboard by Joseph and dragged into one of the lifeboats, while around her the women and children she’d got to know are lost at sea.

It’s almost a relief when the ‘lucky’ fifteen make land. But now the real work begins – the fight for survival. With very little food salvaged and biting cold, the fifteen not only battle the elements to stay alive, but also despair and pessimism. And Mary, the only woman, as well as young and attractive, feels the horror of her situation, particularly as her husband, hampered by depression, withdraws from her, leaving her to the predatory glances and overtures of the miner, Bill Scott.

Mrs Grant and the wreck of the General Grant is unflinching in its retelling of what might have happened, based on a load of research and a few letters recovered from survivors. The book includes a picture of the Grants in their hand-stitched sealskin clothing – the seals are vital for food as well. It’s either seal meat or shellfish and the energy expended to stalk, kill, butcher and cook the unappetising mammals is all there for the reader. Over the year and a half the survivors remain on their island, they get quite proficient at feeding themselves, building huts and expand their diet. But Mary can’t help wondering, will they ever be rescued?

We had all been living so long in such danger that our group fermented in a broth of obligations and duties and cares as we got through each day. All the tensions, each disappointment simmered; we lived so bound to each other and slept all packed together every night.

You get some intense scenes – the battle to start their first fire with a handful of matches and damp kindling will have you chewing your knuckles. And the book explores the way leadership shifts as the old hierarchies seem no longer relevant. Mr Brown, the first mate, struggles to stay sane and it’s the miner James Teer, Mary’s lifeboat rescuer, who helps them pull together. The characters of the survivors are reflected in the way they each respond to events large and small, while the thought of all that gold lost on the ship taunts them.

Mary is a well-rounded character and engaging narrator, dealing with a multitude of situations and emotions, as well as expressing a watchfulness around the motives of the others. The writing is brilliant – evocative and immediate, and brings the situation to life beautifully. Its a great story and there are scenes here I shall never forget. Mrs Jewell and the wreck of the General Grant gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a glimpse of Soviet Russia through the eyes of a wonderful character

This is one of those books that is so entertaining, charming and moving that you know when you’ve reached the last page it’s going to take some time to recover. I was so immersed in A Gentleman in Moscow, it completely took over my life. I almost wanted to go back to page one and read it again.

The story chronicles the period the Former Person, Count Alexander Rostov, spends in house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. From his sentencing in 1922 he is to be housed in a small attic room – quite a change from his normal luxurious suite on the second floor – and as “an unrepentant aristocrat”, should he ever leave the hotel, he is to be shot on sight.

Having learned from his godfather, that a man must master his circumstances to avoid letting them master him, the Count sets about making a new life for himself. His good manners, charm and gift for storytelling stand him in good stead. So does his infinite knowledge of how things are done. Fortunately the Metropol is the perfect setting. Both the hotel and the Count present echoes of the past, as the changing regime of Soviet Russia builds itself around them.

Decades pass as the Count makes friends among the guests, including Anna, a glamorous actress, a little girl called Nina and the staff of the hotel – Marina, the seamstress from whom he learns how to sew on a button, Emile the chef who can do anything with his knife and Andrey, a former circus juggler turned maitre d’. 

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me the most.”

This is a book of small incidents, anecdotes and the marvellously good company that the Count offers the reader. Cultured and well-read, it’s a feast – mirrored by the delicious sounding meals that Emile produces in his kitchen. But the story builds to a brilliant finish, and you have the sense that all the small stories and incidents reconnect with other parts of the book, that it’s all important. In the background, people vanish without a trace, or have their lives changed for ever by the politics of Stalin. Both the Count and the Metropol must adapt, rethink and regroup to survive.

This is such a wonderful book – I wanted to rush through it to see what happened but at the same time lingering over each scene, savouring every morsel. I could put it on my list of best reads for 2022, but it’s certain to be on my best books for the decade as well. And it doesn’t surprise me that there’s talk of a screen adaptation, due to star Ewan MacGregor. I’ll be keen to see the splendour of the Metropol in vivid technicolour. The book gets easy five out of five from me. 

Book Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander: a compelling story about a life spent indoors

It takes some skill to turn the life of an agoraphobic person into an interesting novel. But I was soon hooked by the story of Meredith who hasn’t left her house in 1214 days – that’s three years and three months. Something has happened to Meredith to leave her traumatised and solitary, something which has cut her off from her mother and sister Fiona, once her closest pal. The story weaves in the past with the present as we follow Meredith’s struggles to get out into the world again.

Meredith has made her home a haven with restful colours and orders everything she needs online. She works online as a freelance writer so she really has no need to go anywhere. It just shows you how easy it is to cut yourself off from the outside world if want to. She has her cat, Fred, and her best friend Sadie calls in regularly with her two young children so although the book is called Meredith, Alone, she still has people in her court.

Meredith has support from a group online, StrengthInNumbers, where she makes friends with Celeste and talks to a counsellor, Diane, who conducts regular online sessions. We catch up with Meredith when she has a new visitor – Paul, from Holding Hands. He drops in on Thursdays to make sure Meredith is OK. Paul has his own struggles, and is in between careers. The two become friends over jigsaw puzzles.

I have my fingers on the door handle. Diane and I decided that I would count backwards from twenty. When I reach five, I’ll open the door. By the count of one, I’ll have both feet on my front doorstep. I’ll take five steps down my path, then I’ll go back inside.
It feels good to have a plan.

The book charts Meredith’s attempts to leave her house, which spurs the book onwards, day by day. It also dives back into the past to reveal Meredith’s terrible childhood and the event that drove her indoors. It takes a while for the reader to get all the information you need for her situation to make sense. Without a varied setting, the plot relies on Meredith’s story to drive it along, the slow revelations and your eagerness for her recovery. And it works.

Meredith is good company – smart and for all that’s going on in her life, she keeps herself busy to avoid drowning in the miseries of her plight. The novel has a lot to say about all the pain people hide away from each other, the things that derail marriages and cut family ties. How you cover it up and carry on as best you can. Until you just can’t. But the book never feels weighed down by all this.

Reading Meredith, Alone so soon after Paper Cup, which I thought utterly brilliant, was probably not such a good idea. Both are connected by Glasgow and have main characters with mental health issues and who have broken off from their families. But these novels are very different in feel and Meredith, Alone has very little to suggest its wider setting, apart from the odd reference to Irn Bro. It’s no fault of this novel if it comes off as second best – it’s still a great read and Meredith a great character. It will make you think. So it’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Paper Cup by Karen Campbell – walking in the shoes of a character at odds with the world

It can’t be easy to write from the point of view of a homeless person, particularly one like Kelly. She’s around fifty, an alcoholic whose thoughts never seem to stray far from where she’s going to get the next drink. You might think this makes Paper Cup uncomfortable reading too. And sometimes it is. But far outweighing all that is Kelly’s story and her telling of it. It helps that there’s a bunch of interesting and amusing characters around Kelly and the argo of Glasgow adds a touch of Billy Connelly. You might wonder if Glaswegians ever take themselves seriously.

Paper Cup is a kind of road novel, beginning during a Glasgow evening when a bride-to-be on her hen night makes a connection with the person dossing on a nearby bench. Fed up with the indignities of her evening, bride Susan flings down the bag of pound coins she’s earned for kisses from strangers but accidentally loses her engagement ring. Susan will be heading back to Galloway for her wedding a week away, and she’ll be aghast to discover her ring’s missing.

Kelly has been running from the past, a past that began in Galloway and has caused her to cut ties with her father and sister. What happened ruined Kelly’s life, setting her on a path of self-destruction and she’s been running from it all ever since, losing herself in alcohol. Suddenly, over twenty years later, there’s a reason to go back, and she has a week to get there. Along the way Kelly will meet people who help her, though many avoid her – she smells after all. And in her unlikely way, she’ll help others too, even saving a life and rescuing a dog. Kelly unwittingly becomes the unlikeliest of heroes and very readable.

She abhors it, this strange adolescent fury she feels. And this sharp recall of past events that keeps bowfing out on her – she doesny want that either. What is her mind playing at, opening doors and shaking out corners?
Just leave it well alone, Kelly.
Well, I’m trying, Kelly, I really am, but it seems we are running away with ourselves.

While it’s a kind of redemption story Paper Cup is also packed with humour. The way Kelly just brazen things out, getting away with all sorts, to feed and clothe herself – but then when you have nothing but what you carry with you, sometimes it’s the only way. She finds herself joining a kind of pilgrimage of sacred sites around the coast. She’ll learn about a leper colony and about two women condemned as witches for not adhering to the local faith. History repeats in its casting off of those who don’t fit in.

The novel is also reasonably pacy. With her deadline of one week to reach Susan before her wedding, there are moments when you feel Kelly hasn’t a hope of making it on time. And her wild disregard for rules throws her up against forces that want to stop her, including her own demons. Meanwhile she’s caught the attention of the news media who want to tell her story. You desperately want to give Kelly a hand and fortunately, eventually, someone does.

Paper Cup is a brilliant, heart-felt read, the writing is stunning and it will have you thinking. The next time you come across a homeless person, you might feel inclined to throw a coin into their paper cup. Or maybe you won’t. Either way, you might think about what has happened to them to bring them to the streets. This novel is one of my top reads for the year and gets a well-earned five out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Resistance Girl by Mandy Robotham – a gripping read about a less-documented corner of the war

I’ve read a few novels about World War Two – heart-breaking stories for the most part about those who served, POWs and Concentration Camps, Intelligence Officers sent behind enemy lines and so on. But they’ve mostly been about the main players: France, Britain and Germany. I knew next to nothing about how the war affected Norway and this book was quite an eye-opener.

The resistance girl of the title is Rumi Orlstad. We meet her at a Bergen dockside railing at the war which has taken her fiancé. Magnus was lost at sea during his first voyage with the Shetland bus. I’d come across the bus in other books – the fleet of 30 odd fishing boats that ferried secret service agents and refugees between Sheltand and Norway – since 1940 under German occupation. The bus supported the Norwegian resistance, bringing supplies and instructors as well as assisting with sabotage.

Rumi’s father and step-brother help with the bus, and Rumi, motherless and alone, helps with the fishing business. It’s November, so there’s snow when she’s sent to bring two new British officers to a safe-house, both having parachuted into nearby countryside. She’s cross when she has to cut down Jens Parkes from the tree that’s caught his parachute, but luckily he can ski. Still reeling from her loss, they form an uneasy alliance. At least being half Norwegian, Jens looks the part and can blend in, hiding his radio transmitter among the clothing he collects for refugees – his cover.

While Jens gets on with supporting the cause, Rumi discovers her best friend has been sent to Lebensborn, one of many maternity camps devised by Himmler to produce an ideal Aryan race. It was felt that Norwegians – tall, blond and fair – had all the right attributes and so German officers stationed in Norway were encouraged to engage with young Norwegian women – a few married them and whisked them off to Germany. But many of these girls were just taken advantage off, like Rumi’s friend Anya, their babies planned for childless German couples.

This is where I found the book particularly interesting. Part of the narration is from the point of view of a housekeeper so it’s a bit like a fly-on-the-wall account. The housekeeper worked for the family that owned the house before the Germans requisitioned it – like so many larger properties – and she has no idea about what it’s to be used for. Little by little her fears grow as it all begins to make sense. The dormitories and the cots, the German midwives, the guards, the frightened young women.

How Rumi tries to help her friend forms a large part of the book, as well as her interactions with Jens and his dangerous missions. There are some excellent supporting characters too. The sinister Lothar Sellig – a German officer for the Abwehr – who keeps turning up like a bad penny, on his quest to clamp down on the resistance; Rumi’s neighbour Marjit who is like a mother figure to Rumi and having been a nurse during WWI is almost as determined and fearless as Rumi. She has a surprising connection with Jens.

Mandy Robotham has done plenty of research to bring the city of Bergen to life, its cafés and fishing industry, as well as the domestic settings, the traditional knitting and Norwegian meals. The horrors of what Norway endured under enemy occupation are described too: the fear of living alongside the enemy, the reprisals against insurrection. Himmler’s Lebensborn project seems particularly sinister, giving the novel some heft and the story builds towards a tense and exciting ending.

The Resistance Girl is a terrific story and would appeal to readers who have enjoyed Kate Quinn’s wartime novels. I enjoyed this book as an e-audiobook and the reader – Antonia Beamish – made the characters come alive and handled the Norwegian names like a native. Or so it seemed to me. I’ll be hunting out more by Mandy Robotham – this novel gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – a mystery that brings a marshy wilderness to life

I may be the last person I know to read this novel, but with the movie causing a lot of chat – both positive and negative, I thought it was about time.

Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that sweeps you away. You can’t help but get lost in the world of Kya, abandoned by her family, by anyone she takes a shine to, but just gets on with the hand she’s dealt. The story starts in the early 1950s when Kya’s six, living with her family in a shack among marshes on the North Carolina coast. Her father’s a violent drunk with PTSD from his war service and has fallen out with his own once-grand family as well as his in-laws.

Kya’s mother is the first to leave and you struggle to understand how she could walk out on her family, particularly young Kya. But she’s a victim of so much abuse, it’s all she can do to get herself to safety. Soon Kya’s brothers and sisters leave too – they’re just old enough to make a life for themselves, but it’s a shame no one thought about their little sister. Meanwhile Kya, who teaches herself how to cook and keep herself alive, avoids the worst of her father’s mood swings, until he too leaves.

Kya has avoided school. Her single day in the classroom a rude awakening to prejudice and bullying. Still just a kid, she has learnt to navigate the marshes in her dad’s old boat. She discovers that the elderly black man who sells fuel, also sells fresh mussels so Kya finds a way to support herself. Thank goodness for old Jumpin’ and his kindly wife who look out for Kya, offering used clothing and affection.

And thank goodness for Tate, the boy a few years older, who teaches Kya to read and write. This opens doors for Kya and she is obviously very smart, soon recording the wildlife in her marsh not just with her collections of feathers and shells, the self-taught watercolours, but now with written descriptions too. But Tate is off to university and his life is set to take him in a different direction.

The story jumps forwards to 1969 with a murder investigation when the body of popular motor mechanic Chase Andrews is found at the bottom of a defunct fire tower. Did he fall or was he pushed? Sherriff Ed Jackson finds no fingerprints and enough to suggest foul play and soon his attention turns to the Marsh Girl. The old prejudices against Kya have never left and she becomes an easy scapegoat.

The murder investigation propels the story along, while weaving in Kya’s backstory, her growing up and her relationships with two young men. This is interesting enough, but what really makes the book special is the way Delia Owens brings the marsh to life – the watery passageways, the plants that grow there and the wildlife. This is described vividly in Kya’s distinctive voice which helps you see the world through her eyes.

“Crawdads” is an engrossing read and the character of young Kya as she learns to make a life for herself both heartbreaking and fascinating. The court case against Kya is gripping too, although I did find the plot lagged a little in the middle. And I couldn’t help thinking of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which kind of skewed my reading of this novel. Perhaps this earlier work was an inspiration for Owen’s book or it may have just been me. I guess it’s true that every reader reads a different book. “Crawdads” gets three and a half out of five stars from me.