Crime Fiction Catch-Up – some cosy and not-so-cosy Brit-crime reads

I always seem to like a bit of crime fiction during the winter. Here’s a look at a few of the mysteries I’ve enjoyed over recent weeks.

A Game of Fear by Charles Todd
This is the latest Inspector Rutledge novel where our haunted, war-veteran is sent to Essex in search of a case that looks quite hopeless. A murder is reported but there’s no body and the man recognised as the murderer has been dead for years. Nobody at Scotland Yard expects Rutledge to find anything worth investigating, but the witness, Lady Benton, has connections. What he finds is a twisty crime plus a brutal killer on the loose. We have another terrific setting – the salt flats of Walmer, and a manor house built around the ruins of old abbey. There’s the remains of an old airfield from the WWI and somehow everything ties in with the men who served there, many of whom didn’t come back. If you think the Air Force in World War Two was a dangerous lark, then imagine the era of bi-planes and the Red Baron. It’s another cracking read from Charles Todd, loaded with atmosphere and interesting historical background.

Twenty-one Days by Anne Perry
Anne Perry is best known for her William Monk and Thomas Pitt series set in Victorian England which have been going for a few decades now. They’re good meaty crime reads with a Dickensian feel in the way she recreates the period. This first in a series introduces Thomas Pitt’s barrister son Daniel as the new sleuth, here attempting to save a man from the gallows who’s been found guilty of murdering his wife. He’s hard to defend being an unpleasant character and a scandal-mongering biographer. His latest book looks set to stir up trouble for the secret service, including Daniel’s father, Sir Thomas Pitt. Some interesting points raised about the difference between justice and the law, while the setting of 1910 gives Daniel a chance to take an interest in forensic science, with the help of his head-of-chambers’ daughter. She’d studied at university, but women at that time couldn’t receive a degree, even if they had done all the work. Typical. The story has plenty of twists and introduces some terrific characters we can enjoy getting to know in the subsequent books. There’s already another four.

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee
This series set in 1920s Calcutta just keeps getting better. The new book is told from alternating points of view between policeman Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee. The story begins when Banerjee is tasked with a secret mission that lands him on a murder charge. He’s been arrested over the death of a Hindu theologian, when all he was doing was trying to make it look like an accident so that a religious feud doesn’t erupt. With Banerjee on the run, Wyndham must help clear his name and find the killer while religious factions from both Hindu and Muslim groups threaten to throw the country into a permanent state of riot. There’s lots of action and nail-biting moments, but in the background the tinder-box politics of life in India under the British is a fascinating setting. The characters are complex and interesting and the storytelling witty and perceptive. More, please.

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves
This recent Vera Stanhope mystery is set in the dark days of winter when Vera, driving home in the snow, finds she has missed her turning only to discover a car with an unattended baby. She takes the child to the nearest house, which just happens to be the Stanhope family mansion and while she’s there, trying to discover what’s happened, a body is discovered. Of course. There’s a dinner party in full swing and Vera has to rub shoulders with the family she’s fallen out with while looking scruffy as always. But she gets to prove her worth, solving the crime and not taking any nonsense from anyone. I love the way she attempts to jolly along Holly, her ambitious DC, and make allowances for Joe, whose family make demands. There’s a nail-biting finish where the killer nearly takes Vera out of action, but happily there’s another book on the way with her name on the cover. The Rising Tide is out shortly.

Hot to Trot by M C Beaton
When M C Beaton died a short while ago, we might have thought that would be it for Agatha Raisin. But no, a good friend of Beaton (R W Green) has been entrusted with her story ideas and so Agatha is back again. Here she makes a spectacle of herself at the wedding of her old flame and lord of the manor, Charles Fraith. He’s marrying horsey socialite Mary Brown-Field, but after a fight with Agatha at a masked ball, Mary is found murdered. Agatha has to work hard to convince the police she had nothing to do with it, as well as trying to clear Charles’s name. It’s just as well she’s got other fish to fry romantically and that she and Charles are just good friends. This means he can cough up with her fee, as her private detective agency is buzzing with cases and she’s got staff to pay. The story takes us into the high-stakes world of show-jumping and dressage comps where Mary had rubbed a few people up the wrong way. I particularly enjoyed the audio-book version of this novel, read by the incomparable Penelope Keith. Magic!

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – a heart-warming debut that will have you cheering

I had no idea what to expect with this novel, which includes among its three main narrators an octopus. Marcellus the GPO (great Pacific octopus) inhabits a tank at an aquarium where he has a good view of humanity as it comes to peer at him. He may be missing sea life in the raw, but he’s learnt a lot about people, their weird sense of humour, their ugly eating habits, their lack of perspicacity. He hasn’t a lot of respect for the human race as a whole, but forges a bond with Tova, the seventy-year-old cleaner who each evening wipes the smears from the glass of his enclosure and at one point rescues him from disaster.

Tova is at a crossroads. She has been recently widowed but still rattles around in the house her Swedish father built, which is full of memories. The loss of her son at the age of eighteen is something she’s learnt to live with, if only she could understand what happened on the night he disappeared. Her friends think it’s time for her to find somewhere smaller, but maybe it’s time to think about a retirement home. After all there’s no one to take care of her when she gets too old to manage herself. However, the chatty Scot, Ethan, who runs the local store would be very sorry to see her go.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away, in California, Cameron is in a bad way. At thirty, he can’t seem to hold down a job, his Jeep has been repossessed and he seems to be running out of chances with his girlfriend. He’s bitter and resentful, still smarting since his mother abandoned him when he was nine. When his Auntie Jeanne gives him a box of his mother’s things, a lack of options has him heading north to Washington State in search of his father. With luck he’s the wealthy property developer Simon Brinks and Cameron can touch him for year’s of child support.

Over the course of the novel, all four characters’ stories collide and Cameron, Ethan, Tova and even Marcellus will help each other get to the truth. It isn’t difficult to guess what’s going on and the author uses dramatic irony to keep the reader turning the pages. You want to shout at the characters, especially Cameron, who has a lot of growing up to do, but also Tova, telling them not to be so hasty, or have another look at that clue. Marcellus is in the same boat as us, figuring things out long before the humans do, but then octopuses are remarkably bright creatures.

In an odd way Marcellus is the hero of the tory, and how Van Pelt makes this work is really charming. He’s a talented escapologist – just why are so many sea cucumbers disappearing? wonders his keeper – and a collector of glittering trifles. But time is not on his side and this adds to the tension.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is an altogether heart-warming read, well put-together with some interesting facts about sea creatures sprinkled through the story. I loved the North-West Pacific coastal setting, a fitting place for an aquarium, and the nosy but kindly locals. I’ll be looking out for Van Pelt’s next book. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey – an atmospheric historical drama and the perfect ‘quiet’ read

I recently came upon a post on Twitter asking readers to name their favourite ‘quiet’ books.. Among the recommendations were lots of my favourites and quite a few more I’d not heard of. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was there, and Barbara Pym, as well as Anne Tyler and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April. And I thought, yes these are the authors that I read again and again. Now I can add The Narrow Land to the list – a book about the small dramas of people thrown together on Cape Cod during the summer of 1950.

Among the cast of characters is Ed Hopper. He’s the much-loved American painter who produced similarly quiet pictures of people and cars and architecture, the most famous of which is probably Nighthawks, showing late-night customers at a city diner. Ed and his wife Jo live in New York with a holiday house at Cape Cod. They make an odd couple, he’s very tall, quiet, solemn even, while she’s short, emotional and talkative. When we meet them they are in their sixties. Ed has the artist’s version of writer’s block; Jo anxiously quizzing him about possible subject matter, while regretting the sacrifice of her own artistic ambitions to further Ed’s career.

We also meet Michael, the ten-year-old German orphan adopted by a kindly New York couple after their own son’s death. He is sent for two weeks’ holiday with the Kaplans, a well-to-do family who support the charity that has rescued orphans like Michael. Mrs Kaplan is a Lady Bountiful type of character who is renting a large house on the cape with her daughter, Katherine, who is ill, and her glamorous daughter-in-law, the widow of Mrs K’s only son. As well as enjoying the benefits of a holiday by the sea, Michael will be company for Mrs K’s grandson, Richie.

Michael has plenty of demons – memories of the horrors of his war, the loss of his nationality, his language, but also the fear that his new parents won’t want him back – they are moving house and expecting another child. Then there’s fitting in with the tony Kaplans, knowing what to say and do. Richie, soon to be despatched to a new boarding school is chatty and excessively well-mannered, but also suffering the loss of his father.

When Jo tries to shoo the Kaplan’s from the beach in front of the Hoppers’ house, what begins as a seemingly awful social gaffe becomes the catalyst that throws the two households together. Everyone’s intrigued to meet Ed, who cringes at the thought of social engagements. But it’s the two lost and lonely boys who seem to connect with the artist and his wife. While Jo tries to make up with the Kaplans for her earlier bad manners, Ed roams around looking at buildings, their windows and doorways, sketching, walking and thinking. There’s a woman too whose image he can’t quite shake and feels he’s seen her somewhere around here before.

The Narrow Land is a slow burn of a read, with chapters named after some of the planets in Holst’s famous suite, a record loved by both Ed and Katherine. Stars are aligning, perhaps. Little by little, we get to know the characters and they are all written with immense sympathy though each have their faults. Against this, the wider story of the middle twentieth century and an America rebuilding after the war, while a new war in Korea is on the horizon. The characters are also battling it out – Ed and Jo bicker and walk out on each other, Michael and Richie don’t get along either. Only Katherine can soothe the troubled waters it seems, but she’s got her own battle on her hands.

In the background you have the Cape Cod summer, the wind riffling through the long grass, the boats on the water, the long, languid evenings. Did I mention this is also the perfect winter read? I particularly enjoyed the insight you get into Ed Hopper’s paintings, his artist’s eye, his struggles to find the right subject matter. Visual images, music and lingering scents of cigarettes and cologne add to the immediacy of the book, often seen through Michael’s point of view, the perfect impressionable young narrator.

The Narrow Land is an accomplished and spell-binding drama, easily a five out of five from me. It’s also the 2020 recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and as such qualifies for one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat winter reading programme: Read a Prize Winning Book. Put this ‘quiet’ novel on your to-read list.

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – an unforgettable character and a thought-provoking story

I picked up Convenience Store Woman for another challenge in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme (see previous post). This challenge requires you to read a book in translation. I could have picked any number of nail-biting, atmospheric Scandi-noir mysteries, but opted for a Japanese novel instead. And this one’s been on my radar for a while.

The narrator, Keiko Furukura, isn’t like anybody else she knows. She has no idea how to fit in and this is apparent early as a young child. Her parents and sister worry about her – she has no friends – because she just can’t seem to pick up the norms of social interaction. Strangely, when Keiko is a university student, she is rescued by the opening of a convenience store. She applies for a job and soon she’s learning how to greet customers, what to say to invite them to buy, how to mirror the appropriate facial expressions to be good at making sales. The store’s training regime leaves no room for the randomness of individual personalities.

At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine in society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.

But now, eighteen years later, Keiko’s still at the convenience store, doing a job normally filled by immigrants, students and transients looking for a stop-gap position before moving on. She’s had several managers including Mrs Izumi, a woman of the same age. It’s OK to have a job in a convenience store if you’re married with children, it seems.

Keiko checks out the brands of Mrs Izumi’s shoes and discovers where she shops so that she can buy similar clothing. She copies the slang she learns from other co-workers to sound more natural. This comes in handy as recently she’s been meeting up with some old classmates. But even though she’s learnt to parrot socially acceptable phrases and dress stylishly, her women friends still nag her about her job and not having a husband. The pressure to change forces Keiko to do something drastic.

Convenience Store Woman is a clever social commentary, almost an anthropological study of the conventions surrounding human behaviour, seen through the eyes of someone outside the norm. It is at times very funny, capturing the excruciating awkwardness of Keiko who would probably not arouse so much concern if she had a ‘proper’ job. She could just be a likeable eccentric – even though it is her shop job that has given her a place in the scheme of things. It makes you realise how society depends on everyone doing things a particular way, which is also a little disturbing.

Convenience Store Woman is a quick read, partly because it’s a small book, but also because it has you racing through the pages to see what happens next. And it’s so entertaining. Keiko is such a brilliant character, more interesting than likeable, but she’s someone you want to cheer for. The book is the English debut for Sayaka Murata who has written many books and won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s premier literary award. Her next book in translation, Earthlings, also looks well worth checking out too. Convenience Store Woman gets four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien – an Irish classic perfect for a library reading challenge

Our public library is running a winter reading programme called Turn Up the Heat. There’s a kind of bingo card of different reading challenges, and every time you log a completed challenge, you go into the draw for prizes. So much fun! One of the challenges is to read a book published in the year you were born. In spite of thinking there’d be hardly anything published in a year so long ago, I quickly found three books to choose from I was happy to read.

The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding, a Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, is a book I’ve read before, probably more than once, and I have a copy on my bookshelf. But I felt this one lacked the element of challenge I was quite looking for. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is one of the books in Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ series of twelve books. I’ve been meaning to reread them for a while now, but as the one from my birth year is number five in the series, I demurred. Then I happened upon The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. A book I’ve always meant to read, and not too long. Perfect.

I was quickly caught up in the story of fourteen-year-old Caithleen, who is worried about the return of her father, missing for days if not weeks with the money he was meant to use on paying bills. We’re on a farm near Limerick, and the father has a terrible temper, and a tendency to go on benders, returning home to beat his wife. This sounds kind of morose, but in spite of the dreariness of life in a small village, Caithleen is a charming narrator. She’s naive, but friendly and kindly. She has a terrible hoodlum of a friend, Baba (Bridget), and the two get up to all sorts.

Cait is romantic in nature, and in spite of a family tragedy, dreams her way through life, yearning after Mr Gentleman, the name given to the Frenchman with an unpronounceable name who lives in a nearby manor house with his wife. Baba just wants to have fun, sometimes at Cait’s expense. Baba is dark, dainty and pretty, which makes tall, red-headed and eventually ‘Rubenesque’ Cait feel inferior. They have a challenging relationship, but kind-hearted Cait remains loyal through all Baba puts her through.

The book is divided roughly into three parts, the first with the girls still at the local school, and Cait’s family situation disintegrates to the point where Baba’s parents feel obliged to take her in. The second has them at a convent school, where Cait shines academically, and Baba gets them into trouble. In the third section, the two escape to Dublin where Baba is sent to a secretarial college and Cait to work in a grocery store. They live for their nights out on the town, Baba urging Cait on to have fun, while Cait writes letters home to Mr Gentleman.

Edna O’Brien writes in a way that is both amusing and entertaining, but also puts you in the time and place. 1960s Dublin is full of all kinds of traps for young girls; the sexism is horrific, so you can’t help admiring Baba’s mother who is worldly wise and does what she feels like, even hiding the chicken dinner from her husband in her wardrobe so there is more for her. It’s a bit like an Irish Nancy Mitford novel – loads of fun, mad characters and brilliant social commentary, but lurking beneath it all a layer of darkness. You can’t help feeling that with the 1960s ready to get going, there will be more choice for young Irish women, but you’ll have to read the next book (The Lonely Girl) to find out.

I’ve always enjoyed classic literature – it’s such a dilemma whether to read the next hot new release or a book that’s remained in print for decades or more. So it’s good to mix them up. I’ve enjoyed a lot of more recent Irish literature, so I appreciated The Country Girls as a book that made an impact at its publication, inspiring the generations of Irish writers, particularly female ones, that followed. Apparently The Country Girls trilogy was so shocking at the time, it was banned and even denounced from the pulpit. Another challenge in Turn Up the Heat is to read a biography – I might be tempted to give O’Brien’s, A Country Girl, a try.

Book Review: Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson – a warm-hearted novel about turning points and second chances

Youngson’s first novel, Meet Me at the Museum, was a thoughtful, enlightening and romantic story told in letters between its two main characters. It was a big hit and I’ve been looking forward to this second book, set on the canals of England between London and Chester. Three Women and a Boat (US edition: The Narrowboat Summer) follows Eve, Sally and Anastasia who band together when each is at a turning point in their lives. They are complete strangers to begin with, when Anastasia needs somewhere to stay in London for cancer treatment. Sally and Eve, each independently and suddenly adrift from their normal lives, chip in and offer to help.

Eve has been dumped from her job in engineering. Sally is walking away from her marriage. Neither knows what they want to do next when they meet up on a towpath and rescue a howling dog, trapped in a canal boat. Anastasia returns to her boat to find two strangers have smashed a window to free a dog that didn’t need freeing. Maybe it’s the lure of life on the canals, or perhaps it is Anastasia’s vivid personality, but the two younger women find themselves agreeing to do her a favour.

While Anastasia is in London staying in Eve’s flat, her houseboat, the Number One, needs to be ferried to Chester for repairs. Eve and Sally have to rapidly get up to speed on handling the boat and the tricky business of canal locks as well as get used to living together in a tight space.

A lot of the story is about the women on the boat, and you get heaps of detail about locks and tunnels and how to navigate them, which is interesting. The summery canal-side scenery gets a mention too and you’re soon drifting along with Eve and Sally as if you’re with them on the trip, having a nice break away from it all. It’s a slower pace but there’s lots to do. Then there are all the interesting characters Eve and Sally get to know – people who have made a life on the canals in one way or another.

The story is narrated by Eve and Sally in turn, as they evaluate their lives and think about their options. We get their points of view of other characters, in particular, Arthur a tweedy old friend of Anastasia’s who is also oddly secretive, as well as Billy and Trompette whose boat, the Grimm, is aptly named as Billy is a gifted storyteller. The women warm to Trompette who at only nineteen has a talent for creating wonderful knitted garments – surely she could study design and make something of her life.

You read on, wondering what decisions the main characters will make about what to do next. Eve and Sally change during the course of the book, enough to learn what really matters to them. If you’ve always had a hankering to ditch the treadmill of the nine-to-five job and the mortgage repayments this might well resonate with you. But just to keep the plot simmering Youngson throws in a few twists as well.

This is a very different book to what I was expecting in that it is quite philosophical, thoughtfully written and doesn’t follow too much the usual rules that seem to govern novel plotting. It’s a breath of fresh air in so many ways, and while it’s a fairly light read, like her previous book, it marks Youngson out as an interesting author with an original voice. I particularly loved the characters who seem very real, the kind of people you’d like to meet for a catch-up over coffee. All in all this is such an enjoyable read – a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan – a brilliant, warm-hearted comedy

I love a funny novel, particularly a character driven comedy like this one, which I also imagine would make a terrific movie. Like many comedies, its main character, in this case Simon Larsen, is in trouble. The Covid crisis hit him hard financially. For the last eighteen months he’s had to deal with losing the family home, his architectural business and his self-respect. Now, once he’s got the kids off to school, he struggles to get off the couch. He adores his wife Tansey, who has stepped up as the breadwinner, but if only her family weren’t so superior.

These are the Schnabels of the title: Tansy’s sister Kylie who is career-driven and blunt to the point of rudeness; brother Nick, a good looking former footie star who is forgiven everything by doting mother Gloria. It is always Gloria who calls the shots, and who makes Simon feel even more of a failure.

The Schnabels decide it’s time to hold a memorial service for Tansy’s father who died two years ago but didn’t get the usual send-off because of Covid. They also decide the best place to hold it is in Tansy’s friend Naveen’s garden. But the landscape gardeners Naveen had employed have abandoned the job and left him high and dry. So Simon is asked do the work instead. He’ll earn some cash and get himself off the couch. He has a whole week to accomplish the job so no pressure.

The story is set over the week leading up to the memorial service as events occur to derail Simon’s plans to work in Naveen’s garden. The book begins with Simon’s first day on the job – only Simon’s late because he and Tansy are at the train station. Tansy wants to catch a glimpse of Monica who is arriving by train for the service. Monica is Tansey’s half-sister, the younger offspring of the father who did a bunk, the child he stayed around for. The reader can’t help but wonder why there’s all this effort to create the perfect memorial service for the man who had so little to do with Tansy, Kylie and Nick, the man who ran out on Gloria.

Tansy only wants to see what her younger sister looks like, but bubbly, affectionate Monica ends up catching a lift, and somehow staying with Tansy and Simon. The Larsens live in a poky, two-bedroom flat, but Monica soon settles in, a big, confident personality, determined to make the most of her time in the city. Meanwhile the pressure is on Simon to get on with Naveen’s garden as more and more disasters throw him off-course. Along the way, snippets of Simon’s former life emerge, and in spite of all the disasters, the true character of Simon begins to shine through.

Dinner with the Schnabels is a very Australian comedy – we’re in Melbourne – but the themes are universal. The Covid crisis and its economic fallout, the hero with his one shot at redemption struggling with his demons, the importance of family and the way that blood is thicker than water, even if you don’t always like them very much.. The story builds to a surprising and satisfying ending, as Simon deals with curve-ball after curve-ball. Simon himself is a terrific narrator, far from perfect but oddly likeable. The prose is smart and witty, the dialogue always entertaining. I loved this book and now want to read everything by Toni Jordan. So this novel definitely gets a five out of five from me.

Six New Fiction Picks – put these on the wish-list

I love a trawl through Fantastic Fiction to see what’s new and what’s coming soon. It’s also a good place to check in on favourite authors to see what they’re up to or find out when the next book in a series is set to hit the shops. Here’s a few of the promising new books I discovered on a recent visit, all either just published or coming soon.

This Is the Night They Come for You by Robert Goddard
Goddard has made a name for writing ripping reads over the last decade or three, but hasn’t rested on his laurels, churning out the same old thing. He has diversified into historical thrillers – I heartily recommend the James Maxted trilogy set around the time of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles – while his last book, The Fine Art of Invisible Detection was brilliantly twisty and inventive with a quirky sleuth on the job. The new book is set in Algiers with a troubled policeman working with a secret service agent to uncover a crime hidden in the dark events of Algieria’s struggle for independence. I know I’ll get a brilliant page-turner with some well researched historical background. Can’t wait.

Villager by Tom Cox
Another writer who has diversified hugely is Tom Cox, who tends to find a new genre from time to time and make it his own. You may remember his books about his cats: The Good, the Bad and the Furry, Talk to the Tail and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. Sure, they are books about cats, but they are also a lot about the owner and well, anything Cox writes is hilarious. Recently he has branched into writing about the English countryside, particularly the folklore and half-forgotten corners, a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy, but with more jokes. The latest book, his first novel, probably won’t be like anything you’ve read before, but features a folk musician from the sixties, teenagers finding a body on a golf course, as well as property developers threatening to despoil the landscape. Well worth a try.

The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers
Here’s another author who makes a natural landscape come to life magically in his writing. I reviewed The Offing a year or so ago and loved the story of an unlikely friendship in post-war Yorkshire, the atmospheric setting and gorgeous writing. So Myers’ new book definitely makes this list. The Perfect Golden Circle is about a couple of guys who under the cover of darkness make crop circles in the hot summer of 1989. We’ve another unlikely friendship burgeoning as their handiwork unexpectedly acquires a cult-like following. Some similar themes look set to appear, including the futility of war and the fragility of the English countryside which also has the power to heal.

Amy and Lan by Sadie Jones
Jones’s first book The Outcast won a bunch of book prize nominations, and her second book Small Wars, a story about the family of a British officer on Cyprus in the 1950s, is a moving story I sometimes still think about. She writes intense, character driven dramas and the new book will be well worth picking up I’m sure. Another book set in a rural landscape, Amy and Lan is about two children, dear friends, whose families join another family to try their hand at farming and the ‘good life’. It should be a bucolic dream, with chickens and goats and lots of fresh air, but something is set to shatter the children’s innocence. This one’s out in July.

Twelve Months and a Day by Louisa Young
The blurb says this is Truly Madly Deeply for our times, so yes it’s a story about love cut short by death. We’ve got two couples: Rasmus and Jay; Roisin and Nico, until Rasmus and Roisin are widowed, missing their other halves and trying to get by. But Jay and Nico are somehow still there, powerless to help the newly bereaved. This is quite a different sort of story, playful and contemporary, from Young’s war-themed trio (My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, The Hero’s Welcome and Devotion), which delves into the ongoing effects of World War I on a group of characters, the soldiers and the women left at home to wait. I heartily recommend the earlier books, but Twelve Months and a Day looks a great read too, and it’s newly released, which is even better.

The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley
Pulley is an inventive, original writer and definitely somebody to watch. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street combined mystery with love in Victorian London with a little magical clockwork. I enjoyed the characters as much as the twisty storyline. Her latest book is set in 1963, when a nuclear scientist is taken from merely surviving in a Siberian prison to serve out his sentence in City 40. He’s to study the effects of nuclear radiation on wildlife, and will one day be a free man if the radiation doesn’t get to him first. Based on real events, the blurb touts this as a sweeping adventure, the ebook out later this month, the paperback in July. Definitely one for my list.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler – a warmly insightful novel capturing the little cruelties of family life

A new Anne Tyler novel means a new family. This time we’ve got the Garretts: Mercy and Robin, parents to Alice, Lily and David. Again we’re in Baltimore which in Tyler’s world always comes across as a sensible, solid kind of city, oozing with good old-fashioned American values. But then that might be because the scenes are mostly in homes, often around a meal table.

French Braid begins with the next generation when Serena and her boyfriend James are waiting for a train to take them from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Serena thinks she’s spotted her cousin, but isn’t sure. She won’t even go up to Nicholas to see if it’s him, which James finds perplexing. How can you not know your own cousin? What kind of family is this? It’s a simple snapshot from ordinary life that displays something deeper, something Tyler does brilliantly. Have a look at the opening scene of The Accidental Tourist for the way Tyler shows a marriage in trouble. The Garretts seem to have become fragmented over the years, going for long stretches of time without meeting or checking in on each other.

Flip back to 1959 and the Garretts – Robin, Mercy and co. are off to the the lake for a summer holiday. You can tell they don’t do this often as Robin wears his work shoes and black socks when walking to the lake in his bathers. His mission is to teach David, a tender boy of around seven, to swim. His older sister Alice is helpful but bossy, and fifteen-year-old Lily is ensconced in a holiday romance. Mercy spends so much time painting at the kitchen table, she doesn’t notice what’s going on with her kids.

By the end of the holiday, Lily is heart-broken and David is withdrawn. Lily gets over the heartbreak, but David seems to withdraw further through the book, into his student years and beyond. Meanwhile, Mercy sets herself up with a studio a mere walk from home, complete with a divan and finds a new freedom as an artist. We’re through the sixties and out the other side by now, and the times they are a-changing. Tyler describes the fine line between loving your family and wanting to be your own person.

Morris. Mercy filed the name in her memory. So many unexpected people seemed to edge into a person’s life, once that person had children.

Like many of her books, French Braid appears to be a fairly simple story, full of everyday events that anyone might recognise. And while you don’t always like what the characters do, you can’t help warming to them as people. They could be members of your own family. Tyler has that knack of showing them in scenes full of humour, and yet simmering beneath it all is the potential for heartbreak. The burdens of little cruelties that the characters carry with them from childhood.

French Braid is a small book but perfectly formed. Everything is pitched just right – the naturalness of the dialogue, the plotting which rips through the years but still seems to keep you close to the characters, the way the things that are never talked about are at least as important than the things that are. It’s another gem from Tyler and gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: Little Wing by Freya North – a heart tugging drama with an evocative Scottish Island setting

I was quite likely drawn to this novel because of the setting – I think I might have mentioned my thing for Scottish Islands before. A big chunk of Little Wing is set on Harris, one of the Outer Hebrides. As the character of Dougie says ‘the Outer Hebrides are like this one-hundred-and-thirty-mile stone windbreak taking the brunt of all that the Atlantic is hurling. In winter the raindrops are like ‘bulls’ bollocks’. But there’s also a ‘wild, terrifying beauty.’ What’s not to like?

In 1969, Harris is where Florence is sent to have her baby. She is sixteen years old and her mother has disowned her. Luckily her step-father steps in and offers a solution. He has a brother on the island where she can escape all the tut-tutting and shame of her condition. We get briefly swept into Florence’s world of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, mini skirts and the psychedelic designs Florence creates in her room.

The story switches forwards to 2005 where we meet Nell, who has a lot on her plate. She co-runs a café where the staff are all special needs. Danny, AJ and co. are so lovingly drawn and what they lack as professional waitstaff is compensated for in charm and enthusiasm. I wish we had a café like this where I live. Nell also visits Frank, an elderly man who needs a hand with meals, but who is also a good friend. If only Nell’s mother still recognised her. Wendy suffers from early-onset dementia and lives in a care home. Single and in her mid-thirties, Nell’s life seems to be all work and caring for others.

Similarly struggling is Dougie, working hard in London as a photographer, not the creative portraiture he excelled at as a student, but catalogue shots for cheap clothing or gardening hardware. Between work and pounding a treadmill at the gym, he rarely has time to return his dad’s phone calls. Dougie’s dad, Gordon, is from Harris, so you know that’s where our lost and bewildered characters will venture next.

When Nell finds her mother’s wayward memory throws up doubts about her own provenance, the answers could be discovered in a remote part of Scotland. Dougie, in need of a break and long overdue for a visit home makes the trip to Harris too. And although Dougie and Nell see each other over the days that follow, it is a while before any sparks ignite. There is however a strong romantic thread to the story, as well as tragedy, both of which are enriched by the wild beauty of a Harris setting.

I really enjoyed Little Wing, named for one of Florence’s favourite Jimi Hendrix’s songs; it’s a light read but full of feeling. You can’t help warming towards the characters: brave and idealistic young Florence, kind-hearted but also kind of fun Nell and Dougie with his quiet sensitivity and Heathcliffe hair. But the true hero of the story is the island of Harris itself with its history, traditions, wild open spaces, birdlife and weather. Not to mention the friendly islanders. You’ll be trawling the Internet for pictures like I did and dreaming about booking a holiday.

I haven’t read anything by Freya North before, but have since discovered she was at the vanguard of the chick lit genre when her first book came out in 1996 – this novel is her fifteenth. I recommend Little Wing for when you want a cosy, light, warm-hearted read. This one gets a four out of five from me.