Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell


The Distance Between Us is the third novel I’ve read by this author – it’s an old one too, published in 2004.  Like her last two novels, this one has characters dashing about, jumping on planes and trains and rushing off to places new, or old. Possibly this is because O’Farrell throws them into difficult situations where the past has a way of catching up with them.

Jake is caught up in a crush during a Hong Kong parade for Chinese New Year and injured, the girl he’s dating almost killed. As she lies in hospital and everyone expects her to die, Jake agrees to a deathbed marriage. Somehow she pulls through and the two return to England, where Jake has never lived, and the pressure to start married life together scares him into a search for his missing dad. All he’s got to go by is his name – Kildoune, near Aviemore, the place where his transient, hippy dad came from.

Stella also makes a dash for Scotland, panicked by the sight of a tall, ginger-haired man on a London bridge. She leaves a good job in radio, her flat, everything. She doesn’t even tell Nina her sister, who is like a twin, but not. Nina seems like a stalker, the way she is always checking up on her sister, phoning at work, at home, asking questions about what she’s up to, what her plans are. 

It’s an emotional roller-coaster of a book – the characters making life-changing decisions in the blink of an eye because of feelings of guilt, love or fear. Here’s what I liked about it:

  • O’Farrell keeps the pace ticking along nicely with very short scenes. We constantly switch between past Stella and present Stella; between Hong Kong Jake and searching-for-his-dad Jake; there are scenes from their childhoods as well as ones filling in the stories of their parents and grandparents. 
  • Somehow the story emerges in bits like jig-saw pieces, and even though O’Farrell seems to have a lot of balls in the air, it all ties in nicely at the end.
  • Jake and Stella are very convincing characters, likeable but also flawed. They could both grow up a bit – after all, they’re thirty and twenty-eight respectively, but it’s not so surprising they are the way they are when you learn their backstories.
  • Nina’s rather like an anti-hero, causing Stella no end of grief, calling at all hours, leaving threatening messages, but by the end of the book, she’s oddly appealing.
  • O’Farrell is a terrific writer, using a simple, immediate style that comes from the viewpoints of her characters. But she’s also great at conjuring up the mood of a moment with sensory descriptions. 
  • Like previous books I’ve read by O’Farrell, the originality of the storyline is brilliant. She is a whiz and throwing the unpredictable into ordinary lives and teasing out the possible repercussions, often triggering an emotional response in the reader – this reader anyway.

I loved this book and will be catching up on all of O’Farrell’s previous novels, probably quite soon. Because there’s nobody quite like her. Four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons

songThe last time I read a novel by this author, it was set in the world of art dealing and gallery exhibitions (The Gallery of Vanished Husbands). No points for guessing that this book has music as its background, the song collector of the title being Harry Fox-Talbet, a composer. The story is told over two time periods, the first just after World War Two, as Harry, his brothers, Jack and George, return with their father to the family mansion that had been requisitioned by the army for the duration.

Now they have it back it is a crumbling ruin, scarcely worth restoring. His older siblings make plans for how they can keep their damaged home, much against their father’s wishes. Meanwhile Harry visits cottages and pubs, asking people to sing old folk songs so he can write them down, and steadily falls in love with Edie Rose, Jack’s girlfriend. Edie is a famous singer, the songbird who helped keep people’s chins up as the bombs fell and the world went mad. It was hard not to hear Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’ in my mind, which may not be quite what the author intended.

This story alternates with the modern-day, as Harry, now elderly, has recently buried his late wife, Edie (yes, that Edie) and is eating himself out with grief. His daughter descends upon him one day, desperate for a last-minute babysitter for four-year-old Robin, a difficult child at the best of times. As Robin rages and rips up a precious photo album, all Harry can think of doing is sitting at the piano to play Mozart. Instantly, the child settles and calls for more. Over the next few weeks, Harry discovers his grandson is a musical prodigy.

The two storylines slowly come together: Harry’s composing and relationship with Edie; the problem of managing a young boy’s talent while encouraging a normal childhood. When elderly Harry discovers a recent Christmas card from his estranged brother Jack to Edie, is there a chance for reconciliation?

Solomons creates wonderful characters – well-rounded and interesting, each with their bugbears and flaws and yet oddly likeable. You get the feeling that being highly talented and being nice don’t necessarily go together. But that’s OK. The tradition of song-collecting is mentioned in an interesting afterword, and the book itself is full of music, Beethoven and Rachmaninov, as well as simple folk tunes that Harry records.

The English countryside is richly depicted, the scents and sounds of rural life and the changing seasons. There’s a wonderful scene when Harry has an accident with the tractor in the snow which makes you feel cold just reading about it. Though sometimes the prose seems a little overburdened with similies. A quick look finds a shortish paragraph in which the parched lawn is compared to threadbare carpet, the honey-scented garden compared to a French patisserie and a sleeping snake’s skin compared to molten metal. Though I guess it captures the scene.

The Song Collector is an original and engaging story I had been meaning to read for some time. So glad that I finally picked it up. Three and a half out of five from me.


Book Review: The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

the gunnersRebecca Kauffman’s second novel reminds me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction (Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton …). Perhaps it’s because The Gunners is set in a small town in the eastern US, and it’s characters are battlers. We are invited into their world when they are children, and then later as adults to see how they’re faring, and to look at the ongoing effects of the past on the present – something else Strout does.

The main character, young Mikey Hennesy, discovers at the age of six that he is blind in one eye. Well, he kind of knew that but thought it was normal. He lives alone with his dad, a quiet, unsmiling man who works at the local abattoir. Dad doesn’t take Mikey for an eye test, and the boy carries on as before.

Mikey is a lonely child but is rescued by Sally, who he meets on the school bus. Both children are a bit lost, and so begins a friendship. When feisty young Alice decides to set up a gang of kids meeting at an empty and decrepit house, she invites Mikey and Sally to join. They call themselves The Gunners after the name on the letter-box and stick together through most of their childhood.

Skip forward a decade or so and Mikey, still living in the same town, discovers he is losing his sight completely. At around the same time, there is news of Sally’s suicide. The remaining Gunners, who haven’t seen each other for years decide to spend some time together after the funeral and talk of old times. Each harbours a secret about Sally and her reasons for leaving the group when they were sixteen – and in each case, it’s a secret that has been gnawing away at them ever since.

The Gunners is a simply told story, weaving together events from the past and the present, but it really packs a punch. The characters are each interesting and well-rounded, but it is Mikey, the good guy, who really tugs at the heartstrings. How can someone so deserving of love manage to live so long without it? Kauffman also writes with wisdom about friendship and loyalty, capturing the rivalries and one-upmanship that can make childhood relationships so bumpy.

I loved this book. once I began reading Mikey’s story, I couldn’t put it down. I will be looking out for Kauffman’s next book for sure. Four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French

elmA few pages into this book, you know you are in the hands of an Irish author. It’s got that chatty, let’s sit down and tell you a story manner that you often get with Irish authors. The first-person narration also helps, but most of all it’s that rambly, discursive but hugely entertaining style of writing that draws you in and won’t let go, even when the book is five hundred pages long, and could have been around 350. Maybe.

The Wych Elm is a stand-alone crime novel, by the author of the Dublin Murder Squad series. We are in the mind of Toby, a young man in his late twenties, who is telling us how lucky he is. He’s got some family money behind him, plenty of friends, Melissa, his gorgeous girlfriend, and a terrific job doing PR for an art gallery. He’s charming and good-looking and all set for success. Continue reading “Book Review: The Wych Elm by Tana French”

Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde

artWhen my aunt died and we all met back at her house following the memorial service, of course, I prowled her bookshelves. She had quite a collection, having been for many years a speech and remedial reading teacher. In her living room were all the classics, in smart hard-cover editions, and I have no doubt she’d read them all, often. But in her bedroom was a whole shelf of Nora Roberts and another of Katie Fforde.

Now I have never been able to get into Nora Roberts, even if she is one of the world’s best selling authors. But the Katie Ffordes looked inviting with their pretty covers and whimsical titles so I always meant to read one.

Recently I picked up Artistic Licence, which is about thirty-something Thea, a former photo-journalist. A bad experience with her ex had sent her off to the Cotswolds, where she finds a part-time job in a one-hour photo shop and takes in student lodgers. She’s in a bit of a rut, when Molly, her bossy friend, whisks her off on an artists’ retreat in Provence where she meets gorgeous young painter, Rory. Continue reading “Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde”

Cosy or Not-So-Cosy? That Is the Mystery

The cosy mystery novel has become one of the most popular trends in online publishing, probably pipped only by assorted romance genres. But what makes a murder mystery cosy? I’ve read a few over the years and have come up with a list of common features:

  • An amateur sleuth, often with no technical skills usually associated with solving crime other than a tendency to be nosy. A sharp mind also helps. The classic amateur sleuth in my book is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has seen the worst of what humanity is capable of through observing life in St Mary Mead. Today many cosy mysteries are set around handcrafts or food preparation. The amateur sleuth, Hannah Swensen, in Joanna Fluke’s popular novels runs a bakery with titles that couple murder with a bakery item (Double Fudge Brownie Murder, for example).
  • Cosy mysteries invite the reader to take part in the investigation. The reader is given random clues throughout the book, as well as red herrings, which make you pay attention and guess ‘who done it’. Even so, it is frustrating if the mystery is too obvious – a surprise revelation at the end is what keeps you reading.
  • A small group of suspects to choose from, usually presented early in the peace. The classic mysteries of yesteryear might have everyone holed up in a country manor house (think Dorothy L Sayers); or else they all live in the same village or small town. Village mysteries are still popular, hence the success of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels. Yes, I know Gamache is a senior policeman, but he gets help from the inhabitants of Three Pines, particularly from local artist, Clara Morrow. Louise Penny pops up regularly in the Agatha Awards nominations, which recognise authors of cosies, or as they put it ‘malice domestic’.
  • Cosies are usually written in series, often with story threads involving the personal life of the sleuth running through them. I’ve lost track of the number of husbands and boyfriends M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin has had. It’s fun to see how the main character develops their skills, or runs up against the local constabulary as a regular feature. It’s also amazing how many suspicious deaths can occur in some small villages over a short space of time, no doubt keeping the local undertaker busy and opening up real estate opportunities for incomers.
  • As with any genre, you can find a range of novels lumped together that are hugely varied and might not seem cosy at all. It’s hard to keep the police force out of crime fiction entirely, so a regular detective might appear alongside the amateur sleuth. Darkly sinister motives can pop out of the woodwork making the story almost chilling. Deliciously chilling of course.

Review: Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

casketClosed Casket is one of the new Hercule Poirot novels – yes, Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth – and it is written by Sophie Hannah, well known for her Culver Valley crime series. Hannah has won awards and been a best-seller many times over, as well as being translated into numerous languages, so it’s not surprising she was commissioned to continue the legacy of the Queen of Crime.

I recently read a couple of old Christie novels I’d had knocking about the place –  perfect for holiday reading – so was a bit dubious about whether anyone else could work the same sort of magic as Christie does. And while I enjoyed Closed Casket immensely, it isn’t really like Christie at all. Was I disappointed? Continue reading “Review: Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah”

Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

y648An author I’ve picked up fairly consistently over the years is Tracey Chevalier, who writes historical novels – you may remember The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie. Her books are usually a fairly light, engaging read, but she has a knack of digging out a very human story from an often overlooked corner of history.

Remarkable Creatures is a novel about two women who were instrumental in the discovery of fossilised remains of dinosaur-era animals at the coastal town of Lyme Regis. We are just after Waterloo, and the Origin of the Species has yet to be written so the Bible’s version of how God made the world holds sway. Continue reading “Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier”

Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam

funeralWhen I went on holiday recently, I packed an assortment of books knowing I would have a few quiet hours away from the Internet and Netflix. I usually like to include an old favourite – you don’t want anything that will be too hard to get into on holiday – and that usually means Anne Tyler, one or two Agatha Christies or a Jane Gardam.

The Summer After the Funeral is a short novel about a family coming to terms with the death of their father, an elderly clergyman. Rev. Price had a kind of allure with women and fathered three children in his dotage, but unfortunately, Mrs Price and her family must leave the rectory to her husband’s replacement. She concocts a convoluted scheme of passing her children round to various acquaintances and family for the summer while she goes job hunting. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam”

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

ehGosh, how do you begin to try and describe a book like this one? The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is like a cross between an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery – say The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Hollow – and a story from Dr Who. Or maybe one of those old computer games where you have to find your way out of a labyrinth, but keep losing your life and have to start again.

The book opens with the main character running through the woods by night, desperate to save Anna, whoever she may be, while there’s a killer on the loose. He’s lost, but worst of all, he doesn’t know who he is either. He looks down at his hands and they are the hands of a stranger. He eventually finds safety in a crumbling stately home called Blackheath, and learns his name is Dr Sebastian Bell.

The next time he wakes up he’s someone else again – a pattern that repeats itself over the following days. Continue reading “Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton”