Book Review: The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

You never know what you’ll pick up at a second-hand book fair, but I’m glad I spotted this 2011 novel by Natasha Solomons. The Novel in the Viola is the story of Elise Landau, a plump and rather spoilt nineteen-year-old, not obviously talented like her musician sister, Margot, and opera singer mother, Anna. It is 1930s Vienna, and the Nazis are starting to make things difficult for Jews in the city. As Margot and her husband prepare to escape to the United States and her parents apply for visas to join them there, Elise has no choice but to try for a place as a maid in an English household. Expressing herself in her ‘fluid’ English, she writes, ‘I will cook your goose’. A Mr Rivers of Tyneford offers her a job as parlour-maid and the means to travel.

Elise is determined she will hate England, missing her family desperately, cherishing Anna’s pearls, while learning how to wait at table, lay a fire, polish the silver, all the while running from task to task. Dawdling is the privilege of the moneyed classes, it seems. Mr Rivers is unfailingly understanding, a widower with one son away at Cambridge. He was charmed by Elise’s letter and takes her surname, Landau, to be a good omen, having a fondness for the books by one Julian Landau who Elise admits to being her father. Mr Rivers’s library has all of his books. She doesn’t tell him that her father has entrusted her with a carbon copy of his latest novel, secreted inside an old viola of Margot’s.

Letters from Margot admit their parents struggles to obtain visas, while rumbles of war make things tense in England. But there is light relief when Kit Rivers arrives home for the summer, enchanting everyone around him, particularly the young women, including Diana and Juno, from the local nobility, and even Elise. Not only does Elise gradually fall in love with Kit, but with the countryside around her. She has never lived by the sea before, and suddenly finds she can’t imagine life away from it. Natasha Solomons writes some gorgeous descriptions of this little corner on the Dorset coast and weaves into the story the changing seasons and rhythms of rural life.

The book is full of a terrific characters: snooty Diana who drops acid with every utterance; Art the chauffeur who likes four-legged creatures better than two-legged ones; Mr Wrexham, the butler/valet who wears his tailcoat throughout the most difficult times refusing to let standards slip – to name but three. But it is Elise who is the stand-out character here, losing her puppy fat, and adapting to the difficult role of being not readily accepted upstairs or below, but somehow finding a place in the household. She grows up a lot but never loses her independent streak, her passion.

Solomons has dipped into her own family history to help bring Elise to life, inspired by her great-aunt Gabi Landau who managed to escape the persecution of Jews in Europe by becoming a mother’s help in England. Apparently many refugees arrived in England on a ‘domestic service visa’ leaving their cosseted lives behind them for the challenges of life below stairs. Key aspects of the war drive the plot – particularly reports of brutality to Jews by the Nazis but also the privations of life for those in wartime England, Dunkirk and the war in the air. It is also a record of what life was like in rural England, the customs that knitted the social classes together before the war changed things forever.

It all adds up to a very compelling and yes, sad, book, full of atmosphere, interesting characters although the more emotional moments did seem a little overwrought at times for my taste. But then there was the music, a theme which also pervades Solomons’s The Song Collector, a novel which throws a light on another interesting aspect of English cultural history. Solomons is definitely an author on my watch-list and overall this book didn’t disappoint. A three-and-a-half out of five read from me.

Book Review: Mum and Dad by Joanna Trollope

Sometimes when you come to a hiatus in your reading, something a little familiar is just what you need to get going again. Mum & Dad is the twenty-first novel by Trollope dealing with everyday life, family and relationships. You might say they follow a well-worn path. Often a couple, their family or friends, are tested by some bolt from the blue, leaving them to dig deep, examine themselves and their relationships with those around them to find a way forward.

In the case of Mum & Dad, the family is the Beachams, an old family going back to the Domesday Book, with a more recent tradition of naming their first born son Gus. Monica Beacham, who loathed her domineering father-in-law refused in a rare act of defiance and so named her first son Sebastian. If only Monica had continued to be more of her own person, as forty-plus years later we find her with her husband in Spain, where Gus has become an award-winning wine-maker and at seventy-tree is a grumpy old man. And at the start of the book, a grumpy old man who has just had a stroke. Think bear with a toothache.

Monica finds herself in a panic – how to manage the winery and deal with Gus, a husband from whom she has become increasingly estranged. At least she has Pilar, her faithful housekeeper and then there’s younger son Jake who seems only too willing to abandon his life in London to rush out to help her. If only her older children were on board with that idea. Parked in English boarding schools when their parents moved to Spain, while younger brother Jake got to stay with Mum and Dad, there is an undercurrent of resentment. It doesn’t help that Sebastian’s wife Anna just doesn’t get along with Monica – Anna is too controlling, Sebastian never taken seriously by his now teenage boys, Marcus and Dermot. Lately Sebastian feels Anna doesn’t much like him anymore. He’s a bit of a sad sack.

Monica also has a niggling guilt over her daughter Katie, who was miserable at her boarding school, and must have felt abandoned by her parents while Monica played the dutiful wife. Katie has since thrown everything into her career – she’s a successful lawyer – but her family of three daughters sometimes comes off second best, while she and partner Nic seem to be growing apart. But how can you be a good mother if you don’t have the experience of being cared for as a child?

As Monica and her three children have been all slowly drifting towards various kinds of discord and disaster, the catalyst of Gus’s stroke shocks them into all into taking stock. Eventually all three will visit their mother, with or without their spouses and children. They’ll have to connect with each other to find out what’s really going on and things may get a lot worse before they begin to get better. It’s a classic Trollope story, but also a very satisfying one. What makes it work for me are the characters. Not only do they have depth and interesting interplay with their families, they each grow and develop through the book. They’re not always all that likeable, but they seem very real.

I whizzed through Mum & Dad, enjoying the enfolding drama and the settings which switch between London and Spain. And as I read, I remembered that the other thing I like about Trollope is that her books are easy to relate to, picking up changing social conventions and idioms. She shows really well how different generations within a family see things and what they can teach other, even the youngest has her say. Trollope’s books only come out every couple of years, but when they do, I know I will find them worth the wait. A four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: The Sweeney Sisters by Lian Dolan

The pretty seaside town of Southport Connecticut is where the well-heeled come to play – there’re the golf clubs and country clubs and the yacht club and you can bet everyone knows everyone and their business too. It’s also where Liza, Maggie and Tricia Sweeney grew up, their old home now somewhat ramshackle – as their lovely mum Maeve had put it, “shabby and chic before Shabby Chic was chic.”

At the start of The Sweeney Sisters, gallery owner Liza learns the devastating news that her father has died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack. Being the only daughter still living in Southport, it’s Liza who phones her sisters – free spirited artist, Maggie, and control-freak lawyer Tricia – as well as placating Julia, her father’s long-term housekeeper. Tricia swings into legal mode, determined to manage the fallout – William Sweeney was a literary lion, taught in schools and universities, with drinking and gambling habits to making him interesting.

Bill Sweeney was also about to deliver a memoir to his publishers, having long since spent the hefty advance, but there’s no sign of it on his computer, or in the boat-shed he used as an office. The house on an expensive piece of real estate was mortgaged up to the hilt as well. At least he left a will with his solicitor and old friend, Cap Richardson. But after the funeral, Cap reveals the disturbing news that there is in fact a fourth Sweeney sister, Serena Tucker, suddenly the elder Sweeney sister and amazingly, the result of a an affair between Bill and their neighbour Birdie, a cool WASPish woman, always in tennis clothes and a source of derision among the girls.

As Bill Sweeney’s publishers get more demanding, the younger sisters come to terms with having a new sister and the four of them slowly get to know each other. Serena, a high-achieving journalist, is the only writer among them, and having won a DNA test had only recently learned of her parentage. It is a lingering sadness to her that Bill had refused to see her.

There are some interesting minor characters as well: Raj the archivist sent by Bill’s university to catalogue and box up Bill’s papers and who makes a hit with Tricia; Maggie’s friend Tim the sous chef who helps out with the catering; the ethereal, hippie poet Maeve, long dead but always in her daughters’ hearts. But mostly it’s the story of the four girls and their coming to terms with the upshot of their father’s death. Each acquires a new awareness by the end of the book, with new plans for the future. The book is also very witty, a lovely little comedy of manners, with some smart story-telling as one bombshell leads to another. Throw in some snappy dialogue and there’s just so much to enjoy. An easy four out of five star read from me.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Pearl of Penang to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I’ve often really enjoyed those Six Degrees of Separation blog posts that connect books, often books that would never normally appear in the same list. Thinking I’d have a go, here’s what I came up with when I finished The Pearl of Penang by Clare Flynn. Incidentally, these are all books I’ve enjoyed immensely.

The Pearl of Penang is set from 1939 and on into the war years among Malaya’s expats where it seems to be all gin slings and tennis parties, in spite of the havoc in Europe. Reality eventually hits home with the Japanese attacks on South East Asia and the fall of Singapore. It is an engaging story about Evie, who’s missed the marriage boat, stuck working as a lady’s companion, mouldering in rural England and desperate for change. So she accepts a terse proposal of marriage by mail and winds up in Penang, trying to win the heart of her distant but devilishly handsome new husband. I could have gone for Jane Eyre here, as there are definitely a few similarities, or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. But no, the terrible events that race you through to the end of the novel describing the effects of war on ordinary people are what haunted me most. So, it had to be:

Flight by Elephant by Andrew Martin. This author took time out from trains and his Jim Stringer series to write an amazing non-fiction book about a dramatic rescue following the Japanese invasion of Burma. As the monsoon threatens to make the Chaukan Pass into Assam impenetrable, a group of Indian army soldiers, civilians and their Indian servants turn to Gyles Mackrell for help. He’s a tea planter in his fifties, also a decorated WWI pilot, but more importantly he’s good with elephants. As the Japanese close in, Mackrell and his elephant riders battle rising floodwaters, leeches, biting insects and disease to save the lives of people half dead with starvation and fever. It’s a nail-biting read beating hands down just about anything you could hope to find in fiction for thrills and daring-do.

And speaking of elephants, who would have thought a baby elephant entering the life of a retired policeman could lead to a fabulous new crime-solving duo? The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan is set in Mumbai, a modern, teeming city and not the ideal place for a baby elephant, particularly if you live in a high-rise apartment building. But when Ashwin Chopra leaves his office for the last time, puzzling about the death of a drowned boy – a case his superiors don’t regard as suspicious – he finds he suddenly has to take on responsibility for a baby elephant. This Mumbai is a brilliantly rendered setting, and there are plenty of plot-twists as Ashwin and elephant Ganesh deal to the bad guys. I could follow this one up with another animal detective story, possibly featuring cats or dogs, but these really don’t do it for me. However, there’s a lovely subplot involving a misunderstanding between husband and wife, and their eventual reconciliation.

Another book about a couple going through a hiccup in their marriage is Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. Forty-year-old Delia Grindstead feels taken for granted, misunderstood, and not knowing what she wants in life. Her husband is a doctor who joined her father’s practice and got to choose one of the three daughters. Like a fairy-tale, he picks the youngest and prettiest, the one who thought she never stood a chance. Years later, she is still living in her childhood home, her children almost grown, the youngest a surly 15 year old. On their annual vacation at the beach, Delia has the impulse to walk away. Wearing only a swimsuit, a beach wrap, and espadrilles, she hitches a ride to wind up in a small town, where she begins a new life. She just wanted to start again ‘from scratch’, she says. How she finds a place to live, a job, then becomes immersed in the lives of the townsfolk makes for a heartfelt and quirky story.

Someone else starting again ‘from scratch’ is Aidan Bishop in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. A guest at a country house party at a place called Blackheath, Aidan has no recollection of why he’s there, finding himself running through the grounds at night when he hears a woman’s scream and gunshot. The next day he wakes up in the body of a different guest and learns from someone dressed as a Medieval plague doctor that to escape Blackheath he must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. He has eight days, waking up each morning as a different guest or servant, reliving the same day. But all is not what it seems and there are further surprises in store for the reader in this most original of novels that reinvents the country house murder mystery as we know it.

Another novel that brings the reader back to square one, time and time again, is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Ursula Todd is born in 1910, and then because of heavy snow and no medical help at her birth, she dies. Darkness fell. The next chapter, Ursula has another go at life in a novel that puts her through all kinds of mis-steps and disasters including the Spanish Flu, sexual assault, an abusive marriage and the Blitz. Of course, the upheavals of the twentieth century play a big part in the story, but at least Ursula has the chance to get things right in her own life with each reincarnation. The story works on a more personal level, showing the effects of traumatic events on the decisions we make in life later on. Interestingly, both Life After Life and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle won the Costa Awards.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (another Costa Award winner) also features an unforgettable heroine who like Ursula, is a survivor. Eleanor, a victim of childhood abuse and trauma, has evolved into a version of herself that makes her awkward around others to the point of rudeness. She is intelligent enough to hold down her job in the finance team for a graphic design company, but has no friends and gets through the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka. But this is fiction, and as the reader would expect, Eleanor is going to change. How she deals with her past and allows others into her life creates a memorable story told by a more than memorable narrator. This novel is set in Glasgow – a strikingly different setting from Penang where we began.

Book Review: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

This book has been a Reese’s Book Club pick and voted a winner in its genre on GoodReads for books published in 2020. So naturally I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. The Guest List is a book you want to pick up for a number of reasons. It’s set on an island – this one’s a wild sort of place off the coast of Ireland with an old graveyard, ruins and a folly. For some reason Aoife and Freddie have thrown all their money into turning it into a high-end wedding venue.

Think about it. Guests are ferried out by boat. Special guests – the wedding party, groomsmen and bridesmaids mostly arrive the night before. The Folley offers several luxurious bedroom suites. There’s plenty of champagne and Freddie’s an amazing chef; the views are spectacular and the ruined chapel so romantic – if you like that Byronic sort of thing.

Then there’s the Agatha Christie feel about the story. It’s hard not to see a reference to the Queen of Crime’s And Then There Were None. As we all know, when you’re on an island, all you need’s bit of bad weather and you could be stuck there. Add something like a murder and things will get tense.

But this story’s a bit different. First of all there’s no sleuth. Not only is there no sleuth, but even though there’s blood and a hysterical waitress screaming, we don’t find out until the end who the victim is. It’s like all the work has to be done by the reader. Which keeps you really engaged as the story flips between ‘Now’, i.e., the hours following the discovery of the blood, and what happened before the wedding.

The story also flips between narrators. We’ve got the bride, Jules, who while being a smart owner of an online magazine, wealthy in her own right, and about to marry hunky TV reality star Will, is really uptight. She’s got baggage and a temper. There’s Olivia, her sister and bridesmaid, much younger and fragile. She’s got a secret and it’s eating away at her. Can Hannah prise it out of her? Hannah, the Plus-One, is the wife of Charlie who is Jules’s best friend.

Hannah feels insignificant in Jules’s presence, a stay-at-home mother of two who can’t afford designer labels. Plus she can’t help wondering if her husband and Jules have ever been lovers. Add the fact that something happened on the stag do that Charlie won’t talk about and she’s dealing with a lot of stuff. We’ve got wild-boy Johnno, the best man and supposedly Will’s best friend. There’s some kind of hold they have on each other from their time at their Dotheboys Hall type boarding school. So, yes, there are a heap of secrets. We soon get the feeling Aoife has secrets too.

The reader gathers whatever clues are to hand, then as the plot twists and turns appear, you rethink, cross that motive off the list and try again. It gets you racing towards the end, and while I did manage to guess ‘whodunit’ as part of a possible scenario, there were still enough surprises to keep me happy. I can certainly see why this book has been so popular. Is it worth all the fuss? Mmm – perhaps not for me. It’s not a book I would read twice, as its main interest lies in the trick of its construction. It’s a good trick but the characters aren’t particularly good company – far too anguished and self-absorbed. The lack of a sleuth meant I wasn’t as drawn in as I might have been. I’m giving this one a solid three out of five.

Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

I thought I already knew about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), thanks to all those English and American writers who went there to fight and wrote about it later. Then there was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica which I remember studying at one time. But really I hardly knew anything. I certainly didn’t know quite how brutal it was.

Isabel Allende’s new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, gave me a lot more insight, I am happy to say. It is mostly the story of Victor Dalmau, a medic on the Republican (Communist) side, glad he doesn’t have to fire a gun. He learns so much in the harsh reality of battlefield surgery and makes a name for himself by restarting a young soldier’s heart who has been left for dead. He’d like to finish his training as a doctor, but as the war ends, it becomes a fight for survival, with Republicans fleeing across the border to France to avoid slaughter.

Among the refugees is Roser, a promising musician who lived with Victor’s family. Roser is carrying the child of Guillem, Victor’s brother. Guillem is most certainly dead and chance to start a new life in Chile forces Victor and Roser to marry. Chile needs musicians more than it needs doctors, but the two make a new life together, and the novel follows their hard work and difficulties, their successes and new friendships. Among these is Felipe del Solar, who introduces Victor to Salvador Allende who is eventually to become President of Chile. Felipe also introduces Victor to his beautiful sister.

Chile is kind to the Dalmau family, but waiting in the wings is another Fascist insurrection and it seems a bit like history repeating itself. Another round of mysterious disappearances, of killings and concentration camps. Isabel Allende weaves into the story of ordinary people some major events and at times the book read more like non-fiction than fiction. This worked well for me and saved me the trouble of constantly reaching for the Internet, as it filled in all the factual stuff you needed to know in an accessible way.

Among the real people who make an appearance is Pablo Neruda, Chile’s famous poet. It is Neruda who had described Chile as ‘a long petal of the sea and wine and snow … (with) a belt of black and white foam’. Neruda, as Chile’s consul in Paris, organises the ship that brings the Dalmaus to Chile and fittingly his poetry introduces each chapter, e.g.:

I have slept with you
the whole night long
while the dark earth turns
with the living and the dead
("Night on the Island" - The Captain's Verses)

Allende deals with some big themes in her book – displacement, nationhood, the effects of war, family issues and so on. But it is also a love story and the way she writes this is with much humanity, sensitivity and tenderness. You can’t help falling in love a little with the characters themselves – especially gentle, hard-working and reliable Victor and fiery, clever and determined Roser. Allende shows us what is both ordinary and special about each of them.

This is such a stunning book, handling some really terrible scenes from history with a lightness of touch but still making them real. I frequently felt a lump in my throat as I read. A five out of five star read from me.

Book Review: Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

The Wyndham and Banerjee series is quite possibly my favourite series of thriller/mysteries. It has all the key ingredients of brilliant crime fiction. To begin with there’s an engaging if troubled main character. Captain Sam Wyndam has survived WWI, but lost his wife to the Spanish flu not long afterwards. Self-medicating on opium to keep his various demons at bay, he rolls on up in Calcutta to take his place in the Imperial police force in the early 1920s. Calcutta offers both a change of scene and an available supply of his drug of choice.

Then there’s the side-kick. Surendranath Banerjee is Sam’s 2IC in rank, but often proves his usefulness in seeing through situations Sam is blind to, particularly when an attractive woman is involved. He’s a conundrum being an Indian officer in the British system, from a family of lawyers who don’t understand his career choice. The two have a strong friendship that isn’t without it’s moments of friction.

Apart from these two terrific characters the next best thing about the series is the setting. I love historical fiction set in India and here we’ve got an interesting political period with the rise of Gandhi and increasing pressure on British rule. Throw in some very smart writing, moments of edge-of-your-seat danger and some twisty plotting and the series is nigh perfect.

In Death in the East, Sam is on his way to the remote ashram in the hills where he is hoping to finally fix his opium habit, when he catches of glimpse of a man from his past. A total nasty in fact. A man who is the Moriarty to his Sherlock Holmes. The story flips back to the early years of Sam’s policing in the East End of London, Sam just a bobby in uniform, and again there’s a lady involved.

Bessie is a smart, streetwise woman married to a thug. She’s the main breadwinner, collecting rents for a local businessman who’s none too straight. When she’s found dying in her flat with her head bashed in, Sam is one of the first on the scene. Obviously, the husband is in the frame, but he has an alibi. So perhaps Bessie picked up a secret or two as well as the rent money she collected. The press and the powers that be are keen to ascribe the killing to one of the Jewish people who also had rooms in her house. The crime is also complicated by the fact that Sam once had feelings for Bessie.

Slowly the scene on the train at the start of the book and the back story from 1905 converge, but not before another death occurs at the ashram. The settings for the two are dramatically different – the chill of an East End November, over crowding and dark alleys contrasting with the leafy hillsides of Assam where strange things can happen, such as starlings falling en masse out of the sky.

Meanwhile Sam, coming out of his opium dependency, is fragile to say the least. Another beautiful woman, Mrs Carter, wife of an empire builder, inveigles her way into his thoughts. She’s not just a wealthy man’s consort though, with her war work in the WAAC and now she’s rebuilding an old Bugatti that has been left to rot in a storage shed. All this makes her more than averagely interesting. Just as well Surendranath turns up in the last chunk of the book to help sort out the crime and keep Sam on track.

Death in the East is another terrific read in a series I can’t get enough of. My only quibble is I did sort of miss the snappy dialogue between Sam and his sidekick for much of the book. This was compensated to a degree by an interesting case going back to Sam’s early days on the beat and which helps round him out as a character. As usual there’s plenty of food for thought about injustice and the way people use power to assert their own ends. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

There was a time when I was an avid Jane Austen reader adding an Austen novel to my reading talley each year. And then there was such a plethora of TV and movie adaptations and they were enjoyable, sure, but somehow my interest waned. Then along came the Austen Project – four modern novels based on four Austen novels, written by well-known authors and kicking off with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility.

I’d quite liked Trollope’s version; it was fun but the characters were annoying. Perhaps the characters in the Austen were too – it’s not my favourite Austen by a long chalk. So I forgot about TAP altogether. And then I happened upon Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice. Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much I could have sat down and read it through all over again.

Eligible is set in Cincinnati, mostly, with episodes also in New York and California. Mrs Bennett is excited about a certain Chip Bingley who has come to town as an ER doctor at a Cincinnati hospital. Chip is the recent star of a TV reality series called Eligible (somewhat like The Batchelor), where he broke down in tears during the last episode, unable to choose a bride between the two lovelies who made the final. With five unmarried daughters, Mrs B’s keen to orchestrate a social event where they can meet Chip.

Journalist Liz Bennett has been living in New York for years along with her yoga instructor sister Jane but both are recalled to Cincinnati to help when their father has heart surgery. They can’t rely on their mother to feed him a healthy diet and their younger sisters, still living at home though well into their twenties, are useless. Mary spends her time in her room working on her PhD, while Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with working out and don’t even have jobs.

Liz is really the only one who doesn’t need a top up from the Bank of Mom & Dad, and she is appalled at the state of repair of the Bennett family home. When medical bills make it seem impossible to hang onto the house that has been in the family for generations, Liz steps in to try to persuade her parents to sell and the younger Bennetts to get paid employment.

Then there’s the rest of the P&P cast. Darcy, of course, another high flyer at the hospital but with the original snooty disposition we have come to know and love so well; Jasper Wick(ham), a former colleague, best friend and married lover of Liz; Charlotte is Liz’s old friend from home, too plump to attract a Chip Bingley, but a career whizz nevertheless. Women can do anything as we know, in spite of failing on the marriage market, a sentiment emphasised by long-term feminist and women’s rights campaigner, Kathy de Bourgh. Liz has been trying to interview Kathy de Bourgh for her Women Who Dare column for what seems forever.

Throw in an African American realtor and a trans gym owner and you have plenty more to send Mrs Bennett into a spin. Much comedy ensues and the story builds to a brilliant reality tv finale which rounds the story off nicely.

Curtis Sittenfeld has captured all the silliness of modern life in a way that fits the Pride and Prejudice story beautifully. We’ve got the witty dialogue, the terrific characterisation, the misunderstandings and miscommunications you’d expect, all suitably updated. I’d forgotten how much I loved the original and want to read it again. For this and several hours of wonderful entertainment I’m going to give this one a five out of five.

Book Review: The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

You can tell best-selling author Elly Griffiths has had a ton of fun setting her new Harbinder Kaur mystery around the world of publishing. You can’t help wonder how much of her own experience she’s slipped into the narrative.

The Postscript Murders begins with the death of ninety-year-old Peggy Smith, discovered in her flat by Natalka her Ukrainian caregiver. Because of Peggy’s age, the doc writes it off as natural causes, but Natalka, ever suspicious, believes it’s murder and says so to DS Kaur. Harbinder agrees to look into it, impressed by Natalka’s accent which makes her sound like a spy.

And it’s kind of suspicious how Peggy’s son, Nigel, has her cremated so quickly, her flat boxed up and ready to sell. Just as well Natalka has kept a key. She teams up with Benedict, a former monk who now runs the Coffee Shack on the beach front, and the two sneak into Peggy’s flat where they discover numerous books with Peggy credited in the dedications. She helped the authors with their murder plotting, it seems. A masked gunman who surprises them and then steals a book has them knocking on the door of Peggy’s neighbour Edwin to phone the police.

While DS Kaur is playing catch-up, the unlikely crime-solving trio of Natalka, Benedict and Edwin follow a trail of clues all the way to a literary festival in Aberdeen, tracking down all the crime writers who used Peggy’s services. A new murder keeps Harbinder busy as well as threats close to home so it becomes difficult to rein in Team Natalka. Bubbling away under the surface are subplots including Natalka’s bitcoin shenanigans which have her watching over her shoulder for heavies involved in organised crime, and Harbinder’s ongoing inability to tell her parents that she’s gay. At thirty-five she’s still living at home enjoying Mum’s cooking while her parents hope for a good match for their daughter.

This is a very character-driven story, with much humour coming from the interconnection of the bunch of misfits making up an unlikely cast. Harbinder is an engaging sleuth with her smart policework and ironic mutterings. A glimpse of the publishing industry, the marketing gimmicks, fandom and the sometimes awkwardness of literary festivals creates an interesting backdrop. I chuckled all the way through, not guessing the ending, but not minding if I did as this was such a fun read. Four out of five stars from me.