Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a gritty, believable survival tale you can’t put down

This book came highly recommended, the back cover promising an unputdownable page-turner and in a sense it is. But it is also much more. Picking it up I was instantly caught up in the world of Lydia and her young son Luca, as they hide from drug cartel hitmen who have gatecrashed a barbecue celebration and murdered all her family. That’s sixteen people, including Lydia’s husband, Sebastián. The two hide out in the shower, holding their breath, and as a reader I was holding my breath too.

I held my breath through a lot of this book, actually. The story starts out in Acapulco, where Lydia lives with Sebastián, a journalist who writes exposés on the Mexican drug cartels who hold sway over the country. A fairly new cartel, Los Jardineros, has become dominant in Acapulco, once a peaceful tourist trap, but now its economy is in doubt as visitors stay away. Lydia befriends Javier, a regular visitor to her bookshop who shares her taste in books. Lydia suspects Javier is a little in love with her.

Sebastián writes an article about the cartel, in particular its sophisticated drug lord, a piece that isn’t particularly defamatory, but leaves no doubt about his identity. Even so the family feel no reason to go into hiding, even when Lydia realises who the drug lord really is. This back story is fed throughout the book, little by little, but the main thrust of the plot follows Lydia and Luca’s escape. They have so many near misses, as they first find a way out of Acapulco, then to Mexico City, and on further north in a bid to reach the United States. For the reader, it’s a nail-biting ride.

In another country, you would imagine the police would protect the fugitives, but so many police officers are in the pocket of the cartels, it is impossible to know who to trust. The same thing goes for the people who work at airports, immigration officers and bureaucrats, almost anyone it seems could be on the payroll of Los Jardineros. So using banks and cellphones is out, along with public transport. There is nothing for it but to join the stream of migrants who pass through Mexico from countries further south, like the young girls, Soledad and Rebeca who come from Honduras, and who show Lydia how to ride La Bestia, the cargo trains that head north.

She and Luca are actual migrants. That is what they are. And that simple fact, among all the other severe new realities of her life, knocks the breath clean out of her lungs. All her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.

Soledad and Rebeca have a harrowing story too, like many of the migrants that ride on top of trains. They must have, to risk their lives like this. It is insanely dangerous and the casualties horrific. And here is Lydia so desperate she is riding La Bestia with her eight-year-old son. At any moment they may be captured and sent back to where they came from. Many of them are, or never heard from again. Then there’s the border crossing to consider, and a trek across the desert. And all the while Lydia cannot be sure she’s not being watched, her movements tracked.

The characters of Lydia and Luca are well rounded and interesting. You get glimpses of Lydia in her shop, educated and well-read, of her life with Sebastián. Luca is a geography nut and uses his knowledge of countries and cities to brilliant effect. Lydia is desperate to protect his innocence and fears he will be scarred for life by these experiences – how can he not be?

It’s a gripping story, made all the more so by the possibility that something like this could really happen. It may be fiction, but it reads true and the migrant experience seems to be well-researched. Sometimes the novel form works well because it puts you in the shoes of someone who may not be so very different from you, who is driven to extreme actions by impossible circumstances. American Dirt is well worth picking up, but it may keep you up at night, so be warned. It will certainly give you a lot to think about. It’s a four and a half star read from me.

Classics Club Spin: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë – a quieter Brontë novel but still a gripping read

Anne Brontë is probably the lesser read of the three Brontë sisters, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights constantly turning up on our screens, reimagined for new generations of viewers. The characters of Mr Rochester and Heathcliffe, in many ways more anti-heroes than heroes, are impossible to forget, to say nothing of the dramatic reversals of fortune that make the stories so enthralling, the stirring settings, the passion.

We have a more restrained story here with Agnes Grey, the eponymous character based on Anne Brontë’s own experiences as a governess. Agnes is only nineteen when her father, a country parson, loses a small fortune to speculation. Thanks to her mother’s careful management, there is no pressure for the family to do anything other than hunker down and budget carefully to get them through. But Agnes is a plucky young thing and sees this as an opportunity to help her family out and see something of life. She decides to be a governess and sets off for Wellwood and the Bloomfield family.

Her first placement is a rude awakening. The Bloomfield parents are disengaged and unloving, the four children running their nurse ragged. Little Tom Bloomfield is arrogant and cruel, particularly to any wild animals he comes across. Agnes is supposed to teach Tom and his sisters Mary Ann and Fanny, but is ignored by her charges. She’s not allowed to punish them either. She soon realises that she earns no respect from above stairs, nor any support from the the staff below. It’s a lonely life, but she’s determined to give it her best. To her chagrin, Agnes is dismissed after two terms for incompetence.

Her second post is not a lot better. Horton Lodge is the home of the Murrays, who have two teenage daughters, Rosalie and Matilda and their younger brothers John and Charles, all terribly indulged, the youngest boy too lazy to learn anything. Matilda who has learnt to swear from her father, does anything to escape the schoolroom for the stables. Things become easier when the boys are sent off to school, their parents realising Agnes is unable to teach them. It doesn’t matter so much for the girls, it seems, so long as they develop good manners that will stand them well in society.

I sometimes felt degraded by the life I led, and ashamed of submitting to so many indignities; and sometimes, I thought myself a precious fool for caring so much about them, and feared I must be sadly wanting in Christian humility, or that charity which sufferereth long and is kind…

Poor Agnes. She’s intelligent, but so young to have to deal with the conniving of her arrogant charges. While in Agnes we see the plight of an impoverished gentlewoman and the lack of options for earning a living, well-to-do young ladies don’t seem to fare much better. Rosalie at eighteen is soon to be married off and her mother has her sights set on a local baronet, without consideration for her daughter’s happiness. Rosalie responds by flirting like mad with all the eligible males in the area, including the curate Agnes has fallen for. It shows Rosalie up as capricious and spiteful, but you can’t entirely blame her.

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered the stronger of the two novels she produced during her short life. I read somewhere it was the first really feminist novel, dealing with a woman who escapes her drunken, abusive husband – it caused quite a furore at the time. But this novel about a young woman’s struggles to make a life for herself is still interesting. I found it an engaging read and quite zoomed through the pages to see if things would improve for Agnes.

I am endlessly fascinated by the Brontë’s, and was happy to pick this up when it turned out to be the book selected for my Classics Club Spin challenge. (I had to read number 2 on my list). Head over to The Classics Club if you want to take up the spin challenge too.

Reading the Classics: My Hope-to-Read List from Classical Literature

The good folk over at The Classics Club are doing a great job of encouraging readers to seek out those books we might call ‘classical literature’ and give them a go. There are plenty of Books to Read Before You Die compilations out there but with all that wonderful new stuff being published all the time, it’s easy to forget about the ones we collect at church fairs with good intentions of crossing them off the list.

The good ones never really go away and publishers such as Penguin with their orange series, Virago’s Modern Classics (Hachette) and Persephone Books bring out lovely new editions that can be addictively collectible – to say nothing of public libraries. The Classics Club offers a chance to keep them on your radar with online discussion and sharing part of the deal. But first you have to make a list.

I confess my list is roughly thrown together and in no particular order. I have included a mix of books that are obvious classics and quite a few from early to mid 20th century women authors – a particular interest of mine. There are some I’ve read before and want to read again to see if I still like them. Tweaking and adding to the list is also a possibility. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Sanditon by Jane Austen 
  2. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte 
  3. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell 
  4. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim 
  5. Kim by Rudyard Kipling 
  6. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West 
  7. My Antonia by Willa Cather 
  8. The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold 
  9. Open the Door by Catherine Carswell 
  10. Pomfrett Towers by Angela Thirkell 
  11. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield 
  12. Frost in May by Antonia White 
  13. Company Parade by Storm Jameson
  14. Full House by M J Farrell (Molly Keane)
  15. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann
  16. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  17. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  18. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  19. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  20. The Group by Mary McCarthy 
  21. A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
  22. Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen
  23. The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
  24. Victoria Cottage by D E Stevenson
  25. The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  26. The Wings of a Dove by Henry James
  27. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham
  28. The Beat of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  29. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  30. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson
  31. Justine by Alexander Durrell
  32. Chéri by Colette
  33. Harriet Hume by Rebecca West
  34. The Bell by Iris Murdoch
  35. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome
  36. Round the Bend by Neville Shute
  37. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French
  38. The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing
  39. The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
  40. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  41. We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson
  42. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  43. Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence
  44. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  45. True Grit by Charles Portis
  46. Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
  47. Lorna Done by R D Blackmore
  48. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  49. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  50. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man by Sigfried Sassoon
  51. Tender Is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald
  52. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  53. The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
  54. Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge
  55. Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons
  56. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  57. King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard
  58. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  59. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  60. Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge
  61. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  62. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  63. The Foundling by Charlotte Brontë
  64. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
  65. Squadron Airborne by Elliston Trevor
  66. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
  67. The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien
  68. Green Hands by Barbara Whitton
  69. Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann
  70. Stoner by John Williams
  71. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
  72. ‘The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy
  73. A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell
  74. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell
  75. At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell
  76. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell
  77. The Kindly Ones by Anthony Powell
  78. The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell
  79. The Soldier’s Art by Anthony Powell
  80. The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell
  81. Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell
  82. Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell
  83. Hearing Sweet Harmonies by Anthony Powell
  84. The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning
  85. South Riding by Winifred Hotly
  86. One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens
  87. Perfume by Patrick Suskind
  88. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
  89. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
  90. How I live Now by Meg Rosoff
  91. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
  92. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  93. Music in the Hills by D E Stevenson
  94. Susan Settles Down by Molly Clavering
  95. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
  96. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West
  97. O Pioneer! By Willa Cather
  98. The Rainy Moon and Other Stories by Colette
  99. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Hotly
  100. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  101. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  102. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  103. A Passage to India by E M Forster
  104. Howard’s End by E M Forster
  105. A Room with a View by E M Forster
  106. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
  107. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
  108. Station Life in New Zealand by Lady Barker
  109. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  110. Emma by Jane Austen
  111. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  112. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  113. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  114. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  115. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  116. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  117. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  118. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
  119. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  120. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  121. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  122. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
  123. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  124. Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson
  125. The Makings of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  126. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
  127. Cheerful Weather for a Wedding by Julia Strachey
  128. Saplings by Noel Streatfield
  129. At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor
  130. The River by Rumer Goden
  131. Kingfisher’s Catch Fire by Rumer Goden
  132. George Beneath a Paper Moon by Nina Bawden
  133. Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay
  134. A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden
  135. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
  136. Thank You, Jeeves by P G Wodehouse
  137. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
  138. The Nine Taylors by Dorothy L Sayers
  139. Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
  140. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  141. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  142. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
  143. The Garden Party and other stories  by Katherine Mansfield
  144. Nor the Years Condemn by Robin Hyde
  145. The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde
  146. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stephenson
  147. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  148. The Shrimp and the Anemone by L P Hartley
  149. The Sixth Heaven by L P Hartley
  150. Eustace and Hilda by L P Hartley

Reading the Classics Part 2 -Another Classics Club Spin Challenge

Here’s my list for another round of the Classics Club Spin Challenge, the top twenty classic novels I’d be happy to read. The Classics Club choose a number, and I’ll read the corresponding title.

My list is inspired by a number of things. There are the books I’ve always meant to read (Sanditon, Kim, My Antonia and something by Graham Greene). There are books I read long ago and want to know if I still like them as much as I did then (The Happy Foreigner, Open the Door, Frost in May, Cider With Rosie and The Group). Then there are books that have been knocking around on my bookcases gathering dust. These include books in the Virago Modern Classics collection that I picked up at a waterfront stall way back when and forgot to read (Company Parade, Full House, The Weather in the Streets). I’ve always particularly loved books from the inter-war years from a woman’s perspective and the Virago books of this era include some absolute gems. Hopefully, one or two will appear in the spins to come.

If the challenge proves half as much fun as narrowing down my selection, I’ll be quite happy. Here’s my list:

  1. Sanditon by Jane Austen, 1817
  2. Silas Marner by George Eliot, 1851
  3. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1854
  4. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, 1859
  5. Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim, 1898
  6. Kim by Rudyard Kipling, 1901
  7. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, 1918
  8. My Antonia by Willa Cather, 1918
  9. The Happy Foreigner by Enid Bagnold, 1920
  10. Open the Door by Catherine Carswell, 1920
  11. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield, 1930
  12. Frost in May by Antonia White, 1933
  13. Company Parade by Storm Jameson, 1934
  14. Full House by M J Farrell (Molly Keane), 1935
  15. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, 1936
  16. Pomfrett Towers by Angela Thirkell, 1938
  17. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, 1945
  18. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, 1951
  19. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, 1959
  20. The Group by Mary McCarthy, 1963

Book Review: The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper – a satisfying mystery but much, much more

Whatever’s going on in the world today, reading The Long, Long Afternoon makes me glad I don’t live in California circa 1959. Vespa does a brilliant job at evoking the racism, misogyny, and the straitjacket grip of societal expectation on everyday lives in this picture-perfect setting. And tells a gripping crime story at the same time.

The novel begins with the disappearance of Joyce Haney from her home; the only clues: some blood in the kitchen, a new-born baby’s stretch’n’grow and an empty beer bottle. Abandoned are her two preschool daughters – the older of them has been left to play outside, while the toddler cries disconsolately in her cot. That’s what Ruby finds when she comes upon the crime scene, ready for her cleaning shift one hot summer afternoon.

Ruby is a young black woman, distraught at what she finds, and struggles to deal with two children who are very upset. It isn’t a wonder that the neighbour, Mrs Ingram, arrives to take charge and calls the police. And it isn’t such a wonder that the cops arrest Ruby, as black people are always the default scapegoat whenever they’re found in connection with a crime. It’s lucky for Ruby, that the new detective, Mick Blanke, sees a gross injustice and gently prises from Ruby a statement before letting her go.

Mick’s from New York, used to dealing with hardened crims, but a lapse of judgement has sent him to the other side of the country to make a fresh start with his family. Nobody in this sleepy town police station takes him seriously and his fellow cops are inclined to take the easiest option to close a case. It’s lucky for Ruby, Mick doesn’t work that way. But if it wasn’t the convenient black person who is responsible for the disappearance, Mick is going to have to find the real culprit, and in a perfectly manicured world like Sunnylakes, you can bet nobody’s talking.

The story is told partly from Ruby’s point of view, partly from Mick’s with a few brief chapters via Joyce, showing her last day at home. The three characters are each struggling to find their voice in the world they’re stuck in. The expectations of post-war America for housewives to create the perfect home strangles Joyce and prescriptions of valium and similar drugs are de rigeur among her cohort. Ruby is caught up in the middle of a rising black movement, but she can’t see that anything’s going to change anytime soon. The question the author seems to be posing is: have we come all that far?

And then there’s the mystery to solve. Ruby gets involved as the only way to get behind the scenes of what really happened. Distrust of the police is rife, not only among the black community, but here in Sunnylakes, so Mick comes to rely on Ruby for inside knowledge – although it’s an awkward relationship. It’s lucky Mr Haney is desperate for some domestic help so she can return to the scene of the crime. But nobody wants Ruby snooping around where she shouldn’t which adds to the suspense.

Overall this is a very satisfying novel. Clues and facts emerge at a good pace. The two sleuths are complex and engaging. The themes of prejudice, the lingering effects of war and the American dream create an interesting backdrop, while the reader is aware that the 1960s civil rights movement, feminism and counter culture are just around the corner. The dialogue is entertaining and sounds authentic, at least to my Southern Hemisphere ear.

I whipped through The Long, Long Afternoon, although it’s not a relaxing read. Tension runs high and as I was back and forth to the kitchen, preparing the Christmas turkey, I really wanted to get back to Ruby and Mick, the hot swelter of a California summer mirroring the heat of my kitchen. This is one of those novels that ticks the genre fiction box as well as the literary fiction box and as a debut author, Vespa is certainly a new talent to keep an eye on. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: Mrs England by Stacey Halls – secrets and suspense in a Yorkshire mill town

The blurb on the book mentioned the word ‘Gothic’ and so I opened the book expecting some chilling scenes and perhaps even hauntings. My earlier experience of this author had been The Familiars, a gripping story about witch hunts in 17th Century England. So I knew Halls could take us to some dark places. And there is a degree of darkness here, of menace even, but is it Gothic?

Certainly there’s a large stately home in an isolated part of Yorkshire. It’s mill country, and the air is thick with coal-dust from all the steam-powered cotton milling machinery. Ruby May is a Norland nanny who has just said goodbye to her first family now they’re off to Chicago. She’d love to go too, but her own family need her. She’s a humble grocer’s daughter from Birmingham and there’s a tragedy in her past that has left her hating her father and with a disabled sister.

She takes the only job on offer – nobody wants a nanny in the summer holiday season – to take charge of four children ranging from a year to ten year’s old. Mr England’s old nanny has died and the children soon warm to Ruby, who takes them on outings and supervises a better diet. She is almost like the mother to them – Mrs England rarely leaves her room. Mr England makes up for his wife’s lack of engagement with her children by being an affectionate father and is surprisingly friendly to Ruby, which she finds disconcerting.

Other characters include Mr Booth, young Saul’s tutor, who confides in Ruby that there’s something not quite right in the household. Blaise, the housemaid, is plain spoken and haughty towards Ruby, as if she suspects Ruby might lord it over the staff and wants to nip any such superiority in the bud. We meet Mrs England’s family, the Greatrexes, who own a larger mill and even a town, and with whom Mrs England has a strained relationship. So Ruby is caught between upstairs and downstairs, not quite a servant while having to tiptoe round the feelings of her employers.

Thank goodness she warms to the children, but you can’t help feeling that they could be in danger and this drives the plot. There’s a hint of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, so perhaps that’s where the Gothic quality lies. Ruby does all she can to keep the children safe, but she can’t do it all alone, and who can she trust? The story builds to a dramatic ending and although it takes a while to get going, it’s still really engaging. I think this is because Ruby herself is interesting: her worries about her own family and in particular her falling out with her father. Halls feeds out just enough information to keep you curious.

One story thread of Mrs England is based on an event that really happened, which is briefly described in a note at the end of the novel. If you want to maintain the maximum suspense as you read, don’t read this until you finish the story, but it is extraordinary. I like the way Stacey Halls seems to draw inspiration from real events for her novels – she is turning out to be one of my must-read authors. She really gets under the skin of her characters, bringing the past to life and this book continues the trend. It’s a gently cracking read and gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

This novel is a very intimate look at someone’s mental illness, which could in itself drive the reader into a depressed state if it weren’t for the scintillating prose which is a times laugh-out-loud funny. Martha Friel is turning forty at the beginning of the book, her marriage crumbling around her, as she looks back at her life to pinpoint the moments of significance to try and make sense of it all.

She is the child of eccentric parents. Her mother is a sculptor of minor significance who drinks a lot and drives her father, a poet who cannot quite bring himself to publish a long awaited collection, to leave them. You could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when you look at Martha and her mother, who is difficult and at times cruel. But her father always returns, shutting himself away in his study among his books and poetic thoughts. Martha has a sister, Ingrid, who manages to lead a more balanced life, marrying Hamish and producing unplanned-for children with alarming regularity.

Then there is Aunt Winsome and Uncle Rowland who live in Belgravia and have funded Martha’s parents’ house and the girls’ schooling because being an unpublished poet and a sculptor of minor significance is no way to support a family. There are cousins, Nicholas, Oliver and Jessamine, as well as Oliver’s friend Patrick who’s father lives in Hong Kong and who has nowhere else to go at Christmas. As well as the closeness between the two sisters, much of the story is that of Patrick and Martha’s relationship.

That is what life was, and how it continued for three years after that. The ratios changing on their own, broken, completely fine, a holiday, a leaking pipe, new sheets, happy birthday, a technician between nine and three, a bird flew into the window, I want to die, please, I can’t breathe, I think it’s a lunch thing, I love you, I can’t do this any more, both of us thinking it would be like this forever.

Martha’s terrible rages, her problems with sounding normal at work or at parties, her unreliability, her snarky remarks, make her difficult to get on with and yet she inspires great affection from those who make the effort. She’s smart and shows odd moments of empathy.

The reason I had gone to London was for Peregrine’s funeral.
He had fallen down the central staircase at the Wallace Collection and died when he struck his head on a marble newel post at the bottom. One of his daughters gave the eulogy and looked earnest when she said it was exactly how he would have wanted to go. I wept, realising how much I loved him, that he was my truest friend, and that his daughter was right. If it hadn’t been him, Peregrine would have been acutely jealous of anyone who got to die dramatically, in public, surrounded by gilt furniture.

And while we get to see what Martha’s unspecified condition looks like, and the difficulties of getting appropriate medical help, the novel also gives thought to what makes people happy, the simple things often that people take for granted. Maybe it’s only when life is at its darkest, that you get to really understand this. I loved the characters in particular. Martha’s family are individually either odd or difficult, but they are all interesting and have their redeeming points. Patrick has his own sorrows – his lack of family, his struggles with his problematic love for Martha.

Meg Mason writes with such flair and understanding I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Sorrow and Bliss. It is one of those funny/sad books, which can be entertaining and profound in equal measure. Mason is a New Zealand born author who lives in Sydney and this is her first book published in Britain. It is easily one my favourite reads for the year and really deserves its five out five from me.

New Books for the Must Read List

Towards the end of the year, all the new books appear that publishers are keen to push for Christmas. Here’s a look at some of the titles I’m excited about, most of them authors I’ve read before and admire hugely.

The Magician by Colm Toibin
This novel describes the life of Thomas Mann, a complex man, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and a secret homosexual, living in Munich among the bohemian and intellectual set. This in itself makes for an interesting story. But throw in the rise of Naziism, the rumblings of war and the development of fascism and communism across Europe, and the scope of the novel expands hugely. At one time I really enjoyed the novels of Thomas Mann. I found them engrossing for the richness of the writing, the characters and the way they captured an interesting time and place, so this one is definitely one for the list.

The Gardener by Salley Vickers
This novel about two sisters who buy a cottage in the country with an overgrown garden, and the Albanian gardener they hire to tame it, is sure to be a good read. Family dynamics, secrets and an English rural setting are always appealing in fiction. Vickers is a terrific writer as she puts her own varied careers as an actress, cleaner and psychoanalyst to good use in her novels. She is wonderful with characters and the turning points in their lives that define them. I loved Dancing Backwards, Cousins and Miss Garnet’s Angel so I am really looking forward to this one.

Oh, William by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton is a character who crops up here and there in Elizabeth Strout’s novels set in Maine. Not so long ago, she had a book to herself – My Name Is Lucy Barton – and her story continues in the new book which according to the blurb captures ‘the enduring bond between a divorced couple in a poignant novel about love, loss and the family secrets that can erupt and bewilder us at any point in life’. Some readers may regret the story doesn’t focus on that unforgettable character Olive Kitteridge, but I’m rather glad to have the chance to check in with Lucy again.

Lily: a tale of revenge by Rose Tremain
Tremain has been writing stellar novels since the 1970s. I loved The Gustav Sonata and The Road Home for the plotting and characters written with immense humanity. The new book is set in Victorian London, following the life of a foundling, her attempts to make a living for herself and the terrible secret she hides. It sounds a gripping story in itself with an atmospheric setting but add Tremain’s brilliant credentials as a novelist and this is sure to be a very satisfying read.

A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford
Not long ago I reviewed The Lost Lights of St Kilda, a wonderfully atmospheric historical novel based on a community eking out an existence on a wild Scottish island. Now we’ve got a new story, similarly set in a remote part of Scotland, with an old country estate, family secrets and a kind of cold case mystery at its heart. Gifford is becoming one of those authors you can depend on for an engaging and haunting read so here’s one for the bedside pile.

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee
Making its way to the top of my list is the new Wyndam/Banerjee novel set in 1920s Calcutta. While these are mystery novels in one sense, they also describe a lot of the politics of the day, the rule of the British and the racial tensions that simmer beneath it. There’s heat and dust, the heady 1920s, class and privilege. The writing is witty, and Mukherjee doesn’t stint from throwing Wyndham into some truly precarious situations to keep the plot simmering. In The Shadows of Men, the two policemen investigate the death of a Hindu theologian while the city is on the brink of religious war.

Book Review: Run by Ann Patchett

Another book-fair find, this earlier work by Ann Patchett is well worth picking up. Bracketed between an opening chapter describing how the late and lovely Bernadette Doyle came to acquire a statuette of the Virgin that looks just like her and a chapter decades later when one of her sons is about to receive his degree, most of the story takes place over a couple of days during a Boston winter.

Ex-mayor, Bernard Doyle loves going to political lectures but his two adopted sons, Teddy and Tip, aren’t so keen. Doyle has high hopes for his sons – the political ambitions he was unable to achieve himself. We catch up with Tip in the university lab where he studies fish, waiting for Teddy who is always late. Snow is falling as the two rush to the seats Doyle has saved for them to hear Jesse Jackson.

Later in the street, Tip pleads with his father to return to his lab then steps blindly into the path of a car, saved at the last second by a woman who pushes him aside. She is hit and badly injured, the family gathering round her to wait for the ambulance, while her young daughter, Kenya, tries to keep her warm and be the responsible adult at only eleven. As her mother is taken off to hospital, and there is no one else to care for Kenya, the Doyle family are drawn to this spirited and practical young girl and find themselves stepping in. While they wait for news of the woman’s prognosis, they all discover connections they couldn’t have possibly imagined.

Told from the varying viewpoints of Tip, Teddy, their older brother (the prodigal Sullivan), as well as Doyle, Kenya and her mother, surprises are revealed in conversations brought on by the accident. In many ways it is a small story, just a day or two during a bitterly cold Boston winter, but there are links far back into the past. It all comes together to create a very original and engaging story – some things you won’t see coming – with themes around what makes a family, racial inequality, honour and reputation as well as what we might do for the ones we love.

Patchett draws characters with great empathy, showing their faults and weaknesses, as well as their yearnings to do better, the love and the friction they share with family members. And as with her more recent books, Commonwealth and The Dutch House, she’s great with how she writes about siblings. Overall, it’s a very satisfying read, well written and nicely put together. It’s always worth checking out the back catalogues of authors like Patchett (this one is from 2007). Run is a four out of five star read from me.

Historical Novels in the Spotlight: The Walter Scott Shortlist

Being a lover of historical fiction, the Walter Scott Prize is a highlight of my reading year, bringing to my attention some stunning new authors and reminding me of some old favourites. This year’s shortlist has already got a couple of books on my To-Read List, but the others look amazing as well. And three of the short-listed books are by Australian authors, which is also pretty interesting. Here’s a quick summary.

First among the Aussies is The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte. During the German invasion of Russia in WWII, Paul Bauer is the doctor tasked to set up a field hospital at the former estate of Leo Tolstoy. Evoking the French invasion under Napoleon which is a key element in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the story describes Paul’s troubled relationship with hostile, aristocratic Katerina, and the unhinged behaviour of Paul’s commanding officer. ‘A poignant, bittersweet love story – and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world,’ says the blurb. Sounds a goodie to me.

The second Aussie novelist to make the list (we’re strictly alphabetical here) is old hand Kate Grenville and her new book A Room Made of Leaves. The book is a kind of imagined memoir by Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of a notorious Sydney wool baron back during the early colonial days, describing her marriage to a ruthless bully. The book gives her a voice and according to the blurb is ‘a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented’. Grenville who penned the terrific Secret River trilogy, is brilliant at colonial history, but is an original writer too, so it’s not surprising this book has made the lists of several book prizes.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel is the final book in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was the guy that made things happen for Henry VIII – his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s becoming the head of the Church of England, and so on. Mantel has a vivid present tense style which makes the history all come alive and shows Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to immense power, from all sides. The last book will deal with his downfall, which probably won’t be pretty, and which is why, in spite of enjoying the previous two in the trilogy, I have yet to pick up the third. But it’s only a matter of time. Once I start reading, I know I’ll be hooked.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell describes events when William Shakespeare is away working in London and his twin children fall ill with a fever. Like many of O’Farrell’s novels Hamnet is sure to be original and difficult to describe so here is what the publisher says about it: ‘It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.’ This sounds mesmerising and since I always enjoy Maggie O’Farrell’s novels this one’s been on my To-Read List for a wee while.

Finally, with our third Aussie contender, we’ve The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It’s the story of Esme, daughter of one of the compilers of the first ever Oxford English Dictionary. Motherless and left to her own devices, Esme decides to gather together all the words the compilers leave out of the dictionary for being in some way ‘objectionable’. Words like ‘bondmaid’ are tossed aside. This and other discards seem to relate to women or the lower classes. The story is set at the time of the women’s suffrage movement and with a world war looming, we know all sorts of social change is just around the corner. As a person who always likes to have an OED to hand and having heard great things about it, I’m eager to read this one. And another pretty cover too.