Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.

Lockdown Listening 1: I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell writes a good page-turner, often combining psychological drama, secrets and vulnerable characters. I Found You begins when sole parent Alice Lake finds a man on the beach below her house in the fictional seaside town of Ridinghouse Bay. Alice is prone to poor decision-making, often taking in waifs and strays and has three children by three different fathers, none of whom were Mr Right – mostly patently Mr Wrong.

She is one of those scary women the locals don’t like much – a Londoner (this is Yorkshire), she’s loud, her children often late for school and then there are all the dogs. When she finds Frank (they have to call him something) sitting on the beach in the rain, she ignores the misgivings of others and gives him a room – just for the night – sure his memory loss is just a temporary thing.

The story flips to that of Lily Monrose, whose husband hasn’t come home from work. You can usually set your watch by him. And what happened to all the adoring texts he sends when he’s on the train from London to their flat in Surrey? He seems to have vanished into thin air. When she goes to the police, Lily doesn’t get a lot of interest – she’s from Kiev, and she and Carl have only been married a few weeks after a whirlwind romance. Lily knows so little about his background and things look bad when Carl’s passport turns out to be false.

The plot also flips back in time to 1993 and a family summer holiday. Gray is seventeen and suddenly aware of how his sister, Kirsty, a lanky fifteen year old, seems to other men. When posh Mark takes an interest in them, Gray’s family are charmed, but Mark’s attraction to Kirsty sets their holiday on a course for disaster.

I Found You is told in short chapters, switching between these three perspectives, slowly filling in the gaps, as glimpses of Frank’s memory begin to appear. Each chapter ends in a cliff-hanger, so you keep reading as more secrets are revealed. The characters are varied and well-rounded, and Alice, who is oddly optimistic for someone struggling with a lot of difficulties, is an engaging heroine. Memory loss in fiction can so easily seem a convenient and even hackneyed plot device, but Jewell makes it believable here. As usual, she is a safe pair of hands for an escapist read.

I listened to the novel as an audiobook and really enjoyed the rendition by Antonia Beamish, who managed a wide range of voices and accents with aplomb. A four out of five read from me.

Lockdown Reading 2: Dead in Devon by Stephanie Austin

I was inspired to grab a handful of murder mysteries to get me through lockdown, a time when you mightn’t feel like reading anything too demanding. Dead in Devon is the first in Austin’s series featuring Juno Browne, Domestic Goddess for hire (housework, dog-walking, and random odd jobs). We’re in cosy mystery territory here, so the heroine is a natural busy-body, primed to solve the murder.

The setting is the pretty Devon town of Ashburton, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Titian-haired, twenty-something Juno has no family and makes a basic living with her bright yellow van. Old Nick has a dodgy reputation in the antique trade and wants Juno to work for him. When he’s murdered, Juno believes that those two Russian thugs she discovered putting the frighteners on Nick are the culprits.

The police, good cop Inspector Ford and bad cop DC (Cruella) DeVille, don’t have a lot to go on – Nick had obviously ripped off someone, and with his previous custodial history, had friends in low places. But Juno has become fond of the old fellow and can’t help investigating.

The traders Nick did deals with may offer clues and include Paul, a handsome furniture restorer, Albert (Piano-teeth) Evans and one of Juno’s cleaning clients, snooty Verbena Clarke. Then there are Nick’s estranged children, Helena and Richard, who accuse Juno of being a gold-digger. The cast of characters also includes Morris and Ricky, a gay couple who hire out costumes to drama companies around the country. They are the perfect confidantes for Juno and encourage her romantic efforts by helping her with outfits picked from famous plays and musicals. Even the dogs Juno walks have interesting personalities.

Austin adds plenty of pace balancing sequences of lively dialogue with action scenes so there’s plenty here to keep you amused. She has made much of her background in amateur theatre and knowledge of antiques to add colour to the story. My only quibble was that I more or less guessed the perpetrator, but it was all so entertaining I didn’t mind too much. Three and a half out of five from me.

Lockdown Reading 1: A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

We’re well into several weeks of lockdown and reading has been one way to escape when there’s really nowhere else to go. And you can’t get more escapist than this – a story concerning stolen plans for an aerial torpedo (this is WWI) set in an ancient abbey, complete with mediums and yes, inevitably, ghosts.

A House of Ghosts begins in the offices of Whitehall where a spymaster named C has a new mission for Captain Robert Donovan. It involves spending a weekend on a remote, storm-lashed island at the evocatively named Blackwater Abbey. The Abbey is home to Lord Highmount, a munitions manufacturer – hence the secret plans – which, because of its age and atmosphere, is haunted by multiple ghosts collected over the centuries.

So it’s also an ideal place for a séance. Highmount and his Austrian wife have lost two sons to the carnage of the trenches, and like many grieving families of the time, turn to spiritualism. Enter Count Olav and Madame Feda, two mediums who have become friendly with the Highmounts, as well as Kate Cartwright who is the character that bridges both worlds. Kate also works in Whitehall, but is an old family friend of the Highmounts, ideally placed to give Donovan a hand to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Kate is very intelligent, carries a pistol and has a talent that has got her into trouble in more genteel settings before – she can see ghosts. Donovan will act as valet to Capt. Rolleston Miller-White, invited as Kate’s fiancé. But along with the two mediums, suspicious because they have inveigled their way into the circle of the Highmounts, Rolleston, with his gambling debts, is also on the suspects list.

As the weather closes the island off from the mainland and the phone-lines are cut, the scene is set for a weekend of suspense, danger and mysterious goings-on. I was reminded of Agatha Christie and John Buchan, but the novel is witty and complex enough to suit a modern reading audience. The characters are quirky and interesting and I loved the way Kate and Donovan bounce off each other – Donovan, the stony-faced man of action; Kate with her matter-of-fact way of dealing with the supernatural.

A House of Ghosts was the perfect book for lockdown, reminding us that things could be a whole lot worse when you’re sequestered somewhere without choice. The plot is nicely paced and the writing intelligent and lively. I shall be looking out for more fiction by W C Ryan. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Aussie Noir has become incredibly popular since The Dry by Jane Harper was published in 2016. Similarly drought and the high heat of summer, this time in outer New South Wales, is the setting for Hammer’s debut crime novel. Newspaper journalist Martin Scarsden visits Riversend, site of a mass killing, a year later to write an update on the town, a story previously covered by rival journo, D’Arcy Defoe.

Scarsden, once something of a lothario, suffers from PTSD following an incident when he was covering the Gaza Strip for his paper. His boss thinks this assignment will be a tonic – get him out of the office yet keep him busy. But Riversend is a depressed sort of place for recovery. The miserable Black Dog Motel lives up to its name; the town’s businesses are struggling and nobody’s very forthcoming – except for the young policeman, Robbie Haus Jones, the hero of the day.

Reverend Byron Swift was a good-looking, charismatic preacher, popular with the young and, with Jones, helped resurrect the youth centre, a Pied Piper figure it seems. So what made him open fire on his church steps, gunning down several men from the Bellington Anglers Club? Scarsden talks to the locals and gets a few more snippets out of Harley Snouch, the dero who says Swift was a pedophile. He takes coffee and comfort at the Oasis bookshop, run by drop-dead gorgeous, Mandalay Blonde – a what’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this scenario.

Fortunately before you have too much time to wonder on the clunkiness of the love angle or the characters’ names, events start to hot up, literally. Martin becomes suddenly popular when he saves a teenager’s life and helps out with a bushfire. There are more murders, including a cold case involving two German backpackers. But Martin’s luck soon runs out as he tries to get his facts straight and more reporters and the police close in. People may be talking but everyone seems to have something to hide. Who can Martin trust?

Hammer manages a lot of plot threads in the novel, carefully reeling out backstory and tying them all together in the end. The pressure to file the story first and the mock camaraderie between the news teams add authenticity. I really enjoyed the lively, unmistakably Australian dialogue which spins the plot along nicely making Scrublands an entertaining read. And in the background there’s that oppressive, drought-stricken landscape.

Hammer earned a best new crime novel Dagger Award for Scrublands and it’s easy to see why. It’s an interesting story given weight by the way it deals with bigger things like evil and redemption. But I found the character of Mandalay Blonde (that surely should be a Bond heroine) and her relationship with Martin didn’t work for me. This one gets a three.

Book Review: Akin by Emma Donoghue

It is hard to imagine Akin was written by the same author who created mega-selling Room, shortlisted for the Booker and made into a movie in 2015. Room is a novel told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy held captive with his mother in a room custom built by a psychopath. Akin is quite a different style of novel, narrated by Noah, a retired science professor about to take a trip to Nice to investigate a few years in the life of his mother during World War II. What the two novels do have in common is Donoghue’s amazing skill with characters, an ability to get inside their heads to tell a story.

Noah is a New Yorker, scholarly, urbane and without any family – his wife, Joan, died some years ago and he has recently lost his sister. Mere days before he is due to depart for Nice, a social worker contacts him to ask if he can be the temporary carer for Michael, the eleven-year-old son of his late nephew. There’s nobody else, it seems. So suddenly Noah has a travel companion, a stressed and grieving boy from Brooklyn, who doesn’t know much about good manners but is streetwise when it comes to drugs and violence. The perfect odd couple.

Akin is a novel of many layers. The most obvious one is the story of Noah and Michael and what begins as a grudging acceptance of each other and how this develops into something more. Blood is thicker than water fortunately because there are lots of bridges to build here.

Then there is the story of Noah’s famous photographer grandfather, Père Sonne, and Margot, his mother, who stayed behind in France during the war, sending Noah to New York and his father. This has rankled with Noah, he was only three, and why did she leave with his sister a strange collection of photographs from her war years? The pictures are part of Noah’s luggage along with his grandfather’s famous fedora. Noah’s visit to Nice is about discovering the past and coincides with his eightieth birthday; now with Michael in tow, he is forced to think about a different kind of future.

Noah begins to fit together his mother’s story, with help from Michael who is unsurprisingly nifty on the ‘net. We learn more about Nice during the war, where a resistance group, the Marcel Network, saved over 500 Jewish children from the concentration camps. What was Margot’s connection? Was she a resistance fighter or a collabo? Noah is terrified the snapshots prove the latter. Michael also knows about ‘snitches’ and there are connections with the drug deal that was the undoing of his father, and the reason his mother is in prison. So many layers.

And then there is the story of Nice itself. Noah is the perfect tour guide. He speaks French and translates it for the benefit of Michael, often playing with words and meanings in an interesting way. We visit restaurants where they serve delicacies such as testicules de mouton panés (crispy fried sheeps balls) and tête de veau avec langue (calf’s head with tongue), while Michael holds out for for American hotdogs and chicken nuggets. There are stories about the Roman occupation of Nice, of saints and angels. Nice is a rich and colourful place.

Akin takes its time, slowly pulling you into Noah’s and Michael’s developing relationship and the story of Nice as well. It’s a book to savour, but it’s gripping too with plenty to entertain – a five out of five read from me.

Quick Review: Twenty-One Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

What You Need to Know About This Book:

  • It’s about Dan and his failure to make any money from his bookshop;
  • Dan hides this fact from Jill, his wife, who wants a baby;
  • Dan loves Jill and will do anything to save his marriage except tell Jill the truth;
  • Dan worries he comes up short when compared with Peter, Jill’s previous husband who died;
  • Dan becomes increasingly desperate to make a lot of money fast;
  • He thinks of crazy schemes such as selling diapers emblazoned with helpful advice; ‘No Thank You Note Required’ greeting cards; and robbing a bingo hall;
  • Dan’s therapist once suggested he keep lists as a way to manage his anxiety;
  • Twenty-One Things About Love is written entirely in Dan’s lists.

The lists vary from poignant to wry to very funny, and capture the randomness of Dan’s thoughts, e.g.:

  • The list about Bingo with Bill (the old guy Dan makes friends with at bingo who has the same view of happiness as Don Draper)
  • Field & Stream’s Rules of Gunfighting
  • Any of the lists that feature Dan’s Laws of the Universe (Walk around with Diet Coke and half a dozen assholes will tell you how bad it is for you. Walk around with diet root beer and no one says a word)
  • Things I wish I Had Known 20 Years Ago When I Was 20 (Peppermint schnapps is not an acceptable substitute for mouthwash)
  • Deep thoughts related to food (If you’re going to more than one grocery store in a week, you have too much time on your hands and have somehow elevated the quality of your heirloom tomatoes over time spent with your family)
  • Dan’s 6 Rules of Drinking Stories (Drinking stories never impress the type of woman you want to impress; Even the best drinking stories are seriously compromised if told during the daytime and/or at the workplace)
  • Weird Things I Do ( I don’t look at the pilot when boarding a plane in fear that he will remind me on an idiot who I know)

What’s Great About This Book:

  • Clever sequencing of lists such as Reasons I fell in Love with Jill, followed by Reasons I Wouldn’t Have Married Jill If I Hadn’t Fallen in Love with Her gives you insightful information about the main characters quickly
  • There’s a bunch of peripheral but interesting characters (bossy Kimberley who thinks she should manage the bookshop; good-guy Steve who should manage the shop; Bill from bingo; Dan’s batty mother; Jake the successful, smart-arse brother; Dan’s father whom we never meet but who sends Dan letters he refuses to open)
  • The story builds to a gripping climax as Dan plans a crazy scheme to solve his money woes
  • The scheme involves a major felony
  • You don’t know if he’ll carry it out or not
  • You hope he doesn’t and this adds to the tension
  • Jake learns a lot more about love by the end, as well as about life
  • You will probably like the ending

I can’t help but congratulate the author on his ability to bring together humour, quirky characters, escalating tension and, of course, lists to tell a great story. A four star read from me.

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

For some time I’ve been a fan of Elly Griffiths’ crime series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. Griffiths does a great job of creating interesting plots around the watery in-between places of Norfolk, with all the ancient and not-so-ancient history of the setting. She also does terrific characters and has an engaging style that is hard not to like. Her Stephens and Mephisto series is equally well crafted, so I knew I would be in safe hands with the standalone novel The Stranger Diaries.

The story takes place in a small English town where Clare Cassidy teaches English at the local comprehensive school and where her daughter is a student. The old part of the school was once the house of Victorian ghost story writer, R M Holland, and in her spare time Clare is writing a book about his life and the questions around his wife whose ghost still haunts the school.

Clare’s a single mum and has built a pleasantly quiet life with a few friends, until one of them ends up dead. Fellow English teacher Ella has been discovered stabbed to death in her home and the police think it was someone she knew. Clare deals with this in her usual way, by confiding in her diary, but gets an unpleasant surprise when someone starts adding eery messages in spiky Italic writing.

The story is narrated by Clare, her daughter Georgie and also DS Habinder Kaur. Clare is a fairly intangible character (other characters find her cool) and lost in the world of Holland and his famous story ‘The Stranger’ (which is cleverly told in chunks throughout the book), seems to find reality hard to grasp. This makes her the perfect protagonist for things to happen to.

Harbinder is everything Clare is not: gutsy, to the point, and as an ex-pupil of the school, has plenty of interesting stories of her time there. She also lives at home with her parents (and her mum’s wonderful cooking) and dodges the issue of telling them she’s gay by throwing herself into her work. But this case has got her stumped.

The story builds to a thrilling ending as the killer looms ever closer and the cops eventually catch up. As usual Griffiths creates an atmospheric setting, with the haunted Holland house plus Halloween, while her short-story, ‘The Stranger’, would have done M R James proud. I wonder if he was an inspiration for the novel. My only grouch is I found Clare a wishy-washy sort of character; thank goodness for the determined DS Kaur and wilful young Georgie, who give the narration some balance. The supernatural is evoked without seeming ridiculous (ghosts and witchcraft) while DS Kaur grounds us in the real world. This is a light, entertaining read: three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge first appeared in the eponymous novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for author Elizabeth Strout. A local personality in the small Maine town where Strout sets her books, Olive makes brief appearances in several other books so it isn’t surprising there is a new book about Olive. She seems to be one of those characters who has plenty more to say.

Olive used to be a school teacher in Shirley Falls, so that everyone seems to have a recollection of her in the classroom. Olive is loud, unfailingly honest and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So I imagine she would have been a formidable teacher, and probably effective. She’s also sharp when it comes to seeing what’s going on with people and capable of surprising moments of kindness.

In Olive, Again, we catch up with Olive now widowed but with a new relationship on the cards with ex-academic Jack who drives a sports car and can be a bit of a snob. The book treats us to a series of episodes in Olive’s life which read like short-stories and which overall create a picture of Olive’s later years, now in Crosby, Maine. There’s a story about how she attends a baby shower – not really her kind of do at all – and somehow ends up delivering a baby in a car. We have her and Jack having dinner in a restaurant called Gasoline, where they bump into an old flame of Jack’s; another when Olive’s son Christopher visits with his wife and young family and the argument that ensues when Olive tells him about Jack.

Other stories are about entirely different characters – the old man who goes for a walk while remembering a girl from college who committed suicide and then does something exceptional; there’s the elderly couple who learn to accept the difficult news their daughter has to tell them. Some feature Olive as well so we see her from other people’s eyes. We even catch up with Jim and Bob, the two lawyer brothers from the novel, The Burgess Boys, and their problematic marriages.

Lives of quiet desperation seems to be a recurring theme, but there’s also humour, particularly around Olive, and hope too. Often there are turning points in people’s lives as well as the questions: Was it all my fault? Where do I go from here? Olive herself has plenty to feel sorry for, but seems capable of learning, accepting and moving on. Along the way she touches the lives of others one way or another. It makes for a very compelling and thoughtful collection. I was happy to return to small-town Maine and see what Olive has been getting up to again and I really enjoy Strout’s perceptive, character-driven storytelling. Like Olive, she doesn’t pull any punches. A four out of five read from me.