Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans

 

The Wildflowers coverSometimes you just need an absorbing read that spirits you away to another place and time and connects with the emotions. Harriet Evans’ new book does just that, delving into the family secrets and tragic events that shape the lives of the Wilde family.

Anthony Wilde is the greatest stage actor of his day; his wife Althea has taken a pause from acting to raise her two children, eventually to become a success on television. They are the beautiful couple, with two beautiful children: precocious songbird Cordelia and her sensitive brother Ben(nedict). Every summer they arrive at the Bosky, the house built by Tony’s gambler grandfather, which nestles just above the sand dunes. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans”

Writing Tips: What’s in a Name?

name cloudSometimes you’re working on a novel, but don’t feel happy about a character’s name. Maybe it doesn’t ring true for the setting or the time that they were born. Then there are those awful realisations that a third of your characters have names that start with the letter H. Or what about those moments when you are deep within the story, and the writing is going well, when a minor character turns up and needs a name. For some reason having to suddenly decide what to call them throws you into a spin. What do you do? Continue reading “Writing Tips: What’s in a Name?”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

caseYes, I know they put Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels on television and the series was so memorable you can probably remember the broad shape of each plot. But even if you can remember the ending, as soon as you pick up one of the books – and let’s start with the first one: Case Histories – you know you are in for a really good time.

In case you’ve forgotten, Jackson Brodie is a private investigator living in Cambridge, a failed marriage behind him and trying to be a good father to a daughter he only sometimes sees. He’s middle-aged and smokes but fortunately keeps himself in shape because someone is out to kill him. On his books are a bunch of cold cases when two eccentric sisters ask him to look into what happened to their baby sister thirty years ago.

What I like about this book:

  • This is a really intricately plotted mystery interweaving a bunch of story threads so that you have to keep your wits about you.
  • The character of Brodie who is almost your classic troubled PI – the smoking and broken marriage are dead giveaways – but he’s just so much more interesting than that. Perhaps it’s because he comes from the North.
  • All the characters are interesting, have strong backstories and are richly rendered on the page.
  • Best of all, I love Atkinson’s writing. It shows that she has won the Man Booker a couple of times. She really crafts her prose and yet at the same time, it is lively and readable.
  • Stephen King said it was the best crime novel of the decade – and he could be right.

Books from 2017 I Forgot to Read

It is humbling to look at your Must-Read List and see novels just getting away from you. You pick them up and put them down again because the reading experience is so personal that you know when a book is right for you – and when it isn’t.

Some books need a lot of concentration so you save them for a holiday or a long, wet weekend. Others are just the wrong genre for your mood at the time. Or maybe you wanted to read it but were put off by that negative review, or worse, the review that had too many spoilers in it. And then there are those books you just want to save for a special occasion – like the last chocolate in the box of Belgian pralines. You just never know when you might need it.

So here is my list of really good books I should have read last year but, for whatever reason, didn’t: Continue reading “Books from 2017 I Forgot to Read”

What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?

I’ve done it again – picked up a novel because it was set on a Scottish island. Not that I was disappointed. Keep the Midnight Out is a solid mystery novel featuring Alex Gray’s regular investigator, DI Lorimer. I enjoyed it so much I plan to read the rest of the series, even if I do have to cross the water to the mainland.

And while I do have ancestral connections to the Isle of Skye, I know I’m not the only one to really enjoy these Scottish island settings – the remoter the better. Once you’re on an island, cut off from super-fast broadband and other tricks of modernity, well, anything can happen and so often does. Continue reading “What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Hollow by Agatha Christie

the hollowWhenever I am stuck for something to read, or need a cosy novel to cheer me up, I tend to dip into my extensive Agatha Christie collection. I know I’ve read them before numerous times, and can probably remember ‘whodunit’, but the good ones offer more than just the mystery of the crime. One of my favourites is The Hollow, a classic country house murder mystery, where the reader can depend the murderer is one of the guests invited for the weekend. Of course, it’s never one of the servants, so no one ever bothers to investigate them!

What I like about it:

  • Lucy Ankatell is one of Christie’s more amusing hostesses – she is a terrible snob but gives out enough self-deprecating humour for this to be forgivable.
  • There is a good reason for almost everyone to have killed the victim, so because they’re all friends and family, the suspects muddy the waters of Poirot’s investigation.

Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Hollow by Agatha Christie”

Quick Review: The Man I Think I Know by Mike Gayle

The Man.jpgHere’s a lovely read about that rare thing in fiction – male friendship.

James de Witt and Danny Allen both went to the same boarding school and as top scholars, both were expected to make a mark on the world. Danny, a scholarship boy, even won the school’s academic prize, but while he’s a university student, a tragedy occurs for which he feels to blame and his life unravels. We meet him years later as a layabout and recovering alcoholic, on his last chance with the Job Centre, and likely to lose his flat.

Danny takes work as a carer at a residential  home. He’s quite good at this because he is so apathetic, he isn’t bothered about cleaning up people’s messes and having things thrown at him. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Man I Think I Know by Mike Gayle”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

veronaA Long Way from Verona is a coming of age story about Jessica Vye, told in her own quirky voice, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl who dreams of being a writer. If this novel had been published in the last twenty years, you’d find it classed as YA. But the subtlety of the title might be lost on many young readers, referring as it does to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In one humorous scene, it is the end of term and Jessica and three friends decide to celebrate by treating themselves to a ‘shilling tea’ at a tea shop. A somewhat theatrical old woman at a nearby table exclaims with delight when she sees the girls, calling them little Juliets.

It’s a short novel, but there’s such a lot packed into it. Through Jessica’s eyes, we have a snapshot of wartime Britain, the class system, and what it takes to stick to your principals – Jessica’s curate father does this in spades. Jessica struggles to please her teachers or be taken seriously and is often in trouble for just being Jessica. Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam”

Heartbreaking Silliness (Part One)

One of my favourite authors, Anne Tyler, once wrote a recommendation for another of my favourite authors, Barbara Pym:

She is the rarest of treasures; she reminds us of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.

Pym has been compared to Jane Austen possibly because of her sharp eye for the ways and manners of her contemporaries – particularly the groups of women that are found in country parishes, helping the vicar, or some dry academic at Oxford; among the office staff at a charity or small-time academic publisher. Her stories are full of missed opportunities and regret, the secretive competitiveness among women vying for recognition and even affection from the important men they orbit, yet are full of  understanding, wit and humour. I love them.

Here are my top three:

Excellent Women – A post-war London housing problem (all those returned servicemen now have families and want homes) sees Mildred Lathbury having to share a bathroom with a glamorous couple – anthropologist Helena Napier and her dashing husband Rocky. Continue reading “Heartbreaking Silliness (Part One)”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Possession by A S Byatt

 

A S Byatt is 9780375712357a seriously good, and by that I also mean literary, writer. But of all her books, none has quite caught my imagination as this one.

I first read Possession on a road-trip around New Zealand’s gob-smackingly lovely South Island and found it hard to tear myself away from the book. The two experiences are happily entwined in my mind, making it one of my best holidays ever. Ignoring the scenery, Possession has such a lot going for it:

  • hidden letters revealing a secret love affair between two Victorian poets;
  • two academics discovering a connection from across the Atlantic over said poets;
  • a narrative that see-saws between past and present as events from the past are slowly revealed and which keeps you reading;
  • characters you really connect with;
  • superb writing;
  • a story of such emotional pull you can read this book again and again.

I guess it might be time to reread this one.