Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

There’s nothing like a good psychological thriller to while away a wet weekend. The Silent Patient ticks all the boxes, combining a troubled narrator who in this case is a psychotherapist, an even more troubled patient and the mystery surrounding the death of her husband.

Theo Faber has recently taken a post at The Grove, a care facility for troubled minds and is particularly interested in one patient. Alicia is a former artist of some note who has remained unable to talk since supposedly murdering her husband, the famous photographer Gabriel Berenson. The media have made a lot of their story which has done heaps to push up the value of Gabriel’s work.

If Theo can persuade Alicia to speak about the night her husband died, Alicia may begin to heal. But because of her suicide attempts, Alicia is highly medicated at The Grove, doesn’t interact with other staff or patients, nor does she respond to any kind of therapy. The story is told mostly through the voice of Theo, himself a survivor of a terrible childhood and for whom psychotherapy has changed his life. He is convinced he can help Alicia and manages to persuade his boss, the avuncular Dr Diomedes and Christian, Alicia’s surly psychologist, to reduce her meds and let him try.

As well as tensions at The Grove, which is under threat of closure, not to mention volatile patients who do violent things, Theo gets into trouble by breaking rules. He interviews Alicia’s friends and relatives – the brother-in-law solicitor, Max, who has a bit of a temper; Alicia’s cousin Paul who still lives in the ramshackle house they grew up in with his monstrous mother; and Alicia’s old friend and art curator, Jean-Felix, who like pretty much everyone else is holding something back. Michaelides also allows Alicia’s own voice to tell the story through a hidden diary, which throws up some interesting questions. Then there’s Alicia’s symbolic and dramatic art. Her last picture is titled Alcestis after the Ancient Greek story popularised by Euripides about another wife driven to silence by love.

We have all the ingredients for a suspenseful and nuanced thriller, drawing you in through the thoughts of the therapist/patient combo of Theo and Alicia. In the background there are dangers lurking and a sense of impending doom. But it wouldn’t be a good thriller without a few interesting plot twists and Michaelides is a master at this. Already known for his work as a screenwriter, this is his first novel and it would be easy to see the book as a movie. But I also really enjoyed the writing and am happy to learn he’s sticking with fiction for now and has a new book on the horizon. For me the pages whizzed by as I raced to find out what really happened to Alicia and Gabriel. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Clare Chambers writes the kind of novel that I particularly like, finding the unique in ordinary characters, rounded out with gorgeous writing full of perception and wit. We hadn’t had anything new from her for a while, so when Small Pleasures appeared I let out a whoop of joy and wasn’t in the least surprised to see the book make the Women’s Prize for Fiction long-list. And of course, when I got my hands on a copy, I devoured it.

Small Pleasures is set in southern England in 1957 and is based around two unrelated events which really happened that year. The first is a rail disaster introduced on the first page of the book as a newspaper report dated 6 December, in which two trains collided in thick fog, leaving 80 dead and many more wounded. But over the page we skip back to June with another story from the North Kent Echo, which is where Jean Swinney works as a reporter.

It’s a small piece on parthenogenesis under the dramatic headline: Men No Longer Needed for Reproduction! Scientists have been studying reproduction in frogs and rabbits, the story says, developing embryos without fertilisation by sperm, and hinting at the possibility that this could take place in larger mammals, even humans. The article elicits a mailbag full of letters, including one from a Mrs Tilbury who states her daughter was born ‘without the involvement of any man’.

Jean’s role on the paper is largely what might once have been called the ‘women’s pages’ – household hints and reports on weddings. Not surprisingly, she’s tasked with making contact with Mrs T – the nature of the story is a bit too delicately feminine for the mostly male newsroom. Jean soon warms to Gretchen Tilbury and her daughter and learns that in the months around young Margaret’s date of conception, Gretchen was a teenager suffering from immobilising rheumatoid arthritis and the patient of a nursing home.

As Jean tries to piece together the facts around Margaret’s birth, encouraging the mother and daughter to take part in a scientific study, her world is suddenly expanded by the Tilburys’ friendship, including Mr Tilbury – Howard – who is kindly and perceptive. She visits the family out of office hours, which is often problematic as Jean also cares for a malingering, agoraphobic mother in a kind of genteel poverty. Theirs is a life of small pleasures indeed.

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands …

We are definitely in post-war Britain here. London is the victim of those terrible pea-soup fogs, and unmarried women are expected to look after ageing parents, relinquishing their independence. People are always making do with less it seems. Even Jean’s handy hints column is a little depressing:

Never throw away an old plastic mackintosh. The hood cut off will make a useful toilet bag. The large back panel may be used to line a suitcase to ensure safety from damp should the case get wet when travelling.

But as Jean begins to enjoy her new friendships – a godmotherly relationship with Margaret, as well as the possibility of happiness of a deeper kind – the reader cannot quite forget the image of that rail crash reported on page one. Sooner or later that event is going to raise its ugly head, a bit like Chekov’s gun. For me this gave the book an almost unbearable suspense, and the pages flew by.

Small Pleasures is a brilliant novel if you like stories about lives of quiet desperation told with charm and understanding – Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler spring to mind. I felt absolutely wretched for Jean at times, hopeful at others. Chambers always makes you really care about her characters and I finished the book knowing that the story will stay with me for days afterwards, and it has. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

I’ve had this novel on my bookcase for ages, and I wonder if I delayed picking it up because of my intense emotional response to Miller’s earlier work: Song of Achilles. Was I afraid Circe would similarly reduce me to a quivering wreck? Well, Circe is another tale drawn from Homer, describing the antics of the gods of Ancient Greece, their whims and jealousies, their interactions with mortals, including heroes such as Jason and Odysseus.

As it happens I needn’t have worried as this is such a rollicking story, taking the reader through all the old legends, beginning from when the Titans lost their rule over the world to the Olympian gods under Zeus. I remember learning a lot of the stories at school, so Circe was a welcome refresher.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, one of the few remaining Titans, the sun god who rides his chariot across the sky each day. Like many of the gods, he’s vain and petulant, put out that the daughter he has sired with a water nymph is so unappealing. When Circe learns to cast spells, driven by love for a mortal, her dark magic ignites the fury of Zeus and she is banished to the island of Aiaia forever.

Circe is an interesting character with her sympathy for mortals, their daily struggles to survive, their pain and desperation to please the gods who taunt them. She is also a reluctant goddess, scorned by her family and left so much to her own devices that she discovers witchcraft. This comes in handy when she needs to defend herself against pirates who seek to ravish or rob her, turning them into pigs – including the crew of Odysseus, before she meets the great man himself, seeking shelter to mend his ship before returning home to Ithaca.

Odysseus delays his return to spend time with Circe, telling her about the Trojan War, and other adventures. But Circe has her own stories – her visit to her sister on Crete and the birth of the Minotaur; the story of Daedalus, who befriends her, and his son Icharus; of Jason and Medea. There’s the six-headed monster Scylla, created out of Circe’s own jealousy, who snatches sailors from their ships. The winged messenger of the gods, Hermes, drops in full of gossip, while Athena, goddess of war, will offer Circe a terrible choice.

We follow Circe’s story from her birth – deities grow up fast in many ways but their lives are as long as eternity. It will take Circe almost as long to acquire the wisdom to find a way to be the person she is meant to be. In the meantime she develops her craft, becoming a brave and determined problem solver, figuring out how to get around some tricky situations. This makes the book very hard to put down and you have the constant impression that like the twelve labours of Hercules, there’s always a new challenge just around the corner.

Circe is a terrific read, and as I finished the book I was reminded of the other reason I may have put off opening it – that it may be a while before Madeline Miller gives us another novel inspired by tales from the ancient world. I hope she’s got something up her sleeve as she’s such a good storyteller. Circe gets a five out of five from me.

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.

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.