Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – a heart-warming debut that will have you cheering

I had no idea what to expect with this novel, which includes among its three main narrators an octopus. Marcellus the GPO (great Pacific octopus) inhabits a tank at an aquarium where he has a good view of humanity as it comes to peer at him. He may be missing sea life in the raw, but he’s learnt a lot about people, their weird sense of humour, their ugly eating habits, their lack of perspicacity. He hasn’t a lot of respect for the human race as a whole, but forges a bond with Tova, the seventy-year-old cleaner who each evening wipes the smears from the glass of his enclosure and at one point rescues him from disaster.

Tova is at a crossroads. She has been recently widowed but still rattles around in the house her Swedish father built, which is full of memories. The loss of her son at the age of eighteen is something she’s learnt to live with, if only she could understand what happened on the night he disappeared. Her friends think it’s time for her to find somewhere smaller, but maybe it’s time to think about a retirement home. After all there’s no one to take care of her when she gets too old to manage herself. However, the chatty Scot, Ethan, who runs the local store would be very sorry to see her go.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away, in California, Cameron is in a bad way. At thirty, he can’t seem to hold down a job, his Jeep has been repossessed and he seems to be running out of chances with his girlfriend. He’s bitter and resentful, still smarting since his mother abandoned him when he was nine. When his Auntie Jeanne gives him a box of his mother’s things, a lack of options has him heading north to Washington State in search of his father. With luck he’s the wealthy property developer Simon Brinks and Cameron can touch him for year’s of child support.

Over the course of the novel, all four characters’ stories collide and Cameron, Ethan, Tova and even Marcellus will help each other get to the truth. It isn’t difficult to guess what’s going on and the author uses dramatic irony to keep the reader turning the pages. You want to shout at the characters, especially Cameron, who has a lot of growing up to do, but also Tova, telling them not to be so hasty, or have another look at that clue. Marcellus is in the same boat as us, figuring things out long before the humans do, but then octopuses are remarkably bright creatures.

In an odd way Marcellus is the hero of the tory, and how Van Pelt makes this work is really charming. He’s a talented escapologist – just why are so many sea cucumbers disappearing? wonders his keeper – and a collector of glittering trifles. But time is not on his side and this adds to the tension.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is an altogether heart-warming read, well put-together with some interesting facts about sea creatures sprinkled through the story. I loved the North-West Pacific coastal setting, a fitting place for an aquarium, and the nosy but kindly locals. I’ll be looking out for Van Pelt’s next book. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey – an atmospheric historical drama and the perfect ‘quiet’ read

I recently came upon a post on Twitter asking readers to name their favourite ‘quiet’ books.. Among the recommendations were lots of my favourites and quite a few more I’d not heard of. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was there, and Barbara Pym, as well as Anne Tyler and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April. And I thought, yes these are the authors that I read again and again. Now I can add The Narrow Land to the list – a book about the small dramas of people thrown together on Cape Cod during the summer of 1950.

Among the cast of characters is Ed Hopper. He’s the much-loved American painter who produced similarly quiet pictures of people and cars and architecture, the most famous of which is probably Nighthawks, showing late-night customers at a city diner. Ed and his wife Jo live in New York with a holiday house at Cape Cod. They make an odd couple, he’s very tall, quiet, solemn even, while she’s short, emotional and talkative. When we meet them they are in their sixties. Ed has the artist’s version of writer’s block; Jo anxiously quizzing him about possible subject matter, while regretting the sacrifice of her own artistic ambitions to further Ed’s career.

We also meet Michael, the ten-year-old German orphan adopted by a kindly New York couple after their own son’s death. He is sent for two weeks’ holiday with the Kaplans, a well-to-do family who support the charity that has rescued orphans like Michael. Mrs Kaplan is a Lady Bountiful type of character who is renting a large house on the cape with her daughter, Katherine, who is ill, and her glamorous daughter-in-law, the widow of Mrs K’s only son. As well as enjoying the benefits of a holiday by the sea, Michael will be company for Mrs K’s grandson, Richie.

Michael has plenty of demons – memories of the horrors of his war, the loss of his nationality, his language, but also the fear that his new parents won’t want him back – they are moving house and expecting another child. Then there’s fitting in with the tony Kaplans, knowing what to say and do. Richie, soon to be despatched to a new boarding school is chatty and excessively well-mannered, but also suffering the loss of his father.

When Jo tries to shoo the Kaplan’s from the beach in front of the Hoppers’ house, what begins as a seemingly awful social gaffe becomes the catalyst that throws the two households together. Everyone’s intrigued to meet Ed, who cringes at the thought of social engagements. But it’s the two lost and lonely boys who seem to connect with the artist and his wife. While Jo tries to make up with the Kaplans for her earlier bad manners, Ed roams around looking at buildings, their windows and doorways, sketching, walking and thinking. There’s a woman too whose image he can’t quite shake and feels he’s seen her somewhere around here before.

The Narrow Land is a slow burn of a read, with chapters named after some of the planets in Holst’s famous suite, a record loved by both Ed and Katherine. Stars are aligning, perhaps. Little by little, we get to know the characters and they are all written with immense sympathy though each have their faults. Against this, the wider story of the middle twentieth century and an America rebuilding after the war, while a new war in Korea is on the horizon. The characters are also battling it out – Ed and Jo bicker and walk out on each other, Michael and Richie don’t get along either. Only Katherine can soothe the troubled waters it seems, but she’s got her own battle on her hands.

In the background you have the Cape Cod summer, the wind riffling through the long grass, the boats on the water, the long, languid evenings. Did I mention this is also the perfect winter read? I particularly enjoyed the insight you get into Ed Hopper’s paintings, his artist’s eye, his struggles to find the right subject matter. Visual images, music and lingering scents of cigarettes and cologne add to the immediacy of the book, often seen through Michael’s point of view, the perfect impressionable young narrator.

The Narrow Land is an accomplished and spell-binding drama, easily a five out of five from me. It’s also the 2020 recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and as such qualifies for one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat winter reading programme: Read a Prize Winning Book. Put this ‘quiet’ novel on your to-read list.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler – a warmly insightful novel capturing the little cruelties of family life

A new Anne Tyler novel means a new family. This time we’ve got the Garretts: Mercy and Robin, parents to Alice, Lily and David. Again we’re in Baltimore which in Tyler’s world always comes across as a sensible, solid kind of city, oozing with good old-fashioned American values. But then that might be because the scenes are mostly in homes, often around a meal table.

French Braid begins with the next generation when Serena and her boyfriend James are waiting for a train to take them from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Serena thinks she’s spotted her cousin, but isn’t sure. She won’t even go up to Nicholas to see if it’s him, which James finds perplexing. How can you not know your own cousin? What kind of family is this? It’s a simple snapshot from ordinary life that displays something deeper, something Tyler does brilliantly. Have a look at the opening scene of The Accidental Tourist for the way Tyler shows a marriage in trouble. The Garretts seem to have become fragmented over the years, going for long stretches of time without meeting or checking in on each other.

Flip back to 1959 and the Garretts – Robin, Mercy and co. are off to the the lake for a summer holiday. You can tell they don’t do this often as Robin wears his work shoes and black socks when walking to the lake in his bathers. His mission is to teach David, a tender boy of around seven, to swim. His older sister Alice is helpful but bossy, and fifteen-year-old Lily is ensconced in a holiday romance. Mercy spends so much time painting at the kitchen table, she doesn’t notice what’s going on with her kids.

By the end of the holiday, Lily is heart-broken and David is withdrawn. Lily gets over the heartbreak, but David seems to withdraw further through the book, into his student years and beyond. Meanwhile, Mercy sets herself up with a studio a mere walk from home, complete with a divan and finds a new freedom as an artist. We’re through the sixties and out the other side by now, and the times they are a-changing. Tyler describes the fine line between loving your family and wanting to be your own person.

Morris. Mercy filed the name in her memory. So many unexpected people seemed to edge into a person’s life, once that person had children.

Like many of her books, French Braid appears to be a fairly simple story, full of everyday events that anyone might recognise. And while you don’t always like what the characters do, you can’t help warming to them as people. They could be members of your own family. Tyler has that knack of showing them in scenes full of humour, and yet simmering beneath it all is the potential for heartbreak. The burdens of little cruelties that the characters carry with them from childhood.

French Braid is a small book but perfectly formed. Everything is pitched just right – the naturalness of the dialogue, the plotting which rips through the years but still seems to keep you close to the characters, the way the things that are never talked about are at least as important than the things that are. It’s another gem from Tyler and gets a five out of five from me.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout – another foray into the world of Lucy Barton

Olive Kitteridge is the book that won Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer Prize and the eponymous character has turned up other books, more recently in Olive, Again. Many readers love Olive for her frankness, her daring to be difficult and determination to be herself. However Lucy Barton is just as interesting. We’ve met her before too, so Elizabeth Strout has had plenty of time to get to know her and explore what makes her tick.

Lucy ‘comes from nothing’ according to her late mother-in-law, Catherine, and it’s true in a way. Lucy’s parents were terribly poor – her father suffering from PTSD following his war service; her mother, hardened by her situation, showed no affection for her children. Lucy had escaped her small town by winning a scholarship to college and has rarely returned, making a name for herself as a writer and now living in New York.

But it’s Lucy’s marriages that are the main focus of this book. Her first was to William, and it is with William that she has two grown up daughters. But William has a roving eye, and as soon as the girls finished their schooling, Lucy left him. William has remarried more than once and when his latest, much younger wife leaves him for another man, he decides to look into his family background. He has recently discovered his mother had left a baby daughter as well as her first husband before her marriage to William’s father. He plans a visit to Maine to meet this sister and asks Lucy, now a widow, to accompany him.

When William met me at LaGuardia Airport I saw him from afar and I saw that his khakis were too short. A little bit this broke my heart. He wore loafers, and his socks were blue, not a dark blue and not a light blue, and they showed a few inches until his khakis covered them. Oh William, I thought. Oh William!

The novel follows the road trip William and Lucy make through Maine, throwing up facts about William’s family and the complicated woman that was his mother. There are a few surprises here, but the book also delves into Lucy’s own marriage to William, which was often problematic for her as she had no sense of how to be a wife. She describes her more recent marriage to David as easier – the two being similar in having emerged from a childhood where there was no popular culture at home, no television or radio or any sense of what the world outside was like.

Written in the first person from Lucy’s point of view, we get a very intimate look at how Lucy thinks, her interactions with others and her relationships with her girls. The book is peppered throughout with her dialogue with William which is very like a couple who know each other well with all the gentle bickering and home truths. There are glimpses of Lucy’s relationship with Catherine, who buys her a a set of golf clubs for her birthday when she expressly asked for a book voucher – but Catherine always thought she knew best.

Oh William! is a short novel, often humorous and very real. It has a gentle storyline and while there are no twists or cliff-hanger chapter endings it kept me reading because every page is such a joy. The writing is so straight-forward and yet it feels crafted. By the end of the book you know Lucy and William so well, they could be your family. I think this is Elizabeth Strout’s secret weapon and why I love her books so much – they leave you with this feeling of warmth as if you’ve just been to visit a favourite aunt. Oh William! gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin – sibling relationships under the spotlight

This is one of those books that you think will be about one thing and it turns out to be something completely different. The back-cover description talks about a tragedy one fateful summer, but exactly how that tragedy evolves doesn’t emerge until much later. And then there’s the title. Mmmm. I guess it might be true that we all read a different book when we pick up the same novel, but The Last Romantics is beguiling on several levels.

Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I’m quite keen to be beguiled now and again, and The Last Romantics is also very appealing. The story opens in 2079, when we meet Fiona Skinner for the first time. She’s a very elderly famous poet onstage at a writer’s event before an audience of adoring fans. The young interviewer asks Fiona about the origin of her most famous love poem, a question she’s avoided for years. But it takes her back to the beginning, when she was a young child and the novel slips into the distant past.

We’re back to 1981, and Fiona describes her family following the death of the father. Fiona’s only four, but her brother, Joe, is old enough to be hurt and furious, while their mother is lost, unable to react at all. Two older sisters make up the family, Caroline who is gentle and sensitive, while eldest sister Renee at eleven takes on the responsibility for them all. She’s the one who makes sure that homework is done, clothes are washed and there’s food on the table, while their mother shuts herself away in her room for the best part of three years, a time that becomes known as The Pause.

We follow this family over the decades but mostly it’s about the relationship between Fiona and Joe who was her childhood hero. You can see the effect The Pause has had on all of them on the kinds of people they become, but always it is Joe who is the most fragile, swinging from being the man with it all to being on the brink of disaster. Fiona is one of those characters who is a watcher and observer, cataloguing her sex life with different men in a hugely popular blog. She’s the perfect narrator as she analyses her family interactions and looking back sees where she went wrong.

In a way this is a story of regrets, but families can be tough and eventually forgive and rebuild. The book has that gentle humour that you see with siblings – the elbow digs and eye-rolling. And the early pages capture the family through Fiona’s young eyes, the meaningful moments and human frailty caught in the gaze of an innocent. It is a novel that ebbs and flows as the years progress, a little flagging at times and full of events at others – which makes it more like real life in some ways. There’s sadness in the book but you can see how this inspires the poet that Fiona becomes.

I really enjoyed the book over all. It’s real and yet has an ephemeral quality as Fiona, an at times unreliable narrator, misreads the people who love her. Love is a key theme, in all its forms but family love mostly, and what happens when you put it to the test. If you want a different kind of love story, The Last Romantics is well worth picking up. It’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – an intense story about family, secrets and the path not taken

You can’t help feeling sorry for Eleanor (Elle) who spends the decades that span The Paper Palace unable to forget her dearest friend and soulmate. She and Jonas have been driven apart by a terrible secret – a horrific sequence of events that casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. We follow them through the years from when they first met, one Cape Cod summer, to the present day several decades later, having built their lives without each other. But we all know that secrets like theirs are sure to come out sooner or later.

The Paper Palace is the nickname given to the holiday home where much of the action takes place, in particular the single day that connects the plot. It’s the day friends and relations have come together to remember Elle’s sister. The summer home has been in the family for generations, a collection of bush-carpentry buildings that include a large kitchen/living space and a number of cabins right on the edge of a wide, swimmable pond. Here, Elle and her older sister Anna ran wild ever summer, a relief from those chilly New York winters, growing up as their parents divorce, take on new lovers, remarry and divorce again.

Elle’s mother, Wallace, states that divorce is good for children, and makes other odd declarations such as that unhappy people are more interesting. Jonas’s partner, Gina, perpetually sunny and straightforward, obviously cuts no ice with Wallace. Elle and Anna are beautiful, confident girls in spite of their mother’s remoteness, her stark comments, her lack of awareness of how her life choices affect her children. Somehow they survive their childhood, have careers and relationships.

But everything comes back to one event in Elle’s teenage years and its consequences, until a much later revelation casts a new light on a decision she made a long time ago. This plot device plus the now and before structure makes you gallop through the pages to learn how that secret will impact on the future. The writing is sharp and funny at times, but best of all is the evocation of summer and long summer vacations. There are butterflies, racoons and shorebirds: bonfires on the beach; walks through the forest as well as swimming and boating. It’s almost like you’re on holiday with them all, in one of the spare cabins. There is definitely a filmic quality, and I can see movie rights being discussed even now.

I just wish I liked the characters more. Elle has a decent career and happy marriage in spite of the events of her growing up but still agonises over Jonas, a character who me for was never quite real. Anna can be cruel, the various parental figures weak, offhand or just plain strange. People are either beautiful in an unspecified way, or if they are ugly, their flabbiness and skin conditions are described in detail. Nobody is just a bit ordinary. This was a little distasteful to me and detracted from the sympathy I should have had for the main characters. And while the story was engaging, it was also somewhat exhausting and I found it a relief to finish. A three out of five read 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.

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks doesn’t write happy novels but there is much joy to be had in reading them. The writing is wonderful, the characters flawed but interesting with enough of their history that you can see why they are the way they are. With On Green Dolphin Street we have three people, each of them bright and talented, but who are struggling with other people’s expectations of them and the politics of their time.

Mary lost her fiancĂ© in the Africa campaign of World War 2. She didn’t think she’d ever fall in love quite like that again. Then she met Charlie, a dazzling young man who made everyone laugh and the room come alive. We catch up with them a decade or so later, married and living in Washington where Charlie’s a career diplomat at the British Embassy. It’s 1960 and we have a sense of a world where things are beginning to change.

Charlie had been an officer in the war, and still remembers all the letters he’d had to write to the loved ones of his men fallen in battle. At work a lot depends on Charlie too, all that glad-handing, maintaining a perpetual state of exuberance while his finances are shaky to say the least. It’s not surprising that he self-medicates with alcohol.

Then there’s Frank, a journalist fighting his way back into political reporting after an FBI probe deemed him unsafe a few years before – the McCarthy era hadn’t been kind to the press. Frank still dreams of all the enemy soldiers he had to kill in the war, remembering all the chilling details. He considers all the men he sees on the street, wondering if they too are murderers. The thoughts are fleeting as Frank is too busy with an upcoming election. Old hand Richard Nixon is poised to win, if only he can hold off newbie John Kennedy. But it’s the young buck who looks so much more assured on television.

The election provides an interesting backdrop to the main drama of the novel: a love triangle, triggered by the party when Frank met Mary. The story of their affair adds a lot of the dramatic moments through the book, fraught with difficulties of distance (Frank in New York based at the NY Times), and all the people who depend on Mary, particularly her children, but also her parents in England (Mary’s mother is ill) and not least of all, Charlie, who is struggling to keep himself together.

Ultimately it is Mary we most feel for as it is Mary who has to decide the fate of all three. With no career of her own, in spite of a university education and her mother having been a doctor, her role in life is to be the perfect hostess, wife and mother. Under this facade is a seething mess of feelings. In their own ways it’s not so different for Charlie and Frank, the secrets, the emotions. No wonder there are a lot martinis and scotch going down. Goodness, such a lot!

I was very moved by On Green Dolphin Street. It could have been a little maudlin, but it all seemed so real, the characters so intense and believable, and the politics of America in the midst of an election resonating with today. Lovers of New York will be enchanted by Frank’s informative tour of the city. Throughout, we have Faulks’s nice way of prose, though he likes to show off his vocabulary (describing a little boy peeing off a balcony as ‘micturating’). It’s a very minor quibble in a novel that is in all other ways memorable and superbly crafted with an ending that took my breath away. A four and a half star read from me.