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: The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

You can tell best-selling author Elly Griffiths has had a ton of fun setting her new Harbinder Kaur mystery around the world of publishing. You can’t help wonder how much of her own experience she’s slipped into the narrative.

The Postscript Murders begins with the death of ninety-year-old Peggy Smith, discovered in her flat by Natalka her Ukrainian caregiver. Because of Peggy’s age, the doc writes it off as natural causes, but Natalka, ever suspicious, believes it’s murder and says so to DS Kaur. Harbinder agrees to look into it, impressed by Natalka’s accent which makes her sound like a spy.

And it’s kind of suspicious how Peggy’s son, Nigel, has her cremated so quickly, her flat boxed up and ready to sell. Just as well Natalka has kept a key. She teams up with Benedict, a former monk who now runs the Coffee Shack on the beach front, and the two sneak into Peggy’s flat where they discover numerous books with Peggy credited in the dedications. She helped the authors with their murder plotting, it seems. A masked gunman who surprises them and then steals a book has them knocking on the door of Peggy’s neighbour Edwin to phone the police.

While DS Kaur is playing catch-up, the unlikely crime-solving trio of Natalka, Benedict and Edwin follow a trail of clues all the way to a literary festival in Aberdeen, tracking down all the crime writers who used Peggy’s services. A new murder keeps Harbinder busy as well as threats close to home so it becomes difficult to rein in Team Natalka. Bubbling away under the surface are subplots including Natalka’s bitcoin shenanigans which have her watching over her shoulder for heavies involved in organised crime, and Harbinder’s ongoing inability to tell her parents that she’s gay. At thirty-five she’s still living at home enjoying Mum’s cooking while her parents hope for a good match for their daughter.

This is a very character-driven story, with much humour coming from the interconnection of the bunch of misfits making up an unlikely cast. Harbinder is an engaging sleuth with her smart policework and ironic mutterings. A glimpse of the publishing industry, the marketing gimmicks, fandom and the sometimes awkwardness of literary festivals creates an interesting backdrop. I chuckled all the way through, not guessing the ending, but not minding if I did as this was such a fun read. Four out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Many readers were disappointed when award-winning crime writer, Ann Cleeves decided to call it a day with her Shetland series. I guess there are only so many crime scenarios you can imagine for a tiny place like the Shetland Islands. But if there’s a silver lining here, it has to be her new series set in North Devon, featuring local police inspector, Matthew Venn.

The Long Call is the first Two Rivers novel and I happily devoured it. The story begins when Matthew attends his father’s funeral having recently returned to the area of his boyhood with his husband, Jonathan. It’s a Brethren funeral and he keeps himself at a distance, not daring to approach his mother, having disgraced himself as a teenager by declaring himself an atheist, dropping out of university and later breaking his parents’ hearts by marrying a man. But his new case, the murder of a troubled loner, Simon Walden, will take him uncomfortably close to the people from his family’s church.

The story of Simon Walden will take some uncovering – the man had shed his life of family, friends and belongings. Plagued by guilt over an accidental death, he had become an alcoholic before being rescued by a church group run by Caroline Preece, the daughter of one of the movers and shakers behind the community centre known as the Woodyard. Caroline took him in as a lodger, helped with counselling and found him some voluntary work.

Surprisingly, Walden made a connection with a woman with Downs Syndrome who also attended a drop-in group at the Woodyard. So much seems to centre on the Woodyard, which is managed by Matthew’s husband, Jonathan. Should Matthew declare a conflict of interest and hand the case over to DCI Oldham? But his boss has his eye on retirement and will only step in if Matthew messes up – so no pressure then.

When another woman with Downs Syndrome goes missing, the first Matthew learns of it is a phone call from his mother – phone calls from his mother are unheard of. The victim is the daughter of a good friend, another member of the Brethren who remembers Matthew and his disgrace. Fortunately he has a smart team to work with. Jen, his DS is from Birmingham, a no-nonsense sort with a failed marriage and two teenagers at home. She’s good at building relationships with witnesses and getting them to spill the beans. DC Ross is young and restless, but eager to prove himself, and there are plenty of opportunities here.

Looking ahead, I know we will come to love Matthew Venn and his sidekicks – Cleeves is so good at character development, highlighting the pressures put on police officers and connecting them to the crime story. This book pivots on the relationships of parents and their children, not just Matthew and his mother, but our other players too. What is it like to bring up a child with severe learning difficulties? What would we do to keep them safe? How far would we go to make our children happy?

So while Cleeves gets plenty of points for character development in her fiction, I am always impressed by the way she can pick apart relationships, the secrets that imbue them and the passions – positive and negative – that they generate. The Long Call has this in spades. Easily a four star read from me.

Book Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

The Bird family seem to have everything: a yellow brick house in the Cotswolds with a big, rambling garden – the perfect family home. Their mother, Lorelei is a happy, hippie, stay-at-home mother who does lots of fun things with her kids. She holds yearly Easter Egg hunts and keeps all her children’s art to hang on the kitchen walls – all of it, forever! There’s Dad/Colin, an amiable, shambling academic, and four kids: confident Megan, beautiful Beth, Rory, who’s everyone’s mate. And then there’s Rhys.

Rhys was Rory’s twin, a sickly baby who has grown into a quiet, brooding child who nobody likes. When tragedy strikes, cracks appear in the cement that had once held the Bird family together, and each of them struggle in various ways. In particular, Lorelei, with her habit for keeping anything she felt sentimental about, now a chronic hoarder.

The book opens with Meg and her teenage daughter, Molly, having returned to the old Bird family home, to clear it out of all the teetering piles of junk Lorelei has collected over the years and to prepare for her mother’s funeral. Slowly the rest of the family drifts home to help.

The House We Grew Up In follows various characters as it fills in the gaps between then and now. Often we are with Meg who is compulsively tidy, some of the time we’re with Beth who can’t seem to get her life together enough to leave home. Then occasionally we’re with Rory who has a habit of throwing in his lot with the wrong people. And then there are Lorelei’s emails to a man she’s met online

With all different different points of view and shifts in time, the novel can take a bit of concentration to keep track of it all. I was nipping back and forth a bit, checking dates, calculating ages. Was it worth the effort? Definitely yes. Jewell is a brilliant writer when it comes to families that seem happy on the outside and what could go wrong with them and why. She gets you to care for her characters, even when they mess up, and these guys do big time.

And then there’s the guilt. Everyone has something to feel guilty about and with that comes the secrecy. How do members of a family come to terms with the wrongs of the past to rebuild those relationships that were once so special? The House We Grew Up In takes you through all of this and makes you realise that even the seemingly nicest, ordinary people can do very destructive things without meaning to. Another engrossing read from Jewell and a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Reading in Bed by Sue Gee

Such a treat to discover a Sue Gee novel I hadn’t read. At first glance Reading in Bed looks like a chick lit novel (it has that kind of cover), perhaps aimed at readers not dissimilar to the two main characters: Dido and Georgia, old friends now just hitting their sixties. We meet them on the way home from a week-long literary festival in Hay.

Georgia lives in London and a year or so ago lost her husband to cancer. She still misses Henry immensely, and is just a bit jealous of Dido whose husband Jeffrey is fit, still cycling to work – he’s an academic at a university in York. Then there are Dido’s children: Kate is a doctor married to fellow medic, Leo, and the pair have produced two adored grandchildren; Nick is a history lecturer doing a PhD with long-term partner, Paula, also an academic. A family of achievers, no less.

By comparison, Georgia’s unmarried daughter Chloe is dyslexic, having struggled at school and now works on photographic shoots as a ‘stylist’, whatever that means. Chloe’s track-record with men is disastrous, one heart-breaker after another, and having hit thirty-one, is still single and not very well off.

This is where the book gets interesting. Chloe is bright and really good at what she does, but she comes across as lightweight compared to her parents and their friends who all met at university. As you might imagine, Chloe finds her mother demanding and at times interfering. And then there’s Henry’s batty old cousin, Maud, going to rack and ruin in a crumbling farmhouse with only an old dog for company. Poor Georgia has to look out for her as well.

But back in York, things aren’t going so well for Dido either: she worries about Nick – can he really be happy with the acerbic Paula whose offhand comments can so destroy the mood at family dinners? And why is Jeffrey so reluctant to come up to bed each evening, puddling in the study over his computer? Then there are Dido’s dizzy spells.

Sue Gee sets these various plot threads in motion to create a rich story around the workings of friendship, marriage, retirement and being accepted for who you are, no matter what – even batty Maud. The characters each have a lot to learn before the last page, and Gee carries the reader along with them nicely, creating empathy, even when they mess up, sometimes badly. She does this by getting inside their heads, the style adapting to each character’s way of thinking, though probably it was Chloe whose head I liked best.

The story puts everyone through a tough time of it, but the pleasantly optimistic ending will have you cheering. Bookworms will enjoy the references to literature, Henry, a civil servant, still kept his intellectual game up with his reading and was particularly fond of Dovstoyevsky, while T S Eliot and Gorky also get a look in. It’s much more than the chick lit cover would suggest, but then this is Sue Gee after all. Anyone who enjoys the fiction of authors like Joanna Trollope or Patrick Gale will relish this. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: Ghost Girl by Lesley Thomson

The Detective’s Daughter series is a wonderfully atmospheric collection of mysteries, with two quirky sleuths: Clean Slate cleaning business proprietor, Stella Darnell and her co-worker, Jack. Stella’s father, the recently deceased DCI Terry Darnell, has left Stella his house and one or two interesting cold cases. Terry may have been absent from a large part of his daughter’s growing up but his legacy has Stella hooked on detection.

In Ghost Girl, Stella discovers a small collection of old photographs of street scenes, spanning several decades. Terry documented cases, clues and crime scenes with his own photo records, something to mull over in the evening perhaps. The oldest from the folder goes back to 1966, the year Moors Murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were sent to prison for life. Stella slowly uncovers what took place in each scene and what linked them, helped by Jack, a train driver, night walker and all-round odd-bod.

Jack’s most alarming habit, of which Stella is trying to cure him, is to sneak into the homes of people he refers to as ‘hosts’, people who are likely to kill. Jack keeps a well-thumbed London A-Z, covered in his own notes as he tracks his hosts down. When a woman comes across his A-Z and decides to keep it, he has no choice but to follow her, breaking into an old school, apparently her home, and taking up residence.

Plot threads detailing Stella’s investigation and Jack’s obsession are woven around flashbacks to the story of Mary, a young girl whose family has moved to a new house and the sudden death of her little brother in 1966. Stella has a new customer, too, David Bowie look-alike, David Barlow, who needs his house cleaned of the bad memories associated with his late wife. Stella finds him charming, but a little strange as well.

Here are all the ingredients for a twisty and complex mystery. Thompson gives out just enough to engage the reader in the usual guessing game of analysing suspects and dodging red herrings. A big fan of London stories, I enjoy the Hammersmith that Thompson creates on the page – both in 1966 and present day. And then there are the characters, made interesting by what drives them and the secrets they hide, not just the suspects and victims, but our amateur sleuths too.

It has always seemed obvious to me that cleaning houses is a great way to snoop in people’s affairs – I’m sure commercial cleaners learn a lot more about their clients than the police might imagine possible. So I’m sure Stella and Jack will find many more crimes to investigate. I’m glad as there is a lot to enjoy in this series. Ghost Girl gets a solid four out of five from me.

Book Review: Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

I wasn’t going to read the Vera Stanhope novels by Ann Cleeves – they’d been so good on television, and surely I’d know all the endings. I’d forgotten that it doesn’t really matter when it’s good writing and the characters are interesting, which is most certainly the case here. And in the end I couldn’t remember this story after all.

Silent Voices begins when a body is discovered at a leisure centre. Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope doesn’t spend a lot of time at her gym, and there’s no way she’d let on to her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, that she even has a membership. But when she discovers a murder victim, strangled in the sauna room, she has to call it in. Nobody recognises the attractive, middle-aged woman in the sauna, but the wallet in her locker leads Vera to a cottage in a coastal village and the victim’s eighteen-year-old daughter.

Hannah has no idea why anyone would want to murder her mother, Jenny Lister, a social worker who seems to be in every way a good, kind person. It is fortunate that Hannah has her fiancé, Simon, nearby to stay with her, as she has no other family. But ex-social worker Connie is shocked to discover Jenny had lived in the same village. Both had worked closely together until Connie made an error of judgement and a young child was drowned in the bath by his mother. Connie lost her career and has always thought Susan sold her down the river.

Cleeves brings in a number of other connected characters: the smooth-talking alternative therapist who works at the leisure centre; Danny the student who cleans there at night; Simon’s snooty mother Veronica who for some reason has made Connie’s life a misery. It is a rich and diverting plot, peopled with a cast who each have axes to grind, or complicated pasts.

And that doesn’t include the police. Vera Stanhope, is a wonderful creation with her distrust of social workers and anyone who is too obviously nice; her jealousy of Joe’s time and family commitments – she’s altogether lacking in family herself. There’s smart and ambitious Holly and sad-sack Charlie who is only just holding it together – fortunately Vera knows what he’s good at and leaves him to it.

Meanwhile, there is the sense of a storm brewing, reflected in the wild, coastal weather of Northumberland, which adds a ton of atmosphere. The story illustrates so well that anybody can have a dark episode in their history that might just lead them to murder. It’s what this kind of crime fiction is all about and Cleeves pulls it all together really well to create a satisfying read building to a superb ending.

I listened to this as an audio book and loved the gentle and nuanced reading by Janine Birkett. I think the Geordie accent could become a favourite. Four out of five from me.

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.