Book Review: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

I’ve read a few books where lighthouses appear in the story, often in a metaphorical sense as an evocation of hope or constancy, or even desire. These ideas also appear in Emma Stonex’s novel The Lamplighters, but here the story follows the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families and the very real lighthouse which is the men’s home for a large part of their working year. Inspired by real events, the book takes us into the world of three lighthouse keepers in 1972, and what happens when their lighthouse is found abandoned, the keepers missing, but the door locked and bolted from inside.

You have to be certain kind of person to be in the lighthouse service. Principal Keeper, Arthur Black, likes the quiet and solitude of his eight-week stints on the remote lighthouse known as the Maiden. The service gives the men a cottage on the nearby Cornish coast, but he doesn’t seem to miss his wife, Helen, who waits for his return. He’s considered a good man, able and sound and obviously kindly, but have all his years in lighthouses taken their toll?

Postcards never finished; postcards never sent. I tear them up and drop them into the sea so I can watch them float away. In another life, a lucky one, I see the pieces washing onto shore. She’ll find them, gather them to her, put them back together. It will all make sense.

Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, is from a family of lighthouse keepers and was never given the choice to be anything else. You can tell he’s had enough but then he’s almost at the end of his eight-week stint, so naturally he’s looking forward to his time on shore. At home with three young children, his wife Jenny finds the eight weeks the hardest, and fills her days filling the cake tins, and drinking.

The third keeper is the young Supernumerary Assistant Keeper, Vincent Bourne. He’s had a tough life, in and out of foster homes, and then in and out of prison. But when he meets Michelle, he determines to turn his life around and have the proper family he’d missed out on. The Service offers him a chance and when he’s made Assistant Keeper, he’ll get a cottage too. So while it might be easy to blame the mysterious disappearances on bad-lot Vinnie, he seems the least likely to lose it and do something rash.

The story flips to 1992, when an adventure-thriller writer revisits the events of twenty years before, planning to write a book and solve the puzzle. Told through the viewpoints of the three women left with no answers, but a financial to keep quiet, secrets start to emerge. The tension escalates, as the story switches back to the days leading up to the tragedy, as well as describing the sensitive relationships of the women on land. The ending is taut and you rush through the pages to find out what happened, in a small way comforted in the resolution for those left behind.

This is a masterful novel, written in elegant and at times poetic prose – maybe it’s hard to avoid if you are writing about the sea and the weighty themes we traditionally associate with lighthouses. The novel makes these themes all the more real but in new ways. It’s a psychological novel too, getting inside the heads of the men and their women, picking out their motives and triggers, their passions and resentments.

Emma Stonex has done her research well and the books she lists as inspiration are books that look well worth a read. I can’t help thinking that lighthouse keepers are forgotten heroes and want to know more. I’m going to stick my neck out and give The Lamplighters a rare five out five.

Book Review: The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley

The Clergyman’s Wife makes me want to pick up Pride and Prejudice again, as it revisits the story of Lizzy Bennett’s friend, Charlotte Lucas. As you may recall, Charlotte is twenty-seven when she meets Mr Collins in the Austen novel. She is too plain to have sparked any interest from a suitor and without a dowry is doomed to spinsterhood. When Collins fails to snare one of the older Bennett girls, he settles for Charlotte, and she for him.

Greeley’s novel picks up the story several years later, showing Charlotte as the young mother of baby Louisa, living at the parsonage on Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s estate. Collins is still cringingly sycophantic towards his benefactress, passing on her advice to his wife about how to raise a baby and other domestic affairs. Lady Catherine is just as bossy and overbearing as ever. Charlotte passes her days quietly avoiding her husband if she can, but for the most part contented in her lot. She’s a sensible and pragmatic sort of girl.

When Lady Catherine bestows some rose bushes on the young couple, local farmer, Mr Travis, is given the job of ripping out a stump and preparing the flower bed. Charlotte chances upon him in the garden early one morning, Travis sweaty with exertion, Charlotte lugging a restless Louisa, both of them tousled and not yet dressed for the day. Travis and Charlotte strike up a conversation and as summer merges into autumn, a friendship develops.

The story is very much within the mind of Charlotte as she discovers feelings she has never experienced before and considers what it might be like to marry for love instead of convenience or duty. She had always said to herself she wasn’t a sentimental sort of person, but Travis has made her less than steady and distracts her thoughts. It is soon obvious he feels the same way for her.

The novel is very heartfelt and sympathetic to Charlotte and the sad events of her life she has had to hide from others. It examines the difficulties of being expected to live up to society’s expectations and how even the comparatively comfortably off can struggle to meet these demands. The powerlessness of women comes through again and again to say nothing of the poor, dependent as they are on the bounty of the likes of Lady Catherine, who will only see what she wants to see. She is such a loathsome creature, you want to shout at her.

I was a little disappointed that the scope of a couple of seasons gives Charlotte little opportunity to change her lot although we leave her with renewed determination – pragmatic yet again. But the novel brings rural England in the Regency period nicely to life, and you can’t help getting caught up in the emotions that run high. I was a little doubtful about the use of present tense, but soon got used to it – it doesn’t have to read like Austen, after all, and the storytelling nonetheless sounds authentic, only marred occasionally by the odd Americanism.

I love the character of Charlotte Collins – she has such a good heart, while striving in small ways to be her own person. She definitely deserves to have her story told at least as much as those Bennett girls that keep popping up in Pride and Prejudice sequels. The Clergyman’s Wife is Molly Greeley’s first book, a three and a half out of five read from me. I shall definitely seek out her next, The Heiress, which takes another shadowy character from Pride and Prejudice, poor Anne de Bourgh, the daughter of ghastly Lady Catherine, a seen-and-not-heard character who spends entire scenes, lolling on a chaise longue, often asleep. It will be interesting to see how Greeley wakes her up.

Book Review: The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

The Marwood and Lovett series is such a joy for anyone who loves a good mystery, with a historical setting that takes you there. Taylor’s series brings alive the nitty gritty of everyday life plus the machinations of the powerful at court. Set during the reign of Charles II, The Royal Secret has government agent James Marwood investigate the death of a former colleague, a Mr Abbott. He comes across the man in his cups and full of regret on his way from a gambling house.

When Abbott dies suddenly, it is hard not the think about the opening scene of the novel, where Abbott’s stepdaughter and a young maid plot his death by witchcraft. But the twenty-first century reader knows that the man’s death will be a lot more complicated than that. Another incident sees Marwood getting in Cat Lovett’s bad books when he takes her to the theatre and ogles the leading actress. The two have been friends and associates through several hair-raising adventures and now meet regularly for outings. Dating? I think not.

Cat has inherited her husband’s architecture business and at the theatre, meets her client, Mr Fanshaw, along with a Dutchman, Mr Van Riebeeck, a family connection of Fanshaw’s. Cat is charmed by Van Riebeeck, while Marwood takes an instant dislike to the man. The scene also introduces us to the world of the Dutch in England at the time and the political difficulties posed by rivalry between the Netherlands and France. This rivalry will come closer to home when Cat earns a commission to design a poultry-house for the King’s sister who lives at the French court. So many threads of historical interest.

The plot ramps up with plenty of action – James Marwood seems to attract trouble, as his suspicions around Van Riebeeck grow along with jealousy over Cat’s growing friendship with the man. There’s the usual tension of Cat and Marlow’s see-sawing relationship and Marwood is often in trouble with his own servants, which adds a degree of lightness.

While we get to see kings and their courts close up, their finery and excesses, Taylor doesn’t stint when it comes to describing the grubbiness of ordinary life in the 1600s. Characters puke, piss and evacuate their bowels in fairly graphic ways, not surprisingly when there are growing suspicions of poisonings. He throws in some other quirky details, such as the interest in collecting by the wealthy. Fanshaw, an avid collector, adds a disconsolate and elderly lion to his household, caged in the garden to impress visitors.

It’s a brilliant read, well-researched, pacy and as for the characters, I can’t get enough of Cat and Marwood – they are so lively and interesting. Sometimes you want to bang their heads together. But in a world where it is important to find favour in the right places, not just to succeed but to survive, they are refreshingly themselves and more inquisitive than is good for them. I can’t wait for the next book in the series. This one’s a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Dig by John Preston

This could be the greatest story you’ve never heard of – well, it was for me until the Neflix movie version came out earlier this year. It had a terrific cast including Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes playing Mrs Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo, and the man (Basil Brown) she hires to investigate the ancient burial mounds on her Suffolk property. The film had much going for it, including costuming that had me longing for the comfort of classic tailoring.

When I came across the book by John Preston – first published in 2007 – I was happy to revisit the story which is just so interesting. Not only did Sutton Hoo offer up a hoard of fantastic Anglo Saxon treasures: a stunning metal helmet, bowls, amulets and jewellery – a quick trip to google will show you – but it was also encased in a ninety foot ship. Of course the ship’s timber had long since rotted to nothing, so how Basil, and the archaeologists who followed, sensitively excavate the site to reveal it is a wonder.

When Basil discovers a coin the site is soon shown to date from around the seventh century AD – so not a Viking hoard, as first thought, but Anglo Saxon. Suddenly people’s opinions of the what were termed the Dark Ages were challenged. The departure of the Romans from Britain didn’t seem to herald a time of barbarism, barren of any artistic sophistication after all, if the stunning artefacts were anything to go by.

And while the reimagining of all this is enthralling enough, the characters are engaging too. We follow several viewpoints, beginning with Edith Pretty, a frail widow in her late fifties who wants to excavate the mounds before her health fails or there’s a German invasion – this is the summer of 1939. She has a young son, who’s at a loose end having lost his governess, so he chums up with Basil. We’re also in the mind of Basil who’s not an academic, but knows his soil. When the British Museum gets involved, he and Mrs Pretty are sidelined.

This creates plenty of tension and intellectual snobbery which brings in some terrific scenes and personality clashes. Also on the dig is newly married Peggy Piggott (apparently a relative of the author’s) who is helping her university professor husband. Already cracks are appearing in their marriage, and things get complicated when Edith’s young cousin, Rory, turns up on his bike with his photographic equipment.

While the film gives you the visuals to imagine the excavation site, the book adds lots of interesting detail – although the author has taken a few factual liberties, as he explains, ‘for dramatic effect’. I would recommend both for anyone who loves history and archaeology, or a cracking good story. Incidentally, John Preston is also the author of A Very English Scandal – another book on my wish list. The Dig gets a comfortable four out five from me.

Mystery Series Catch-Up, Round 2

Here’s a snapshot of my crime fiction reading from recent months – old series I’ve been following for years plus one or two newbies. They are all so completely different from one another, it makes you realise how varied the mystery genre is.

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths
Norfolk seems to be such a boon for Griffiths with its atmospheric tidal zones, archaeological sites and old ghost stories. We had the lantern men last time (apparitions that led you to your swampy doom) and this time we’ve got the Black Shuck (a huge black dog who foretells your death). Meanwhile academic Ruth Galloway and DI Harry Nelson deal with more crime – this time the body of a young man found on the beach by the Night Hawks – a group who go on midnight forays with metal detectors. When the detectorists happen on some ancient bones and weaponry, Ruth’s not best pleased – they could interfere with a Bronze Age burial site. But soon there are connections with the dead man and of course one or two more murders keeps the story on the go. This was such an easy but engrossing read. Griffiths writes so well for this genre, and at number 13 in the series, still manages to come up with terrific storylines and interesting character development for her two sleuths.

A Divided Loyalty by Charles Todd
This is the twenty-second in the series, which is surprising in that we’re still only in 1922. But since his return from the war, Inspector Ian Rutledge has had no end of perplexing murders to solve, often, as with this one, where the outcome will cause displeasure to his boss. Never one to opt for the most obvious solution, Ian always has to dig deep and this causes ructions. All the time, he hears the voice in his head of Hamish McLeod, the subordinate officer he’d sent to the firing squad during the war. In this book, a woman found murdered under one of the Avery standing stones draws a blank from one of Scotland Yards best DCIs. Sent to reinvestigate, Ian discovers she was foreign, possibly French, and had connections to someone he has respect for – hence the title. It’s another brilliant read in this well-researched series that brings post-WWI Britain to life.

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
This is such a terrific series, combining intelligent mystery plotting, thrills and danger with historical detail. One of the best things about it, though, is the pair of sleuths: young government agent James Marwood and would-be architect Cat Lovett. When Richard Cromwell, son of the late Lord Protector, slips into England from exile, James is tasked with finding out his motives. His appearance could trigger a movement to defeat the monarchy of Charles II and more civil war. Meanwhile Cat is drawn into the circle of the Cromwells, having known the family as a child. As usual, both sleuths play a dangerous game of their own, caught up in intrigue, sometimes working together, but keeping secrets too. There’s an emotional bond between them, but with James’s work for the Crown and Cat’s marriage to her elderly husband, any deepening of their relationship seems remote – for now.

A Brazen Curiosity by Lynn Messina
I picked up this bargain ebook – the first novel in the series, which features Regency heroine Beatrice Hyde-Clare, with a nod to Jane Austen. Beatrice, at twenty-six, is considered past her prime and an old maid when she accompanies an aunt and cousins to a country house party. One night she wanders down to the library in search of a good book, where she comes upon the eminently eligible Duke of Kesgrave, as well as a dead body. The local magistrate deems the death a suicide, but both the Duke and Bea know better. The two form an awkward team to hunt down the real murderer, which in a grand house full of grand guests, can only make them unpopular, well Bea anyway. His loftiness, the Duke, is above all that. The story is a light, fun read, with plenty of Austenish banter and lively characters. Plenty more books in the series, too.

Dead on Dartmoor by Stephanie Austin
When I picked up this, the second in the series, I didn’t expect it to be so action packed. It begins when Domestic Goddess Juno Browne’s van catches fire, almost roasting a wee dog. If you remember, Juno does odd cleaning jobs and dog walking for people, as well as running an inherited antique/junk shop. Fortunately, James Westerhall, owner of Moorworthy Chase, arrives to the rescue, and is so magnanimous as to invite Juno and chums to run a stall at his upcoming garden fete. But when one of them goes for a walk and ends up dead, Juno begins to wonder if there is something going on at the Chase that’s worth killing for. Another madcap adventure that builds to a thrilling conclusion, with Juno having to do a lot of skullduggery along the way. Great fun.

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.