Book Review: Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

When winter starts to bite, there’s nothing like a book cover showing a summery scene to make you want to pick it up. Kathleen MacMahon’s latest book, Nothing But Blue Sky describes a succession of summer holidays spent abroad, mostly on the sunny Costa Brava. 

David Dowling is recently bereaved – his wife, Mary Rose, killed in a plane crash while she was on her way to a wedding. Ever since they were newly married, the couple have holidayed at the same Spanish seaside town, visiting the same restaurant over the years, the same bar for their pre-dinner aperitif. They’ve people watched, making up stories in particular about a glamorous French family.

In many ways, this is the story of a marriage. David is a cynical foreign correspondent, who doubts his capacity for happiness. His parents seemed to live in a loveless marriage, his father bullying his mother, just as his older brother bullied David. When David meets Mary Rose, he is swept up into the world of his girlfriend’s family, a home full of joy and conversation and people who actually seem to like each other. David discovers another way to live, but can’t quite shake off his inner doubts, his bad cop to Mary Rose’s good cop routine.

When Mary Rose dies, David’s grief is all-consuming. He revisits the events of his marriage – Mary Rose’s goodness and optimism, their childlessness, the way they just seemed to gel, their disagreements. The book weaves their story together in chapters that read a little like a succession of short stories highlighting different aspects of their relationship.

A summer holiday with friends, soon after the air crash, is a miserable affair for David, so he bravely takes himself off to Aiguaclara one more time, and the possibility of starting again takes shape. 

MacMahon draws you slowly into the novel, and in David has created a brilliant character study. How do you deal with feelings, when you’ve spent a lot of your life suppressing them? David is a difficult character but oddly likeable, and you want him to learn a little empathy and trust. This is such a sensitive portrayal about love and loss, about happiness and grief, nuanced and yet also very entertaining. 

The book reminded me a little of novels I’ve read by Anne Enright as well as Andrea Levy. I can’t wait to read more by MacMahon. Nothing But Blue Sky earns a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton

I listened to Home Stretch as an audiobook, and this is a terrific option in this case as the book is read by the author. Graham Norton has a warm and vivid reading style – he has the kind of voice that sounds friendly and the humour never seems all that far away, even when the plot takes a serious turn. Which it does quite often.

The story concerns young Connor, who is caught up with a bunch of local teenagers on the eve of a wedding, tagging along on a trip to the beach. He’s the son of a publican in one of those tiny Irish coastal towns where everybody knows everybody and there’s no hiding any secrets, or so we might suppose. When the car crashes and three are killed, including the bride and groom, another girl left fighting for her life, Connor carries the shame of being the driver responsible.

After the court case, Connor is sent to Liverpool to work for a cousin’s building business and sets out to forget his family, his town and all that has gone on before. But Connor has another secret – he is gay – something he has never been able to mention to his family; this is 1987 after all. When fate conspires to send Connor to London and later to the US, it seems like he can never go home.

The story weaves between Connor’s and that of his sister, Ellen, rescued from shame by Connor’s fellow crash survivor, Martin, the doctor’s son. Martin seems to be the white knight, dazzling Ellen with thoughts of new beginnings. Things don’t quite turn out for Ellen as she may have hoped, and eventually the past will come back and secrets will emerge. Can Connor ever make his way home again and find acceptance in his family?

The story switches between viewpoints and jumps through the decades to the time of the referendum that voted for legalising gay marriage in Ireland. Even Connor’s dad put up a ‘vote yes’ poster in the pub, so the book mirrors changes in society as well as several dawning realisations among the main characters. I felt this was perhaps a more personal story from this author, and it is easy to imagine Norton weaving in some of his own experiences and insight about the gay scene and the shifts in public perception over time.

My only reservation was that sometimes we seem to be fairly galloping through the years and I could happily have stayed awhile longer here and there. But at least this keeps the reader hooked on the story, wondering if Connor will ever make it home to face the past. The book is told with very real feeling and any parent will relate to the fear of never seeing their child again. Norton has such a deep empathy for his characters, even the ones we are not supposed to like are not painted entirely black – there is understanding for them as well.

I loved the dialogue which is very real and lively – Norton having a keen ear for the way people express their personalities in speech. And then there’s the humour, just twinkling away in the background, caught in the banter of characters’ interactions, the way they perceive themselves, the foolishness of youth, the misunderstandings. Home Stretch is a heartfelt and entertaining read, and I thoroughly recommend the audiobook version and Graham Norton’s splendid performance. A three and a half 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: 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.

Book Review: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Who knows what goes on behind closed doors? That could be the subtitle of many a Lisa Jewell novel.

The Family Upstairs starts happily enough with twenty-five-year-old Libby Jones coming into an inheritance. Libby has always known she was adopted and is prepared for some news of her provenance the day of her birthday and maybe, with luck, a few hundred pounds. What she doesn’t expect is to inherit a large house in Chelsea, worth millions. It’s a shock for a girl who works for a kitchen design company and financially is just getting by.

The other thing she doesn’t expect is to discover that her parents, Harry and Martina Lamb, and an unidentified male died in a suicide pact when she was 10 months old. And before the bodies were found, somebody looked after the baby, then disappeared. It’s a lot to take in and the house itself creeps her out – it’s dilapidated, and there are signs someone’s been camping out upstairs, and what are those noises?

The story flips between Libby and two other characters. First off there’s Henry Lamb, the twelve-year-old son of Martina and Harry who’s looking forward to his new school when everything changes. His father, once a somewhat shady businessman, has a mild stroke and Martina, wanting to play Lady Bountiful, begins inviting people to stay. When the Thomsen family move in, Henry is mesmerised by their beautiful son, Phin. Things take a sinister turn or two as Henry slowly fills us in on events that lead up to the suicide pact. He’s an oddly distant character, with no friends and left far too much on his own.

Flipping forward again, we’re in the south of France, where Lucy is homeless, struggling to make a living for herself and her two children as a busker. A message on her phone reminds her that ‘the baby’ has turned twenty-five and she becomes determined to do anything she can to get back to England. If only she had a passport. Even before that she has to find the money to pay for the repairs on her violin. When her son Marco reveals he has recently seen his father, a man capable of horrible violence, Lucy has the extra worry of how to ask him for help without conditions.

The three stories carry the reader through to a point where past and present converge and the trio of narrators meet up. Libby garners the help of Miller Rowe, the journalist who has wasted years and his marriage investigating what happened at the Chelsea house, and her colleague Dido who has the wisdom of being ten years older than Libby. It is probably just as well; left to herself, Libby wouldn’t have coped at all.

The story comes together in a cleverly paced way that has you galloping through the book to find out what happened earlier and what will happen next. The backwards and forwards sequence gives you lots of aha moments, while spicing up the tension. But in the end, this isn’t anything like Gone Girl for upsetting revelations, whatever promised by the cover so don’t be too disappointed.

This is a subtler kind of thriller altogether. For in spite of a resolution that promises new beginnings, there are lurking in the background some disturbing niggles. You can’t help thinking that the children from the Chelsea house will always have a tough time settling down to be normal, well-adjusted people. You might be thanking your lucky stars you didn’t grow up at an expensive address like this one. I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and it was superbly read with a different actor for each of the three main characters. A four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.

Book Review: Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton

Canadian author, Kate Hilton describes her latest novel as a divorce comedy, although there’s a wedding as well, and a treasure trove of family secrets. In the opening pages, Zoe is not looking forward to Christmas, as she is reluctant to reveal that she is getting a divorce. Christmas is tense enough, without dropping that bombshell.

Along with Zoe’s parents, who are hosting the festive meal, plus her brother Zack, we meet Zoe’s uncle and feminist icon Aunt Lydia, and Lydia’s daughters and grandchildren. Zack has won fame and fortune writing a TV sitcom loosely based on the lives of his famous aunt and her family, for which he has never been quite forgiven.

Lydia’s daughter, Beata, is particularly bitter about it, but she has enough to deal with with her teenage son, Oscar, discovering that he wasn’t the product of a sperm-bank after all and has already made contact with his father. Enter, Will, an old pal of Zoe’s from her university days, and also a colleague of Beata’s partner, Eloise. Eloise just happens to be the lawyer handling Zoe’s divorce.

Meanwhile, still on Christmas day, things are obviously not going well in Zoe’s cousin Mariana’s marriage to shiftless but charming Devlin. Things reach a crunch when Mariana snatches up Devlin’s phone and smashes it to bits in the kitchen.

Hilton gets her book off to a flying start, with so much going on with in the lives of Zoe, Mariana and Beata. They’re all great characters – engaging and interesting – while the impossibly high bar set by Aunt Lydia for the younger women in her family hovers in the background. No wonder they keep secrets from each other – secrets, which are due to all come out sooner or later.

The book reminded me a little of Emma Hope’s Expectation, in that we have the same well-meaning pressure from an older generation of feminist women on their daughters whose lives haven’t quite turned out as they’d planned. In Better Luck Next Time, we are reminded how hard it can be for women to ‘do it all’ – manage children, careers, marriage and be true to themselves. Mariana is a journalist who has had to sacrifice writing the important political stories she’s so good at so she can support her family. She ends up writing publicity for a ‘wellness’ company, an industry Hilton sends up beautifully.

There are plenty of amusing scenes, including a feminist rally that turns nasty and a bridal shower which makes you wonder why anyone would ever get married. The book gallops towards another, somewhat, happier Christmas, an ending where its characters have learned a lot about life, love and themselves. This is a funny yet thoughtful novel, with characters you really warm to and plenty of digs at the fads and obsessions of modern life. Just what you want in a comedy for our times. A four star read from me.

Book Review: Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly Madly Guilty is a novel about ordinary people. They’ve all got their quirks and kinks of temperament, their baggage – some more than others. Simmering with problems, insecurities and resentments, the characters are all set for some kind of train wreck; the setting: an ordinary suburban barbecue.

Moriarty creates a powder keg of volatile ingredients a bit like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. Three families who probably shouldn’t really be friends come together to socialise: There’s Sam and Clementine and their two little girls, Holly and Ruby. Clementine is a cellist, anxious about an upcoming audition; Sam is stressed about the way their finances depend on a his new job in advertising where he feels out of his depth. It’s all causing a toll on their marriage.

Erika is socially awkward and, like her husband Oliver, works in accounting. They are a fit, childless couple and to many seem a bit boring. But both have had terrible childhoods which has helped them connect with each other, if not with other people. Erika was foisted on Clementine as a child, and the two have been friends ever since, although sometimes Clementine wishes Erika was less friendly with her mother and wasn’t always in touch.

Erika and Oliver invite their friends for afternoon tea to put forward a proposal, carefully planned before the two families head next door to a barbecue hosted by wealthy and gregarious Vid and his glamorous younger wife, Tiffany. Vid has recently discovered classical music and becomes a bit fixated on Clementine; Tiffany has something of a shady past. The two little girls are entertained by Tiff and Vid’s ten-year-old daughter Dakota, but sometime later on, with much alcohol having flowed and one or two secrets revealed, something terrible happens.

Moriarty has a knack for feeding out just enough information to get the reader interested, switching timeframes from some weeks after the event, during a period of persistent rain, and the day of the barbecue. We don’t discover exactly what happened until halfway through the book, and not entirely until near the end. The story is told from several perspectives, filling in all the details and building up characters you can feel empathy for. They are so ordinary and yet so unique, after all.

Can the three couples come back from what happened? Rebuild their lives? Learn from their mistakes? There’s also an interesting commentary on class and wealth running in the background, the snobbery associated with money or with talent.

Truly Madly Guilty is a very smart novel with some very poignant moments and a few surprises. I hadn’t ever read a book by Liane Moriarty before, and this will certainly not be the last, striking for me a happy balance between entertainment and something to think about. Four out of five 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.