Book Review: Paper Cup by Karen Campbell – walking in the shoes of a character at odds with the world

It can’t be easy to write from the point of view of a homeless person, particularly one like Kelly. She’s around fifty, an alcoholic whose thoughts never seem to stray far from where she’s going to get the next drink. You might think this makes Paper Cup uncomfortable reading too. And sometimes it is. But far outweighing all that is Kelly’s story and her telling of it. It helps that there’s a bunch of interesting and amusing characters around Kelly and the argo of Glasgow adds a touch of Billy Connelly. You might wonder if Glaswegians ever take themselves seriously.

Paper Cup is a kind of road novel, beginning during a Glasgow evening when a bride-to-be on her hen night makes a connection with the person dossing on a nearby bench. Fed up with the indignities of her evening, bride Susan flings down the bag of pound coins she’s earned for kisses from strangers but accidentally loses her engagement ring. Susan will be heading back to Galloway for her wedding a week away, and she’ll be aghast to discover her ring’s missing.

Kelly has been running from the past, a past that began in Galloway and has caused her to cut ties with her father and sister. What happened ruined Kelly’s life, setting her on a path of self-destruction and she’s been running from it all ever since, losing herself in alcohol. Suddenly, over twenty years later, there’s a reason to go back, and she has a week to get there. Along the way Kelly will meet people who help her, though many avoid her – she smells after all. And in her unlikely way, she’ll help others too, even saving a life and rescuing a dog. Kelly unwittingly becomes the unlikeliest of heroes and very readable.

She abhors it, this strange adolescent fury she feels. And this sharp recall of past events that keeps bowfing out on her – she doesny want that either. What is her mind playing at, opening doors and shaking out corners?
Just leave it well alone, Kelly.
Well, I’m trying, Kelly, I really am, but it seems we are running away with ourselves.

While it’s a kind of redemption story Paper Cup is also packed with humour. The way Kelly just brazen things out, getting away with all sorts, to feed and clothe herself – but then when you have nothing but what you carry with you, sometimes it’s the only way. She finds herself joining a kind of pilgrimage of sacred sites around the coast. She’ll learn about a leper colony and about two women condemned as witches for not adhering to the local faith. History repeats in its casting off of those who don’t fit in.

The novel is also reasonably pacy. With her deadline of one week to reach Susan before her wedding, there are moments when you feel Kelly hasn’t a hope of making it on time. And her wild disregard for rules throws her up against forces that want to stop her, including her own demons. Meanwhile she’s caught the attention of the news media who want to tell her story. You desperately want to give Kelly a hand and fortunately, eventually, someone does.

Paper Cup is a brilliant, heart-felt read, the writing is stunning and it will have you thinking. The next time you come across a homeless person, you might feel inclined to throw a coin into their paper cup. Or maybe you won’t. Either way, you might think about what has happened to them to bring them to the streets. This novel is one of my top reads for the year and gets a well-earned five out of five stars from me.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – a mystery that brings a marshy wilderness to life

I may be the last person I know to read this novel, but with the movie causing a lot of chat – both positive and negative, I thought it was about time.

Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that sweeps you away. You can’t help but get lost in the world of Kya, abandoned by her family, by anyone she takes a shine to, but just gets on with the hand she’s dealt. The story starts in the early 1950s when Kya’s six, living with her family in a shack among marshes on the North Carolina coast. Her father’s a violent drunk with PTSD from his war service and has fallen out with his own once-grand family as well as his in-laws.

Kya’s mother is the first to leave and you struggle to understand how she could walk out on her family, particularly young Kya. But she’s a victim of so much abuse, it’s all she can do to get herself to safety. Soon Kya’s brothers and sisters leave too – they’re just old enough to make a life for themselves, but it’s a shame no one thought about their little sister. Meanwhile Kya, who teaches herself how to cook and keep herself alive, avoids the worst of her father’s mood swings, until he too leaves.

Kya has avoided school. Her single day in the classroom a rude awakening to prejudice and bullying. Still just a kid, she has learnt to navigate the marshes in her dad’s old boat. She discovers that the elderly black man who sells fuel, also sells fresh mussels so Kya finds a way to support herself. Thank goodness for old Jumpin’ and his kindly wife who look out for Kya, offering used clothing and affection.

And thank goodness for Tate, the boy a few years older, who teaches Kya to read and write. This opens doors for Kya and she is obviously very smart, soon recording the wildlife in her marsh not just with her collections of feathers and shells, the self-taught watercolours, but now with written descriptions too. But Tate is off to university and his life is set to take him in a different direction.

The story jumps forwards to 1969 with a murder investigation when the body of popular motor mechanic Chase Andrews is found at the bottom of a defunct fire tower. Did he fall or was he pushed? Sherriff Ed Jackson finds no fingerprints and enough to suggest foul play and soon his attention turns to the Marsh Girl. The old prejudices against Kya have never left and she becomes an easy scapegoat.

The murder investigation propels the story along, while weaving in Kya’s backstory, her growing up and her relationships with two young men. This is interesting enough, but what really makes the book special is the way Delia Owens brings the marsh to life – the watery passageways, the plants that grow there and the wildlife. This is described vividly in Kya’s distinctive voice which helps you see the world through her eyes.

“Crawdads” is an engrossing read and the character of young Kya as she learns to make a life for herself both heartbreaking and fascinating. The court case against Kya is gripping too, although I did find the plot lagged a little in the middle. And I couldn’t help thinking of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which kind of skewed my reading of this novel. Perhaps this earlier work was an inspiration for Owen’s book or it may have just been me. I guess it’s true that every reader reads a different book. “Crawdads” gets three and a half out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher – old crimes surface in Aussie Noir mystery

I remember when Jane Harper’s stunning novel The Dry hit the shelves and suddenly we all wanted to read more Australian crime, or Aussie Noir as we soon called it. And all the while it seems Australian author Garry Disher has been producing reliably readable and award winning crime thrillers for years. I’d heard of him of course, but this I am ashamed to admit is the first Garry Disher novel I’ve read. At the end of which I could only shake my head and ask myself, what took me so long?

The Way It Is Now is Disher’s latest stand-alone novel. It’s about Charlie Deravin, a police officer on disciplinary leave who has nothing better to do or anywhere else to go but the old family beach house on Menlo Beach. While there’s plenty of surfing and Christmas to think of – his daughter’s visit is something to look forward to – there are reminders of the past at every turn.

The son of a cop, Charlie grew up in a society where the friends who came to family barbecues were other cops. And some of them are still around. But the most haunting thing for Charlie is the disappearance of his mother when he was a rookie policeman part of the team looking for a boy missing from a school camp. Assumed drowned, the child disappeared the same day as Charlie’s mother, a high school teacher who’d just popped home unexpectedly. Her car was found abandoned with evidence of a struggle. Newly separated, many people pointed the finger at Charlie’s dad.

The story weaves Charlie’s memories of the past with his ongoing relationship with his brother who hasn’t spoken to his father since, and his father now ailing but still receiving poison pen letters. There’s also the case Charlie has been suspended from, which caused him to fall out with his boss, but also brought a new love into his life. Anna was a whistle-blower in a case of jury tampering and someone’s trying to silence her. So nothing’s going well for Charlie. As Charlie uncovers the past, two dead bodies are found at a construction site and the police see even more links to Charlie’s dad. But Charlie has seen the toll the unsolved mystery has taken on his father and believes in his innocence. The book becomes a race to prove his innocence while the old man begins to fade.

While the plot is complex and interesting enough, humming along with plenty of suspense, Disher really excels with his characters. Charlie is likeable enough but flawed – the disappearance of his mother niggling in his mind for twenty years. This has put a strain on his marriage to say nothing of his work in Vice. There’re the old-school cops that he bumps onto at the beach, particularly Mark Valente who was like a second father to young Charlie and epitomises the old-boys club of local cops. Minor characters are no less interesting

While Valente seems a benign presence, he evokes a sense of not rocking the boat and keeping the past in its place. Charlie’s brother Liam loathes the man for his homophobic attitudes. Misogeny also lurks throughout the book – his mother’s nervousness around her lodger, the nasty rape case that was Charlie’s downfall, the attitudes to police wives. Disher brings it all to life in a way that seems authentic and adds a tone of menace.

I enjoyed The Way It Is Now as an audiobook, which was superbly read by Henry Nixon and made me feel I was at the beach on Australia’s Victoria coast. Disher evokes the Australian landscape well, so I’m going to see where else he takes me. This books gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: It All Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler – a compelling sisterly drama

Stories about sisters seem to pop up in all kinds of literature. They’re in those fairy stories I loved as a kid (Cinderella, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Snow White and Rose Red), several Jane Austen novels, to say nothing of King Lear which we read in high school. What is it that we like about sister stories so much? Is it because you get to see a family from several different angles? Whatever the reason, I absolutely devoured It All Comes Down to This.

The book starts out in New York – another plus for me – where Marti Geller is getting her affairs in order. She has only a couple of weeks to live and is remarkably calm about it; the hospice people are wonderful. She has written in her will that the family cottage in Maine is to be sold and the proceeds divided among her three daughters. This creates a mixture of responses from the sisters, particularly as she has chosen her son-in-law as her executor.

Beck is appalled at the idea of the sale. The cottage has been their vacation home for decades, even if no one’s been there in a while. Her sisters could use the money, but Beck is looking for a bolt-hole. With her children grown-up she wants to finally write that novel. She’s an accomplished journalist, but the novel has been in the back of her mind for years. It doesn’t help that her husband Paul is an editor for a publishing company that has nurtured award winning novelists. Having him peering over her shoulder just stifles any creative juices. Secretly, Beck wonders if Paul might be gay.

Middle sister Claire is recently divorced, having admitted to her husband after too many drinks at a party, that he wasn’t the love of her life. She still carries a torch for someone else. As a girl, Claire struggled to compete with assertive Beck or pretty younger sister Sophie, the family darling, so she worked hard at school. Now Clare’s a paediatric heart surgeon, still with a huge student loan to pay off. The divorce has been another financial burden and she’s got a young son to think of. Selling the cottage in Maine would be a godsend.

While her older sisters married early and settled into family life, Sophie is single at thirty-six and trying to live the dream, or at least what her Instagram followers think is the dream. She works for an art gallery in New York, using her bubbly personality to seal deals with up and coming artists and their buyers. This involves travel and looking the part and being at all the right parties. She has maxed out all her credit cards and lives out of two suitcases, house-sitting to put a roof over her head, while everyone thinks she has a flat of her own which she sublets. Sophie could definitely use a hefty cash injection.

The narrative cycles between these three women as well as Paul, who has a burning secret of his own and C J Reynolds the cottage’s prospective buyer. C J is interesting in that he’s just served a term in prison for shooting at his father. Another character with family baggage. He settles into a friend’s lavish home on Maine with the idea of buying in the area and is surprised to have to share the house with two other unusual house guests: an elderly patrician woman and her newly orphaned grandson. This creates some wonderful scenes as the three learn to get along with each other.

The story burbles along between all of the above characters and while they are likeable enough, the author doesn’t shirk from showing us their faults and foibles. The story is paced nicely as Beck does her darnedest to hang on to the cottage and the lengths she will go to. Claire’s story is more of an emotional one while Sophie gets in a tighter and tighter spot as her financial house of cards looks set to crumble.

So, as I said, I simply plowed through the book, thoroughly entertained and curious about how it would work out for all five characters. But to tell the truth the ending fell a little flat for me. Was it a bit too fanciful, a bit rushed? Or was it that when it came down to it, I found the sisters just a bit foolish, annoyingly so even, and not quite likeable enough. So this one’s a three and a half out of five from me. I’ll still hunt out more books by this author though.

Book Review: The Driftwood Girls by Mark Douglas-Home – a twisty mystery involving fiction’s favourite oceanographer

I’d almost forgotten how much I’d enjoyed the previous ‘sea detective’ mysteries and so this book almost slipped under my radar. It’s been a while since The Malice of Waves, Douglas-Home’s previous novel about his beleaguered oceanographer sleuth. Cal McGill runs a small business out of his Edinburgh flat, mapping ocean currents for clients who are missing things – often loved ones – lost at sea. He has pictures of flotsam and jetsam on a pinboard that dominates his living/working space, some of them rather grisly. So yes, he’s an odd sort.

It’s not unusual for him to find himself in a tight spot and at the start of The Driftwood Girls everything seems to be going wrong. After talking to an elderly man who looked set to jump from a bridge, the news media have labelled him as the bad guy when the old fellow disappears. Clients have dropped him like a hot potato and he’s almost out of cash. Then he learns that his old uni friend Alex is dying and is called to make good a promise to bury him in the middle of Alex’s favourite lake, which being illegal, will have to be done post-burial and under cover of darkness.

Out of the blue, Cal is contacted by Kate Tolmie, desperate to find her sister Flora who left a mysterious note with Cal’s name on it. Twenty-years before Kate and Flora’s mother disappeared off the coast of France when she was due to return to her family via ferry. The disappearance was big news at the time but no clues have ever come to light. Kate also hopes Cal can find out what happened to her mother, and there’s a personal connection too. Flora was Alex’s fiancée.

The story switches to Texel, an island holiday spot in the Netherlands, where the body of a young English girl lost at sea washed up, also twenty-three years ago. Here her old school-mate Sarah has made her home, guilt-ridden for not being a better friend. Of course, only Cal can make the connection. And what’s the connection to the death of a beggar at an Edinburgh train station, stabbed in an adjacent alley. All clues point to Kate Tolmie being the killer but DS Helen Jamieson isn’t so sure.

Helen is the other great thing about these books. She, like Cal, is an awkward character, not getting on with her colleagues because of her need to examine all the facts to ensure the right person is put away. Imagine that! Her IQ is off the chart and she’s got a massive crush on Cal. The two have become friends over several cases, but Cal is a terrible person to be friends with as he disappears for months at a time and doesn’t keep in touch.

Friendship is a recurring theme throughout the book – the awkward friendship between Cal and Helen, Cal’s sporadic memories of time spent with Alex, and their friend Olaf. There’s Sarah and her elegant French neighbour, as well as her memories of lost friend Ruth. Friendship has its obligations which can cause strain as much as it enriches people and we can see that here. Then there are all those secrets. Cal is in for a few surprises about the old pals he lost touch with and it is fortunate that Helen is investigating as she helps connect the dots.

This is a lovely twisty read with some really evocative coastal settings that add a ton of atmosphere. You get enough of the science of oceanography for it to add interest without weighing the story down. Mark Douglas-Home deftly weaves together all the plot threads – and there are a few of them – in a way that keeps you up reading to see what happens. All in all it’s a very satisfying mystery, but I hope we won’t have to wait too long before Cal’s next investigation. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Winter Guest by W C Ryan – a ghostly murder-thriller amid the Irish troubles

The Winter Guest is my second W C Ryan novel, both books featuring ghosts, or at least characters who are able to see them. This isn’t a genre that normally grabs my interest, but Ryan makes the ghosts not too ghoulish, sometimes helpful and doesn’t let them take over the plot.

Tom Harkin is an intelligence officer for the IRA. It’s 1921 and Tom has been asked down to the funeral of former fiancée, Maud Prendeville, who’s been killed in a rebel ambush outside her home. Maud lived at Kilcolgan House, the run-down home of Lord Kilcolgan, her father. The family had not fared well during the WWI, losing Arthur, Maud’s brother. So there’s that.

And then Maud got caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, siding with the rebels, which is unusual considering her family background, i.e., Anglo-Irish landed gentry and Anglican. After a narrow escape, she’s supposedly lead a quiet life, having sometime before broken off her engagement with Tom who she’d met at university. Gosh, she’s an interesting victim – it’s almost a shame we didn’t get to meet her properly, before the killer got her.

Maud had been at a card party at her uncle’s, Sir John Prendeville, and had unexpectedly decided not to stay the night – it’s dangerous to be out after dark, as violence erupts in so many ways. Not just the rebels, either. She gets a lift with District Inspector James Teevan, who is also dropping home Maud’s guest, family friend, Harry Cartwright. All three are discovered shot dead, but the IRA rebels swear they left Maud concussed, but still alive.

The elderly couple living at the gatehouse heard a shot go off a few minutes after the original shoot-out. So Tom’s been asked to put his intelligence officer hat on while he’s staying with the Prendevilles for the funeral to find out who murdered Maud. His cover as usual is that he’s an insurance assessor, evaluating a future claim on Maud’s estate.

This is a mystery where it doesn’t matter quite so much whodunit, as whose side they’re on and what secrets they’re hiding. As you read you have to get your head around the politics of the time. Since the Rising the British Army have come down hard on rebel activity, bolstering the local police force (The Royal Irish Constabulary, or RIC) with the Black and Tans recruited from ex-British solders, as well as Auxiliaries, a counter-insurgency unit. In charge of the local Auxies is Major Abercrombie, a shoot first, ask questions later sort of guy. Abercrombie was meant to have been in the car when it was ambushed.

And then there are the ghosts. Tom Harkin, still suffering from PTSD from his time in the war, feels a presence helping him avoid soldiers during curfew. He sees ghosts of men he knows are dead. It’s a shock to meet Sean Driscoll from his old regiment. He thought Driscoll had been killed in the same mortar attack that had wiped out many of his fellow soldiers. But somehow Driscoll survived and now he works for the Prendevilles. There’s a Prendeville ghost too, who Maud’s brother spots just before the ambush, seen only when a Prendeville is going to die.

The Winter Guest is more than an atmospheric country-house mystery – although there’s a ton of atmosphere in Kilcolgan House, with its failing masonry and lingering dead. It’s also a terrific snapshot of a time in history and the pressures of martial law, which seems to bring out the worst in many, and the best in a few. On top of that, Ryan rollicks up the tension as Tom Harkin slowly puts together what happened and why, leading to a nail-biting showdown at the end.

Tom unravels layers and motives, going back in time, plus a bunch of secrets that keep the reader guessing. I wouldn’t mind another mystery for Tom Harkin to solve – he’s an interesting and appealing character. But then I really liked Kate Cartwright from A House of Ghosts too. The author has written some historical fiction as William Ryan, but as W C Ryan, ghosts seem to be the connecting theme, rather than a regular sleuth. It’s an original idea and in Ryan’s skilled hands works really well. I’ll definitely be back for more. The Winter Guest is a four star read from me.

Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancé Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting – the second book in an gripping historical trilogy

It can be tricky reviewing the middle book in a trilogy without giving away key events from the previous book. I read the first book earlier in the year and was captivated by the story of a small town in remote Norway, the ill-fated love-triangle, and the legend of the conjoined twin sisters and the church bells made in their honour.

So when The Reindeer Hunters came out, I was eager to pick up where the story left off. I will do my best not to throw out any spoilers, but if you want to read a spell-binding historical series, ignore this post just in case and get cracking with The Bell in the Lake. (Also, as I might have mentioned before, DO NOT read the publisher’s blurb for The Reindeer Hunters if you haven’t yet read The Bell in the Lake as it contains a jaw-dropping spoiler!)

In The Reindeer Hunters, the story has moved on a couple of decades to 1903 and Pastor Kai Schweigaard has become well attuned to the ways of his parish. He has quite a few regrets over events of the previous book but is a kindly man and wise. He formerly struggled to deal with local superstitions, but of late has been obsessed with finding the Hekne weave. This is a tapestry created by the twin Hekne sisters in the early 1600s, hidden away because of its unpopular Doomsday theme and said to foretell the fate of the last village pastor. It is one thing he can do for the woman he loved and lost, particularly as he has fallen out with her son.

Jehans Hekne lives on a small holding, working the land of his tyrant of an uncle to whom he has promised a reindeer. To do this he must set out on forays in the wilderness with his 1848 chamber charger rifle. He lives a simple life but dreams of a better one, or at least a better gun, when he meets another hunter, Victor Harrison, a well-healed Englishman. The two lay claim to having shot the same reindeer, but good-humouredly strike up a bargain: Victor gets his trophy and Jehans the means to get a new gun. A connection sparks between the two men who are oddly similar in spite of the differences of class and nationality.

The story weaves between the three characters with the legend of the bell in the lake hovering in the background. As the story goes, the bell can only be raised from its watery home by two Hekne brothers with no siblings born between them. But how can such myths still survive at a time when change is coming to this forgotten valley? There’s talk of rail opening up the country, and Jehans, who owes his education to the pastor, can’t help thinking about the possibilities of electricity. Victor is mesmerised by flight.

The Reindeer Hunters is another brilliant read. I thought it might be one of those middle-of-a-trilogy books that languishes from the need to fill in a chunk of plot between the promising beginning of the first book before things crank up to a heart-pounding finale in the third. But if anything, I like this book better than the first. It seems to strike a good balance between big events and the development of its characters.

As the story rolled on towards the end, I couldn’t put it down, quite desperate to know how things would turn out for Kai, Jehans and Victor. If things are going to crank up from here in the last book, I’m definitely going to need a cup of tea and lie down afterwards. If you love historical fiction, this trilogy really is a must-read. The Reindeer Hunters gets a rare five stars from me.

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: 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.