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: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

I’ve been meaning to try this series for ages, and here we are, fifteen books later, the series having quite gotten away from me. The Coroner’s Lunch is the first in the Siri Paiboum mysteries featuring an elderly Laotian coroner a year or two after Laos was taken over by the Communist Pathet Lao Party.

Following a career spent devoted to the party, Dr Siri may have felt it was time to enjoy retirement, but with many of the educated classes having decamped for Thailand, the medical profession is thin on the ground. Before you know it, he’s been hustled into the role of Chief Coroner. It’s obviously not a glamorous position – the morgue is rudimentary at best. Fortunately he’s got help: Dtui a fan-mag obsessed nurse with career aspirations and Geung the Downs Syndrome morgue attendant who never forgets the details that matter.

When Dr Siri receives his first murder case, there’s a lot of pressure to sign it off as an accident. A party official’s wife has died of poisoning at a banquet but there are no clues and pretty soon, no body either. More cases suddenly pile up including three dead Vietnamese soldiers who bear the marks of having been tortured before being dumped in a Laotian lake. Dr Siri’s going to have to tread a careful path with both if he wants to avoid ending up dead himself.

It’s a little difficult to say what mystery sub-genre the series is. There’s a touch of the cosy mystery here with a coroner learning things as he goes along, a bit like an amateur sleuth. And you’ve got the exotic setting and period time-frame. But there’s a wit and intelligence to the story in the way Cotterill captures not just Laos but what living in a new Communist regime might be like, and how it might clash with the old ways. This is rounded out with some great characters and lively dialogue.

Siri, in particular, is a terrific character with a dry sense of humour plus the wisdom of his years. Having trained at medical school in Paris he became a fan of Simenon’s Maigret novels, though all too soon he was able to figure out the crime well before the Sûreté. So, for such a logical thinker, why is he visited in his dreams by the newly dead – often with important messages to pass on? There is more than a touch of the supernatural creeping into the book, but all is explained in an entertaining way that ties in with some old Laotian belief systems.

I particularly enjoyed the audiobook reading by Gareth Armstrong who makes Dr Siri come alive and numerous cast of characters he interacts with. Not knowing anything much about Laos didn’t spoil my enjoyment, and I look forward to the next books in the series – I have after all got a lot of catching up to do. A four star read from me.

Book Review: On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

The genre of On Turpentine Lane a little hard to define. In the end I decided it was part chick-lit, part comedy of manners and part mystery – in this case a delicious concoction, particularly when seasoned with Lipman’s sharp and witty writing.

The story is told from the point of view of Faith Frankel, who has returned from the big city to live in her home town and work at her old school, writing thank you notes to sponsors. I didn’t know there were jobs like that, but there are others in her department who are tasked with benefactors of a higher order, including Nick, her office-mate and fellow conspirator.

While Faith’s fiancé is off walking across America to find himself, she buys a cute but run-down cottage on Turpentine Lane, while said fiancé posts pictures on social media of himself with attractive women. Meanwhile, Faith’s parents are having marital problems, her father leaving his job in insurance to reinvent himself as a painter – specialising in Chagall knock-offs personalised for the buyer with images of their children or pets. Then there’s the worry of Faith’s brother, who has never managed to feel confidant dating new women after divorcing his faithless ex.

Mystery arrives in the form of some abandoned junk found in Faith’s attic: an old cradle and pictures of twin babies labelled with their birthdates and the date two weeks later, the time they were ‘taken’. The assumption that she is looking at pictures of two dead babies and stories of how the previous occupant murdered her husbands sets Faith on a quest of discovery. As you can imagine, she doesn’t feel all that comfortable alone in her home anymore, but help comes in the form of amiable Nick, kicked out by his girlfriend for failing to propose and needing a room.

Throw in some office politics and there’s a lot going on for poor beleaguered Faith, and the plot just crackles along. The bonus of the sparky, intelligent writing means there’s a lot to enjoy. Elinor Lipman has written a dozen novels – On Turpentine Lane comes in at number eleven – and I am happy at the thought of checking out the others. If they are half as good as this one they are worth a look. The reading of this audiobook by Mia Barron was suitably bright and had me chuckling as I listened. Four out of five from me.

Quick Review: Twenty-One Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

What You Need to Know About This Book:

  • It’s about Dan and his failure to make any money from his bookshop;
  • Dan hides this fact from Jill, his wife, who wants a baby;
  • Dan loves Jill and will do anything to save his marriage except tell Jill the truth;
  • Dan worries he comes up short when compared with Peter, Jill’s previous husband who died;
  • Dan becomes increasingly desperate to make a lot of money fast;
  • He thinks of crazy schemes such as selling diapers emblazoned with helpful advice; ‘No Thank You Note Required’ greeting cards; and robbing a bingo hall;
  • Dan’s therapist once suggested he keep lists as a way to manage his anxiety;
  • Twenty-One Things About Love is written entirely in Dan’s lists.

The lists vary from poignant to wry to very funny, and capture the randomness of Dan’s thoughts, e.g.:

  • The list about Bingo with Bill (the old guy Dan makes friends with at bingo who has the same view of happiness as Don Draper)
  • Field & Stream’s Rules of Gunfighting
  • Any of the lists that feature Dan’s Laws of the Universe (Walk around with Diet Coke and half a dozen assholes will tell you how bad it is for you. Walk around with diet root beer and no one says a word)
  • Things I wish I Had Known 20 Years Ago When I Was 20 (Peppermint schnapps is not an acceptable substitute for mouthwash)
  • Deep thoughts related to food (If you’re going to more than one grocery store in a week, you have too much time on your hands and have somehow elevated the quality of your heirloom tomatoes over time spent with your family)
  • Dan’s 6 Rules of Drinking Stories (Drinking stories never impress the type of woman you want to impress; Even the best drinking stories are seriously compromised if told during the daytime and/or at the workplace)
  • Weird Things I Do ( I don’t look at the pilot when boarding a plane in fear that he will remind me on an idiot who I know)

What’s Great About This Book:

  • Clever sequencing of lists such as Reasons I fell in Love with Jill, followed by Reasons I Wouldn’t Have Married Jill If I Hadn’t Fallen in Love with Her gives you insightful information about the main characters quickly
  • There’s a bunch of peripheral but interesting characters (bossy Kimberley who thinks she should manage the bookshop; good-guy Steve who should manage the shop; Bill from bingo; Dan’s batty mother; Jake the successful, smart-arse brother; Dan’s father whom we never meet but who sends Dan letters he refuses to open)
  • The story builds to a gripping climax as Dan plans a crazy scheme to solve his money woes
  • The scheme involves a major felony
  • You don’t know if he’ll carry it out or not
  • You hope he doesn’t and this adds to the tension
  • Jake learns a lot more about love by the end, as well as about life
  • You will probably like the ending

I can’t help but congratulate the author on his ability to bring together humour, quirky characters, escalating tension and, of course, lists to tell a great story. A four star read from me.

Audio Review: The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

The Arrangement follows the lives of happily married but struggling Owen and Lucy, two New Yorkers who have moved out of the city to small-town Beekman. Here they have become ensconced in the local community – helping out at the school, fundraising, barbecues with friends, and gossip. They have a son, Wyatt, who’s on the autistic spectrum and that means Lucy is always tired and it’s hard to find a caregiver for a bit of respite.

When friends over for dinner, and quite a bit of wine, reveal they are planning an open marriage, Owen and Lucy balk at the thought. Somehow the idea festers and the couple agree to give the concept a trial of six months. Something to nip any wandering thoughts in the bud and make them a stronger, happier couple, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what I liked about the book:

  • The novel is very funny. It captures all the silliness of modern life – the keeping up with the Joneses, the guilt trips over daft things, the pretensions and fads.
  • The characters of Owen and Lucy are very believable and likeable. Their relationship seems strong. But the result of the ‘arrangement’ is that Owen behaves like a young bloke having a final fling/s while Lucy runs the risk of falling in love with someone else. Well, what do you know?
  • There are some very funny supporting characters: Izzy, Owen’s bat-shit crazy girlfriend who becomes more and more demanding; Sunny Bang, Lucy’s tell-it-like-is Korean friend who finds Lucy a ‘partner’; the billionaire with the trophy wife who forgot to have her sign a pre-nup; the hefty beekeeper who sat on a small dog while on a date – an event which caused him to vanish and change his life entirely.
  • There are some hilarious scenes: such as when Owen is caught depositing Izzy’s used plastic bags at the supermarket recycling bin by a sanctimonious neighbour and has to pretend they are his; a blessing of the animals at church when a dog monsters one of Wyatt’s chickens and the llamas bolt into the churchyard.
  • The natural dialogue and its snappy New York ring.

“I think it’s a huge myth that women can’t have meaningless sex,” said Victoria. “You should see these millennials in my office. All they do is have sex, all the time. The girls, the guys. They’re not worried about getting AIDS or getting pregnant or being called a slut. They’re all vociferously opposed to slut-shaming in any form.”

“Slut-shaming?” Owen asked, rotating the cheese plate and slicing off a hunk of Jasper Hill cheddar.

“Yeah,” said Victoria. “It’s a thing.”

  • The reader Ellen Archer has done an amazing job of giving life to all the characters and making them sound different without sounding ridiculous. Men and women alike. I really loved her Sunny Bang. I am not sure I would have enjoyed the novel nearly so much if it wasn’t for Archer’s performance. I imagine if I read the book in print form, I would be looking at a three-star read, maybe three-and-a-half; as an audio-book, it happily earns an extra star. Another reason to give audiobooks a go.

Jackson Brodie – the plot thickens

As I continue to read Kate Atkinson’s popular series, I ponder if any of the books can be as good as the first one – Case Histories.

One Good Turn is next, a hundred pages longer than Case Histories, with a shift in setting from Cambridge to Edinburgh. Jackson is here for the arts festival. Girlfriend Julia (yes, that Julia) is in a play, otherwise Jackson would be somewhere else – anywhere else probably, arts festivals not really being his thing. He witnesses an extreme case of road rage, and on a visit to an island, finds the body of a young woman, whom he can’t quite save from the tide. He reports his findings to the police but they think he imagined it all. Jackson seems to be constantly getting into trouble one way or another. We also meet Edinburgh detective Louise Monroe, who is really more Jackson’s type than Julia.

The story switches to follow Martin Canning, an unassuming period-mystery writer, another witness to the road rage incident. Here, in a rare moment of bravery, Martin intervenes against a madman with a baseball bat. He becomes caught up in the lives of victim and attacker in ways he never expected.

And then there’s Gloria, whose dodgy businessman husband has had a major coronary while in bed with a Russian prostitute. Young Russian women feature in all the story threads, one way or another, and the eventual connection between these threads is appropriately symbolised by the recurring image of Russian dolls.

One Good Turn is another terrific read, with a clever and complex storyline. As always Atkinson deserves a medal for characterisation and snappy dialogue, while the plot is pacy enough, once you get used to the constantly shifting narrative points of view. As you might expect, there are plenty of twists with a stunning surprise saved for the last page. Not quite as enjoyable as the knock-out Case Histories but still a respectable four out of five from me.

Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

bagYou may remember Crooked Heart, Evans’s novel set during World War II about a middle-aged grifter on hard times and Noel, her young evacuee. The story provides an original view of wartime life, smart and witty with some brilliant characters. Among them is Mattie, Noel’s godmother who makes a brief but memorable appearance at the start of the book. So memorable in fact, that Evans has devoted a new book to her: Old Baggage.

The story takes place in 1928 as the suffragette movement finally sees franchise for women on equal terms with men. (When women got the vote in 1918, it was for property-owning women over thirty only). Mattie Simpkin is a former suffragette in her late fifties, who with old campaign chum Florrie, puts on talks about the battle for the vote and holds forth to anyone who pauses to listen. Ever the campaigner, the story concerns Mattie’s discovery that there’s no point giving women the vote if they have no knowledge of politics, history or the world at large. She starts a group for young girls called the Amazons who learn vigorous activities on Hampstead Heath (javelin throwing, slingshots and archery) as well as taking educational excursions, camping out and debating. Continue reading “Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans”

Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde

artWhen my aunt died and we all met back at her house following the memorial service, of course, I prowled her bookshelves. She had quite a collection, having been for many years a speech and remedial reading teacher. In her living room were all the classics, in smart hard-cover editions, and I have no doubt she’d read them all, often. But in her bedroom was a whole shelf of Nora Roberts and another of Katie Fforde.

Now I have never been able to get into Nora Roberts, even if she is one of the world’s best selling authors. But the Katie Ffordes looked inviting with their pretty covers and whimsical titles so I always meant to read one.

Recently I picked up Artistic Licence, which is about thirty-something Thea, a former photo-journalist. A bad experience with her ex had sent her off to the Cotswolds, where she finds a part-time job in a one-hour photo shop and takes in student lodgers. She’s in a bit of a rut, when Molly, her bossy friend, whisks her off on an artists’ retreat in Provence where she meets gorgeous young painter, Rory. Continue reading “Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde”

Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam

funeralWhen I went on holiday recently, I packed an assortment of books knowing I would have a few quiet hours away from the Internet and Netflix. I usually like to include an old favourite – you don’t want anything that will be too hard to get into on holiday – and that usually means Anne Tyler, one or two Agatha Christies or a Jane Gardam.

The Summer After the Funeral is a short novel about a family coming to terms with the death of their father, an elderly clergyman. Rev. Price had a kind of allure with women and fathered three children in his dotage, but unfortunately, Mrs Price and her family must leave the rectory to her husband’s replacement. She concocts a convoluted scheme of passing her children round to various acquaintances and family for the summer while she goes job hunting. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam”