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.

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.

Book Review: Motherland by William Nicholson

Does anyone write about the human condition with as much heart as William Nicholson? Reading his novels always gives me the impression that he loves his characters as if they were family. He brings us their stories, but also their frailties and dreams, as if he’s been through exactly what they’re going through himself. Often set against an interesting background of political or social upheaval.

In the case of Motherland we start off in the middle of World War II. It’s 1942, and three characters meet and fall in love. Unfortunately, both Larry and Ed fall for Kitty when they meet her in Sussex. She’s an ATS driver, a job she enjoys, while Ed’s a Royal Marine commando and Larry, who’d rather be painting, is a liaison officer with Combined Ops under Mountbatten. Ed and Larry both went to the same school and are each other’s oldest friends, which makes this love triangle even harder to navigate.

Kitty chooses Ed, who is dashing and exciting, but also has a darkness to his nature, probably a problem with depression. Meanwhile Mountbatten and his team are planning a raid on Dieppe, using the commandos and the Canadian Infantry stationed nearby. Larry begs to go, even though he doesn’t have to fight, and he and Ed are caught up in one of the worst military disasters of the war. Thousands of casualties, and while Ed is made a hero, an accolade he loathes, Larry has to come to terms with his lack of bravery in the heat of battle.

The effects of Dieppe on all three, but particularly Ed and Larry, resonate through the book, as each settles into life post-war. Ed struggles to find a vocation and Kitty has to give up work, expected to devote her life to husband and child. Larry tries to make a go of painting, at the risk of disappointing his father who wants him to join the family banana importing company, which had made their fortune.

Mostly the book seems to be Larry’s story. We are with him as he witnesses the effects of the partition of India in 1947 (he briefly joins Mountbatten’s lot again), and later, the exploitation of workers in Jamaican banana enterprises. We have a window into his heart and his abiding love for Kitty, but also onto some of the big events of the 1940s. There’s a collection of supporting characters who each are well-rounded and have their own issues: Kitty’s ATS friend Louise who has never had as much luck with men as Kitty and decides to marry the owner of the estate where the troops are stationed – ineffectual but kind-hearted George. There’re the women in Larry’s life who just aren’t Kitty. Each gives us a glimpse of the narrow roles men and women played in mid 20th century society, and the problems entailed in wanting something else.

Motherland has characters that appear in other books by Nicholson, such as Ed and Kitty’s daughter Pamela who is a protagonist in Reckless, set against a backdrop of 1960s London and the Profumo Affair, while news of the Cuban Missile Crisis has everyone on edge. Another great read and evidence that Williamson loves his characters enough to give them more books. I’m happy with that. Motherland is a three-and-a-half-out-of-five read from me.

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

normalNormal People won the last Costa Award, as well as being long-listed for the Man Booker and the Woman’s Prize for Fiction. So I knew it would be good. And it is in many ways. The novel concerns Connell and Marianne, two young people who at the outset of the novel are in the same year at school. They kind of click even though Marianne’s family are wealthy and Connell’s mother cleans their house.

The story follows their on and off again relationship over their last year at high school and through university – they both go to Trinity College in Dublin. What gives the book its dramatic tension is that both characters are damaged – Connell being the kid from a bad family, with all the insecurities which that implies, while Marianne feels unloved, is mocked at school and suffers abuse at home. Throughout, they somehow remain friends, see other people, do a lot of soul-searching and struggle with their emotions. Continue reading “Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney”