Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I was going to see the movie but wasn’t quite quick enough. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci plus London – I always like London stories – seemed a winning combination. Then there was that nagging feeling I always get: You can’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. And by the time I’d got hold of the book, the movie had moved on from our local cinema and that was that. But at least I still had the book.

And what a powerful read it is. Not that this was surprising – I’d read McEwan before (Atonement, Amsterdam, Sweet Tooth) and he’s a master craftsman. In a nutshell, The Children Act follows Fiona Maye, a judge who presides over family cases, many of them with complex moral issues at heart, and this causes problems with her marriage.

One case in particular, where she had to rule in favour of the separation of baby Siamese twins, leading to the death of one, but safeguarding the survival of the other, caused Fiona to draw away from her husband Jack. So at the start of the book, he is telling her he plans to have an affair unless they can somehow patch things up.ˇ

But Fiona is unable to talk to Jack, she has so much on her place, and his planned infidelity enrages her – surely he must have someone lined up already and this is infidelity in itself. When he packs a bag, it is easier for her to change the locks on the flat and then focus on her current case. Continue reading “Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan”

Book Review: Anyone for Seconds?

9781784297985Anyone for Seconds? is a follow-up book to Laurie Graham’s first novel about TV chef, Lizzie Partridge. Perfect Meringues came out twenty years ago, so it’s been a long wait, but worth it as Lizzie is a heap of fun.

As the story begins, Lizzie is feeling like she’s on the scrap-heap. Her former boyfriend Tom, such a nice chap, seems to have made domestic arrangements elsewhere and she’s never resurrected her TV career since that on-air food-fight in Perfect Meringues. Now Global magazine has just axed her What’s Cooking? column. It’s the last straw. In a desperate bid to be missed, Lizzie heads for the train station and on a whim lands up at a hotel in Aberystwyth.

It’s November, so the seaside town doesn’t have a lot of sightseers. There is a furry conference on, though, and before her return a week later, Lizzie hooks up with a racoon with connections to her past. Back in Birmingham, it’s as if she never left: her elderly mother still ignores her, obviously preferring her younger brother Philip; she has to make appointments just to talk to her high-flying lawyer daughter, Ellie; there’s a mouse in the kitchen and the bills are piling up.

Some chance encounters and a few random events shake up Lizzie’s life so that by the end of the book there’s a promise of new beginnings. Along the way, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Anyone for Seconds? is such a fun read and it reminded me of what I liked so much about Graham’s contemporary fiction. Here’s why you should read it:

  • Lizzie Partridge knows her grub, so there are plenty of interesting food references, if you like that kind of thing. I do.
  • Lizzie is sixty-four. How many heroines do you know who are that age? But she’s terrific in so many ways, which is just as it should be – being sixty-four doesn’t stop her from having a go at romance and taking advantage of new opportunities. Not that this should be surprising. If you read Graham’s Dog Days and Glen Miller Nights you’ll know what I mean.
  • There’s a real feel for the Midlands tone of voice. You can hear the characters speaking without any annoying dropped consonants or quaint expressions. It just seems to happen in your head.
  • Graham is really good at dialogue, which makes the story bounce along. There are numerous phone calls, family dinners, and other verbal to-ings and fro-ings, including a pilot for a TV chat show.
  • Like everything Graham writes, the prose is sparkling, sharp and witty – humour guaranteed.

Four out of five for me; oh, and I wouldn’t pass up a third helping, either.

Review: The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson

The Detective’s Daughter is the first in a series by Lesley Thomson featuring Stella tddDarnell, a solitary forty-something who runs a cleaning company called Clean Slate. Her father, Terry Darnell, a career policeman, had always wanted her to join the force, but a messy divorce and Stella’s resentment that he’d always put his job before his daughter meant that she preferred to do her own thing. She likes things tidy, obsessively so, and being her own boss; Clean Slate is perfect – until Stella’s father dies.

Cleaning out her dad’s house, Stella comes across a file that fascinates her: the case Terry was working on when suddenly struck down by a heart attack. Even though he was retired, Terry couldn’t forget the murder of Kate Rokesmith, strangled in broad daylight while walking with her four-year-old son near the river at Hammersmith Bridge. Her husband Hugh carried the stigma of suspicion for the rest of his life, while little Jonathan was sent to a boarding school to be brought up by strangers. Continue reading “Review: The Detective’s Daughter by Lesley Thomson”

Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham

9781408888148If it was in any way possible to cross a novel by John Le Carré with one by Nancy Mitford, it might turn out a bit like this. MI5 and Me is an account of the author’s time working in the typing pool in the British secret service during the 1950s.

Bingham’s father (also the inspiration for Le Carré’s Smiley) was a distant man who didn’t talk about his work at home. When his daughter shows no talent for making anything of her life, he finds her a job at MI5 where he holds a senior position. At the time, the bureau is mostly concerned with communism, spying on what seem to be perfectly harmless people, breaking into their homes and planting bugs in their telephones. As well as creating endless paperwork – hence the typing pool. Continue reading “Quick Review: MI5 and Me – a memoir by Charlotte Bingham”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles

The Cazalet Chronicles is a kind of historical saga set in England around the years of World War Two. The great thing about it is that there is such a large cast of characters and multiple plot threads, that every time I read it there is more to discover. It follows the Cazalet family of three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, and their families – particularly daughters Polly, Louise and Clary – who each take up a chunk of the narrative. There’s also the unmarried sister/aunt, Villy, as well as elderly parents which provide a link with the past.  Howard published the Chronicles in the 1990s and they were massively successful, with a follow-up book, All Change, in 2013 about the same characters some years later.

What I really like about it: Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: The Cazalet Chronicles”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

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I used to read Margaret Atwood avidly at one time. She is undoubtedly one of the world’s literary greats, and books like The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1987, have found a new readership with its dystopian themes that are oddly resonant today.

But of all her books, it is Lady Oracle that I seem to come back to time and again. It’s heroine, Joan Foster, is a romance writer with a bunch of secrets and a life that regularly gets out of control. When she receives a blackmail threat, Joan reacts true to form by running away. She does this by staging her own death and flees to Italy. The novel pieces together her unhappy childhood; her affair with a Polish count who inspires her to write gothic romances; her marriage to Arthur who seems to be the opposite in so many ways to Paul. Continue reading “Thursday’s Old Favourite: Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood”

Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans

 

The Wildflowers coverSometimes you just need an absorbing read that spirits you away to another place and time and connects with the emotions. Harriet Evans’ new book does just that, delving into the family secrets and tragic events that shape the lives of the Wilde family.

Anthony Wilde is the greatest stage actor of his day; his wife Althea has taken a pause from acting to raise her two children, eventually to become a success on television. They are the beautiful couple, with two beautiful children: precocious songbird Cordelia and her sensitive brother Ben(nedict). Every summer they arrive at the Bosky, the house built by Tony’s gambler grandfather, which nestles just above the sand dunes. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Wildflowers by Harriet Evans”

Thursday’s Old Favourite: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

caseYes, I know they put Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels on television and the series was so memorable you can probably remember the broad shape of each plot. But even if you can remember the ending, as soon as you pick up one of the books – and let’s start with the first one: Case Histories – you know you are in for a really good time.

In case you’ve forgotten, Jackson Brodie is a private investigator living in Cambridge, a failed marriage behind him and trying to be a good father to a daughter he only sometimes sees. He’s middle-aged and smokes but fortunately keeps himself in shape because someone is out to kill him. On his books are a bunch of cold cases when two eccentric sisters ask him to look into what happened to their baby sister thirty years ago.

What I like about this book:

  • This is a really intricately plotted mystery interweaving a bunch of story threads so that you have to keep your wits about you.
  • The character of Brodie who is almost your classic troubled PI – the smoking and broken marriage are dead giveaways – but he’s just so much more interesting than that. Perhaps it’s because he comes from the North.
  • All the characters are interesting, have strong backstories and are richly rendered on the page.
  • Best of all, I love Atkinson’s writing. It shows that she has won the Man Booker a couple of times. She really crafts her prose and yet at the same time, it is lively and readable.
  • Stephen King said it was the best crime novel of the decade – and he could be right.

Books from 2017 I Forgot to Read

It is humbling to look at your Must-Read List and see novels just getting away from you. You pick them up and put them down again because the reading experience is so personal that you know when a book is right for you – and when it isn’t.

Some books need a lot of concentration so you save them for a holiday or a long, wet weekend. Others are just the wrong genre for your mood at the time. Or maybe you wanted to read it but were put off by that negative review, or worse, the review that had too many spoilers in it. And then there are those books you just want to save for a special occasion – like the last chocolate in the box of Belgian pralines. You just never know when you might need it.

So here is my list of really good books I should have read last year but, for whatever reason, didn’t: Continue reading “Books from 2017 I Forgot to Read”

What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?

I’ve done it again – picked up a novel because it was set on a Scottish island. Not that I was disappointed. Keep the Midnight Out is a solid mystery novel featuring Alex Gray’s regular investigator, DI Lorimer. I enjoyed it so much I plan to read the rest of the series, even if I do have to cross the water to the mainland.

And while I do have ancestral connections to the Isle of Skye, I know I’m not the only one to really enjoy these Scottish island settings – the remoter the better. Once you’re on an island, cut off from super-fast broadband and other tricks of modernity, well, anything can happen and so often does. Continue reading “What’s So Special About Scottish Islands?”