Book Review: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

I’ve read a few books where lighthouses appear in the story, often in a metaphorical sense as an evocation of hope or constancy, or even desire. These ideas also appear in Emma Stonex’s novel The Lamplighters, but here the story follows the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families and the very real lighthouse which is the men’s home for a large part of their working year. Inspired by real events, the book takes us into the world of three lighthouse keepers in 1972, and what happens when their lighthouse is found abandoned, the keepers missing, but the door locked and bolted from inside.

You have to be certain kind of person to be in the lighthouse service. Principal Keeper, Arthur Black, likes the quiet and solitude of his eight-week stints on the remote lighthouse known as the Maiden. The service gives the men a cottage on the nearby Cornish coast, but he doesn’t seem to miss his wife, Helen, who waits for his return. He’s considered a good man, able and sound and obviously kindly, but have all his years in lighthouses taken their toll?

Postcards never finished; postcards never sent. I tear them up and drop them into the sea so I can watch them float away. In another life, a lucky one, I see the pieces washing onto shore. She’ll find them, gather them to her, put them back together. It will all make sense.

Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, is from a family of lighthouse keepers and was never given the choice to be anything else. You can tell he’s had enough but then he’s almost at the end of his eight-week stint, so naturally he’s looking forward to his time on shore. At home with three young children, his wife Jenny finds the eight weeks the hardest, and fills her days filling the cake tins, and drinking.

The third keeper is the young Supernumerary Assistant Keeper, Vincent Bourne. He’s had a tough life, in and out of foster homes, and then in and out of prison. But when he meets Michelle, he determines to turn his life around and have the proper family he’d missed out on. The Service offers him a chance and when he’s made Assistant Keeper, he’ll get a cottage too. So while it might be easy to blame the mysterious disappearances on bad-lot Vinnie, he seems the least likely to lose it and do something rash.

The story flips to 1992, when an adventure-thriller writer revisits the events of twenty years before, planning to write a book and solve the puzzle. Told through the viewpoints of the three women left with no answers, but a financial to keep quiet, secrets start to emerge. The tension escalates, as the story switches back to the days leading up to the tragedy, as well as describing the sensitive relationships of the women on land. The ending is taut and you rush through the pages to find out what happened, in a small way comforted in the resolution for those left behind.

This is a masterful novel, written in elegant and at times poetic prose – maybe it’s hard to avoid if you are writing about the sea and the weighty themes we traditionally associate with lighthouses. The novel makes these themes all the more real but in new ways. It’s a psychological novel too, getting inside the heads of the men and their women, picking out their motives and triggers, their passions and resentments.

Emma Stonex has done her research well and the books she lists as inspiration are books that look well worth a read. I can’t help thinking that lighthouse keepers are forgotten heroes and want to know more. I’m going to stick my neck out and give The Lamplighters a rare five out five.

Man Booker Prize Musings

The Man Booker Prize is one of the highlights of the serious reader’s year. So when the long list comes out, as it did a couple of weeks ago, people begin to speculate. (Click here for the 2021 list.) I wish I was enough of a serious reader to read more of them and, in a mood to see what I may have missed, trawled through a list of previous winners. It was heartening to find I’d read quite a few so I’ve listed a few of my personal highlights.

Favourite Man Booker winners:
A tricky one this as they are so varied, but the most memorable for me are as follows:


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
This one’s special because it has an interesting historical background, loaded with atmospheric physical settings (Italy and the Egyptian desert), four complex and interesting main characters, a tragic love affair and gorgeous writing. You can tell Ondaatje is a fairly decent poet, the way he paints images with words.

Possession by A S Byatt (1990)
This dual time-frame novel about academic rivalry is subtitled ‘a romance’, but it is also a brilliant mystery. Two young academics – one English and one American, follow a paper trail to discover a little known romantic entanglement between two Victorian poets (loosely based on Christina Rossetti and possibly Tennyson or Browning). Terrific plotting makes this intelligent read hard to put down.

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
This novel follows the Hegarty family as it comes together for a funeral in Ireland for one of its sons, Liam, who has taken his own life. Its narrator, Veronica, is also rather damaged and speculates about things that happened in the past to cause the death. An intelligent novel which looks at the human psyche and family interaction told in Enright’s unmistakably dry tone that is such a pleasure to read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
One of the longer books on the list at 688 pages, yet for me it just whizzed by, bringing the court of Henry VIII to life and in particular, his man for getting stuff done, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel has a style you either love or hate, which is very vivid, present tense and right in Cromwell’s head.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
I reviewed this book last January and still think about it – click Milkman for the post.

More Man Booker Mentions:
In 1986, Margaret Atwood’s shortlisted title, The Handmaid’s Tale, lost out to Kingsley Amis’s novel, The Old Devils.

I have read four of the shortlisted titles the year Iris Murdoch won the prize for The Sea, The Sea in 1978. My best effort yet, but remember I’ve had over forty years to get there. Including the winner, the other titles are: God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam; Jake’s Thing by Kingsley Amis and The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The longest Man Booker Prize winner I’ve read is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which won in 2013, and which took a bit of an effort, I must admit. I read the first half quickly and began to tire towards the end, but enjoyed it over all.

The shortest Man Booker Prize winner I have read is Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (at 140 pages) which won in 1979. Although without a word count, it is difficult to be sure as 2011’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is only 10 pages longer. If you factor in typography and layout, Barnes might pip Fitzgerald to the post for making every word count.

If you have any personal Man Booker favourites or interesting asides, do drop in with a comment.

Book Review: The Dig by John Preston

This could be the greatest story you’ve never heard of – well, it was for me until the Neflix movie version came out earlier this year. It had a terrific cast including Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes playing Mrs Pretty, owner of Sutton Hoo, and the man (Basil Brown) she hires to investigate the ancient burial mounds on her Suffolk property. The film had much going for it, including costuming that had me longing for the comfort of classic tailoring.

When I came across the book by John Preston – first published in 2007 – I was happy to revisit the story which is just so interesting. Not only did Sutton Hoo offer up a hoard of fantastic Anglo Saxon treasures: a stunning metal helmet, bowls, amulets and jewellery – a quick trip to google will show you – but it was also encased in a ninety foot ship. Of course the ship’s timber had long since rotted to nothing, so how Basil, and the archaeologists who followed, sensitively excavate the site to reveal it is a wonder.

When Basil discovers a coin the site is soon shown to date from around the seventh century AD – so not a Viking hoard, as first thought, but Anglo Saxon. Suddenly people’s opinions of the what were termed the Dark Ages were challenged. The departure of the Romans from Britain didn’t seem to herald a time of barbarism, barren of any artistic sophistication after all, if the stunning artefacts were anything to go by.

And while the reimagining of all this is enthralling enough, the characters are engaging too. We follow several viewpoints, beginning with Edith Pretty, a frail widow in her late fifties who wants to excavate the mounds before her health fails or there’s a German invasion – this is the summer of 1939. She has a young son, who’s at a loose end having lost his governess, so he chums up with Basil. We’re also in the mind of Basil who’s not an academic, but knows his soil. When the British Museum gets involved, he and Mrs Pretty are sidelined.

This creates plenty of tension and intellectual snobbery which brings in some terrific scenes and personality clashes. Also on the dig is newly married Peggy Piggott (apparently a relative of the author’s) who is helping her university professor husband. Already cracks are appearing in their marriage, and things get complicated when Edith’s young cousin, Rory, turns up on his bike with his photographic equipment.

While the film gives you the visuals to imagine the excavation site, the book adds lots of interesting detail – although the author has taken a few factual liberties, as he explains, ‘for dramatic effect’. I would recommend both for anyone who loves history and archaeology, or a cracking good story. Incidentally, John Preston is also the author of A Very English Scandal – another book on my wish list. The Dig gets a comfortable four out five from me.

Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

I’d heard so many good things about Anxious People that it’s been on my Must Read list for a while. And yet a book about an attempted bank heist which turns into a hostage drama isn’t my usual cup of tea. But this is no crazy Bruce Willis and thugs with sub-machine guns story. It’s about ordinary people, strangers who get caught up in an interesting situation and kind of get to know each other.

As the title would suggest, they’ve got problems. The bank robber, following a broken marriage is also suddenly unemployed. No income means no means to pay the rent and that means no home for the kids. The bank won’t lend the robber money either. The story is also about Jack and Jim – the two police officers called to the scene of a hostage situation at an apartment hosting an open home. It’s New Year’s Eve, not an ideal time for an open home, but the door’s open, so that’s where the bank robber escapes to. We learn Jack’s story – how he mightn’t have joined the police, alongside his father, Jim (a bumbling but kindly officer), if he hadn’t witnessed a suicide on a bridge.

The suicide’s story is similar to the bank robber’s. How the banks lost the victim’s savings and assets, which left him with nothing and a family to support. Jack tries to stop him, and fails. The next day visiting the bridge he stops a young girl from jumping too. The girl is later revealed as a character in the story, unbeknownst to Jack, as is the bank manager who couldn’t help the first victim. Jack’s experience as a fifteen year old drives him to want to help people, though these days he mostly just seems to help his father.

Meanwhile the story of how the bank robber escaped and the backstories of the hostages are explored as the book progresses. There is plenty of humour and philosophical meanderings. Thoughts on what makes a happy marriage, a happy life are mulled over by the bank robber and the hostages as they all start getting to know each other. There’s a ton of quotable moments – if you want a snapshot just check out those listed on GoodReads.

“They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.” 

The hostage drama turns into quite a nice little get-together over pizza. Fortunately for all concerned there’s a massive traffic jam on the highway out of Stockholm and the designated police negotiator takes a long time to arrive. So everything’s left to Jack and Jim, and the hostages themselves, to work out a solution.

Anxious People is a quirky, feel-good read with plenty of twists, secrets revealed and interesting connections. The story jumps between character to character, dips back in time and allows the hostages to tell their stories and come up with answers. I haven’t read Backman’s previous books (A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asks Me to Tell You She’s Sorry are two titles that spring to mind), but now I’m keen to read more. This one’s a four out of five read from me.

More New Books on the Horizon

There’s been quite a bumper harvest of terrific books recently – perhaps they were delayed because of lockdowns and now we’re catching up. Anyway, here are some new titles by authors I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past and so naturally I’ve added them to my Must Read List. It’s a pretty varied list, but that’s books for you.

First up is The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson. You might remember this author’s debut, the feel-good novel told in letters, Meet Me at the Museum (click on the link for my review). With a title like this, The Narrowboat Summer sounds instantly appealing, echoing Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, with it’s a story of three women and a dog on a canal boat. Eve’s escaping her career of thirty years to become a free spirit; Sally is taking a break from an indifferent husband and the two are rescuing Anastasia, who needs a life-saving operation. I don’t know what the dog’s problem is. It’s a novel of second chances and the power of friendship. Another feel-good read promised.

In Snow Country Sebastian Faulks returns to themes relating to the First World War and its aftermath – good news for all of us who fondly recall Birdsong – with a novel set in a sanatorium surrounded by snow and on the banks of a silvery lake. Journalist Anton Heideck is commissioned to write a story about the mysterious Schoss Seeblick where Lena had escaped Vienna to take a menial job. ‘A landmark novel of exquisite yearnings, dreams of youth and the sanctity of hope‘ promises the blurb. The setting and the rumblings of another war will be sure to add to the atmosphere. Snow Country is out in September.

The Heron’s Cry by Anne Cleeves is the second in the author’s Two Rivers series set in North Devon. Detective Matthew Venn is called to investigate a very staged looking murder – a woman stabbed with a shard from one of her glassblower daughter’s vases. Another similar murder and complications involving Matthew’s partner, Jonathan – well, it’s a small town after all – and you can tell it’s going to be another page turner. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book. I loved The Long Call (catch up with my review here), but as Cleeves has her Vera Stanhope series on the go as well, it’s been a long wait. Cleeves writes engaging character-driven crime novels with plenty of twists and secret motives. Throw in some interesting detectives and colourful English settings and what more could you want?

Mrs England by Stacey Halls is the latest from the author who brought us the historical novel about witch hunts, The Familiars. In her third book, this time with an Edwardian timeframe, Ruby takes a job caring for the children of a well-to-do Yorkshire family when strange things start to happen. What begins as a fresh start for our protagonist soon looks like history repeating itself and Ruby finds herself ostracised and alone. Big houses and chilling settings, women battling the powerlessness of their station in life – these seem to be recurring themes for Halls who could be following in the footsteps of Susan Hill, Daphne du Maurier and Wilkie Collins. ‘Simmering with slow-burning menace,’ says the blurb for the new book.

Trio by William Boyd is a novel some pundits are picking for the Man Booker Longlist and it nearly slipped under my radar. Definitely time to put it on the list then. Set during the turbulent year of 1968 – a time of student protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobbie Kennedy, the Vietnam War – it follows characters caught up in a movie being shot in Brighton. Efrida is struggling with writer’s block and drinking too much; glamorous Anni can’t figure out why the CIA should have her on their watch list; while Talbot has a secret. It looks like classic William Boyd territory – the lives of everyday people made extraordinary by circumstances and the politics of the day. Might have to bump this one to the top of the pile.

Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s new book begins in 1944 Italy, as English troops are engaged in the push back agains the Germans. We’ve got a meeting between two unlikely friends: Evelyn Skinner a sixty-something art historian sojourning in Tuscany with fellow lesbian Margaret; and a young soldier, Ulysses Temper. Temps, as his mates call him, chances upon Evelyn and introduces her to his erudite Captain Darnley and the three discover a painting which has a big effect on the young soldier.

Oh, drop the Miss, for God’s sake, said Evelyn, sitting down next to him. My name’s Evelyn. And yours?

Ulysses.

Ulysses! How wonderful! And is there a Penelope waiting for your return?

Nah. Just a Peggy. And I doubt she’s waiting, and he turned the ignition and the jeep pulled away.

Temps is from London’s East End, the son of a globe-maker, a fitting occupation for a man named Ulysses. He paints delicate versions of the Earth on carefully prepared spheres, but his experiences in Florence will stay with him long after his return. A chance interception of an attempted suicide will bring him back here, but not before we’ve been introduced to his fellow Eastenders who make up a kind of family, and the 1940s spin into the 1950s.

Winman creates some wonderful characters here, all of them centred on the Stoat and Parrot – the pub owned by Col, a cantankerous publican with permanent dyspepsia. Col runs through girlfriends in alphabetical order, blaming the Shakespeare-spouting parrot for the desertion of his wife. But he’s got a disabled daughter to raise, a naive innocent. Fortunately Peggy’s on hand, taking the girl under her wing along with old-timer Cress who talks to a tree and keeps an eye out for everyone.

Peggy is Ulysses’s wife – a hasty marriage brought on by the start of war, but his time away has Peggy form an attachment to American soldier, Eddie, and left her with a daughter, Alys. When Eddie fails to return, Peggy belts out her blues in song at the Stoat and Parrot, accompanied by Pete, when he’s not in a show. The reader gets enough of the gritty post-war London with it’s slow rebuild and pea-soup fogs to want better for this odd family of characters. It comes in the form of a legacy which has Ulysses, Cress and young Alys (who Ulysses loves like his own daughter) move to Florence accompanied by Claude, the parrot.

From here, the story weaves through the decades, and Ulysses makes new friends and learns to love the Italian lifestyle. He chucks out his demob suit for a sharp Italian look and Cress learns to cook pasta. Our friends from the Stoat and Parrot will drift here for visits and longer stays, watching the big world events play out – the moon landings, student demonstrations, assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK – as the world recreates itself after the recent wars.

Still Life is a feast for the senses. The food alone in this book is worth reading it for – I pulled out an Italian cookbook destined for a second-hand fair, determined to revisit some of these classic dishes. As well as the food and wine we have sweltering summers, scented gardens, wonderful art (and poetry), the music of the day, romantic attachments of all kinds, shown with sensitivity and warmth.

I loved the characters, but particularly Ulysses, who unlike his namesake, is sensitive, charming and caring, quietly missing Peggy who he can’t seem to forget. Still Life is a lively book full of lifelike people who learn to live and love again in a wonderful new place (there’s also a quirky lack of punctuation when it comes to dialogue, which took a bit of getting used to). It’s also a hymn to Florence, and if you’ve been there before, Still Life will bring it all back for you. A book that charms on many levels, it’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Felicity McLean’s debut novel novel has been described as The Virgin Suicides meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. Set in small town Australia, the book is told in two time frames, and begins when Tikka Molloy returns home to reconnect with her sister Laura who isn’t well. She can’t stop thinking, had they did the right thing twenty years ago when their friends, the three Van Apfel sisters vanished. She looks back on that sweltering summer when she was eleven and the events that led up to their disappearance.

Tikka is a great child narrator – she reminds me a little bit of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, if we’re thinking of book comparisons here. She’s smart and imaginative and comes from a loving family. At the corner of their street live the Van Apfels and Tikka and Laura spend a lot of time there as the family has a pool. The Van Apfels attend a fundamentalist church – their dad, though outwardly genial, is particularly strict and this causes tension with his wayward thirteen-year-old daughter Cordelia.

There’s a lot of Tikka trying to make sense of her world and understand what’s going on with the grown-ups, and the tension that seems to lurk at the Van Apfels. There’s a new teacher, Mr Avery, who has a mysterious past that may have included a stint in prison – as rumour has it. So along with the simmering heat there is plenty of simmering tension as the school plans its big, Showstopper concert at an outdoor amphitheatre, for which Tikka has written her own skit and where events build to a climax.

In true Aussie Noir style, the landscape plays a big part in this novel. The mangroves around a brackish estuary create a sinister backdrop (Tikka complains of an unpleasant smell); the empty landscape beyond; the heat bouncing off the tarmac. It all adds to the mood and tension of the book. And there is a hint of the unreliable narrator about Tikka. How accurate are her memories from childhood? Even now as an adult she still can’t help looking for Cordelia (Cordie) at railway stations, at busy intersections, her blonde head just disappearing around corners, failing to stop when called. The Van Apfel girls may have disappeared that summer, but a part of Tikka seems to have been lost as well.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is an impressive debut, a character driven mystery that is also quite the page-turner. There is plenty of humour with the way McLean re-imagines childhood, the rivalry between sisters and between classmates, the rumours and the secrets, the superiority of the older kids. This balances out the sadness of what happens and the feeling of lost innocence which runs through the story. Not a long book, McLean’s novel is well worth picking up, and heralds a promising new author to look out for. A four out of five read from me.

New Books from Old Favourites

Twenty twenty-one is turning out to be a wonderful year for me as a reader as several authors I really enjoy return with new books after a bit of a hiatus. It’s interesting seeing what they come up with after an interval and compare the new books with old ones. And it also offers the chance to reread some old favourites and think about why you liked the earlier books in the first place.

Marika Cobbold‘s Guppies for Tea was a heart-warming, family story about Amelia and her struggle to care for her much-loved grandmother, now showing signs of dementia. She’s also battling a mother with an obsession with germs and a defecting boyfriend, but Amelia finds help in unexpected ways. I really enjoyed this novel, and would also recommend Shooting Butterflies as well as Cobbold’s previous book Drowning Rose, both of which have characters revisiting the past in a way that changes their view of their lives. It’s been a quiet ten years from Cobbold since then, but just published is On Hamstead Heath. Here’s what the blurb says:

“Sharp, poignant, and infused with dark humour, On Hampstead Heath is an homage to storytelling and to truth; to the tales we tell ourselves, and the stories that save us”.

Sarah Winman‘s latest book, Still Life, is only her fourth in ten years and therefore something to be excited about. When God Was a Rabbit was one of those love it or hate it books, if GoodReads is anything to go by. I found it brilliant and original, so that puts me definitely in the ‘loved it’ camp. Now I have a reader’s copy of Still Life and the first page has me hooked already, even though I’ve three other books already on the go. What to do?

Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

Esther Freud‘s debut novel, Hideous Kinky, is a story from Freud’s own childhood and concerns a woman living the hippie dream in Morroco with her two young daughters. They live a hand-to-mouth existence and the reader feels for the girls who really need more stability and well, safety. It was made into a film starring Kate Winslet (also worth a watch). There followed a string of very readable novels, her last outing, Mr Mac and Me (2014), set during WWI and has a basis in the true story of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh, a mysterious visitor to the south of England as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Coming soon in July is I Couldn’t Love You More, which according to the blurb is:

A sweeping story of three generations of women, crossing from London to Ireland and back again, and the enduring effort to retrieve the secrets of the past.

Out of interest, Freud’s lineage includes the painter Lucian Freud (father) and Sigmund Freud (great-grandfather).

Andrew Martin has been busy. He’s always got some new project on the go, it seems, fiction and non-fiction, but it’s been a while since he abandoned, or so I thought, his wonderful Jim Stringer railway detective series. The series has taken us from the early 1900s with Jim as a mere teenager, through marriage and war service, to France, the Middle East (The Bahgdad Railway Club is a particular favourite) and to India. The mysteries are full of wonderful north of England wit, odd-bod characters on either side of the law, enough action to keep things humming along and, well, trains. Jim is always battling the establishment, various railway bosses, while attempting to keep ‘the wife’ happy. Eight years after Night Train to Jamalpur was published, here we suddenly have a new Jim Stringer mystery to look forward to. Powder Smoke comes out in November.

Clare Chambers has been one of my favourite authors in the field of contemporary fiction, particularly for her warmth and wit and quirky characters. I’ve already reviewed her new book, Small Pleasures, which wove a story around a couple of historical events from the late 1950s – an interesting departure for this author but still showcasing her gift with characters and humour, but with a darker theme this time and a powerful emotional punch. It sent me off to her previous works and I enjoyed myself hugely rereading In a Good Light as well as The Editor’s Wife. I seriously hope she doesn’t abandon her writing desk for another decade before releasing a new novel, as she’s just so talented.

Historical Novels in the Spotlight: The Walter Scott Shortlist

Being a lover of historical fiction, the Walter Scott Prize is a highlight of my reading year, bringing to my attention some stunning new authors and reminding me of some old favourites. This year’s shortlist has already got a couple of books on my To-Read List, but the others look amazing as well. And three of the short-listed books are by Australian authors, which is also pretty interesting. Here’s a quick summary.

First among the Aussies is The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte. During the German invasion of Russia in WWII, Paul Bauer is the doctor tasked to set up a field hospital at the former estate of Leo Tolstoy. Evoking the French invasion under Napoleon which is a key element in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the story describes Paul’s troubled relationship with hostile, aristocratic Katerina, and the unhinged behaviour of Paul’s commanding officer. ‘A poignant, bittersweet love story – and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world,’ says the blurb. Sounds a goodie to me.

The second Aussie novelist to make the list (we’re strictly alphabetical here) is old hand Kate Grenville and her new book A Room Made of Leaves. The book is a kind of imagined memoir by Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of a notorious Sydney wool baron back during the early colonial days, describing her marriage to a ruthless bully. The book gives her a voice and according to the blurb is ‘a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented’. Grenville who penned the terrific Secret River trilogy, is brilliant at colonial history, but is an original writer too, so it’s not surprising this book has made the lists of several book prizes.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel is the final book in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, who was the guy that made things happen for Henry VIII – his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s becoming the head of the Church of England, and so on. Mantel has a vivid present tense style which makes the history all come alive and shows Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to immense power, from all sides. The last book will deal with his downfall, which probably won’t be pretty, and which is why, in spite of enjoying the previous two in the trilogy, I have yet to pick up the third. But it’s only a matter of time. Once I start reading, I know I’ll be hooked.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell describes events when William Shakespeare is away working in London and his twin children fall ill with a fever. Like many of O’Farrell’s novels Hamnet is sure to be original and difficult to describe so here is what the publisher says about it: ‘It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.’ This sounds mesmerising and since I always enjoy Maggie O’Farrell’s novels this one’s been on my To-Read List for a wee while.

Finally, with our third Aussie contender, we’ve The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It’s the story of Esme, daughter of one of the compilers of the first ever Oxford English Dictionary. Motherless and left to her own devices, Esme decides to gather together all the words the compilers leave out of the dictionary for being in some way ‘objectionable’. Words like ‘bondmaid’ are tossed aside. This and other discards seem to relate to women or the lower classes. The story is set at the time of the women’s suffrage movement and with a world war looming, we know all sorts of social change is just around the corner. As a person who always likes to have an OED to hand and having heard great things about it, I’m eager to read this one. And another pretty cover too.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Pearl of Penang to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I’ve often really enjoyed those Six Degrees of Separation blog posts that connect books, often books that would never normally appear in the same list. Thinking I’d have a go, here’s what I came up with when I finished The Pearl of Penang by Clare Flynn. Incidentally, these are all books I’ve enjoyed immensely.

The Pearl of Penang is set from 1939 and on into the war years among Malaya’s expats where it seems to be all gin slings and tennis parties, in spite of the havoc in Europe. Reality eventually hits home with the Japanese attacks on South East Asia and the fall of Singapore. It is an engaging story about Evie, who’s missed the marriage boat, stuck working as a lady’s companion, mouldering in rural England and desperate for change. So she accepts a terse proposal of marriage by mail and winds up in Penang, trying to win the heart of her distant but devilishly handsome new husband. I could have gone for Jane Eyre here, as there are definitely a few similarities, or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. But no, the terrible events that race you through to the end of the novel describing the effects of war on ordinary people are what haunted me most. So, it had to be:

Flight by Elephant by Andrew Martin. This author took time out from trains and his Jim Stringer series to write an amazing non-fiction book about a dramatic rescue following the Japanese invasion of Burma. As the monsoon threatens to make the Chaukan Pass into Assam impenetrable, a group of Indian army soldiers, civilians and their Indian servants turn to Gyles Mackrell for help. He’s a tea planter in his fifties, also a decorated WWI pilot, but more importantly he’s good with elephants. As the Japanese close in, Mackrell and his elephant riders battle rising floodwaters, leeches, biting insects and disease to save the lives of people half dead with starvation and fever. It’s a nail-biting read beating hands down just about anything you could hope to find in fiction for thrills and daring-do.

And speaking of elephants, who would have thought a baby elephant entering the life of a retired policeman could lead to a fabulous new crime-solving duo? The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan is set in Mumbai, a modern, teeming city and not the ideal place for a baby elephant, particularly if you live in a high-rise apartment building. But when Ashwin Chopra leaves his office for the last time, puzzling about the death of a drowned boy – a case his superiors don’t regard as suspicious – he finds he suddenly has to take on responsibility for a baby elephant. This Mumbai is a brilliantly rendered setting, and there are plenty of plot-twists as Ashwin and elephant Ganesh deal to the bad guys. I could follow this one up with another animal detective story, possibly featuring cats or dogs, but these really don’t do it for me. However, there’s a lovely subplot involving a misunderstanding between husband and wife, and their eventual reconciliation.

Another book about a couple going through a hiccup in their marriage is Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. Forty-year-old Delia Grindstead feels taken for granted, misunderstood, and not knowing what she wants in life. Her husband is a doctor who joined her father’s practice and got to choose one of the three daughters. Like a fairy-tale, he picks the youngest and prettiest, the one who thought she never stood a chance. Years later, she is still living in her childhood home, her children almost grown, the youngest a surly 15 year old. On their annual vacation at the beach, Delia has the impulse to walk away. Wearing only a swimsuit, a beach wrap, and espadrilles, she hitches a ride to wind up in a small town, where she begins a new life. She just wanted to start again ‘from scratch’, she says. How she finds a place to live, a job, then becomes immersed in the lives of the townsfolk makes for a heartfelt and quirky story.

Someone else starting again ‘from scratch’ is Aidan Bishop in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. A guest at a country house party at a place called Blackheath, Aidan has no recollection of why he’s there, finding himself running through the grounds at night when he hears a woman’s scream and gunshot. The next day he wakes up in the body of a different guest and learns from someone dressed as a Medieval plague doctor that to escape Blackheath he must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. He has eight days, waking up each morning as a different guest or servant, reliving the same day. But all is not what it seems and there are further surprises in store for the reader in this most original of novels that reinvents the country house murder mystery as we know it.

Another novel that brings the reader back to square one, time and time again, is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Ursula Todd is born in 1910, and then because of heavy snow and no medical help at her birth, she dies. Darkness fell. The next chapter, Ursula has another go at life in a novel that puts her through all kinds of mis-steps and disasters including the Spanish Flu, sexual assault, an abusive marriage and the Blitz. Of course, the upheavals of the twentieth century play a big part in the story, but at least Ursula has the chance to get things right in her own life with each reincarnation. The story works on a more personal level, showing the effects of traumatic events on the decisions we make in life later on. Interestingly, both Life After Life and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle won the Costa Awards.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (another Costa Award winner) also features an unforgettable heroine who like Ursula, is a survivor. Eleanor, a victim of childhood abuse and trauma, has evolved into a version of herself that makes her awkward around others to the point of rudeness. She is intelligent enough to hold down her job in the finance team for a graphic design company, but has no friends and gets through the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka. But this is fiction, and as the reader would expect, Eleanor is going to change. How she deals with her past and allows others into her life creates a memorable story told by a more than memorable narrator. This novel is set in Glasgow – a strikingly different setting from Penang where we began.