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.

Book Review: Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

There is something about a New York novel – and Alternate Side could be the quintessential New York novel – that always seems to appeal. Maybe it’s because New York is one of those cities that people dream of calling home (like Paris or London, for that matter) – the culture, the food, the parties the opportunities…

And so it is for Nora Nolan, who turns up in New York after college, and here meets Charlie. Alternate Side is partly the story of their marriage, and their finest achievements as a couple – their twins, Rachel and Oliver. And then there’s their house. The Nolans live on a quiet block of infinitely expensive Victorian houses, with a dead-end which makes it even more of an enclave.

They attend parties and barbecues with their neighbours, watch each other’s children grow up, use the same handyman: Puerto Rican Ricky from the Bronx. They all have nannies and housekeepers – for the Nolans, it’s Charity from Jamaica. And to give Nora credit, she does sometimes feel conflicted that all the people she knows have immigrant hired help, black or hispanic, who come from poor neighbourhoods.

Their children, their dogs, and housing prices: the holy trinity of conversation for New Yorkers of a certain sort. For the men, there were also golf courses and wine lists to be discussed; for the women, dermatologists.”

The story begins with Charlie beaming with glee, having finally been offered a space in the street’s only parking lot – an empty section which once contained a house and now has room for a select half dozen cars. As you can imagine, these spaces are highly sought after. When a violent incident occurs, involving Ricky and one of the Nolans’ more insufferable neighbours, things are never quite the same for anybody. Suddenly the gaps between the haves and the have-nots are obvious to all, not just Nora, as issues of racism and entitlement in connection with the block make the news.

Alternate Side is about keeping up appearances, as well as that old adage, be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Everything seems to fall into Nora’s lap – her job setting up a jewellery museum (only in New York, right?) is one of a string of interesting work opportunities that always seem to come her way. Her marriage: Charlie appeared just at the right time when Nora was suffering from a broken heart. What is it Nora really wants? That is the question.

“People go through life thinking they’re making decisions, when they’re really just making plans, which is not the same thing at all.”

The story though is very much in the telling. Anna Quindlen writes with both wit and wisdom and I found myself chuckling at the snappy dialogue and Nora’s wry outlook, her interactions with Phil, the panhandler who takes up space on the path outside the jewellery museum, the obnoxious notes distributed by neighbour George about rules on use of the parking lot. There is so much to enjoy here as well as a story to make you think – and all set in New York. I loved it. A four and a half out of five from me.

Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I can’t quite put my finger on what I found so engaging about Ann Patchett’s latest novel. But once into the story (around the second paragraph), it soon became the book I wanted to drop everything for and sit and read.

The Dutch House is told over several decades from the point of view of Danny Conroy, the son of Cyril, a property developer, and his missing mother. It’s the missing mother that’s a key part of the story, the woman who abandoned her family when Danny was three, his sister Maeve ten, to go to India and help the poor.

Maeve becomes ill with diabetes when her mother leaves and nearly dies, and the children are raised by their housekeeper and cook. These two kindly sisters help fill the gaps, until Cyril marries again and brings to the Dutch house a gold-digging blonde and her two young daughters. It’s hard to know if Andrea loves Cyril, but she certainly loves the house – a large glass monstrosity filled with ornate furniture and portraits in oil that were left behind by the VanHoebeeks, a family blighted by tragedy who made their fortune in tobacco.

Andrea isn’t the step-mother any child would want – there’s a hint of Cinderella here – so it’s lucky that Maeve is about old enough to take over Danny’s parenting when their father suddenly dies. The novel follows their relationship over the years, their bitterness over Andrea and her stealthy theft of their inheritance, and Maeve’s plot to cream off the only thing their father left them: an education fund. Too bad Danny doesn’t really want to be a doctor. Glimpses of their feelings about events from the past are often recounted in scenes outside the Dutch house in Maeve’s car at night – the two of them smoking and staring, waiting for Andrea to appear, though she never does.

What makes the book so entertaining is Danny’s narrative. I was reminded of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) with the laid-back, intimacy of the storytelling. But Danny is a complex and interesting character, charming in many ways, but with a cruel kind of indifference as well. You can tell he’s been messed up by his parenting, but he and Maeve, the mother/sister he adores, gradually come to terms with the past when several key events take place.

And that’s really all it is. One of those ‘happy families are all alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ kind of novels. It’s told with the present and past artfully woven together and this makes it compelling. It isn’t a big story, filled with nail-biting moments of high drama or sweeping events around people caught up in history. But there’s a heap of heart here and some big ideas about what it is to be a parent, a son, a family; about money and goodness; about memory and love. All the important things, revealed in a simple story about a Philadelphia family. I loved it. A five out of five read from me.

Some Hot New Books to Look Out For

If your reading appetite is a little jaded, try these new books by authors who are masters of their craft.

Kate Atkinson has a new Jackson Brodie novel just out, nine years after last one – something I never thought I’d see. In Big Sky, ‘old secrets and new lies intersect in this breathtaking novel by one of the most dazzling and surprising writers at work today’ according to the blurb and yes, I imagine they do because when she isn’t writing crime fiction, Atkinson has made a name for herself as a master of literary fiction, winning a host of literary awards. So she’s not going to be the author who pumps out a couple of page-turners a year just to keep her Jackson Brodie fans happy. The reason they’re so good is that they’re written by a literary author, and not just any literary author. Atkinson is the master of the interesting sentence, which melds into the interesting paragraph, and from then into the surprisingly good chapter and you know where this is heading. So yes, I’ll be happy to get my hands on. Very happy.

We all remember The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon’s breakout novel about a boy on the autism spectrum who sees something suspicious next door. It was a brilliant piece of characterisation, laced with humour and insight. There have been a few books since, but The Porpoise has whetted my curiosity in particular as it is a reworking of the Shakespearean story of Pericles, one of the least known late plays, so quite a new direction for this author. There’s a missing child, pirates, shifts from present day to ancient times with elements of fantasy. So never a dull moment, I should imagine.

I loved Anna Hope’s previous novel, The Ballroom – an original story around two marginalised characters who find themselves incarcerated in a mental institution and who unexpectedly fall in love. It’s 1911, and people have been talking about eugenics and sterilisation of the ‘unfit’, although in England at least, it didn’t quite come to that, fortunately. Hope’s new book, Expectation is a contemporary novel about friendship – in particular, about two women who at the outset have youth, energy and high hopes for the future. Ten years on, they are still struggling to have a meaningful life. Maybe this isn’t the most original of premises, but I shall be eager to see what Hope does with it.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is about the family of a Philadelphia property magnate, particularly his two estranged children told over five decades. Once wealthy, the brother and sister are left to fend for themselves – something of an evil step-mother scenario here – and the bond between the two will either save or ruin them further. Since Commonwealth and State of Wonder, Patchett is on my must-read list. She writes such amazing characters and gripping, suspenseful storylines, so I can’t wait for this one which has a September release date.

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith would seem to have some of the same key ingredients as his stunning 2011 book, Bright and Distant Shores. The new book takes us to Fort Lee, New Jersey and the beginnings of cinema in the US as well as Paris – City of light – plus the Belgian battlefields of World War I. History and personal obsessions collide in this sweeping drama. Smith is a consistently good historical novelist and this is sure to be a worthy addition to the pile on my bedside table.

 

I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…

It’s Sea Week – yes, we do this every year – and it made me think about some of the books I’ve enjoyed that are set on or near the sea. Here’s a small sampling:

C S Forester’s Hornblower books

When you start with Mr Midshipman Hornblower, the first book in the series, it’s hard to stop until you’ve read a good half-dozen of the novels. Maybe it’s because some of my ancestors were in the Navy at a similar time, (that is, the Napoleonic Wars and decades following), but I find Foresters’ accounts of sea battles and his main character’s tactical ingenuity really exciting. Forester also develops Hornblower’s character as a man, a husband, lover and father, revealing the difficulties of being away at sea for years at a time.  Apparently the real-life figure of Thomas Cochrane (later Lord Dundonald) inspired the Hornblower character. Continue reading “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again…”

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”