Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.

Book Review: Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton

Canadian author, Kate Hilton describes her latest novel as a divorce comedy, although there’s a wedding as well, and a treasure trove of family secrets. In the opening pages, Zoe is not looking forward to Christmas, as she is reluctant to reveal that she is getting a divorce. Christmas is tense enough, without dropping that bombshell.

Along with Zoe’s parents, who are hosting the festive meal, plus her brother Zack, we meet Zoe’s uncle and feminist icon Aunt Lydia, and Lydia’s daughters and grandchildren. Zack has won fame and fortune writing a TV sitcom loosely based on the lives of his famous aunt and her family, for which he has never been quite forgiven.

Lydia’s daughter, Beata, is particularly bitter about it, but she has enough to deal with with her teenage son, Oscar, discovering that he wasn’t the product of a sperm-bank after all and has already made contact with his father. Enter, Will, an old pal of Zoe’s from her university days, and also a colleague of Beata’s partner, Eloise. Eloise just happens to be the lawyer handling Zoe’s divorce.

Meanwhile, still on Christmas day, things are obviously not going well in Zoe’s cousin Mariana’s marriage to shiftless but charming Devlin. Things reach a crunch when Mariana snatches up Devlin’s phone and smashes it to bits in the kitchen.

Hilton gets her book off to a flying start, with so much going on with in the lives of Zoe, Mariana and Beata. They’re all great characters – engaging and interesting – while the impossibly high bar set by Aunt Lydia for the younger women in her family hovers in the background. No wonder they keep secrets from each other – secrets, which are due to all come out sooner or later.

The book reminded me a little of Emma Hope’s Expectation, in that we have the same well-meaning pressure from an older generation of feminist women on their daughters whose lives haven’t quite turned out as they’d planned. In Better Luck Next Time, we are reminded how hard it can be for women to ‘do it all’ – manage children, careers, marriage and be true to themselves. Mariana is a journalist who has had to sacrifice writing the important political stories she’s so good at so she can support her family. She ends up writing publicity for a ‘wellness’ company, an industry Hilton sends up beautifully.

There are plenty of amusing scenes, including a feminist rally that turns nasty and a bridal shower which makes you wonder why anyone would ever get married. The book gallops towards another, somewhat, happier Christmas, an ending where its characters have learned a lot about life, love and themselves. This is a funny yet thoughtful novel, with characters you really warm to and plenty of digs at the fads and obsessions of modern life. Just what you want in a comedy for our times. A four star read from me.

Book Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

One of the things I’ve always liked about Anne Tyler is her knack for unlikely characters. There’s never going to be a stereotypical character in a Tyler novel – they’re often a bit quirky, but oddly ordinary as well. Certainly they’re not the kind of people you meet a lot in fiction. Take Micah Mortimer for instance, the main character in Redhead by the Side of the Road.

You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

Micah’s one of those quiet, fanatically tidy, routine driven men of a certain age, whose life could go on the same way for decades. He looks after his apartment building for a reduction in rent (sending out emails about the importance of flattening milk cartons before they go in the recycling), while running his Tech Hermit business, solving people’s home computer problems.

Not only is Micah pernickerty about his cleaning routine (kitchen floors every Monday), he likes to think of himself as a model driver, sticking to the rules, taking care when parking, while an imagined Driving God smiles benignly. All the same his inclination to do the right thing also extends towards people, like his neighbours, but sometimes he misses important signals.

Two things happen that upset his routine. The teenage son of a former girlfriend turns up on his doorstep, wondering if Micah might be his father. Brink Adams (Wouldn’t you know he’d have a name like “Brink”, surmises Micah – something about the blazer and the haircut) ends up staying the night, upsetting the order of Micah’s day, leaving him to wonder why Brink isn’t at college and how to get in touch with his mother.

And when his girlfriend, Cass, phones him with her own problem, fearing eviction because of her cat, Micah doesn’t offer much consolation and Cass dumps him. Suddenly his head is filled with what might have been, not only with Cass, but with Lorna, Brink’s mother, all those years ago.

This is a quiet little story – just nudging 180 pages – and as such seems perhaps less substantial than novels like A Spool of Blue Thread, or Searching for Caleb, with their look at families through the generations and the interactions of characters over time, their secrets and motivations. And yet, Tyler really nails the character of Micah and creates a beautiful little drama about him. It really is the perfect little book and sometimes a small story is just right. An easy four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

Escaping to a Greek Island where you can live cheaply for a year just so you can focus on your art, bask in the sun, swim and enjoy the delights of love, food and wine – what an idyll. Hydra in 1960 was just such an island, captured here in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson. Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston are established on Hydra and help out newly arrived artists eager to take a break from the rat-race to finish their novels, paint or create poetry.

It is where eighteen-year-old Erika holes up, still grieving the death of her mother and escaping a volatile father, London rain and the typing pool. With her is her boyfriend, emerging poet Jimmy, and brother Bobby and his girlfriend. There’s a connection with Charmian through Erika’s mother, and an expectation they can find a cheap house.

Madly in love, Erika doesn’t mind doing the donkey work – making sure they have clean water, meals and fetching ice to keep their food fresh. Charmian takes pity on her and encourages her to write – she sees in Erika a daughter figure, but also the watchfulness of a budding writer.

And there’s plenty to see – in particular the twenty-five-year-old Leonard Cohen, fresh off the boat with his guitar, eager to finish his first novel. But he’s distracted by Scandinavian beauty, Marianne Ihlen who is caught in a disastrous marriage with Axel Jansen, himself an enfant terrible of the literary world in Norway.

As well as a hub for expats coming and going, Charmian and George’s house becomes a second home to Erika. But the pair have financial problems, drink too much and argue a lot, George has poor health and issues with jealousy. Ah, the lives of the bohemians. Shaking off conformity and the rules of the nine-to-five working life, this enclave of creatives explore many new freedoms, break each other’s hearts and live like characters from bacchanalian scenes on a Grecian urn.

Samson has done a mound of research to bring these artists to life, helped no doubt by the records made not only in their writing, but in the pictures of Time-Life photographer, James Burke. The novel is in many ways a social history, highlighting the emergence of the counter-culture era that would turn into the swinging sixties, but also the feminism that waits in the wings.

And boy is it needed as several key female characters are left holding the baby, wiping the weary brows of their men, playing muse and ignoring their own careers. There is a lot in the book to think about as you read about the endless parties, the infidelities and drunken escapades. In the background the conservative local Greek population must have been pleased with the extra business garnered at the time the sponge industry was drying up, while shaking their heads at the various improprieties.

There are a lot of names – you might want to keep the Internet handy. I struggled to keep up with the different personalities that swept through. But I felt a strong sense of being there; Samson describes the island using all five senses and this alone makes the book really quite wonderful. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly Madly Guilty is a novel about ordinary people. They’ve all got their quirks and kinks of temperament, their baggage – some more than others. Simmering with problems, insecurities and resentments, the characters are all set for some kind of train wreck; the setting: an ordinary suburban barbecue.

Moriarty creates a powder keg of volatile ingredients a bit like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. Three families who probably shouldn’t really be friends come together to socialise: There’s Sam and Clementine and their two little girls, Holly and Ruby. Clementine is a cellist, anxious about an upcoming audition; Sam is stressed about the way their finances depend on a his new job in advertising where he feels out of his depth. It’s all causing a toll on their marriage.

Erika is socially awkward and, like her husband Oliver, works in accounting. They are a fit, childless couple and to many seem a bit boring. But both have had terrible childhoods which has helped them connect with each other, if not with other people. Erika was foisted on Clementine as a child, and the two have been friends ever since, although sometimes Clementine wishes Erika was less friendly with her mother and wasn’t always in touch.

Erika and Oliver invite their friends for afternoon tea to put forward a proposal, carefully planned before the two families head next door to a barbecue hosted by wealthy and gregarious Vid and his glamorous younger wife, Tiffany. Vid has recently discovered classical music and becomes a bit fixated on Clementine; Tiffany has something of a shady past. The two little girls are entertained by Tiff and Vid’s ten-year-old daughter Dakota, but sometime later on, with much alcohol having flowed and one or two secrets revealed, something terrible happens.

Moriarty has a knack for feeding out just enough information to get the reader interested, switching timeframes from some weeks after the event, during a period of persistent rain, and the day of the barbecue. We don’t discover exactly what happened until halfway through the book, and not entirely until near the end. The story is told from several perspectives, filling in all the details and building up characters you can feel empathy for. They are so ordinary and yet so unique, after all.

Can the three couples come back from what happened? Rebuild their lives? Learn from their mistakes? There’s also an interesting commentary on class and wealth running in the background, the snobbery associated with money or with talent.

Truly Madly Guilty is a very smart novel with some very poignant moments and a few surprises. I hadn’t ever read a book by Liane Moriarty before, and this will certainly not be the last, striking for me a happy balance between entertainment and something to think about. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

The Bird family seem to have everything: a yellow brick house in the Cotswolds with a big, rambling garden – the perfect family home. Their mother, Lorelei is a happy, hippie, stay-at-home mother who does lots of fun things with her kids. She holds yearly Easter Egg hunts and keeps all her children’s art to hang on the kitchen walls – all of it, forever! There’s Dad/Colin, an amiable, shambling academic, and four kids: confident Megan, beautiful Beth, Rory, who’s everyone’s mate. And then there’s Rhys.

Rhys was Rory’s twin, a sickly baby who has grown into a quiet, brooding child who nobody likes. When tragedy strikes, cracks appear in the cement that had once held the Bird family together, and each of them struggle in various ways. In particular, Lorelei, with her habit for keeping anything she felt sentimental about, now a chronic hoarder.

The book opens with Meg and her teenage daughter, Molly, having returned to the old Bird family home, to clear it out of all the teetering piles of junk Lorelei has collected over the years and to prepare for her mother’s funeral. Slowly the rest of the family drifts home to help.

The House We Grew Up In follows various characters as it fills in the gaps between then and now. Often we are with Meg who is compulsively tidy, some of the time we’re with Beth who can’t seem to get her life together enough to leave home. Then occasionally we’re with Rory who has a habit of throwing in his lot with the wrong people. And then there are Lorelei’s emails to a man she’s met online

With all different different points of view and shifts in time, the novel can take a bit of concentration to keep track of it all. I was nipping back and forth a bit, checking dates, calculating ages. Was it worth the effort? Definitely yes. Jewell is a brilliant writer when it comes to families that seem happy on the outside and what could go wrong with them and why. She gets you to care for her characters, even when they mess up, and these guys do big time.

And then there’s the guilt. Everyone has something to feel guilty about and with that comes the secrecy. How do members of a family come to terms with the wrongs of the past to rebuild those relationships that were once so special? The House We Grew Up In takes you through all of this and makes you realise that even the seemingly nicest, ordinary people can do very destructive things without meaning to. Another engrossing read from Jewell and a three and a half out of five from me.

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.

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.

Book Review: Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey

I discovered this series with the first book, The Dark Lake, which introduced beleaguered police detective Gemma Woodstock. She’s got a lot of baggage, which is relevant to the first novel and here, a couple of books later, things aren’t getting any easier in Where the Dead Go.

Gemma has temporarily left Sydney to return to small town Smithson due to her ex-partner’s death. They have a young son, Ben, although they haven’t been together for a few years, Gemma having made a new life in Sydney with charismatic, older and wiser, Mac. Gemma just makes it through the funeral, when her old boss Jonesy is asked to pick up a missing person’s case in the coastal town of Fairhaven. Jonesy can’t spare the hours, so Gemma ups stakes and bolts, eager to leave the claustrophobic town of her upbringing and immerse herself in work, taking young Ben with her.

This causes all sorts of disapproval – from her dad, from her friends, from Mac. But Gemma is headstrong and sees work as her refuge. The case – a fifteen-year-old girl who vanishes after a party – is tricky with few leads. Possible suspects include Abbey’s ex-boyfriend and her violent father. Plus there are some texts on Abbey’s phone from a mystery man who seems to be stalking her.

Bailey does small towns really well. The way everyone knows everyone and talks about them behind their back. The secrets that no one wants to share with strangers, let alone a strange police woman. Gemma is up against it all. She’s filling in for a Detective Inspector who’s had a car accident and has a grudge against women high achievers like Gemma. Her team vary from being hostile – in the case of detective de Luca, another woman who’s battling the DI – and incompetent. And then there’s the fact that the case reminds Gemma of another girl who went missing in Sydney and who she failed to save. That case is still giving Gemma nightmares.

Soon there’s a death and then Gemma is threatened, reminding us why she should never have brought Ben to Fairhaven. The setting of a seaside town that makes it’s living off a transient holiday population adds atmosphere. Danger builds up to a point where Gemma’s life is at stake and there are some brilliant action scenes.

But the real tension is in the character of Gemma herself. She’s impulsive, forgets to look after herself, and ignores Mac’s frequent texts and phone calls. As a reader I was frequently begging her to pick up the phone, to check back on Ben, to get the heck out of there. While the story seemed to sag a little in the middle with all the characters and interviews and forensic reports, I know I will return to the series to check in again on Gemma – she’s just so interesting. Three and a half stars from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.