Quick Review: Twenty-One Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

What You Need to Know About This Book:

  • It’s about Dan and his failure to make any money from his bookshop;
  • Dan hides this fact from Jill, his wife, who wants a baby;
  • Dan loves Jill and will do anything to save his marriage except tell Jill the truth;
  • Dan worries he comes up short when compared with Peter, Jill’s previous husband who died;
  • Dan becomes increasingly desperate to make a lot of money fast;
  • He thinks of crazy schemes such as selling diapers emblazoned with helpful advice; ‘No Thank You Note Required’ greeting cards; and robbing a bingo hall;
  • Dan’s therapist once suggested he keep lists as a way to manage his anxiety;
  • Twenty-One Things About Love is written entirely in Dan’s lists.

The lists vary from poignant to wry to very funny, and capture the randomness of Dan’s thoughts, e.g.:

  • The list about Bingo with Bill (the old guy Dan makes friends with at bingo who has the same view of happiness as Don Draper)
  • Field & Stream’s Rules of Gunfighting
  • Any of the lists that feature Dan’s Laws of the Universe (Walk around with Diet Coke and half a dozen assholes will tell you how bad it is for you. Walk around with diet root beer and no one says a word)
  • Things I wish I Had Known 20 Years Ago When I Was 20 (Peppermint schnapps is not an acceptable substitute for mouthwash)
  • Deep thoughts related to food (If you’re going to more than one grocery store in a week, you have too much time on your hands and have somehow elevated the quality of your heirloom tomatoes over time spent with your family)
  • Dan’s 6 Rules of Drinking Stories (Drinking stories never impress the type of woman you want to impress; Even the best drinking stories are seriously compromised if told during the daytime and/or at the workplace)
  • Weird Things I Do ( I don’t look at the pilot when boarding a plane in fear that he will remind me on an idiot who I know)

What’s Great About This Book:

  • Clever sequencing of lists such as Reasons I fell in Love with Jill, followed by Reasons I Wouldn’t Have Married Jill If I Hadn’t Fallen in Love with Her gives you insightful information about the main characters quickly
  • There’s a bunch of peripheral but interesting characters (bossy Kimberley who thinks she should manage the bookshop; good-guy Steve who should manage the shop; Bill from bingo; Dan’s batty mother; Jake the successful, smart-arse brother; Dan’s father whom we never meet but who sends Dan letters he refuses to open)
  • The story builds to a gripping climax as Dan plans a crazy scheme to solve his money woes
  • The scheme involves a major felony
  • You don’t know if he’ll carry it out or not
  • You hope he doesn’t and this adds to the tension
  • Jake learns a lot more about love by the end, as well as about life
  • You will probably like the ending

I can’t help but congratulate the author on his ability to bring together humour, quirky characters, escalating tension and, of course, lists to tell a great story. A four star read from me.

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge first appeared in the eponymous novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for author Elizabeth Strout. A local personality in the small Maine town where Strout sets her books, Olive makes brief appearances in several other books so it isn’t surprising there is a new book about Olive. She seems to be one of those characters who has plenty more to say.

Olive used to be a school teacher in Shirley Falls, so that everyone seems to have a recollection of her in the classroom. Olive is loud, unfailingly honest and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So I imagine she would have been a formidable teacher, and probably effective. She’s also sharp when it comes to seeing what’s going on with people and capable of surprising moments of kindness.

In Olive, Again, we catch up with Olive now widowed but with a new relationship on the cards with ex-academic Jack who drives a sports car and can be a bit of a snob. The book treats us to a series of episodes in Olive’s life which read like short-stories and which overall create a picture of Olive’s later years, now in Crosby, Maine. There’s a story about how she attends a baby shower – not really her kind of do at all – and somehow ends up delivering a baby in a car. We have her and Jack having dinner in a restaurant called Gasoline, where they bump into an old flame of Jack’s; another when Olive’s son Christopher visits with his wife and young family and the argument that ensues when Olive tells him about Jack.

Other stories are about entirely different characters – the old man who goes for a walk while remembering a girl from college who committed suicide and then does something exceptional; there’s the elderly couple who learn to accept the difficult news their daughter has to tell them. Some feature Olive as well so we see her from other people’s eyes. We even catch up with Jim and Bob, the two lawyer brothers from the novel, The Burgess Boys, and their problematic marriages.

Lives of quiet desperation seems to be a recurring theme, but there’s also humour, particularly around Olive, and hope too. Often there are turning points in people’s lives as well as the questions: Was it all my fault? Where do I go from here? Olive herself has plenty to feel sorry for, but seems capable of learning, accepting and moving on. Along the way she touches the lives of others one way or another. It makes for a very compelling and thoughtful collection. I was happy to return to small-town Maine and see what Olive has been getting up to again and I really enjoy Strout’s perceptive, character-driven storytelling. Like Olive, she doesn’t pull any punches. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Motherland by William Nicholson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audio Review: The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

The Arrangement follows the lives of happily married but struggling Owen and Lucy, two New Yorkers who have moved out of the city to small-town Beekman. Here they have become ensconced in the local community – helping out at the school, fundraising, barbecues with friends, and gossip. They have a son, Wyatt, who’s on the autistic spectrum and that means Lucy is always tired and it’s hard to find a caregiver for a bit of respite.

When friends over for dinner, and quite a bit of wine, reveal they are planning an open marriage, Owen and Lucy balk at the thought. Somehow the idea festers and the couple agree to give the concept a trial of six months. Something to nip any wandering thoughts in the bud and make them a stronger, happier couple, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what I liked about the book:

  • The novel is very funny. It captures all the silliness of modern life – the keeping up with the Joneses, the guilt trips over daft things, the pretensions and fads.
  • The characters of Owen and Lucy are very believable and likeable. Their relationship seems strong. But the result of the ‘arrangement’ is that Owen behaves like a young bloke having a final fling/s while Lucy runs the risk of falling in love with someone else. Well, what do you know?
  • There are some very funny supporting characters: Izzy, Owen’s bat-shit crazy girlfriend who becomes more and more demanding; Sunny Bang, Lucy’s tell-it-like-is Korean friend who finds Lucy a ‘partner’; the billionaire with the trophy wife who forgot to have her sign a pre-nup; the hefty beekeeper who sat on a small dog while on a date – an event which caused him to vanish and change his life entirely.
  • There are some hilarious scenes: such as when Owen is caught depositing Izzy’s used plastic bags at the supermarket recycling bin by a sanctimonious neighbour and has to pretend they are his; a blessing of the animals at church when a dog monsters one of Wyatt’s chickens and the llamas bolt into the churchyard.
  • The natural dialogue and its snappy New York ring.

“I think it’s a huge myth that women can’t have meaningless sex,” said Victoria. “You should see these millennials in my office. All they do is have sex, all the time. The girls, the guys. They’re not worried about getting AIDS or getting pregnant or being called a slut. They’re all vociferously opposed to slut-shaming in any form.”

“Slut-shaming?” Owen asked, rotating the cheese plate and slicing off a hunk of Jasper Hill cheddar.

“Yeah,” said Victoria. “It’s a thing.”

  • The reader Ellen Archer has done an amazing job of giving life to all the characters and making them sound different without sounding ridiculous. Men and women alike. I really loved her Sunny Bang. I am not sure I would have enjoyed the novel nearly so much if it wasn’t for Archer’s performance. I imagine if I read the book in print form, I would be looking at a three-star read, maybe three-and-a-half; as an audio-book, it happily earns an extra star. Another reason to give audiobooks a go.

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.

Expectation by Anna Hope and Other Novels about Friendship

I loved Emma Hope’s last book, The Ballroom, so had high hopes for her new novel. Expectation follows the lives of three friends. Hannah and Cate met at school and share a competitiveness during English classes. At Manchester University, grungy, kohl-eyed Hannah, meets beautiful Lissa, who has a lot of bad habits, and the two become friends over a shared assignment and eventually all three share a gorgeous flat in London on the edge of a park.

The story is mostly set years later as the women, now in their thirties, struggle to achieve what they most want in life. For Hannah, it’s a baby with husband Nath – they’re onto their third go at IVF and things are tense. For Lissa, it’s success as an actress. We follow her battle to keep an agent, to pay the bills, to find the enthusiasm for auditions for adverts. Cate has the baby Hannah wants, an unplanned pregnancy that led to a hasty marriage with chef, Sam, who makes beautiful food, but is he the right husband for her?

Lissa’s painter/former activist mum says it all when she tells her daughter:

“You’ve had everything. The fruits of our labour. The fruits of our activism. Good God, we got out there and we changed the world for you. For our daughters. And what have you done with it?”

Expectations are high indeed. The book slips between characters, between time zones, creating three varied women lost in the miasma of disappointment and unhappiness, behaving badly and eventually learning to start again. Anna Hope writes with great empathy and creates visual and dramatic scenes with terrific dialogue. Perhaps this is because Hope is also an actor – I’ve enjoyed books by actors before (something for another post, maybe). And who doesn’t love stories about friends, the early promise of their youth, the slow unfolding of their later lives. The wax and wane of their relationships. Expectation didn’t disappoint, scoring a four out of five from me.

You might also like these novels about friendship:

The Group by Mary McCarthy is the classic novel about friends, in this case there are eight of them, all students together at Vassar. Their experiences finding fulfilment in work, relationships and as mothers in 1930s America are described with a realism the reading public wasn’t quite ready for – it was published in 1963 and panned at the time, but highly thought of now.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is a powerful novel about the ugly side of friendship, the difficulty of fitting in, bullying and how cruel and competitive groups of friends can be. Fortunately, Elaine, who bears the brunt of it all eventually finds closure.

The Flight of the Maidens is by one of my all-time favourite authors, Jane Gardam. It concerns three friends at the end of World War II, all having won scholarships to university. The summer between leaving school and going away to college is full of dramatic events described with wit and quirky characters, drama and surprises, with glimpses of a forgotten England.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams follows four friends from college – Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien who graduate on the brink of the new millennium and their lives, loves and disappointments beyond into adulthood. It’s a great snap-shot of the time, has terrific characters and is a satisfying read.

Review: A Keeper by Graham Norton

a keeperI’ve had numerous recommendations to read A Keeper, the much talked about second novel by Graham Norton. And the premise of the story is interesting enough to make you want to pick it up too. Elizabeth is a divorced academic living in her New York apartment with a teenage son when her mother dies suddenly in Ireland. Elizabeth must fly back to where she grew up, not very happily, to sort out her mother’s estate.

In the old family house that is now hers, Elizabeth finds a bundle of love letters written by the father she never knew. A surprise inheritance sends her to a remote farmhouse by a ruined castle – was this where Elizabeth was born? The story switches between Elizabeth’s search for clues and her mother Patricia’s story. Continue reading “Review: A Keeper by Graham Norton”

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

nowI am so glad I read Miller’s latest as an ebook because such is the dramatic tension he maintains throughout, that if it had been a regular book, I would have been flipping to the end to see what happened. 

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a young English cavalry officer, sent home to recover from terrible events during the retreat from Portugal – we’re talking about the Peninsula Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s barely alive, but under the care of his housekeeper, recovers his health enough to plan a visit to Scotland in search of old folk songs, taking his violin, but also his pistol. He shouldn’t really be doing that – he’s supposed to report back to his regiment. The war is still going and they need all the men they can get.

Another cavalry officer comes looking for him to tell him this but gives him a bit of extended leave. Meanwhile, in Spain, there are reports of a horrific atrocity against a village – rape, pillage, murder, etc. during the retreat. Desperate men do desperate things but someone has to pay to appease the locals. Somehow Captain John Lacroix becomes their man. They send brutish Corporal Calley to deal to him and the infinitely more refined Spanish officer Medina to make sure he does. Continue reading “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller”

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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

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