Book Review: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – a delightful read inspired by Shakespeare

A few years ago the publishing house Hogarth, commissioned some well-known authors to write retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays in novel form. Jo Nesbo did Macbeth, Gillian Flynn Hamlet and Margaret Atwood The Tempest – among others. Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of a Shrew. This play sounds somewhat old-fashioned today with its story of a ‘difficult’ young woman softening into an obedient wife. Even the word ‘shrew’ is a hard term to swallow – is there even a male equivalent?

Tyler manages this by allowing Kate Battista, the heroine of her story, to remain a forthright and no-nonsense kind of person until the end. She meets her match in Pyotr, her father’s research assistant, but being Polish, he’s used to women like Kate, in fact he much prefers them. With his limited English, it’s easy to understand what Kate says because she doesn’t bother with the niceties. In Pyotr, Tyler has created the one man who will accept Kate as she is. So not tamed – not at all. The story then hinges around Kate coming on board with her father’s idea of an arranged marriage.

Tact, restraint, diplomacy. What was the difference between tact and diplomacy? Maybe “tact” referred to saying things politely while “diplomacy” meant not saying things at all. Except, wouldn’t “restraint” cover that? Wouldn’t “restraint” cover all three?”

At twenty-nine, Kate is still living at home, working in a kindergarten, where she’s often in trouble for being too blunt with parents, but the children adore her. Her mother long dead, it was mostly left to Kate to help bring up her much younger sister, Bunny, who at fifteen is everything Kate isn’t. Bunny is flirty, charming, and ditsy, but that doesn’t stop her from being a little cunning. Kate dropped out of college when she fell out with her professor. But she’s obviously smart. Maybe even as smart as her academic father, Dr Battista, who is hoping soon to make a breakthrough in his research.

The problem for Dr Battista is that Pyotr needs a green card to stay in the States, his three year working visa about to expire. Pyotr is a brilliant scientist and without him, their work on autoimmune disorders would flounder. But if Pyotr were to marry an American, the green card would be no problem. So the morning when her father asks to bring her his forgotten lunch, left at home in the kitchen, is a surprise for Kate. Even though Dr Battista often forgets his lunch, he usually doesn’t worry, because he hardly ever knows it’s lunchtime. He just carries on working. Of course, it’s just an opportunity for Pyotr to meet Kate. Kate is soon suspicious and then appalled.

“Well, in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously. He had been walking a couple of steps ahead of Kate, but now he dropped back and, without any warning, slung an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to his side. “But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.” 

The story is told from Kate’s point of view, and while she’s prickly and a bit odd at times, she soon gets under your skin. Tyler is always brilliant with odd-ball characters, quirky families and people who are not society’s shining stars. And I love her for this. An assortment of support characters – an attractive fellow teacher, the drop-out next door that is supposedly tutoring Bunny in Spanish, uncles and an aunt – add colour as well as complicate the plot, which builds nicely to a dramatic and hilarious climax. I’m sure Shakespeare would have approved.

Vinegar Girl is a quick, light read but so delightful and fun it really brightened my day – it only takes a day to read it. The novel may not have the complexity or the heft of some of Tyler’s more acclaimed novels, but it’s still a lovely little story and well worth picking up. I am so glad I did – it’s a four star read from me.

Book Review: Wildflowers by Peggy Frew: a haunting, witty and compassionate story about sisters

You can be forgiven for wondering what you’ve got yourself into a few pages in with Wildflowers. The narrator, Nina, is clearly not coping and while she’s brilliant at bringing you into the story, the vivd way her world is brought to the page through all the senses, she seems bent on self-destruction. You can’t help asking yourself, how will she make it through the next three hundred odd pages. Peggy Frew has created a brilliant character study of someone at the end of her rope.

In the past month, Nina has boxed up all her clothes, her curtains, her cooking utensils and anything useful, apart from the frypan and spatula she uses to fry her evening egg, eaten out of the pan. She gets her outfit for the day not from her wardrobe but from bags of donated clothing outside a charity shop, raided under cover of darkness. Nothing fits properly and yet she manages to hold down her admin job at the hospital, the staff cafeteria providing left-overs nicked from newly vacated tables

Her Dunlop Volleys flapped a bit. They were better with the Explorers; Archie McNamara’s socks were too thin. Under the tracksuit pants the seam of the satin shorty things seemed intent on bisecting her, and the lace on the too-tight bra was irritating the skin near her armpits.

What has brought Nina to this? The book flips back to the past to describe the events of Nina’s life and in particular her relationships with her sisters, Meg and Amber. Elder sister Meg was always the sensible one, chastising her laid-back parents over how they allow little sister Amber to run wild. Amber is dazzling, gloriously pretty but also with a charisma that is perfect for the stage and she’s soon a child actor in a film. What happens here eventually drives Amber to drug addiction.

Nina is the smart one, but she’s also a ditherer, uncertain what to do with her life. While Meg chooses her study path and makes a go of it, Nina finds student life daunting, blazing through her studies but strangled by shyness. She doesn’t know how to be.

The tremulous romanticism by which she’d been so strongly affected upon first leaving her family – which she’d always felt, but which in the lonesome splendour of her cobwebbed room and with the aid of her poetry classes had crystalised from a homely, unexplained presence into something not unlike a calling – this had not receded. It was melancholy, that’s exactly what it was: a sadness that was exquisite. She was kind of addicted to it. And she found that she couldn’t – simply could not – reveal this aspect of herself to anyone.

She drifts through unsatisfying relationships with men, a habit that continues well into her adult years. While she’s smart, Nina’s not so good at life so it’s not surprising she leaves the Amber problem to her mother and to Meg – until, that is, after years of Amber problems, Meg enlists Nina’s help in a last ditch attempt to cure their little sister.

The novel is threaded through with humour – I love the description of Nina pretending to listen to Meg’s hectoring voice on the phone while cleaning the grout on the bathroom tiles with baking soda, only to discover she’s out of white vinegar and furtively googling whether or not balsamic would work instead. Not everyone enjoys this odd mix of despair with wit – Meg Mason’s utterly splendid Sorrow and Bliss seemed to polarise readers – but for me it it works a treat.

Throw in some lovely, evocative writing – whether describing the rainforest retreat where the girls try to cure Amber, student flats or city scapes, Frew brings Nina’s world to life. This makes her story seem very real and adds to the huge compassion we feel for her as readers. I love this sort of book, and can happily add Peggy Frew’s name to a list I’m gathering of Australian authors, which include Charlotte Wood and Toni Jordan, as well as New Zealand born Meg Mason, who I’m keen to read again. Wildflowers gets a full five stars from me.

Book Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander: a compelling story about a life spent indoors

It takes some skill to turn the life of an agoraphobic person into an interesting novel. But I was soon hooked by the story of Meredith who hasn’t left her house in 1214 days – that’s three years and three months. Something has happened to Meredith to leave her traumatised and solitary, something which has cut her off from her mother and sister Fiona, once her closest pal. The story weaves in the past with the present as we follow Meredith’s struggles to get out into the world again.

Meredith has made her home a haven with restful colours and orders everything she needs online. She works online as a freelance writer so she really has no need to go anywhere. It just shows you how easy it is to cut yourself off from the outside world if want to. She has her cat, Fred, and her best friend Sadie calls in regularly with her two young children so although the book is called Meredith, Alone, she still has people in her court.

Meredith has support from a group online, StrengthInNumbers, where she makes friends with Celeste and talks to a counsellor, Diane, who conducts regular online sessions. We catch up with Meredith when she has a new visitor – Paul, from Holding Hands. He drops in on Thursdays to make sure Meredith is OK. Paul has his own struggles, and is in between careers. The two become friends over jigsaw puzzles.

I have my fingers on the door handle. Diane and I decided that I would count backwards from twenty. When I reach five, I’ll open the door. By the count of one, I’ll have both feet on my front doorstep. I’ll take five steps down my path, then I’ll go back inside.
It feels good to have a plan.

The book charts Meredith’s attempts to leave her house, which spurs the book onwards, day by day. It also dives back into the past to reveal Meredith’s terrible childhood and the event that drove her indoors. It takes a while for the reader to get all the information you need for her situation to make sense. Without a varied setting, the plot relies on Meredith’s story to drive it along, the slow revelations and your eagerness for her recovery. And it works.

Meredith is good company – smart and for all that’s going on in her life, she keeps herself busy to avoid drowning in the miseries of her plight. The novel has a lot to say about all the pain people hide away from each other, the things that derail marriages and cut family ties. How you cover it up and carry on as best you can. Until you just can’t. But the book never feels weighed down by all this.

Reading Meredith, Alone so soon after Paper Cup, which I thought utterly brilliant, was probably not such a good idea. Both are connected by Glasgow and have main characters with mental health issues and who have broken off from their families. But these novels are very different in feel and Meredith, Alone has very little to suggest its wider setting, apart from the odd reference to Irn Bro. It’s no fault of this novel if it comes off as second best – it’s still a great read and Meredith a great character. It will make you think. So it’s a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Resistance Girl by Mandy Robotham – a gripping read about a less-documented corner of the war

I’ve read a few novels about World War Two – heart-breaking stories for the most part about those who served, POWs and Concentration Camps, Intelligence Officers sent behind enemy lines and so on. But they’ve mostly been about the main players: France, Britain and Germany. I knew next to nothing about how the war affected Norway and this book was quite an eye-opener.

The resistance girl of the title is Rumi Orlstad. We meet her at a Bergen dockside railing at the war which has taken her fiancé. Magnus was lost at sea during his first voyage with the Shetland bus. I’d come across the bus in other books – the fleet of 30 odd fishing boats that ferried secret service agents and refugees between Sheltand and Norway – since 1940 under German occupation. The bus supported the Norwegian resistance, bringing supplies and instructors as well as assisting with sabotage.

Rumi’s father and step-brother help with the bus, and Rumi, motherless and alone, helps with the fishing business. It’s November, so there’s snow when she’s sent to bring two new British officers to a safe-house, both having parachuted into nearby countryside. She’s cross when she has to cut down Jens Parkes from the tree that’s caught his parachute, but luckily he can ski. Still reeling from her loss, they form an uneasy alliance. At least being half Norwegian, Jens looks the part and can blend in, hiding his radio transmitter among the clothing he collects for refugees – his cover.

While Jens gets on with supporting the cause, Rumi discovers her best friend has been sent to Lebensborn, one of many maternity camps devised by Himmler to produce an ideal Aryan race. It was felt that Norwegians – tall, blond and fair – had all the right attributes and so German officers stationed in Norway were encouraged to engage with young Norwegian women – a few married them and whisked them off to Germany. But many of these girls were just taken advantage off, like Rumi’s friend Anya, their babies planned for childless German couples.

This is where I found the book particularly interesting. Part of the narration is from the point of view of a housekeeper so it’s a bit like a fly-on-the-wall account. The housekeeper worked for the family that owned the house before the Germans requisitioned it – like so many larger properties – and she has no idea about what it’s to be used for. Little by little her fears grow as it all begins to make sense. The dormitories and the cots, the German midwives, the guards, the frightened young women.

How Rumi tries to help her friend forms a large part of the book, as well as her interactions with Jens and his dangerous missions. There are some excellent supporting characters too. The sinister Lothar Sellig – a German officer for the Abwehr – who keeps turning up like a bad penny, on his quest to clamp down on the resistance; Rumi’s neighbour Marjit who is like a mother figure to Rumi and having been a nurse during WWI is almost as determined and fearless as Rumi. She has a surprising connection with Jens.

Mandy Robotham has done plenty of research to bring the city of Bergen to life, its cafés and fishing industry, as well as the domestic settings, the traditional knitting and Norwegian meals. The horrors of what Norway endured under enemy occupation are described too: the fear of living alongside the enemy, the reprisals against insurrection. Himmler’s Lebensborn project seems particularly sinister, giving the novel some heft and the story builds towards a tense and exciting ending.

The Resistance Girl is a terrific story and would appeal to readers who have enjoyed Kate Quinn’s wartime novels. I enjoyed this book as an e-audiobook and the reader – Antonia Beamish – made the characters come alive and handled the Norwegian names like a native. Or so it seemed to me. I’ll be hunting out more by Mandy Robotham – this novel gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – a mystery that brings a marshy wilderness to life

I may be the last person I know to read this novel, but with the movie causing a lot of chat – both positive and negative, I thought it was about time.

Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that sweeps you away. You can’t help but get lost in the world of Kya, abandoned by her family, by anyone she takes a shine to, but just gets on with the hand she’s dealt. The story starts in the early 1950s when Kya’s six, living with her family in a shack among marshes on the North Carolina coast. Her father’s a violent drunk with PTSD from his war service and has fallen out with his own once-grand family as well as his in-laws.

Kya’s mother is the first to leave and you struggle to understand how she could walk out on her family, particularly young Kya. But she’s a victim of so much abuse, it’s all she can do to get herself to safety. Soon Kya’s brothers and sisters leave too – they’re just old enough to make a life for themselves, but it’s a shame no one thought about their little sister. Meanwhile Kya, who teaches herself how to cook and keep herself alive, avoids the worst of her father’s mood swings, until he too leaves.

Kya has avoided school. Her single day in the classroom a rude awakening to prejudice and bullying. Still just a kid, she has learnt to navigate the marshes in her dad’s old boat. She discovers that the elderly black man who sells fuel, also sells fresh mussels so Kya finds a way to support herself. Thank goodness for old Jumpin’ and his kindly wife who look out for Kya, offering used clothing and affection.

And thank goodness for Tate, the boy a few years older, who teaches Kya to read and write. This opens doors for Kya and she is obviously very smart, soon recording the wildlife in her marsh not just with her collections of feathers and shells, the self-taught watercolours, but now with written descriptions too. But Tate is off to university and his life is set to take him in a different direction.

The story jumps forwards to 1969 with a murder investigation when the body of popular motor mechanic Chase Andrews is found at the bottom of a defunct fire tower. Did he fall or was he pushed? Sherriff Ed Jackson finds no fingerprints and enough to suggest foul play and soon his attention turns to the Marsh Girl. The old prejudices against Kya have never left and she becomes an easy scapegoat.

The murder investigation propels the story along, while weaving in Kya’s backstory, her growing up and her relationships with two young men. This is interesting enough, but what really makes the book special is the way Delia Owens brings the marsh to life – the watery passageways, the plants that grow there and the wildlife. This is described vividly in Kya’s distinctive voice which helps you see the world through her eyes.

“Crawdads” is an engrossing read and the character of young Kya as she learns to make a life for herself both heartbreaking and fascinating. The court case against Kya is gripping too, although I did find the plot lagged a little in the middle. And I couldn’t help thinking of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which kind of skewed my reading of this novel. Perhaps this earlier work was an inspiration for Owen’s book or it may have just been me. I guess it’s true that every reader reads a different book. “Crawdads” gets three and a half out of five stars from me.

Book Review: The Way It Is Now by Garry Disher – old crimes surface in Aussie Noir mystery

I remember when Jane Harper’s stunning novel The Dry hit the shelves and suddenly we all wanted to read more Australian crime, or Aussie Noir as we soon called it. And all the while it seems Australian author Garry Disher has been producing reliably readable and award winning crime thrillers for years. I’d heard of him of course, but this I am ashamed to admit is the first Garry Disher novel I’ve read. At the end of which I could only shake my head and ask myself, what took me so long?

The Way It Is Now is Disher’s latest stand-alone novel. It’s about Charlie Deravin, a police officer on disciplinary leave who has nothing better to do or anywhere else to go but the old family beach house on Menlo Beach. While there’s plenty of surfing and Christmas to think of – his daughter’s visit is something to look forward to – there are reminders of the past at every turn.

The son of a cop, Charlie grew up in a society where the friends who came to family barbecues were other cops. And some of them are still around. But the most haunting thing for Charlie is the disappearance of his mother when he was a rookie policeman part of the team looking for a boy missing from a school camp. Assumed drowned, the child disappeared the same day as Charlie’s mother, a high school teacher who’d just popped home unexpectedly. Her car was found abandoned with evidence of a struggle. Newly separated, many people pointed the finger at Charlie’s dad.

The story weaves Charlie’s memories of the past with his ongoing relationship with his brother who hasn’t spoken to his father since, and his father now ailing but still receiving poison pen letters. There’s also the case Charlie has been suspended from, which caused him to fall out with his boss, but also brought a new love into his life. Anna was a whistle-blower in a case of jury tampering and someone’s trying to silence her. So nothing’s going well for Charlie. As Charlie uncovers the past, two dead bodies are found at a construction site and the police see even more links to Charlie’s dad. But Charlie has seen the toll the unsolved mystery has taken on his father and believes in his innocence. The book becomes a race to prove his innocence while the old man begins to fade.

While the plot is complex and interesting enough, humming along with plenty of suspense, Disher really excels with his characters. Charlie is likeable enough but flawed – the disappearance of his mother niggling in his mind for twenty years. This has put a strain on his marriage to say nothing of his work in Vice. There’re the old-school cops that he bumps onto at the beach, particularly Mark Valente who was like a second father to young Charlie and epitomises the old-boys club of local cops. Minor characters are no less interesting

While Valente seems a benign presence, he evokes a sense of not rocking the boat and keeping the past in its place. Charlie’s brother Liam loathes the man for his homophobic attitudes. Misogeny also lurks throughout the book – his mother’s nervousness around her lodger, the nasty rape case that was Charlie’s downfall, the attitudes to police wives. Disher brings it all to life in a way that seems authentic and adds a tone of menace.

I enjoyed The Way It Is Now as an audiobook, which was superbly read by Henry Nixon and made me feel I was at the beach on Australia’s Victoria coast. Disher evokes the Australian landscape well, so I’m going to see where else he takes me. This books gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: It All Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler – a compelling sisterly drama

Stories about sisters seem to pop up in all kinds of literature. They’re in those fairy stories I loved as a kid (Cinderella, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Snow White and Rose Red), several Jane Austen novels, to say nothing of King Lear which we read in high school. What is it that we like about sister stories so much? Is it because you get to see a family from several different angles? Whatever the reason, I absolutely devoured It All Comes Down to This.

The book starts out in New York – another plus for me – where Marti Geller is getting her affairs in order. She has only a couple of weeks to live and is remarkably calm about it; the hospice people are wonderful. She has written in her will that the family cottage in Maine is to be sold and the proceeds divided among her three daughters. This creates a mixture of responses from the sisters, particularly as she has chosen her son-in-law as her executor.

Beck is appalled at the idea of the sale. The cottage has been their vacation home for decades, even if no one’s been there in a while. Her sisters could use the money, but Beck is looking for a bolt-hole. With her children grown-up she wants to finally write that novel. She’s an accomplished journalist, but the novel has been in the back of her mind for years. It doesn’t help that her husband Paul is an editor for a publishing company that has nurtured award winning novelists. Having him peering over her shoulder just stifles any creative juices. Secretly, Beck wonders if Paul might be gay.

Middle sister Claire is recently divorced, having admitted to her husband after too many drinks at a party, that he wasn’t the love of her life. She still carries a torch for someone else. As a girl, Claire struggled to compete with assertive Beck or pretty younger sister Sophie, the family darling, so she worked hard at school. Now Clare’s a paediatric heart surgeon, still with a huge student loan to pay off. The divorce has been another financial burden and she’s got a young son to think of. Selling the cottage in Maine would be a godsend.

While her older sisters married early and settled into family life, Sophie is single at thirty-six and trying to live the dream, or at least what her Instagram followers think is the dream. She works for an art gallery in New York, using her bubbly personality to seal deals with up and coming artists and their buyers. This involves travel and looking the part and being at all the right parties. She has maxed out all her credit cards and lives out of two suitcases, house-sitting to put a roof over her head, while everyone thinks she has a flat of her own which she sublets. Sophie could definitely use a hefty cash injection.

The narrative cycles between these three women as well as Paul, who has a burning secret of his own and C J Reynolds the cottage’s prospective buyer. C J is interesting in that he’s just served a term in prison for shooting at his father. Another character with family baggage. He settles into a friend’s lavish home on Maine with the idea of buying in the area and is surprised to have to share the house with two other unusual house guests: an elderly patrician woman and her newly orphaned grandson. This creates some wonderful scenes as the three learn to get along with each other.

The story burbles along between all of the above characters and while they are likeable enough, the author doesn’t shirk from showing us their faults and foibles. The story is paced nicely as Beck does her darnedest to hang on to the cottage and the lengths she will go to. Claire’s story is more of an emotional one while Sophie gets in a tighter and tighter spot as her financial house of cards looks set to crumble.

So, as I said, I simply plowed through the book, thoroughly entertained and curious about how it would work out for all five characters. But to tell the truth the ending fell a little flat for me. Was it a bit too fanciful, a bit rushed? Or was it that when it came down to it, I found the sisters just a bit foolish, annoyingly so even, and not quite likeable enough. So this one’s a three and a half out of five from me. I’ll still hunt out more books by this author though.

Book Review: The Fell by Sarah Moss – an empathetic and gripping story of the pandemic

The Fell reads a bit like several interwoven stories, each from the perspective of a different character. The single day setting of the book gives it more of a short-story feel, in that you only get glimpses of the past while the immediate future is left up in the air. This concentrates the tension of what happens when Kate goes for a walk and seems to disappear.

The story is set in a small town in the Pennines where Kate lives with her son Matt and they’re just scraping by. Kate works as a waitress and she does a bit of pub singing, but that’s all come to a halt since a contact at work has become ill with the Covid virus and she’s forced to take a couple of weeks off and to isolate at home.

This is hard for Kate as she’s a keen walker. She’s up on the paths into the wilderness near her home normally every day. She loves nature and living her life with care for the environment. As we meet her, she’s running out of money and there’s not much in the cupboards, certainly not a lot to feed a hungry fifteen-year-old. The house always seems to be cold adding to the sense of times being tough. So you can’t blame Kate for escaping her worries in a fit of desperation and striding up the path to the fell. She only plans a quick walk before dark, but something happens and she doesn’t return.

The story flips from Kate’s character to Matt’s, a caring kid who worries about his mum. As time goes by, he is torn between phoning for help and the fear that his mother would be in terrible trouble. She could face a huge fine they can ill afford, so the hours tick by and Matt waits. He hesitatingly visits next door where Alice is also finding things tough.

Recently widowed, Alice has dinner with her daughter via Skype, but since her battle with cancer, her daughter never stops pestering her about her health. Even though Alice is on her own, it’s like someone is always peering over her shoulder, making her feel guilty about baking all those cookies and not taking better care of herself. She misses her friends and trips to town, stuck at home because of her age and vulnerable health.

The fourth narrator is emergency rescue responder Rob. Now divorced, he should be at home with his teenage daughter – it’s his rostered weekend. But when the call comes through that a walker’s gone missing, he knows his duty is to the missing woman. Kate has a teenager at home too – probably worried sick. Imagine if that was his daughter. He’s torn but it’s a life and death situation – with chilly November temperatures, hypothermia could be fatal if they don’t find Kate soon.

Moss has created four very believable and empathetic characters in a situation many of us will recognise. This is the first book I’ve read that where the Covid pandemic as a key part of the story, not just an interesting background. She conjures up the anxiety, isolation and insecurity felt by many during those difficult times. And also the obsessiveness: the bread baking and the sanitising of groceries.

You get the sense that everyone is battling themselves – to say nothing of social media shaming – doing the right thing on the one hand while desperate for some relief on the other. Some tiny treat. I remember that feeling well. Whether it’s just getting out of your house, playing computer games or eating cookies for dinner.

The Fell’s a short book, and you plough through the pages to see what happens next. I would have liked at least an epilogue to see if all that worry was justified and because I felt so invested in the characters I wanted a little bit of optimism for them. Something for them to look forward to. But this is a perfectly pared down story, and those focussed anxieties don’t let up until the end.

The Fell is also one of those books where there are no quotation marks, which kind of works, adding to that stream of consciousness narration, and I did get used to it. Eventually. The chapter headings are all lower case, which makes them oddly emphatic. But all this vanishes as you read, because of your connection with the characters. If it isn’t too soon for you to read a Covid novel, give this one a go. At the end of the day, it’s just a darn good story – and a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene – a riveting story, artfully crafted

I’d heard a few recommendations of this 2014 novel set in a New England school. You get to the middle and suddenly you can’t put it down, people told me. And yes, in a way, that was true.

The Headmaster’s Wife is the story of a marriage in trouble, set in the enclave of a small private prep school, a claustrophobic world where privacy and personal freedom can be in short supply. Tradition holds sway at Lancaster, an exclusive boarding school for wealthy students aiming for Ivy League universities. A few scholarships bring in students from poorer backgrounds, such as Betsy Pappas, a brilliant student from a small town north of Lancaster, the product of hippy parents, and Russell Hurley, a plumber’s son who is there because he’s so good at sport.

Not so, Arthur Winthrop. He’s the son of a Lancaster headmaster, and the grandson of a Lancaster headmaster, and carrying on in the same family tradition (a good literature degree from Yale and a teaching career), is now the headmaster of the title. We catch up with Arthur at the start of the book when he’s lost his way. Walking through Central Park in the snow, he has some sort of mental breakdown, removes his clothes, before finding himself in police custody and requested to explain his behaviour.

The story flips back to his obsession with a student, Betsy Pappas, who is not only attractive, but really gets Russian literature. Meanwhile his wife plays a lot of tennis, or spends time in their son’s room, missing Ethan who has disappointed his father by joining the army instead of going to Yale. The succession of Winthrops as Lancaster headmasters will likely end with Arthur.

And she thinks perhaps that is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you that shatters like glass… They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as they both don’t completely shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground.

While the Headmaster’s Wife is about the Winthrops and their marriage, there’s also a mystery/suspense element that keeps you hooked. Communication problems, suppressed feelings as well as power and its abuse hover in the background. I was also reminded of that often quoted line from Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse”. You know the one.

To say more would spoil one or two surprises that give the book the impetus that keeps you reading. The story structure is original, and you can’t help but admire the clever storytelling, the fine writing, but the book will tug at your heartstrings too. I was glad of the recommendation to pick this up, as it’s a quiet, unassuming looking book that would have otherwise escaped my radar. The Headmaster’s Wife scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase – secrets and lies in an evocative Cornish setting

I love these novels set in old English country houses, specially when family secrets, heartbreak and mystery are added to the mix. Old houses can add a Gothic quality, as it is with Black Rabbit Hall, although that’s not the house’s real name. Pencraw’s a dilapidated mansion on the Cornish coast, subject to storms and heady summer heat and it’s the home to the Alton family when they’re not in London.

The young Altons are a blessed with loving parents – beautiful Nancy who hails from New York, and Hugo who is struggling to maintain the old house, with its leaky roof and unreliable floorboards. The couple are devoted to each other, and adore their kids: little Kitty, nature-loving Barney, fifteen-year-old Toby and his twin sister Amber who narrates most of the story. Their world comes crumbling down when Nancy dies suddenly in a riding accident, and the children become more wild and unkempt.

Amber does her best to fill in as a mother figure to the two younger children while Toby acts more weirdly than ever. He has a fixation with what to do if civilisation comes to an end – it’s 1968 and the Cold War and the nuclear arms race are all go. He’s a survivalist but not in a good way and argues constantly with his father. It doesn’t come as a surprise when Hugo invites an old flame to visit but it’s a shock when she arrives with her seventeen-year-old son, Lucien. Caroline is the opposite of their warm, spontaneous mother, but she’s got money and might just save Black Rabbit Hall.

The story flips between Amber’s narration and Lorna’s some thirty odd years later. Lorna and her fiancé Jon are looking for a wedding venue, and Amber has a distant memory of visiting Black Rabbit Hall as a child with her mother. There is an emotional pull here for Lorna as her mother has recently died, lacing the memory with nostalgia. Finding the house almost defeats them, but it’s also a shock when they get there and it seems the Hall is not quite ready for hosting weddings, despite what the website says.

Jon and Amber look set to fall out over the Hall, Amber still excited about finding the perfect setting for the wedding, Jon more realistic having noticed the general state of disrepair. Then there is the lack of staff, the house inhabited by the frail and elderly Mrs Alton and Dill, her flustered general factotum. Amber is talked into visiting for a weekend to help make up her mind – no pressure! What she experiences when she’s at the Hall is more about disturbing distant memories and uncovering family secrets that giving the place a trial run. What is it about Black Rabbit Hall that seems to prod deep into her consciousness?

The story slowly comes together as we go back through the years to fill in the gaps as the Alton children have to deal with family upheaval while still grieving for Nancy. Lorna also teases out hints from the past which make her doubt her future with Jon. In each narrative there is a gathering storm and sense of impending doom, which has you galloping through the book to find out what happens. It all comes to a startling and intense ending but there is resolution as well.

For me the book had hints of Daphne du Maurier, not only with the Cornish setting, but with the cruel, Mrs Danvers-like malefactor and the Gothic qualities of the house. Chase also does a great job with the family dynamics, particularly the way she writes about siblings and the intense connections between the twins, the pressure on the older sister to keep things together and the difficulty for her to be her own person.

Black Rabbit Hall is the perfect read if you like old country house mysteries and evocative settings. The characters are easy to empathise with, honestly they break your heart, and there is an interesting dichotomy between long summer days where nothing seems to happen and events hurtling characters into rash behaviour. This is my second Eve Chase novel – I’d previously enjoyed The Wilding Sisters – and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll be heading back for more. Black Rabbit Hall (which incidentally won the Saint Maur en Poche prize for best foreign fiction) gets a four out of five from me.