Book Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner – a post-war story and bookish delight

When I picked up Bloomsbury Girls, I hadn’t realised that it follows an earlier novel, The Jane Austen Society. The newer book continues the story of bright, young thing, Evie Stone, who is now fresh out of Cambridge and a bit miffed.

Evie has been passed over for a research position, and for a male graduate who isn’t half as clever. This is 1949 and women have only recently been allowed to be conferred degrees, so she shouldn’t be surprised. Turning up in London for a job interview, she administers first aid to the manager when he collapses. While he’s recovering, they’re a man down, so Evie finds herself hired.

Soon settled in on the third floor, Evie has to catalogue the mass of rare books bought at auctions by Frank Allen, one of the owners. She has an ulterior motive, but the lack of order makes finding any particular book quite challenging. Fortunately Evie has a quick and methodical mind.

The other ‘girls’ of the title are aspiring author Vivian Lowry and unhappily married Grace Perkins. Grace loves her work at the bookshop – it’s a place she can escape a husband who has had a breakdown and who makes her life a misery. If it weren’t for her two young boys, she would leave him. At the shop she has a good friend in Vivian, who since losing her fiancé during the war, has become an angry young female, pouring all her feelings into the notebooks she carries with her.

Also on the staff is Alec McDonough, who is head of fiction and who has a fascination for Vivian. He too is an aspiring author, but any chance he and Vivian might share their work are hampered by the sparks that fly between them, occasionally romantic, but mostly they’re darts of fury from Vivian. Ashwin Ramaswamy is down in the basement, studying tiny organisms among the shelves of science and nature books.

Ash is also disappointed, having come from India to make something of himself, but struggles with the racism he experiences in London. It isn’t surprising that he and Evie become friends. They’re both up against it. Meanwhile, Lord Baskin, with his financial interest in the shop, finds more and more excuses to pop in since Grace arrived on the scene.

While there are several romantic threads to the story, the main thrust of the plot concerns Evie’s secret mission and to achieve her aims, help comes from a few surprising quarters. Will Evie find what she is looking for? Can Grace begin again and find happiness for herself and her boys? Will Vivian overcome her anger and succeed as a writer? Is there any hope for women to achieve their dreams in post-war Britain?

The novel includes some real-life characters, including Daphne du Maurier, Samuel Beckett and Peggy Guggenheim. They’re nicely brought to life as they interact with Evie and her colleagues. It all comes together in a light, feel-good read packed with warmth and humour. And there’s a smart literary quality too, giving you the impression that the author really knows her twentieth century literature.

It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read The Jane Austen Society – although I for one will be hunting down this debut novel. Bloomsbury Girls is a fun, satisfying story – a four star read from me. There’s another book, Every Time We Say Goodbye in the pipeline, but not out until next year. Clearly, Jenner’s an author to watch.

Book Review: Impossible by Sarah Lotz – an original and quirky fantasy-romance

I have to confess I nearly didn’t finish Sarah Lotz’s recent novel, Impossible (also marketed as The Impossible Us). The novel is largely email correspondence between two characters who meet accidentally when Nick sends a grumpy message to a customer who owes him money, and it somehow ends up in Bee’s (Rebecca’s) inbox. Bee’s dinner with a Tinder date isn’t going well and she distracts herself with flippant email banter with Nick.

The story of their romance is told largely in emails because, for mysterious reasons, the two seem doomed never to meet in person. At first they are separated by a train ride – Nick’s in Leeds; Bee in London. When they do decide to meet they discover they belong in alternate realities – how many versions of the world there are, they have no idea. But in Nick’s dimension the world has made huge inroads to solve climate change as well as some obvious political differences; Bee’s dimension is the world as we know it.

Being stranded in different versions of the world makes no sense to either of them, but Nick comes across an organisation called the Berenstains who have had dealings with this anomaly. Berenstains member Geoffrey provides some light relief, tasked with keeping an eye on Nick, and staking him out like someone from a comedy-spy movie. There are rules about the situation, in particular, no meddling with the versions of people you know from a reality that’s different from your own.

Nick and Bee are all set to break this rule, Bee hunting out the Nick in her reality, who happens to be a famous author. This is galling for the original Nick, who is a literary hack, ghost writing for authors with limited talent. Meanwhile Nick seeks out the version of Bee in his reality, a Becca with a child, the wife of a powerful businessman, which is equally perplexing. She has given up her fashion design career for a family, quite unlike Bee, who has a wedding dress make-over business. Bee worries that Becca is unfulfilled and could be in a controlling relationship.

The story lurches from one complication to another as Nick and Bee set out to overcome their cross-dimensional problem to find happiness. There are plenty of humorous scenes and weird and wonderful characters – Tweedy, the elderly County type, showing Nick how to use a gun; Magda and Jonas, Bee’s elderly neighbours who epitomise lifelong devotion as a couple; Erika, Nick’s no-nonsense Nordic landlady – among others.

And even if it did at first remind me of the movies You’ve Got Mail crossed with The Lake House, the story is still original and cleverly put together. And yet in the middle it seemed to drag for me. I think it was all those emails. I’ve read epistolary novels before and enjoyed them. But here there’s a lot of bad language, which I find tiresome, and the banter which Bee and Nick find so amusing wasn’t particularly amusing for me. I began not to care particularly whether Bee and Nick found happiness as I didn’t like them very much – it’s probably a generational thing. Two thirds through I was so desperate for some elegantly crafted writing I took a breather with some Jane Austen before going back in.

But I did go back in, because it is impossible not to want to know what happens in the end. And Sarah Lotz ties it all up well. She’s a seasoned screenwriter who obviously knows about plotting and this is her seventh novel. I can imagine Impossible would adapt well to the screen. Would I recommend it? Yes, probably, but with some reservations. It gets a fairly generous 3 stars from me.

Book Review: Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith – back to Italy with a gorgeous evocation of place and atmosphere

Well, yes I know this book is about a lot more than its setting. There’s a man’s lingering grief for his late wife. A family of elderly women and a secret they never got to grips with from World War II. There’s some parent-child dynamics and a potential love affair. And all of it comes together in a captivating story that maybe takes a little while to get going, but once you get in, has you nicely hooked.

But when I look back on this book in months and maybe even years to come, I know it will be the setting that I’ll think about first. Valetto is Dominic Smith’s invented town in Umbria, which sits on a pedestal of volcanic rock. Much of the old town has fallen down into surrounding valleys, a 1971 earthquake urging many of its inhabitants to relocate. It has become a kind turreted and terracotta island, connected to the surrounding landscape by a footbridge.

Hugh is an American historian who specialises in the study of abandoned towns – there’s hundreds of them dotted around Italy and what better place to begin than Valetto, the childhood home of his mother and where even today his grandmother and three aunts still live. The Serafino women, all widows, are a big chunk of the population which has dwindled to just 10. In a few weeks it is to be his grandmother’s 100th birthday and a party has been planned.

A spanner in the works is the woman who has taken possession of Hugh’s cottage on the Serafino property, supposedly given to her mother for services rendered when Hugh’s grandfather, Aldo, was a resistance fighter during the war. Elissa Tomassi is adamant that the cottage is legally hers, just as Hugh’s aunts are convinced she’s a squatter with no legal tenure. Hugh is sure there can be a way to keep everyone happy and is caught in the middle. But he has to get to the bottom of what happened during the war and discovers not one but two family mysteries to solve.

The past will take Hugh back to Elissa’s home town in the north of Italy to find out what Aldo did in the closing years of the war. He’ll also discover a link between his mother and the Elissa’s that is a trickier memory to unlock and will reveal a crime that has been swept under the carpet. The story builds to a powerful and moving conclusion that has you glued to the final chapters as past deeds are dealt with.

What could be done with the wreckage of the past? As a historian I’d always believed that studying the past could reveal hidden meanings and patterns, that motifs lurked in the underbrush, but now I saw the neap tide of history washing up flotsam on an empty beach.

I enjoyed Return to Valetto enormously, not only for the setting which seems to be a big part of every scene. The late autumn mist across the valley that comes and goes and adds even more mystery. The large old villa that is the Serafino home with its cavernous rooms and crumbling frescoes. There’s the old family restaurant established by his grandmother, where you can see abandoned place settings and dusty menus from a night in 1971. (Oh, did I forget to mention this books is also a hymn to Italian regional cuisine?)

And the characters are a joy. The three aunts, each with their own peculiar ways and at times difficult interactions with each other. I have a particular fondness for books about aunts, going back to P G Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories, and here Iris, Rose and Violet are brilliant. The grandmother with her iron determination to host an unforgettable birthday celebration with an ever-growing guest list and a despairing cook. Both Hugh and Elissa have daughters that make an appearance, so it’s an inter-generational tale as well.

I can’t help feeling Dominic Smith had a wonderful time researching and writing this book as his love for history, particularly social history, as well as all things Italian shines through. This is the second novel by this author I have read and recall that Bright and Distant Shores was one of my top reads for the year it came out. I’ve heard lots of good things about The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos as well. Return to Valetto gets the full five stars from me.

By the way, the fictional town of Valetto is inspired by Civita di Bagnoregio in Lazio – in case you want to visit, either in person or via the Internet.

Book Review: Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny – a warm-hearted story filled with quirky characters

I’d heard a lot of recommendations for this book and picking it up was happily expecting a fairly light, cheerful read. And in many ways it is. What makes Early Morning Riser particularly worth reading is the warm humour that runs through the story, and the character of Jane who is a bit of a battler.

Jane teaches a Grade 2 class in the small town of Boyne City, where everyone knows everyone. Maybe it’s the size of the town but it’s astonishing for Jane to discover her new boyfriend, Duncan, seems to have slept with most of the local women. And then there’s her mother. Fortunately Mom lives a three hour drive away, because she’s such a negative person, never stopping to think first before speaking her mind. Dating Duncan also seems to mean the presence of Aggie, Duncan’s ex-wife, who is at all the social get-togethers the new couple are invited to.

It’s easy for Jane to feel a little jealous of Aggie, and this niggles its way through a lot of the book, which takes place over seventeen years. Aggie has a lush, peachy beauty, is the most amazing cook and knows all about what’s going on in the town due to her job in real estate. So even though she has been divorced from Duncan for ten years and is happily married to Gary, a dull, grey, unsociable man, it still galls Jane when Aggie is on the scene. She’s also a reminder that Duncan and marriage just don’t go together.

“Does Gary have to come too?” 
“You know as well as I do that Gary doesn’t like to be alone after dark,” Duncan said. “He says the toilet whispers.” 

As well as Jane’s good friend Frieda – an endlessly positive, mandolin-playing woman destined, it seems, to be forever single – there’s Jimmy. Much of what happens in the story involves Jimmy. Around Duncan’s age, Jimmy still lives with his elderly mother and hasn’t the IQ to manage life on his own. He turns up to work at Duncan’s wood-turning workshop but is there more for company than usefulness. Jane feels remorse for events that leave Jimmy on his own and much of the ensuing decisions she makes are to do with her guilt and making amends.

The story meanders through the years and the ins and outs of Jane’s and Duncan’s relationship. It’s a quiet little read about small-town life and the reasoning behind people’s big decisions and all the little messes they get themselves into. I loved the humour and found myself chuckling as I read. Heiny does kids really well and Jane’s interactions with her class are hilarious.

The natural, warm-hearted writing, the quirky characters as well as Heinz’s understanding of what makes people tick reminded me a little of Anne Tyler’s books – so of course I was going to enjoy this. Though I was occasionally put off by the little bits of popular wisdom doled out as Jane makes this or that realisation. Early Morning Riser was a pleasant break from some more serious reading and gets three and a half out five stars from me.

Book Review: Miss Austen by Gill Hornby – the story of the famous writer’s sister

When Jane Austen died, she left thousands of letters sent to family and friends, of which many were destroyed by her sister, Cassandra. This is the Miss Austen of Gill Hornby’s novel. The story begins with the elderly Cassandra visiting the vicarage where her long-dead fiancé grew up, the home of her very dear and also departed friend Eliza.

Jane and Cassandra both wrote to Eliza, and Cassandra is sure there must be a cache of letters somewhere, full of heartfelt disclosures and secrets, as well as (knowing Jane) waspish comments about other family and acquaintances. It is imperative that Cassandra finds these before they are made public. Cassandra was the carer and confidante of Jane in life, and now, twenty years after her sister’s death, she wants to preserve her good name and not allow Jane to be the subject of speculation and gossip.

And so here she is at the vicarage where as a young woman, she farewelled her beloved Tom on a voyage to the Caribbean, a chance for him to win a living from his patron and secure the means for he and Cassandra to marry. Memories come flooding back and the story dips back in time to those early years and the promises she made to Tom before his departure.

Meanwhile Eliza’s daughter Isabella is rattling around in the vicarage with her grim but loyal servant Dinah, her father the vicar having recently died. Isabella has the job of finding somewhere else to live as well as packing up all the chattels and furnishings that have been a part of her life since childhood. But Cassandra is appalled to see that Isabella doesn’t seem to know how to begin, obviously so ground down by years with an autocratic and belittling father she has a complete lack of initiative.

So we have two story threads here: Cassandra’s efforts to encourage Isabella to find a house with her other spinster sisters – for what could be more pleasant than to live with sisters?; and the early years of Cassandra’s own life with her beloved Jane as revealed by the letters she finds.

I listened to Miss Austen as an audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson and if there is a Juliet Stevenson fan club out there, I should probably become a member because her reading is utterly superb. She brings to life the characters so well along with the nuances of tone in the writing, the conversations and voices of Jane and Cassandra, plus all the peripheral characters ,to recreate the Austen sisters’ world.

There are multiple characters – the girls had five brothers, plus friends and new acquaintances, which echo some of the themes and interactions from Jane Austen’s novels. Gill Hornby has done a really good job with this, and while there are many novels out there that pay homage to Jane Austen, mostly through further stories about some of her much-loved characters, this book about Cassandra is one of the better ones I’ve come across.

Of course we can’t expect a raft of happy endings here. Jane Austen didn’t live long, and the Austens struggled to find a permanent home after their father died. Neither Jane nor Cassandra ever married and there seems to have been both grief and a sense of missed opportunities over this. And yet, Hornby sneaks in a rather charming and amusing ending to the story, casting the truculent Dinah in a whole new light. Cassandra herself is wonderful company and as an elderly unmarried woman, a believable and refreshing heroine. Miss Austen is a four out of five read from me.

Reading the Classics: Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy Part 1 – The Great Fortune

This round of the Classics Club Spin sent me off to Romania, 1939, for the first of six books that are based on Manning’s own experiences, and which are combined together as her Fortunes of War series. I have only read the first book: The Great Fortune , which is a decent, meaty read for a number of reasons.

The story begins with a train journey. Newley weds, Guy and Harriet Pringle are on their way to Bucharest in Romania. Guy teaches English at a Bucharest university as part of a cultural programme sponsored by the British government. He’s met Harriet during the summer vacation and married her before bringing her to the Balkans just as Germany invades Poland.

So when the Pringles arrive at their hotel, Harriet is confronted not only by persistent beggars, many of them deformed from birth to help their earning potential, but also an influx of Polish refugees. Harriet and Guy are temporarily staying here until they can find a flat, because Guy has always tended to couch surf among his wide and varied set of acquaintances. He’s a popular young man who thrives on interacting with others, talking literature and politics into the small hours.

Guy’s also a devotee of Marxism which he sees as a potential solution in a country where the peasants are struggling under a powerful elite. Romania has a strong economy with plentiful resources, among them a highly productive agricultural sector. But with a war starting up, much of this produce is exported and the ensuing hike in the cost of living puts a terrible strain on the poorest. Meanwhile the Pringles hob-nob with assorted academics and civil servants at various plush restaurants.

As Harriet passed between the tables with Clarence, there was a little murmur of comment: first that she should make this public appearance with someone other than her husband, then the common complaint that English teachers – they were all regarded as ‘teachers’ – could afford to come to a restaurant of this class. In Rumania a teacher was one of the lowest-paid members of the lower-middle class, earning perhaps four thousand lei a month. Here was proof that the English teachers were not teachers at all but, as everyone suspected, spies.

We get another view of Bucharest society through the eyes of Prince Yakimov, also newly arrived, who has fallen on hard times. It isn’t clear quite how he comes to be in Bucharest, except that he needs to make his remittance last a bit longer and the city seems cheap. He hasn’t a clue how to earn a living. Yakimov is technically British, his father having escaped Russia at the time of revolution, but now drifts from hotel to hotel living on credit. His finely tailored clothes, his name and good manners soon have him invited to parties given by the aristocracy, in the hope they can fleece him at cards.

But mostly this is Harriet’s story. The poor girl has to get used to sharing Guy, not only with his many friends, but also with Sophie, who’d hoped to marry Guy herself, and therefore acquire a British passport. Other characters include gloomy Clarence, Guy’s colleague, who soon takes an interest in Harriet, and Guy’s boss, Inchcape, who has been put in charge of British propaganda for the Balkans. The story bubbles along full of lively conversations on the political situation, the locals as well as relationships and anything else – often very lifelike and stimulating dialogue.

Olivia Manning has masterfully recreated a time and place in a way that seems very vivid – she was similarly married to a British academic at a Bucharest university, and this shows in her descriptions of the people of the city, its buildings and parks, its cafés and restaurants. You really feel you are there with Harriet and you suffer with her all the anxiety of fitting in and waiting for Guy to come home. All the while, events are taking a turn for the worse with the outbreak of war. She worries she will never be able to return to England, that Hitler will invade Britain, that Hitler will invade Romania.

Running through the book is a wonderful cast of characters, and a smattering of dry humour. Harriet is one of those quiet observers who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but is often stuck with odd company and not much to do. Scenes with Yakimov offer a mix of hilarity and desperation. The story is set over four parts but comes together nicely towards a strong conclusion, with Guy deciding to produce a Shakespeare play. This brings out the best and worst in the members of the cast, all taken from his friends and colleagues.

I really enjoyed The Great Fortune, although it wasn’t a book to rush through, requiring lots of concentration to keep up with who was who. But I still hope to read more in the series, including Manning’s follow-up books that make up The Levant Trilogy which describes the Pringles’ life in Egypt as the war rages on. Manning also wrote a number of stand-alone novels that could also be well worth checking out – she’s a terrific writer. The Good Fortune gets four stars from me.

Book Review: Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale – an imagined life of Cornwall’s favourite poet

I’ve read a ton of novels by Patrick Gale – I love his writing for its warmth, perception and the characters. They’re always shown with all their flaws, and yet they make for oddly likeable company. Gale reveals what makes them them interesting and ordinary at the same time.

Like Charles Causley, Cornwall’s favourite poet – the subject of the latest Gale book, Mother’s Boy. The story takes us back to the early part of the twentieth century, and the courtship of Causley’s parents, both of them working in service: Laura as a maid in a small household and Charlie who drives a pony and trap for a local doctor. They marry while World War I is getting up steam and see little of each other for years. Charles is born in 1917, his father shipped home eventually, but with TB.

The story clips along through the years, with chapters about Charles’s early life as a boy in Launceston while his father is still alive, school life and his knack for language, a talent for the piano and his discovery of poetry. There are two unlikely friendships, the butcher’s boy who once bullied him and Ginger, the annoying boy who followed him around and listened outside as Charles practised on the piano. His mother’s thrill to find Charles a safe job at a desk; Charles’s disappointment that he won’t be continuing his education.

Then another war, and Charles’s acceptance into the navy as a coder. There are several chapters that progress the war, and Charles’s romantic connection with two men. Each chapter shows a new discovery or aspect of the war through key events or changes to Charles’s life, the novel finishing a few years after the war.

Parallel to Charles’s story is Laura’s, working away at her little laundry business, her days ruled by the weather and the rigid timetable required to get it all done. Her love for Charles is a constant. Fortunately for Laura, the ache of missing Charles while he is away at war is tempered by the evacuees she takes on, the Americans setting up bases around the town and later the prisoners of war who inhabit one base once the soldiers have headed across to France.. So we get an interesting glimpse of the war at home.

And while she suffered, Charles was either out at his play-reading group or rehearsing with his dance band or drinking beer with friends, or else he was shut in his room, stabbing away at his typewriter or listening intently to the radio, as often not to some programme about the international situation and politics, which made her head spin if she tried to follow it, and telling her to knit more quietly.

The two main characters are so nicely drawn, so empathetic, that you feel you know them well. Charles is refined and educated, a lover of good theatre and literature, his working class mother often bemused by the things he says. The story ambles along through the years with sudden events that make you really feel for mother and son; some happy moments but also the tragedies that you’d expect because of the war.

You get a strong sense of what it was like to be born different, both artistic as well as gay in a time and place when such things were problematic; and yet Charles manages to be true to himself in a way that works for him. But at what cost? The story pulls you along, each chapter adding something new on both an intimate scale as well as within the wider world. I thought I’d close the book and think, yes that was an interesting read and very true to its subject matter. And then wham! The final scene, in its quiet living room setting, quite blew me away. There was a lump in my throat. There were tears.

Patrick Gale’s novels often have a way of creeping up behind you, leaving you a little stunned, but in a nice way. His author’s notes reveal that Causely was often asked why he hadn’t written a full memoir, not just the few autobiographical fragments that remained after his death in 2003. Causley’s reply was that it was all there in the poems. The poem Angel Hill, quoted in full at the end of the book, could be a case in point and ties in beautifully with Gale’s novel, particularly that final scene.

Mother’s Boy is a stand-out novel by an accomplished writer whose work never disappoints. If you like this book, it is worth checking out the author’s notes on his website wihich add detail and some interesting photos. You can tell that Charles Causley has become close to his heart, and Laura too. I love books where you feel the author has poured his heart into a story. I feel this is the case here and why it gets a five out of five from me.

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.