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.

Patricia was the dutiful daughter who gave up her freedom to care for her invalid mother. When at last her ma dies, Patricia, still single and over thirty, embarks on a plan to find love and answers a letter in the lonely hearts column of a farmer’s gazette. Edward is the only possible contender – Irish farmers could learn a lot from Edward about how to write a letter to a potential love interest. Patricia takes the long train journey to visit him on his farm. Edward has a car while Elizabeth hasn’t but he can’t leave the cows it seems. Edward is painfully shy but kindly; it’s his mother who’s the problem.

I barrelled through A Keeper wanting to know what happened, which is just well, as I couldn’t help but feel that the book could have done with a bit of work. The prose is a little loose at times, some of the imagery jarring and characters’ actions aren’t always terribly logical. On the other hand, this is an Irish novel, and who knows what goes on in those remoter corners of the Emerald Isle. The other problem was no matter how I tried, I couldn’t help but hear Graham Norton’s voice reading the narrative in my head. For a while, I didn’t mind, as I rather like Graham Norton on the telly, but it somewhat interrupted my connection to the characters.

The plot is full of surprises, well-paced and builds to a satisfying ending, particularly for Elizabeth. Poor Patricia’s story is more heart-rending – the things that happen in that farmhouse make your hair stand on end. Overall, I enjoyed A Keeper, and will probably pick up another book by Norton as he is very much an entertainer in more ways than one. Three out of five from me.

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”

Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

bagYou may remember Crooked Heart, Evans’s novel set during World War II about a middle-aged grifter on hard times and Noel, her young evacuee. The story provides an original view of wartime life, smart and witty with some brilliant characters. Among them is Mattie, Noel’s godmother who makes a brief but memorable appearance at the start of the book. So memorable in fact, that Evans has devoted a new book to her: Old Baggage.

The story takes place in 1928 as the suffragette movement finally sees franchise for women on equal terms with men. (When women got the vote in 1918, it was for property-owning women over thirty only). Mattie Simpkin is a former suffragette in her late fifties, who with old campaign chum Florrie, puts on talks about the battle for the vote and holds forth to anyone who pauses to listen. Ever the campaigner, the story concerns Mattie’s discovery that there’s no point giving women the vote if they have no knowledge of politics, history or the world at large. She starts a group for young girls called the Amazons who learn vigorous activities on Hampstead Heath (javelin throwing, slingshots and archery) as well as taking educational excursions, camping out and debating. Continue reading “Quick Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans”

Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summerMany readers will remember Helen Simonson’s popular debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s a contemporary story about a man recently widowed who rescues a golf-course from developers and has a second chance at love. The Summer Before the War is similarly set in rural England, but the war of the title is World War 1. Protagonist Beatrice Nash has recently lost her father but through a well-connected but disapproving aunt secures a position to teach Latin at a grammar school in Rye.

Beatrice aims to be self-supporting, to earn a living through teaching and writing, and to never marry. She’s a striking and interesting character, in a book full of interesting characters, including Agatha Kent, who takes Beatrice under her wing and helps her settle in. She sends her nephew, Hugh Grange, to collect Beatrice from the station and the two strike a slightly awkward friendship.

Hugh is in his last year of training as surgeon under the brilliant Sir Alex Ramsey, who has a lovely young daughter, Lucy. She has many admirers among Ramsey’s students, but Hugh rather hopes he could be the frontrunner in the race for her affections. He has a dream of taking over Ramsey’s busy London practice and Lucy would be the perfect wife. Continue reading “Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson”

Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell

distance

The Distance Between Us is the third novel I’ve read by this author – it’s an old one too, published in 2004.  Like her last two novels, this one has characters dashing about, jumping on planes and trains and rushing off to places new, or old. Possibly this is because O’Farrell throws them into difficult situations where the past has a way of catching up with them.

Jake is caught up in a crush during a Hong Kong parade for Chinese New Year and injured, the girl he’s dating almost killed. As she lies in hospital and everyone expects her to die, Jake agrees to a deathbed marriage. Somehow she pulls through and the two return to England, where Jake has never lived, and the pressure to start married life together scares him into a search for his missing dad. All he’s got to go by is his name – Kildoune, near Aviemore, the place where his transient, hippy dad came from.

Stella also makes a dash for Scotland, panicked by the sight of a tall, ginger-haired man on a London bridge. She leaves a good job in radio, her flat, everything. She doesn’t even tell Nina her sister, who is like a twin, but not. Nina seems like a stalker, the way she is always checking up on her sister, phoning at work, at home, asking questions about what she’s up to, what her plans are.  Continue reading “Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell”

Book Review: The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons

songThe last time I read a novel by this author, it was set in the world of art dealing and gallery exhibitions (The Gallery of Vanished Husbands). No points for guessing that this book has music as its background, the song collector of the title being Harry Fox-Talbet, a composer. The story is told over two time periods, the first just after World War Two, as Harry, his brothers, Jack and George, return with their father to the family mansion that had been requisitioned by the army for the duration.

Now they have it back it is a crumbling ruin, scarcely worth restoring. His older siblings make plans for how they can keep their damaged home, much against their father’s wishes. Meanwhile Harry visits cottages and pubs, asking people to sing old folk songs so he can write them down, and steadily falls in love with Edie Rose, Jack’s girlfriend. Edie is a famous singer, the songbird who helped keep people’s chins up as the bombs fell and the world went mad. It was hard not to hear Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’ in my mind, which may not be quite what the author intended. Continue reading “Book Review: The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons”

Book Review: The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

the gunnersRebecca Kauffman’s second novel reminds me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction (Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton …). Perhaps it’s because The Gunners is set in a small town in the eastern US, and it’s characters are battlers. We are invited into their world when they are children, and then later as adults to see how they’re faring, and to look at the ongoing effects of the past on the present – something else Strout does.

The main character, young Mikey Hennesy, discovers at the age of six that he is blind in one eye. Well, he kind of knew that but thought it was normal. He lives alone with his dad, a quiet, unsmiling man who works at the local abattoir. Dad doesn’t take Mikey for an eye test, and the boy carries on as before.

Mikey is a lonely child but is rescued by Sally, who he meets on the school bus. Both children are a bit lost, and so begins a friendship. When feisty young Alice decides to set up a gang of kids meeting at an empty and decrepit house, she invites Mikey and Sally to join. They call themselves The Gunners after the name on the letter-box and stick together through most of their childhood. Continue reading “Book Review: The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman”

Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde

artWhen my aunt died and we all met back at her house following the memorial service, of course, I prowled her bookshelves. She had quite a collection, having been for many years a speech and remedial reading teacher. In her living room were all the classics, in smart hard-cover editions, and I have no doubt she’d read them all, often. But in her bedroom was a whole shelf of Nora Roberts and another of Katie Fforde.

Now I have never been able to get into Nora Roberts, even if she is one of the world’s best selling authors. But the Katie Ffordes looked inviting with their pretty covers and whimsical titles so I always meant to read one.

Recently I picked up Artistic Licence, which is about thirty-something Thea, a former photo-journalist. A bad experience with her ex had sent her off to the Cotswolds, where she finds a part-time job in a one-hour photo shop and takes in student lodgers. She’s in a bit of a rut, when Molly, her bossy friend, whisks her off on an artists’ retreat in Provence where she meets gorgeous young painter, Rory. Continue reading “Book Review: Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde”

Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam

funeralWhen I went on holiday recently, I packed an assortment of books knowing I would have a few quiet hours away from the Internet and Netflix. I usually like to include an old favourite – you don’t want anything that will be too hard to get into on holiday – and that usually means Anne Tyler, one or two Agatha Christies or a Jane Gardam.

The Summer After the Funeral is a short novel about a family coming to terms with the death of their father, an elderly clergyman. Rev. Price had a kind of allure with women and fathered three children in his dotage, but unfortunately, Mrs Price and her family must leave the rectory to her husband’s replacement. She concocts a convoluted scheme of passing her children round to various acquaintances and family for the summer while she goes job hunting. Continue reading “Quick Review: The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam”