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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

There is something about a New York novel – and Alternate Side could be the quintessential New York novel – that always seems to appeal. Maybe it’s because New York is one of those cities that people dream of calling home (like Paris or London, for that matter) – the culture, the food, the parties the opportunities…

And so it is for Nora Nolan, who turns up in New York after college, and here meets Charlie. Alternate Side is partly the story of their marriage, and their finest achievements as a couple – their twins, Rachel and Oliver. And then there’s their house. The Nolans live on a quiet block of infinitely expensive Victorian houses, with a dead-end which makes it even more of an enclave.

They attend parties and barbecues with their neighbours, watch each other’s children grow up, use the same handyman: Puerto Rican Ricky from the Bronx. They all have nannies and housekeepers – for the Nolans, it’s Charity from Jamaica. And to give Nora credit, she does sometimes feel conflicted that all the people she knows have immigrant hired help, black or hispanic, who come from poor neighbourhoods.

Their children, their dogs, and housing prices: the holy trinity of conversation for New Yorkers of a certain sort. For the men, there were also golf courses and wine lists to be discussed; for the women, dermatologists.”

The story begins with Charlie beaming with glee, having finally been offered a space in the street’s only parking lot – an empty section which once contained a house and now has room for a select half dozen cars. As you can imagine, these spaces are highly sought after. When a violent incident occurs, involving Ricky and one of the Nolans’ more insufferable neighbours, things are never quite the same for anybody. Suddenly the gaps between the haves and the have-nots are obvious to all, not just Nora, as issues of racism and entitlement in connection with the block make the news.

Alternate Side is about keeping up appearances, as well as that old adage, be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Everything seems to fall into Nora’s lap – her job setting up a jewellery museum (only in New York, right?) is one of a string of interesting work opportunities that always seem to come her way. Her marriage: Charlie appeared just at the right time when Nora was suffering from a broken heart. What is it Nora really wants? That is the question.

“People go through life thinking they’re making decisions, when they’re really just making plans, which is not the same thing at all.”

The story though is very much in the telling. Anna Quindlen writes with both wit and wisdom and I found myself chuckling at the snappy dialogue and Nora’s wry outlook, her interactions with Phil, the panhandler who takes up space on the path outside the jewellery museum, the obnoxious notes distributed by neighbour George about rules on use of the parking lot. There is so much to enjoy here as well as a story to make you think – and all set in New York. I loved it. A four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Reading in Bed by Sue Gee

Such a treat to discover a Sue Gee novel I hadn’t read. At first glance Reading in Bed looks like a chick lit novel (it has that kind of cover), perhaps aimed at readers not dissimilar to the two main characters: Dido and Georgia, old friends now just hitting their sixties. We meet them on the way home from a week-long literary festival in Hay.

Georgia lives in London and a year or so ago lost her husband to cancer. She still misses Henry immensely, and is just a bit jealous of Dido whose husband Jeffrey is fit, still cycling to work – he’s an academic at a university in York. Then there are Dido’s children: Kate is a doctor married to fellow medic, Leo, and the pair have produced two adored grandchildren; Nick is a history lecturer doing a PhD with long-term partner, Paula, also an academic. A family of achievers, no less.

By comparison, Georgia’s unmarried daughter Chloe is dyslexic, having struggled at school and now works on photographic shoots as a ‘stylist’, whatever that means. Chloe’s track-record with men is disastrous, one heart-breaker after another, and having hit thirty-one, is still single and not very well off.

This is where the book gets interesting. Chloe is bright and really good at what she does, but she comes across as lightweight compared to her parents and their friends who all met at university. As you might imagine, Chloe finds her mother demanding and at times interfering. And then there’s Henry’s batty old cousin, Maud, going to rack and ruin in a crumbling farmhouse with only an old dog for company. Poor Georgia has to look out for her as well.

But back in York, things aren’t going so well for Dido either: she worries about Nick – can he really be happy with the acerbic Paula whose offhand comments can so destroy the mood at family dinners? And why is Jeffrey so reluctant to come up to bed each evening, puddling in the study over his computer? Then there are Dido’s dizzy spells.

Sue Gee sets these various plot threads in motion to create a rich story around the workings of friendship, marriage, retirement and being accepted for who you are, no matter what – even batty Maud. The characters each have a lot to learn before the last page, and Gee carries the reader along with them nicely, creating empathy, even when they mess up, sometimes badly. She does this by getting inside their heads, the style adapting to each character’s way of thinking, though probably it was Chloe whose head I liked best.

The story puts everyone through a tough time of it, but the pleasantly optimistic ending will have you cheering. Bookworms will enjoy the references to literature, Henry, a civil servant, still kept his intellectual game up with his reading and was particularly fond of Dovstoyevsky, while T S Eliot and Gorky also get a look in. It’s much more than the chick lit cover would suggest, but then this is Sue Gee after all. Anyone who enjoys the fiction of authors like Joanna Trollope or Patrick Gale will relish this. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Akin by Emma Donoghue

It is hard to imagine Akin was written by the same author who created mega-selling Room, shortlisted for the Booker and made into a movie in 2015. Room is a novel told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy held captive with his mother in a room custom built by a psychopath. Akin is quite a different style of novel, narrated by Noah, a retired science professor about to take a trip to Nice to investigate a few years in the life of his mother during World War II. What the two novels do have in common is Donoghue’s amazing skill with characters, an ability to get inside their heads to tell a story.

Noah is a New Yorker, scholarly, urbane and without any family – his wife, Joan, died some years ago and he has recently lost his sister. Mere days before he is due to depart for Nice, a social worker contacts him to ask if he can be the temporary carer for Michael, the eleven-year-old son of his late nephew. There’s nobody else, it seems. So suddenly Noah has a travel companion, a stressed and grieving boy from Brooklyn, who doesn’t know much about good manners but is streetwise when it comes to drugs and violence. The perfect odd couple.

Akin is a novel of many layers. The most obvious one is the story of Noah and Michael and what begins as a grudging acceptance of each other and how this develops into something more. Blood is thicker than water fortunately because there are lots of bridges to build here.

Then there is the story of Noah’s famous photographer grandfather, Père Sonne, and Margot, his mother, who stayed behind in France during the war, sending Noah to New York and his father. This has rankled with Noah, he was only three, and why did she leave with his sister a strange collection of photographs from her war years? The pictures are part of Noah’s luggage along with his grandfather’s famous fedora. Noah’s visit to Nice is about discovering the past and coincides with his eightieth birthday; now with Michael in tow, he is forced to think about a different kind of future.

Noah begins to fit together his mother’s story, with help from Michael who is unsurprisingly nifty on the ‘net. We learn more about Nice during the war, where a resistance group, the Marcel Network, saved over 500 Jewish children from the concentration camps. What was Margot’s connection? Was she a resistance fighter or a collabo? Noah is terrified the snapshots prove the latter. Michael also knows about ‘snitches’ and there are connections with the drug deal that was the undoing of his father, and the reason his mother is in prison. So many layers.

And then there is the story of Nice itself. Noah is the perfect tour guide. He speaks French and translates it for the benefit of Michael, often playing with words and meanings in an interesting way. We visit restaurants where they serve delicacies such as testicules de mouton panés (crispy fried sheeps balls) and tête de veau avec langue (calf’s head with tongue), while Michael holds out for for American hotdogs and chicken nuggets. There are stories about the Roman occupation of Nice, of saints and angels. Nice is a rich and colourful place.

Akin takes its time, slowly pulling you into Noah’s and Michael’s developing relationship and the story of Nice as well. It’s a book to savour, but it’s gripping too with plenty to entertain – a five out of five read from me.

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.