Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – an unforgettable character and a thought-provoking story

I picked up Convenience Store Woman for another challenge in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme (see previous post). This challenge requires you to read a book in translation. I could have picked any number of nail-biting, atmospheric Scandi-noir mysteries, but opted for a Japanese novel instead. And this one’s been on my radar for a while.

The narrator, Keiko Furukura, isn’t like anybody else she knows. She has no idea how to fit in and this is apparent early as a young child. Her parents and sister worry about her – she has no friends – because she just can’t seem to pick up the norms of social interaction. Strangely, when Keiko is a university student, she is rescued by the opening of a convenience store. She applies for a job and soon she’s learning how to greet customers, what to say to invite them to buy, how to mirror the appropriate facial expressions to be good at making sales. The store’s training regime leaves no room for the randomness of individual personalities.

At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine in society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.

But now, eighteen years later, Keiko’s still at the convenience store, doing a job normally filled by immigrants, students and transients looking for a stop-gap position before moving on. She’s had several managers including Mrs Izumi, a woman of the same age. It’s OK to have a job in a convenience store if you’re married with children, it seems.

Keiko checks out the brands of Mrs Izumi’s shoes and discovers where she shops so that she can buy similar clothing. She copies the slang she learns from other co-workers to sound more natural. This comes in handy as recently she’s been meeting up with some old classmates. But even though she’s learnt to parrot socially acceptable phrases and dress stylishly, her women friends still nag her about her job and not having a husband. The pressure to change forces Keiko to do something drastic.

Convenience Store Woman is a clever social commentary, almost an anthropological study of the conventions surrounding human behaviour, seen through the eyes of someone outside the norm. It is at times very funny, capturing the excruciating awkwardness of Keiko who would probably not arouse so much concern if she had a ‘proper’ job. She could just be a likeable eccentric – even though it is her shop job that has given her a place in the scheme of things. It makes you realise how society depends on everyone doing things a particular way, which is also a little disturbing.

Convenience Store Woman is a quick read, partly because it’s a small book, but also because it has you racing through the pages to see what happens next. And it’s so entertaining. Keiko is such a brilliant character, more interesting than likeable, but she’s someone you want to cheer for. The book is the English debut for Sayaka Murata who has written many books and won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s premier literary award. Her next book in translation, Earthlings, also looks well worth checking out too. Convenience Store Woman gets four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien – an Irish classic perfect for a library reading challenge

Our public library is running a winter reading programme called Turn Up the Heat. There’s a kind of bingo card of different reading challenges, and every time you log a completed challenge, you go into the draw for prizes. So much fun! One of the challenges is to read a book published in the year you were born. In spite of thinking there’d be hardly anything published in a year so long ago, I quickly found three books to choose from I was happy to read.

The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding, a Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, is a book I’ve read before, probably more than once, and I have a copy on my bookshelf. But I felt this one lacked the element of challenge I was quite looking for. Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant is one of the books in Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ series of twelve books. I’ve been meaning to reread them for a while now, but as the one from my birth year is number five in the series, I demurred. Then I happened upon The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. A book I’ve always meant to read, and not too long. Perfect.

I was quickly caught up in the story of fourteen-year-old Caithleen, who is worried about the return of her father, missing for days if not weeks with the money he was meant to use on paying bills. We’re on a farm near Limerick, and the father has a terrible temper, and a tendency to go on benders, returning home to beat his wife. This sounds kind of morose, but in spite of the dreariness of life in a small village, Caithleen is a charming narrator. She’s naive, but friendly and kindly. She has a terrible hoodlum of a friend, Baba (Bridget), and the two get up to all sorts.

Cait is romantic in nature, and in spite of a family tragedy, dreams her way through life, yearning after Mr Gentleman, the name given to the Frenchman with an unpronounceable name who lives in a nearby manor house with his wife. Baba just wants to have fun, sometimes at Cait’s expense. Baba is dark, dainty and pretty, which makes tall, red-headed and eventually ‘Rubenesque’ Cait feel inferior. They have a challenging relationship, but kind-hearted Cait remains loyal through all Baba puts her through.

The book is divided roughly into three parts, the first with the girls still at the local school, and Cait’s family situation disintegrates to the point where Baba’s parents feel obliged to take her in. The second has them at a convent school, where Cait shines academically, and Baba gets them into trouble. In the third section, the two escape to Dublin where Baba is sent to a secretarial college and Cait to work in a grocery store. They live for their nights out on the town, Baba urging Cait on to have fun, while Cait writes letters home to Mr Gentleman.

Edna O’Brien writes in a way that is both amusing and entertaining, but also puts you in the time and place. 1960s Dublin is full of all kinds of traps for young girls; the sexism is horrific, so you can’t help admiring Baba’s mother who is worldly wise and does what she feels like, even hiding the chicken dinner from her husband in her wardrobe so there is more for her. It’s a bit like an Irish Nancy Mitford novel – loads of fun, mad characters and brilliant social commentary, but lurking beneath it all a layer of darkness. You can’t help feeling that with the 1960s ready to get going, there will be more choice for young Irish women, but you’ll have to read the next book (The Lonely Girl) to find out.

I’ve always enjoyed classic literature – it’s such a dilemma whether to read the next hot new release or a book that’s remained in print for decades or more. So it’s good to mix them up. I’ve enjoyed a lot of more recent Irish literature, so I appreciated The Country Girls as a book that made an impact at its publication, inspiring the generations of Irish writers, particularly female ones, that followed. Apparently The Country Girls trilogy was so shocking at the time, it was banned and even denounced from the pulpit. Another challenge in Turn Up the Heat is to read a biography – I might be tempted to give O’Brien’s, A Country Girl, a try.

Book Review: Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson – a warm-hearted novel about turning points and second chances

Youngson’s first novel, Meet Me at the Museum, was a thoughtful, enlightening and romantic story told in letters between its two main characters. It was a big hit and I’ve been looking forward to this second book, set on the canals of England between London and Chester. Three Women and a Boat (US edition: The Narrowboat Summer) follows Eve, Sally and Anastasia who band together when each is at a turning point in their lives. They are complete strangers to begin with, when Anastasia needs somewhere to stay in London for cancer treatment. Sally and Eve, each independently and suddenly adrift from their normal lives, chip in and offer to help.

Eve has been dumped from her job in engineering. Sally is walking away from her marriage. Neither knows what they want to do next when they meet up on a towpath and rescue a howling dog, trapped in a canal boat. Anastasia returns to her boat to find two strangers have smashed a window to free a dog that didn’t need freeing. Maybe it’s the lure of life on the canals, or perhaps it is Anastasia’s vivid personality, but the two younger women find themselves agreeing to do her a favour.

While Anastasia is in London staying in Eve’s flat, her houseboat, the Number One, needs to be ferried to Chester for repairs. Eve and Sally have to rapidly get up to speed on handling the boat and the tricky business of canal locks as well as get used to living together in a tight space.

A lot of the story is about the women on the boat, and you get heaps of detail about locks and tunnels and how to navigate them, which is interesting. The summery canal-side scenery gets a mention too and you’re soon drifting along with Eve and Sally as if you’re with them on the trip, having a nice break away from it all. It’s a slower pace but there’s lots to do. Then there are all the interesting characters Eve and Sally get to know – people who have made a life on the canals in one way or another.

The story is narrated by Eve and Sally in turn, as they evaluate their lives and think about their options. We get their points of view of other characters, in particular, Arthur a tweedy old friend of Anastasia’s who is also oddly secretive, as well as Billy and Trompette whose boat, the Grimm, is aptly named as Billy is a gifted storyteller. The women warm to Trompette who at only nineteen has a talent for creating wonderful knitted garments – surely she could study design and make something of her life.

You read on, wondering what decisions the main characters will make about what to do next. Eve and Sally change during the course of the book, enough to learn what really matters to them. If you’ve always had a hankering to ditch the treadmill of the nine-to-five job and the mortgage repayments this might well resonate with you. But just to keep the plot simmering Youngson throws in a few twists as well.

This is a very different book to what I was expecting in that it is quite philosophical, thoughtfully written and doesn’t follow too much the usual rules that seem to govern novel plotting. It’s a breath of fresh air in so many ways, and while it’s a fairly light read, like her previous book, it marks Youngson out as an interesting author with an original voice. I particularly loved the characters who seem very real, the kind of people you’d like to meet for a catch-up over coffee. All in all this is such an enjoyable read – a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan – a brilliant, warm-hearted comedy

I love a funny novel, particularly a character driven comedy like this one, which I also imagine would make a terrific movie. Like many comedies, its main character, in this case Simon Larsen, is in trouble. The Covid crisis hit him hard financially. For the last eighteen months he’s had to deal with losing the family home, his architectural business and his self-respect. Now, once he’s got the kids off to school, he struggles to get off the couch. He adores his wife Tansey, who has stepped up as the breadwinner, but if only her family weren’t so superior.

These are the Schnabels of the title: Tansy’s sister Kylie who is career-driven and blunt to the point of rudeness; brother Nick, a good looking former footie star who is forgiven everything by doting mother Gloria. It is always Gloria who calls the shots, and who makes Simon feel even more of a failure.

The Schnabels decide it’s time to hold a memorial service for Tansy’s father who died two years ago but didn’t get the usual send-off because of Covid. They also decide the best place to hold it is in Tansy’s friend Naveen’s garden. But the landscape gardeners Naveen had employed have abandoned the job and left him high and dry. So Simon is asked do the work instead. He’ll earn some cash and get himself off the couch. He has a whole week to accomplish the job so no pressure.

The story is set over the week leading up to the memorial service as events occur to derail Simon’s plans to work in Naveen’s garden. The book begins with Simon’s first day on the job – only Simon’s late because he and Tansy are at the train station. Tansy wants to catch a glimpse of Monica who is arriving by train for the service. Monica is Tansey’s half-sister, the younger offspring of the father who did a bunk, the child he stayed around for. The reader can’t help but wonder why there’s all this effort to create the perfect memorial service for the man who had so little to do with Tansy, Kylie and Nick, the man who ran out on Gloria.

Tansy only wants to see what her younger sister looks like, but bubbly, affectionate Monica ends up catching a lift, and somehow staying with Tansy and Simon. The Larsens live in a poky, two-bedroom flat, but Monica soon settles in, a big, confident personality, determined to make the most of her time in the city. Meanwhile the pressure is on Simon to get on with Naveen’s garden as more and more disasters throw him off-course. Along the way, snippets of Simon’s former life emerge, and in spite of all the disasters, the true character of Simon begins to shine through.

Dinner with the Schnabels is a very Australian comedy – we’re in Melbourne – but the themes are universal. The Covid crisis and its economic fallout, the hero with his one shot at redemption struggling with his demons, the importance of family and the way that blood is thicker than water, even if you don’t always like them very much.. The story builds to a surprising and satisfying ending, as Simon deals with curve-ball after curve-ball. Simon himself is a terrific narrator, far from perfect but oddly likeable. The prose is smart and witty, the dialogue always entertaining. I loved this book and now want to read everything by Toni Jordan. So this novel definitely gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler – a warmly insightful novel capturing the little cruelties of family life

A new Anne Tyler novel means a new family. This time we’ve got the Garretts: Mercy and Robin, parents to Alice, Lily and David. Again we’re in Baltimore which in Tyler’s world always comes across as a sensible, solid kind of city, oozing with good old-fashioned American values. But then that might be because the scenes are mostly in homes, often around a meal table.

French Braid begins with the next generation when Serena and her boyfriend James are waiting for a train to take them from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Serena thinks she’s spotted her cousin, but isn’t sure. She won’t even go up to Nicholas to see if it’s him, which James finds perplexing. How can you not know your own cousin? What kind of family is this? It’s a simple snapshot from ordinary life that displays something deeper, something Tyler does brilliantly. Have a look at the opening scene of The Accidental Tourist for the way Tyler shows a marriage in trouble. The Garretts seem to have become fragmented over the years, going for long stretches of time without meeting or checking in on each other.

Flip back to 1959 and the Garretts – Robin, Mercy and co. are off to the the lake for a summer holiday. You can tell they don’t do this often as Robin wears his work shoes and black socks when walking to the lake in his bathers. His mission is to teach David, a tender boy of around seven, to swim. His older sister Alice is helpful but bossy, and fifteen-year-old Lily is ensconced in a holiday romance. Mercy spends so much time painting at the kitchen table, she doesn’t notice what’s going on with her kids.

By the end of the holiday, Lily is heart-broken and David is withdrawn. Lily gets over the heartbreak, but David seems to withdraw further through the book, into his student years and beyond. Meanwhile, Mercy sets herself up with a studio a mere walk from home, complete with a divan and finds a new freedom as an artist. We’re through the sixties and out the other side by now, and the times they are a-changing. Tyler describes the fine line between loving your family and wanting to be your own person.

Morris. Mercy filed the name in her memory. So many unexpected people seemed to edge into a person’s life, once that person had children.

Like many of her books, French Braid appears to be a fairly simple story, full of everyday events that anyone might recognise. And while you don’t always like what the characters do, you can’t help warming to them as people. They could be members of your own family. Tyler has that knack of showing them in scenes full of humour, and yet simmering beneath it all is the potential for heartbreak. The burdens of little cruelties that the characters carry with them from childhood.

French Braid is a small book but perfectly formed. Everything is pitched just right – the naturalness of the dialogue, the plotting which rips through the years but still seems to keep you close to the characters, the way the things that are never talked about are at least as important than the things that are. It’s another gem from Tyler and gets a five out of five from me.

Book Review: Little Wing by Freya North – a heart tugging drama with an evocative Scottish Island setting

I was quite likely drawn to this novel because of the setting – I think I might have mentioned my thing for Scottish Islands before. A big chunk of Little Wing is set on Harris, one of the Outer Hebrides. As the character of Dougie says ‘the Outer Hebrides are like this one-hundred-and-thirty-mile stone windbreak taking the brunt of all that the Atlantic is hurling. In winter the raindrops are like ‘bulls’ bollocks’. But there’s also a ‘wild, terrifying beauty.’ What’s not to like?

In 1969, Harris is where Florence is sent to have her baby. She is sixteen years old and her mother has disowned her. Luckily her step-father steps in and offers a solution. He has a brother on the island where she can escape all the tut-tutting and shame of her condition. We get briefly swept into Florence’s world of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, mini skirts and the psychedelic designs Florence creates in her room.

The story switches forwards to 2005 where we meet Nell, who has a lot on her plate. She co-runs a café where the staff are all special needs. Danny, AJ and co. are so lovingly drawn and what they lack as professional waitstaff is compensated for in charm and enthusiasm. I wish we had a café like this where I live. Nell also visits Frank, an elderly man who needs a hand with meals, but who is also a good friend. If only Nell’s mother still recognised her. Wendy suffers from early-onset dementia and lives in a care home. Single and in her mid-thirties, Nell’s life seems to be all work and caring for others.

Similarly struggling is Dougie, working hard in London as a photographer, not the creative portraiture he excelled at as a student, but catalogue shots for cheap clothing or gardening hardware. Between work and pounding a treadmill at the gym, he rarely has time to return his dad’s phone calls. Dougie’s dad, Gordon, is from Harris, so you know that’s where our lost and bewildered characters will venture next.

When Nell finds her mother’s wayward memory throws up doubts about her own provenance, the answers could be discovered in a remote part of Scotland. Dougie, in need of a break and long overdue for a visit home makes the trip to Harris too. And although Dougie and Nell see each other over the days that follow, it is a while before any sparks ignite. There is however a strong romantic thread to the story, as well as tragedy, both of which are enriched by the wild beauty of a Harris setting.

I really enjoyed Little Wing, named for one of Florence’s favourite Jimi Hendrix’s songs; it’s a light read but full of feeling. You can’t help warming towards the characters: brave and idealistic young Florence, kind-hearted but also kind of fun Nell and Dougie with his quiet sensitivity and Heathcliffe hair. But the true hero of the story is the island of Harris itself with its history, traditions, wild open spaces, birdlife and weather. Not to mention the friendly islanders. You’ll be trawling the Internet for pictures like I did and dreaming about booking a holiday.

I haven’t read anything by Freya North before, but have since discovered she was at the vanguard of the chick lit genre when her first book came out in 1996 – this novel is her fifteenth. I recommend Little Wing for when you want a cosy, light, warm-hearted read. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks – a stunning historical read with a strong emotional pull

Sebastian Faulks regularly delivers an engrossing read, beautifully written and meticulously researched, often about some interesting aspect of history. The history never takes over the story – it’s always about the characters – but it gives you a very well imagined stage upon which the characters reveal themselves.

Snow Country is the second book in a trilogy, the first of which, Human Traces, completely passed me by. Published in 2005, Human Traces is about two friends, one English, one French, both fascinated by the workings of the mind. They go into psychiatry together, develop an asylum in Austria. Of course, Austria is where Freud worked, Vienna the birthplace of psychoanalysis. But Europe is about to be torn apart by the First World War.

Picking up Snow Country, it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the first book – Faulks fills you in with everything you need to know, through the eyes of its two main characters. Anton escapes his bourgeois upbringing and his parents’ plan for him to take over his father’s sausage empire to study philosophy in Vienna. He starts submitting articles to newspapers, with an eye to becoming a journalist. Here he meets Delphine, a piano teacher, older and more sophisticated than Anton, but perhaps her charm lies in the secrets she hides. World War One intervenes and the two are separated, leaving Anton at sea emotionally as well as traumatised by his experiences at the front.

Lena couldn’t be more different from Delphine. Barely literate, she’s the child of an alcoholic mother who scrapes a living doing menial work and occasional prostitution. But Lena has the determination to make something of herself and sets her sights on Rudolph a law student who finds her a job for a respectable clothing merchandiser. Through Lena and Rudolph we get a snapshot of the political situation in Vienna post-war as the Nazi regime comes to power in Germany. While Rudolph is a politically active idealist, Lena lives for the moment, is open-hearted and spontaneous.

The stories of Lena and Anton eventually converge at an asylum by a lake, the Schloss Seeblick where Lena, escaping Vienna, takes a job, and where Anton is to research an article. The setting is oddly calming for both of them and drives each of them to dare to plan a different future. Anton has thoughtful conversations with Martha, the daughter of one of the asylum’s founders, now a trained psychotherapist.

…I have come to have a low view of the human creature, the male in particular. He seems to be a deformed animal.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We are obsessive,’ Anton said. ‘We appear to have bigger brains than other creatures, but we behave in a way that’s contrary to our own interests. These harmful passions that drive us mad with love or with the need to slaughter one another. We don’t seem very well … evolved.’

As you might expect, Faulks takes the reader to some interesting places, such as the building of the Panama Canal, a huge undertaking that risks the lives of its labour force daily. Anton covers the story for a newspaper, as well as a murder trial in Paris. There’s a strong emotional pull too – both Lena and Anton are in their own ways broken hearted, suffering tragedy or loss. It’s a very moving book, as well as historically interesting, and gives you a lot to think about.

Snow Country isn’t the kind of book you race through to see what happens. The writing is such a joy it is worth taking your time over it. But you can’t help wondering how much of what is going on here is a set-up for the third book. I envisage World War II will have a part to play. In the meantime I am curious to check out Human Traces, and hope we don’t have to wait another decade or two before Book Three. This one gets a four and a. half out of five from me.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – a hymn to friendship and to the resourcefulness of women in a man’s world

I’m often drawn to the scenarios described on the backs of Rachel Joyce’s books. But not really enjoying The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry half as much as everybody else seemed to, I haven’t read any further. But looking for an audiobook, I came across Miss Benson’s Beetle and seeing it was read by the truly splendid Juliet Stephenson, I couldn’t resist. Soon I was immersed in the story, set in the early 1950s London, where dowdy, middle-aged schoolteacher Margery Benson has an epiphany.

It doesn’t take much to tip a schoolteacher over the edge, and imagine being a home science teacher in the rationing years, poorly paid and a hopeless cook. She struggles to maintain engagement in a class of sniggering girls. When one student draws a cruel caricature of her, Margery can bear it no longer. She steals a pair of brand new lacrosse boots belonging to the deputy head and decides to embark on a long dreamt-of adventure: to travel to New Caledonia in search of a gold beetle. She had seen it mentioned in her late father’s beetle book, but it has yet to be collected, named and sent to the Natural History Museum.

Margery needs an assistant and advertises. Of the three who reply, the only possible contender does a reference check on Margery and changes her mind. Mrs Pretty can’t write a letter that makes sense; the disagreeable Mr Mundic wants to take over as expedition leader, ready with a gun to fight off savages – clearly he has a screw loose. At the last minute, desperate for anybody really, Marjory writes offering the position to Enid Pretty.

At the train station, the two take a while to recognise each other as Enid is dressed in a tight pink suit, a ridiculous hat and dainty sandals decorated with pompoms. And why does she clasp her red valise as if her life depends on it? Margery is dressed in an ancient shabby suit, the lacrosse boots and a pith helmet. Somehow they make their connection to the ship that will take them to Australia, in spite of Enid not having a passport.

The two make an odd couple, Edith, a former cocktail waitress seems to be running away from something, constantly looking over her shoulder as if she’s being followed. But she has the streetwise knack of acquiring by fair means or foul anything they might need. If only she would stop talking. An array of difficulties – sea sickness, lost luggage, a tropical cyclone and so much more – forges an unexpected friendship. Yet things aren’t quite so simple as finding a beetle and setting off for home again.

The story is full of madcap scenes, some poignant revelations and life-or-death challenges as both women slowly open up about their past lives and the things they are afraid of. There’s also quite a lot about beetles – Margery has become quite the expert. I also enjoyed some of the minor characters, particularly the British wives who are stuck in New Caledonia because their husbands are there on business or as diplomats.

Bubbling through it all is a wry humour. I came away feeling the book was a wonderful hymn to friendship, and to women surviving in a man’s world, a world that in the shadows of World War II is shown to capable of horrific cruelty. And I was quite right about Juliet Stephenson – her reading is superb, bringing to life the two main characters hilariously. I am sure the novel is a brilliant read in print, but I do recommend the audiobook too. Miss Benson’s Beetle earns a four out of five from me.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout – another foray into the world of Lucy Barton

Olive Kitteridge is the book that won Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer Prize and the eponymous character has turned up other books, more recently in Olive, Again. Many readers love Olive for her frankness, her daring to be difficult and determination to be herself. However Lucy Barton is just as interesting. We’ve met her before too, so Elizabeth Strout has had plenty of time to get to know her and explore what makes her tick.

Lucy ‘comes from nothing’ according to her late mother-in-law, Catherine, and it’s true in a way. Lucy’s parents were terribly poor – her father suffering from PTSD following his war service; her mother, hardened by her situation, showed no affection for her children. Lucy had escaped her small town by winning a scholarship to college and has rarely returned, making a name for herself as a writer and now living in New York.

But it’s Lucy’s marriages that are the main focus of this book. Her first was to William, and it is with William that she has two grown up daughters. But William has a roving eye, and as soon as the girls finished their schooling, Lucy left him. William has remarried more than once and when his latest, much younger wife leaves him for another man, he decides to look into his family background. He has recently discovered his mother had left a baby daughter as well as her first husband before her marriage to William’s father. He plans a visit to Maine to meet this sister and asks Lucy, now a widow, to accompany him.

When William met me at LaGuardia Airport I saw him from afar and I saw that his khakis were too short. A little bit this broke my heart. He wore loafers, and his socks were blue, not a dark blue and not a light blue, and they showed a few inches until his khakis covered them. Oh William, I thought. Oh William!

The novel follows the road trip William and Lucy make through Maine, throwing up facts about William’s family and the complicated woman that was his mother. There are a few surprises here, but the book also delves into Lucy’s own marriage to William, which was often problematic for her as she had no sense of how to be a wife. She describes her more recent marriage to David as easier – the two being similar in having emerged from a childhood where there was no popular culture at home, no television or radio or any sense of what the world outside was like.

Written in the first person from Lucy’s point of view, we get a very intimate look at how Lucy thinks, her interactions with others and her relationships with her girls. The book is peppered throughout with her dialogue with William which is very like a couple who know each other well with all the gentle bickering and home truths. There are glimpses of Lucy’s relationship with Catherine, who buys her a a set of golf clubs for her birthday when she expressly asked for a book voucher – but Catherine always thought she knew best.

Oh William! is a short novel, often humorous and very real. It has a gentle storyline and while there are no twists or cliff-hanger chapter endings it kept me reading because every page is such a joy. The writing is so straight-forward and yet it feels crafted. By the end of the book you know Lucy and William so well, they could be your family. I think this is Elizabeth Strout’s secret weapon and why I love her books so much – they leave you with this feeling of warmth as if you’ve just been to visit a favourite aunt. Oh William! gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Beloved Girls by Harriet Evans – an atmospheric and twisty page-turner

I really like books where there’s an atmospheric house in the country and a dark family secret or two. Harriet Evans delivers all of this in The Beloved Girls, but throws in a pagan ritual dating back to the 1700s. What more could you wish for?

The story takes us to London where we meet Catherine Christophe who in her late forties has an enviable life. She’s done well in her career as a barrister, has two well-adjusted teenage children and a happy marriage to Davide, who she met in Toulouse on her gap year. Life had been going swimmingly but lately Catherine has felt uneasy about losing a murder case, where a boy around her daughter’s age has been convicted for killing another boy at his school. He’s not a very nice kid, that’s obvious, but he’s still a kid and he was bullied mercilessly. And then she starts seeing a figure from her past, someone who should be dead.

Switching back a few decades, there’s the story of Jane L’estrange. Jane dearly loves her father, a charismatic but complex man with PTSD from the war and difficulties holding down a job. When her mother leaves them, Jane is sent to visit the Hunters at the Vanes, a quirky country mansion. Jane soon bonds with Kitty Hunter and would love to stay longer, but there are some awkward family dynamics – a very unpleasant father, Charles, knowns as PT for pater familias, the product of the worst kind of public school, and his much younger wife, Sylvia, who has a mysterious connection to Jane’s father.

When she’s eighteen, Jane returns to the Vanes for the summer after the sudden death of her father, her mother having returned from Spain to sell up and arrange Jane’s future. Kitty’s aloof, her brother Joss is smarmy, while Charles is planning for Jane to take part in the yearly honey gathering ritual. She’s to be one of the Beloved Girls, dressed in green, part of a procession that will harvest honey from bees who have built hives in the derelict chapel on the Hunters’ property. The ritual was begun centuries before by the vicar of the day, a sinister man whose flock avoided church. This is a wild coast, where shipwrecks were frequent and the locals enjoyed the spoils of wrecking and scavenging.

Slowly the puzzle pieces come together as the story switches backwards in time, but it’s that particular summer, when Jane’s eighteen, that is the centre of the action. Of course there’s a heatwave to make everything seem more menacing and even the bees seem to be swarming angrily. You can tell things aren’t going to end well. Surely it’s time for some characters to get their comeuppance. The misogyny endured by Kitty and her mother from both Charles and Joss and his friends, who attend the same awful public school, is ever present.

Meanwhile Catherine Christophe isn’t faring too well and you can’t help wondering if her perfect world isn’t going to crumble down around her. So there’s plenty to keep you turning the pages as the past catches up with the present. But there’s a lot to think about too. Evans has a fair bit to say about the privileged classes that hold sway, keeping things the same, generation after generation. They depend upon a world where women know their place and money talks.

All in all, this is a fairly satisfying read, somewhat escapist but not as frivolous as it might be. The characters are interesting and flawed, very flawed often, but then they they are victims too. The ending is somewhat open to interpretation which works well here. Perhaps the middle sagged a little as one hot day bleeds into the next, but in a way this adds to the simmering tension. All the same, I found myself skimming a little. The Beloved Girls is a three and a half out of five read from me.