My friend the crime writer Jim Kelly whose books are set in Ely and King's Lynn, recommended this collection to me because my novel Ninepins was set i...moreMy friend the crime writer Jim Kelly whose books are set in Ely and King's Lynn, recommended this collection to me because my novel Ninepins was set in the fens and these stories, too, all have the fen landscape as their backdrop - though in this case Lincs rather more than Norfolk or Cambs.
I was totally blown away - so much so that I felt completely disorientated when reading it on the train back from London and nearly missed my stop at Cambridge station and ended up adrift in King's Lynn - which would have been strangely appropriate! The stories are dark, funny, quirky, atmospheric and all richly different, but it's the voices which are the most amazing thing about the book. They hit you, fresh and sharp and real and distinctive from the very first line, which often feels like the middle snatch of a conversation you'd been having with this person in your head without realising it. Utterly brilliant stuff.
Phillipa Ashley's fourth and latest novel is a chip off the old block: her fans everywhere will love it. `It Should Have Been Me' tells the story of C...morePhillipa Ashley's fourth and latest novel is a chip off the old block: her fans everywhere will love it. `It Should Have Been Me' tells the story of Carrie, battered and bruised by the breakdown of her ten year relationship with solid farmer fiancé Huw, to whom she had been about to be married. Her friend Rowena - fellow stalwart of the local am dram - decides that what she needs is a bracing girls-only road trip in a vintage VW camper van (known to the initiated as a `splitty' after the unusual split windscreen), in search of sun, sand and (if it happens to turn out that way) uncomplicated sex. Things take a surprising turn when Rowena is offered a chance-of-a-lifetime acting job in London, and persuades the sexy Matt Landor to stand in as Carrie's travelling companion.
In a way, the result of this month of enforced close proximity is never in doubt - and yet the path by which we reach the typically sweet ending is never predictable for a moment. The story unfolds with all the usual, wonderful Ashley ingredients: tensions and misunderstandings aplenty, a wealth of quirky and individual supporting characters (including a clan of hippy surfers) and a great many laughs as well as poignant moments - all of it set against the backdrop of the beautiful west country coastline.
The central romance is carefully crafted for a slow, believable build. Humanitarian doctor Matt, with his own troubled past, cuts a powerfully magnetic figure, and Carrie is a typical Ashley heroine: sensitive and vulnerable but also tough and sassy - a woman who can take down a floral display with a jet of hosed water as soon as look at you.
`It Should have Been Me' is a great romp, a page-turner from start to finish. But it is also tender and sweet - I defy you to finish it without a smile on your face and a lump in your throat.(less)
This interesting little novel is set in 1939 and centres on the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. I picked it up bec...moreThis interesting little novel is set in 1939 and centres on the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. I picked it up because of the Suffolk connection and rapidly became engrossed. The archaeological discoveries give the book its narrative drive, almost like a mystery drama, and Preston conjures effectively the tension of a nation on the brink of war. The book develops poignantly themes of evanescence and transience: the everpresence of death and the dead, and the mark (or lack of) that we leave upon history and the landscape. It is also beautifully, and economically, written.
What stood out for me, however (and I fear this is going to turn into a review for writers more than readers) was Preston’s knack of conjuring on a first meeting and in very few words the absolute essence of his characters – both those described and those doing the describing. His linking of small details of physical appearance to underlying personality is admirably deft.
Take, for example, the self-taught archaeologist, Basil Brown, encountered here for the first time by Mrs Pretty, the owner of Sutton Hoo House.
“Everything about him was brown – dark brown. His skin was mahogany-coloured. So were his clothes: a cotton tie, a tweed jacket with the top button unfastened and what appeared to be a cardigan beneath. He was like a kipper in human form. It seemed absurd that his name should be Brown too.”
Here we are told what Brown wore. And even though I may often be dismissive of clothing-related descriptions, here it is crucial because Mrs Pretty is judging his social class by that cardigan, that undone top button. The mahogany skin is from a life out of doors, digging, and also shows him to be not quite of Mrs Pretty’s social class – he’s tanned like the agricultural labourers on her estate. And there’s humour there – the kipper, the irony of his name – showing us Mrs Pretty’s dry, sardonic take on the world.
Or how about this? Mrs Pretty again, describing for us on is first appearance in the book a man she already knows well, Mr Reid Moir, the local museum curator.
“Mr Reid Moir was a tailor before he became a palaeontologist. As a result he is always immaculately turned out. Today he was wearing a dove-grey suit with a matching tie. Although he is a tall, well-built man, he is very light and fluent on his feet. There is a suppleness about his body that goes with his air of lacquered sensuality.”
Mrs Pretty’s eye for clothes again and what they tell her, but also a hint of her snobbishness, and of her suspicion of a man who is possibly too well-groomed. And although we get those normally mundane facts of height and build, here they tell us something more vivid, something beyond the merely visual: an unctuous fluidity we are warned not quite to trust.
Just one more example: another archaeologist, an academic this time by the name of Phillips, being presented for our view by Peggy Piggott, the young wife of one of his colleagues.
“He was a much larger man than I had expected. However, he carried his bulk, if not proudly, then with a considerable air of entitlement. By contrast, his bow tie was rather small, making him look like an inexpertly wrapped parcel.”
His size this time tells us both of Phillips’s physical confidence and of Peggy’s timidity with men. And again there’s the flash of humour – Peggy’s as well as the author’s.
Damned good, eh? I only wish I could write like this.
**spoiler alert** [WARNING: This review contains spoilers.]
For those who haven’t already read it, ‘Room’ is about a young woman who has been kidnapped...more**spoiler alert** [WARNING: This review contains spoilers.]
For those who haven’t already read it, ‘Room’ is about a young woman who has been kidnapped and kept hidden, imprisoned in a shed for seven years; she has a child by her captor/rapist, and then they escape. It's all told from the viewpoint of the little boy, Jack, who turns five years old at the start of the story - a huge challenge, but Donoghue carries it off really cleverly. Jack’s voice is utterly convincing: we are transported vividly into his world. The first 100 pages or so take place inside Room (the shed) which the child thinks of as the whole world, and it is very moving: how happy he is, and how his mother has made a life for him, with structure and play and learning, as well as keeping him fed and warm and clothed and clean, so that although we, the readers, see the horror of what must be the situation, he is quite oblivious to it. But what is so brilliant is that after mother and son effect their escape Jack actually misses Room, because his Ma had (heroically and against all the odds) made him feel safe there. So, in the outside world not only does he suddenly have to share Ma with other people, and with her past, her other selves - and deal with all the new, frightening experiences of the outside world - but there is a big wedge driven between them because Ma of course (at first, at any rate) is so glad to be rid of their former prison, whereas for Jack being free is just a trauma. He misses the dirty, broken things of Room that were his special toys, his familiarity, his home.
Almost nine years ago now my partner and I adopted a little girl of more or less Jack’s age - just a few months younger, not quite five - and Donoghue’s book really graphically made me re-imagine what it must have been like for her when she moved in with us: to be deposited in an unfamiliar, undesired place, and to resent and fear it, however much she might have been surrounded by nice new toys and story books, clean sheets, good food, and kindness. It made me think of the disorientation that we, as adults, experience on waking up in a hotel room (say) and the light is in the wrong place – and then multiply that feeling (for us, so quickly banished) a thousandfold. It made me think how every smell, every sound, the feel of every object, must have felt wrong, alien, scary.
Isn’t it the sign of a brilliant book if it makes you suddenly see your own life and experiences, and those of the ones you love, in new - fresh, shocking, gut-wrenching - ways?
I love James's crime fiction, and am a huge fan, as well as an Austen sequel freak, so I was this books' prime audience. I did enjoy it - it held my i...moreI love James's crime fiction, and am a huge fan, as well as an Austen sequel freak, so I was this books' prime audience. I did enjoy it - it held my interest to the end, anyway. But it was disappointing. There was no discernible attempt to develop further the characters and relationships of the original book. (I could scarcely recognise Colonel Fitzwilliam at all - whom I loved in P&P.) There were a few brilliantly Austenesque one liners in the early chapters but even these seemed to peter out as the book wore on, and the murder mystery was thin and unconvincing. All round, a great shame, as I had been looking forward to the book as an end-of-term treat.(less)
I finished this book a week ago and still can't get the main character out of my head. I didn't find her sympathetic, actually - rather too self-absor...moreI finished this book a week ago and still can't get the main character out of my head. I didn't find her sympathetic, actually - rather too self-absorbed and self-destructive - but Myerson gets you so close in to her thoughts and the minutiae of her life that you feel you are living it, and the book has the same tight, claustrophobic feel as the small seaside community in which it is set. The accuracy of portrayal of the locations (Southwold, Westleton) is an additional pleasure for those who know and love the area.(less)
This novel, published by the wonderful Sandstone Press, featured on last year's Man Booker long list, and having just finished it, I would say most de...moreThis novel, published by the wonderful Sandstone Press, featured on last year's Man Booker long list, and having just finished it, I would say most deservedly so. It affords a fascinating insight into the world of orthodox Hassidic Jewish communities in Hendon and Golders Green; full of rich detail, it functions as eye-opening documentary, but Eve Harris also tells a compellingly good story and has created plenty of characters (whether shiny-eyed and pious, feistily rebellious or merely downtrodden) for whom I defy any reader not to be rooting firmly. Harris also writes with great sympathy, so that the closed community she describes comes across not only as repressive and stultifying but also as warmly embracing - and with an undeniable vibrancy. At the core of the book lies the tale of a young couple in the lead-up to their traditional, arranged wedding, and the story is structured to culminate in the (not entirely happy!) experience of their wedding night, and its aftermath. In this, it reminded me of 'On Chesil Beach' - yet in this case the tale is told with such sympathy and humanity that it makes for a far more satisfying read, and makes McEwan's novel seem rather mean, if not downright misogynist, in comparison. (less)
I love all of Jim kelly's atmospheric crime novels, set in the flatlands of East Anglia, and the Philip Dryden series are my favourites, but this one...moreI love all of Jim kelly's atmospheric crime novels, set in the flatlands of East Anglia, and the Philip Dryden series are my favourites, but this one is the best I have read so far. Rich in the haunting imagery of water and drowning, and of death and the paraphernalia which surrounds it, both ceremonial and earthily mundane, it is not just the story and characters but also the atmosphere of this book which will stay with you for many days after you have closed the final pages. (less)
I have just been re-reading this, one of my favourite P Fitzgeralds. A remarkable piece of writing: darkly funny, and unerringly deft in its touch, se...moreI have just been re-reading this, one of my favourite P Fitzgeralds. A remarkable piece of writing: darkly funny, and unerringly deft in its touch, seeming just to give small glimpses of a whole yet conveying the solidest sense of both place and people. I especially adore how everyone in the book is caught amidships - between water and land, love and estrangement, order and chaos, belonging and abandonment, life and death. Fabulous stuff!(less)
I knew very little about this era of history, but the book brought it very much alive. It was interesting to learn about attitudes to disease, too, as...moreI knew very little about this era of history, but the book brought it very much alive. It was interesting to learn about attitudes to disease, too, as well as meeting a cast of fascinating characters, based on real historical figures but re-imagined vividly by the author and placed in a very convincing Lancashire of the period.(less)
I enjoyed this book, which I found very clever: clever writing, clever twist at the end, full of clever and interesting ideas. But in the end it left...moreI enjoyed this book, which I found very clever: clever writing, clever twist at the end, full of clever and interesting ideas. But in the end it left me unmoved: it seemed to me full of things Barnes has thought but nothing he has actually felt.(less)
Light indulgence for anyone wanting to wallow in Peter Wimsey nostalgia. Harriet and Peter stroll out of the pages, and through their old haunts in th...moreLight indulgence for anyone wanting to wallow in Peter Wimsey nostalgia. Harriet and Peter stroll out of the pages, and through their old haunts in the quads of Oxford, in believable and authentic shape. (less)
Cleverly constructed, tightly paced and with plenty of the familiar witty banter between our three heroes, there is plenty here to satisfy anyone who...moreCleverly constructed, tightly paced and with plenty of the familiar witty banter between our three heroes, there is plenty here to satisfy anyone who (like me) is a confirmed fan of Dalziel, Pascoe and Wieldy.(less)
This book was purest pleasure from start to finish - I almost couldn't bear for it to end. I'm not sure if it would have stood alone as well as Wolf H...moreThis book was purest pleasure from start to finish - I almost couldn't bear for it to end. I'm not sure if it would have stood alone as well as Wolf Hall, or if it was only so wonderful after having read the first book, but I loved loved loved it and I don't care. What an achievement - to make the story of a man relentlessly pursuing the deaths of half a dozen people (and toying, on the margins, with torture along the way), partly for political expedience but also partly for personal vengeance, into a sympathetic tale. Amazing stuff.(less)