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Rocco And The Nightingale - Adrian Magson

Inspector Lucas Rocco has finally got used to the quiet way of life in Picardie, away from his work in Paris and the organised crime he used to combat. When a petty criminal is found murdered near his village, Rocco is surprised but believes the culprit will soon be caught. He’s soon taken off the case, much to his chagrin, in order to babysit a Gabonese minister. On top of all that he finds out someone has taken out a contract on his head. Now Rocco must protect the minister and track down the assassin, before the assassin finds Rocco…

 

This is the first book by Adrian Magson I have read and whilst Rocco and the Nightingale is the latest in a series it can easily be read without having read any of the other novels.

 

I loved the setting of the novel, both the location and the time period. It played like a black and white 60’s French movie in my head. I could image the countryside, the Citroens and mopeds driving through villages, the older village women, the cafes filled with men smoking and drink coffee and the young women with their sixties clothes and gamine hair cuts. Whilst there was violence in the story this seemed tempered by the time period. There was a more laid back atmosphere to the book, concentrated  more on old fashioned detective work and less on forensics, though these were touched upon.

 

All the characters were well drawn. Rocco was a likeable character, interesting to read. It was clear he had some history, history that now shaped his present, but he came across as a fair minded and fair handed man, someone who may not be afraid to bend the rules but would do so only for the right reasons. The relationship between Rocco and his colleagues was a pleasure to read and I could see how they could possibly develop in the future.

 

The crime itself is slightly different in that we know who has committed the murder and we hear from the assassin throughout the story. It is very much a cat and mouse tale but at some point the cat, unknowingly becomes the mouse.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Rocco and the Nightingale.  Whilst I would like to read about a past Rocco, seen in Adrian Magson’s previous novels, I do hope that there will be the opportunity read more about present Rocco in the future.

The Book of Forgotten Authors - Christopher Fowler, Christopher Fowler, riverrun

This book is a bibliophile’s dream. It is a cornucopia of potential hidden gems ripe for re-discovery. There are authors you will have heard of, surprise inclusions that make sense when you read about the wealth of writing they are no longer associated with. There are those authors who you will never have heard of, with none of their titles ringing any bookish bells, overshadowed perhaps by far more famous contemporaries. Then there will be those that will surprise because whilst the author’s name may have slipped from the collective memory their stories are household names.

 

It is extremely easy to read. The short, two to three page chapters dedicated to each of the 99 authors, interspersed with essays, mean that the reader can soon find themselves 10 or 15 authors in. It is a book that you can dip in and out of, oftentimes having to be put down so that the reader can research the books of an author they have just read about.

 

There are so many authors in the novel whose work sounds so appealing that I’ve had to create a list of those I want to read. In fact, this book arrived the day after I bought a copy of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, who’s author, Winifred Watson, features in The Book of Forgotten Authors. I stopped reading the later to pick up the former, and fell in love with the tale of a down at heel governess and her new accidental friends (but that’s another story). Having had the feeling that I will discover some new favourites by reading some of these forgotten authors already validated I can’t wait to discover more.

Christopher Fowler writes in an engaging, informative and fun style, one which draws the reader completely into the lives of the writer whose life’s work is summed up in a few pages. His love and passion for literature shines through, making the book the more entertaining for it.

 

This look at forgotten authors is of course subjective. There were over 400 discovered by Christopher Fowler, condensed to just 99. There may have been many others in the remaining 301 that someone else would have held in higher regard. There are some of the authors selected whose work I know I will probably not enjoy but others whose novels I know will fit perfectly with my bookish bent. Don’t be disheartened if not all of the authors appeal, the other benefit to this book is that you will find an author to re-discover just as much as you’ll find an author that won’t be gracing your bookshelves.

This is a brilliant reference book but is also a look at the vagrancies of the novel, the fads and fashions of different periods in history. Hugely popular authors have now vanished from the reading public’s conscious. This book will open the doors to a wonderful array of authors whose novels are waiting patiently to be read again.

 

Luckily some publishers are realising the joy to be found in older titles, with Persephone and the British Library being at least two who are re-publishing long forgotten favourites.

An informative reference guide but also an ode to the lost authors of bygone eras, The Book of Forgotten Authors is an entertaining look at the world of writing. It should perhaps come with a warning – this book will cost you a pretty penny in new to you titles you find you simply must have.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew has little hope of work but is surprised to find her employment agency have a vacancy for a governess. With some trepidation she sets off to the address. There she meets Miss Lafosse and just as she is pulled wildly into the apartment she is pulled wildly and wonderfully into the lives of Miss Lafosse and her friends. Miss Pettigrew finds that she was merely existing before and decides to live life as Miss Lafosse does, even if it’s just for one day.

 

And what a day it is!

 

Oh what a joy this book is. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one of those novels where you kick yourself for not reading it sooner and yet feel like you’ve discovered a gem.

A re-telling of the Cinderella story, life for Miss Pettigrew is her ugly step-sister and Miss Lafosse the glamorous and perhaps unexpected Fairy Godmother. As the reader goes through the fabulously mad-cap day they find themselves hoping that the day will never end and that Miss Pettigrew won’t have to return to her previous life.

 

All of the characters are a delight to read. Miss Pettigrew is a wonderfully rounded character, one it is a pleasure to see alter over the course of the story. She starts out curled in on herself, oppressed by her current state of living, her money worries and her poor diet attributed to her dowdy complexion and old worn clothes. With no warning she is exposed to another world, one of glamour and nightclubs, beautiful women, stunning gowns, cad, bounders and lovers. Inexplicably she finds herself reacting to situations in a surprising manner, lying and swearing (to her) for the first time. As the day progresses she shrugs off the vestiges of her staid upbringing. Enjoying her new found freedom but finding it tempered with a sadness that come the morning it will all be over we see Miss Pettigrew as she really is, and find her the more appealing for it. Miss Delysia Lafosse is fabulous, avant garde, flighty but also underneath, someone looking for guidance or a type of mother figure, something she realises Miss Pettigrew possesses. Her friends are so accepting of Miss Pettigrew, so laid back in their lives, indeed too wrapped up in themselves, that they don’t question who Miss Pettigrew is. They listen to her, find her profound and delightedly baffle Miss Pettigrew.

 

There is something wonderfully exhuberant and almost careless about the novel. The reader is pulled into the frantic world of Miss Lafosse along with Miss Pettigrew and is as much caught up in the whirlwind excitement of the unknown as the eponymous governess is.

 

There are a couple of instances that haven’t aged well but otherwise this is a timeless piece about societal structure and the self imposed boundaries one can set. It’s a lesson about living, about being able to breach the confines of expected behaviour and of re-discovering new aspects of yourself.

 

This edition is printed with the original typeset and illustrations and I found that this drew me even further into the story, being transported to the heady days of smoke-filled nightclubs, furs, pearls, extravagant dress and a bohemian way of life. Even the cover makes you smile and gives a hint at the heart-warming tale inside.

 

I loved spending the day with Miss Pettigrew and her new friends. I’ll be revisiting her again soon.

Sparkling Cyanide - Agatha Christie

Many years ago I spent many a pleasant hour reading my way through Agatha Christie’s work. I of course fell for her famous Belgian detective and her wily old lady who pitted their wits against a variety of corking criminals. Granted some of my memories of those stories have now merged with the TV adaptations but I still aim to read them all, again or for the first time.

 

One of the ones I can’t remember reading, or seeing is Sparkling Cyanide. Rosemary Burton dies at her birthday party, drinking champagne laced with cyanide. Deemed a suicide her friends and family slowly get used to life without her. But then her husband organising a dinner at the same restaurant, with the same guests, and one place left empty, with just a sprig of rosemary at the empty seat.

 

I’d picked up this book unsure if I wanted to read it, or any book. I soon found myself caught up in the story. Agatha Christie is a best selling author for a reason, even 40 years after her death. She is a consummate story teller. Her stories are very much character driven, each studies in human nature and the human psyche, exploring what makes humans act in an inhuman way. There are only so many motives for murder and only so many methods yet Agatha Christie managed to make each one unique. Here the method is poison, one she has used in numerous novels, but the process is cleverly done.

 

There is very much a closed room feel to Sparkling Cyanide. There are a limited number of suspects, those being the guests at the party. Each character is introduced though their own chapters so the reader gains more knowledge about them, both directly from their individual sections but from the opinions of the other characters.

 

The clues are laid, misdirected and altered. I had immense examining the different suspects, discarding some as the story progressed, weighing up the evidence and the clues against each character to establish whodunit.

 

There is something genteel about Agatha Christie novels. I have heard them mentioned as comfort reading and I can see why. The characters tend to be clear cut, even the less than salubrious ones. The murders are in a controlled environment and the culprit or culprits usually get their comeuppance.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed Sparkling Cyanide and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Agatha Christie’s vast collection of novels and short stories.

Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë

I have an affinity with the Bronte sisters, though I wouldn’t be able to begin to say why. I adore Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but I have never read any of the other books produced by the siblings. Why, I could not begin to say. I even live and work in the same county that they lived and died in. Haworth is about 30 minutes from where I work and yet I only visited the Parsonage for the first time this year. But what a visit. There was something quite beautiful about the building, and something quite moving about seeing the property and belongings of the family. Of course I could not come away without being a memento or five, and Agnes Grey was one of those purchases.

 

Immediately I started reading I felt that there was something quietly enticing about the story. It has been said that it is semi-autobiographical and there is certainly a feeling that Anne was drawing on experience. The writing feels more personal. This is of course aided by the narrator being in the first person and talking to the reader, admitting that parts are skipped over so not to bore, that occurrences are told not to evoke pity but to provide a true picture of Agnes’ life.

 

There is something beautiful and appealing in the brevity of the prose. The story is only 153 pages in length but doesn’t lack anything because of it. There is a humility to Agnes that one can imagine in Anne, and through Agnes it appears that Anne lived her dreams, or so it would appear to this reader.

 

Agnes’ charges are an amalgam of all that could be wanting in a child of the age. A child of a certain class that is. Whilst undoubtedly an exaggeration, they were based on experience. The dangers of spoiling a child, of lack of real interest by their parents of their welfare and of the desire to abdicate responsibility for their education are evident in this book. Matilda Murray is a cautionary tale, the result of indulgence, boredom and a victim, however willing, of the desire to marry for money and status than for love.

 

It is always hard to review a work of fiction that has been reviewed hundreds of times already, by many people with more developed and erudite ideas than myself. Suffice it to say I loved this novel. There is beauty, sadness, love, loss, poetry and beauty contained within its few pages. Sometimes it is hard to express why one finds a novel appealing, why it is loved. Sometimes it is just a feeling, a contentment from picking up it’s pages. And no more words are really needed.

 

As I was reading I felt that this was a story that deserved more than one piece of my attention. It is a book I could well imagine re-reading a number of times, no doubt gaining more insight on each occasion.

 

A book I will read again. I’m looking forward to doing so already.

The Last Summer (East and West series) - Ricarda Huch, Jamie Bulloch

Yegor van Rasimkara, the governor of St Petersburg closes the university and imprisons some radical students. He receives death threats and as a result his wife Lusinya hires a bodyguard, Lyu to protect him whilst his family vacation at their summer home. But little does she realise that Lyu sides with the students. Has she invited the viper into the nest?

Peirene books are novellas from around the world, often previously unknown to the English Language market and they are the ideal length to be consumed in a couple of hours.

 

The story is told in a series of letters which is a very effective narrative. The reader gets to see inside the home of the von Rasimkara family, gaining an understanding of the political stand point of them all and also building up a relationship which each family member. Whilst the reader knows that the author of each letter has their own  viewpoint, prejudiced or otherwise, the story told through the letters creates shades and nuances to allow the reader to build up a fuller picture of the tale. The story is threaded with sadness as the reader knows the true intent of Lyu from the outset and all that can be done is to sit and wait for the inevitable, all the while, forming a relationship with the intended victim and his family.

 

We can see that Lusinya truly loves Yegor, the professor, longing forward to the time she can be alone with him. Whilst the children may not necessarily agree with their father’s political views, and indeed are more revolutionary than their parents may realise, they obviously care for him. As for Lyu, whilst he intent on his mission the longer he spends with the family the more he grows to feel for them. His letters become tinged with something akin to regret as the story progresses.

 

Whilst written in 1910 the story has not aged in that time and is still relevant today. Yes it is set around the time of the Russian Revolution but it’s political commentary could be applied in equal measure to the present. It shows that both the repressors were real people with feelings and families and that the revolutionaries didn’t always take pride in their work and felt the hardship of it. It must have been seen as enlightened and possibly scandalous at the time of it’s original publication.

 

The translation works extremely well. I forgot I was reading a translation, convinced I was reading the original. Always a sign of a great translation.

 

My favourite of the Peirene books I’ve read so far. Topical, even for today, well written, insightful and at times moving. Recommended.

Siren - Annemarie Neary

Róisín Burns has changed in the last decade or so. Now Sheen, she has made a new life of sorts in New York, far away from her Belfast roots. But she is still haunted by events that led to her exile on the other side of the world. And as she sees the man who changed her life irrevocably rise up and seem likely to win office, Sheen feels the need to warn the world about Brian Lonergan, and hopefully find peace with herself in the process.

 

This is a tale of a cat and a mouse, though those who think they are doing the chasing may actually be the chased. Everything becomes turned on it’s head. The reader knows more than Sheen does about her immediate situation. We are slowly led through events that bring Sheen to Lamb Island. How she will confront Lonergan and what will happen to her are what drives the story along.

 

None of the characters are particularly likeable. Boyle is decidedly strange, his actions motivated by reasons only he may know. Lonergan is manipulative, vicious and conniving, covered by a gossamer of respectability he’s cultivated over the years.   Even Sheen has moments where her machinations are seen as self preservation and absolution rather than being driven by more unselfish needs. The situation she finds herself in is hopefully one that many of us would never find ourselves. I therefore tried to remind myself that what I would have expected her to do, and what she did are not necessarily the same thing.

 

The writing is poetic, sparse in places and effecting. The scenes in Belfast during the troubles are the most hard hitting. Most of us of a certain age have memories of the violence that occurred before the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. The realisation by Róisín that the violence is  not normal, that it is not usual to have soldiers with rifles driving down the street, to have bombed pubs and smashed windows is a revelation to her and to the reader. The reader is shown that the violence has become a way of life, to such an extent that it is almost not seen. The setting of Lamb Island aids this. The remoteness of the island, the inhabitants and their ways, all add to the sense of distance, of being on the outskirts of humanity in a way, so that extreme action seems normal, and irrational thought seems rational.

 

I had places in the novel where I struggled to get on with the story, but I preserved and am glad I did. I wanted Sheen to both forget about her past and return to New York, but to also face her past, and address the consequences of it.

 

This was an interesting debut novel from Annemarie Neary and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

The Year of Reading Dangerously - Andy Miller

There is always something fascinating with some one else’s reading. It’s like ordering food in a restaurant and then seeing what someone else is eating; it always looks appealing. There are few readers who don’t try to sneak a peek at what a fellow commuter is reading. There are book groups that will discuss to a minute level the intricacies of a novel. And it’s always interesting to read other people’s views on books, after all you are reading this review (or at least I hope you haven’t stopped by now).

So to read a whole book dedicated to someone else’s reading list seems like the ultimate bookish eavesdropping.

 

I had heard good things about The Year of Reading Dangerously and I was keen to pick it up. So I did what most book lovers do, bought a copy then let it sit unread on the shelf for a while. But then I started a reading challenge to read 20 books in 3 months and so thought a book about a reading challenge, during a reading challenge, was too apt an opportunity to miss. I had also been hit by a bout of reader’s block so I thought that reading about someone else’s book trials would help. And it did.

 

I was of course eager to see which books Andy Miller had decided to spend his year with. Would there be many I had read and if so would I find that we had similar opinions about the books? The answer – there were some books we had both read, some we agreed on and others our thoughts differed wildly.

 

Now reading is a subjective matter, what one person will love, another will loathe. And it is precisely this subjectivity that make books so wonderful. All books have the potential to impart knowledge, expand our world view, warn us or entertain us. And they all have the potential to miss their mark.

 

There were a variety of books that saw Andy Miller through his reading year. It was interesting to see the diverse range of books. The book encouraged me to dig out copies of unread titles or to at least consider reading them sooner rather than later. It was also pleasant to read about someone else’s struggle with books. And I mean that in the nicest sense. It was a relief to see that I was not the only one to sometimes find myself ploughing through a book others had loved. To have someone write a book about the fact that not every book can be universally loved almost validates the thing that readers know but don’t always acknowledge; you don’t have to love every book, or even finish it, and there’s nothing wrong with this.

 

Whilst The Year of Reading Dangerously gave me an insight into possible books I’d be interested in, it also gave me leave to acknowledge those books I don’t fancy reading, and to not feel bad about it. I can live with the fact I’ll probably never read Somerset Maugham or any number of authors that others rave about.

 

There is something refreshingly liberating to read about someone else’s literary ups and downs. As is always the case I sometimes found myself agreeing and then sometimes disagreeing with Andy Miller’s view points on reading in general and issues he had and things he loved about some books could just as easily be applied to the titles I read.

Reading can be a solitary pursuit, though this is becoming less so with the rise of social media, book groups and literary festivals all opening up dialogues to discuss the books we love. The Year of Reading Dangerously is another avenue, another way to celebrate the written word.

 

Now I’m off to pick up my copy of War and Peace and settle down with my 50 pages a day.

Innocence - Roald Dahl

Without making sweeping generalisations most people have childhood memories that contain Roald Dahl. Many of us will have read at least one of his books, seen one of the film adaptations. Some of us may have memories of devouring all of the books of his they could find, one after the other.

 

I had read Boy years ago and retained a blurred memory of having loved the tales of his childhood, though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you any of those stories. As I read, the memories came back, this time with them, the overwhelming sense of creative mastery. The stories foretell the inspiration behind those works of genius still to come. The testing of chocolate in boarding school sowing the seeds of inspiration for the iconic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the mouse in the gobstobbers perhaps the idea behind The Witches.

 

What is clear from this collection is that the reader becomes aware they are reading work from a fine story teller, one who has indeed mastered the craft. Every part of Boy is fascinating, from the history of how his parents met to how he gained the opportunity to go to Africa through his work. He is quite open with how joyous some memories are, and how difficult other periods of his life were to endure.

 

The other stories in the collection are also interesting to read. The theme of innocence is threaded throughout. This could be the innocence of a bullying victim, the innocence judged on outward appearance or innocence assumed to be lacking in another. Having read Boy first, the inspiration for some of the short stories or indeed on one occasion the possible inspiration for Boy, is apparent. I’m sure there was some cathartic quality to some of the writing but also a lesson being told – ‘this happened to me, just like possibly did to you. I’m still ok, I’ve made a success of my life and you can too’.

 

There are hints of the darker tones that thread throughout his other novels. Adept at show not tell, undercurrents of threat and malice are generated by the reader, whist the story itself may on first appearance be innocent. This should come as no surprise to most readers familiar with Roald Dahl. He is famous not just for his children’s stories but also for his adult fiction such as Tales of the Unexpected and the memorable short story Lamb to the Slaughter. Even his children’s books feature threatening enemies, warnings of the results of being spoiled and situations that boarder on child neglect.

 

Innocence is part of a new collection being reissued by Penguin. Together with Fear, Trickery and War the quartet has been curated with further works by Dahl and by authors he admired and given covers featuring striking artwork by Charming Baker.

Reading Innocence reawakened in me the love of Roald Dahl’s work. Granted this wasn’t love that was very dormant as I am now at the stage of encouraging my children to read his work, or at least have it read to them. As I read more of Boy and the other short stories I realised just how important his stories were to my childhood and the millions of other children who have read his books over the years. The genius of storytelling is, to me, to be able to engage a diverse audience, to hold them rapt, whatever their background. To have your stories told for decades after they were written and for new audiences to fall in love with them. To be able to draw a reader completely into a world that they are immersed. I hate to use the word genius lightly but in Roald Dahl’s case it is a title to which is justly warranted. Innocence is a glimpse into that genius, one that made me want to re-read more of his tales. Highly recommended.

A Summer at Sea - Katie Fforde

Emily Bailey escapes her real life and heads up to Scotland to help on her friend’s puffer boat. The chance of running the galley seems to good to pass. All Emily hopes for is time to get away from the hassle of work. What she finds are new friends, old friends, beautiful scenery and possibly love. But holiday romances don’t last for ever – or do they?

 

I have read all of Katie Fforde’s other novels so I was looking forward to reading A Summer at Sea. I find her novels easy to read escapism and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Sometimes we all need to escape from reality to a place where we don’t have to think and her novels have always provided me with a lovely escape route from time to time.

 

I loved the setting of the novel. The idea of spending the summer on boat in Scotland sounded wonderful, full of fresh air and a lovely rural community and knowing that Crinan is a real place just added to the appeal. There is the feeling of friendliness between both holiday makers, crew and residents that runs through the novel.

 

The characters all work well together. Emily is a little too self important times and working on the puffer boat seems to ironed these creases from her character. Becca and her family are lovely, working well together, softening Emily and provided moments of humour. Alasdair comes across as a nice but sometimes distant character, often I suppose reflecting how Emily would feels she should keep him, at that distance. There wasn’t however a character that didn’t fit in the story and all worked well together.

 

There were a couple of things that grated slightly. One was Emily’s almost militant stance on home births and that it seemed that all GPs were against them. In my limited experience this was not the case, with both midwives and GPs not seemingly at odds. Also there was the fact that most of the characters in the novel were trying to convince Emily she wanted children, that she shouldn’t leave it too late etc. This is perhaps more true to life – I still get asked if I’m having any more children and people often scoff when I say three’s enough. Whilst not major issues or enough to spoil the story, both of these parts of the story were mentioned enough to labour the point (pun definitely intended).

 

A Summer at Sea is a gently paced, warm, cosy novel that is lovely escapism for a few hours, be it on a wet June’s day or any time of year. It kept me entertained, didn’t challenge my world views and took me away from the current political strife for a few hours. And sometimes that’s all you need from a book.

A Dangerous Crossing - Rachel Rhys

Lily Shepherd is setting off on the trip of a lifetime – she is moving to Australia to enter into domestic service, and to hopefully leave behind the past that haunts her thoughts. She is soon caught up with life on board, making friends with siblings Helena and Edward and soon dazzled by Max and Eliza from the first class deck. She soon realises that things are not as they seem with her new friends, but is it too late for Lily to not be affected by them. Though Lily knew when she set off that her life would never be the same again, little did she think that it would change so irrevocably before she even arrived in Australia.

 

The book is wonderfully reminiscent of the old fashioned, golden age novels of the past. This is a story that soon draws the reader in, allowing them to be encompassed by a tale that appears to be glamorous and inviting but underneath is darker and more thought-provoking.

 

Whilst there is murder and mystery on board the Orentes, there is much more to the story than that. There is the mystery surrounding Lily’s reason for being on the ship and for the reasons the other passengers are travelling to the other side of the world. There is the potential love stories, and hate stories between the passengers and it is a commentary on the class structure of the time.

 

The characters are all extremely well drawn. There are a variety of characters, each one with individual traits and quirks that makes them easy to imagine. Lily is essentially a good character. She is reliable and moral and though resistant at first is seduced by life on board. This makes her more susceptible to others and the story follows her path, showing how she is changed as a person as the ship sails closer to its final destination. Eliza and Max are complex characters as in their own way are Helena and Edward, all of them battling their own demons. All are described in a way that the reader can easily imagine them, and given that this is a character driven story, this element is vital.

Setting the story on an ocean liner allows the tale to take a closer look at society. It puts the societal norms of the day under the microscope, class divisions are blurred and normal social lines crossed and briefly forgotten. It also highlights the anti-Semitism and xenophobia that was rife in the time leading up to the second world war, where people were open about their prejudices. Due to the current political and social climate this makes the story all the more impacting as a result.

 

The writing is evocative, the reader can easily conjure up images of the sleek ocean vessel and its inhabitants. The atmosphere of the ship is vividly portrayed, there is a sense of how the passengers feel, a mix of excitement, dread and fear for a war that may or may not break out. There is a hint of Agatha Christie about the novel, a closed room mystery feel despite the fact that the setting is the middle of the ocean.

 

Although there is murder and mystery there is so much more to this story. It is a story of life and death, of love and hate, understanding and intolerance and a study in society. A Dangerous Crossing is the debut novel written by Rachel Rhys, which is a pseudonym of a well established crime writer. I do hope that we have more books from Rachel Rhys soon.

The Museum of You - Carys Bray
Clover Quinn has been raised by her father Darren. Her mother, Becky, has been missing from her life since she was a baby. Darren has raised Clover by himself, floundering in the unknown world of caring for a baby and raising a girl. Now on the cusp of being a teenager, and trusted to look after herself for the holidays, Clover decides to tackle the spare room where her mother’s belongings are stored. She is going to sort through the items and present them to Darren, creating a museum of Becky Brookfield.
 
There is a shadow of sadness that runs through this novel. It hangs in the air of the house Clover inhabits with her father, hidden in between the items Darren keeps ‘just in case they ever need it’. It has always been present, shaping the absence of her mother so it’s almost palpable.
 
It’s a gently told story of living with the absence of someone, of how their memory, or lack thereof, can affect people differently and shape the course of their lives. For Clover, it is as if something is missing from herself, by not knowing Becky she is somehow incomplete. For Darren, he tries to protect Clover by not talking in great detail about her mother and in doing so, allows himself to be selfish in keeping Becky for himself.
This is however one of the few times he acts by putting his own feelings first, and it is done so unknowingly. Darren is portrayed as a patient man, bound by the losses in his life to care a little more for those that remain; his father, who rarely leaves the house, Becky’s brother, who suffers his own illnesses and of course Clover. Clover herself is beautifully portrayed. She is on the confusing cusp, walking the line between child and adult, seeing the world from the edges of both. She still has a child-like belief things, as she notes when she begins to clear the second bedroom and catalogue the ‘exhibits’, attaching histories to items that are contradicted when Darren’s memories of the same objects are revealed in his narratives.
 
Clover’s museum acts as a catalyst for Darren, allowing him to release feelings he hadn’t been overtly aware he was retaining, giving him the permission he needs to live again, rather than exist solely for Clover and others.  As for Clover, it allows her to find out part of her heritage, to see where her other half comes from. And to also find out more about her father, to view him in a new light.
 
The other characters all add layers to the tale, be it Darren’s dad, dealing with his own grief in his own way, Uncle Jimmy or Mrs Mackeral, who’s loud misquotes lend a comedic air to the novel. Dagmar adds another youthful edge to the story, allowing Clover the chance to see that everyone else’s lives aren’t always perfect and to open up the possibility of a peer friendship.
 
Moving and well told, this is a considered portrait of what make us who we are, how we are defined by the people around us but also by those who are absent.
White Lies and Wishes - Cathy Bramley

Jo, Carrie and Sarah meet at a friend's funeral and are struck by the fact that time could run out for any of them at a moment's notice. Driven by the idea to seize the day, and helped somewhat by the fact that they don't really know each other, they decide to make a 'wish list' of aims to be completed by September. But what they've said they want to do, and what they actually want to happen might not be the same thing after all...

This is a very easy to read book, in that I soon found myself a third of the way through it after trying to decide which book to read between two choices. The storyline involves the trials and tribulations of three women who all have different aims in life, who want to support each other to get those aims, but who might not have been completely truthful with the others. There are mishaps and misunderstandings along the way. But also there was a lot of self-denial, each of the protagonists were misleading themselves as to what they wanted, and as to how they had got in the position they found themselves before they made friends. Carrie used self-deprecating humour as a defence mechanism but also failed to see her role in why she felt so sad and alone in her marriage. Sarah's determination made her quite selfish when she was trying to please everyone and Jo failed to see what was in front of her, so driven was she to run the family business well.

I did like the characters in the book. Carrie who's shyness hides someone who does not love herself at all, blossoms as her friendship with Sarah and Jo develops. She begins to gain confidence, self-awareness that allows her bubbly demeanour and caring nature to emerge. Sarah likes to be the one to organise, to control aspects of her life. She is desperately trying to juggle life so she can do best by her family. As she gets to know the others it becomes apparent that she in not in control and learning to let go sometimes. Jo is determined and driven, putting her own life on the backburner as she contends with keeping her staff happy and employed and believing she doesn't need close friends but learning that there are benefits to having them after all. All three women before meeting were somewhat loners, with seemingly few friends to rely on they all blossomed as their relationships developed. There were some parts of me I recognised in each of them, Jo's romantic side, Sarah's guilt at returning to work after having a baby and Carrie's lack of self-confidence. I did feel however that sometimes it seemed that there was too much guilt and too much lack of self-esteem from the characters. I sometimes wanted to shake Sarah and Carrie and tell them to look properly at their situations, tell them to talk to their husbands, though that of course would have cut the story very short!

This is an enjoyable, gentle read, perfect for a spot of escapism. I like Cathy Bramley's novels and her writing style and luckily I have a couple of her earlier books to keep me going before her next one is published.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old - Hendrik Groen, Hester Velmans

Hendrik Groen is embarking on his 84th year. In order to keep boredom at bay he decides to keep a diary of his days in the care home he in which he now resides. His diary charts the ups and downs of the coming year and how he fights the boredom that threats his days. Who says you have to grow old gracefully?

I have to admit I’m not really looking forward getting older with the potential for loneliness, misunderstanding and my body letting me down. I am, however, looking forward to being curmudgeonly and have been happily practising that for years. I liked the sound of Hendrik Groen’s diary and so thought it would be interesting to read about aging from someone in the know.

The diary format makes the book easy to read, the justification for at least finishing the month meant that I soon found myself well into Hendrik’s year.

The care home houses a host of wonderful characters. The Old But Not Dead Club members are a lovely bunch of people determined to enjoy their twilight years rather than waiting for the end by sitting in their chairs. I looked forward to hearing about the latest trip organised by a member of the club. Hendrik’s new found freedom with his motorised scooter was lovely to read as was seeing his burgeoning friendships develop.

It was interesting to read about the dynamics of the care home, that bullies will emerge whatever the age, that some were only too happy to live in the past, rather than face a potential bleak future and that some fight aging in whatever way they can.

There are also touchingly sad moments. The health scares of Hendrik’s friends, the sad prospect of Alzheimer’s, the risk of falls and the waiting of the inevitable casts a pall over the end stages of life. The book also highlights how easy it is to forget that the elderly were once young. They once fell in love or had their hearts broken, raised families or suffered loss. They danced and sang and were happy and vibrant. And all of their experiences shaped them, made them who they are and remain with them until the end.

The book discusses a wide range of topics in a humorous and often moving way. The political landscape of The Netherlands is discussed, as are the arrangements and funding for elder care, race and religious issues and the question of euthanasia. All of this is told with gentle humour and occasional, understandable rancour.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is a funny, moving, thought-provoking and poignant portrait of aging and society’s view of the elderly.

The Marsh King's Daughter - Karen Dionne

Helena was raised in the marshes. Away from other human contact, it was only ever her, her mother, who she distanced herself from and her father, who she loved and feared in equal measure. It is only when she finds out the truth about her unconventional family that her world is turned upside down. Fast forward and nearly 20 years later her father has escaped prison. The prison she helped put him in. Helena knows only she can find her father. For although he is a hunter, used to surviving in the marshes, he taught her everything he knows. And she is her father’s daughter….

 

I picked this novel up to have a quick look and soon found myself not wanting to put it down.

 

There is a darkness that runs through the novel, for obvious reasons given the subject matter. There is also sadness. The reader can’t help but feel for Helena, unaware as a child of her unique and tragic upbringing. Buffeted between love and cruelty the foundations for a regular life so taken for granted by most people are absent for her. Drawn towards her father who provides more obvious emotions of either love or violence, he is perhaps a clearer character to read than her mother. Unaware of the reason why her mother is with her father she simply sees someone who shows no emotions, not recognising until she is older, how her mother did show her affection.

The story draws the reader in. There is something compelling about the writing, the fascination of the violent situation the family revolves around. The narration moves between present day, when the true nature of Helena’s upbringing emerges and to the past, showing how she grew up in the marshes, being taught how to hunt and kill by her father. I looked forward to each viewpoint, finding a dark fascination with the younger Helena’s story. The alternating chapters lent themselves to the justification of ‘just one more chapter’ that saw me flying through the book.

 

There are limited characters in the book so the story is very much character driven, concentrating mainly on Helena and her father. Helena’s mother is there however, she is in the periphery, a constant presence but often not thought of by the father and daughter. Helena’s father a chilling character, a sociopath concerned only with his wants and needs, using Helena and her mother for those needs when required, discarding them at other times.

 

Helena is a more rounded character. The reader sees her as both an adult and a child and we can see how her character develops into the present day Helena. She is, to herself, more obviously her father’s daughter. A proficient hunter, though she has her family she still needs to escape them, to spend time alone. However, as she hunts for her father she comes to re-examine her relationship with her mother, coming to realise she has more of her character traits and that her mother did indeed love her.

Despite being set in the wilderness there is something claustrophobic about the story. The reader knows that Helena and her mother are effectively living in a prison, albeit one enclosed by rivers and forests.

 

This is a novel that is easy to see being adapted for the screen. Karen Dionne herself spent time living in the marshes with a small baby whilst her husband built a shack and the knowledge and experience is apparent in the writing.

 

This is a taut, gripping, well written story that enthrals and entertains in that unique way dark storylines can. I look forward to reading more from Karen Dionne in the future. Highly recommended.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Bailey

Mrs Palfrey, newly widowed, moves into the Claremont Hotel. She expects that she will not check out again until her death. Chosen for it’s location, with all the sights and sounds of London on it’s doorstep, it’s cheap rates and the proximity to her grandson, she is determined to make the best of it. But things aren’t as expected and the monotony is only lifted when she meets Ludo by accident.

 

This book quietly works its magic on the reader. Gently, slowly, it worms its way into your heart. There are no big scenes, no fast paced dialogue. It has beautifully evocative prose that allows the reader to easily envisage everyone and everything.

 

Ludo is of course using Mrs Palfrey, though she is not always aware of it. Using her as inspiration for his writing, whilst he doesn’t always actively seek her out he does come to value her friendship. It could be taken that Ludo should be vilified for this but his actions are so considered and considerate that the reader does not find Ludo to be the enemy. Indeed Mrs Palfrey herself is using Ludo. She uses him to save her own embarrassment but also to stave off her loneliness. She needs a friend, a connection to life and Ludo provides that connection.

 

The writing is understated yet beautifully done. It is only a short novel at 208 pages yet it does not feel that it has been under written. Everything that is contained in those 208 pages is a necessary part of the story. Any more pages would detract, and less would likewise.

 

There is a tragic edge to the story. It is after all about aging and the inhabitants of the Claremont have little to do but wait for death. Elizabeth Taylor’s insightful novel examines society’s view of the elderly and shows that it has not much changed in the last half century. It is both of it’s time and yet also ageless.

 

It is not just a tale of aging. It is also a love story, showing that love can develop over time, can be lost, won or indeed never really be where it is expected.

 

This is the first novel by Elizabeth Taylor I have read, so engaging was it, I read it in a day. It won’t be my last. I’m looking forward to discovering more from her.