A Keeper – Graham Norton

Graham Norton has been someone I’ve been aware of for going on twenty years – as Father Noel Furlong in Father Ted and on a series of chat shows (always innuendo-laden but the current BBC version is much tamer than the early Noughties Channel 4 shows). I take a robust view of swearing and sexual content in comedy so I’ve always been a fan – I find the man very funny and he is a totally worthy successor to Terry Wogan’s Eurovision coverage. Was I expecting his novels to reflect his camply smutty comedy? Not really, because, over the years, I have learned that good comedians are rather more complicated than they first appear. Goodness me: although I will still laugh at a mucky joke it seems I am a proper grown up when it comes to more complex emotional matters.

40934989A Keeper is Norton’s second novel and, like the first, is set in the kind of small Irish community which he knows well (and, presumably, the majority of his non-Irish readers don’t). Small communities exist everywhere, of course, and the overpowering sense of people all-knowing each others business is probably universal but the addition of a strong sense of the influence of church and tradition gives it a very Irish feel. The story centres around a woman called Elizabeth who returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother to prepare it for sale. While looking through her mother’s things Elizabeth finds some letters which seem to shed some light on the father she never knew.  This leads her to a remote farmhouse on the coast and to meet the last few people who knew even part of the story of who she really is.

The book moves back and forth between Elizabeth and her mother’s own words from the past: from Elizabeth’s much more modern life (female academic, living in New York with her teenaged son, a marriage failed after her ex-husband leaves her for another man) to the constraints placed on Patricia as a lone woman in the 1970s. This is not just a novel about a woman investigating her identity, however, as the events of the past are revealed to be much darker than I first imagined. Not quite a psychological thriller – more of a look at the domestic horrors which can lurk in isolated communities.

Jane

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The Spirits of Christmas -Paul Kane

Almost everything I review here is available through mainstream, bricks and mortar bookshops , because I think the experience of going to bookshops (chain, independent, new, secondhand, charity shop, whatever) is worth keeping going. Some publishers, however, prefer (or need) to supply directly to their customers – which is also fine. What really matters is that good books get to the people who want to read them and that authors, producers and retailers are paid for their work. To that end, here is a review from Charlotte for a book which seems to be one to get straight from the publisher…

Black Shuck Books publishes a series of micro-collections entitled “Shadows.” The idea behind these books is that each one contains a selection of tales from an author. They’re a kind of “taster” book for a particular author. I’ve always been a fan of Christmas horror stories, so Paul Kane’s collection called “The Spirits of Christmas” naturally appealed to me. The book offers up three stories: The Spirits of Christmas, Humbuggered, and Snowbound.

The first tale is a morality tale, exposing the pun within the title. It’s done with flair and without appearing mawkish. Kane presents each incident without flinching from the details, but still evoking a sense of pathos. Humbuggered is a little longer, almost twice as long as the first story. It’s a retelling of A Christmas Carol set in the modern day. Dickens’s tale has been reinvented more times than I can count, but Humbuggered does have something fresh to add to this pantheon. The spin on the tale is that this is a kind, generous man being given visions of how life would have been if he had been miserly and exploitative. There are some fine inventions in Humbuggered and the final twist at the end was a lovely touch. Snowbound is the closing tale of the book. This is a straightforward tale of phantoms, but it’s well told. Not perhaps as enjoyable as Humbuggered, but nevertheless a solid tale.

This little book would make the perfect secret Santa gift for someone who appreciates the darker side of life (or a gift for anyone who’s Christmas is Halloween? Jane). Paul Kane has a wealth of publications behind him – all handily listed at the back of the book – so is likely to be known to many horror readers, but perfect for those new to the genre.

A fun little book, great for dark nights when surrounded by Christmas decorations and a fire blazing.

Charlotte

 

Cactus – Sarah Haywood

Whenever a book, or film, or song, becomes really popular there tend to be a fair few imitators. After Star Wars there were a lot of science fiction movies and tv series – like Red Dwarf, Krull or Battlestar Galactica – and the world of women’s erotica went wild after Fifty Shades of Grey was published. One of the more recent trend-setters in the book world must surely be Eleanor Oliphant, even just based on the sheer quantity we are still selling over eighteen months after it first came out, and the quirky, spiky heroine who needs to learn how to be loved is now featuring in more and more novels. The latest one that I’ve been reading about is Susan Green, heroine of Cactus by Sarah Haywood.

40055622Susan (never ‘Suze’ despite what her brother thinks) works in London, trying to convince her workmates to be more efficient, and, at 45, is happy with her life. She has a small flat, perfect for her needs, and a mutually gratifying relationship with a sensible, cultured gentleman which they have agreed will be going nowhere. Again, perfect for her needs. Everything is just as it should be until the sudden death of her mother and the realisation that she is about to become a mother herself. Susan disposes of the baby’s father – their arrangement was for an uncomplicated relationship and she is perfectly capable of raising a child on her own – but her plans to use her share of her inheritance to help support the child go awry when she discovers that her mother has left the family home to her feckless and jobless brother Edward. Armed with her law degree and a sense of righteousness she sets about putting things right but discovers that life isn’t always logical, fair or controllable.

I liked Susan – even though she is prickly and opinionated you grow to understand the reasons behind her quirks – and her family. She may not feel as if she enjoys spending time with Edward or her rather flighty Aunt Sylvia but I did (although I probably share her lack of patience with her twin cousins who were shallow and a bit odd). As a more mature woman I admired Susan’s no-nonsense approach to life and her uncompromising belief that she is the equal of any man but also the way she adapts to the changes in her life. She accepts the friendship of her neighbour, Kate, and is able to rethink her attitude to both her impending motherhood and the father’s role in her child’s life. Her brother’s friend Rob, however, will have to work hard to prove to her that he is not part of Edward’s plan (as Susan sees it) to defraud her of her share of the family home.

If you enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant, Graeme Simsion’s Rosie Project or Harold Fry then give this a try. Yes, it is riding on the coat-tails of these books but is also completely itself. Susan Green wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jane

 

 

The Last Hours & The Turn of Midnight – Minette Walters

Now for a bit of unashamed historical fiction covering an era I am hugely interested in – the Black Death. Call me odd, but I’ve been interested in the history of disease for some time – Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating read – and one of my favourite books ever involves time travel to a plague-ridden village near Oxford in 1348. What I find most interesting is the way people cope during such an event – how they deal with the disease, how they explain its existence to themselves and, tellingly, who they blame for the outbreak.

35820576In The Last Hours, the first of Walters’ forays into historical fiction, the Black Death sweeps through the county of Dorset in the summer of 1348. The Lord of the manor of Develish is away at a neighbouring estate, arranging the marriage of his only daughter, and his wife, Lady Anne, takes the bold decision to isolate the community to prevent the disease spreading. This comes as a shock to Sir Richard when he returns, with only three of his retinue left, and to his steward, trapped within Develish’s moat, and enrages his daughter, a thoroughly spoilt  fourteen year old who idolises her father and seems to loathe her mother. The estate serfs and servants, however, love and admire Lady Anne who, since her arrival as a teen bride has worked to improve their lives. Her greatest admirers are Gyles, eventually the only survivor of Sir Richard’s trip, Thaddeus, the illegitimate son of one of the more feckless serfs and Isabelle, a young girl who acts as a maid to Eleanor, Sir Richard’s daughter: but it won’t be easy for a woman of Saxon heritage to lead her people during such a time of peril. Their seclusion doesn’t prevent them from pondering the cause of such devastating sickness (given the times the majority are willing to blame sinners and blasphemers) or from there being a murder within the village. Eventually dwindling supplies lead one brave man to lead a small group to search for food, other survivors and answers: but greater dangers seem to remain within the community as Eleanor continues to fight against her mother’s rule.

9781760632168We read the Last Hours for our Book Group in October and one comment we all had was that the ending was fairly abrupt. The version I read even said ‘to be continued…’ which was a little frustrating. Luckily the second volume was available – albeit just in hardback – so I dove straight in to discover what became of Lady Anne, Thaddeus, Gyles and the rest of the people of Develish. Thaddeus and the young men who left the estate in the first book report back on the terrible consequences of the plague – deserted villages, unburied dead and crops left to rot in the fields – and the whole community is aware of the bands of villans (ironically, mostly nobility rather than actual villeins, or peasants) who are travelling the countryside taking whatever they can find: food, gold and women. However, after surviving the worst of the sickness it seems that many of the serfs are now starting to contemplate what the future will bring – the work they were forced to do as virtual slaves of the nobility will have to be done by a much reduced workforce so could they now be in a position to demand a better life. Maybe even freedom. To do this they need to go back out into the wider world and to make things happen.

I enjoyed the glimpse of history Walters gives us in these books – with the added touches of gruesome detail of victims of both the Black Death and villany which you’d expect from the author of numerous crime thrillers – and I enjoyed the way that she has thought about the attitudes to gender, class and religion of the times. While the Black Death obviously didn’t do away with the power of the church or medieval attitudes to women and the labouring classes I find it easy to believe that some people began to question the status quo. My only quibble would be that I think the pacing of the two books was a bit uneven – lots of discussions of Church versus faith, whether women having any power is a sign of witchcraft or heresy etc mixed in with the more dramatic scenes – but I’m not sure I could identify which scenes could be cut. Maybe instead of a two book series it should have been spread out over three slightly less weighty tomes – but then, of course, I’d have to have waited longer for the satisfying conclusion to the story of Lady Anne and Thaddeus Thurkell, and the other inhabitants of Develish.

Jane

The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Kate Morton

Although my main interest, in terms of fiction, tend to be history, science fiction or contemporary issue-led novels, I do quite enjoy the odd romance. Obviously if I can combine the love story with one of my favourite genres, or just make it really quirky, all to the good so I’m not sure why I’ve never read any Kate Morton before. Maybe I felt they sounded a little formulaic? They always involve multiple generations, a grand house, which is usually rather run down, and a mysterious secret waiting to be revealed – none of which are bad things but, somehow, I’d never taken the time to try one. Morton’s most recent book, however, adds some interesting bits into the mix. Art and the Victorian era: much too ‘me’ to resist…

9780230759282The house in this novel is Birchwood Manor and we see it first as the home of Edward Radcliffe, a young artist who is at the heart of the Magenta Brotherhood (an avant-garde art movement in the mid-1800s) who visits with other artists, his sisters and his muse, Lily Millington. During the book we see the group spending a summer of art, creativity and romance at the house which ends abruptly with the death of Radcliffe’s fiancée (who turns up, uninvited…). The modern-day part of the story centres on Elodie Winslow, an archivist who, it seems, would rather deal with the reassuringly boring nature of old documents than plans for her own wedding. The items she finds – a lovely old leather satchel containing a sketchbook and a picture of a beautiful young woman, a photograph of her mother and a male friend, taken just before her tragic death and a collection of tapes of her mother’s work as an acclaimed musician – all, eventually, link back to the events at Birchwood Manor over a century earlier. In between is an ill-fated school for girls and an escape from war-torn London and, in the present day, we also have a young man secretly searching for an heirloom missing since 1862.

I enjoyed this book as both a historical novel and as a mystery. The romance side was interesting, and actually less of a feature than I was expecting, and there is an intriguing hint of a ghost story too. Maybe this is the secret to Morton’s huge success – this is her sixth bestseller since winning the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year in 2007 – a bit of something for everyone. Or maybe, just refusing to be limited to one genre…

Jane

Pages & Co – Anna James

I’m a total sucker for books about books and I seem to have read a fair few of them. Books set in bookshops and book-pulping facilities; romances and mystical thrillers and biographies. Some of my favourites, of course, are Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series where our heroine’s job is to police the world of literature by jumping from her real(ish) life into that of fiction. What these titles all have in common, aside from their bookish nature, is that they are books for adults. Us grown-ups see delving into the world of reading as an escape – children, on the other hand, see that world as being as accessible as any other magical land. Which means that, so far, I hadn’t found* any great children’s stories set in bookshops – until I read Anna James’ Pages & Co…

32946432Tilly lives with her grandparents over the bookshop they own in North London. Her father, she has always been told, died before she was born and her mother disappeared in extremely mysterious circumstances when she was only months old. Although this makes her sad sometimes she loves her grandparents (who seem to be the perfect blend of reassuringly stable, slightly eccentric and very loving), and a source of cake and hot chocolate in the form of Jack, who runs the bookshop cafe. She is having some issues at school, her closest friend from primary school is now hanging out with ‘cooler’ girls, but it is half term and she has the best homework ever – she must read a book she has never read before. (Why was my homework never that much fun?) But who are the strange girls she meets in the shop, red-headed Anne (with an ‘e’) and Alice in the blue dress, and why can’t her new friend Oskar see them? This is the point where Tilly discovers the world of Bookwanderers, people who can jump (like Thursday Next) into stories. And although this ability seems, at first, to be a source of endless fun she soon discovers that this is a world with a lot of rules and even more dangers. Even more importantly she, and Oskar, realise that it could also hold the secret to what happened to her parents.

I loved this book – I was just such a bookish child, although I was lucky enough to be fully aware of the location of all my close family members – and I can see it being a very popular read with children of 9 to 10 and upwards. And, although the stories Tilly jumps to are classics (Anne of Green Gables, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a Little Princess), the children are living in a modern world which young readers will recognise. Maybe most importantly it is the first book in a series so Tilly and Oskar have more adventures to share with us in the future.

Jane

* Which doesn’t mean they don’t exist – I just haven’t found them yet…

Labyrinth of the Spirits (Cemetery of Lost Books volume 4) – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind was one of those books I came rather late to because of my reluctance to follow the hype surrounding some titles. I’m not even sure why I do this, why I try to avoid the books, films or tv shows everyone else is talking about. Some of it is sheer bloody-mindedness (or being a book/film/tv snob, if you like) but I think a bit of it is that I worry I won’t enjoy the thing everyone else says they loved. I have no problem telling people I’ve never watched or seen Game of Thrones but I don’t know how I’d look fans in the eye and say I didn’t think much to it! I don’t have a problem recommending books to folk who read genres I’m not a fan of (I can suggest thrillers even if I don’t read them) but, for real fans of a particular title, author or series it can seem like you are insulting their tastes if you say you don’t share their interest. Obviously, I wouldn’t look down on a reader because they love what they love but I know the little pangs I get when anyone disses one of my book heroes. Anyway, I did eventually read Zafon’s best-loved book and, phew, I loved it too. And now I have delved into his latest novel almost as soon as it was published – you could say I’ve learned my lesson.

39099067In this book we return to Barcelona: firstly during the Spanish Civil War to witness a girl losing almost everything during a terrible bombing raid and to meet a familiar figure escaping the authorities and then on to 1957 when Daniel Sempere, the boy who featured in Shadow of the Wind, is now running the family bookstore with his father and Fermin, who also featured in the earlier tale. The young girl, Alicia Gris, has grown up to become a ruthless agent for the mysterious Leandro and is sent to discover what has happened to Mauricio Valls – the Culture Minister and former governor of the infamous Montjuic prison – who disappeared during a ball at his mansion. The prison looms large in the story as it is revealed that a number of authors, including David Martin and Victor Mataix – who feature in other volumes in the Cemetery of Lost Books series – were imprisoned there. Gradually it is revealed that Barcelona’s dark past has never gone away and is closely linked with the Semperes.

This was a breathtaking read at times as all the elements start to collide and the actions of the past begin to impact on the present. The plot become truly labyrinth-like as identities are revealed, past mysteries solved and stories are discovered within stories (with even more stories inside them…); the language is, in turn, amusing and mystical; the characters are bold, pain-filled and very, very human. If you enjoyed Shadow of the Wind you’ll like this – if you haven’t yet read it, that’s not a problem. This is a labyrinth with more than one entrance…

Jane