Every now and then news stories show up in fiction. I’m not talking about the big political stuff, the wars, Brexit and terrorism – they are and always will be part of serious, contemporary novels – but the feel-good stories that come at the end of the bulletin. The animal stories, the charity fund-raisers and lots of nostalgia – they all make for books with an interesting angle. In the last couple of years there have been articles about nurseries being based in retirement homes, and even a tv series on the same theme, but one of the earliest stories concerned students sharing an accommodation block with pensioners. Considering the fact that David Barnett is a journalist it should come as no surprise that he has picked up on these stories.
Jennifer Ebert is a student who needs to change universities (no spoilers, but photos from a truly disastrous night out mean she is never going anywhere near her old campus again) and the only accommodation available is in Sunset Promenade, a residential home for the elderly. The home is being run by two brothers, in memory of their mother, on a shoestring and with hand-picked residents: although when we meet some of them we wonder why they were picked. There are also four students making their home there, as an experiment and in an effort to get some extra funding, Jennifer (who has decided to live her life as if she were in a Film Noir), John-Paul (known to all as Ringo because he is, after all, from Liverpool) and two Chinese students (a very sharp young lady and a rather shambling lad who she keeps calling stupid).
Jennifer makes friends with one of the residents, the rather smart and glamorous Edna Grey, and the unlikely group start to learn to live together. In fact Jennifer starts a film group for the home – showing films made by her grandfather, unseen for years – and all goes well (or as well as it can with only one member of staff, the long-suffering Florin, and a group who are variously needy, rude and downright reactionary) until items start to go missing and the group start to wonder how ell they really know each other. Add in the fact that the home’s owners are in financial difficulties and it becomes apparent that all is not rosy at Sunset Promenade.
If you read Barnett’s last book you’ll be expecting the blend of humour and heartbreak but if you haven’t be prepared for something rather special. Bittersweet and though-provoking – perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant, Hendrik Groen et al.
The Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are going strong – this is the tenth in the series – so I was interested what it is about them which has proved so popular. Some of it will be the nicely complicated plots, full of murder, scandal and intrigue but I suspect that some of the popularity is because of the glorious backdrop to those plots. I’m not ashamed to admit that I watch certain tv shows (like Poldark, Death in Paradise or Midsomer Murders) because they are shot in beautiful settings – if the plot drags or becomes too far-fetched I’ve something pretty to look at – so I can understand why this could be the case with these books. The settings are all very definitely ‘Yorkshire’ but also varied: they range from Harrogate to the mill villages of West Yorkshire and from the Dales to the Yorkshire coast – anyone who knows Yorkshire will recognise scenes; those who have yet had the joy of visiting ‘God’s own county’ will find plenty of ideas for an itinerary.
A Snapshot of Murder opens in Headingley, Leeds, which isn’t a place I know hugely well apart from the area around St Michael’s Church and the Skyrack pub. Oddly enough, this is just where Kate Shackleton lives. The bulk of the book is then set in Howarth and Stanbury – villages I know well as they are just a few miles from my own home and popular tourist destinations because of their connection to the Brontë sisters – so I followed this story with particular interest. I also enjoy a bit of photography myself so the photography group plot was interesting – looking through a lens does certainly make you focus quite differently. The plot centres around Carine Murchison, a friend of Kate’s, and her fairly obnoxious husband Tobias: while the group are visiting Haworth (on the very weekend that the Parsonage first opened as a visitor attraction in August 1928) he is murdered. No-one will miss him but who killed him? Most of the group, and their hosts at Ponden Hall, have reason to want the man dead and we join Kate Shackleton as she delves deeper into their motives. Secrets are revealed about the realities of the Murchison’s marriage and their pasts and many suspects have to be eliminated from enquiries, including Kate’s young niece Harriet. Because we see all the angles (which are only gradually revealed to Kate) we are sure fairly early on who the killer is but, like a good episode of Columbo, this doesn’t distract from the telling of a good story.
Even though it is the time of year that we have to work the hardest I really do enjoy Christmas in the bookshop. There is always a buzz to the shop and there are lots (and lots) of exciting new books – it doesn’t really matter who you are or who you’re buying a gift for, the autumn publisher schedule has something for you. We also start to get visits from teachers selecting books for a book advent calendar – each staff member chooses enough titles to read a new one to their class each school day in December. How much do I wish this had been a thing when I was in primary school? I know some parents who do this for their own children – with a mixture of new books, items picked up in charity shops and lesser read titles from their existing bookshelves – but I think I may have an alternative for them: a whole advent book calendar in one volume…
How Winston Delivered Christmas tells the story of how Winston, a very small mouse, finds a letter to Father Christmas which has, somehow, escaped from the letterbox. He realises it is Christmas Eve and, unless he finds a way to get the letter to the big man, there will be a child with no presents to open the next day – even though he is just a small, cold and hungry mouse he knows he has to deliver the letter. Over twenty-four and a half chapters (one for each day in December and only a half chapter for Christmas Day itself because, well, there is a lot else to do) Winston travels through snow and very large cars to save the day. As well as the story there are lots of ideas for crafts and other activities (I fancy making gingerbread mice myself…) which could come in very useful for all those little ones who just get more and more excited as the big day approaches. It also reminds children and parents that Christmas is a time to think of others – and that you can have adventures even if you are small and scared.
This is a lovely book which will, hopefully, keep small children occupied in the run up to Christmas with a heartwarming story and interesting activities. Full of adventure, mince pies, little acts of kindness and hand-crafted gift ideas it could easily become a tradition that whole families look forward to every year.
I sometimes ponder why it is I enjoy historical fiction so much and I think it is something to do with authors being able to portray a realistic sense of a particular era. Some people particularly admire the depiction of a place: I’m all about the time, it seems. Which means I do tend to concentrate on historical periods I feel I know reasonably well – Medieval, Victorian, Regency perhaps – so I do like to occasionally delve into eras I am not so familiar with. The years leading up to the Russian Revolution certainly fall into that category – I’ve a vague recollection of Tsars and an awful lot of peasants, Faberge eggs and Rasputin – so I decided I could learn something by reading Imogen Edwards-Jones novel set in the early years of the twentieth century.
This is a big and slightly rambling novel centred around two sisters, Militzia and Stana, who marry into Russian nobility. They are princesses from Montenegro – then, as now, a small and unregarded country – but are seen as being far less worthy of attention than native-born Russians. They are called the Goat Princesses, to smell of goats and to be involved in witchcraft – it is easy to see why the early part of the book, when Tsar Alexander III’s court led a life of glittering formality. However, when the new Tsar Nicholas inherits the sisters ingratiate themselves with his socially distant young wife. They continue to become more influential as the Tsarina, after the birth of four daughters, becomes desperate for a son – they introduce her to first to a French mystic called Philippe and then, possibly fatally, to Rasputin. In the second half of the book Militzia in particular engages in a power struggle with Rasputin – who she believes she created with her magic – and gradually comes to join the growing group who are trying to get rid of him by any means possible.
I enjoyed this book, although it did slow down in places, and I feel I learned a lot about the history of the period. I’ve since spend a little time on the internet checking out the details of the characters: Militzia and Stana, Philippe and the various members of the Imperial court are all real and the sisters did have a dark reputation. Even the decadence of the court, drugs and all, seems to be based on reality – one of the facets of the age which did surprise me was the stark contrast between the modern age (telephones, cars, aspirin) and the older ways. Largely this was the difference between the educated and the peasantry but even the rich and privileged were in thrall to superstition.
Usually, when I read books set in Paris, they are quirky romances or coming of age stories but this time I tried something a little bit different. Maybe this is because rather than being a novel by a French author French Exit is by a Canadian writer now living in the USA and, on the whole, it features American characters. And, oh boy, these characters are all the larger than life type of Americans!
Frances Price is the widow of a very rich, very succesful and rather nasty man whose hedonistic New York lifestyle has burned through her inheritance. When the banks start to refuse her line of credit and serious men with clipboards start listing all her assets Frances manages to sell some of her less obvious valuables and sets sail for Paris with her grown-up son, Malcolm. They are followed on board ship by their elderly cat, Small Frank, who may or may not be inhabited by the spirit of the late Frank Price and make their way to an apartment borrowed from Frances’ oldest (and, probably, only) friend Joan. Selfish and spoiled Frances has decided she will spend all her money – every last cent – and then end her life: But can she continue with this plan as she and her son manage to accrue a motley collection of new friends and acquaintances – including Madame Reynard (an ex-pat), a psychic, a private detective, a doctor and his wine merchant friend?
Although the characters and situations in this book seem very American at first – big, bold and brash – the issues which are raised during the story are as subtle and bittersweet as anything I’ve come across in continental novels. Malcolm is a mess, unable to fend for himself, seeking refuge in food and alcohol, yet his on again, off again fiance can’t help but love him: given what we learn of his childhood I’m surprised he is functional at all. Even Frances gradually reveals some of the factors which led to her brittle, demanding and emotionally cold character. Between the almost slapstick comedic episodes we discover that almost any person is redeemable (even if they have become a cat) – if only they will allow themselves to be.
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.
A 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.
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.
Susan (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.