A Grand Old Time – Judy Leigh

After my previous post’s musing on age it seemed appropriate that my next read was on a similar subject. Older protagonists have become the new ‘thing’ it seems – The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window started it, Harold Fry and then Hendrik Groen took up the baton – but, I’ve noticed that most of them seem to be men. Which is slightly odd given that, on the whole, women outlive men (try buying a 100th Birthday card – lots of florals, very few views of cricket/trains/sailing ships…). Since my older years are rapidly approaching (well, I hope they continue to approach but they can slow down if they like!) I was interested to read Judy Leigh’s book in an effort to even up the gender balance.

9780008269197Evie Gallagher is 75 and is quietly living out her days in a care home. Until she reminds herself that she is only 75 and, despite being very recently widowed, she isn’t dead yet. She walks out of the home and, helped by a big win on her very first visit to a bookmakers, into a new adventure. First she travels from her native Dublin to Liverpool and then on to France, ending up in a small village near Carcassonne. Along the way she meets a variety of people who help her to realise that she still has plenty of life left to live. By contrast her son Brendan, and his wife Maura, seem to be getting older by the minute: their marriage seems to be a matter of habit rather than love, neither of them is happy and they are, understandably, concerned about Evie herself when she disappears from the care home. They decide to follow her to France, with the intention of rescuing her – bringing her home to her old, safe life – only to find that she has other ideas. For Evie seems to have found the love and happiness that Brendan and Maura have lost. She has also been reminded (despite what some are still trying to tell her) that 75 isn’t old – it certainly isn’t too late to start living.

This is a feel-good book, but not without its moments of sadness. We all hope to live to a healthy and happy old age (although we won’t all manage this) but many will get too caught up in everyday pains and sorrows to achieve this. We can’t all escape to live in the South of France but I hope to keep Evie’s energy and joie de vivre in mind as the years creep up on me. She makes growing old disgracefully look so much fun!

Jane

Advertisements

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Everyone has their own view of what is normal. I normally have weetabix for breakfast (lots of milk, a little dash of sugar and a few raspberries, mmmm) but to some that would be quite peculiar. They may hate soggy, milky mush or just not be able to face eating until lunchtime. They may have dietary needs, either through health issues or training needs for some kind of sport, which mean they need to eat a high protein, low-carb meal to start the day: they have their own normal. Some people may baulk at the idea of eating the same thing every morning – they may thrive on creating a unique meal each day. Everybody’s normal is valid for them but, I wonder, do they ever stop to wonder where their view of ‘normal’ comes from? Or, maybe more importantly, where the normal of those they consider to be complete oddballs has its source.

9780008172145Eleanor Oliphant has what she considers to be a very sensible attitude to life. She wears the same clothes to work each day (selected from a choice of a couple of pairs of black trousers, a few white blouses and some sensible flat, black shoes), spends her lunch break eating a ‘meal deal’ from a local shop and doing a crossword (thereby avoiding waste – eating a whole pack of ham/cheese/tuna before it spoils is hard when you live alone – and keeping her mind active) and speaks to her mother every Wednesday (even if she’d rather not). So far she seems like someone I should be emulating – I could have an extra five minutes in bed if I didn’t have to decide what to wear each day and, on the weeks when Rob is away, I do sometimes have to either throw away food or eat the same thing every day for a week. And I should certainly ring my Mum more often… However, Eleanor also buys a couple of bottles of vodka each week – what has happened in her life that she needs to blot out her weekends? That is where you realise that, whatever she claims, Eleanor Oliphant is really not completely fine. It seems she is going to continue with her pattern of work, predictability and weekends of total oblivion indefinitely until two things happen: she sees a man who she believes is ‘the one’ and she, along with a colleague from work, helps an old man who has a fall in the street. These two things lead her to start changing her life – and she discovers that planning for her future leads her to start investigating the past she had managed to forget.

Eleanor is a wonderful character – so well-drawn and yet so deeply, deeply flawed. The more we learn (along with her) about her past the more we realise why she needs to drink a couple of bottles of vodka each weekend: anything to avoid remembering. The book is so well written that you feel with her – the plans to make herself into a more conventionally attractive woman, despite the physical as well as emotional scars she bears, the irritation with those who don’t manage to live in as organised a way as she does and the crippling horror of the memory of a blighted childhood. We may not all share Eleanor’s dark past but reading this book made me realise that we all have our own demons to deal with: her’s are just larger and scarier than mine…

Jane

Ill Will – Michael Stewart

We are often asked if we can get authors to do signings at our store. Partly because readers really want to meet their writing heroes and partly because they want to show off what a beautiful bookstore Bradford has. We get suggestions about authors both locally, nationally and internationally famous and we’ve had a few in. Last year saw visits from both Henry Blofeld and Jilly Cooper and local boy Dynamo had them queuing round the block a few years ago but some of our most popular events are with authors who both live in Yorkshire and set their fiction there. We’ve hosted increasingly crowded launch events for pharmacist turned Bradford Noir writer A.A.Dhand (watch out for book three this summer) but I think we’ll have to face the fact that Michael Stewart, former writer in residence at Theatre in the Mill at Bradford University, now owes some allegiance to Huddersfield where he is Head of Creative Writing. His newest book, however, has such strong links to the Bradford District that I’m sure he’ll be in the city to talk about it soon.

Ill Will is an attempt to answer one of the great questions raised by literature (and by one of the most interesting academics, John Sutherland) – is Heathcliff a murderer? More importantly it fills in those three years between Heathcliff running away, after hearing Catherine saying that it would ‘degrade’ her to marry him, and his return to Thrushcross Grange as a wealthy but heartless man. In the original novel we just have to accept the change but it was one of the things which I had a major problem with. The other one being how on earth I was meant to consider Heathcliff a romantic hero – easy enough when I was a teenager but as an adult I realised he was basically a wife-beater, and probably a rapist too. Which is a bit of a digression but, luckily, it is a question which also gets answered.

35720372When Heathcliff does run from Catherine he crosses the moors and falls in with a group of men working for a farmer on the far side of Todmorden – only a few miles but a world away in a time when travelling was unusual. He needs to run a second time when he rescues a young girl, Emily, from a beating. She seems to be able to commune with the dead, an ability met with equal shares of horror and fascination, and they begin to use this skill to pay their way over to Liverpool – where Heathcliff is in search of the truth about his origins. He plans to abandon Emily – he has no plan to saddle himself with the care of a young girl – but their lives are soon linked by lies, by guilt and by a need for each other. And she is no meek little girl – as foul-mouthed and devious as Heathcliff himself. It is what they discover in Liverpool, however, which eventually leads to both his change in fortune and the utter hardening of his personality. The boy that runs away is irreligious and angry, full of spite and profanity: the man who returns has been turned into a bitter and vindictive bully bearing all the trappings of a gentleman.

I really enjoyed this book as an explanation for Heathcliff’s missing years – the Heathcliff  who I recognised, as an adult, as a deeply violent and unromantic figure. He began as a coarse and embittered boy – money, power and the knowledge of how he came to fit into the life of the Earnshaws turn him into a black-hearted and dangerous man.

Jane

 

Arrowood – Mick Finlay

I was brought up in the days when you had to like one thing or the other. It started with the choice between the Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy, moved on to Wham vs Duran Duran and reached its peak in the Britpop era. Obviously, I’m awkward. I spent the seventies quite liking all the big names in pop but saving my actual fandom for the Wombles (I was 7 – surely I was meant to like kids bands rather than wasting my time wanting to marry Donny Osmond…), in the eighties I was still listening to everything but developing my teen love of Prog Rock (played Yes and Genesis at my wedding, there’s nothing like a twelve-minute long first dance…) and in the nineties, alongside Blur and Oasis, I’d discovered folk-rock and Nick Drake. Let’s face it, if I see a crowd all looking in the same direction I’ll have a quick glance and then a good look round to see what they’re missing. In the late Victorian London of Mick Finlay’s novel I’m the kind of person who would have read all about Sherlock Holmes in the paper and then wondered about all the cases he didn’t take. Which is how most people seem to discover Arrowood…

9780008203184William Arrowood is a detective and he’s, frankly, got no time for Sherlock Holmes. Which is a shame because most of the rest of London have got such a crush on him it’s almost as if Benedict Cumberbatch were already in the role – there is a great running joke throughout the book that whenever Arrowood and his assistant Barnett meet anyone new they start to enthuse about the great Sherlock, much to Arrowood’s disgust. Our heroes, however, take on the cases of people who are too poor to afford Baker Street rates and they delve into cases which seem much more sordid than anything Dr Watson would care to describe. In this book they are searching for a missing young Frenchman but soon become involved with the criminal underworld (in the form of a gang who have London sown up and would like to move onto stitching up Arrowood and Barnett), the fight for Irish independence, human trafficking and prostitution. The plot is rather nicely complicated and I really liked some of the characters. It looks as though this book ends poised to begin a whole series – in which case I look forward to hearing more about Neddy, the obligatory urchin, and Arrowood’s indefatigable sister.

Jane

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir -Jennifer Ryan

As the years go by we lose generations of first hand experience. Despite the fact that we are busily commemorating the centenaries of various WWI battles there are now no veterans of that conflict left alive. Even those who remember that era from their childhoods are now centenarians (at least) so much of how we relate emotionally to that time comes from fiction and poetry. And many of the novels, in particular, are being written long after the fact, by authors who are having to use imagination, writing flair and vast amounts of research to bring those days to life. What becomes almost more shocking is the realisation that the number of World War II veterans is also depleting rapidly. I was born only twenty years after the end of hostilities – this is only the generation before me – and yet survivors are dying at the rate of over 500 per day. Most are over 90 so, if novelists are thinking of writing about the 1939-45 period using the first hand experiences of those who lived through it they’d better get a wriggle on. Or, possibly, like Chris Cleave did for Everyone Brave is Forgiven, recall all those talks they had with parents and grandparents.

chilburyJennifer Ryan has used the experience  and reminiscences of her grandmother (and the fascinating Mass Observation project started in 1939) to write her take on this period. On the face of it The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is the story of how a choir, during the war when most of the men are called up to fight, learns to cope with just women’s voices but, of course it is about much more than that. As we learn about each of the key characters, a widow who is afraid of everything but mostly of losing her son to the war, a young woman who discovers there is something more important than being loved, a girl in a hurry to grow up but with no idea of what this really means and a refugee girl who just needs her family, we realise that while men are fighting the war it is the women who will make sure there is something worth fighting for. Each story, told through letters and journal entries, helps to develop the whole and each character has an individual voice.

This isn’t just a feel-good story about women pulling together in wartime. This does happen in the end, but there are also some very difficult subjects covered: abusive husbands and fathers, illegal abortion, blackmail, treason and loss.  These are covered in unflinching detail but with great humanity – I was nearly in tears at more than one point because it really felt as if these events were happening to people I knew. Despite the traumatic events in the book I finished it feeling uplifted and positive. Not least because I knew that the lives of women, among others, would start to be changed for the better in the years that followed.

Jane

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

I’m assuming everyone knows about publication dates? The dates set by publishers for the release of new books, usually on a Thursday (or sometimes Tuesdays just to keep us on our toes) and occasionally combined with strict embargoes. My main quandary is not to do with embargoes (which I have to restrain myself from calling ‘umbongoes’ because I’m 51 not 15…) but the dates themselves. I looked at my spreadsheet (because, as I say, I’m 51 and this is the only way I can remember what I’m reading/reviewing) and realised I had 5 or 6 titles down for publication on 12th January. I then have the problem of spacing out the reviews because I can’t do them all on the 12th and then have nothing for two weeks. I feel bad for the book which is reviewed 10 days after publication and sometimes I don’t fit them all in before the next batch hits. I’ve even ended up missing a couple of books from the 12th because, blimey, when I got to books coming out on 26th January there are 6 again. Luckily, none of the books are embargoed so I can slip a few in on the previous week, but I did have some deciding to do before working out which book was going to get their review on the actual Thursday they are released. It was nearly going to be David Barnett (because I know him), or Christian O’Connell (because I listen to his radio show most days and feel like I know him) but I then plumped for Sarah Pinborough (because, this week of all weeks, it is all about girl-power…And also I’ve yet to read anything by her which failed to impress).

behindhereyesBehind Her Eyes has been heavily pre-promoted with the strapline ‘Don’t Trust This Book. Don’t Trust These People. Don’t Trust Yourself. And whatever you do, DON’T give away that ending’. Which makes telling you anything about the story quite tricky. I mean, it is possible to tell you about the basic outline, or how the book starts, without giving too much away but Pinborough has created such a dense and convoluted story (in a really, really good way) that I’m loath to try. Let’s just say it is a love triangle designed by Escher, where every angle is acute enough to be positively needle sharp. And I thought I had the hang of it near the end but then found I was fooled. It is very definitely correct to describe it (rather breathlessly) as ‘that ending’.

This will be a great book for those who couldn’t get enough of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. Everyone in the book is so unreliable they are probably currently being considered for political office in the States. The plot is complex and the ending, as previously mentioned, is arresting. Even better, this should be the book which makes Pinborough a household name (even though I’ve enjoyed being ahead of the curve on this one for a while…).

Jane

 

 

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters – Nadiya Hussain (& Ayisha Malik)

Let’s just start off by saying that I have a bit of prejudice going on here. Every time I hear the words ‘Nadiya Hussain’ I think of cake – and I blooming love cake… Yes, this is a novel written by the wonderful NadiyafromBakeOff* (ably assisted by Ayisha Malik) and I was thinking of cake and pies all the way through. It was not, however, a book about baking, cooking or food at all but about family. It looks at the life of one Muslim family, of Bangladeshi heritage, living in a very English village and ends up telling a story which just about anyone can relate to. Honestly – don’t think about religion or race here, this felt as universal as the lives of the Bennet or March sisters!

51xnhpytuvlWe meet the four sisters one by one as they take it in turns to narrate chapters of the story. Fatima, the eldest, lacks confidence and would feel safest hiding in her room eating squeezy cheese from the tube and not having to think about passing her driving test. Farah is happily married but longs for a child – she just oozes the need to nurture – unlike her twin, Bubblee. Bubblee lives in London and is trying to make her name as an artist: she wants a bigger life than the sleepy village of Wyvernage can offer and can’t understand how her twin can be happy there with a man who isn’t worthy of her. Mae, the youngest by 12 years, gets told to be quiet and keep out of the way – instead she records every key moment of her family’s life (complete with a sass-filled commentary). The family is completed by an absent brother, Jay, who still manages to have everything revolve around him and some rather charming parents. Dad, always ready to support his girls with a hug, a wise word or a bit of cash, and Mum, who worries about everything (where her son is, why he doesn’t call,  why Bubblee is so hard to find a husband for and whether her husband is looking at the nudist next door neighbours…).

As the title suggests secrets are revealed about each sister – with some relating to their brother and parents too – and as the family faces up to some of the bigger problems they find out lots about each other. Things, however, don’t really change until each of them is able to face up to their own problems, their own fears and their own secrets. I’m not going to say what any of these problems, fears or secrets are (spoilers, obvs…) but I will suggest that, in the end, some of them are (partly) solved by cake. Which was nice.

This is a lovely, light read. Perfect for those who prefer their fiction not to involve sex or violence. But, even though I am not averse to either of these things, I found the characters charming enough to hold my interest. In fact, by the end, I was quite pleased to see that there were still a few loose ends to tie up – I call sequel…

Jane

*That’s her full name. I’m almost sure…