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

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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…

 

 

The Watcher – Ross Armstrong

You see that wave of what is currently hot? That gleaming zeitgeist machine? That trend that everyone will be following soon? What you probably won’t see is me anywhere nearby. To (slightly mis)quote the much-missed Douglas Adams I’m so unhip it’s a wonder my bum doesn’t fall off. (This is also my weight-loss strategy…). Take the whole psychological thriller genre, for example – I read Gone Girl about two years after everyone else and I still haven’t got round to Girl on the Train. I enjoy this kind of story – I’m very fond (if fond is the right word) of an unreliable narrator – but I keep being distracted by shiny post-apocalypses and warts-and-all historical fiction. I’m also slightly worried by the fact that, in most of the books I’ve come across, the unreliable narrator is female. I mean, I’m sure the male equivalent exists but the most popular titles give us women we can’t quite trust even as they appear to be in terrible danger. I don’t have a real problem with this but I’d like to think there is a new trend coming with unreliable male narrators in psychological thrillers…

watcherIn Ross Armstrong’s The Watcher our narrator, Lilly, is both female and, it soon appears, pretty unreliable. She lives with her husband, a writer called Aiden, in a swish new apartment block within sight of the areas still in need of ‘gentrification’. A keen birdwatcher, Lilly watches her neighbours in both the upmarket and lower-rent buildings, giving them names and back-stories  but when a woman from the soon to be demolished estates is found dead she starts to become obsessed with finding the killer. As I said it quickly becomes clear that Lilly is often happy with telling less than the truth but there are still plenty of surprises in the story. Because the story is told purely from Lilly’s point of view there is a surprisingly pleasing feeling of panic and paranoia – we feel her panic but can enjoy it because we know we are noy actually Lilly, we are just temporarily in her head.

If you like psychological thrillers then give this one a try. It is a gripping read while we are waiting for those fragile-minded male narrators to come along.

Jane

 

An Almond for a Parrot – Wray Delaney

Way back in the summer (before the snow, political shenanigans and many of the deaths which made us all cry ‘go home 2016, you’re drunk!’) I went to the Harper Collins Big Book Bonanza over in Manchester. A great evening meeting colleagues from the north-west, eating pizza, drinking free wine, meeting authors and, last but not least, getting lots and lots of new books to read and review. I’m working my way through them in publication order (because that is how I roll) and I have now reached An Almond for a Parrot, a first adult novel for an author who usually writes children’s books under the name Sally Gardner. It is not uncommon for authors to write for both – think Katie Price, Mary Wesley or Andy McNab – but, after reading this, I can see why Gardner chose to use an alternative name. She keeps the historical elements she uses in her tales for younger readers and the strong strand of magic but she has added in more than a hint of the erotic.

51a7tshubwlTully Truegood is an orphaned young woman in the mid 1700s, intelligent, passionate and possessed of strange powers which enable her not only to see the spirits of the unquiet dead but to make them visible to others. As the story begins she is in prison, and will hang if found guilty, and her trial will be a sensation. Because Tully is a high-class whore who works at the most notorious brothel in London, the Fairy House, and is said to have murdered her husband. She tells her own story from her prison cell and spares us nothing. In her childhood her widower father treated her as a servant until she was 12, when he arranged a marriage for her with a mysterious young bridegroom who immediately went to sea. This cleared his gambling debts for a short while but when he dies in debtor’s prison she throws in her lot with the woman who she thought was her stepmother but who turns out to be a brothel-keeper with taste and ambition. She finds love more than once, with men who become her protectors, but also danger, fear and violence. Finally, her erstwhile husband – a vicious young man with unsavoury tastes for brutalising very young girls – shows up to reclaim her.

Tully is an engaging character and the plot is interestingly complicated. The sex scenes are fairly graphic but not gratuitous and the language used seems right for the mid C18th setting – in fact there is quite a Moll Flanders/Fanny Hill feel to the whole thing. The magic elements, for me, fitted in quite well – it is described quite matter-of-factly, as if it were a very plausible thing – and it is a very necessary element of the plot. This is proper grown-up historical fiction (with added magic) and I hope that Gardner/Delaney writes more adult fiction in future.

Jane

 

The Terranauts – T.C. Boyle

Back in the not-so-distant past our tv schedules were relatively free of one of our current staples – the reality show. Yes, there was life before the Big Brother’s Strictly Celebrity bake-Off Apprentice hit our screens. There were precursors as early as the 1950s but the first things I’d think of as ‘reality’ shows were the Seven Up series (which started in 1964) and, one I remember watching and being fascinated by as a child, Living In The Past. These were, in fact as much about what could be learned about child development, sociology, group psychology or archaeology as they were about pure entertainment. They could probably be better termed as fly on the wall documentaries but they were shows where we were gripped by the way a group of strangers, unknown to us or each other, coped with situations outside of our everyday experience. I’m not really interested in much of the current crop (unless they involve cakes or charlestons) but always enjoyed the more science/history based ones. And I do recall, from the early 90s, the fuss made – on news programmes rather than just gossip shows – about the Biosphere 2 experiments. Looking back now the science quickly got overtaken by the rather dramatic group dynamics – although the facility is still going it is no longer used as a closed-system experiment. Now it can be used to investigate ecosystems rather than just how nasty a group of people can become when they have no escape in sight…It is possibly no coincidence that the Big Brother franchise was launched within five years of Biosphere 2’s fame.

terranautsI wanted to read T.C. Boyle’s Terranauts because I do remember Biosphere 2. I was fairly young at the time (and not so into the science side) so I only remember it as slightly gossipy news story but, to be fair, if it was anything like Boyle’s fictionalised version it would make a phenomenal reality show! As well as the relationships which develop within the enclosed E2 system (the nameof the facility only slightly changed…) – not complicated ones but ones which are furtive and, often, much less than honest – we also have those with the team on the outside. The book is narrated by three people – Dawn and Ramsay (nicknamed Vodge) inside the facility and Lynda, who is a Terranaut in waiting, on the outside – and they have friendships, power struggles and sexual partners among the other Terranauts, the support teams, locals and the ‘mission control’ team in charge of the whole project. Ramsay is the PR person for the team inside the biomes – the fact that PR is given such a leading role should tell you all you need to know about the conflict between the story which mission control wants to present, of high-minded science and progress, and the reality of starvation, petty arguments and sexual tensions. The group on the inside also have the incentive of not making the mistakes of the previous team – resulting in a mantra of ‘nothing in, nothing out’ which soon seems to be leading to near fatal consequences.

Don’t assume that this means the book is overly serious or ‘worthy’. Although I felt it made some good points about how people (and especially women) are judged on their appearance (with attractive blondes at the top of the heap) and shows a slightly scary team in charge of the Terranauts being headed by a charismatic man who seems, at times, little short of a cult leader there is humour too. Oddly, because it becomes so important to the calorie-starved inmates, there are also lots of descriptions of food. It has a certain amount in common with the Martian – the obsession with providing enough food/calories to survive, the odd issue with maintaining breathable air – which seems perfectly reasonable considering that the whole reason for both the real and the fictional projects is to try to discover ways we could survive on other planets like Mars.

Jane