The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 – David M Barnett

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.

9781409175100Jennifer 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.

Jane

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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

 

Fierce Fairytales – Nikita Gill

I’ve said it before – I’m a very lucky woman. I get to read books as part of my job and, sometimes, get offered free books by publishers (in exchange for reviews, obviously). Sometimes we are given lots of information – a detailed run-down of the plot, characters or the author – and sometimes just a short description. This book was briefly outlined as ‘feminist fairytales’ and, to be fair, I didn’t need to hear much more to make we want to read it.

9781409181590Firstly I should say that I wasn’t previously aware of the author, Nikita Gill.  She is, it appears, a big name on Instagram but I don’t really do Instagram (I run out of time frittering away hours on Twitter and Facebook – if I added another social media stream I think I’d never sleep!) so I went in blind and then was almost startled to find that the book was largely poetry.  It took me a little while to get used to it, to be honest – I quite enjoy poetry but this snuck up on me – but after a little while I began to appreciate what I was reading. Fairytales generally involve beautiful princesses, ancient castles, wicked step-mothers, fire-breathing dragons and valiant princes and evoke a feeling of a distant past: these poems and short tales are about far more modern lives. The evils these princesses have to face are body image, slut-shaming, gaslighting and patriarchy. This sounds like a big ask but these girls are being exhorted to forget being polite, pretty and pliable: we are reminded that girls can be determined, strong and downright bolshie and this is not a failure on their part. Girls can be friends with their dragons – they can be dragons – and sometimes step-mothers are driven into evil by their impossible lives. The boys aren’t forgotten either – girls are warned away from men who will try to break them and the boys themselves are encouraged to acknowledge their own feelings and not be afraid to own their weaknesses. The characters from our well-loved tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Peter Pan and Alice – all find new ways to resolve their stories: proof, if it were needed, that there can never just be one way of living.

The main message I took from these poems and stories is that girls (and boys) need to be given permission to be themselves. The ‘themselves’ they want to be – not one that society tries to force on them. I’m not sure I would suggest this book for younger children to read on their own – there is a fair amount of darkness here – but I would love to see it in the hands of mothers, giving them the incentive they need to let their girls and boys be as fierce and strong as they can. It would also be a good read for slightly older children (9+?) who have enjoyed books like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Jane

Time is a Killer – Michel Bussi

There is a fine line between using stereotypes to denigrate or belittle people from particular countries or regions or to poke a little affectionate fun at them. Yorkshire people are among the most generous I have ever met but I still smile at the reaction of the average Yorkshireman when they realise it is raining and they need to pay 5p for a plastic carrier bag. Fiction, however, can throw up some great ‘types’ set in various regions: love stories set in Paris tend, in my experience, to be philosophical and tinged with sadness, crime novels set in Scandinavian countries are heavy on dark themes and blood-stained snow and books set in Australia will, at some point, feature extreme weather. This is not to suggest that these books are clichéd but they do play to their strengths (or rather the strengths of how people think of those regions). Michel Bussi’s crime thrillers have been set in a range of French settings (the Franco-Swiss border, Giverny, the tropical island of La Réunion) so I had high hopes for his latest – featuring the island of Corsica, a place associated (rightly or wrongly) with crime and the Mafia…

9781474606677Clotilde was 15 years old in 1989. Holidaying, as usual, in her father’s birthplace on the island of Corsica and staying at a campsite on land owned by her grandfather. She is a fairly typical girl of her age – moody, dressing all in black, writing all her thoughts and feelings down in the notebook which never leaves her side – but all normality disappears on the night when the family car goes over a cliff and Clotilde is the only survivor. In 2016, 27 years later, she returns to the island with her husband and her own fifteen-year-old daughter to try to remember the events of that summer. Her memories are sporadic, the notebook containing her thoughts and feelings was never given back to her after her stay in hospital, and the faces from the past she meets give her a variety of contrasting points of view. But then her world is turned upside down when she receives a letter which appears to be from her mother: the mother who perished all those years ago.  Her memory gradually resurfaces as she finds out more about the events of that fatal day, old enmities and romances are rekindled and Clotilde’s family are once again in terrible danger. The need for revenge is still active in Corsica.

I really enjoy Michel Bussi’s thrillers. They are atmospheric stories with very, very French settings and, so far, I’ve not yet spotted the real villain before Bussi is ready to reveal them.

Jane

Fear – Dirk Kurbjuweit

I think I’ve written before about my little problem with some psychological thrillers – namely that the ‘unreliable narrator’ is so often female, giving the impression possibly that women are less reliable than male characters. It is interesting that men, in these books, are often the victims it doesn’t sit well with me sometimes. Women as either victims or evil villains? It would be nice to see them as just, well, people… It is gratifying then to pick up a book featuring a couple which is largely focussed on the husband. In fact, the whole premise of Kurbjuweit’s novel is an exploration of how far a man will go to protect his family.

34844900Randolph Tiefenthaler, his wife Rebecca and their children seem to have a wonderful life. He is a successful architect and they have recently moved to a lovely Berlin flat. The marriage isn’t perfect, which seems more realistic than if it were, but Randolph’s main response is to sneak off alone to eat in a variety of high-class restaurants. This is a life which could plod along but which is turned upside down by the actions of their downstairs neighbour. Dieter Tiberius is an unemployed loner who become obsessed with Rebecca, sending her love letters and poems. When these overtures are ignored he becomes more dangerous – not with physical threats but with accusations of child abuse against both parents. This story is interspersed with that of Randolph’s early life – a childhood in Cold-War Germany with a father whose only interest seemed to be in protecting his family. By collecting guns.

We tend to associate this kind of gun-centred psychology with America but the Cold War background makes it totally believable – East Germany and the rest of the Communist Bloc is, after all, on their doorstep – but it still made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Randolph feels pretty much the same way – hating the time spent with his father at the shooting range, fearing that one day his father could turn one of his many weapons on his family – but, when Dieter Tiberius threatens his family, he begins to understand his own father’s fears. This book is an interesting twist on psychological thrillers – a little bit more literary, perhaps, and which made me think about issues of class and gun-ownership. The author has had a number of novels published in Germany but this is the first to be translated and released here – I shall watch with interest for any others which may follow.

Jane

How to Eat Better – James Wong

Next to books I guess I like food best. There are a lot of foodstuffs I’m not keen on – tripe isn’t going to happen and I don’t see the point of sweetcorn – but on the whole I enjoy my food. As a younger woman I seemed to be able to eat and drink as I pleased without making much difference to my weight or size but time (and probably hormones) have put paid to that. These days I try to eat more healthily (and sustainably), with lots of fruit and veg and take more exercise – let’s face it, I need to live as long as I can because authors just keep on writing books I need to read. So, when I was at an Orion publishing do earlier this year – meeting authors, eating canapes of possible healthiness and sipping the odd glass of mineral water* – I did grab quite eagerly at the new book by James Wong.

eat betterThis isn’t a book about faddy diets, self-denial or shaming anyone’s food choices. What it is about is making the healthiest choices on everyday ingredients, making little improvements and being better informed on the facts about health. Some of it I was aware of – we’ve been on brown rice and wholemeal pasta for quite a while now thanks to Weight-Watchers Pro-points – but other bits were new information. Who’d have guessed that there was so much nutritional difference between a Golden Delicious and a Braeburn apple? Or that I’d unconsciously always been drawn to the healthier variety? There are plenty of interesting looking recipes – so you know what to actually do with that ultra-healthy purple-fleshed sweet potato – and beverages are not neglected. While not encouraging too much indulgence at least Wong mentions some health benefits of some wines and beers (when used in moderation of course). Again I’m slightly smug that my favoured wines (Syrah, Merlot, Pinotage…) are on the better end of the scale.

The science behind Wong’s claims is clearly explained – the man is a Kew-trained botanist so knows what he’s talking about here – and I never felt like I was being preached to. If a food is healthiest frozen or microwaved then Wong lets us know. Processed foods are not the enemy and organic isn’t necessarily healthier (or affordable for many). This is a book which is practical and realistic in trying to improve health through diet – choosing smaller mushrooms and redder peppers isn’t going to make me live forever but it can help me be just a little bit healthier, with little effort, and may even save me a few pennies. Win win I think!

Jane

*Okay, I lied about the mineral water but I’m sure they were serving a nice, polyphenol-charged, Merlot…

Don’t Let Go – Michel Bussi (translated by Sam Taylor)

I’ve got pretty simple tastes in tv most of the time*. I can take or leave reality shows, talent shows or real-life medical stuff. I’ll watch some sport and soaps (but if I miss them I’m not that bothered) but will almost always enjoy stuff on science, history and gardening. And then there are the programmes I really enjoy and will happily watch over and over again – Big Bang Theory and really cheesy detective shows. Not intellectual police dramas – I’ve watched things like Wallender but I’d rather read the books – but pure escapist cheese. The kind of series where you have one eye on the plot and the other on the lovely countryside – Midsomer Murders (known as ‘Murder Most reassuring’ in our house) or Death in Paradise (or ‘Murder Most Tropical’, inevitably). Bliss. Obviously with books I like a bit more variety (and, in my head, I can have whatever landscape I like) but sometimes these two areas overlap a touch.

9781474601788Michel Bussi’s previous two books (in English translation) have been set in Paris (and the snow-capped Jura mountains) and Giverny but this one ranges further afield to the island of Réunion. Still part of France but also very exotic to those used to the mainland – and certainly not immune to the ravages of drugs, revenge and murder. This was certainly less pre-watershed friendly than Death in Paradise and the darker side of life on a tropical paradise (built on slavery and colonialism…) is brought vividly to life. A couple and their young daughter are, it seems, enjoying their stay on Réunion until the wife, Liane Bellion, disappears from their hotel room. At first it seems to be a classic ‘locked-room’ mystery but soon evidence seems to point to Liane’s husband Martial – he goes on the run with his young daughter: the actions, it would seem, of a guilty man.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – Martial has a secret to hide but we gradually come to realise that murder is probably not in his repertoire. It is quite refreshing not to be working through the usual psychological thriller routine of an unreliable narrator – we see the story from the point of view of Martial, Liane and their daughter but also from that of two police officers involved in the case. These varied voices show us the truth about not only Liane’s disappearance and Martial’s past but also about life of the island – the relationships between the varied ethnic groups and the undercurrents of racism, poverty and violence which tourists rarely see.

If you enjoy crime fiction with a side order of exotic scenery, a convoluted plot and interesting characters then give this (and Bussi’s other books) a try. Any urge to drink rum while reading is your own problem…..

Jane

*I’m also, possibly, the last person left who watches about 95% of their tv in real time. If I’m not home to watch it I probably never will – I’ve too many books to read to be doing with catch-up….