When I’m on holiday I like to read books set in the area I’m visiting. This year, however, we did a bit of a tour of Northern Europe (Denmark, a bit of Sweden and then Latvia) and I wasn’t in the mood for Nordic Noir so I just gathered up the next half-dozen or so books on my magic spreadsheet of ‘things to read’ (plus our children’s Book of the Month for June and the next title for the shop book group). Most of these were set in the usual places – the UK, the United States, a bit of outer space – but I did manage to include a quirky little novel set in Montréal with a German heroine. A pretty international haul, I think you’ll agree (although I need to get more books by non-European or North American authors read, I know…).
In the Postman’s Fiancée we meet Tania, a young Bavarian woman who moves to Montréal to improve her French. She falls in love with a customer at the café she works in, Bilodo a quiet and shy postman, even though they never speak beyond orders for drinks and food. When Bilodo has a serious accident and loses his memory Tania poses as his fiancée in an effort to make his love for her a reality. If you think of a cross between Amélie and While You Were Sleeping in book form (with additional haiku) you’d not be far off. The plot is rather like a French farce, as Tania tries to keep the amnesiac Bilodo from any contact with his past but it also has a strong thread of sadness (or maybe I should say ennui, it sounds more appropriate with a french twist) running through it. As well as the french feel to the book it has a rather spare elegance, like the haiku used throughout. I read this as a standalone novel but there is an earlier book, featuring some of the same characters, whose plot intertwines with it which I have now added to my ‘to-read’ list.
I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for odd place names. Our personal favourite, in the Jane and Rob household, is the magnificently odd (but slightly naughty) Broadwoodwidger in Devon. Closer to home we enjoy going through Thurgoland and a trip back home to Essex isn’t complete without giggling at Vange. Essentially we are very peurile. I particularly like the kind of odd town names you get in the U.S.A. – small town America does the best place names with classics like Yeehaw Junction, Paint Lick, Bitter End or Hop Bottom. They lend themselves to book titles too – Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery knew this – so I was interested in what kind of place Broken River would be…
It turns out Broken River is a fairly broken sort of small town. It has a closed down cinema and a few stores: the only part that is really thriving is the local prison. Its main claim to fame is the brutal murder, many years previously of a couple living in an isolated house on the edge of town. The story follows the family who move into the house – a writer, her unfaithful sculptor husband and their precocious 12 year-old daughter – the men responsible for the original shooting and, slightly oddly, an entity referred to as the Observer. This means the book is a blend of thriller, a contemporary family saga and something a bit stranger but it does it very well. The Observer character could have been a distraction but it actually tied together the various groups of characters pretty well as well as allowing us to shift our focus between groups.
This is an interesting book and it is certainly a change from the run of psychological thrillers. In fact, since many of the characters follow the same website which delves into unsolved crimes, it is possibly more interested in the psychology of those who are fascinated by murder.
I think there are a few secret rules that authors are taught at author school – how to pose for the photos on the back of the book, how to sign books so that their name is almost (but not quite) illegible and, most importantly, when to include an M in their name. Iain Banks did it to delineate the difference between his literary and his sci-fi novels and now David Barnett (author of the Gideon Smith novels) has added an M to his name for his latest book – which is definitely a departure from his previous steampunk works. And I can see why it would be useful to make this clear since this book has very little to do with airships, mechanical girls or heroes of the British Empire. Well, hardly anything…
This book is the story of Thomas Major who, after the total failure of his marriage, manages to inveigle his way onto a one-way, one-man, mission to Mars. Mission control assume he will then set up and wait for the next ship to arrive with more intrepid astronauts but he knows he is just looking for the ultimate seclusion in which to die. All in all he’s a miserable beggar. The story swerves, however, into much sweeter territory when he tries to ring his ex-wife and ends up chatting to Gladys, a grandmother from Wigan who is meant to be caring for her motherless grandchildren but is having trouble remembering what day of the week it is. As Thomas moves further away from Earth he becomes more involved with Gladys and her family than he has been with anyone for a long time.
I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this book – I knew it was going to be very different from the author’s previous work – but I really loved it. The story is a bit quirky (and we’ve established I love quirky), there is humour and also some genuinely moving moments. The main character is delightfully grumpy (there is a running gag about his name and he spends most of his time telling people that he should be called Thomas, not Tom, and that he’s not a major…) and Gladys and her grandchildren, Ellie and James, are wonderful. It is not all laughs, of course. Ellie is having to work three jobs as well as going to school and she daren’t ask for help in case the authorities take them into care when they discover that Gladys has dementia and James, like so many children, is keeping quiet about being bullied.
It is a bit of a cliché to say that I laughed and cried while reading this. But it can’t be a cliche if its true, can it?
I live in Bradford and was born in Basildon, Essex. What both these places have in common is that they have spent a lot of time being thought of as inferior to some other nearby (or not so nearby depending on your access to transport) town or city. In Basildon for many years any unobtainable item always resulted in the need for a shopping trip to London (which was called ‘going up to town’ as opposed to ‘going down to town’ if you were just shopping in Basildon itself – there’s an Essexism for you). In Bradford the opinion has often been that the only place worth going – for shopping, a night out, a decent football team, gigs – is Leeds. These things are not necessarily true but a reflection of how smaller towns and cities can almost wallow in their perceived inadequacies…*
Broken Wheel is another such town. It is described at one point as ‘a complete waste of brick, asphalt, and concrete’ and its inhabitants have become used to using the neighbouring town of Hope for anything beyond the basics. They are fine people – warm and welcoming when a newcomer arrives in their midst – but they are certainly not fully satisfied with their lives. The newcomer is Sara, who has come for an extended visit from Sweden, but who finds that the woman she was coming to visit, Amy, was a) rather older and more ill than she let on in her letters and b) dead. The townsfolk (who are welcoming, remember) invite her to stay in Amy’s house for the two months she was planning to stay. And, since the thing that bought the two women together in the first place was a love of books, it is not long before Sara decides to pay the townsfolk of Broken Wheel back for their kindness by opening a second-hand bookshop with Amy’s extensive collection. The town is unsure at first but, gradually, Sara (or rather the books themselves) work their magic as the right reader is matched with the right story.
I’m sure some of you may be thinking this sounds a bit twee and cheesy. You are not alone – some of the Broken Wheel residents have the same fears but it is more than that. This book is about a town which is broken and on the point of dying and about people who have, largely, given up hope. Although the books are very important ( especially, to Sara) it is the people who keep you reading. Each character has a back story which is developed and then, eventually resolved: on the surface by books but maybe mostly by someone taking the time to understand them enough to place the right book in their hands. And of course Sara’s unique approach to shop signage and recommendations made my bookseller’s heart beat a little faster.
I really loved this book. It is heart-warming without being sentimental and full of good old-fashioned decent people. There are love stories, tales of sadness and despair and parts that made me laugh out loud. I’ve seen a few reviews complaining that, when Sara talks about the books she loves, she often gives away spoilers. It didn’t bother me to be honest – what book-lover worth their salt doesn’t already know how Jane Eyre ends, for example?
*By the way, I can recommend a visit to Bradford if you want to see a city which is restoring its love for itself. As a wise man (okay, Rob) once said ‘Bradford will come back once it stops trying to be Leeds – Leeds is a fine place but Bradford has got heart> Just like Broken Wheel.
The recent trend for quirky Scandinavian fiction was started, in 2012, by Jonas Jonasson (quirky name, quirky guy…) with his first novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. There have been a number of novels with similarly oddball titles, some by Jonasson, some not and they have been fascinating us ever since. To be fair it seems that most of them are genuinely Nordic in some way – which maybe proves that living with midnight sun (or worse, polar nights) makes authors think slightly at right angles to what we see as reality in more temperate zones. Or maybe it’s just the pickled herrings – more research is probably needed…
Jonasson’s latest features Hitman Anders (who is a fairly rubbish killer since it seems that he only ever kills in a fit of temper and has spent ever-increasing chunks of his life in prison as a consequence). We first meet him as a mostly reformed character who has improved his chances of freedom by giving up drugs and strong liquor. When he meets up with a female priest (who is an atheist) and a hotel receptionist with a totally forgettable name, however, things start to get complicated. The receptionist and priest make Anders look like the good guy, especially when he gets religion, and they become the number one enemy of the Swedish underworld. At this point rather than give away any plot spoilers I will just say that the words ‘madcap’ and ‘satisfyingly convoluted’ spring to mind.
This is a light read but it can lead you to think about your own attitudes to crime, religion, love and revenge (although this isn’t compulsory). The relationship between the three main characters is amusing but also, at times, quite touching – by the end, even though you know they are never really going to be counted among the ‘good guys’, you are definitely rooting for them.
Back in November I reviewed Christopher Fowler’s collection of Bryant & May short stories and finished with my usual complaint. If I keep finding all these wonderful authors and series when am I ever going to find the time to read them all? I’ve been reading about time machines recently – if I ever manage to find a foolproof blueprint for one that should solve my problems: in the meantime I’m going for my tried and tested method of ignoring housework, gardening and phone calls…
Anyway, since I enjoyed the company of these grumpy old detectives and their assorted colleagues so much I decided that I should read their latest adventures when they were offered up on Netgalley. And, luckily, my second outing with Bryant & May was as rewarding as the first.
The plot involves illegal immigrants, various new age therapies and the fear of alzheimers. And, of course, some seemingly random crimes which can only be solved by Arthur Bryant’s unorthodox methods. Unfortunately Bryant seems to be losing his grip on reality and the whole unit looks to be in danger of closing down. Obviously I don’t want to give any spoliers but, suffice it to say, the ending was satisfyingly quirky.
My main thought about this book is that London itself is a major character. There is a new, thrustingly modern, city superimposed over a series of older ones and the Thames is the thread that ties them all together. For hardened Londoners the details of these parallel cities are almost invisible – either that or they have proprietorial sense of ownership of all the quirky places, even if they never visit the places in question. For other Britons the city is a source of endless fascination: for a Syrian immigrant it can seem bloated and crass.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I really like quirky stories. I mean I like all kinds of books but if it features an animal (talking or not), or strange inventions (maybe steam-powered) then I’m always happy to give it a go. My bookcases are full of odd Scandinavian stories – I’m going to blame the fact that my favourite book ever is Alice in Wonderland and I have spent most of my life believing six impossible things before breakfast. So when Harpercollins mentioned they had a new book coming out which featured an immoral pharmaceuticals company, a variety of dysfunctional families and an enigmatic squirrel I knew I had to give it a try.
The story is about Veblen, a warm and quirky young woman who values a peaceful and useful life. Somehow she seems to have been damaged by her relationship with her mother but has fallen in love with Paul. He also seems to be hiding away from some family trauma – maybe they are meant for each other. However, he is a very different sort of personality: ambitious, easily seduced by priviledge and power. He seems to see Veblen as his saviour one moment and the next as some sort of project for improvement. The plot centres around Paul’s involvement with a big pharmaceutical company and the wedge this drives between him and gentle, animal-loving Veblen. Along the way we discover what the family secrets are (like most, not so terrible in the end unless you are the one who has to live with them), whether big Pharma really is evil and that there is a secret squirrel society (called the Nutkinistas. Obviously).
This is a clever book and also quite a charming one. The writing is engaging and very well thought out. In keeping with the fairly medically-based plot the language reflects that bias – at one point a character feels a ‘broad-spectrum uneasiness’ – but it isn’t heavy-handed. I shall look out for future books by Elizabeth McKenzie (and for the Nutkinistas…)