The world is dark and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.
The world is dark and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.
From its title, you may think this book is a retelling of Noah’s Ark, or it may even conjure up images from a certain song by Bloodhound Gang, making you wonder if there’s a naughty theme in there somewhere – but it’s neither of these. Not really anyway. It’s a love story – a love story of love stories. It has alcohol and sunsets, exotic places and simple pleasures. It’s the best kind of love story – one of friendship and strong bonds.
During their single week on Palolem they visited a spice farm, learnt to ride motorcycles and tried yoga for the first time. One day they climbed over the rocks at the end of the beach and found another beach with rocks at both ends. Over those rocks they’d found yet another beach which they walked down for about an hour, and then, at the other end of this beach, they’d found more rocks. It was a magical week.
The central story is between two Jans, a boy and a girl, who become world travellers, both together and apart. But it is their togetherness that the book yearns for, and which one of the Jans (Manjan) is hoping to encounter again. For, at the opening of the book he is standing on a beach in Goa, waiting for a sighting of the girl (Ladyjan) who stole his heart and his passport in 1970, and whom he now hasn’t seen in thirty-eight years. As the sixty-four year old Manjan sits, sipping his red wine, a young traveller named Shakey approaches, inviting him to a silent disco, and what follows is a somewhat reluctant recounting of the significant bits of Manjan’s life to a somewhat distracted listener.
We Are Animals is a homage to both the enthusiastic and the weary traveller. It’s about escaping, and searching for something you think you want, but discovering something else. It’s about finding what you didn’t know you wanted and then losing the only thing that mattered. It’s about holding on and letting go. These themes repeat throughout the book and it’s quite cathartic. It has a certain and poignant truth to it that I found it very life affirming.
The tale of Manjan and Ladyjan is humorously told by its author, Tim Ewins, a part time comedian. You have to be funny to be a comedian and Tim is exactly that. The prose is flawless in its wittiness. Gentle sarcasm, observational humour, and much attention to detail make his debut novel a joy to read. The main story is interspersed with tales – the joys and woes – of different animals along the way. They are all hugely lovable and their individual narratives are quite emotional. It’s such a touching portrait of life – of the ordinary person and the ordinary animal – caressing your feelings of empathy and compassion, while also tickling your insides with merriment. I’m a huge fan of humorous writing and here I’ve found a king. We Are Animals is a book that will break your heart a little, warm your cockles a lot, and have you giggling into your beverage of choice. Five stars.
‘I think I’m glad I’m home,’ Jan said to his mother as he threw his stick-and-bed-sheet bag onto the kitchen table, ‘I wanted to come home when I saw your face in a dying fish.’ Jan’s mother sat down, feeling both offended and loved at the same time.
All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.
Written in 1922, The Enchanted April, not only takes you back in time but it takes you across the seas to a little medieval castle high in the hills of northern Italy. And what more could you want? Not much! But there is a lot more to delight and enthral. For, this novel is completely and absolutely wonderful. It’s a brilliant bit of escapism amidst our times and troubles of viruses, social distancing, self isolation and lockdowns. This will take you far away from all of that, sweeping you along in its romance, in its sunshine and sweet scent of spring. This is a story that is sure of itself; it knows exactly where it is going and it is confident that you’ll be travelling along for the ride too. From the very first page we are introduced to the promise of “Wisteria and Sunshine” on the “shores of the Mediterranean”…
Lotty (Mrs Wilkins) and Rose (Mrs Arbuthnot) are drawn to an advertisement in The Times offering a chance to rent the Italian castle for the entire month of April. Both have unhappy marriages and are captivated by the idea of blissful escape. They recruit a young aristocrat, Lady Caroline and a rich elderly ex socialite, Mrs Fisher, to share the lease with them. And so, what begins as an awkward union full of assumptions and judgements, rapidly and delightfully turns into a euphoric experience for all.
Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish. Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.
This is an entirely delectable story of the bewitching power of beautiful surroundings and heavenly liberation from the dreary everyday. There is so much to be gained from this novel if you are a dreamy romantic and believe a little bit of romance can uplift you whatever your circumstance. Lotty and Rose are both desperate in their own ways; desperate for something more that their present lives offer them. Ruts are hard things to get out of and getting stuck is easy and almost expected when your world seems unchanging and your relationships seem mundane. Disappointment makes itself comfortable in your daily tasks, in your work, in your leisure time, in your home life. But disappointment, even subtle disappointment, takes it toll – and what do you do then? …You go to a little castle in Italy, of course!
The Enchanted April is more than a little bit mischievous, inviting you to join in the fun of observing the guests’ inner thoughts, conversations and, more poignantly, their battles. The characters spend a lot of the time on their own: reflecting and contemplating, considering their positions and their relationships to others. Elizabeth Von Arnim really captures each woman; their desires, their sorrows, their plights, their regrets. It’s very penetrating and touching, but also gorgeously and incredibly witty. I was so charmed at the wisdom the author seemed to have for life. The book gives us a great insight into Elizabeth Von Arnim. She possesses a lovely imagination, yes, but much much more than this. She seems confident and all knowing in the ways of love. Indeed, if you read even a little bit about her life, it becomes clear what a steadfast, strong and determined woman she was. She had two husbands and five children. She lived in several countries and moved house an astonishing amount of times. She had huge literary success in her lifetime and was desired and in demand at parties, sparkling wherever she went. She wrote The Enchanted April while on holiday in Italy, and staying in, wait for it, a small castle. Her books do seem to reflect a lot about herself and her life, but they say you should write about what you know, so perhaps this is partly why she was such a hit. She knew about people, specifically her class of people, and so she wrote engrossing stories about them.
The place she had found was a hidden corner where the sun-naked stones were padded with thyme, and nobody was likely to come. It was out of sight and sound of the house, it was off any path; it was near the end of the promontory. She sat so quiet that presently lizards darted over her feet, and some tiny birds like finches, frightened away at first, came back again and flittered among the bushes round her just as if she hadn’t been there. How beautiful it was. And what was the good of it with no one there, no one who loved being with one, who belonged to one, to whom one could say, ‘Look.’ And wouldn’t one say, ‘Look – dearest?’ Yes, one would say dearest; and the sweet word, just to say it to somebody who loved one, would make one happy.
This magnificent little novel will undoubtedly be in my top favourite reads of the year. It is a perfect book for me; it has so much charm and romance – romance in the best sense of the word, romance of the beauty of life. It is whimsy and dreamy but also all knowing and truthful. It is for the old romantic, the starry eyed, and the idealistic dreamer. It is that old cliche, life affirming. It is adorable.
This was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.”
Phoenix Whittle is an orphan on the brink of adulthood. Mercilessly bullied at school, and belonging nowhere, she is trapped in a half miserable life, her only happiness coming from her two friends. But news of a long lost uncle who wants her to live with him, gives her new hope. She dares to believe she will now have a true home, somewhere she is wanted and nurtured, somewhere she is safe. Yet when she meets her Uncle Henry she is left cold, for he seems, at best, uninterested and, at worst, actively hateful. Phoenix is now locked in a battle of wills with an uncle that clearly doesn’t care for her. With a nightmarish home life and a hellish school life, Phoenix struggles to keep it together. Her stress is multiplied when a serial killer appears to be targeting people all known to Phoenix – all known to her as her assailants.
The Rebirth of Henry Whittle is Gertrude T. Kitty’s utterly thrilling second book. From the first page, I knew I was in for a treat. The book speeds along in Kitty’s capable hands, and the reader is swept away and very quickly consumed in a dark story of fear and murder. The darkness, though, is lifted by the vibrant young characters, particularly Phoenix and her friend Luke. The conversations between the two friends provide some laugh out loud moments, and the depiction of the fun side of adolescence is captured perfectly: it’s not all doom and gloom for Phoenix.The narrative conveys a freshness so characteristic of Kitty’s work. Consistently told in the first person and present tense, it’s modern and current with references to contemporary culture. It’s the here and now, and this adds to the pacy rhythm of the book. Phoenix is a feisty girl with bags of resilience, a great sense of justice and always drawn to helping others. Her kindness and determined nature and ultimately positive spirit, spurs her on to fight for the life she deserves. And this makes her such a great protagonist and young heroine for all those YA readers out there.
The novel also focuses on Phoenix’s sexual awakening. As it is aimed at the YA readership, prepare to be titillated! I think back to Forever by Judy Blume – borrowed from the library and kept hidden in my bedside cabinet so my mum wouldn’t discover that I was reading a ‘naughty’ book! The novel encourages us to be in allegiance with Phoenix all the way and it feels like we are one of her best friends, privy to her inner thoughts and internal conversations, and always wanting the best for her. The themes of the book could be quite sensitive to some readers, so it carries a trigger warning of physical abuse especially, and is recommended for the older YA reader.
Kitty always makes use of the multi perspective narrative, and she does it in a unique way. I found this with her debut novel, Random Attachment. It struck me as very distinctive, and I was glad to find the same structure in Henry Whittle. Some of the characters’ narratives are very short, so there may be pages with as many as four points of view. This notably quickens the pace of the novel while also adding to the tension. And it works brilliantly.
The book’s geographical setting needs a special mention, as the London boroughs of Hillingdon and Harrow take me joyously back a few years to some of my old haunts. It’s thrilling reading about places you’ve lived in or been to in a novel, and Kitty always gets this spot on with me. I love books that make me conjure up vivid pictures in my mind and The Rebirth of Henry Whittle did this so well. I was able to picture places and scenes clearly, and even though I hadn’t been to all the locations, knowing of the areas referred to was a great advantage for my mind’s eye. I absolutely love it when this happens while reading a book! As I have seen some other reviewers mention, the story would be superb as a film or TV series. It is begging to be adapted for the screen – it’s fresh, it’s British, it’s dark, it’s edgy, and it’s sexy. Who wouldn’t watch that?
If you are looking for a one or two sittings contemporary, quick paced, exciting and passionate thriller, The Rebirth of Henry Whittle will satisfy all your reading needs. A fabulous novel.
How vast London was. How great the extent of its housing and commerce and population. There was not a living soul in the city, not so far as the eye could see, who would not at some point have need of the goods and services provided by Bellman & Black. He looked out, turning slowly, in all directions. Birds were sweeping and diving in the darkening sky and beneath them, streets of houses stretched in all directions, grand and modest and impoverished. In one of those houses, in Richmond say, a fellow would be sneezing, right at this very moment. Just as in Mayfair someone was shivering. In Spitalfields, a tainted oyster was slipping down someone’s throat, and in Bloomsbury someone was pouring the glass that would prove one glass too many and…oh, it was endless. They would come all right. Sick today, dead tomorrow and on Thursday Bellman & Black would open its doors to the bereaved. It was an enterprise that could not fail.
This is the tale of William Bellman. William Bellman is a man of prospect. He works hard to achieve the best he can in everything he does. He is a man of business. A high flyer and a workaholic, utterly dedicated to his job; a job that is much more to him than a means to an end – it is an opportunity to reach perfection. He’s a brilliant problem solver, transforming everything he touches to gold. He’s a series of success stories. Yet, it is not a happy tale. Yes, indeed, William Bellman has it all, but life is such that, in a blink of an eye, all can change. Not everything can be weaved to your own will, not everything can be mapped out or predicted. Some things can’t be solved.
Diane Setterfield’s second book, after the much loved The Thirteenth Tale, is a story about death. There’s no escaping it – death permeates every line, every page. It’s almost oppressive and certainly gets under your skin. Like The Thirteenth Tale, it is beautifully told with the same richness of prose, but also the same hint of woefulness and distance. There’s no happy-go-lucky here, and even from the onset, when events are to be celebrated, there’s an underlying distress. An impartiality in the storytelling adds to this creation of distance; the protagonist is rarely referred to as just William – it’s always William Bellman, or Mr Bellman or simply Bellman. We are willed to feel separation, yet it’s this separation that piles on the sadness we feel. It’s a piece of dark Victorian Gothic, and we are wholly immersed into a powerfully haunting story of grief, a desperately sad story of a man on a downward spiral into nothingness.
At a certain point of drunkenness William understood a good many things that had evaded him previously. The world, the universe, God too, if there was one, were raged against mankind. From this newly unveiled vantage point he saw that his good fortune was a cruel joke: encourage a man to think he is lucky all the better to bring him down afterwards. He realised his essential smallness, the vanity of his efforts to control his fate. He, William Bellman, master of the mill, was nothing.
Throughout the novel, we are told, in detail, about the ever present rooks: the rooks that seep into the background of William Bellman’s life, and from which he recoils, ever since he killed one with a catapult as a boy of eleven. It leads us to question the connection between the rooks and Bellman’s luck/bad luck. The explicit implication is yes, there’s an obvious connection; but it’s a clever enough book to dare us to conclude no, there is not. And here lies the poignancy of the narrative: it’s so entrenched in death and the impact of it on one man that you can’t help but think about your own mortality. There are no thrills in this story of grief and loneliness, although the few lovingly constructed tender moments are dazzling.
From the coins, any number of other scenes might come to mind, all as bright and as vivid as the day they had happened. One day and another and another, days and days of living there had been, and she remembered everyone with such freshness and vigour that it was scarcely less true and real than life itself. Her eye lingered on faces and expressions, she received again her mother’s loving looks, she made her brothers laugh, she sniffed the sweet and musty baby smell of her sister.
Bellman & Black is no ghost story as described by some critics, yet it weeps darkness. It is understandable why it was a shock to the system for some Setterfield fans. It largely feels like a one trick novel, completely and utterly about a single subject and about a single character. It certainly is capable of evoking mixed feelings in the reader. In conclusion, it appears to me that Bellman & Black could be read as a complete tragedy, or it could be read as one in millions of stories of life cycles, focusing on the real and persistent fear of death that many of us know well.
Just married Gwendolyn Hooper is only nineteen when she travels across the seas to join her husband, Laurence, and start a new life on his vast tea plantation in Ceylon. Full of excitement and optimism at first, she is then disappointed to find her husband somewhat changed from the light hearted and easy man she married in London. His broodiness unsettles her, his lack of affection depresses her, and it is clear his mind is occupied elsewhere. While Gwen has no idea what is going on, she is soon consumed with her own troubles and what follows is a heartbreaking story of secrets, suspicion, betrayal and guilt.
Dinah Jefferies tells Gwen’s story with empathy and beauty, describing both her protagonist’s emotions and the story’s setting with vivacity and accuracy. We are carried away to the lush landscape of 1920s and 30s Ceylon, with its mountains and lakes and it’s tropical heat. We almost experience for ourselves its fierce monsoons and oppressive humidity. Jefferies enables us to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the country in all their exotic brilliance. The colours of the flowers, the sounds of the birds and insects, the smell of the lemons, the cinnamon, the tea. It’s all richly described to us within a heartfelt, compelling, and often, tense narrative.
Ceylon achieved political independence in 1948, not long after the time period of the novel. The novel reflects the country’s tensions just as it’s on the brink of change. Resentment of the many intricacies of colonialism is rapidly increasing and showing itself in violent outbursts. Moreover, agitation is rife among the plantation workers: conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil workers is bubbling, aggravated by their unequal treatment; and resistance to progressive change in favour of the old, familiar ways is causing trouble at the top. This backdrop to the main thread of the story adds another layer, throwing more tension into the mix. It’s an essential part of the narrative because it shows Gwen and Laurence’s stance and feelings in relation to the country’s situation, and it connects their personal story to the country’s story.
The theme of motherhood is central to the novel – in fact it is very telling that the author dedicated the book to the memory of her son. Maternal love weaves its way through every part of the novel. And if you mix loss into that love you get a great labyrinth of heightened emotions. Heartbreaking is the most accurate word to describe this story; from the tangled web of misunderstandings and misjudgements, to the colossal grief of losing a child, to the even bigger picture of racial intolerance, prejudice and hatred. For if you question why something ugly is happening in this book, are you not always led back to the horrific happenings and attitudes during British colonialism? Nothing in this story is easy to take. If you have a strong sense of justice you will be appalled, if you are a mother you will be lost. The story cuts through your heart and lingers long after you have turned the last page and walked away.
With its beautiful prose and roller-coaster story, The Tea Planter’s Wife will both delight and depress you. It is a magnificent read.
She took a step towards him and her efforts at keeping calm fell apart.
‘Actually, Mr McGregor, I do not think I did anything wrong in helping that little girl. Only a person with a heart of stone could think otherwise. It was not I who caused this, but you. The days of flogging a man over a trifle are over, and if they are not, well, shame on you.’
‘Have you finished?’
‘Not quite. You will be very fortunate if the Ceylon Labour Union do not pick this up. You are a mean-minded man who sees nothing but the bad in people. I believe in treating people kindly and fairly, whatever the colour of their skin.’
His face spasmed. ‘This has nothing to do with colour.’
‘Of course it’s to do with colour. Everything in this country is to do with colour. Well, mark my words, Mr McGregor, all this will come back to bite you one day, and on that day none of us will be safe in our beds.’
He was well enough connected to have secured a living in one of the prettiest villages in England, complete with a vicarage about which anyone might be moved to write poetry. Verdant lawns, bushes, shrubs, climbers; light-filled rooms with elegant lines, and old, good furniture. Wonderful views from its hilltop site, across three counties which today all lay under a shifting blanket of snow.
Do you like a cosy yet gripping whodunit? Is an English country village murder mystery your thing? Yes…? I bring to you Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown. Light the fire, make a hot drink and snuggle up in your favourite chair for it’s Christmas Eve and snow is falling heavily on the village of Byford when Chief Inspector Lloyd is called to attend a violent death at the vicarage. It soon emerges that the victim is the vicar’s son in law, estranged from his young wife. While it seems the suspects are few, the case proves to be more puzzling than straightforward for both the detectives and the reader.
First published in 1988 under the title Redemption, this is Jill McGown’s second book featuring Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill. There’s a lovely relationship between the two detectives, both personally and professionally, and this is a great perk of the book. They are a very good sleuthing team and there’s some fine dialogue from them. McGown creates a strong double act, a duo that between them has the intellect, shrewdness, directness and dedication to solve murky, misleading and baffling mysteries. But it is their love affair which also had me hooked. It seems very genuine despite its complications and it is the catalyst for some truly touching moments.
He watched as Judy worked her way through her copious notes, in which every little puzzle had of course been entered, and he found himself thinking how soft and shining her hair looked, how pleasing the line of her jaw. Unprofessional. He had never admired Sandwell’s hair or Jack Woodford’s jaw-line, fine specimens, though they doubtless were.
Billed as a homage to Agatha Christie, this is indeed a traditional crime story in the sense that it is told sequentially; there are no flashbacks here. The golden age of detective fiction is also emanated by the whole point of the story (though it may sound obvious) being the unraveling of the mystery, and the elements of said mystery being clearly presented at an early stage. Our curiosity is then aroused throughout, with clues offered within the narrative leading to our gratification at the end and the great unveiling. It’s setting also follows the cosy whodunit format, in all its picturesque snow-covered village glory, with an old isolated vicarage as the crime scene. There’s a non believing vicar with a wandering eye, his dutiful and dedicated wife, their seemingly hapless daughter, and the organ-playing harlot from the church playgroup. Except she’s no harlot, she’s just a woman that the vicar falls for, and this is just one example of how stereotypes are less stereotypical than in the golden age of crime genre. The balance of traditional and modern is just right. There’s no obvious classism which I find rife in Agatha Christie’s work, but there’s also no cringeworthy cop speak that I find abounds in contemporary crime fiction.
The reader is treated to a truly flummoxing whodunit. Who *did* do it? That’s the question we all want the answer to, isn’t it? But we also want to be taken on a riveting and stimulating investigative ride. There is much toing and froing in this investigation and the reader is allowed to feel included in the discussion. Paying attention is vital though! This is part of enjoying a crime mystery – picking up on details and clues that will add to the satisfied feeling at both the case and story’s conclusion.
Does that seem likely to you? He arrives drunk, gets drunker, beats her up, and it all ends happily ever after? Or would have done, if the invisible man hadn’t popped in and murdered him?
So what are you waiting for? Is the kettle on the boil? Is the fire lit? I hear that armchair calling! It’s time to lose yourself in a marvellous murder mystery.
I run hot and I always have. I am not going to sit around sweating my ass off just so men can feel more comfortable. It’s not my responsibility to not turn them on. It’s their responsibility to not be an asshole.
I finally picked up Daisy Jones and The Six thanks to my buddy read partner over at Bookstagram. There’s a lot of fanfare surrounding this book (as with a lot of books you choose initially because of its visibility on social media platforms) and it’s difficult to cut through that. However, this is my attempt to put that aside and give it my honest overview.
Daisy Jones and The Six is a fictional seventies rock band from L.A. The book covers their story in an interview style format, with band members and other significant people looking back, and talking in more recent times. This style serves the subject of the novel well, and makes it a quick and easy read, while adding perfectly and appropriately to the storytelling of a once world famous, but short lived, ego filled, drug fuelled, rock group. The style is a welcome diversion from the usual novel format and offers a different reading experience that, if embraced, provides enjoyment in its own right. It doesn’t seem strange or out of place that it should be written this way, it feels right to me. However, there are, of course, limitations to this narrative style, and it may not be to everyone’s taste. Yet, for me, there is sufficient sense of place and time, character development, drama, conflict, and narrative progression, to call it a success.
When you’re in a situation like that, when you have a man looming over you, it’s as if every decision you made to lead to that moment – alone with a man you don’t trust flashes – before your eyes. Something tells me men don’t do the same thing. When they are standing there, threatening a woman, I doubt they count every wrong step they made to become the asshole they are. But they should.
The spin of the book is that the details of the band’s history differ depending on who is recalling them, and this serves to be more of a character development tool, rather than revealing anything, either subtle or earth shattering, that will affect the narrative. In this way it’s a bit misleading, although it can be forgiven depending on your expectations. The author succeeds in creating quite unreliable characters, whether this be because of their fervent drug taking at the time or because of their huge egos still presenting themselves, and in my opinion, quite unlikable characters too. Daisy, of the title, is a privileged, rich, white girl who seemingly falls into the limelight without much effort beyond frolicking with musicians and celebrities. Her talent seems unquestionable by her peers and critics, but I found myself totally questioning it. Was this intended by the author? I hope so. Leaving a lot unsaid and allowing your readers to read between the lines and create a slightly different narrative to work alongside your own, is a great skill and a clever way to tell a story. Billy, the lead singer with Daisy, is at least equally repellent. Repellent isn’t quite the word, but there’s something about him that’s not endearing despite obvious qualities such as strength of character. It may well be his silent narcissism. In fact, I struggle to pinpoint a band member or other supporting character that I can genuinely say I cared for. And maybe this is because of the world they inhabited – a world of huge egos, huge money, huge excess, and little self control.
Taylor Jenkins Reid portrays the ugly side of being in a band – the jealousy, the conflict, the addictions, the drugs, and the clash of personalities and big egos. Of course, these are people looking back on their lives: there will be guilt, remorse, regret. But I felt little of the joy they must have experienced as part of making music, performing live, doing what they had always dreamed of. I wanted to feel their joy, their buzz. I missed this. It felt more negative than positive and that was somewhat disappointing.
A great aspect of the book, however, is the description of the songs. It makes you want to whip on that remastered CD! But, of course, you can’t, as it’s not a real band, it’s not a real album, it’s not real music. Yet, you still want to hear it: is it really as good as everyone says? Is Daisy really amazing? Are the collaborations and performances by Daisy and Billy spellbinding? This book makes you want to know.
In conclusion I think Daisy Jones and The Six has a lot to offer. It’s an addictive read that succeeds in transporting you to late seventies California, to the hot, indulgent days and nights of living an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I think it’s very American – beautiful weather and beautiful people. Yet, for me, it also highlighted the undesirable side to fame and ‘success’.
“I wish someone had told me that love isn’t torture. Because I thought love was this thing that was supposed to tear you in two and leave you heartbroken and make your heart race in the worst way. I thought love was bombs and tears and blood. I did not know that it was supposed to make you lighter, not heavier.”
There’s a corner of Charing Cross, just behind the station, that comes straight out of the nineteenth century. As the road slopes down towards the river, you leave the traffic and the bright lights behind you and suddenly the night seems to creep up on you and grab you by the collar. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the Thames water gurgling in the distance and as you squint into the shadows you’ll see figures shuffling slowly past like zombies. For this is down-and-out territory. Old tramps and winos wander down and pass out underneath the arches at the bottom, wrapped in filthy raincoats and the day’s headlines.
This fabulous book is one I read years ago, picked up in the school library. Just Ask for Diamond or The Falcon’s Malteser – as it was originally called before it was made into a film – is a comedic children’s book by the multi talented writer, Anthony Horowitz. It’s a spoof of The Maltese Falcon – a 1930s detective novel – and introduces us to the Diamond Brothers, Nick and Herbert Simple. It’s the first in a series of books featuring them, of which I have read the original three (but I believe there are more). The second is Public Enemy Number Two and the third is South By South East.
I decided to reread it this month, a good twenty five years later. And, to my jumping-for-joy-delight, I rediscovered and re-lived an absolutely wonderful reading adventure. Horowitz’s writing is superb. So much YA and middle grade fiction is unsophisticated in its structure and language, but Horowitz shows his skills and expertise, bringing his unique and witty style to the forefront, resulting in a rip roaring read that is sure to delight children and adults alike.
I’d charge her for a taxi but I took the tube to Hampstead and then walked. Hampstead, in case you don’t know it, is in the north of London, in the green belt. For ‘green’ read ‘money’. You don’t have to be rich to live in Hampstead. You have to be loaded. It seemed to me that every other car I passed was a Rolls Royce and even the dustbins had burglar alarms.
In the story, Herbert Simple changes his name to Tim Diamond when he decides to set himself up as a private eye, but as he is totally abysmal at it, his much younger brother, Nick, is forced to step in. Firmly set in late eighties London in the run up to Christmas Day, it contains lots of puns, pop culture references, and nods to hard boiled and noir fiction. Its sense of place and time is superb and one of its great attractions. Thatcher’s Britain is clearly painted throughout, and the descriptions of London nooks and crannies are a joy. The characters are extravagant and the plot is gripping and a tad gruesome – in fact, on reading it a second time, I was surprised at the high body count in a book aimed at children. If, like me, you are a fan of stories where characters find themselves in absurd and silly scenarios, be sure to pick up this book. I love capers and comedies of errors, and this was laugh out loud stuff for me both in the early nineties and now. The story was an absolute pleasure to revisit. The film adaptation is close to my heart as well – it’s a much-watch at Christmas for me.
A hundred years ago, Lafone Street would have been bustling with noise and colour and life. Now it was dying on its feet. Twisted coke cans, broken slates and yards of multi-coloured cables spilled out of the deserted buildings like entrails. The street was pitted with puddles that seemed to be eating their way into the carcass. Another sign caught my eye, bright red letters on white: McAlpine. It was a death warrant in one word for Lafone Street. There’s nothing more destructive than a construction company. They’d gut the warehouses and build fancy apartments in the shell. Each one would have a river view, a quarry-tiled garage and a five-figure price tag. That’s the trouble with London. The rich have inherited its history.
I have a confession: I struggle with chick lit. The phrase, “chick lit” grates on me in the first instance, but I’m not sure how to explain my exact feelings about the whole genre. I am drawn to the pretty, cheerful covers with their suggestion of a happy, cosy life in the country – or by the sea – or in a Georgian townhouse, etcetera. And the surety of a happy ending is comforting: with all loose ends tied up and all characters getting what they deserve. Yet, while I seek out feel good stories in films and on T.V., this is not necessarily true with novels. What I find most alluring about a book is the anticipation and materialisation of an adventure, a mystery, a surprise. I like parallel stories, multiple timelines, and a clever twist that I didn’t see coming but totally understand now I know. And while I adore a great love story, it is usually not the reason I pick up a book and start reading. Hence, a chick lit novel is certainly not my go-to read. I fully admit that I haven’t read many books of this genre, but I have noticed that the description of “lighthearted read” often covers the form as well as the content, and what you get is not only a book with an easy subject matter, but also a book with easy prose – a simple and plain narrative style that leaves readers like me (whatever we are) feel underwhelmed.
I have read absolute stinkers of books, both chick lit and not, so if I sound totally critical of this genre, please forgive me as this is not my intention. My intention is always to take books as they come and read them with fresh eyes and an open mind, and not get bogged down by their genre or label. Most of all, my intention is to enjoy the book. I really want to relish the reading journey of every book I pick up and feel that I have gained something by the time I have turned the last page. Sometimes there is success, sometimes failure, but the will to love every book I have chosen to read is always there.
This brings me onto my actual review of Poppy’s Recipe for Life. I wanted to read one of Heidi Swain’s novels because of their deliciously scrumptious covers coupled with their thumbs up reviews, all pointing to the probability of a positive, life affirming, warm and snuggly reading experience. While I was under the impression this was her first venture out into the world as a novelist, this is in fact Heidi’s eighth book, published this year. As the product of an experienced, published author who knows her fans and audience, Poppy’s Recipe for Life is a great success. It is written with bounds of confidence and expertise. This writer has got the art of her specialism, it seems, down to a tee.
It’s Heidi and her readers’ second visit to Nightingale Square, a fictional residential part of an unnamed Norfolk town. Twenty-something Poppy of the title, has just realised her long standing dream of moving into the Square and becoming an active part of the tight knit community. Her excitement about moving to Nightingale Square and it’s communal garden, is matched only by her passion for making chutney. She wants and lives a blissfully simple life, delighting in everyday pleasures such as frequenting her local with her friends after work, helping to organise community events, and mucking in with gardening duties. It seems the only unpleasantness in her life is her selfish, uncaring mother, whom she avoids and whom she would gladly have absolutely nothing to do with if it wasn’t for her sixteen year old brother, Ryan. Cue, the dramatic event of the story: the arrival and stay of Ryan at Poppy’s beloved home. Ryan must be the sweetest teenager in fiction, yet Poppy doubts him frequently, which is somewhat annoying. Poppy herself comes across as very pleasant: gentle, kind hearted and quirky. In fact all the characters (with the exception of Poppy and Ryan’s mother) are depicted with positivity, even the grumpy neighbour, Jacob, who eventually gets sucked into the neighbourliness of Nightingale. They are all genuinely nice, easy-going, friendly people. And this is the great pull of Heidi Swain’s book – it’s unwavering positivity: it’s loveliness of place and people. I may have smirked at Poppy’s obsession with creating chutney recipes and dreams of compiling a recipe book with them, but isn’t that want we all want? An obsession and a dream? A simple but fulfilling purpose? A warm and welcoming little space in the world that we can call home? Poppy’s Recipe for Life is like ITV’s Midsomer Murders without the murder: community spirit with a good dose of gossip, seasonable celebrations, summer fetes, garden barbecues with homegrown produce, friendly local independent shops, cute pets and bunting. It’s not out of place on a lazy Sunday evening in front of the fire with a cup of tea and a slice of fruit loaf.
Heidi Swain has created a comforting little world for her characters and readers. A little haven to escape to that’s a little bit simpler, a little bit sunnier, a little bit friendlier – and a lot more blissful than your own! It’s definitely a cosy read with much humour and a believable sweet and sexy love story. And, although it may not be my usual recipe for a good book, this is certainly another thumbs up review for Poppy’s Recipe for Life.
Inspired by Bookstagram and the hashtag #whoruntheworld, the following eight books are ones that I have enjoyed, and recommend unreservedly. But much more than this, they are books by brilliant female writers, featuring strong female characters. All characters, I may add, that I loved when reading them, and that will stay with me, I hope, forever.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Harper Lee ‘only’ published two books in her lifetime, but the magnificence of To Kill a Mockingbird will endure forever. It is one of the very few novels I have read more than once. It’s female lead, six year old Scout, is just fantastic, and I sooo wanted to name my baby girl after her! She is a very clever child with a questioning and combative nature who has her faith in humanity tested when her lawyer father defends a black man wrongly accused of rape. The story is known for its great warmth, despite its harsh themes of racial injustice and the destruction of innocence.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
With its similar time and place setting to To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel is also told from the perspective of a young girl, and tells of racism in its pages. Cassie Logan is the feisty but naive protagonist, whose eyes are opened to the unimaginable ugliness of prejudice in her community. Mildred D. Taylor tells Cassie’s story with skilfulness and beauty, describing Cassie’s happy home life with scrumptious detail, while refusing to shy away from the realities of racial inequality.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Is Jane Eyre the ultimate feminist heroine? Of course, that is subjective, but she is certainly a very strong character who endures much hardship and heartache, and always fights to preserve her sense of self. Charlotte Brontë wrote a formidable story and created a celebrated and timeless character in Jane Eyre – one which I will always love.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Cassandra Mortmain is the seventeen year old narrator of this wonderfully enchanting novel. Her observations of her life in a dilapidated castle with her family and eccentric father, are charming and witty. Dodie Smith – a playwright and novelist, famous for writing One Hundred and One Dalmatians – created a book that had me totally captivated, at times in stitches, and that whooshed me away with its thrilling love story. It has one of the most famous opening lines in novels: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Fabulous.
Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
I read this following the first couple of series of the television dramatisation by the same name. I fell in love with Vanessa Redgrave’s narration and wanted to discover the real Jenny. Jennifer Worth was a nurse who worked in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s, and recounted it all in a trilogy of memoirs of which Call the Midwife was the first. A harrowing read with great moments of elation, this book overflows with gorgeous prose and beautiful wisdom.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
My favourite of Maggie’s novels. Just one word needed: Motherhood. Arguably the greatest challenge a woman faces, motherhood is the overriding theme of this book, and the reason why I am drawn to it so much. It’s a heartbreaking, touching novel by one of my most familiar writers. I saw myself again and again in this narrative and I will always recall the effect it had on me.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
I loved this epic book. Donna Tartt is an amazing writer whose second novel – published a decade after her first – centres around Harriet, a twelve year old girl whose older brother was found hanged in their garden at the age of nine. The murderer has never been found and Harriet makes it her mission to solve the mystery of what happened and enact revenge on the killer. A fabulous read – enjoyed all the more because of its length – by a super talented American author. This is a novel to get your teeth well and truly stuck into.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables is a Canadian classic, for both it’s heroine and it’s author. If you’re not familiar with Anne (with an e) one way or another, where have you been? I read this book as a young teenager after falling completely and utterly and wholeheartedly in love with the 1985/7 TV serialisation. After the depiction of Anne Shirley by the stunning Megan Follows, I must admit I found the literary Anne to be quite annoying! But this is where the Megan Follows character came from and I soon began to appreciate this fact. Anne, like Jane Eyre, is an orphan who clambers her way up, making the best of what she’s got at any given time, and forges the way to make the life for herself that she really wants. Lucy Maud Montgomery writes consistently with compelling beauty and wisdom, creating and shaping the character of Anne so lovingly that she has become one of the most well loved literary characters of all time.
I know there are many more books like this that I have yet to find and adore, but, Reader, I will, I will. Who are your favourite female writers? Who are your favourite female leads?