Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, R.C. Sherriff, Setting

‘The Fortnight in September’ by RC Sherriff

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 336 pages; 2017.

If you are looking for a lovely, gentle story from a more innocent time, then please put R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September on your reading list.

This novel, first published in 1931, perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside. Not very much happens in the story, but it’s written in such a mannered, yet insightful, way, that it hardly seems to matter.

A long train journey

There’s a long build-up, introducing us to each member of the Stevens family — Mr Stevens, an office worker (we never really find out exactly what it is he does), his devoted wife Mrs Stevens, and their three children, Mary, 20, Dick 17, and Ernie, 10 — as they make their preparations for their time away, ensuring the milk order is cancelled, that their pet budgerigar has been given to the next-door neighbour to look after, that the gas has been turned off and everything is locked up.

Their journey to Bognor Regis, on the West Sussex coast, is described in exacting detail, including the walk to the train station from their terraced house at 22 Corunna Road in Dulwich, and then the long journey by train, via Clapham Junction, and then onwards to “Seaview”, the apartments they have taken every year since their honeymoon more than 20 years earlier.

Finally, he turned, and said rather lamely—“Well, here we are.” They had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start. With a touch of panic you wonder whether the holiday, after all, is only a dull anti-climax to the journey.

At Bognor Regis, they have their meals prepared for them by the elderly landlady, Mrs. Huggett, and their days are spent at the beach, playing cricket and swimming. They pass their evenings taking strolls along the promenade or visiting the amusement parlours on the pier. Occasionally, they listen to musical performances at the bandstand. Mr Stevens also sneaks off the local pub for a quiet pint, free from the constraints of his family.

It is all very quaint, predictable and safe, but the holiday is tinged with melancholia, for Mr and Mrs Stevens realise this may be the last holiday they enjoy together as a family because Mary and Dick are adults now — they have jobs and lives of their own — and Mrs Huggett’s establishment has become rundown and dated. (It’s only near the end of their holiday that the Stevens’ learn that they have been the only people to stay during the season — everyone else has cancelled and gone elsewhere; not for the first time, Mr Stevens wonders if his loyalty has been misplaced.)

Universal truths about travel

Even though this story is 90 years old and recounts a time when travel comprised what we would now call “staycations”, it is packed with universal truths: the plotting and planning that accompanies every journey, for example; the budgeting required; the nervousness about missing scheduled services (in this case trains, but in today’s modern world who hasn’t fretted about missing a plane or getting your boarding gate mixed up?); the mild panic when you realise you are more than half-way through your holiday; and the sadness you feel when it’s time to pack your suitcase to go home.

I particularly enjoyed Mrs Stevens’ thoughts about Clapham Junction, where they have to change trains, because I used to visit that station daily on my commute (for about two years) from Kensington Olympia and it is absolutely the worst train station in the world with its 17 platforms, crowds of people and confusing walkways (above ground and underground):

Hell, to Mrs. Stevens would be a white hot Clapham Junction with devils in peaked caps.

Gentle humour

The story is written in a gentle-mannered tone but there’s a vein of mild humour running throughout. For instance, the holiday apartments are called “Seaview,” because “from the lavatory window you could see the top of a lamp post on the seafront”, and to cure Ernie’s travel sickness…

Mrs. Stevens had tried starving the child: she had tried strong peppermints—to no avail. Ultimately she learnt of a good plan from her neighbour Mrs. Jack, whose little Ada was just the same. Mrs. Jack always carried on railway journeys, in her purse, two or three small paper bags. They could be quickly opened—easily applied and conveniently dropped out of the window. So adept had Mrs. Jack become that she boasted sometimes of getting the whole incident over before her surprised fellow passengers knew what had happened.

In another scene, Mr Stevens sits on a soft upholstered chair that practically swallows him whole:

Mr. Stevens, lacking his wife’s foresight, sat right back in his: he sank down and down until he felt his feet jerk off the ground as the edge of the chair straightened out his knees. Ernie watched his father’s struggles with mingled curiosity and dismay: he had a vague feeling that he ought to run and look for a life belt, but Mr. Stevens soon recovered himself, and was just in time to rise as Mrs. Montgomery came in.

There’s some great one-liners too. The sand is crowded with people “as tightly packed on their strip of beach as the blight upon Mr. Stevens’ beans”; a driver is described as looking like “the kind of man who drove ghostly coaches over precipices on dark, stormy nights”, and the pier, which is “black and gaunt” resembles “the skeleton of a gigantic monster with its front legs planted in the sea”.

The Fortnight in September is a real balm for the soul. It’s about an ordinary family momentarily escaping the confines of their mundane lives, but it’s also a fascinating historical look at the minutiae of domestic travel in a different era. I loved it.

UPDATE 14 September: Karen at BookerTalk informs me that this book has recently been BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. It has been serialized into 10 episodes, which are available to listen to for the next 3 weeks.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penelope Fitzgerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 156 pages; 2006.

A good book is the precious life-blood of a masterspirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond
life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

A book about a bookshop seems hard to resist, right?

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop — first published in 1978 — has languished in my TBR for years, but I was only encouraged to read it after I watched the film adaptation last week (it’s streaming on SBS on Demand for anyone in Australia who fancies checking it out). Unfortunately, the film was a bit on the dull side (despite great performances from Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy), so I wanted to find out whether the book was better.

And it was.

While the film is faithful to the novel in terms of dialogue, characters and plot, it somehow fails to capture the subtle humour and the little digs at busybodies and those who wish to keep a good woman down, as it were.

And it also neglects to even mention the supernatural element of the storyline in which the lead character, Florence Green, is pestered by a poltergeist (or “rapper” as the locals call it)^^. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that might distract from the main storyline, which is a bittersweet tale about a widow who opens a bookshop against the wishes of the community “elite” who would rather an arts centre was established in the town.

A comedy of manners

Set in East Anglia, in 1959, the book is essentially a comedy of manners. It’s about petty-minded villagers who rail against Florence’s plan to open a bookshop in the small town of Hardborough on the coast — although it’s never made entirely clear why they think it is so objectionable.

Florence is kind-hearted but she’s also determined to do her own thing. (And maybe that’s why the locals are so against a bookshop being set up — women, after all, should be home makers and looking after children, but Florence is widowed and child free and she has a dream she wants to fulfil.)

She buys the Old House — “built five hundred years ago out of earth, straw, sticks and oak beams” — which has been vacant for years and is rumoured to be haunted by a poltergeist.

The noise upstairs stopped for a moment and then broke out again, this time downstairs and apparently just outside the window, which shook violently. It seemed to be on the point of bursting inwards. Their teacups shook and spun in the saucers. There was a wild rattling as though handful after handful of gravel or shingle was being thrown by an idiot against the glass.

Florence isn’t put off by this. She ignores the noise and the unexpected occurrences and gets on with the business of opening her shop, which also includes a lending library. She hires a local school girl, the forthright 10-year-old Christine, who helps out after class even though she doesn’t like books and isn’t particularly studious. Her working class parents, it seems, need the money.

The relationship between the older woman and her young charge is one of the sweeter elements of the book. Florence tolerates Christine’s rudeness and her sharp manner and tries to help her study for her 11-plus exam which will determine whether she goes to a grammar school or a technical school.

Other relationships develop over the course of the book. A strange older man by the name of Mr Brundish becomes a loyal customer and helps Florence decide whether she should stock the controversial Lolita to sell to the inhabitants of Hardborough. “They won’t understand it,” he tells her, “but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” She orders 250 copies.

By contrast, the charming (read slightly sleazy) Milo North, who commutes to London where he works at the BBC, is often on her case. When they meet at a grand party for the first time he asks her whether she is “well advised to undertake the running of a business” and claims that he will never visit her shop. He’s on the side of Mrs Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough”, who wants the Old House to be used as an arts centre for chamber music, lectures and art displays even though the building had been on the market for six months and no one but Florence had expressed an interest in buying it.

A successful business

Despite the local animosity and the challenges that confront Florence, including from her own solicitor and the opening of a rival store in a nearby town, the business is a relative success, and the story, while not exactly light-hearted, has a vein of gentle comedy running throughout it.

‘I don’t know why I bought these,’ Florence reflected after one of these visits. ‘Why did I take them? No one used force. No one advised me.’ She was looking at 200 Chinese book-markers, handpainted on silk. The stork for longevity, the plum-blossom for happiness. Her weakness for beauty had betrayed her. It was inconceivable that anyone else in Hardborough should want them. But Christine was consoling: the visitors would buy them – come the summer, they didn’t know what to spend their money on.

Sadly, there are greater unseen forces at work which put Florence’s livelihood at risk and the novel, for all it’s comic moments, nuanced observations and evocative descriptions of the Suffolk landscape, ends on a terribly sad note.

I enjoyed its commentary on class and ambition, courage and optimism, and think it’s probably the kind of story that benefits from a close second reading. The introduction to my edition, by novelist David Nicholls, is worth reading (but only after you have finished the book), as is the preface by Hermione Lee, who has written a biography about the author.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. The winner that year was Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea.

^^ Update 20 August: Apparently the supernatural element wasn’t ignored, I just did not notice it when I watched the film.

This is my 17th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback so long ago that I can’t remember the date, but I also have it on Kindle, which is how I read it for the purposes of this review.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s very much a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Author, Benjamin Myers, Bloomsbury, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 272 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

What a joy and balm for the soul Benjamin Myers’ new novel, The Offing, turned out to be! It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War, and I’d be really surprised if it didn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year.

Summer of love

The two main characters are Robert, the 16-year-old son of a coal miner, and Dulcie, an eccentric well-to-do woman who lives alone in a cosy cottage by the sea.

The pair meet by accident when Robert heads off on a solo trek with no real plan other than to escape a pre-ordained life in a Yorkshire coal-mining village, hungry to live life having seen what happened to boys not much older than himself who had gone abroad to fight for England. When he finally reaches the coast at Robin Hood’s Bay, he spots a vine-covered cottage.

The house was built of local stone and was covered by Virginia creeper that clung to it like an octopus to a rock in a storm, its tangled vines reaching tentacle-like around corners. I came upon the house from the rear and traced the strangulating plant’s root as it rose from the ground to run around the side of the building, its leaves fluttering in succession when a light breeze ran across it. It appeared as if in a dream.

Here he comes across Dulcie (and her large dog “Butters”) in her somewhat overgrown garden. She greets him warmly, as if it was perfectly normal to come across a boy on her private patch of land, and invites him to join her for a cup of nettle tea. During their one-sided conversation, for Robert is shy and uncomfortable talking to strangers unless it is to arrange odd jobs for which he’s paid in food and lodgings, Dulcie suggests he could help weed her garden.

He ends up staying the entire summer.

Close friendship

Over the course of the novel, the pair develop a close friendship and Robert blossoms under Dulcie’s tutelage, for want of a better word.

Through their conversations — filled with Dulcie’s forthright no-holds-barred opinions in her trademark colourful (and often laugh-out-loud funny) language — he learns about art and history and cooking and poetry, about compassion and empathy and pain and loss. He learns about the real world outside of Yorkshire and comes to understand that there were two sides to the war.

‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.’

As he gets to know Dulcie — and the people in the local village — he realises that for all her warmth and upbeat nature, she holds a terrible secret close to her chest and when he uncovers it, it serves not as an end to their relationship but cements their platonic love for one another even more.

Dulcie herself learns and grows from her relationship with Robert, whom she comes to regard as the son she never had.

And while The Offing is a lovely and heartwarming portrait of intergenerational friendship, love and forgiveness, it’s also a hymn to nature, beauty and the arts. Myers’ descriptions of the landscape, of the ocean, of the weather and of the transformative power of poetry are beautifully evocative, rich and lyrical. His sentences drip with vivid detail and yet his prose has a quiet, understated restraint to it.

The story is both humble and uplifting. It slips down like hot chocolate — smooth, rich and soothing — and brims with wit and wisdom. I loved it.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng: Heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship that develops between a Chinese university student and the elderly lady who provides his lodgings.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Max Porter, Publisher, Setting

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 224 pages; 2019. 

I think I’m going to be seriously out of step with many who read Max Porter’s new book Lanny in that I didn’t fall in love with it. In fact, I’m not even sure I liked it much.

I also had ambivalent feelings about his debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, published in 2015, which went on to win a slew of awards and turned Porter into the next Big Thing.

Experimental style

Lanny is a difficult novel to describe. It’s “experimental” and takes elements of English folklore and mixes it up with a bit of gritty magic realism, a smidgen of horror, a bit of suspense, some poetry and a lot of very middle class themes — of busy Londoners moving to a commuter village, of gossip and innuendo, of concerns about monsters that live among us.

The story, divided into three distinct parts, is told from multiple points of view. It is alive with dialogue, both spoken out loud and interior monologues, but there’s not a speech mark to be seen. Often it is difficult to know exactly who is speaking — but, for the most part, it doesn’t really matter, for the dialogue, mainly in part two, is simply snippits of conversation (and gossip) from a diverse range of village voices, which builds to a noisy crescendo.

That noisy crescendo revolves around the nub of the novel, which is the disappearance of Lanny, a young boy, who is free to roam the village, often singing to himself as he does so.

His mother, Jolie, is a stay-at-home-mum who pens gruesome crime novels, and his father, Robert, has an office job in London and doesn’t much like village life (or his family for that matter). Their parenting is very much “light touch” and they choose to ignore warnings to stay away from “Mad Pete”, the local (famous) artist, whom they hire to teach Lanny painting and drawing.

Of course, the (logical) assumption is that Pete has done something terrible to Lanny, which is why he has disappeared. But even with a water-tight alibi, that’s not how the villagers, or the media, quite see it.

A suspense story

There’s a build up of tension in part two — Where has Lanny gone? What has happened to him? — that makes the novel a proper page-turner. It’s genuinely frightening because it feeds into our greatest fears when children go missing, especially when they are known to be friendly with grown men who live alone.

But for me the resolution was just a bit too kooky for my liking. And while I understand that Porter is tapping into English folklore and the myth of the Green Man (who, in this book, is known as Dead Papa Toothwort), it just didn’t work for me. It felt like it simply gave the author a means to explain what had happened to Lanny without using a more straightforward, conventional narrative.

That said, I’m sure Lanny is going to win literary awards aplenty. It’s already won rave reviews, but this isn’t one of them.

Author, Book review, Catherine Steadman, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘Something in the Water’ by Catherine Steadman

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster UK; 368 pages; 2019.

If you found $1million that didn’t belong to you, what would you do? Take it and say nothing, or report it to police?

In Catherine Steadman’s debut novel Something in the Water, this is the moral dilemma faced by Erin, a documentary film maker, and her new husband, Mark, an out-of-work fund manager, who discover a bag filled with money — and lots more other “goodies” inside — when scuba diving during their honeymoon on the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora.

When they decide to smuggle it home to London, the pair set in motion a chain of events that will tip both their worlds upside down.

A tightly plotted tale

Of course, as with every crime thriller I’ve ever read, it’s difficult to review without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so forgive me if what follows is a little vague. Let’s just say that Something in the Water is a fast-paced, tightly plotted story that heads into some dangerous criminal underworld territory.

Apart from a few aspects, it feels largely believable throughout, which is some achievement given that Mark and Erin are portrayed as essentially squeaky clean lovebirds. How they get caught up in events much bigger than themselves makes the story more imminently relatable, because we are all capable of making bad choices or having our moral compass go a little skewiff when there’s a lot of money at stake.

Steadman, who is also British TV and stage actor, structures her story so that Erin’s working life  — putting together a documentary following three prisoners about to be paroled — collides neatly with her new criminal life, which adds an extra dimension of jeopardy to the tale. And it is this jeopardy that propels the narrative forward in a truly suspenseful and heart-hammering way. I don’t recall being this caught up in a crime thriller since reading John Grisham’s The Firm almost 30 years ago!

She also does something super clever: in the opening chapter she has her female protagonist digging her husband’s grave, so you immediately want to know how events escalated to that point. Did Erin kill Mark, or has she found Mark’s body and decided to bury it herself?

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dig a grave? Wonder no longer. It takes an age. However long you think it takes, double that.

The story then spools back to the honeymoon and then painstakingly outlines what happened on that fateful trip followed by the aftermath.

An intelligent thriller

Despite the octane-fuelled pace, Steadman doesn’t skimp on detail. Her characters are well drawn, the scenes are vivid and alive, the dialogue authentic, the sense of paranoia palpable. There’s an air of intelligence about the story, too: this isn’t a dumbed down thriller for a dumbed down audience.

And the best bit? The plot doesn’t hinge on the gruesome murder of a woman, which has become so de rigueur in this genre that I’ve stopped buying books (and watching films) that use this lazy device. There’s no gratuitous violence, either.

Apparently the film rights to Something in the Water have already been sold — to Reese Witherspoon’s production company — and I can see why, because it’s such a visual, plot driven, story. (The book is also a Reece Witherspoon Book Club Pick. I’m not sure that’s any indicator of quality, but it does mean the book will attract a large audience.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this crime thriller and look forward to reading Steadman’s next book, Mr Nobody, which is due for publication early next year.

Ali Land, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Good Me Bad Me’ by Ali Land

Good me bad me

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 352 pages; 2017.

A toxic relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter is at the heart of Good Me Bad Me, a peculiarly dark psychological suspense cum domestic drama by debut author Ali Land.

As the title suggests, the novel’s narrator treads a fine line between being good and being bad, and part of the fun of reading the book is deciding whether you trust her to tell the truth.

It’s a really fast-paced read, full of twists and turns and little shocks and “a-ha” moments, and perfect fodder if you are looking for something that’s a little bit different to the usual run-of-the-mill thrillers. I don’t wish to damn it with faint praise, but it feels like a sophisticated young adult novel (most of it is set in a secondary school and many of the characters are teenagers).

It’s not terribly believable (or authentic) on various different levels, but it does take you on a terrific ride.

Witness for the prosecution

Briefly, the story goes something like this. Annie’s mother has been doing bad things to young children, murdering them and then hiding the bodies in her house in rural Devon. Annie, who has had enough of her mother being a serial killer, goes to the police.

She turns witness for the prosecution and is given a new name — Milly Barnes — and is packed off to London to live with a foster family until her mother’s court case comes to trial.

But this new life isn’t easy. The only person who knows of her troubled past is her foster father, Mike, the psychologist who is helping her prepare for her time on the witness stand. While Mike and his wife, Saskia —  a frail, fragile type with problems of her own — are kind and gentle with Milly, their teenage daughter Phoebe is so insecure and jealous that she takes an instant dislike to her new foster sister and begins bullying her at school.

The book basically charts Milly’s new life in this unconventional middle-class family as she tries to find her feet and prepare for the murder trial ahead. But between the merciless bullying at school, the need to keep her real identity secret and the pull of her jailed mother’s mental hold over her, it seems unlikely that Milly’s going to be given the fresh start she deserves.

Compelling and suspenseful tale

Is this book preposterous? Yes.

Is it full of truly unrealistic, incredulous elements (when, for instance, would a foster father ever be allowed to be his foster child’s approved therapist)? Yes.

Is it predictable? Yes.

But it’s also compelling, gripping and unputdownable, helped, I suspect, by the staccato rhythm of the short sentences and the author keeping back information so that you keep turning the pages in a bid to find out the next surprise. It’s brimful of suspense, and Milly’s voice — immediate, intimate and troubled — gives the story a bewitching edge.

Would I read it again? No.

Would I recommend it to someone looking for a palate cleanser after reading a steady diet of literary fiction? Yes.

Good Me Bad Me was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick last year, a Sunday Times bestseller and one of The Telegraph’s crime books of the year.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, London, Megan Hunter, Picador, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The End We Start From’ by Megan Hunter

The end we start from

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 144 pages; 2018.

Apparently British actor Benedict Cumberbatch enjoyed Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From so much his production company bought the film rights. It’s easy to see why he was so enamoured of this debut novella: it’s powerful, evocative and lyrical.

Set some time in the future, it follows one woman’s journey to survive the floodwaters that have engulfed London and forced its residents to seek refuge elsewhere. The woman’s journey is complicated by the fact that she has just given birth to her first child, a boy, and all her energy and focus is devoted to him. The world outside, descending into chaos, appears to be of no concern.

Z is real, with his tiny cat skull and sweet-smelling crap. The news is rushing by. It is easy to ignore.

When her husband fails to return from an outing in search of supplies, the woman is forced to travel alone with her newborn, setting up home in a refugee camp and, much later, on a secluded island.

But this isn’t a book that you read for the plot. It’s essentially a “mood piece” written in sparse sentences, one per paragraph, that resemble lines of poetry. Indeed, I’d describe it as a prose novella, because it feels very much like reading one long poem. (No surprise, then, that the author is also a poet.)

Everything is scant on detail. There are no names, beyond Z for the baby, R for the husband, G for the mother-in-law and so on. And we never really know what’s going on in the world outside because the book is very much focused on the relationship between the mother and her son.

As much as I loved the beautiful sentences in this novel, the oh-so perfect word choice and the lovely cadence and tempo of the prose, the motherhood analogy soon wore thin. The message — that maternal love remains undiminished even in the most dire of circumstances — began to feel a bit laboured. I think I just wanted more from this book — and I was never going to get it.

That said, The End We Start From has much to recommend it, not least the exquisite beauty of the prose and the lovely, languid nature of the storytelling. It’s certainly not your typical dystopian novel: our narrator is caught inside her own experience, raising a child and is focussed solely on her domestic realm. It’s a haunting and elusive tale of survival — but it’s also one about hope and of savouring quiet, often fleeting, moments of joy.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Sarah Winman, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Tin Man’ by Sarah Winman

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 224 pages; 2018.

Sarah Winman’s third novel, Tin Man, is a perfectly paced story about friendship, longing and unrequited love set in Oxford and rural France spanning the late 1960s to the late 1990s.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and the subject of much “book buzz” on social media last year, I wasn’t sure if this book would live up to the hype. But after hearing the author speak at the Chiswick Book Festival in September I decided I would read it as soon as the paperback edition was published.

My pre-order arrived in the post this week, so I sat down on Saturday afternoon and began to read. Before I knew it I was half-way through, confirming what most of the critics have said: the story is an absorbing one. But I’m not entirely sure I loved it as much as everyone else.

The story is framed around the friendship between two boys, Ellis and Michael, who meet in Oxford when they are 12 years old. This morphs into something more romantic when they are adolescents on holiday in France, but is called off when they return to the UK. Later, Ellis marries a woman, Annie, and the trio become firm friends, but when Michael moves away to London they lose contact. In the ensuing years Michael’s lover falls prey to AIDS and it’s only when bereaved that he realises he is grieving for something else: the unrequited love of his first love, Ellis.

A tale of two men

The book is told in two halves: the first half is composed of Ellis’s side of the story told in the third person in rather detached, unsentimental stripped back language, while the second half is narrated by Michael, in the first person, in a more warm and intimate tone of voice. These two different approaches make each character distinct, but the switch over jars, almost as if they are two different books sandwiched together. (And, of course, it’s hard not to favour one voice over the other — in my case Michael’s.)

But the prose style, in both halves, is spare and moving. Here’s but one example:

I rest till I’m calm and my breathing has settled. I lift myself out and sit by the edge of the pool with a towel around my shoulders. And I wonder what the sound a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.

Heart-rending story

Tin Man is a well crafted story, one that is heart-rending without being sentimental, and gorgeously written without being showy. Its observations about friendship, love, loss and sexuality are astute.

It is also perceptive about the destructive power of father-son relationships and shows how we should give boys the freedom to connect with their emotions and their creativity, to let them know that they “are capable of beautiful things” as Ellis’s mother Dora so beautifully puts it.

But I often struggled to understand Ellis’s motivations and didn’t really warm to him. I suspect that’s deliberate given that he’s (presumably) the “tin man” of the title, the character from The Wizard of Oz who did not have a heart. Similarly, I struggled to believe that Annie would forge such a strong friendship with Michael, unless, of course, she hadn’t fully grasped he was essentially her rival. Sadly, we never get to hear her side of the story at all and the reader only ever sees her through the male character’s eyes.

But I’m nit-picking. The book has been lauded far and wide. I just think I’ve read better, more emotionally devastating, books about unrequited love than this one (see below).

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Last Fine Summer by John MacKenna: a heart-rending novel about forbidden love in rural Ireland in the mid-1990s.