Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey (2014)

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One of the big sellers of 2014 and the winner of the Costa First Novel Award this book has been my shelves since then.  I really wanted to read it when I bought it but over the time it has been sat there I’ve wondered whether it might be too whimsical, heart-warming or quirky for an old cynic like me and other books have taken precedence.

 However, out of the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge box at Sandown Library came “read a novel where the main protagonist is aged over 60”, so a perfect cue to discover what the fuss around this debut was all about.

 Main character, Maud, at aged 82 fulfils my brief nicely.  She suffers from dementia and when she believes her friend has gone missing she is determined to find out what has happened.  Only occasionally lucid, she has to rely on her hand-written notes but her investigation strategies are continually forced backwards by her confusion and the symptoms of this cruel disease.

 The past also intervenes as her friend Elizabeth’s predicament becomes aligned in Maud’s brain with the disappearance of her older sister Sukey just after the war, a mystery Maud has never been able to come to terms with.  Flashback triggered by the present events seem to bring these days back with greater clarity.

 It is the Dementia aspect, of course, which gives this gentle mystery its unusual slant just as an early best seller “The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time” (2003) by Mark Haddon created something similar with his young, probably autistic detective.  That condition was never really made clear in that book and so it felt more subtle than what he have here although there is little doubt that if you loved that book then this is an obviously worthy recommendation. 

 I actually had my reservations about Haddon’s novel and I didn’t find myself totally buying into this either.  I found it to be all a little too much on one level and as well as being frustrated for Elizabeth I found myself becoming frustrated as a reader as I wanted the novel to move on more than it did.  The “mystery” aspect did not work as well as I expected it to, however, the human aspect of living with dementia and the toll this takes on the family works better, but I’m not really sure that I wanted to read this type of book at this present time. The dementia and mystery elements did not integrate as seamlessly as I thought they would. 

I know I’m in a minority here as this book has been so highly praised for both of these elements and I know it is the subject matter that largely dictates my reservations.  If it feels samey it is because Maud’s world is samey and continually challenging.  I did enjoy it but not as much as I was expecting to.

 Emma Healey’s second novel “Whistle In The Dark” has been published this month (May 2018) and the initial reviews are just as promising.  I would certainly be interested in reading this as there is no doubt that it seems to confirm her status as a writer who takes a unique slant towards the crime/mystery genre.

 

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Elizabeth Is Missing was published by Viking in 2014.  I read the Penguin paperback edition.

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100 Essential Books – A God In Ruins – Kate Atkinson (2015)

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I thought Kate Atkinson’s previous novel , the Costa Award winning “Life After Life” (2013) was terrific.  I’ve recommended it many times but the feedback I get back can be mixed.  Some readers find the author’s structure off-putting.  Main character Ursula meets with many deaths on her way through the book, reliving parts of her life in different ways in a novel where “practice makes perfect” is an underlying theme.  I personally loved the structure, the rich and memorable cast and the superb sense of the era, especially the years of World War II.

 These years also provide the main focus of this novel, more of a companion piece than any kind of sequel as we revisit the lives of the Todd family through Ursula’s brother, Teddy.  This time, structurally, it’s far more straightforward.  It moves around chronologically but Teddy, unlike his sister in “Life After Life” has one life to live.

 During the war Teddy is a fighter pilot and it is the author’s recreation of his everyday battle for survival which packs a potent punch.  He is a wonderful character and I love the way the author has developed him with this outing.  He really comes alive on the page, especially as a caring grandfather when his war heroics are barely ever discussed by the family.

 I did feel that it was the unusual structure that helped the last book to sizzle and I was concerned initially that this more conventional approach but using some of the same characters might pale in comparison.  It is different but it certainly does not disappoint.  I was totally involved throughout and taken aback by the novel’s depth and richness.  It stands alone from its predecessor and those who like Atkinson’s writing but found its stop-start technique wearying are urged to give this a go.

 Within both of these novels Kate Atkinson has taken pains to remind us that we are experiencing fiction and there is a bit of toying with us as readers to bring this home.  What we have here is a writer in superb control of her craft.  Her next novel, due later this year, will take us in a different direction and it would be good if, in the meantime, I could catch up with her four books featuring detective Jackson Brodie (of which I’ve only read the first so long ago that it will need revisiting). 

 With “A God In Ruins” Kate Atkinson also won the Costa Novel Of The Year.  On the evidence of this pair of celebrated novels she is one of our finest living novelists writing at the height of her powers.

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A God In Ruins was published by Doubleday in 2015. I read the 2016 Black Swan paperback edition.

A Place Called Winter – Patrick Gale (2015)

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This is the ninth Patrick Gale book I have read, taking him up to number 7 on my most read authors list from the twenty years I have been keeping records.  Our relationship has not always been rosy.  I really didn’t like “The Aerodynamics Of Pork” (1986) and it was only from his 1996 “Facts Of Life” (perhaps still my favourite) that he really began to win me over and I could see he had the potential to become one of Britain’s best novelists.  From then on, both “Rough Music” and his last novel “A Perfectly Good Man” confirmed that for me and this makes two in a row for him now as this is well up there amongst his best.

It is a bit of a departure for Gale- set largely in Canada in the years preceding to just after World War I.  Harry Cane is a well-off Englishman who has never had to work but when he suffers financial losses and a scandal threatens his family’s standing he sets off to Canada, seduced by posters suggesting he could make his fortune.  En-route he is befriended by Troels Munck, who with questionable motives finds Harry a way to set up his own homestead in newly allocated land.  In a primitive existence Harry has to battle with both the elements and his own sexuality.

For this novel Gale took as his inspiration his own ancestors finding his grandmother’s handwritten memoir and filling in the gaps about her own father and these gaps have been filled in beautifully.

Harry, thrust into manual work seems to view the world and his place in it with a detachment which leads to mental health issues.  The tensions of setting up his farm, family tragedy and the effects of the war itself have a part to play as does society’s inability to let him be the man he wants to be.  This book will no doubt be compared to “Brokeback Mountain” but plot-wise this is more satisfying.  I might, however, have liked to have got more of the sense of Harry the farmer, attempting to establish himself on such hostile terrain – I found this was a little glossed over in placing the emphasis on his relationships and the threat of Troels Munck who has the tendency to turn up when things are beginning to go well.

The historical setting is a new one for Gale and I think he equips himself admirably.  It is more focused upon one character than most of his other works but the subject matter dictates this.  There is a good balance of main plot and back story.  This book is making quite a few appearances on “Best of 2015” lists and has deservedly been shortlisted for Best Novel by the Costa Awards panel.

My Still to read Patrick Gale list:

  • Kansas In August
  • Facing The Tank
  • Little Bits Of Baby
  • The Cat Sanctuary
  • Caesar’s Wife
  • Tree Surgery For Beginners
  • Friendly Fire
  • The Whole Day Through
  • Gentlemen’s Relish

Any suggestions which should be next?

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A Place Called Winter was published in the UK in 2015 by Tinder Press