The Outcast – Sadie Jones (2007)

 

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From the hat of the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge I pulled out “Ask a member of library staff their favourite book” and with there being only two of us working that day, my only option was to ask my friend and colleague Louise for a recommendation. I knew full well it would be “Count Of Monte Cristo” (just too long for now but I will get round to it one day) but as an alternative she asked me if I’d read “The Outcast”. Yes, was my initial response but then I began to doubt and checking my records it seems as if I hadn’t. Nor had I seen the 2015 BBCTV two part adaptation.  But the book seemed so familiar as if it had been sitting on my shelves at home, but it wasn’t. This gave me a curious initial relationship with this book, a kind of half-baked déjà vu. Its strong familiarity must have been because ten years ago it was everywhere and one that I’d earmarked for reading but for some reason had slipped through the net.

It was just the sort of book that I would seek out and with inside cover comparison to Ian McEwan ( “Atonement” feels the closest match and that is one of my Essential Reads) I was delighted to fit this into my reading schedule.

It is a tale of English repression, a stifling tale, impressively written. At the start of the novel it is the summer of 1957 and Lewis Aldridge, aged 19, is released from prison and returns home to this father and step-mother. Lewis is the Outcast of the title and this is his story. It is an easy gripping read but Sadie Jones’ very accessible style hides the emotional complexity that runs throughout. Lewis’ return to his home in Waterford, Surrey, reopens a wealth of emotions amongst family and neighbours, all keen to put on a public face of conformity whatever dark deeds and mistreatment of others is going on. We discover why Lewis has become the outcast and why his attempt to fit back into this community seems doomed to failure.

I did really like this but it just felt a little relentless on the piling on of the difficulties for Lewis, both within and outside his control and at times I just longed for greater contrast from its pervasive claustrophobia. This sounds a little churlish because it feels so close to being a classic novel but it just doesn’t quite pull it off and I think this was because of the frustration I felt towards the characters.  It is, however, a fairly extraordinary debut and one which took the 2008 Costa Award for best debut. In the ten plus years since this appeared Sadie Jones has certainly slipped under my radar because I wasn’t aware of her other titles- three further novels with a 5th scheduled for 2019. Reading this does feel like I’ve filled a small hole in my literary experiences, however, and I would certainly seek out more by this author.

fourstars

The Outcast was first published in 2007. I read the 2008 Vintage paperback version.

 

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The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain – John Boyne (2015) – A Kid-Lit Review

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I’m more than happy to delve into the back catalogue of the writer of my current Book of The Year “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”. This book choice was thanks to me drawing from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge: “Read A Book With A Red Cover”. I do have John Boyne’s newest adult title “A Ladder To The Sky” lined up to read next, thanks to Netgalley, but I thought I’d explore his writing for a younger audience first.

I am still to read “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” but I know enough about it (and I’ve seen the film version) to realise that there are parallels here. We begin in Paris in 1936 with 7 year old Pierrot living with his widowed mother. In the first few pages we get shell shock, domestic abuse and suicide all related to his German father unable to adapt to living in post-World War I France. Tragic circumstances pile up forcing Pierrot to leave France for Austria and a home at the top of Obersalzberg.

I actually didn’t know where this book was going (I read nothing about it beforehand) so I’m determined not to give away much plot for there are twists a plenty to satisfy its intended audience.

This is a great novel for an enquiring developing mind. It is a complex book, emotionally speaking.  Perhaps elements of the plot might seem contrived if written for the adult market but it would all make sense for a younger audience and has a moral depth that I’m certainly unused to in Junior Fiction. Pierrot develops from being an extremely likeable character to something of a monster and this feels unusual and chilling. His actions become increasingly difficult to explain away even in a society where the old rules no longer apply. All this would resonate with every reader, child or adult.

There are throughout references to a children’s classic of an earlier generation “Emil And The Detectives” which I certainly loved as a child and Boyne’s novel should have an equally long life for future generations. He has written a powerful, compelling novel which I found difficult to put down and read in a day (which is unusual for me- even for a children’s book) and as in “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” he brought me close to tears on a number of occasions. The characters are memorable and the plot, as in “The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas” would be impossible to forget- and nor should we. It would be a great and lasting purchase for a sophisticated child/young adult.  This is a children’s book now in its third year after publication and its reputation should continue to grow.

fivestars

The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain was published by Doubleday in 2015.

 

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

 

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I chose this when “read a book with a female’s name in the title” was pulled out of the hat as part of Sandown Library’s Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  I’ve never read Elizabeth Taylor before but had my eye on her for some time.  She came to mind on a previous challenge when I had to read a book with a main character aged over 60.  This book wasn’t available on the shelves then so I opted for “Elizabeth Is Missing” instead but I was pleased to be able to select “Mrs Palfrey” for this new challenge.

 I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) was an exquisite writer of short stories, a format I choose to read less of than I should, but I always suspected she would be able to win me over.  This is the 11th out of her 12 novels in a career which dated from her 1945 debut “At Mrs Lippincote’s” (which would also have sufficed for this particular challenge). Virago Modern Classics have done a great job in bringing the works of this author to a new generation and I am sure more or less everyone who reads her will turn into at least a bit of a fan.  In his introduction to this book, Paul Bailey states;

 “I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time.  Theirs will be an unexpected pleasure, and they will, if they read her as she wanted to be read, learn much that will surprise them.”

 As one of those to be envied readers I can certainly confirm that I got a lot of pleasure out of this short novel, which I read quickly but which is likely to remain with me for some time.

 

One of these Elizabeth Taylor’s is a giftes British writer and the other is a Hollywood Icon.  Can you work out which is which? !!

Mrs Laura Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel in London at the beginning of the novel.  Widowed and finding her house in Rottingdean has become too much for her she up sticks to this slightly down-at-heel establishment feeling she should still remain at the centre of things.  The hotel is a stop-gap for an elderly group of residents, just tolerated by the management, most likely to end in a final move to a nursing home should nothing turn up.  And nothing much turns up for them, even visitors are thin on the ground.

 This is a delightful bitter-sweet comedy of manners where everyone is keen to say the right thing but which is often delivered barbed with hidden meaning.  The residents range from the arthritic Mrs Arbuthnot whose pain is used to explain her spite; the flirty and fun loving Mrs Burton; the out of his depth solitary man Mr Osmond and Mrs Palfrey herself, described as looking like “a famous general in drag.”  When Mrs Palfrey has a fall on the streets of London she starts a friendship with a young writer who comes to her rescue and in an attempt not to look like the lonely widow she is she passes him off amongst the other residents as her grandson.  Other than that, not a vast amount happens, there are quite a few agonising social situations, indifferent hotel meals, a few fadings away and a proposal of marriage and I lapped it all up. 

 This came so close to being a 5* read but I think it ended too soon and left me with the impression that it lacked a little of the depth I would look for in my search for the very best.  This is a great introduction to a new author.

 fourstars 

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont was first published in 1971.  The Virago Modern Classics reprint first appeared in 1982.

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.  Flashbacks 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 earlier 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 we 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.

 

threestars

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

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett (2016)

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American author Ann Patchett is a former winner of the UK Orange Prize for fiction for 2002’s “Bel Canto”.  Her family-themed novels have seen her compared to two other Queen Annes, prize-winning titans of modern fiction both, Ms. Tyler and Ms. Enright.  With this, her seventh novel she gives them a good run for their money but doesn’t quite eclipse them in the quality fiction stakes.

 I have never read Ann Patchett before but this book I had earmarked to read since publication because of its impressive initial reviews (“Outstanding” (The Observer)/”Dazzling” (The Sunday Times).  When I pulled out “Read a book by an author whose surname begins with a P” from the Reading Challenge box at Sandown Library this seemed an obvious choice.

 I always think I’m going to feel alienated by the Americanness of tales about family life but Anne Tyler has really drawn me in with hers on more than one occasion.  It’s the quality of her writing that does it and this is necessary to convey the complexities of family relationships in a way which feels both honest and convincing.  With “Commonwealth” Ann Patchett also succeeds with this.

 We begin in 1964 at a Christening Party for Los Angeles Cop Fix Keating’s daughter Franny.  One of the guests falls for Franny’s mother and lives shift from this point.  Two families of step-children meet each summer including Franny and her sister Caroline and a tragedy further complicates family relations.  Fast forward to 1988 when Franny is working a waitress in Chicago and she meets a writer who takes her family’s story to use in his own work, also called “Commonwealth”.  Although Franny is probably the central character her parents’ generation of family together with her sister and step-siblings are all well fleshed out.

 Plot-wise there are not too many surprises, which is why, just on the showing of this novel I will put Anne Tyler slightly ahead but anyone who has enjoyed novels such as the bestselling “Spool of Blue Thread” (one of my essential reads) should certainly seek “Commonwealth” out.

fourstars

“Commonwealth” was published by Bloomsbury in 2016.

The Pure In Heart- Susan Hill (Vintage 2005) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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The third Susan Hill novel I’ve read this year came about when I pulled “Read a Crime or Thriller novel” from the box for my third book in the year long Russian Roulette Reading Challenge that I am taking part in at Sandown Library.  I’d always thought Hill was most celebrated for her sparse, short horror tinged works of which “The Printer’s Devil Court” was an example but I am much preferring her crime series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler of which this is the second out of nine full length works. 

 Here, Hill feels like a very different novelist as she writes at length and allows the plot considerable time to unfold.  “The Various Haunts Of Men” had Serrailler pretty much in the background and I felt he was one of the least interesting characters but he’s pushed centre stage for this follow-up published a year later.

 This is a very readable novel but I can’t help but feel that the author is toying with her readership.  Last time round the crime was a long time coming, here, it happens quicker but is far from the only thing going on, which makes it unusual compared to most other police procedurals where the solving of the crime dominates.  There are momentous events happening in the Serrailler family and Hill is prepared to devote as much time to these as the unfolding of the case, but, and here’s the thing, it doesn’t frustrate, it doesn’t feel purposely slowed down and it all feels relevant.  The odd crime reader may feel a little cheated but I personally think her style has enriched her characterisation and her feel of Lafferton, the small town where these novels are set which has already endured in just two books a serial killer and this time the disappearance of a nine year old boy on his way to school.

 I’m enjoying the family stuff and look forward to seeing how plot seeds sown here will develop in subsequent novels.  However, I’m still not buying into the main character’s love life, his hot and cold emotions are being developed as a flaw but it feels a little tacked  on, as it did in the last novel, and as a result a little unconvincing.

 Susan Hill likes to provide surprises along the way and has once again achieved this.  She takes risks, not so much with characters, as in the debut (if you have read it you will know what I mean) but here with the actual case.  Things may not go exactly the way the reader expects it to and I like that.

 I’m also liking that it feels like a traditional police procedural and yet it’s not a traditional police procedural.  I can see the parallels with her horror writing as it is what is under the surface which most unsettles.  I’m fascinated to see how this series continues.

 fourstars

 The Pure In Heart was published by Vintage in 2005

The Young Victoria – Alison Plowden (1981) – A Real Life Review

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Like many people my knowledge of the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign has been based upon what I have seen in the ITV drama series “Victoria”.  There were still things that I was unsure about, namely, how the line of succession played out so that she came to the throne in the first place.  For my second book in the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge at Sandown Library I pulled out of the hat “a book with a green cover” and I chose Alison Plowden’s non-fiction work because a) it had a green cover and b) I wanted to know more about the young Victoria.

 Plowden’s book was written in 1981 although I read a paperback reprint from The History Press which was published in 2016.  It falls firmly into the category of popular history, there are no references to get you leafing through to the back of the book, a shorter bibliography than one might imagine and an author’s note which credits especially two biographies, one from 1972 and one from back in 1964.  Plowden has synthesized this information into her very readable work which suited my purposes but may frustrate the more serious historian. 

 It does read like a novel, especially with its characters that we know from the TV series here being fleshed out and it was a little surprising to find that the ITV drama does not deviate too far from the facts as presented here. 

 The characters who feature strongly in Victoria’s early years and are brought to life well by Plowden are her mother, the Duchess of Kent, whose relationship with her daughter became strained during the teenage years largely because of the influence of Sir John Conroy, who placed himself and his family close to Victoria and her mother and who the Princess came to hate.  Victoria had the most time for her beloved governess Baroness Lehzen and for Dash her dog.  The book ends with Victoria’s marriage to Albert but the most fascinating relationship here (as it was in the early episodes of the ITV series) is the one between the young Queen and Prime Minister and mentor Lord Melbourne with Victoria demonstrating anti-Tory tendencies in her desire to keep him in power.

 I still haven’t totally got the succession to the throne bit as her grandfather had so many children that it all gets a little confusing and I could have really done with a family tree appendix to sort this all out in my head.  Inexplicably, the edition I read devoted two pages at the back to completely the wrong tree, that of the House of Tudor, which has no relevance whatsoever to Victoria’s time.  That is a bad mistake from The History Press that I hope was put right in subsequent editions. 

 Alison Plowden was best known for her non-fiction on the Tudor period so that suggests that the family tree here was intended for another of her publications.  She wrote around 25 books mainly on female historical figures.   She died in 2007.

 threestars

 

Young Victoria was first published in 1981.  I read the 2016 History Press edition.  The History Press have republished a number of her books.

The Various Haunts Of Men – Susan Hill (2004) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s very unusual for me to read two unrelated books in succession by the same author.  Susan Hill has benefited by producing the short “Printer’s Devil Court” which I chose as a successful reintroduction to the world of audio books- a format I’d struggled with on previous attempts and there’s also a story behind my selection of this book. 

At Sandown Library, one of the libraries I work at on the Isle Of Wight there is a year long initiative going on.  It’s the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge which involves pulling from a hat a reading theme or suggestion.  It is running throughout 2018 (new participants welcome) and will culminate in a prize draw for those open-minded and determined towards their reading choices who manage to complete 20 of these challenges.  It’s a little like the Book Bingo which I set up and which is still running at Shanklin Library, but without the bingo card and the route to success cannot be planned in quite the same way, adding a randomness which has led to the Russian Roulette title.  My initial challenge was to read a book which is first in a series.  I’d heard good things about Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler crime series and this instantly sprung to mind, with the first book being conveniently on the shelves.

 The most surprising thing about this series starter is the rather low- key presence of the Chief Inspector of Lafferton Police, Simon Serrailler.  He does not play much of a role in the solving of the crime here.  That falls more to members of his team, namely recent arrival from the Metropolitan Police, DS Freya Graffham and the man described as having a face only a mother could love, the enthusiastic DC Nathan Coates.  Serrailler has an in-charge role to play.  He is good-looking and known as a heart-breaker due to his playing hot and cold with female emotions.  It is intriguing that he is the character the series is built around because on this showing I found him to be one of the least interesting characters.  Probably the author is allowing him to develop over the ten more novels to date rather than having him shine too brightly in the opener with us losing interest in him.

 Also, unusually for a twenty-first century crime novel this takes quite a while to get going.  There’s a disappearance quite early on and then we are drawn into a series of characters who are using alternative medical practitioners as well as us finding out how newbie to Lafferton, Freya, is establishing herself socially in the town whilst getting the hots for her new Chief Inspector.  At one point I was concerned that the novel might be a little too pedestrian for me.

 But then, events began happening and the groundwork had been so cleverly laid by the author that it really drew me in, and, perfect reaction for a crime novel, I sped up as the book progressed.  There were twists I didn’t see coming and it ends up as a highly satisfactory read and a great introduction to a series.  I’m still not sure of the relevance of such an evocative title though.

fourstars

The Various Haunts Of Men was published in 2004 by Chatto and Windus.  I read the 2009 paperback edition.