Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A Stairway to Paradise by Madeleine St John

Reading one of Madeleine St John's London novels is rather like watching a play. It must be all that dialogue and those interior scenes - the dining rooms, sitting rooms and kitchens. This one, being about desire (as the front cover blurb points out), has a few bedroom scenes as well.
    A Stairway to Paradise describes the secret love between two characters: Alex who is married to Claire, with two children, and Barbara, Claire's friend from yoga, who comes to help out with the children from time to time. Barbara is much younger and a bit of a drifter, choosing to live in bedsits or in flats provided by her employers where she does child minding and housework.
    Barbara is a godsend, though - she cooks well and even manages to tame the most difficult children. She is also quite gorgeous with her golden skin and lustrous hair. For someone so gifted, Barbara is strangely lacking in confidence or the drive to make important decisions about what she wants in life and how to get it.
    There has already been some history between Alex and Barbara when we first meet them, driving home from a party with Andrew, Alex's newly divorced friend who is back from the States. The car scene, another interior, is full of tension, but that doesn't stop the chaps from thinking about Barbara afterwards. Andrew finally gets up the nerve to ask her out, and the two make a connection. He is obviously more suitable for Barbara, suggesting she fulfil her dreams of maybe training as a teacher, and travelling to India.
    Alex is less appealing. He's aware of his inclination to behave badly to both Claire and Barbara, but for all that manages somehow to show some restraint. Perhaps he's afraid of the tellings-off he's inclined to garner from the women in his life. I did find myself wondering about the attraction Alex has for Barbara. Her travel companion, Gideon, seems so much more likeable than two men who have already been around the block.
    Yet it is Alex who disturbs Barbara's peace of mind, and this is what causes the tension that drives the plot. The book describes the awkwardness, guilt and dubious morality of clandestine affairs. And it asks how sensible is it to delay separation until the children are older when a marriage is obviously failing.
    Again, St John can be relied upon to capture the essence of her characters so that they portray the idiocy of  middle class obsessions and anxieties, with enough humour to make the story sparkle. This is the last book that she wrote before her death in 2006 - all four of her novels were published between 1993 and 1999 - which makes me wonder what else she might have produced given a bit more time. At least the reader has the pleasure of knowing that these are the kind of books that can be read again and again.

Friday, 21 June 2013

A Humble Companion by Laurie Graham

I could so very easily add Laurie Graham to my list of favourite authors - she so rarely disappoints. Her latest novel, A Humble Companion, describes the lifelong friendship between Princess Sofy, one of the younger children in George III's large family, and Nellie Welche, the daughter of an enterprising baker and steward to the royals. It is King George himself who notices that little Sofy could do with a friend from the outside world, which is very perceptive of him considering he is the king who ends up completely off his rocker, sadly.
    Nellie is twelve when this arrangement is made, and while she is still able to carry on normal life with her family, she is from time to time requested to spend a few weeks with Sofy, sometimes in their royal house in London, and at others at watering holes on the south coast. The story is told completely from Nellie's point of view and  she makes intelligent comments on what she sees within the walls of the royal apartments, accommodation which is surprisingly lacking in luxury.
    As the years pass, Sofy and her sisters continually miss opportunities for mixing with other suitable young men; often fantasising about attractive equerries, cocooned as they are by their mother, Queen Charlotte. Somehow politics, war and the prejudices of their parents seem to intrude.
    Meanwhile their brothers make all kinds of unsanctioned alliances and secret marriages, the eldest of them, the future Prince Regent, famously with Mrs Fitzherbert. While Prinny fritters away a fortune on parties and fripperies, Nellie grows up and, in spite of a disfiguring birthmark, makes a sensible marriage, helps in the family business and becomes a published author.
    We are treated to a sensitive portrayal of what it is to be a woman 'in trade' at this time. In the background however, huge change is erupting over the Channel, with the French Revolution and the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Napolean sweeps in and there is war, so the English princes rush off to join their regiments. While these events unnerve the Royalties, as Nellie calls them, the world of the princesses remains pitifully small. Surprisingly, Sofy manages to disgrace herself to such an extent that marriage becomes out of the question.
    Laurie Graham does a magnificent job of capturing the events of the time from her characters' eyes, and offering what seems a very audacious theory for Sofy's fall - although a quick trawl through the Internet reveals that this view does indeed hold water. Nellie is sparky and wry which gives the writing plenty of colour, as well as insight. The frequently tragic events are tempered with more humorous moments making A Humble Companion one of the most readable historical novels ever. I completely devoured it and have been quite at a loss since I finished the last chapter.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night by James Runcie

I wish more mystery writers would package their fiction in bundles of short stories like this - it makes such a nice change as they are ideal for picking up and putting down again. You can read a story a night, or leave the book for a week or two if you are busy.
    Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night is the second instalment in James Runcie's Grantchester ecclesiastical whodunit series. Set in the 1950s and beyond, it features Sidney, a priest, or Canon actually, in his thirties with a living at Cambridge, where he also teaches the odd divinity class. This means he gets to mingle with the dons and students as well as the members of his parish.     Maybe it's his naturally curious personality, or it could be his sharp intelligence, or perhaps it is being friends with policeman and backgammon buddy, Geordie Keating, but sooner or later Sidney becomes embroiled in crime.
    In this collection, Sidney takes a funeral for a Cambridge don who falls from a rooftop during a daring climbing escapade. It is one of those 'did he fall, or was he pushed' sorts of stories with a brilliant twist at the end. Just so you don't think it's murder all the way, the next story concerns the suspected arson of a barn rented by a down-at-heel photographer.  Hildegarde, a German widow Sidney has been quietly courting, comes to visit in the next story but gets caught up in the murder investigation of a maths professor found dead in his bath. Could defective wiring be at fault?
    There's a story about a poisoned cricketer, the first Pakistani to bowl a hat-trick for the Grantchester side - which includes a wonderful piece of cricket commentary, when Sidney is asked to umpire. Sidney's other love interest, the glamorous socialite Amanda, announces she is engaged to a scientist at work on cutting-edge theories about the universe. Sidney soon suspects he might not be all he's cracked up to be but how to tell Amanda? The final story throws Sidney into a serious situation with the Stasi in East Germany, when a visit to Hildegarde goes pear-shaped. How will this impact on Sidney's relationship with the woman he wants to marry?
    Among the usual characters are Sidney's Dovstoevsky reading curate, Leonard, and the housekeeper, Mrs Maguire, who rules the roost and has Sidney careful not to offend, because in spite of her sharp tongue and a tendency to rearrange his papers, she's a pretty good cook.
    While they might not be edge of the seat reading, the stories are very warmly humorous, with lots of interesting digressions into subjects like maths, physics, music and of course, cricket. This work-out for the brain makes the stories even more satisfying, and with the atmospheric setting of Cambridge in the 1950s, the Grantchester Mysteries are hard to resist.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

House of the Hanged, the last Mark Mills novel I read, was set in the Riviera, between the wars, which made a stunning setting for a very exciting plot. The Savage Garden takes an equally charming landscape, in this case a country estate on the outskirts of Florence in the 1950s, and weaves it into an enthralling mystery story based on a garden.
    Adam Banting, a young Cambridge scholar is sent to stay at the home of frail Francesca Docci, an old friend of his art history professor, to write his thesis around the design of her garden. This was built in memory of the beautiful Flora Docci,  mistress of the estate four hundred years before. Her untimely death as a young woman supposedly propelled her husband into such grief that he later commissioned the garden in her honour, but as Adam soon realises, Signor Docci left clues that point to murder.
    Ever since, the Docci family has been plagued by bad luck and, dare one say it, evil. As recently as World War Two, Francesca's son Emilio was shot dead by the German soldiers who had commandeered the villa. The death was completely unnecessary, as the soldiers were about to leave before the advancing Allied Forces drove them out. But was this death as straightforward as it seems?
    Adam is a clever chap, he's a Cambridge scholar after all, and fired by the success he has in deciphering the mystery of the garden, he soon turns his mind towards an alternative reason for Emilio's death and his suspicions lie far closer to home. The suspense begins to creep up the scale a notch or two and it seems sooner or later, Adam's investigations will to lead to danger.
    This is a classic mystery story, peopled with characters glamorous enough to match the scenery. The Doccis are all stunningly good looking, and Adam soon takes a shine to Antonella, Francesca's granddaughter who has a dangerous reputation for breaking hearts. Francesca herself is a grand old lady with an iron will and lots of interesting stories, and while Adam's artist brother, Harry, provides useful assistance in the solving of the garden puzzle, his outgoing personality and knack for getting into scrapes with women add a lot of colour to the novel.
   There's also the attractive Signora Fanelli, the innkeeper who reminds Adam of a wiry Gina Lollobrigida, and her rustic acquaintance, Fausto, who loves to talk politics and has an ex-partisan army background.  The settings are also lovingly described, from Fausto's charming farm to the villa in all its shabbily-genteel glory. The garden itself, with its classical art, grottoes and secret corners is a masterful work of invention and the mystery its clues eventually display a clever piece of artifice.
    Reading The Savage Garden is a bit like taking in a sumptuously beautiful movie - are all novels set in Italy like this? Mills has a knack for visual description that manages not to slow down the plot. Adam and his brother have many lively discussions, and if you have an interest in art history, Dante's Inferno, or classical mythology, this is a definite bonus.
    If I must choose between the two, I probably enjoyed House of the Hanged a little more than this novel, because there is something callow about Adam that can be a bit annoying at times, which as it turns out, is necessary for the plot. Either book will give you an enjoyable distraction, this is definitely an author with a talent for transporting you to another time and place.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

'Layered with ambiguity' is one phrase in Hilary Mantel's glowing recommendation on the cover of Charlotte Rogan's novel, The Lifeboat. Perhaps one of the most glaring ambiguities is the title itself.
    The story is that of Grace Winter, who is seen into a lifeboat by her rich banker husband, just as the passenger liner, the Empress Alexandra is about to sink. It is 1914, World War One is just getting going, and Grace is returning to Boston with her new husband to a comfortable life, having avoided the necessity of becoming a governess. She is 22, beautiful and with everything to look forward to.
    We know early on though that Grace is a survivor. When we first meet her, it is some time after her rescue, and Grace and two other women survivors are being tried for murder. What could possibly have happened on the lifeboat, the reader wonders? And so begins a tense tale that reels you in.
    There are thirty-nine people on the lifeboat, mostly women, under the stewardship of Mr Hardie, a grim-faced, weather battered ship's officer who makes some tough decisions and quickly organises the group's seating to balance the perilously laden boat. The ship's owners have cut costs and there were not enough lifeboats for the number aboard. Hardie works out a roster for bailing duty, but if the weather turns rough, someone will have to go over the side.
    Mrs Grant, however, disagrees with Mr Hardie on most questions of survival right from the start. Should they stay near the ship in hope of rescue or should they try to row for land? There are disputes over the rationing of water and ships' biscuits and then there is the question of whether Mr Hardie is hiding something? Is Grace on board because her wealthy husband was able to bribe him?  
   Mrs Grant is a commanding woman with a captivating manner - Grace would love to win her approval, but never quite seems to. Mannish Hannah, who throws long intense looks at Grace, will do everything Mrs Grant says and soon the two are thick as thieves. Grace however sides with Mr Hardie. She recognises his superior knowledge in things maritime and besides, he's quite good looking in an odd sort of way. She gives him looks of encouragement when Mrs Grant is at her most undermining and hopes she has won his trust.
    In no time at all, Charlotte Rogan has set up an intense situation within the claustrophobic confines of the lifeboat. It is a harrowing story, and of course we know that there are soon going to be deaths. Some of the survivors are in poor shape. There are older people on board and even a child. We know things can only get worse, this is a survival story after all.
    And that is probably the crux of the novel - just what does it take to survive a disaster? Grace has already dodged the prospect of a less genteel existence, she is determined and resourceful. Will this be enough? On board there is a vicar - will God save him? Mrs Grant often leads the group in a hymn, but perhaps this is to galvanise the group's spirit and therefore her obvious strengths as a leader.
    The Lifeboat is the kind of book you can read in one sitting, the tense situation it describes makes it hard to put down. But you probably won't forget it in a hurry. As with many survival stories, you can't help but take a good look at yourself and wonder how far would you go to ensure you are a survivor.