Saturday, 25 January 2014

Peerless Flats by Esther Freud

Peerless Flats is Esther Freud's second published novel after her well-regarded debut, Hideous Kinky, which was made into a film staring Kate Winslet. As a result, perhaps Peerless Flats suffers a bit from second novel syndrome, after all the only place I could find it was at a second hand book fair. But as a big Esther Freud fan, how pleased I was I did.
    Although it doesn't have the exotic location of Hideous Kinky's Morocco - instead this book is set in a London council estate horribly run down and full of people who are plainly struggling - the novel has a wonderful main character and a lively narrative style that draws you in.
    Arriving in London, sixteen-year-old Lisa and her mother Marguerite are desperate for somewhere to live, and happy to accept anything short term. But when they are offered a place in Peerless Flats, they are disappointed to discover they have been allocated a one bedroom flat, which turns out to be nothing more than a bed-sit.  Where will little bother Max sleep? They can't even get into the toilet, because an intruder has left by the window, leaving the door locked on the inside. Things don't bode well.
    As with Hideous Kinky, the narrator's mother is quite hopeless - a bohemian type not really up to the task of bringing up children on her own, setting no boundaries in case Lisa rebels and leaves home, just as older sister Ruby did to live with dodgy boyfriend, Jimmy. Dad, a professional gambler, can be approached for a stop-gap bit of cash and the odd meal out, but really doesn't do a lot of parenting either.
   The book is mainly about how Lisa survives the following months, waiting to attend her drama school, and trying to keep things as normal possible, if only she knew what 'normal' really meant. She hangs around pubs to meet Ruby, where she makes a connection with Quentin, a failed drug dealer from Ireland. Meanwhile Ruby has drug addiction problems of her own and associated health issues.
    It could be rather depressing. But Lisa is surprisingly sane, buoyant in that she keeps trying for the best and is not such a self-absorbed teenager that she has no empathy for those around her. She's busy too, especially where Ruby is concerned and there are lots of journeys across London and the atmosphere of a big city.
    Then there's the writing - fresh, immediate and very real. Freud is great at this kind of thing, seeing a tenuous lifestyle through the eyes of a young person. It could so easily all go so wrong for Lisa but somehow there always seems to be hope, just a bit anyway, and it is this hope that sees Lisa and the reader through.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Only an author the calibre of Kate Atkinson could pull off a novel like Life After Life. At its simplest, it the story of Ursula Todd, born in 1910, the middle child in a middle class family living in the country just north of London. She enjoys an idyllic childhood full of love and healthy outdoor pursuits, though her father goes off to fight in the trenches. Later it will be the Second World War that will define a chunk of her adulthood.
    Any further description of the plot is difficult because the story rewinds itself, killing off its main character, to let Ursula have another go at events and making alternative choices. Her first death occurs just as she is born, a freezing cold night in February, when snow prevents the arrival of a doctor. Another version of her life is curtailed when she drowns at the age of four, not so surprising as her mother Sylvie is a fairly self-absorbed woman who is often not aware of what her children are up to. The seaside holiday was always going to hold potential for disaster.
    And while the armistice in 1918 was met with great celebration, another potential threat lurked in the form of the Spanish influenza outbreak. All kinds of dangers beset Ursula as the story goes along – wicked men, intent on having their way with a pretty teenage Ursula, and even a serial killer. As an adult living in London, there’s the blitz to contend with.
    The reader soon spots the danger signs which charge the plot with plenty of tension. Ursula will succumb to death numerous times only to start off all over again, but with an increasing awareness that gives her a kind of second sight, which her parents find disturbing. She even takes a shot at Hitler.
    The constant repetitions of Ursula’s childhood and early adulthood could get a bit monotonous and even irritating, were it not for the wonderful characters of Ursula, her family and friends. You can never tire of the family scenes at Fox Corner where Ursula lives with her arrogant little squirt of a brother Maurice, her self-possessed sister Pamela and her adored little brother Teddy. Sylvie has a waspish tongue and a rather wicked eye for the cook’s son, George. The Irish maid, Bridget, has an amusingly forthright manner and an interesting love life. The realism shown in scenes of the Blitz is both poignant and disturbing.
    Running in the background are ideas about how we write stories, the weaving of narrative threads and the idea that if you could go back and relive your life, what would you do differently. It all adds up to an immensely satisfying read. I had been a bit miffed when I discovered that Atkinson's latest book wouldn’t be another Jackson Brodie mystery novel, and put off reading it. Now I see I have only delayed a wonderful treat.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear

I thought a Maisie Dobbs novel would be useful to have on holiday and picked up The Mapping of Love and Death, the seventh book in the series. In this story Maisie is asked to look into the recently exhumed papers of a young American cartographer killed in the Somme. As we know it took many years for the battlefields of World War One to give up their dead, and so here we are in the early 1930s, with a new mystery that will take Maisie back to the war that changed her life.
    The parents of Michael Clifton are in London with Michael’s journal and a bundle of letters written to him by a woman signing herself as The English Nurse. Michael had bought a tract of land in California and having died intestate the legal ownership of the land is in doubt. Edward and Martha Clifton want to meet this nurse to see if she might have a claim, and indeed Martha longs for a grandchild – she has a second sense about these things.
    No sooner than they have sent the documents off to Maisie, than the Cliftons are attacked in their hotel room – someone is clearly worried about what the documents might reveal. On top of this, Michael’s postmortem shows that he was murdered by a blow to the back of the head, not killed in the explosion in which his fellow cartographers perished.
    As Maisie interviews officers that may have known Michael, and Billie works from a list of nurses that have answered an advert about the case, another murder occurs and Maisie herself is attacked. But she is not deterred and in fact is more concerned for the life of her mentor and former colleague, Maurice Blanche.
    Maurice has been struggling with a chest infection all winter and looks worse every time Maisie sees him. In the care of her old flame, Andrew Deane, Maurice encourages Maisie to be more friendly to James Compton who has always struck Maisie as lacking seriousness. She hadn’t realised that James has been under the burden of the terrible events of the war. Apparently his cheerily offhand manner is just a front.
    As usual Winspear has done her research on yet another aspect of the war – the work of the map-makers, whose skill was vital to British forces on the battlefield. There is also some interesting material when Maisie talks to a film-maker who is making early documentaries about the war using live footage. Could there be a film clip showing Michael Clifton and possibly even his murderer?
    We have a good solid whodunit on our hands with a violent criminal on the loose who must be tracked down before he strikes again. But the story is even more complicated by the feelings of sorrow Maisie experiences at Maurice’s fragile health and the possibility of a relationship with James Compton. Would Lady Compton and Lord Julian ever countenance such a thing?
    If it all sounds a bit intense, there’s Maisie’s posh friend Priscilla up to her old match-making tricks and side-kick Billy with his Cockney turn of phrase to lighten things up a bit. All in all not a bad read for relaxing after the Christmas pud.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve is undoubtedly a good writer. Her prose is smooth, clear and honed. Why it took me so long to get around to reading one of her novels, I am not sure, but when I picked up The Lives of Stella Bain, I was quite happy to immerse myself in this story of a World War One nurse who has lost her memory.
     I positively galloped through the first half of the book which took us from Marne in the battlefields of France, where Stella wakes up in a French field hospital, to London where she slowly pieces together snatches of memory. As Stella emerges from the fog of unconsciousness to discover that she is a nurse that can also drive an ambulance, the plot throws her back into life, amid the turmoil of war. No one knows where she has come from and no one seems to care so long as she can work.
    A chance remark nudges something in her mind and she becomes determined to get to London to visit the Admiralty. Exhausted by her journey, she is taken in by the Bridges – kindly Lily and her husband August, who happens to be a surgeon in cranial reconstruction. He is interested in Stella’s memory loss and is eager to take her on as a patient.
    Stella’s recovered awareness of her past is what drives the plot for the first half of the book. We slowly learn about her difficult marriage and her urge to track down an old friend who volunteered as a stretcher bearer. Her sessions with Dr Bridge with their insight into shell shock and her discovery of an artistic talent create some interesting scenes.
    The problem is that once Stella Bain discovers that she is actually Etna Bliss (these names are a semi-anagram as well as being clumsily meaningful - along with Bridge!) and she’s back in America, my interest began to fade. A big chunk of what remains is a civil court case which is rather dull, perhaps on account of the plodding dialogue and too many walk-on characters that lack depth. Finally there’s a chapter where Stella/Etna gets her life back on track and finds happiness. Game over.
    This is a shame as the book promised so much but failed to deliver in terms of sustaining the tension required to drive the plot. A lot rests on the character of Stella herself, but her character doesn’t develop much – she seems to be altogether too wonderful from the outset: passionate, artistic, clever and beautiful.
    There are a lot of really gripping and satisfying novels set around World War One. This unfortunately isn’t one of them. It might make a nice film though.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

You never know what you will find among your library's ebook collection. I discovered Ian Sansom's madcap novel, The Case of the Missing Books, the first in a mystery series featuring overweight, half-Jewish, half-Irish librarian, Israel Armstrong.
    When Israel fetches up at the Northern Irish township of Tundrum, he is already grumpy. He has had a long, nauseating journey involving bus and ferry. To cap things off, he finds on arrival that the library he has been employed to manage has been closed by the Tundrum council.
    Having qualified as a librarian some years before, Israel has never had a library job - instead filling his days working at a discount bookshop in Essex. His ambitious girlfriend, Gloria, has encouraged him to take the Tundrum job, suggesting this will kick-start his library career. It is a case of disappointment upon disappointment.
    Linda Wei, Israel's boss at the council, is more optimistic. It is all merely a resource reallocation and she has another plan for Israel; in effect he will drive the mobile library, with the new title of Outreach Support Officer. He'll be assisted by belligerent ex-boxer, Ted Carson, who runs the local taxi service and knows about engines. It was Ted, after all, who has been hiding the old library bus in a chicken shed.
   The bus's revelation to Israel, rusting and redolent of the hen-house, is yet another disappointment, as is Israel's billet with a feisty redhead named George who thinks nothing of hosing him down while she's cleaning her farmyard, and housing him in a one-time chicken coop that still boasts a rooster.
    Also in the household is George's tee-total, Bible quoting father and her student brother, Brownie who at least attempts to be helpful, lending him his combat trousers and t-shirts with questionable slogans. Israel seems to have packed more books than clothing.
    Discovering that the old library is missing its books and that Israel must track them down is a core part of the plot. As he visits his customers in an attempt to find items from the collection, Israel meets a marvellous cast of odd-ball characters, including Dennis the carpenter and the wealthy hermit, Pearce Pyper. All this is interspersed with hilarious dialogue between Israel and Ted, who certainly make an odd couple.
    The story of a stranger from the city trying to make his way in a remote country town he can't wait to leave and where he is frequently the butt of jokes is not a new one. Israel's bumbling and oversensitive character makes him perfect for the slapstick misadventure that befalls him. Sansom's writing is sharp and weirdly quotable. His summing up of Israel early on says a lot about his character - how books had spoilt him so that 'his expectations were sky-high and his grasp on reality was minimal'.
    It seems Israel has a lot to learn about Tundrum, himself and life in general. I shall enjoy picking up where The Case of the Missing Books leaves off to see how he gets on.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

There's more than a hint of 'chickens coming home to roost' in Elizabeth Strout's novel, The Burgess Boys, where a thoughtless incident throws a family into turmoil and stirs up the past.
    Bob Burgess has grown up under the cloud of an event that happened when he was four years old. Carrying the burden of blame for an accident that killed his father, Bob has never reached the heights of success of older brother Jim, a cut-throat defence lawyer. Instead he has remained a legal aid attorney, who cannot cope with the stress of the courtroom.
    Now in their fifties and living in New York, the brothers are drawn back to their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, when their sister Susan phones for help. Her nineteen-year-old son Zach, socially awkward and unpreposessing, has apparently hurled a pig's head into the mosque of the local Somali community. The DA's office, social groups and the police are all baying for blood, leaving Zach feeling terrified and isolated.
    Zach's problem brings the family back together, but there is blame, scorn and acrimony flying around as issues from the past are slowly revealed or bubble beneath the surface of the interactions between these three very different siblings.
    Bob is kind-hearted but also bumbling, slobbish and inclined to drink too much. Susan is unfulfilled and bitter over her failed marriage and unable to provide a welcoming home for her son or the lodger, Mrs Drinkwater. And Jim is arrogant and unfeeling, so pleased with himself he misses all the danger signs that show he's making matters worse.
    There's also Jim's wife, posh and fussy Helen, restless now her children have left home for college. And Pam, Bob's ex-wife, who still meets Bob regularly for a good chat about things, mainly her problems, and who will always be a part of Bob's 'family'.
    The storyline intersperces scenes with the Burgesses with those concerning immigrant, Abdikarim Ahmed, one of the small but very visible group of Somali refugees now living in Shirley Falls. He feels a nagging fear after the mosque incident, and is full of regret for the loss of his son during an act of violence back home, but somehow it is Ahmed who could make the difference to how things turn out.
    In spite of their flaws, these are all wonderful characters, and oddly sympathetic, revealling through natural, passionate and sometimes quirkily comical dialogue so much of what it is to be an ordinary human being caught up in events that are larger than ourselves. But mostly this is a book about family - how relationships can weather even the most difficult storms and how family support at its best can help you be the best you can be. I loved this quote from near the end of the book when Jim is going through a rough patch:

    'What am I going to do, Bob? I have no family.'
    'You have family,' Bob said. 'You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be a kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That's called family.'

Sunday, 5 January 2014

All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

It would be easy to imagine a sequel to All Change, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s surprise additional book in the Cazalet series. The author has left her characters with such a lot of work to do. And it isn’t really surprising when you think about the time. Set in 1956, there have been a lot of social and economic developments since the war, which had provided such a rich assortment of events in the lives of the family for the first four books.
    One of the most obvious developments is that the Cazalets do not lead the lives of privilege that they used to. Although not in the league of the Downton Abbey lot, they still had houses in London as well as in the country, loads of servants and sent their sons (though not their daughters) away to boarding school.
    The younger Cazalets don't have such luxuries – Rupert has managed to scrape together enough money for a house he adores, but it is too expensive to heat, Zoe does the cooking and the children attend the local school. Clary and Archie scrape a meagre income from Archie’s painting and teaching, and live with their children in a humble two bedroom flat. Polly has married a lord, but the baronial pile is falling to bits - luckily the sale of a few of their Turners has helped to make one wing habitable.
    Louise, now divorced and renting an unpleasant London flat with her old pal, Stella, works for a living as a model. She has nice clothes and is fed well by her married lover, but she never sees her son and her life seems devoid of purpose.
    The older Cazalets are struggling too. Home Place where Rachel lives needs expensive repairs, and of the original help there are now only the Tonbridges (cook and chauffeur) and housemaid Eileen. Edward has married his long-term lover, Diana, but this has not made them happy – they live beyond their means, drink too much and have constant spats, while former wife, Villy, bitter and unfulfilled, lives with Miss Milliment who is slowly succumbing to dementia.
    Hugh is blissfully happy with his new wife, Jemima, and their precocious daughter, Laura – her hilarious outbursts are reminiscent of the dialogue between Neville and Lydia that lightened the drama in the previous books. But Hugh’s health is fragile and as chairman of the family timber business, he hasn’t moved with the times. Soon everyone’s livelihood looks more and more precarious.
    The story is set for change, and how the Cazalets adapt to post-war Britain is what drives the plot. As usual, Howard manages her huge cast with care – there is still plenty of character development, and while many characters are not particularly likeable this seems to make them interesting. Clary was always a bit prickly and her relationship with Archie is rocked by perceived infidelity, but this somehow helps her as a writer. Diana is so ghastly that she creates interesting ripples around the family, and even Edward begins to think about what he has done to Villy.
    Howard has left her characters with lots of difficulties to surmount and this could be the making of them.They have some hard work ahead if they want a viable future and to provide for their children. The younger Cazalets have already realised this, but what of the older generation? Sadly we can only imagine what happens next, as Elizabeth Jane Howard passed away on 2 Janurary this year.