Friday, 27 June 2014

Mrs Sinclair's Suitcase

I seem to have come inadvertently upon another novel with a bookshop setting, this time with a theme that looks at love and loss, and buried family secrets. It begins when Roberta discovers a long forgotten letter among her grandmother's things - her father is dying and has been sorting out everything he wants Roberta to have.
    The letter is from her grandfather, a Polish fighter pilot during World War Two, and explains that despite his love for Roberta's grandmother, he cannot forgive what she has done to a child and its mother. But the date on the letter is after he had supposedly died during the war.
    Roberta works in a bookshop selling old and new books, run by the scruffily handsome and slightly posh owner, Philip. She's used to coming across letters and cards in old books, as well as moving messages on flyleaves, pondering about the people who sent them and the context of what they'd written.
    Her grandfather's letter sets her off on a voyage of discovery, but it is a long time before she can bear to ask the only people who can tell her what happened - her frail father, and her extremely elderly grandmother who lives in a home.
    Meanwhile the plot switches back and forth to 1940, and the English countryside near an airfield, where pilots are training up for the Battle of Britain. Among them are a group of Polish airmen who have escaped Europe but want to fly for the Allies. When one of them crashes in a field, Dorothy is first on the scene. She has recently lost her baby and in grief shows no regard for her own safety, and is injured when the plane goes up in flames.
    Dorothy has grown apart from her husband, now somewhere overseas in the army and he hasn't been in touch since enlisting. So she has no qualms about beginning a mild flirtation with the Polish airmen's squadron leader,  Jan Pietrykowski. The decisions she makes through the book are those of a desperate woman suffering grief from numerous miscarriages and more recently a birth that is stillborn. Jan manages to break through her grief and reserve with his simple courtesies.  
    Louise Walters has written a warmly moving novel that looks a the lives of two women and how their feelings about love and family affect the decisions they make. For Dorothy, chance events throw her a way to grasp what she most desires but at what cost? Roberta is more inclined to drift on, settling for a less-than-satisfactory relationship, too hurt by the past to imagine a better life.
    I enjoyed this novel enormously and found it hard to put down. Walters is a first-time novelist but also a poet and this is obvious in her care for language which along with her sympathetic characters lifts the story well above the ordinary.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Collected Works of A J Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

If you adore reading, a novel set in a bookshop has instant appeal. If you like good, literary fiction, you will warm to the curmudgeonly owner of Island Books, the A J Fikry of the title.
    A.J. has lost his wife in a tragic car accident, and while she was happy to stock popular titles, talk to book reps and hold author events, A.J. is too much of a purist for all that. So he does't like postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, post-mortem narrators or magic realism; or for that matter children's books, especially ones about orphans, young adult fiction or anything with vampires. He explains all this and more when he is being mean to Amelia, the book rep who will later play a major part in his life.
    Obviously, A.J. is doomed not to prosper, even if the tourists that arrive on Alice Island every summer frequently boost sales. But he isn't too worried as he has a copy of a rare edition by Edgar Allen Poe as his insurance policy.  About the same time that a desperate mother leaves her baby in the bookshop, with a note asking A.J. to take care of her, his Poe rare edition is stolen. These catalysts drive A.J. to cut back on his drinking and interact more with the outside world.
    There is a bunch of interesting characters in this book for him to interact with. There's Officer Lambiase, the divorced police chief who used to read nothing but Jeffery Deaver, and starts a book group called Chief's Choice - it's mostly police procedurals read by other cops. A.J.'s friend, Daniel, is a womanising novelist who has never written a best seller since his first break-through novel. He's married to Ismay, A.J.'s sister-in-law, who teaches drama at the high school. She's tough on the outside but a softy on the inside, and quietly makes sure A.J. is OK. The little girl, Maya, is bookishly quirky, rather like you'd expect A.J.'s natural daughter would be.
    This novel could be saccharine, but is far too witty and smart, and with enough ups and downs and reversals of fortune to keep you interested. Each chapter begins with A.J.'s notes to Maya about a particular piece of literature he values in one way or another - another nice little extra for bibliophiles. Roald Dahl, gets a look in as well as American greats such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O'Connor, while there are a few obscure enough to have you searching Wikipedia.
    The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is a short, Sunday afternoonish sort of novel, but it has a lot of heart and is a good reminder about the pleasure and sustenance to be found in books, and friends as well, of course. Though for some of us, they may be the same thing.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

From a Distance by Rafaella Barker

From a Distance concerns three main characters over two periods of time. I was enthralled by Michael, just off the ship that brought him home from the war, the second world war that is, thin and damaged. He doesn't want to go home to Norfolk, even though he has parents and a fiancée waiting for him. He just hangs around Southampton smoking and feeling sorry for himself and all the mates as well as his brother who won't be coming home. Finally he jumps on a train and finds himself in Penzance.
    I was desperate to discover what he does next, but all at once we're in present day Norfolk, in Luisa's kitchen where she's making ice cream and worrying about her nineteen year old daughter who has gone to India. What Luisa has to do with Michael will have to wait, for suddenly here we are with Kit, who has inherited from his mother a lighthouse in the same Norfolk town where Luisa lives. Kit's from Cornwall so there's sure to be a connection with Michael there, and the lighthouse mystery gives the story a bit of oomph.
    But there's such a lot of Luisa, an effusive mother and wife of Italian descent which automatically makes her gorgeous. Ice cream runs in her blood - her father ran a fleet of ice cream trucks - and Luisa experiments with unusual flavours involving herbs and rose essence. You can tell she's artistic. Kit makes a hit with Luisa's family, including husband, Tom, her children and Tom's sister, Dora. He's such a likeable guy, and the lighthouse gets everyone talking. But maybe there's just too much of a spark between Kit and Luisa!
    The story slowly gets back to Michael, who for me was far more interesting. He becomes friendly with several artists who are a breath of fresh air after the war, especially Felicity, a fabric designer who turns out to be the love of his life. How can he ever go home?
    The theme of promises made as men went off to war and the dilemma faced when they returned (can you ever go back to where you left off, or is best to start again?) hovers in the background, begging to be dealt with more fully. There's a lot of description of how designs come together, their patterns, textures and colour, and Cornwall sparkles by the sea. Ice cream also gets a fair amount of attention in the same way. There is such a lot of detail to imagine that the characters become a bit shadowy.
    I would have liked to know a bit more about Michael's demons and the girl he left behind. He is saved by Felicity, who in my mind tended to merge into another Luisia - both artistic, free sprits and both do their hair the same way.  Perhaps this is a hymn to Cornwall and also Norfolk, which has a lovely summery feel and loads of village hospitality.
    And I guess that adds to the charm. But the theme of how relationships are upset by the upheaval of war, or post-war trauma, to say nothing of how secrets from the past affect the later generations, could have been fleshed out much more in this book. This obvious omission makes From a Distance flounder from a lack of narrative drive and therefore something of a disappointment.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman

Rose Lloyd has plenty to feel aggrieved about not long into Elizabeth Buchan's novel Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. Nathan, her husband, dumps her after twenty-five years of marriage and she loses her job - both vacancies filled by her assistant, Minty.
    She's worked with Minty for several years, compiling the book review pages for a newspaper and Rose regards Minty as a friend, sharing secrets about her relationships with family and even her old-flame, Hal, a glamorous adventure travel writer. (This reminded me of an episode from 'Black Books', which was slightly off-putting.)
    Minty has used snippets from these conversations with Rose in the early days of her relationship with Nathan to argue that Rose doesn't really appreciate her husband and has never forgotten her first love, Hal. Minty is also twenty years younger than Nathan and knows what she's about in the bedroom. How could Nathan resist?
    And Rose is such a sweetie, with brains to boot. She achieved a First at Oxford, but put her career on hold while raising her children, does all the cooking and creates a spectacular garden. She drops meals into the housebound elderly gent next door and talks about the buses with him - the great love of his life. Really if anyone has been under-appreciated, it's Rose.
    So I was quite prepared for scenes of rage-induced vengeance, shredded suits, emptied bank accounts, public shaming - the works. I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this, but it certainly seemed as if Nathan had it coming. I couldn't make up my mind if it would be a good thing because it would reduce Rose to the level of the Mintys of this world and it is obvious she is so much better than that.
    A chance encounter with Hal offers yet another avenue for potential revenge, but Hal gave Rose an impossible choice all those years ago, leaving her in South America, broken hearted and ill. Poor Rose, so smart but so bad at choosing men. Thank heavens one of her best friends is a savvy Parisienne, who takes her in hand and encourages her to tart herself up a bit. Maybe glamour and success are the best revenge of all.
    There are sub-plots involving Rose's grown-up children and their relationships, and Rose is always there with a shoulder to cry on, as you would expect. Rose also worries about her widowed mother who finds the marriage break-up a terrible shock.  There's even a bit about politics and the ethics of how the media treat figures in the public eye.
   The book makes a decent fist of standing up for middle-aged women who care for others when all around them it seems people are out for themselves. The narration is all from Rose's point of view and perhaps this makes the story drag a little as she is never allowed to be as outrageous as the other characters. Joanna Trollope (the queen of this genre) creates a much livelier style through multiple viewpoints and her unerring ear for dialogue.
   Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman is a very readable book but published in 2002, it is beginning to show its age. Nevertheless I shall be interested to try one of Elizabeth Buchan's more recent titles to see how it compares.