Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go

Justin Go's debut is one of those novels that have you hooked on page one.  Tristan Campbell, twenty-three and recently graduated, is at a loose end when he receives a solicitor's letter from London. It informs him that a legacy might be his if he can prove he is descended from one Imogen Soames-Andersson, who hasn't been seen since she disappeared in Europe shortly after the First World War. The will is unusual in that it has allowed a period of eighty years to find a suitable heir.
    Tristan takes up the challenge, bringing to the solicitors whatever documentation he has as well as memories of his English grandmother Charlotte, who was never very happy in California. He'd always believed that Charlotte was the daughter of Imogen's sister, Eleanor, but a childless married woman at that time might well have brought up an illegitimate child for her sister, and Tristan sets out to prove it. The only problem is he has a mere two months before the legacy is bequeathed to assorted charities.
    Tristan's journey takes him to London, Sweden, Paris and the site of the trenches of Picardy, as well as Berlin and even as far as Iceland. Interspersed with his search is the story of two star-crossed lovers. Imogen is nineteen when she meets Ashley Walsingham, who is about to join his regiment as an officer fighting in the Somme. Imogen is a feisty young woman who doesn't believe in marriage, and follows Fabianism and other revolutionary ideas of the time.
    She does believe in love and her passion for Ashley leads her to give him a difficult choice: her or the army.  Ashley loves Imogen as much as she does him, but when he is severely wounded fate interferes and Imogen is lead to believe the worst. The war has an affect on their relationship that it seems can't be healed, though neither will ever forget the other.
    Tristan slowly makes odd discoveries, letters that have never been posted and others that have never been read. He finds photographs and Ashley's VC, among other memorabilia, but nothing seems to be quite the evidence he needs. In the meantime he meets a young French woman who makes him stop and think about the whole enterprise while upsetting his emotional equilibrium. There is an echo here of Ashley and Imogen while Tristan's headstrong and impetuous behaviour mark him out as a likely descendent.
    The Steady Running of the Hour is a beautifully wrought story full of anguish and self-realisation. While the reader knows a lot of what has happened, just as Tristan does, right at the beginning, there are still plenty of revelations. Tristan's journey is one of discovery in more ways than one, and the story is both compelling and original. I can't remember when I read a more affecting story of love and loss - perhaps The English Patient? - and this novel will linger in my mind for some time to come.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Trivia Man by Deborah O'Brien

The trivia man of the title is Kevin Dwyer, a one-man quiz team extraordinaire. Kevin has folders full of data that he has been collecting for a large part of his forty-eight years. Initially he hoarded this information (tide tables, weather data, assorted statistics, etc.) for the joy of acquiring knowledge but with the growth of pub quizzes, he has found his perfect pastime. As a bonus trivia gets him out of the house and almost socialising.
    At the Clifton Heights Sports Club trivia competition Kevin soon shows his mettle and is instantly head-hunted by several attractive women to give their team a competitive edge. So far he's managed to hold them off, but when he meets school teacher, Maggie Taylor, a reluctant member of Teddie and the Dreamers, he begins to waver.
    It doesn't take long to figure out that Kevin is somewhere further along the Asperger's Spectrum continuum than what society classes as 'normal'. He has only one friend - his young nephew Patrick. Eight-year-old Patrick seems to be turning out rather like Kevin, much to the horror of Kevin's sister Elizabeth, who has always regarded her brother as altogether weird.
    Like Kevin, Maggie is also single, preferring reading and spending quiet nights in with her dog. She has been coerced into joining a colleague's trivia team for her knowledge of movie history, and because she's an attractive woman in her early fifties who needs to get out more. The karaoke interval that occurs in the middle of each quiz night has Kevin and Maggie hiding out and the two start to get acquainted.
    At first this seems like a simple 'rocky path to true love' kind of story. Maggie must first get over her long-term obsession with a previous boyfriend, the glamorous motivational speaker, Josh Houghton, a cad of the first water. And Kevin reluctantly finds himself dating his sister's friend Danni, surely an 'opposites attract' plot twist. Danni is as socially forward as Maggie is retiring, while Kevin's complete inability to dissemble makes him quite the opposite of popular favourite Josh.
    However O'Brien is clearly also interested in the issue of what it's like to be different in a society that seeks to have us conform. She avoids using the word Asperger's, just as Maggie avoids reading psychological assessments of 'special needs' students until she gets to know them. It seems that labels confuse and obscure the truth of what people are really like.  For this reason both Maggie and O'Brien get a thumbs-up from me.
    The handling of this issue lifts the book above the ordinary. I found The Trivia Man a bright, light read and hard to put down. The humorous episodes at the weekly trivia nights, and especially the quiz questions were a definite plus. I look forward to trying more books from this author.

Friday, 10 July 2015

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson

Josephine Tey was the pen-name of mystery writer Elizabeth Mackintosh whose book, The Daughter of Time, was voted the greatest crime novel of all time by the Crime Writers' Association in 1990. An Expert in Murder is the first of Nicola Upson's mysteries that feature Josephine Tey and her friend Detective Inspector Archie Penrose. The two make a nifty crime-solving duo in Upson's traditional, Agatha Christie-style series of whodunits set in the 1930s.
    An Expert in Murder features Tey in her other role, as a dramatist whose play, Richard of Bordeaux, is the huge box-office hit of its day. It begins with a train journey in which Tey finds herself seated opposite an attractive by shy young woman wearing a stunningly smart hat. Eighteen-year-old Elspeth is on her way to London with a consignment of hats from her mother's millinery business and soon Josephine is giving out her autograph and sharing a meal with her young fan in the dining car.
    Elspeth is planning to meet her boyfriend, Hedley White, who is a back-stage hand at The New, the theatre where Josephine's play is nearing the end of its run. Hedley has tickets for the show and is planning a romantic evening, but murder interferes and Elspeth is discovered in the compartment stabbed and dramatically arranged in a tableau featuring two commemorative dolls from the play.
    You can't help wondering if Josephine was the intended victim, but soon Archie Penrose in on the scene and numerous suspects and motives start turning up. When a second murder occurs it seems likely that there is a connection between the two victims and the actors and production team are thrown into the spotlight. The cast of suspects includes the director/lead actor of the play, John Terry, who has a secret to hide about his personal life. Is would-be playwright, Esme McCracken bitter enough to kill and could actor Lewis Fleming also have a motive being so desperate for money? Then there is Elspeth's beau who soon does a runner.
     And what of the mysteries that surround Elspeth herself? As the much loved but adopted daughter of the not very theatrical Simmons, there is the question of her birth and unsurprisingly a back story which extends back to events in the First World War.
     Costume designers Ronnie and Lettice give Josephine a place to stay in London and are full of lively quips and cheeky gossip. They are a good foil for when Josephine is brooding over a recent legal battle with the writer Elliott Vintner who accused her of plagiarism. When he lost the case he committed suicide, an event Josephine still feels guilty about, despite Archie's protestations that none of it was her fault.
     There are plenty of red herrings and possible scenarios for the reader to mull over, but for me this was something of a murder by numbers plot, with no real surprises. What made the book really enjoyable though was Upson's ability to recreate the London theatre scene circa 1934. Taking place in a chilly March, the story has plenty of atmosphere and with its colourful yet sympathetic characters made for a diverting read.  Basing the story on real-life people was a definite plus, too, and I shall be happy to see what Tey and Penrose get up to next.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

You have to take your time with a book like The Fountain Overflows. The writing is rich and clever and the family it describes are eccentric in so many ways you find your imagination having to work overtime to create an image of their lives. It is all in the detail - and there is such a lot of it, detail I mean. And that is what makes it all so wonderful.
    The novel is a fictionalisation of Rebecca West's own childhood and is told in the voice of Rose Aubrey. It begins when she is around eight and the family are moving again, not just house but cities, from Edinburgh to London. But first there is a country holiday to be got through, just Rose, her mother and siblings: her older sisters, Cordelia who is beautiful but overbearing, and Mary who is her best pal and has a similar talent for the piano, and younger brother Richard Quin who is sweet and knows how to please everyone he meets.
    The reason the holiday is an ordeal is because Rose's mother is awkward with the farming family who have supplied their lodgings, and because her father, a brilliant journalist with a talent for losing money, has gone off to start his new job and find them a house in London. Unfortunately he forgets to tell them where it is and this causes many anxious moments.
    More anxious moments pepper the book, as Rose's father takes on various political causes and loses more money, while Rose and Mary perfect their piano technique ready for becoming concert pianists and being able to salvage the family fortunes. Richard Quinn can survive on charm alone, although he is also musically gifted, while Cordelia struggles with the violin and her pride.
   At first the story seems to ramble along like this, creating a picture of this colourful family and delineating their difficulty in making anything like a normal life in London. But then West throws in several unusual events that bring in even more eccentric characters. These include what seems to be a poltergeist in the home of Mrs Aubrey's old friend, and later on a murder.
    While these events are extraordinary and certainly give the plot a bit of oomph, they also serve the purpose of adding depth to the characters of the Aubrey family. Though my favourite story thread in the novel is the ongoing battle of Cordelia to prove her worth as a musician, while her mother wrings her hands in despair declaring that she plays Bach as if it were Beethoven and has absolutely no taste. Surprisingly this doesn't prevent her from acquiring the aid of a music teacher at school, the odious faux-bohemian Miss Beevor, and even giving concerts.
    There is such a lot to enjoy in the novel, particularly the faultless language which is full of wit and insight. West's portrait of what it can be like to be eccentric in a changing world is at times painful and yet wonderful at others. I can't believe I have never read Rebecca West before. Virago have done a stunning job of recognising the talents of early twentieth century women writers and I shall be hunting out more novels by West and others like her.