Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Summer on the River by Marcia Willett

I've always been meaning to read a book like this, the kind with an attractively artsy cover that makes you think of summer holidays. You feel you will be in for a gentler kind of story, the characters are probably taking time out from their working lives, there will be summer romance and lots of walks along the seaside, in this case in Dartmouth. What's there not to like?
    Summer on the River is the story of Evie and her family by marriage: in particular Charlie who reminds Evie so much of her gorgeous late husband, Tommy, and Charlie's difficult wife, Ange, so good with the London wine business but a bit mean. Ange is not keen to share the Merchant's House, which has been in the family for generations, but which Tommy left to Evie in his will, shock horror! Worse still, Evie has let the house to Charlie's cousin and doppelganger, Ben, recently separated and a bit hard up.
    Things get interesting when Ben meets Jemima, an attractive letting agent. When Jemima mistakes Charlie for Ben on a later date, sparks fly and there is obvious chemistry between them. It seems as if history repeats, as the scenario is similar to when Tommy met Evie, and they embarked on a long-term, extra-marital affair. What a shame it is Charlie, already married and with his life dictated by the need to run the family business with wife Ange, and not Ben who is a free agent.
    Into the mix Willet adds a family secret, which Tommy left Evie to sort out; as well as an unhinged stranger with a vendetta of his own against Evie which goes back to her years as a junior history lecturer. So there is plenty going on for the characters and a carefully orchestrated plot that keeps the reader amused until the last page.
    In the background there is Dartmouth, lovingly described, from busy regatta scenes, to tasteful bars and cafes as well as charming gardens. Architecture gets a look-in too, as characters are treated to tours of the Merchant House, Jemima's flat with a view and Evie's renovated boathouse full of light and overlooking the water.
    So much to enjoy with the setting, but unfortunately, I rather tired of the characters and all their indecisiveness - to spill the beans or not spill the beans; to begin an affair or not begin an affair - limping through the book chapter after chapter. There was such a lot of infidelity talked about, I was ready to assume Ben and Charlie were more than just cousins, after all why were they constantly mistaken for each other, or had everyone left their specs at home?
    Summer on the River made a pleasant break from the more meaty fare and chilling mysteries often on my bedside table. It was nice to be in Dartmouth, a place I've never visited, and Willett lays it all out vividly for the reader. But the dialogue was too saccharine for this reader and the characters too irritating so I probably won't be lured by this kind of cover again. A pity.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Green Road by Anne Enright

The Green Road is a little gem of a novel, managing to be entertaining as well as crafted, with engaging characters, all of whom belong to the same family: the Madigans from County Clare. They all converge on the family home one Christmas because their mother, Rosaleen, has decided to sell the old house, a decision that throws them into a chaos of emotions.
    Before all that happens, though, we are treated to the individual stories of Rosaleen and her four children. Dan upsets his mother at the beginning when he decides to become a priest. Years later he's in New York, living with his old girlfriend from home, while dabbling in the gay scene. Enright's perspective on New York in 1991 and the terrible shadow of AIDS is told through the eyes of Greg, HIV positive and lamenting the friends he has lost. The tone is pitch perfect, vivid and moving.
   And suddenly it's Constance, the older daughter, still living near her mother with a family of her own.  Her scattered thoughts as she waits for a mammogram appointment fill in the details of her life and her concerns for her mother and the difficulties around their relationship. For Rosaleen isn't easy. She's deprecating and demanding at the same time - no wonder her children have almost all deserted her.
    After Constance, we are swept to Mali where Emmet, Rosaleen's younger son, works with an aid organisation, living with his girlfriend, Alice. He loves Alice but finds it difficult to show this. Emmet has an offhand manner which helps him deal with the horrors of his surroundings, but it doesn't help his relationship. His younger sister, Hanna, an actress in Dublin, is quite the opposite, full of temper and passion - as a child she had a tendency to burst into tears over anything; now as an adult she is inclined to drink.
    They are a family of contrasts and they bounce off each other wonderfully when they all come together, bound by the awkwardness of dealing with their mother. Sneaking in is the story of Rosaleen's devotion to her late husband, Pat Madigan, a humble farmer and socially beneath her.
    The novel sets the scene for a potent mixture of tense emotions and discord, as well as concern and reconciliation in the family's last Christmas together in the old house. There is a load of humour too - I loved Constance's endless return trips to the supermarket and her outburst when it is revealed that she has forgotten to buy coffee grounds.
    It's so very real but magical none the less. This is because of Enright's wonderful writing. I shouldn't be surprised, she's a Booker winner after all and this book was also long-listed and Costa nominee to boot, and deservedly so. Enright could make a grocery list interesting.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham

I've met Fiona Griffiths before, so I already know she's a bit peculiar, that she has Cotards syndrome which means she has a tendency to worry she's not really alive, and struggles to feel the emotions expected in a given situation. This makes her an interesting detective, to say the least. In this book she's a young DC working out of Cardiff when a body is discovered with links to a small case of payroll fraud.      
   The weirdness of the death doesn't immediately seem connected to a wider criminal network, but that is just what it will turn out to be with millions, if not billions of pounds at stake. When another death occurs on the south coast of England, a brutal slaying that screams murder by execution, two police forces join ranks and isn't it just fortunate that Fiona has just done a course in undercover policing.
    National undercover training is the toughest police course on offer and most who attempt it fail. Not our Fiona though and her weird mental condition is probably helpful here; she can always step outside herself, and not being good at connecting with her feelings is for once a good thing.
    The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is in part a testimony to the life of the under-cover police officer, making it much more than your standard crime novel. Although there's plenty to keep you on your toes, the story is more measured than your usual whodunnit. Fiona has to develop her legend: in this case she is to be Fiona Grey from Manchester, where she's escaped an abusive relationship, is living in a hostel while working as a cleaner. Her caseworker has ambitions for Fiona though, encouraging her to apply for and gain a position as a payroll officer. She finds work at Western Vale.
    We get to know all about this alter-ego, see her find a flat and to come home to find one Vic Henderson in her only armchair. And suddenly Fiona is part of the gang, falsifying payroll data to create bogus accounts which don't particularly seem to be all that lucrative. We can only guess that this is a small part of a much bigger swindle. Henderson is not the boss, but he is in charge of 'security' and becomes Fiona's intermediary with the big boys. They don't exactly hit it off, he's menacing for all his attempts at charm, but there is a whiff of chemistry.
    Fiona Grey is easily bullied, and there's a touch of Stockholm Syndrome in the way she gets on with Henderson. Meanwhile Fiona Griffiths is trying to remember what it is like to be with her boyfriend Buzz, the best thing that has ever happened to her. As the months go on, Fiona struggles to remember who she really is and there is a wonderful tension in the way she has to rally herself to be the police officer she needs to be to wind up the case and see justice served.
    The novel builds up to a tense and exciting showdown where all of Fiona's policing instincts return as well as that mental toughness of hers that can take over when she needs it. It's a great story brilliantly told in that immediate first person, present tense that works so well with a character like this. This really is one of the more promising crime series around and I'll be catching up with Fiona again for sure.