The Perfect Moment – A Fairhill Novel by Alix Kelso – A community with gentle humour and romance

Romance, community and small businesses, this book offers many elements of a relaxing and enjoyable read. The story of Laura, her life which has been put on hold by a tragedy that haunts her and the actions she takes to preserve what she loves, is generously written. Bruce has been damaged by a relationship, as has his Uncle Keith who has hopes of finding a new love despite the odds. The dialogue of this rich novel is convincing and often funny, as the characters spend time discovering that nothing in life and love runs smoothly, and that even perfect days can be marred by unavoidable hitches.  Not that anything goes to plan in this book of the daily life of a small part of Glasgow, as people realise that what they want is not always possible, or at least in the way they imagined. Old friends and new come together in this book which is intended to be the first in a series. It has been a pleasure to read and review this enjoyable book.

 

The book opens with Laura dealing with her most awkward customer in the restaurant that she works in, Valentino’s, before her boss drops the bombshell that she selling up and moving on. Devastated from the loss of her security found after a life changing loss, she develops a scheme that will potentially keep Natalie in the area. In doing so she involves her friend Bruce who works in the pub opposite, The Crooked Thistle, who has always found her attractive. Yvonne, her flatmate, suggests that there are many forms of romance, as she pursues her own relationship. When Laura finds herself in desperate need, who will come to her rescue? Will Natalie remain in Glasgow despite her own loss? How will Bruce rebuild his life when he has been so badly let down? What was the bombshell that came at the end of a marriage?  What was Laura’s ambition before her life was overturned in a moment? How will careers and dreams fit together? What is the meaning of a painting which provokes such different reactions?

 

This book is the sort that is effortless to read and enjoy with its gentle humour.  An intelligent romance with some interesting twists, this book deals with a small geographical area with influences from events elsewhere. I enjoyed the warm sense of community which runs through this book, with the appeal of people who know and care about each other. Even the small characters have their roles to play, and each one has the potential to be interesting and important to the plot. This is the sort of read that would be ideal as a holiday choice, as it is essentially a happy book. Not challenging, but with enough substance to be satisfying.  I do hope that it proves to be the first in a series of books which I am sure will all succeed. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a lighter read, and I look forward to reading more from this undoubtedly talented author.

Meanwhile, back at the Vicarage, we are taking care of two tortoises temporarily. Stanhope (probably female) and Livingstone (probably male) live up to their names as explorers by wandering down the hall having left the study behind. Will Selwyn the Vicarage cat put up with these visitors? Can we get them to eat the interesting selection of green leaves we are supplying them? Will it ever get warm enough for them? Watch this space for more details…

 

The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott – an atmospheric novel of a house with a disturbing past?

Can a house watch you? In this novel a young woman is wondering about that question as she moves into the Manse, an old house which seems to be full of secrets. Featuring things that literally go bump in the night, this terrifically atmospheric novel is full of swirling mystery and menace as Alisa discovers that her old family home seems invested with the actions of those who have gone before her. Despite the fact she shares the house with her half sister, she feels the presence of others with malign intent. The brooding threat of violence manifests itself in small ways, dead animals, strange noises and the conviction that everyone is aware of the house, all the elements of a thriller without a manifest threat. The locals which she encounters are a mixed bunch, each with their own beliefs about the house and those who have lived in it. This is a sophisticated thriller in some senses, full of small hints and suggestions rather than dramatic action, which in a way is far more effective. I found that the novel was a great achievement in terms of being unsettling and suggesting much by its atmosphere. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intriguing book.

 

As the book opens the first paragraph appears concerning Ailsa’s father, a theory about where he is, what he is doing. This strange revelation appears just before Ailsa sees the house for the first time since she was a child, copes with fleeting memories and tries not to disagree with her half sister, who is also coping with the death of their mother. It soon emerges that at the time of the death, Ailsa was with a news team and could not get a flight home owing to the explosion of a volcano in Iceland. The eerie silence of empty skies was memorable, and adds to the atmosphere. From the start there seems to be the real threat of incursion despite locks and bolts, just enough to unsettle any sense of peace. Ailsa considers her relationship with an older star news reporter, how she has sought the unattainable. She meets some locals who are all more aware of the history of her house, and her father’s disappearance. While making efforts to socialise, she discovers that not everyone is pleased to see her, and indeed hold onto past grudges. There are various layers of tensions, of threat, and the author skillfully holds all the threads together as Ailsa begins to fight back. As time is discussed in all its complications, the reader is left to consider exactly who or what may be trying to drive Ailsa away.

 

I found this a complex and tense read, full of the subtle hints of threat which seek to unsettle the characters and indeed the reader. I found Ailsa a convincing character, full of doubts but with a core of strength. As revelations about her parents emerge, and her own past and choices are recalled, the combined effect is of characters with sufficient depth to seem real. Elliott is a clever and careful writer, using all the small details to create a setting and events that convince the reader of a reality. I would recommend this as a good read, well paced, cleverly written and raising a real sense of tension.

The Beauty of the Wolf by Wray Delaney – A story of magic, love and the true nature of beauty

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Fantasy, fairy tale, morality story; this is an unusual and fascinating book of historical fiction which moves between Shakespeare’s London (though he is only mentioned once, and then obscurely) and a village dominated by a forest. Gender, sexuality and the world of the supernatural are fluid in this adult novel which deals with the true nature of beauty. While gothic horror and death are never far away, the curse of perfect beauty is examined in a novel in which nothing and nobody is as it seems, leading to many twists and turns. While historical fantasy of the most complex nature abounds, this book has much to say about love and the parent child relationship in a curiously modern light. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this lovely book to read and review.

This book opens with a section from the view of the Sorceress, who will not only be a significant character in the novel, but also a force of many of the events. She identifies strongly with the ancient oaks which the evil Lord Rodermere has pledged to cut down and use in the construction of his house that becomes known as the House with Three Turrets. In vengeance for this crime, she places a curse on him to the effect that his son will grow to kill him. At that stage he has but one daughter, Clare, who has been scarred by a childhood illness. She is someone who is not really developed, but would make an interesting character in her own right. Eventually a boy arrives who grows to be stunningly beautiful, and who is accordingly called Beau. Meanwhile, Rodermere has disappeared, and an alchemist who is summoned to help find him, Thomas, comes and goes. He has a secret child, who grows to be a terrible beast in form; a girl who is aware that she repulses people by her half furred appearance, and her immense wings. Thus the Beauty and the Beast tale is changed around, as the girl becomes tragically aware of her appearance in a neat symbol of how some young women become obsessed with their body image. Many complex adventures ensue, as the memorable Gally and a company of actors turn up. It is this group of actors who provide some light relief, as Shakeshaft and Crumb frequently get drunk and there are sly references to a better known player who was also working in London at the time. Curses, ultimatums and love become increasingly complex as various levels of revelations are made and the action moves between the House and London.

Delaney has constructed a world of magic and unpredictability that make this unusual novel simply captivating for the reader. She writes “Here then is a truth: man is a creature who feeds on stories as beasts feed on raw meat. We inflame our senses with such wild imaginings that our minds are but kindling for the tale”. This is a novel of wild tales, fantastic events and incredible imagination, and as such is a unique experience. It is also a beautiful book to handle in its hardback form.  I recommend it as a book of adult fairy tales, with some brutality and yet some delicacy, always fascinating and genuinely enjoyable.

 

The other evening during Storm Freya (!) we went to see the film “Stan and Ollie” which was virtually a private screening. We enjoyed it as a story, and found the two leads gave very touching performances. As someone who watched a lot of television in my childhood I have fond memories of the famous pair in some of their films being repeated at odd times, so I felt quite the expert, whereas Northernvicar was new to the sketches and songs. Like any good biographical film the mannerisms are faithfully reproduced, at least in the public persona, so the image was convincing. I imagine the film will be finishing in the cinemas very soon, so it may now be a dvd experience, and it is a worthwhile film to watch.

Oh, I Do Like To Be…by Marie Phillips – Misunderstandings at the Seaside with Shakespeare…

A strange but funny book, this is an extravagant farce involving one of the best known names in British history – or rather his clone, or two. It has an equally strange title as it is set in a seaside town, and is consequently full of references to the beach and rather sad Bed and Breakfast establishments. Not terribly scientific, but enormous fun as people run in and out of buildings, around the small town and generally avoid the truth for as long as possible, while creating misunderstandings at every step. After readings Phillips’ previous books, I was especially keen to take part in the blog tour for this book by offering a review.

Billy and his sister Sally have just arrived in town. Within seconds we learn about their relationship; she is carrying the bulk of their luggage while Billy delicately pulls a suitcase. Billy tries to come up with observations of the rather tatty scenery, while soaking up the atmosphere and sending his evidently downtrodden sister off to find a place to stay. He is also fed up of whatever he has been doing, as he realises that despite his beginning as a clone of William Shakespeare, he can never create anything really memorable. He is vaguely in touch with his mother, but obviously she has had high expectations of his writing. When Sally returns, he is pleased to hear that she has found a place for them to stay, but is stunned to find a beautiful woman there, among a house full of books that she evidently assumes represent his well received writing. Meanwhile, the original newly arrived in town Sally has encountered Bill, the real owner of the house, husband of the beautiful Thadie, and successful writer. Confusion and much hilarity ensue, as no one seems to be sure who is truly who in a small town where personalities overlap and complications get more dramatic.

I enjoyed this book; it was a light read which I speeded through, while appreciating the characters. It was an intriguing concept; how would the greatest writer in the world truly fare when in the twenty first century? It is not a great literary novel, but a very human one about the problems that real people unintentionally get themselves into everyday, even if these are rather extreme. There are one or two set pieces that are particularly funny, despite the fact that the characters enduring them do not appreciate them at the time. The characters are consistent in their behaviour, and the rather tatty B&B is well described. There are always times when an easy to read book is the answer and for a well written light hearted read this book is highly recommended.

We took a few hours out of the parish today and went to the cinema to see “Colette”. It was less spectacular than “The Favourite”, especially as we went to the small city cinema rather than the front row of a multi screen! It was brilliantly well acted, the costumes were superb, and the filming of the French countryside seemed pretty good to us. Both films are to be recommended, and soon I would like to see another female dominated film – Mary, Queen of Scots…

The White King – Charles I by Leanda de Lisle – A Vivid Portrait of a Controversial King

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This is a book that in many ways reads like a novel. That said, it is also a non- fiction history book, well presented with at least some of the hallmarks of a scholarly book: extensive notes on the chapters with bibliographic details and full index. As with her previous book on the Tudors, de Lisle manages to combine her research with an eye for a readable story in which seems an effortless combination, though I am sure it is the result of living with the research. This is the story of a king whose fate is well known, as he literally fought for his throne only to die in a public execution. Despite this, the book manages to convey the humanity of not only Charles “Traitor, Murderer, Martyr” as it states in the title, but also his family and those who followed him, even to their own executions.

The Author’s Note at the start of the book describes de Lisle’s attitude to the “White King”: “The real Charles was neither a saint, nor his wife’s puppet, but a man of strengths and failings”. She does not worship the man that this book portrays so well; she knows that his “flaws and misjudgements lead to his ruin”, and that he is not a victim of a long and exhaustive plot. However, she undoubtedly recognises him as courageous and with high ideals, and this book is the story of a man whose dependence on the self-interested and misguided led him into many difficulties, as well as a role as king of an uneasy combination of English and Scottish interests. His father’s example was one of personal unattractiveness but overset by sufficient statecraft to maintain his uneasy kingdom; Charles was forced to deal with all the problems of a religious settlement challenged by the perception of continuous Catholic threat personified in his wife. The problems of a Europe riven by discord that he felt obliged to involve himself in meant continuous strains on a royal purse that was far from bottomless, and laid him open to disloyalty and even attack. He was loyal to those around him; eventually his wife and children were his first concern and when they were under perceived threat his political judgement was less than acute. This is a decidedly chronological story as de Lisle works through the story of a man beset with difficulties, whose tastes for the beautiful and visual in his collection of art works are not matched by a political intelligence which may have saved him and his throne. He was arguably more sinned against than sinning; he ascended a throne in default of an elder brother and perhaps never replaced him in his own eyes let alone those around him. This book conveys so much of the humanity of those involved, as his family’s reaction to his execution shows. Charles is shown as a man in the midst of difficulties, whose inability to see the long term effects of his actions probably led to his downfall.

There are many possible readings of the reign and death of Charles, as with so much of history. In this confident and controlled book de Lisle makes her account an intensely human one, full of the small details that make up a complex life in which Charles is more than a victim, yet flawed and often struggling to assert an authority he was uncertain of, despite his high ideals of kingship. This book offers much to the non-specialist reader who is interested in the story of a king and those around him. It also serves as a basis for further study for those willing to pursue his story.

This review originally appeared on Shiny New Books, but as I noticed that this book has now gone paperback for early 2019 I thought that I would republish it. I do actually consult lots of non fiction books, but do not read them to cover to cover; this one was so readable that it flows well as a fascinating read. I received some impressive history books over the festive system – I wonder when I will finish them!

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans – A Review Revived in honour of the paperback edition!

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There are some books which are so good that I struggle to find words to suggest how much I appreciate them, and this is one of them. A novel with a big agenda in some ways, yet carefully controlled as the story of a few women who are struggling in a world where part of their lives’ work has been achieved, yet in many ways not much has changed. It is essentially the tale of what happened to those brave women who took on the establishment when there was every danger of them being ignored, only to find their fight had perhaps not essentially changed attitudes and real oppression. It is the story of women who lost much in a war, but have been prevented from fighting and winning their own battles. Evans chooses to base her novel on one woman and those around her, but it is the story of a movement which had inspired her life, and left many women bereft of purpose in a world where their battle seems to be won, but much has not improved. It is undoubtedly a clever idea, to remember the damaging battle for the vote, the First World War, and the brave new post war world in which the women now find themselves, through the eyes of a strong but frustrated woman.

Mattie Simpson is first seen as the victim of a robbery. She is not upset at the loss of her bag as the loss of her weapon which symbolised the suffrage battles which still dominate her mind for so much of the time. She lives some of the time in her memories of when she and her friends, allies, made a difference, took real action to fight for what they believed in, even to the extent of ruining their health and the real fear of forcible feeding in prison (readers of a delicate disposition should look away). The camaraderie of common ideals has been reduced to fighting minor skirmishes with neighbours and others shocked by her lifestyle. Her faithful companion, Florrie or “The Flea” is a sort of health visitor, made angry by the suffering of the mothers and babies she sees. Significantly as she is without property herself she cannot use the vote hard won in the campaign she actually managed in the mundane tasks of administration. She has a secret sadness, but eventually cannot continue picking up the pieces of others’ lives. One of the former suffragettes has married and found her hope in a form of fascism; another war is approaching and some see their hope in values familiar to those familiar with the rise of the right. Another has become an alcoholic, trying to grasp reality but struggling to survive. Not that this is a miserable book in any sense; there are times it can be funny and the main protagonist is often wilfully awkward.  Evans uses her true ear for dialogue  to convey so many people here, the strong willed, the sad, the ambitious, the caring.

In some ways this is the story of an obsession, which causes grief. It is a novel about the loss of a sense of purpose, as well as sisters in a battle which did not improve the lives of most people. However, there is a sense of hope, of change, of improvement from which the next generation will benefit. This book is based in London, but the Heath becomes almost a character as it is the place of so much of the action. It is a book rooted in a place, yet with characters who go beyond the here and now. I truly enjoyed this novel, and am so glad to read a review copy in advance of publication. I think that it has done well in hardback – it deserves to do so well in paperback.

 

This review originally appeared on Shiny New Books when the book first appeared, but having seen the book in its paperback form I thought would revive my review. It certainly made my books of the year list, and I hope that if you have not found it yet, you soon will!

 

A Very Murderous Christmas – Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season

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Murder for Christmas? There seems to be a tradition of buying, and hopefully reading, murder mystery novels at this time of year. Possibly people fondly imagine that they will have time to actually read an entire novel over the festive season, but for those who lack that sustained reading time, this is an ideal book. Ten short stories by a mixture of writers, ranging from the clever development on classics to actual Golden Age gems, this is a book which will have something for everyone. The cosy, the clever and the complex are all represented here for enjoyment in those quiet moments that we actually get, without trying to remember what has gone before. These are not carefully introduced, justified and put into context, but just presented as they stand, in all their complexity or clever simplicity.

Margery Allingham’s “The Man with the Sack” is the first story, featuring her favourite detective, Campion. A version of Holmes and Watson appear, followed by a clever and funny contribution by Anthony Horowitz in “Camberwell Crackers”. Father Brown makes a welcome appearance, as well as Inspector Morse and Rumpole. A railway mystery, “A problem in White” by Nicolas Blake, precedes a fantastic and chilling Ruth Rendell murder tale. A club for considering hypothetical murder disturbs thanks to Gladys Mitchell, and the final story literally takes the locked room mystery to a new level in “The Problem of Santa’s Lighthouse” by Edward Hoch.

Thus there is quite a range of tales in scope, time and style. It is obviously enjoyable if you already know of some of the detectives (and lawyer!) involved from longer books or even television, but they would still work without previous knowledge. One or two authors will be broadly known, others less so, but all are allowed to show their established skills. Several, if not most, are not so Christmas based as to be only of interest at a particular time of year, but all have at least a seasonal element.  The dedicated mystery fan may well recognise one or two stories here, but it is a new collection published this year so there will be surprises. There are several similar books that have come out over the last few years, and this collection does not feel like a startling new revealing reprint. It is, however, great entertainment, and would make a great gift for anyone, or an enjoyable treat for oneself.

I think that we have finally posted all the Christmas cards, which is a good thing as tomorrow is last posting day for second class. Our tree is looking under decorated, but I’m sure that will soon be addressed, while large crib figures are due to be overhauled after their year long stay in the garage ( a flock of sheep has appeared in the Vicarage hallway, which is a worrying development; Selwyn the Vicarage cat is looking perplexed…).  Meanwhile, I am hoping to review some more books before Christmas, and generally over the festive period, so you can officially watch this space!