An Ordinary Life by Amanda Prowse – an intense, powerful novel of a woman’s experiences of war and so much more

An Ordinary Life by Amanda Prowse

This is a book that shows that no life is completely “ordinary”, and that everyone has their secrets. In this book, mainly set in the Second World War, life is fragile but love and memories can last. This is the story of a woman’s life, her work, the risks she took, but most importantly, her love. Molly begins the book as a ninety four year old woman, struggling to fulfill a promise,  to reveal a secret central to her life. As she looks back, remembers a brief and glorious time, a time of worry, fear and overwhelming longing, the reader is involved in a story of love, loss, fear and much more. The food, the clothes, the objects descriptive give texture to a story that can be recognised by any reader, while the dialogue gives life to characters despite a distance of time. This is a book where the characters really come alive, especially Molly, whose doubts, fears and so many other emotions seem so real. This is writing, a novel, which lingers in the memory in all its colours and variations. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

After the older Molly has a nasty fall, she begins to remember her story, to go back to being eighteen years old in December 1943. Working in Bloomsbury, London as a senior translator for the Ministry of Information, she is a bright and ambitious young woman with a good friend, Geer, who drags her to a dance to meet her brother. Her attraction to Johan is immediate and total; happily it is mutual and each word, action and moment becomes vital to both of them. Snatched moments of love, spent in London and later elsewhere, become precious to Molly, diverting her from her work, her ambition, her petulant mother who she lives with, even a war that dominates everyone’s life. A sudden tragic discovery robs her of this blissful state, leaving her with a growing realisation that a new life beckons, very different from anything that she could have expected. The decisions that she must make, the special task that she chooses to embark on, fills her life, works on her brokenness, and leaves her a different person, a casualty of war and much more. Throughout this time she must depend on her family, made to realise that the heightened emotion she is enduring is beyond her alone, that she needs help from others to cope with so much, and express her greatest love.

This is a powerful novel that reflects the fact that war is more than a state of fear or even loss, that love can dominate a life in so many ways, that survival is more than bodily safety. A mission of incredible difficulty and danger is not the only story in this book, just as this is more than just an imaginative account of wartime life. It is the intense story of a woman who lives an extraordinary life of contrast and challenge, of love and sadness, but also purpose and small comforts. Prowse has created Molly as a woman of great depth and reality, her emotions and reactions though described by a narrator are vivid and understandable. There have been many books that deal with a woman’s wartime experiences, but this one places those feelings in the context of a long life, experiences that however brief are central to all that comes afterwards, colouring everything. The secret that Molly is trying to reveal is something and everything, a fact that has changed lives and made her own existence anything but an ordinary life.

Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall – a woman tries to cope with her family in a mature contemporary novel

Helen and the Grandbees eBook: Morrall, Alex: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Helen and the Grandbees by Alex Morrall

Honesty, help and hope are three themes of this spirited contemporary novel of the experience of parenthood. Helen’s story can be seen as one of desperation, lack of control and struggle, but also the conviction that something can be done for the woman she calls her bee, and her two grandbees. Indeed, names are important in this vivid novel of domestic interiors and memories. Helen is not called “mother” or “mum” by her daughter, and she struggles to refer to the person she called Lily is now determined to be Ingrid. Helen begins with the claustrophobia of family life as she reflects on her relationship with her parents, which moves onto the feeling of control over her environment as she lives in a completely clean flat. What has happened to her in the past, what is happening to her in the present and what she imagines will happen in the future is always seen in relation to others, their moods and abilities. This is a novel which seeks to convey the intensity of feeling in one woman’s life, even if she seeks to be self effacing. Plaintive, yearning and questioning, this writer is able to convey so much in small descriptions of setting and behaviour, it is a successful book of a woman’s life. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this effective novel. 

This novel records something of a girl’s desperation to leave her family home, which is transfigured by emotion. As she runs away, she is surprised by a baby, which leads to her understandable confusion and resolve to keep the flat clean without her bee, who she has called Lily. An empty time of dreams and memories ends when Lily/ Ingrid turns up out of the blue, full of facts about her adoptive parents, somewhat heedless of the effects of her words on Helen, as she takes in the shabby, lonely conditions in which she lives. As the novel proceeds it becomes obvious that Lily is demanding, perhaps unaware of what she already has in her life. Helen’s aware of her fragility and her unwillingness to reveal much of her past, which she comes to realise means that Lily will be angry with her. She is surprised at the strength of the protectiveness that she feels for Lily, her helplessness in the face of this woman who she only meets as an adult, seemingly making decisions that she cannot understand. That are times when Helen recognises that she is happy, content to what she is allowed to do, but always there is the nagging fear that her bee, and her grandbees, will go away from her. 

The author has made a wonderful job of creating the character of Helen with all her insecurities but also her bravery in confronting what she thinks she must do to protect others. I also thought that her depiction of the teenage Aisha is well handled in the context of challenging relationships, especially in echoing some of the fears that Helen has experienced. This book handles realistically the problems of relationships defined by passing comments, facial expressions and unsaid questions. It is a book full of insight, and compassion, and I recommend this deeply personal novel. 

Mango Bay by Serena Fairfax – a young woman’s life in a Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s

Mango Bay by Serena Fairfax

A book which brings to life a family, a time and romance in a very different place and time. When Audrey meets Nat in London, 1956, she has no idea that falling in love will take her to live in Bombay in the Bene Israel Jewish community, a small group which is connected by marriage and more than fiercely protects their interests. This is a sort of family saga, with some fascinating characters living in Mango Bay, a large villa, and those who they mix on a daily basis. It has much to say about such things as arranged marriages, the difference of cultures and the efforts to keep people from marrying out of a community. It explores family relationships and the difference a young woman from another country, place and faith can make. Dramatic events happen throughout this book, but it is also fascinating for the characters that populate it. As intrigues, surprises and plans are made and upset, this is a book that sets an exotic scene, full of the colours, smells, sounds and more that Audrey comes to experience in this vivid and complex book. This is a read full of intense life and colour, personalities and people that is absorbing. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book. 

When Nat finally asks Audrey to dance after some time of observing her, she only gradually comes to understand what her situation will be if she becomes attached to him. She is training to become a professional musician, and learns that he is a barrister from India. When they decide to marry she must inform her traditional Scottish parents, who have many concerns. When Nat returns home, there is a pause when she is left in a poor flat without any certainty of his feelings for her. Eventually she travels to Bombay, when Nat has finally broken to his family that he does not want a marriage arranged for him, and that he would rather like his wife to come over from London. His father is outraged at his ambitious social plans being upset, but Audrey disarms him and begins to establish what is really going on in the villa. Khan Sahib is the patriarch of the clan, who bought the villa and now lives there with his second wife Rachel, her mother the venerable Babai, Khan Sahib’s eldest son Vidor and his wife Leah, and the Pearl, a disassified daughter. Their social connections are complex and close, as the survival of the community necessitates many interlinking relationships. There are, however, many reasons why everything does not go to plan.

This is a book of great depth as people, places and practices must all be delicately balanced. Money and assets are discussed, as well as the strong minded Esther’s plans. I found it an intense read which was difficult to put down, as I was keen to discover what was going to happen to the various characters that I was interested in. The writing is beautifully balanced between the characters, the setting and the plot, and the little mysteries of each character are well handled. Altogether this is an enjoyable book with memorable characters, cleverly revealing an alternative lifestyle in the 1960s , a well written testimony to a remarkable community. 

The Greenbecker Gambit by Ben Graff – a novel of a man obsessed by the spirit of chess

 

Chess is a way of life, a way of seeing things, a way to deal with life. That is how Tennessee Greenbecker thinks in this novel where he believes that he is the true, if unrecognised champion of the world. It is a novel which tries to answer a question; what would happen if someone tried to disturb a world championship chess match. I am not a chess player, but in this book everything is related to chess, specifically by Tennessee, whose relative success in the game is his superpower as far as he is concerned. He is very concerned, obsessed, by what he sees as his world beating skill at the game. It overrides every other consideration in his life, his physical frailty and his mental health, except his side interest in setting fires. This novel takes the form of a stream of conscious, a narration of Tennessee’s thoughts and actions,  however unsavoury. It is always his views, his complicated thought processes that propel the story as he drifts round a London of cafes, hostels and pubs. This is an intense read in some respects, full of a difficult life, but with flashes of unintended humour on Tennessee’s part. It is a very personal book, written with great power from the mind of a fictional character. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual novel. 

 

The first phrase we hear from Tennesse is “Waiting for the body to burn is making me impatient”. It follows a number of quotations, including TS Eliot “human kind Cannot bear very much reality”. As Tennesse debates the merits and techniques of getting a bonfire to light, it becomes clear that he has experience of setting illicit fires. He consoles himself when he is forcibly moved on with the thought that he will be world chess champion. His night in a cafe is full of his thoughts of meeting Gabriel his brother, Bobby Fischer the chess champion, and his folder of chess strategies and great ideas for regaining his supposed position in the world of chess. There are hints of poor physical health, and his reactions to other people show a mental instability, but it is not a simple matter. This is a man who is fixated on missed opportunities, unfair treatment and most crucially, his expectation of challenging his nemesis to a world champion level match. His family, of which Gabriel is the only survivor, obviously had a great effect on him, especially his writer mother.   He writes of the kitchen where he grew up “Our kitchen smelt of paper and hope and words trying to connect and somehow failing”. Tennesse’s progress, or movement around London, is dominated by memories and ambition, and the squalor of his life is sad and somehow moving. 

 

This is a powerful read of one man’s descent, or thwarted ambition, and more. It does not have a lot of technical detail regarding chess, but it captures something of the spirit of the game in terms of thoughts about strategy and dedication to the skill of playing.  I recommend this book as an engaging read about one person’s thought process and view of the world, and as an extremely well written story of a life.

A Good Heart is Hard to Find by Trisha Ashley – a horror writer seeks inspiration and more

A Good Heart is Hard to Find: The wonderfully funny rom-com from ...

A Good Heart is Hard to Find  (Or Singled Out) by Trisha Ashley

 

A writer’s life is not always easy, and when that writer is responsible for vivid and scary horror novels. Cassandra or Cass Leigh is a unique character, as she lives in a small village with an atmospheric graveyard and an understanding vicar, Charles. Cass has a couple of good friends, including Orla who organises singing telegrams in full costume, and Jason who has a difficult son and a wife who has disappeared. Cass is forty four years old, and has been in a relationship with a married man for many years when she decides that she wants to have a baby, even though she knows it is against the odds. Max, her older lover, is in America with his wife for an academic job, but has managed to string her along for years with vague promises of marriage. As Cass seeks inspiration for her latest novel, she goes to the large manor house in the village.

 

This is a novel that has a lot of humour, often around the outrageous costumes that Cass and Orla wear. The humour extends to some of the characters who appear on the sidelines, with Trisha Ashley’s usual flair. It has a lot to say about the choices that women have faced for years, especially whether to hang onto a relationship even if it is far from ideal, even at the risk to their fertility and consequent hopes of having children. There is also the theme of guilt, especially when others encourage the feeling. Cass is fascinated with the occult partly as a result of a father who has always told her that she is evil. Apart from that, she has a most unusual family of one sister, Jane, who always appears to be innocent, and four brothers who have very different ways of life. The names and family did remind me of another author, a certain Miss Austen, who probably never wrote in this particular genre…

 

In a truly classic twist, Cass encounters the new owner of the local manor house, which is advertised as “the most haunted house in Britain”. Dante, apart from appearing in costume himself, has a past which has also left him with feelings of guilt, and he seems suddenly determined to discover more about horror stories and writing a book. When the vicar organises the annual auction of people’s talents in the village for charity, Cass realises that she must potentially do more than seek inspiration, and that there may well be decisions that she makes.

 

This is a book which defies easy description, but is very entertaining and very funny. Cass’s writing is “reviewed” in short phrases at the start of each chapter which suggest that it is disturbing and yet addictive. Also as ideas for the stories come to Cass, she thinks through suitable lines to write during the night. The dialogue is also very funny, especially as it becomes known that Cass is hoping to find a father for a child. The set pieces of the confrontations between Max and Cass, and Dante with people from his past, are very enjoyable, especially in the context of vampire and other horror stories. This book introduces some fascinating characters, even the minor ones, as well as slipping in some big questions of family and friends. I recommend this book as a very enjoyable read.  

 

This novel is a good and entertaining read, with some very cheeky references. Although there are some tough questions here it is well written and very effective. Sometimes it is just this sort of entertaining book we need when life is tricky, and it makes a change from more “heavy” novels.  As always, great variety helps!