‘Their Lost Daughters’ by Joy Ellis

Oh Joy!

DI Rowan Jackman and DS Marie Evans (of ‘The Murderer’s Son’ fame) are starting a murder  investigation for one teenage girl when they are asked, by their inappropriately named chief inspector, Ruth Crooke, to renew the cold case of Kenya Black, a child who vanished eight years ago.  Ooh, and then they are commanded, by detested Superintendent Cade, to investigate the disappearance of Toni Clarkson, the teenage daughter of one of Cade’s masonic mates.  You feel their stress.  But luckily for them Toni Clarkson’s case provides helpful leads into the murder of the first girl.  The storyline is complex, but unfaltering executed, with twist after twist and pitching the breathless readers into another angle, another set of characters and another facet of the main plot.  However, without giving away any spoilers, the conclusion of the plot was a little too neat.  In my opinion, Ellis should have stopped three or two chapters before she did.

This story involves a huge number of characters, many with just a walk-on part in one short scene, yet the author expects to remember all of them.  At one point, a chapter begins with ‘William Hickey…” and launching into a serious bit of action, leaving me wondering ‘Who he?’  (I catch up after a page or so.)   As a result, none of the characters are developed in any depth.  I remember (from ‘The Murderer’s Son’) that Marie was into motorbikes and was widowed when her husband had a motorbike accident, but this wasn’t mentioned specifically in this book (and, actually, Dear Reader, that I did remember this is pretty remarkable, because I read a lot of books).  But I don’t know anything about Rowan Jackman at all, except that he lives in a nice property, in some comfort, and is looked after by a housekeeper.   Other crime writers (like Ruth Rendell) write about their detective’s family life, providing a counter-balance to the, often grim, main story, and, also showing the reader more about him/her as a character.  I must say, though, I prefer Jackman and Evans to Nikki Galena (Joy Ellis’s other mc) who does have a backstory and some character, which comes on a bit too strong at times.

Joy Ellis writes illuminatingly of the Lincolnshire Fens, with which she is clearly familiar.  The reader readily picks up the bleak landscape, yet I read the whole story wondering what time of year it was.   I think I must’ve overlooked this because I was too engrossed in the plot.

Amazon tell me I purchased this book on 21 May 2017.  What kept me so long?

This book is available from Amazon.

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‘Out of Silence’ by Annie Try

Out of Silence, cover art.

Out of Silence, the cover

Dr Mike Lewis is a clinical psychologist working in London.   At the allocation meeting, he can find no good reason for not taking on the case of Johnny 2, an asylum seeker who is an elective mute.  Mike himself is suffering, his marriage having fallen apart following the death through cancer of his six year old son.  As a mental health practitioner himself, he has not thought it appropriate to seek the help of a counsellor, so he is living in a rented flat, in chaos, amongst coffee cups, half-dead pot plants, a sink full of washing up and the packing cases, which he has not been able to muster the courage to unpack, even though he moved out of his marital home five years previously.

However, the case of Johnny 2 fascinates him.  By throwing himself into it, invoking all his technical and experience and know-how, he starts to get his life together.  Mike and Anita, the art therapist, use art as a means of helping Johnny to communicate.  At the same time, a rapport builds up between Mike and Anita, yet he still craves Ella, who is still his wife, even though he hasn’t seen her half a decade.  He is torn between two women, not knowing if either of them really want him.  Other complications arise, when Georgina, the trainee, is stalked by one of the patients.

For me, ‘Out of Silence’ was rivetting, very emotional and, at one point, very harrowing.  All characters were well-drawn and empathetic.  A vulnerable and flawed main character goes straight to the reader’s heart.  We feel for him, when the departmental secretaries cold-shoulder him when his relationship with Anita isn’t going to – their – plan.  (I must say that, when I was a secretary in a psychology department in a psychiatric hospital, way back in the 1970s, I didn’t have that sort of excitement.)   We sympathise with Mike at the end when events  force him into a position where he couldn’t do anything else, but which is horribly open to misinterpretation.

instant Apostle (who published this book) is a small but active Christian publishing company.  Like all the other Instant Apostle novels I’ve read, the Christian content is applied with a light brush, and all the more effective for it.

‘Out of Silence’ is Annie Try’s first novel but the third to be published.  I have also reviewed ‘Trying to Fly’ earlier this year.  A full five stars for ‘Out of Silence’.

I can now go on and read something else tonight.  Do other reviewers have this problem, whereby they don’t feel they can start a new book until they’ve written up the last one on their blog?

I am a member of the Instant Apostle Facebook review group, which invites honest and rigorous reviews .  The work was supplied to me free of charge.

‘Out of Silence’ is available from Instant Apostle.

Slightly Spooky Stories 1 by Patsy Collins

A Cartoon Ghost

A Cartoon Ghost… looks more like a seal!

Twenty-five lovely short stories, some quite long for their genre, and others shorter, all with a very light ghostly theme. In fact, in some of the stories, the spooky bit is very light indeed, such as hypnosis treatment (‘Brainwashing Barbara’), whereas in others ghosts and the dead are the main characters (‘Can’t Take It With You’). My favourite was ‘Working in the Bookshop’, which featured a young lad looking for first job and finding one in very old fashioned bookshop. At every point, he is prompted by a mysterious old lady, and not just him but everyone else around him

Patsy writes from the first person and the third and all her stories include a lot of dialogue, which brings them alive. This is Patsy doing what she does best, getting inside the characters of ordinary people and crafting their problems into a tight story. Great stuff, but not for those who you want horror, ghouls, zombies and vampires, forget it.  Fortunately, Dear Reader, I don’t!

Amazon link

I’ve Finished the Forsyte Saga At Last

Reading The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy was one of the reasons why I haven’t posted on this blog for a while.  It is a massive tome, 1140 pages long and consisting of five books:  The Man of Property, Indian Summer of a Forsyte, In Chancery, Awakening and To Let.  Of course, it’s been adapted for television and cinema, time after time, and ‘nobody’ reads the books anymore, do they?  Well, I did, and I’m really glad I did.

(The other reason I haven’ t been posting is a four-letter word – Work.)

I first started reading it early in October, at Gatwick, as we were waiting to board our plane to Tenerife, using a leather-bound copy, which had been a school prize awarded to my father.  (I do hate that bit where you’re sitting on the plane, waiting to take off and you’re not allowed to read your Kindle.).  As I started to read the first pages, this rather precious volume started to fall apart, so, as soon as we reached our holiday apartment and got the internet sorted out (no mean feat), I downloaded it on to my Kindle and put the book away.  I always thought of the Forsyte Saga as a sort of Downton Abbey for my parents’ generation.  As I rapidly realised, it’s no such thing!

The title of the first book should’ve warned me straightaway:  Man of Property.  How scornful, how dismissive, how derisory is that!  Galsworthy did not approve of the Forsytes.  In fact, an associate of George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, Galsworthy demonstrated that he did not share the middle class values of his characters, particularly their preoccupation with things and possessing things and how regarded everything as a possession, even wives.  In other works, as well as the Saga, Galsworthy championed women’s rights, prison reform, animal rights, and – particularly – attitudes on divorce.

The story of the Forsyte Saga (which takes place between mid-Victorian era and the 1920s) is predominantly (but not solely) concerned with the relationship between Soames and Irene.  Irene, very young and very beautiful, and desperately unhappy as Soames’ wife, has an affair with Soames’s architect, Bosinney, who is also engaged to June Forsyte, Irene’s only friend in the Forsyte tribe.  This affair only ends when Bosinney is killed in an ‘accident’ (which may have been suicide).  Irene then leaves Soames to live on her own modest income, but is chanced upon by Soames’ uncle, Jolyon, who befriends her and leaves money to her.  Soames, meanwhile, thinks about divorcing her, because he wants a son and heir, but changing his mind, even though ten years have lapsed, tries to resurrect his marriage to Irene.

What television and film viewers of the Saga miss is Galsworthy’s flowing descriptions, of London, where most of the action takes place, and of his characters’ movements and expressions.  It is the detail that’s so amazing. Here is a random example:

Soames watched his daughter give her hand, saw her wince at the squeeze it received, and distinctly heard the young man’s sign as he passed out.  Then she came from the window, trailing her finger along the mahogany edge of the billiard-table.  Watching her, Soames knew that she was going to ask him something.  Her finger felt around the last pocket, and she looked up.

The English usage is also interesting.  Galsworthy hyphenates everything:  billiard-table, Good-bye, self-conscious, even after-noon.  He also uses em dashes a lot.  He uses exclamation marks far more frequently than would be approved of now, several times on every page.

Characterisation is not particularly perceptive.  The men are very mannish and the women girly.  His best-drawn character is the rake Val Dartie, a middle-ranking character.

The plot is pretty water-tight, although I never really understood why Irene was physically repelled by Soames, despite an inadequate explanation is given much later in the book by the younger Jolyon.  She shuddered when he tried to kiss her, before they were engaged.  Why then did she marry him?   I fully understand that marriage is what Victorian women did, but, even then, there were limits as to what a cash-strapped woman might take.

The plot also reflected the era in which it was set very effectively, despite Galsworthy’s radical views and being written half a century later than the time of its setting.

All the time I was reading The Forsyte Saga, my one and only husband was telling all about the television presentation and which actor played whom.  I’m so glad I never saw it.   If ever a series of books deserved to be read, not viewed, it’s these.

If you’re a writer and interested in historical fiction, take a look at my other book, Write On.  There’s a lovely historical fiction competition for you to enter.

Sorry.  Too late to think about suitable photos.  Above are two of Tenerife, where – a tangential link here – I read the first part of it.  I think Galsworthy would have enjoyed both of them, although Soames probably would not have appreciated the second.

‘A Start in Life’ by Anita Brookner

Old fashioned flats in Chelsea. This is actually 34 Tite Street, where Oscar Wilde lived, but these are definitely the sort of flats Anita Bruckner wrote about.

Old fashioned flats in Chelsea. This is actually 34 Tite Street, where Oscar Wilde lived, but these are definitely the sort of flats Anita Bruckner wrote about.

I stopped reading Anita Bruckner’s novels, some years ago, even though I enjoyed them, because, I found, her books were too same-y.

‘Hotel Du Lac’, the first Anita Bruckner I tackled, knocked me back with its depth – and had me reaching for the dictionary every few pages, but the effect did not last.  Even though ‘Hotel Du Lac’ won Anita Bruckner the Booker Prize in 1984, I don’t believe that, in any way, it stood apart from her other books.  There is an Anita Brookner formula: young woman in London, born to Mittel European parents who have emigrated to London before/during/immediately after World War II, and is living, with them, comfortably in one of those very heavy-looking flats in Chelsea (none of her characters lived in a house!), and trying to break away.  Although ‘A Start in Life’ was first published in 1981, the setting is – evidently – much earlier than that – late 1950s to mid-1960s.   Many of Brookner’s protagonists are bookish or into art, which is hardly surprising as Bruckner herself was an acclaimed academic art historian at the Courtauld Institute (working alongside traitor Anthony Blunt, but that’s another story).

So… on to ‘A Start in Life’.  Our heroine, Ruth Weiss, is an academic, an authority on French literature (her specialty is Balzac).  She has a German grandmother (with a few hints at her being Jewish), who lives in Ruth and her parents’ house.  To start with, the grandmother sounds vile, the sort who calls Ruth’s father ‘Georg’, insists on using best china and carrying out all meals as if they were nice tea-parties in pre-war Vienna, but, as the reader realises, after the grandmother dies, she is the only member of the family who makes any attempt to care for Ruth as a child and ‘to bring her up’.  Ruth’s parents are even more vile, her mother, Helen, an actress, vain and self-absorbed, and her father, George, totally wrapped up in Helen.  The parents call each other ‘darling heart’.  After the grandmother dies, they engage a housekeeper, because they couldn’t possibly do household tasks themselves, but Mrs Cutler seems only able to reheat food from tins (how 1960s!) and washes up once a day (if that).

As she gets older, Helen’s acting roles (and the family’s income) diminishes, as George’s bookshop is earning virtually nothing at all.  Helen, saying she is ‘a little tired’, spends more and more time in bed, to the point where her feet can hardly take her weight.  Mrs Cutler’s position in the family looms larger and larger, to the point where George is searching out library books (nothing with a ‘Douglas’ in, please, because her husband was called ‘Dougie’) for his housekeeper.  George doesn’t like it and becomes closer and closer to the Sally Jacobs, the woman who has purchased his book business, and Ruth retreats into herself and Balzac.  Both of them have affairs.

The story is as much about George and Helen, Ruth’s parents, as Ruth herself.  Like many of Brookner’s books, the plotline is thin and many pages are taken up luxuriating in richly developed  characters.   Ruth is a daughter trying to escape her parents.  She tries very hard, as a schoolgirl and a student, retreating into the library.  She rents a room in London and she goes to Paris. I can’t tell you anymore without giving you spoilers (that is, more spoilers than I have already).

Do read ‘A Start in Life’.  Not having read any Brookner for a while, the charm of her style and her usual settings wowed me all over again.   She made me feel very sorry for Ruth.  I was egging her on all the time, to get away from her dreadful, selfish parents.

I award ‘A Start in Life’ four stars  ****.

 

Katherine Blessan Blog Tour: ‘Lydia’s Song’

'Lydia's Song' Blog Tour Poster

‘Lydia’s Song’ Blog Tour

Lydia’s quiet expat life in Cambodia is dramatically turned upside down by the sudden arrival of Song, a young & vulnerable Vietnamese girl, and the flattering romantic attentions of a handsome, dashing local man. Just as she settles into this new-found happiness, everything is shattered as Song is kidnapped and sold into the child sex trade. Broken, Lydia returns to the UK, confirmed in her doubts about ‘God’, only to find the most unexpected guest on her doorstep one night many years later with the most incredible story to tell of hope lost and innocence restored.

Dear Reader is taking part in the Katherine Blessan Blog Tour.  Although, to my shame, I haven’t read Lydia’s Song, I’ve asked Katherine some questions, and I’m letting her do the talking.

Question 1:  What made you want to write about Cambodia?

I lived and worked in Cambodia, for two and a half years, on two separate occasions. I went to Cambodia initially for six months in 2006 with the organization Cambodia Action to work as a TEFL teacher. The second time I went for two years and worked for an international school called Logos International under the wing of a Christian NGO called Asian Hope.

The place and the people got under my skin, but the main reason I wrote about it was because my story idea was firmly set in Cambodia. Living there certainly helped me to get the sights, scents and physical imprint of the place accurate, as well as understanding something of my own character’s experiences and worldview.

Question 2: How do you deal with the pain and high emotional content of your story without making it unbearable for the reader?

For me it was all about artistic integrity in conveying the truth of the harrowing experience that young girls go through in sex slavery, but at the same time, as a Christian, wanting to avoid my narrative being too graphic. In the scene where Song is raped for the first time I presented this in an almost dreamlike sequence as Song psychologically distances herself from the event, so as to be able to deal with the trauma. These scenes weren’t easy to deal with emotionally but I’ve always been fairly resilient when it comes to handling difficult emotions and would rather confront the truth than hide things under the carpet. Also, the places where the emotional content of the story were high were in some ways easiest to write as they were the places where the narrative drive of the story compelled me forward most.

Question 3: Did the basic idea for the story come to you all at once? Or did you have to make many changes?

It did indeed come all at once! The first time I went to Cambodia in 2006 I was staying with a family in Ratanakiri province and, while there, I was resting on a hammock on their porch. A servant was sweeping underneath me and I remember feeling embarrassed by this. Suddenly the essential idea for the plot for Lydia’s Song hit me, almost like divine inspiration. I started the novel at that time, although it was just the beginning and needed a lot of fleshing out from my own experiences in Cambodia together with the research I had to do in order to make it authentic. I didn’t make any changes to the basic storyline – in fact it was the strength of the idea that kept me going through all the stops and starts of the writing process!

Question 4: How long did it take you to write this book?

It took me eight years from the initial idea till the completion. This was mainly because I was working as a teacher full time, experiencing life in Cambodia, getting married cross-culturally and starting to have a family of my own. The majority of the book was written in the four years after my first child, Joel, was born, during school holidays and snatched hours.

Question 5: Would you write about South East Asia again?

Yes, if a suitable storyline came to mind that needed a South Eastern Asian location, but my family and I don’t have any immediate plans to go back there, as our international focus is currently elsewhere.

Question 6: Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am currently writing another novel, which I’m about a third of the way through. It’s been on hold, however, for a year while I followed the pressing urge to write Lydia’s Song as a screenplay, the first draft of which is now complete! I’m desperately trying to get that finished in time for the London Screenwriters Festival in September.

It’s always interesting hearing about how other authors write, isn’t it?  Reading that writing Lydia’s Song took Katherine eight years, I don’t feel quite so concerned about how long it’s taking me to get my novel finished!

Best of luck, Katherine!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Hedgehog

Attrib Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is a literary novel, set in an expensive Left Bank apartment block in Paris.  The hedgehog is the despised concierge, Renee Michel, apparently the stereotype of her profession.  She looks dowdy, appears slow of intellect, owns a cat and the sound of her television blares from her flat.  Her tenants are all wealthy, well-educated, snobs and fashionably left-wing.  The story is told by Renee Michel herself and through the journals of Paloma Josse, an eleven year old girl living in one of the apartments (Renee in serif font, Paloma in san serif).  These two are the only two characters with whom the reader gets to know well.

Renee was born into a family of backward country peasants, who hardly spoke to one another and never addressed each other by name.  Renee deliberately gives the impression of still being that peasant, carefully concealing that she is cultured and well-read.  In fact, she is hungry for learning, someone who understands what she reads, but with a different slant, seeing as she is unschooled.  Her only friend is the Portuguese cleaner, Manuela, who, Renee adjudges to be an aristocrat because she insists on having a plate and a tablecloth when eating a walnut.  Renee is however a likable character who rapidly gains the reader’s sympathy.

Paloma Joffe defines herself by the people around her.  Papa, a republican politician, enjoys coffee, many different newspapers and rugby and has conscience qualms about putting his elderly mother in a home.  Maman spends three hours a day watering her houseplants and has been in analysis for ten years, not with a proper medic but, according to Paloma, ‘just a leftie’.  Maman loves to reminisce about the Evenements of 1968.   Paloma reserves her bitterest opprobrium for her elder sister, Colombe, an arrogant teenager who enjoys all the privileges of wealth yet effects to despise them.  She wears grunge clothes, with holes, which, in Renee’s opinion, belittle the aspirations of the less well off.  Colombe knocks on the concierge’s door at seven am, to tell her about an expected courier delivery, and is full of self-righteous indignation when Renee refuses to speak to her until the lodge opens at eight.

For a large part of the book, Paloma, who seems to believe she is too good for the world and her family, comes over as someone as entitled and snobby as everyone else.  She is considering committing suicide in a year’s time and, at the same time, burning down the apartment block where they all live.  It takes a while for the reader to grow to like Paloma and to appreciate her innocence, through her ‘Profound Thoughts’ (all numbered) and her ‘Journal of Movement of All the World’.  Only in the later sections do we realise that Paloma is only eleven and a half and that she is a geeky kid in pink-framed glasses.  Moreover, we don’t get to know her name until very late on.

The only other character who features majorly is the Japanese filmmaker, Kazuko Ozu, the newest man in the block, who appears only half way through the novel.  The antithesis of all the other residents, he is studiously courteous in a very Asian way and appears to be without class consciousness, is very well read and cultured, as well as being rich.  To my mind, he is just too good to be believable.

The author describes very effectively the pretentiousness and sense of entitlement of the wealthy left-wing establishment.   Renee is offended by the I’m-so-left-wing-I’m-speaking-to-the-concierge tone.

The writing style is intense, self-consciously literary, and the action slow-moving, insofar as there is action at all.  For me the lack of plot-line undermines some excellent characterisation.   It is said, repeatedly, that literature is ‘all about character’.  This novel, I’m afraid, disproves this maxim.

Steel yourself for the shocking ending!

I award this book three stars only.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog can be purchased from Gallic (through Belgravia Publishing) he

re.  Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.