‘The Summer of Impossible Things’ by Rowan Coleman

Man asleep on motorbike in Saigon.

Man asleep on motorbike in Saigon.  Not at all relevant to post but I’m writing this on my iPad using a dodgy Internet connection and I can’t source images.

We are used to time being linear, the past happening before the present, the present before the future.  Although the past can influence the present and the future, and the present can also influence the future, it is not possible to alter the past to bring about a different present and future.

Luna and Pia’s mother, Marissa, has taken her own life after many years of depression, which she has taken pains to hide under a facade of family happiness.  At the start of the story, the two sisters travel from England to New York, where their mother grew up and where she met their father, Henry, a photographer involved in the filming of Saturday Night Fever (a real, girlie, teenage film, starring John Travolta).  Already they know, from videos Marissa left for them after her death, that Luna is not Henry’s daughter but the result of rape.  

Shortly after their arrival, Luna, rational Luna, thirty years old, a physicist, a young woman in a proper job, starts her time travel adventures.  She’s taken back to 1977, to when Saturday Night Fever was being shot in Bay Bridge, the Odyssey 2001 Club, teenagers in flares and mullet hair-dos, and – perish the thought – girls wearing dresses.  She meets her mother (known to her friends as ‘Riss’) as a young girl,  a dressmaker, a blue-collar Italian-American and a devout Catholic.  Riss is happy, in love with Henry, and with lots of friends, but Luna knows this is about to go terribly wrong.  If she can travel back in time, Luna wonders, can she change the past, can she prevent the rape happening to ruin her mother’s happiness?

Although the premise on which this novel is built is ingenious (as you see),  it took me some time to get into it, but then that might be me, as I’m not into time travel or fantasy of any sort.  The denouement that I expected happened at about 80%, but what made it all worth it was that, at that point, the storyline ratcheted up another gear, asking more questions and making more demands on the main character, some of them very difficult to resolve.

This is the first Rowan Coleman novel I’ve read, even though (I think) she is my Facebook friend, as she was running comps in Facebook posts a few years ago.  Her literary style is stunning.  She describes everything and everyone in lucid, meaningful detail, even characters who only appear in one brief scene.  This story involves a long cast, but we remember who is who because of the good descriptions.  The names of characters were also distinctive – Luna, and Pia’s nickname, Pea, which I thought delightful.  

A very emotional novel, this, although some characters needed development, Pea, for instance.  She started off as a fragile, recovering addict, and, although she seemed to grow in personal strength as the novel progressed, and we’re given to understand that she did kick her addictions, we’re not told how.

Do I recommend The Summer of Impossible Things.  Yes, definitely.

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‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

That’s what we say, isn’t it?   Even when we’re anything but fine.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely sure she is completely fine.  She has a degree in classics, a flat and a job.  She arrives at work punctually, has never taken a day off sick and doesn’t take all her annual leave.  True, her workmates find her unsociable and her manner is over formal, old fashioned and that she has some odd ideas – all gleaned from ‘Mummy’.  Eleanor is lonely, acutely lonely, existing through crosswords, interesting television documentaries and a bottle of vodka drunk over the course of the weekend.  She has no friends and doesn’t feel the need to acquire any, except, well, it might be nice, she thinks, to share life with a significant other.

Aerial view of Glasgow.

Aerial view of Glasgow (not my photo). Attrib Wikimedia.

On a rare visit to a gig, Eleanor develops a crush on a musician, Johnny Lomond (Tweeting as JohnnyRocks).  She is quite sure he is the one.  Starting with a painful bikini wax (an unusual first step in a fashion makeover), she devotes her energy and resources into her ‘project’ to get Johnny Lomond.  Meanwhile, her computer at work malfunctions so she has to call Raymond, the IT techie.  When he arrives at her desk to fix it, she extends her hand and introduces herself as ‘Miss Oliphant’.  Eleanor disapproves of Raymond, the casual way he wears his clothes, his speech, his emails, his timekeeping and his table manners.

One evening Eleanor and Raymond, happening to leave the office at the same time, see an elderly man, who is carrying shopping across the road, collapse.  Eleanor is all for doing nothing, remarking that the man is probably drunk, by Raymond goes straight in to help and, instinctively, involves Eleanor.  This is the point where some sunshine begins to creep into Eleanor’s lonely life, bitterly resisted at first, but, incrementally, with Raymond – a saint on the printed page – she thaws.  They become friends, close friends.

But what about the musician, Johnny Lomond?  What indeed?  He doesn’t know that he is supposed to be ‘the one’ for Eleanor, because she hasn’t met him face-to-face.  Can he really be the solution to all Eleanor’s loneliness, her relationship with her poisonous ‘Mummy’

, unpleasant reminisces of her early childhood and of being in foster care, and of some terrible ‘fire’ which she prefers to suppress?

This is the first novel published by Gail Honeyman.  She writes with confidence, setting the action in Glasgow, a city with which she is clearly familiar.  Eleanor’s character – old fashioned, prudish, snobbish, judgmental and brittle – is spectacular, spectacularly imagined and spectacularly depicted.  Raymond is a welcome, normal counter-balance.   It’s unusual to have the computer man as the normal one, also refreshing.

The plot rambles from time to time, but never loses its thread.  By half way through, the ending has become pretty obvious, and there are no twists, but it’s a satisfying ending.

This novel stands out against everything I’ve read recently.  I go back to the word I used before – spectacular.

Police Procedurals – Is There Anything Fresh to Write About?

Lincolnshire Fens

Lincolnshire Fens (not my pic)

Yes, I think so, and Joy Ellis is writing them.

Joy Ellis self-publishes eminently readable crime fiction, set in the Lincolnshire Fens.   Like many other contemporary British crime writers, Joy writes police-procedural and about strong, women women in the police, and she does it very well.  Altogether Joy has eight novels to her name – see her page on the very useful Books Series in Order site – and, for the latest book, Their Lost Daughters, Joy’s own website.  Joy writes about two sets of characters (both police officers and both based in the Fens):  ultra-tough and ultra-bitter Nikki Galena and gentler Joseph Easter and crew;  young, university-educated and fast-tracked DI Jackman and older, experienced DS Marie Evans, who happens also to be a biker.

Stalker on the Fens (Nikki Galena and Joseph Easter)

Nikki Galena and Joseph Easter are the better defined characters, the characters Joy seems most confident in writing about.  The two are a complete contrast, with Joseph Easter being sympathetically-drawn, gentle, wise and temperature, whereas Nikki Galena is just hard and tough.  The relationship between the two is well evolved, the sort of relationship that develops between colleagues in a tough environment, of mutual trust and dependence – a man and woman without any sexual or romantic element (Ohmigod!  Surely no such thing could ever happen!)

However, the plot line in ‘Stalker on the Fens’ just did not work for me.  Elements of it were good:  Helen, an aromatherapist, trapped in a building following an explosion, remembers another person, who is trapped in there with her, confessing to a murder.  Years down the line, she is being stalked and cannot come to terms with her memories.   Her partner is behaving strangely and seems unsupportive.   Then Helen is murdered.  Many questions are being asked, but the answers are too complicated and not satisfying.  Also, I do not believe that thousands of people would attend an event, which included flower floats being launched in the river at midnight, for an aromatherapist, however good she was.

The Murderer’s Son (DI Jackman and Marie Evans)

Marie Evans and DI Jackman are not so well drawn.  In fact, DI Jackman did not come alive to me at all, and we don’t realise that Marie is a bikey until well into the book.  I’ve ordered Their Lost Daughters and am hoping to get to know them better.

The plot to ‘The Murderer’s Son’ is compelling from the word go.  Daniel Kinder, a successful journalist, has a lot going for him, a developing career and a lovely girlfriend, Skye, with whom he has a good relationship, and a supportive home life with his adoptive mother.  However, he has come to believe that his natural mother was the violent murderer, Francoise Thayer, and,  when he  comes into the police station to confess to a particularly bloody recently committed murder,  Marie Evans disbelieves him.  When she asks him why, he answers that he ‘has it in him’.  We readers don’t want Daniel to be guilty, but he is obviously suffering from psychiatric problems, particularly from ‘absences’, when he cannot account from his actions.  The plot progressed well and the ending was satisfying.

Do I recommend these books?  Yes, definitely.

I’ve read several more books since then.  I’d better carry on reviewing!

‘Refugee Stories: Seven personal journeys behind the headlines’ by Dave Smith

This book contains seven personal stories of seven individual refugees in the United Kingdom.  All of them were supported by Boaz Trust, a Christian organisation accommodating destitute asylum seekers and refugees in Greater Manchester.  The author, Dave Smith, the founder of Boaz Trust, was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2012, but returned it in protest at UK asylum policies.

View of Manchester.

General View of Manchester (Creative Commons, Flickr)

Each man or woman’s account starts in the the refugee’s home country, where they suffer different but horrendous persecution, as a result of which they flee to northern Europe.   The main part of each story concerns their attempts to negotiate the immigration system in our country.  All bar one succeeded, although many had to endure many years, even up to a decade, in limbo beforehand.  Each story, written up using the asylum seeker’s own words, is harrowing, the emotion heightened by their being rambling, jumbled and muddled.  Frequently the refugees do not understand the process, often they made mistakes, sometimes they cheated, but they were desperate.  The reader understands why.

Some of the refugees tried to address wider concerns, such as how the refugee crisis is depleting the third world of skilled people.  Most of the asylum-seekers have well-qualified and started out in life as moderately well-to-do and many were involved in opposing repressive regimes.

The British Home Office come out of this book very badly: heartless; prejudiced against refugees, presuming that each application is bogus and making sweeping assumptions about countries being safe when they’re not; incompetent, losing files and not knowing the law properly.  What I see is a service acutely over-stretched, staffed by overworked officers, solicitors and social workers, making mistakes and pressured by social, political and security issues.

The author, in his blurb, admits that Refugee Stories is not a book to enjoy, and it isn’t.  Very sobering, very disturbing.

You can buy this book from Instant Apostle.

(I can think of no suitable illustration for this review, so above you see a view of Manchester.)

‘Standard Deviation’ by Katherine Heiny

At last I can review this book, which was released on 1 June 2017.

Origami crane

Origami crane (attrib wikipedia)

‘Standard Deviation’ is a thoroughly enjoyable read, but with a serious strain in it.  HarperCollins, on their website, recommend this book to readers of David Nicholls, Nick Hornby, Nora Ephron and Lorrie Moore, but I would recommend it to lovers of Woody Allen films, especially ‘Manhattan’.  Here you have middle class life in New York in all its quirky glory.

The theme of ‘Standard Deviation’ is being a parent of a child on the autistic spectrum, and how it affected just about everything.  Currently, many authors are writing about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, and rightly so, as this condition is one of the big challenges of our age.   (You will recall my review of K A Hitchins’ The Girl at the End of the Road.)  More than 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum* – officially, that is.  I am sure that there are many others, especially adults, who remain undiagnosed.   However, the plot rambled.  Characters moved in and out of it.  Mc Graham’s involvement with his first wife and the cluelessness of his secretary added metropolitan charm and atmosphere (again, I’m thrown back to Woody Allen) but little else.   Subplots should add something to the main plot and these didn’t.

The strongest character in this novel is Audra (mc’s second wife and mother of his Asperger’s boy, Matthew).   The author, through mc, asserts that Asperger’s Syndrome being hereditary, at least one parent of an Asperger’s child is likely to display Aspergic tendencies.  Audra certainly did, as evidenced by her incessant talking, inability to understand when the person she was talking to was interested, and her many inappropriate comments. Audra was the strongest character in the book by far and what kept me reading.

This title may be purchased from HarperCollins.

*http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/myths-facts-stats.aspx (accessed 27 April 2017).

‘Summerchill’ by Quentin Bates

When you murder someone, getting rid of the body can pose a problem.  So, even though you all finished work some hours ago, you ring two of your workmates (who you don’t know particularly well) and ask them to do it for you.  ‘Sure,’ they answer.

If you want to restrict your victim’s movements before you beat him up, force him to take his trousers down and wear them around his ankles.

Gullfloss Waterfall, Iceland

Gullfloss Waterfall, Iceland

Logi is a jobbing carpenter, working on building sites, alongside (mostly) migrant labourers.  Down on his luck, recently separated from his wife, he chances upon a revolver and hides it away.   Paid a call by a debt collector, whom, he presumes (wrongly) to be sent by his wife, he murders him (not with the revolver).  Logi is not an attractive character; he has no moral compass and rarely expresses any emotions or even likes or dislikes, no sense of humour, no affection for any other human being, or desire for creature comfort.  In fact, all the characters are like this.  The nearest one gets to a preference is when Polish Tadeusz abhors his pizza for being ‘pineapple yuck’.   It is impossible to feel sorry for any of the victims of the various murders and violent assaults, some of which are both graphic and unusual, because they all deserve everything they get.  An aficionado of cosy crime and someone who likes her characters to be proper characters, I almost gave up on this novel, several times, but I’m so glad I continued.   Logi has cunning.   He is inventive.   After the first few chapters, I’m on Logi’s side.  Go, Logi.

What brought me to this novel was its title, combined with the location.  Waiting for ‘the bus to the bus station’ in Reykjavik, early on a July morning two years ago, I too experienced, and relished, the summer chill – the cold, clean air of Iceland, amidst bright sunshine.   What I didn’t realise is that Summerchill is number 4.5 (work that out!) in a series featuring Reykjavik’s Officer Gunnhilder (generally known as Gunna).  However, the fact that the police – Gunna herself, and her colleague Helgi – come on to the pages of this book very late, about a third of the way in,  certainly influences the general tone of this book.

Quentin Bates (according to the biography on his blog) has lived in Iceland since the 1980s.  He displays excellent knowledge of his location (as you would expect), although the way he throws in references to street names, junctions between streets in Reykjavik, and even the names of Icelandic towns, is hard-going for an English reader.  I know that Keflavik is the name of Reykjavik’s international airport, because I’ve been there, but Quentin has to recognise that Iceland is not well-known to all his readership.  Nor do we have a mental map of Iceland in our heads.  I did enjoy the scene at Reykjavik bus station though.

I admired the way Quentin dealt with most of the dialogue being in translation. It is all in English; only very occasionally did he throw in Icelandic words, and at one point Gunna greets someone she is about to interrogate with ‘Good morning’.

Well, Dear Reader.  I think I’ve just read my first Scandi Crime.  Very different from what I’m used to, but… so far, so good.

Summerchill is available from Little Brown.

‘An Insubstantial Death’ by Hilary Creed

Beachy Head, Sussex - well-known place for committing suicide.

‘There is nothing so greedy as the grave’ reads the strapline.  This novel grabbed me on the first page and held my attention all the way through.  (OK, I’m a glutton for cosy crime.)

What makes a good cosy crime novel?  Good atmosphere, good plot and distinct and well-defined characters – in that order.  Apart from her detectives, which appeared repeatedly, Agatha Christie always faltered at the ‘well-defined characters’ point, although she mostly made you like the murderer.  Hilary Creed, on the other hand, got me wishing and hoping, that one particular character would be dispatched.  And so he/she (no spoilers here!) was.

Dame Emily Hatherley-Browne has recently, very reluctantly, had to sell Seascape House, her family home, an Elizabethan mansion on Beachy Head, Sussex, to bombastic James Wedderburn, of Wedderburn’s Pork Sausage Company.   Emily has just moved into the Lodge, but, as the electricity isn’t properly installed, she has been invited to take her meals in the main house.   (Do you already see conflict?  Yes, I do.  Brilliant.)

In classic cosy crime fashion, we meet James’s family as they travel to Sussex, to see his new acquisition: his wife; his son and wife; his daughter and husband; his brother.   Later, we meet the staff, secretary Martin, lawyer George, housekeeper Stella, gym supervisor Ian, cook Grace and her granddaughter assistant Jayne.  Although all family members played an active part in the story, the story concentrated on brother Edward and daughter-in-law Samantha; other family members were shadowy.  The staff were more distinct and had better documented histories.  However, the person we get to know better and better as the novel progresses is the dead man/woman.

Of course, what happened could’ve been an accident, or, bearing in mind that we’re at Beachy Head, suicide.  This is one of the conundrums.  And, if it was murder – something the family struggle with –  how did the murderer manage to move the body to the cliff at Beachy Head, so as to be able to throw it on to the beach?  Moreover, how did the murderer manage to move the body silently?   And, of course, there’s a will, and an unexpected beneficiary.  Cosy crime genre novels should ask many questions and this one did.

Dame Emily, a not-so-modern Miss Marple, beavers away at both these problems and, in the final denouement when all characters are gathered together, Chief Inspector Drummond allows her the floor.  The reveal took me by surprise (and I can usually guess most).  The book should’ve stopped there, but, unfortunately, we moved on to a chapter which suddenly brought in a lot of new characters.  I can see that it tidied up the thread about Emily’s feelings about her house, but the story lost umph at the end.

Dame Emily’s character is well-written and we are on her side throughout, but, although she’s clearly elderly, there are questions unanswered, particularly what she did as a career, and why she’s a dame.  Maybe we will discover this in sequel.

Descriptions, especially of Beachy Head, were excellent.  Her depictions of rooms were also very good, especially of where characters were positioned, where and how.  The story is written in the third person and past tense.

Thoroughly recommended.

An Insubstantial Death can be found through Instant Apostle.