The Lido – Libby Page

Rating: 5 stars

If, like me, you’re feeling that summer is an awfully long way off, now’s the time to turn to a book to make you feel better about the wait, and I thoroughly recommend turning to The Lido. Like Flora and her mother Ingrid in Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, the two leading characters in The Lido, Rosemary, who is 86, and Kate, 60 years her junior, feel liberated and free when they are swimming. But whereas in Swimming Lessons the swimming is done in the open sea in Dorset, for Rosemary and Kate their liberating swims take place in Brixton Lido, a much-loved local venue. Rosemary has swum there for her entire life and it’s the key cornerstone in her whole being, as she’s watched the city she grew up in changing and shifting around her. So when it’s under threat of closure for redevelopment as part of a proposed luxury development called Paradise Living, she starts a campaign to prevent this. Kate is a young reporter working on the Brixton Chronicle who is assigned the task of covering the story.

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In this, her first published novel, Libby Page writes beautifully both about her characters – Rosemary and her late husband George in particular are an unusual central focus in modern fiction, working class and childless, and portrayed in tender detail – and about her setting. The descriptions of Brixton are vivid and capture a real living place, chronicling vividly its changing nature, from Rosemary’s childhood in wartime right up to modern times. (George’s old greengrocers’ shop in Electric Avenue has become a trendy cocktail bar, for example.) Rosemary has many friends in the streets of her home town, so her shopping days are happy outings punctuated by long chats and treats; at home, however, she’s alone and missing George desperately.

Kate, on the other hand, is desperately shy, with no friends either at work or outside it, spending her evenings crying in her room in a house share.

She doesn’t tell anyone that often she feels like a sad, matted teddy bear you might see forgotten under a bench on the underground. She just wants someone to pick her up and take her home. … Kate’s loneliness sometimes feel like indigestion, at other times it is a dull echo at the back of her eyes or a weight that makes her limbs feel too heavy for her body.

Gradually Kate finds her way back to enjoying life – she has her eyes opened by Rosemary and her friends, and starts to become friends with them herself as she becomes aware of sides of Brixton she’d never previously known existed. She and Rosemary swim together and work together on a campaign to save the pool; she draws from Rosemary’s strength to become stronger herself, and when Rosemary is ill Kate steps in to find she is capable of doing so much more than she’d previously known – each of them needs the other in sometimes surprising ways. In addition, there’s a rich cast of other characters we come to know: members of Brixton’s eclectic community, from the teenage boy swimming at the Lido, to the gay couple in the bookshop, from the staff of the Brixton Chronicle to those working at the Lido, Rosemary’s old friends and colleagues. All play their part in this celebration of the triumph of hope, friendship and community over loneliness and feelings of loss.

Congratulations are due to Ms Page; I can’t wait for your next novel! Fingers crossed, too, for a film version of The Lido – there are two great lead roles here for both an older and a younger actor. Suggestions for casting?

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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A Spark of Light – Jodi Picoult

Rating: 5 stars

I have to confess that this was my first ever foray into a Jodi Picoult book. I’d heard good things, of course, but always with the word ‘chick-lit’ floating around, and with pink covers with loopy writing, and a general reputation of being ‘girly’. I was young and foolish, readers, and even though it’s been a while since I shucked off those silly preconceptions, I hadn’t really got on the Picoult wagon, until this Christmas when I received this book from – if not Father Christmas himself – then one of his handsomest elves.

a spark of light.jpgA Spark of Light tells the story of an abortion clinic in America in the midst of a hostage situation. It’s a story that brings together a great number of perspectives, both pro- and anti-choice (I know they prefer to be called ‘pro-life’, but they’re not writing this review; I am) and deals with both sides in an open-minded and compassionate way. It is – according to the author’s note at the back – informed by interviews with people from both sides of the debate, and time shadowing doctors and nurses in an abortion clinic, and it shows. It features a graphic but scientifically accurate description of a second-trimester abortion based on this observation. It deals with sensitive and difficult issues without feeling heavy or moralising.

In fact, it skates relatively free of landing anywhere on the debate, though perhaps I think that because I am pro-choice, and the author is also. I thought there was compassion and understanding for those on the other side of the debate, and even an understanding of the horror and upset inherent in the difficult decision to end a pregnancy.

As well as delving seriously but compassionately into this issue it is also a gripping and entertaining read – time peels back from the end of the hostage situation and we learn more and more about all of the people present, including the gunman. It’s tight and pacy, and has everything it needs in balance.

From my perspective, then, a very strong recommend. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, with some violence and gore, but ultimately an exciting, moving, thought-provoking read.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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2018: Our Pick of the Bunch

Well, what a year it’s been! 2018 has been long, and twisty, and decidedly weird. Fortunately, it’s also been peppered with wonderful writing, which we’ve been lucky enough to read and review. In no particular order, we’ve picked out the best of the bunch, and are featuring it here. Most of the books listed came out in the last two or three years, and others have been around for a little bit longer. What they all have in common is that they are wonderful, transporting pieces of writing.

 

birdcage walk

Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017, and Birdcage Walk, released that summer, is her final novel. It’s a deeply poignant look at one family’s life, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. A beautiful book, and a fitting testament to a much-missed author.

Click here for our review, from February.

And here to find Birdcage Walk on Amazon.

 

snow gardenA Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

A Snow Garden, published in 2015, is a set of seven interlinking stories, all set at Christmas time. Joyce’s writing is witty, but warm, and the stories have a bittersweet quality to them. Too late to give as a Christmas gift this year, alas, but always a wonderful read.

Click here for our review, from March.

And here to find A Snow Garden on Amazon.

 

eleanor oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

One of the breakout hits of 2017, Gail Honeyman’s first novel is a beautiful piece of work. Charming, funny, and often unsettling, it deserves the hype.

Click here for our review, from May.

And here to find Eleanor Oliphant on Amazon.

 

the good people

The Good People – Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent’s 2016 novel The Good People is a dark and twisty sort of story. Set in a small community in Ireland in 1825, there’s not much in the way of escapism here. A really intense and interesting look at religion, and superstition, and the effect they have on people. Everybody wants to be good, but it’s not that easy.

Click here for Lavinia Collins’ review, from June.

And here to find The Good People on Amazon.

 

one moonlit night

One Moonlit Night – Caradog Prichard (translated by Philip Mitchell)

A bit of a curveball, we’ll admit. One Moonlit Night first came out in 1961, and is translated from the original Welsh. Something of a forgotten classic, Prichard’s book is a Gothic, hallucinogenic kind of read. Very funny, and very strange, it might be the perfect novel for 2018.

Click here for our review, from October.

And here to find One Moonlit Night on Amazon.

 

And that’s it from us for this year! If you’ve enjoyed these reviews, please check out some of the others on the blog. These were just our absolute favourites, and there are tonnes of others that we’ve read and loved in 2018. Have a great New Year, everyone, and best wishes for 2019! We’ll see you there.

Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty

Rating: 5 stars

Most people by now will have heard of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, famously adapted into a television series starring Nicole Kidman. Alas, I’ve not managed to see the adaptation, but I loved the book on which it was based. And now I’ve loved Moriarty’s Three Wishes, originally published by Pan in 2004 and republished by Penguin in 2016. Three Wishes was written as part of Moriarty’s master’s degree at Macquarie University in Sydney and was her first novel.

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Ms Moriarty’s light touch is again an absolute winner, so we can empathise and sympathise with each of the three leading characters in turn. The opening pages are told through the voices of various onlookers, mostly fellow diners and staff at the restaurant where blonde-haired Lyn and Cat, and redhead Gemma are out celebrating their 34th birthdays. What starts out as a joyful and noisy celebration turns suddenly into a hideous fight, disturbing the peace of everyone in the busy Sydney seafood restaurant and ending with one of the blondes throwing a fondue fork at the redhead (who is pregnant), then fainting flat out on the hard floor. In most novels this would sound like sure-fire screen adaptation material; but there’s a catch.

One of them said it was fantastic being a triplet. She just loved it! The other one said it was terrible. It just made her feel like a mutant or something. And the third one said it was nothing, no big deal, no different from being any other family.

And here we see just what the problems will be in making a screen adaptation of this tale of a year in the life of identical blondes Lyn and Cat, and their non-identical triplet Gemma – apparently this is scheduled to start production in 2019, and we’d love to know who’s going to be cast in the three lead roles.

So many of the scenes made me laugh out loud, I had to stop reading this on crowded tube trains. The sisters have followed different paths in life: efficient and organised Lyn owns and runs the highly successful Gourmet Brekkie Bus, has taught aerobics, and is married to Michael, with a teenage step-daughter and a toddler; Cat is a marketing executive in a chocolates business, and, although they’ve been trying for a baby, she has recently learned that her husband Dan has had an affair; and Gemma is a bit of a drifter, constantly changing boyfriends and jobs, and regularly acting as a paid house-sitter rather than having her own home. While Cat and Dan’s marriage is struggling, Gemma is getting on very well with a new boyfriend, locksmith Charlie, and quite hoping that this time she and he will get past the six-month mark. The sisters’ lives entwine and get confused, and gradually their long-hidden secrets are revealed. Their long-divorced parents are bemused onlookers trying to help and offer advice and support, while at the same time rebuilding their own relationship.

Moriarty creates many great characters in this book, beyond the triplets and their parents and partners. There’s Lyn’s 15-year-old difficult step-daughter Kara, and Kara’s annoying mother Georgina, constantly changing arrangements at the last minute; the girls’ grandmother Nana, a feisty, “annoyingly spry” widow; and marriage counsellor Annie.

Three Wishes isn’t a book with fairytale, all-wishes-granted endings for all the leading players: Cat breaks up with Dan but finds a new direction and purpose in her life; Lyn struggles to go against all her natural controlling instincts and also find a way to get on with Kara; and Gemma isn’t welcomed by Charlie’s family, with whom she’s clearly going to feel an outsider for a very long time, but does reveal a hidden talent for making money on the stock market, and tells the truth to her sisters about her former fiance Marcus, how he treated her, and what she actually felt when he died. Life isn’t going to be plain sailing for any of the three young women; relationships will always be difficult and volatile amongst them and with their friends and family. Perhaps a sequel set some years on would be welcome!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Putney – Sofka Zinovieff

Rating: 4 stars

Putney charts the tale of Daphne and Ralph; set mostly in and around her family home by the river in Putney, the scene shifts between the 1970s and the early days of the 21st century. The mutual fascination and attraction between the two grows over the course of long hot summers spent in the house with its garden that goes down to the Thames, the smells of London air richly mixing with those of the spectacular Greek-based home cooking done by Ellie, Daphne’s mother (her full Greek name – Eleftheria – means liberty), before shifting to the intense heat of a lengthy bus and ferry journey Daphne and Ralph make to Greece, where they have full sex together for the first time. Their tryst is cut short, however, when Daphne’s grandfather dies unexpectedly and she has to go straight to Athens for the funeral, forcing Ralph to go to his pregnant wife Nina, an old friend of Ellie’s. Ralph tells Daphne:

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“We’re not bound by old-fashioned morality or small rules made by churches or by leaders who want to keep you under control. We’re free. You’re a free spirit.”

She paused, then nodded, believing him. Maybe she was free, even if it was unclear what that meant.

This is no regular heady romance, however; when they meet, Daphne is a child of nine, described by her father, novelist Edmund, to Ralph as:

“a free spirit. … Nine, you know, I think that might be the perfect age. A child at the height of her powers. Unafraid to be herself.”

Ralph, on the other hand, is then twenty-seven, a composer friend of her parents, and he becomes obsessed with the little girl, showering her with tiny gifts which he says must be kept secret. By the time she is twelve, he kisses her, tells her he loves her, but says:

“You’re the boss. I like it when you tell me what to do.” She knew him, trusted him. A friend. “A special friend,” was his expression.

Their relationship continues throughout the rest of Daphne’s school days, and Daphne’s understanding of it only changes when her own daughter, Liberty, reaches the age she was when she first fell under Ralph’s spell. She contacts her old school friend Jane who propels her into going to the police with her story – by this time, Ralph is a famous composer, lauded worldwide, and the ensuing scandal when he’s arrested will surely engulf and end his career and turn his fame to notoriety. The tale twists and turns, as we see Daphne’s struggles to come to grips with what happened to her as a child and how it changed her life afterwards. Jane’s tale, charting her relationships with Daphne and Ralph and her subsequent adult life, is also told, although this side of the book is, I feel, rather less successful; Jane remained to me a plot device, largely there to move the adult Daphne towards recounting her story to the police, whereas Daphne’s relationship with Liberty and her understanding of the nature of being a young pre-adolescent girl as she observes Liberty and her friend felt a far more genuine thing.

In the midst of the police investigations, Ralph goes to Edmund’s birthday party, where he faces up to Daphne, still unable to believe that he has done anything wrong. The narration shifts between Ralph, Daphne and Jane, all with strong individual voices. I had problems with the further revelations about Ralph towards the end of the novel, which changed the whole nature of the relationship between Daphne and Ralph, a relationship we’d seen largely through his eyes, describing his memories of it as he is in hospital undergoing chemotherapy; because of these revelations, I was left very uncertain as to how Ralph actually felt about Daphne. Up till that point he’s portrayed it as if it were a unique lightning strike in his life, rather than being one of a series of rumbling thunder storms throughout his adult life, part of a pattern of behaviour. Putney is a novel about abuse; but also about narrative, and who controls it. You, the reader, choose whose version you think is correct. Daphne’s, still seeing Ralph through rose-tinted lenses? Ralph’s, self-centred to the last? Or Jane’s, Daphne’s gawky teenage friend, who felt excluded and put aside? Read Putney and decide for yourself. I’m sure you’ll find it compelling reading.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

Peggy is the narrator of Claire Fuller’s remarkable first novel, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliot Prize for debut novels. Her story opens in November 1985 when she finds hidden in a drawer a photograph taken in 1976 of her parents, Ute and James, with his friends, Ute having removed all other photos of James.

“I stared at the photograph, still in my hand. The face of my father stared back, even then so innocent he must have been guilty.”

The novel leaps back to 1976, to the time when James and his friend Oliver are part of a group known as the North London Retreaters, who are preparing for an impending catastrophe by creating fallout shelters and stocking them with durable provisions (although the Retreaters disagree fiercely about what form the catastrophe will take). Ute is a concert pianist and while she is in her homeland Germany on a tour, James withdraws Peggy from school; they move into a tent in the garden of their comfortable house, and live by foraging and trapping squirrels until Oliver arrives unexpectedly and moves with them back into the house. One night Ute phones from Germany, the two men fight, and Oliver leaves. The next morning Peggy and James set off to find “die Hutte” – “a magical, secret place in the forest”, James tells the little girl, where he promises her they can live an idyllic life free from authority, rules, and the impending un-named catastrophe.

What unfolds certainly takes place in a secret place, but the life which little Peggy, renamed by her father as Punzel (as in Rapunzel) leads there is far from magical. It is raw and basic; the only food they eat is what they catch or forage in their remote forest. On the first night there is a huge storm and James tells Peggy that “the rest of the world has gone”. They live a dangerous and solitary existence alone for years with no comforts or reminders of their former London life, save for Phyllis, a beloved doll (who works well to externalise the girl’s mental disturbance). As the bitter winters wear on, the child veers between innocence and complicity, ignorance and ingenuity. She adapts bit by bit to her situation; while James is a chillingly convincing villain; and Ute feels like a living, breathing presence in die Hutte, brilliantly represented by the silent wooden piano which James carves, together with the fragment of some of Ute’s sheet music they have taken with them.

Over time Peggy becomes aware of a man named Reuben also living in the forest. As she and Reuben secretly spend time together, James becomes increasingly confused, desperate and morose, often calling her Ute and and rambling about death lists. A final spiral of events brings an end to the years in die Hutte, and a shock realisation for Peggy that the world has not suffered a major catastrophe or cataclysm.

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Being forced to rejoin the world is hard for Peggy and it is equally hard for her mother to be reunited with her long-lost daughter after so many years. The portrayal of her return to London is as gruelling and tough as that of her days in the forest, with endless problems to overcome and questions to be answered, as her and our understanding of the truth of what has happened to her changes over the last pages of the book.

Disturbing yet delightful, beautiful yet brutal, Our Endless Numbered Days is a darkly fantastic first novel, which I thoroughly recommend.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

I was hooked from the start by the tremendous opening of Fuller’s novel:

“Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”

swimming lessons.jpgWithin the four pages of the book’s prologue we learn that “Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly”. In his pursuit of Ingrid from the bookshop, Gil falls from the promenade onto the beach below. “It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be…” And here we have all the leading players in the present-day story.

Organised, neat and tidy, Nan, a 27-year-old midwife, and her 22-year-old artist sister, Flora, whose life is perpetually chaotic and shambolic, go to take care of their father, followed by Flora’s new boyfriend, Richard, a bookseller. Gil is clearly elderly and ill (quite apart from his fall), a writer who’s devoted to second-hand books, with a preference for any which have been written or drawn in, or which contain old cards or letters. His house, called The Swimming Pavilion, is overflowing with such books, heaped everywhere, and it’s apparent that has he’s recently been searching for something, with every surface now heaped with books. And within days of meeting Richard, Gil asks him to burn all his books on his, Gil’s, death, which we increasingly realise is imminent. We also realise that Gil knows that over the weeks before her disappearance from their lives, Ingrid left him dozens of letters about their relationship and life together, all hidden within appropriate books.

Bit by bit we learn their history through reading these previously unread and hidden letters, which Swimming Lessons juxtaposes with developments in the lives of Gil, Nan and Flora. They are related in parallel tracks; the 1992 series of letters recount Ingrid and Gil’s life from the time of their meeting in 1976, when he is her university teacher and already a famous novelist, and the 2004 lives of those she has left behind – not just her family but also close friends Jonathan and Louise.

Fuller deals beautifully with the stresses felt by young Ingrid, becoming a wife and mother while still at university, and giving up all her hopes and young dreams to live with her new family in rural Dorset in The Swimming Pavilion. She has a constant struggle to make ends meet,  living off the occasional sale of one of Gil’s short stories or small royalty cheques from his published novel. She also struggles to feel she is doing anything right in how she looks after or loves her children, and when a prematurely born son dies she cannot come to terms with the loss. Gil is a wayward flirt whose eye is constantly roving, as indeed at times is he himself, with lengthy absences from the family’s home. Ingrid’s pain is real, and by the time we read the last of her letters we are sure that she suffered more than she could bear. We also understand that the elderly Gil is suffering terribly now, having spent nearly 12 years wondering what has become of her, and now having found some of the letters she wrote to him.

Fuller is an observant writer, capturing her characters’ mannerisms and gestures with apparent effortlessness but with beautiful attention to tiny details, such as how Flora eats her food or puts on her clothes; we see too Nan’s impatience, Gil’s selfishness, Richard’s bewilderment, Jonathan’s blundering attempts to help. In exploring the psychology of relationships gone sour or in their early stages of developing, Fuller ensures that the mystery continues up until the very last page. Swimming Lessons is a subtle and compelling tale of family tragedy, memories only half-understood, and stories better kept silent.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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