Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

Another great book from one of our favourite current authors, Claire Fuller, following on from the success of her previous works, Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons; Fuller has a masterly touch of quiet tension, gradually increasing the pressure on her characters. By focusing our attention on a small group of central players, we scrutinise each one in minute detail as though we are seeing them through a microscope.

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Bitter Orange starts almost at its end: “They must think I don’t have long left, because they allow the vicar in.” Frances Jellicoe, the narrator, is struggling with recollections of events which took place some twenty years before, when she was 39. Through her memories, we are introduced to the central characters – Lara, Peter, Frances – and place – Lyntons. As in Fuller’s earlier works the strong sense of a particular place is absolutely key to the work; Lyntons is a run-down country estate which has recently been bought by a wealthy American. Left empty since its days of being requisitioned by the army during World War II, Lyntons is now in a sad state and its new owner has commissioned Frances to give him a detailed report on the garden architecture and statuary. Her younger companions are there to compile a survey of the sadly depleted contents of the house, and the three are all staying in the semi-ruinous mansion. Frances is more or less camping in attic rooms directly above those being used by Peter and Lara. One paragraph gloriously sums up a sense of where they are staying:

My two rooms were on the west side of the house, just below the roof and chimney stacks. It was a floor of a dozen or so rooms heading off a corridor that ran north to south. All the west-facing rooms had a glorious view over Lyntons’ ruined gardens, the paths hidden by overgrown box and yew, a tangled rose garden, fallen statuary and the ravaged flowerbeds, to the parkland, the mausoleum and, beyond, a dark treeline and the hangers in the distance.

The relationship between Frances, Lara and Peter is slowly built up, and we see Frances, who previously led a secluded, lonely life caring for her invalid mother, who has recently died, falling for the undoubted charms of each of her young companions, separately and together. Their way of life and hers are worlds apart, and she is drawn in by Lara’s stories of her past and by the couple’s easy grace and style. They cook delicious meals which they share with her, trawl through the remains of the wine cellar, and happily furnish their allocated part of the mansion with treasures they’ve found remaining around Lyntons. If Frances is at all uneasy with the use the three of them are making of the items they’ve found and with the lack of any progress any of them is making on compiling a report, her doubts are pushed readily to one side as for the first time in her life she is enjoying herself and leading an entirely different kind of life.

The gradual build up of the tension is so beautifully written that it felt very real and almost tangible, as if we were hearing Frances’s own voice describing the few short hot weeks that were the glory days of her life. The end is inevitably bitter and hard, like the bitter orange fruits that are found at Lyntons, and leaves Frances once again alone. There is no sweet sugar to take away the resulting pain, and the final twist to Frances’s recollections is a hard stone she must carry to the end of her days.

I urge you to read this!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Two Hearts of Eliza Bloom – Beth Miller

Rating: 3 stars

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Eliza is 23, and according to her father, “running the risk of ending up a spinster” in the summer of 1999; she has met and rejected six possible matches, an unacceptably large number. Her mother is growing increasingly despairing of her wayward child until Eliza agrees to meet 28-year-old Nathan, whose grandfather was close friends with Eliza’s beloved grandfather Zaida, and their families are delighted when Eliza and Nathan become an engaged couple just six weeks later. However, within a month fate throws a spanner in the works when Eliza meets handsome Alex through work, and they are instantly deeply attracted to each other.

The action in this book spools back and forth between 1999/2000 and spring 2016. The instant attraction between Eliza and Alex spins her world out of control and, on the morning of her intended marriage with Nathan, she runs away with Alex. In any family this would be a cause of major problems, putting it mildly, but Eliza Bloom is from an extremely conventional Orthodox Jewish family, and has lived her life by an entirely different set of conventions and rules from most young women in London at the turn of the millennium. Her father declares her dead to him and refuses to acknowledge that she is still his daughter, and most of her friends and family follow suit; only her younger brother Dov contacts her to let her know that Zaida is in a care home, having accidentally set fire to his annexe in the family’s home.

I’ve loved Beth Miller’s previous books, but struggled with this one. Because the upbringing of Aliza (to use her original name) has been so different from that of most people, there clearly has to be an explanation of the customs she has grown up with and accepted as essential. I found her capitulation to Alex’s charm and appeal a little hard to credit, as I did his making lists of things she needs to try in “his world”. What I found hard to accept was not her acceptance of the lists, which were constantly pushing the boundaries of what she would do (she’d grown up in a world where nearly everything was tightly controlled, after all), but his making of the lists and desire to push her beyond her lifelong limits of acceptability and desirability. I found it hard to like Alex and believe in their relationship, or to get any sort of feeling for what his and Eliza’s daughter was like. Eliza’s relationships with her family members were well drawn, as was the uncomfortable situation in which she found herself with her best friend, but because of my difficulties with the main characters, I found it really not the ‘feel-good’, ‘laugh-out-loud’ read that so many others have described it as being.

I really wanted to love it as much as I loved Beth Miller’s earlier books, but overall, though it felt like an interesting novel, it was sadly not one I warmed to.  I’m sure plenty of other readers and reviewers will feel exactly the opposite, and also feel it’s a very relevant book for our times, so I would encourage everyone to give it a go and make their own decisions about it.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Let Me Lie – Clare Mackintosh

Rating: 5 stars

let me lie.jpgAnna Johnson’s parents have both committed suicide, just seven months apart, and on the anniversary of her mother’s death she receives several cards, one of which is a garish Happy Anniversary card, inside containing the typed words: Suicide? Think again.

Let Me Lie gives us Anna’s narrative as she struggles to deal with a multitude of factors: her parents’ deaths; the looming failure of their business, now run by her uncle Billy; her partner, Mark, whom she met as a therapist under a year before; and her two-month-old baby.

The other narrator is apparently a ghost – that of one of Anna’s parents:

On the day of my death I walked the tightrope between the two worlds, the safety net in tatters beneath me. This way safety; that way danger.

I stepped.

I died.

What happens next to Anna comes about from her reporting of the card at the local police station, to Murray Mackenzie, a former detective who now works in a civilian capacity. Murray’s own narrative then winds in and through those of Anna and her dead parent, as the tale swiftly moves through the next few days, culminating on the last day of the year, with fireworks appropriately exploding around them.

Clare Mackintosh brings many twists and turns to this plot, and it’s impossible to know whose explanation of events to believe. We feel enormous sympathy for Anna and for Murray, who has what could most simply be described as a “difficult” marriage. His wife Sarah is central to the book and she has a key role to play in explaining the mystery; her illness is sympathetically portrayed, as is Murray’s understanding of it and of her. Anna relies heavily on three people: Billy, Mark, and old family friend Laura. By turns we trust and mistrust all three, as they weave through the rapidly churning developments.

Mackintosh has a great talent for writing novels which grip readers and keep them enthralled and mystified. If you’re at all like me, though, it’s best not to read this late at night, as parts of it are not conducive to sleep. And beware, there’s a final twist right at the very end, which will probably give you the shivers and make your spine tingle with dread.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer

Rating: 3.5 stars

From the name, I was expecting Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion to be somewhat wry and humorous. It was, in fact, very earnest throughout. It follows the story of Greer, an undergraduate at Ryland College whose parents prevented her from getting into her chosen Ivy League school by not filling out the financial aid forms properly. Greer has a boyfriend at Princeton, and a sassy feminist activist and (surprise, lesbian!) best friend Zee who introduces her to feminist icon Faith Frank at a university lecture, after Greer is groped by a creepy guy at a party. The rest of the book follows them into adulthood and forms a sort of contemplation of the complexity of trying to live a ‘feminist’ life, do right by other women and the world, and fight to find meaning.

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It’s written well and engagingly – it trips along, and isn’t too heavy on detail. There was one bugbear of mine, which was that a plot-essential pet kept being referred to as a ‘turtle’ when I am 99% sure it was meant to be a tortoise (it walked in the grass, lived in a dry shoebox not a tank, etc etc). I actually ended up looking it up and apparently tortoise is a subset of turtle, so perhaps I am justly slain by mine own pedantry, but it was quite distracting nonetheless. It makes one wonder if there was ever a point where an editor asked, ‘Are you sure this isn’t meant to be a tortoise?’

I’m sure there are a lot of readers (without my unwarranted tortoise-based expectations) who would really enjoy this book – it was very typical of that kind of contemporary American novel that follows the lives of young men and women in order to reveal that women are troubled and unfulfilled by every type of relationship, and that many men are emotionally inadequate, apart from the one who isn’t and will happily be the partner of our enduring ingenue (because somehow even in these on-brand feminist contemporary novels there is something of the ingenue about the main female character – with a more cynical best friend, mentor or other foil to balance her out). Greer’s best friend Zee felt like quite a hollow stereotype, and Greer’s journey from quiet little mouse was all too predictable. The book even ended with one of those end-of-harry-potter chapters that ties everything together in a neatly optimistic bow. Discussions of feminism were overt, and every moment a teachable moment about friendship or relationships or the professional world.

None of this is bad per se, of course; it was a novel that had a clear sense of what it wanted the reader to think at the end. An interesting and enjoyable read which I think would appeal to anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of a lesson in their books.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Tangerine – Christine Mangan: Lavinia’s Book Pick, April 2019

tangerine.jpegTangerine, the debut novel by Christine Mangan, tells the story of Alice Shipley, a delicate young woman, orphaned while at college, and swiftly married to obvious jerk John. Alice hates Tangier for various reasons, mostly that she feels unsafe there, but has seized the opportunity to be far away from a mysterious accident and an altercation with her former bff and room-mate Lucy Mason. But – surprise, surprise! – Lucy still wants to be best mates, and she shows up in Tangier and indeed at Alice’s apartment, ready to help her out of her shell.

I don’t want to give too much about this book away, because it’s such a satisfying and tightly-plotted thriller. The real charm is the complexity of Lucy and Alice’s relationship, one that combines devotion, obsession, gaslighting, desire, co-dependency, jealousy and fantasy. Tangier emerges as an enticing and intoxicating mystery, as seductive and charming to Lucy as it is threatening and unfamiliar to Alice. John is a solid gold arse – self-importantly surrounding himself with books that he has never read, and bragging about his government job, bullying Alice and trying to intimidate Lucy. Having read on the blurb that he was going to disappear, I was extremely joyful when this came to pass.

The great joy in the book is Lucy – charming and slippery, insecure, needy, and manipulative. If you can enjoy a savage thriller in which almost everyone is a horrible person (and in which those who are ‘nice’ are intolerably wet) this is the book for you. I enjoyed it immensely and would recommend it to anyone!

You’ll love this book if:

– You like a good thriller
– You are fascinated by odd female friendships
– You enjoy a vivid setting

You might want to avoid this book if:

– For some reason you hate books about women and their complex relationships
– For some reason you dislike Tangier

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And find me at my blog here: vivimedieval.wordpress.com

lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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The Perfect Girlfriend – Karen Hamilton

Rating: 3 stars

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The Perfect Girlfriend offers a very enticing proposition – a romance-tale as old as time, if you will. A crazed ex-girlfriend obsessively stalking her ideal man, with a dash of high-skies peril thrown in as love-obsessive and love-object are trapped together at 31,000 feet. I was keen to give it a read.

The story begins as Juliette – as our protagonist is sometimes known – begins her campaign to win back her ex Nate to whom she was – she earnestly tells us – the perfect girlfriend. Nate is an airline pilot, and of course Juliette signs up to be a steward on his airline, and begins her campaign to get him back through various increasingly outlandish schemes. This is all framed by the childhood trauma that opens the book: namely, her little brother’s drowning while under her supervision.

It’s an enticing genre-fiction scenario, and I was excited to sit down and read the book and see how it played out. There was a lot to recommend it – Karen Hamilton’s own background as an air steward was evident in the level of detail and realism, and Juliette was enjoyably unhinged as a narrator, which was great fun to read.

But those strong elements were, strangely enough, what made this book a less-than-satisfying read for me. A lot of the in-cabin realism grew dominated by admin, and the promise of threat in a locked-in confrontation or power play between pilot and steward never came to pass, and felt like a gun that was loaded and not fired. It felt as if Hamilton was so focused on the detailed realism of life in the air that she did not make enough of the dramatic potential of the situation, and it became background detail rather than heart-thumping drama.

Likewise, Juliette’s unhinged behaviour was always turned right up to eleven, whether she was dyeing her hair the same colour as her new friend and breaking into her house, or conducting some extremely-fast-escalating machinations regarding her ex-boyfriend. For a book called The Perfect Girlfriend, I expected to get more detail on how she had made herself ‘the perfect girlfriend’ in her relationship’s early stages. I couldn’t help thinking about Gone Girl, and that book’s complex and moving critique of the ‘cool girl’ persona. I guess Juliette wears a short dress and cooks a curry once, but apart from this she seems like the worst girlfriend imaginable. I suppose there is meant to be some irony in the title, but we never really see her trying to be perfect. We only see her being a psycho.

So although there was a lot I liked about The Perfect Girlfriend, it left me feeling that some opportunities had been missed. I wanted drama in the skies, I wanted a searing deconstruction of the pressure on women to be ‘perfect’, and though I got a perfectly serviceable thriller, I was left wanting more.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker: Lavinia’s Book Pick, March 2019

the silence of the girls.jpgThe Silence of the Girls is yet another retelling of mythology – these are ‘toute la rage’ now, as the French undoubtedly say, and I have read the good, bad and ugly of them, so it was with both a little shiver of anticipation and a heavy dread deep in my stomach that I sat down to enjoy my birthday hardback. A hardback is always a commitment – a heavy weight to lift, and a constriction to reading at home rather than on the train – and I wanted it to be good.

Reader, I was not disappointed. The Silence of the Girls is not always an easy read. Being narrated by the Trojan prisoner Briseis, and set among the Trojan prisoner-women in the Greek camp, the content is heavily focused on rape. But it is not written about in a voyeuristic or exploitative way, offered up for titillation or framed as something that eventually becomes romantic. It is handled with sensitivity, nuance, and – among the women in the camp – a kind of grim nihilistic humour that feels very real.

One of the real charms of The Silence of the Girls is the way it avoids that tedious historical/mythic fiction ‘forsooth good sir’ way of talking. The characters speak to one another like real humans (in that way it’s very much like The Favourite). Occasionally this comes out rather oddly – there’s something slightly jarring to me about the characters saying ‘for God’s sake’ in a polytheistic culture – but that’s easy to forgive when it’s in service of a realism that conveys the powerful emotions and human relationships of the Iliad in a way that feels convincing and immediate.

Of course, despite being a book told by and about women, it is also heavily dominated by the figure of Achilles. In the Iliad itself Achilles spends most of the time sulking, but The Silence of the Girls offers another side that considers his relationships with his mother, with Patroclus, and with life away from the battlefield. He appears as an overgrown child, a complex and caring friend, a brute, and sometimes as a sensitive diplomat.

You’ll love this book if: 

– You like a good retelling of ancient myth
– You like a new perspective on an old story
– You like historical/mythic material told with humour

You might want to avoid this book if:

– You are sensitive to portrayals of violence, esp. sexual violence

Tweet me here: @lavinia_collins
And find me at my blog here: vivimedieval.wordpress.com

lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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