Today will be Different – Maria Semple

Rating: 5 stars

If ever a book were crying out to be made into a film, this is it.* The action – and there’s lots of action – all takes place over the course of a single day in Seattle, where Eleanor, Joe and their son Timby have been living for nearly ten years.  Eleanor resolves at the outset that “Today will be different. Today I will be present.”

How she copes with her resolution and what happens when she tries to follow its idea through to reality is by turns hilarious and sad, uplifting and sorrowful. At nearly fifty years old her life to most people who know her now seems to be a bed of roses, with a highly successful career as an animator and a charming and caring surgeon husband. But she knows what her personal demons are and have been, and struggles to make sense of them and deal with everyday life.

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Along the way, we meet Alonzo (“my poet”) with whom Eleanor gets together weekly to discuss a different poem he’s asked her to learn and think about.

Then there’s Sydney Madsen: “for ten years I haven’t been able to shake her… the friend I can’t be mean enough to so she gets the message… I keep saying no, no, yet she still chases me”.

And Spencer Martell: he’s a former intern whom, over ten years previously, she had to let go after his eight weeks finished. But he’s now about to open a “solo show at the Seattle Art Museum”.

All these and many others are characters who made me laugh out loud. Maria Semple is witty and empathetic to her rich cast of characters, and has an artist’s eye for detail – a pen Eleanor is given is described by “The weight of it, the unlikeliness of its clownish color, the double-click of its top coming off and on in my hand.” All this combines into a hilarious novel which I devoured in a couple of long train journeys.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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*It transpires that Today will be Different is actually being turned into an HBO series starring Julia Roberts. Hurrah!

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Because I Was Lonely – Hayley Mitchell

Rating: 3 stars

This book was, I think, somewhat let down by its cover and blurb. It packaged and sold itself like a thriller, promised a “rollercoaster of actions and reactions”, and had a gorgeously creepy cover that suggested murder. I recently read Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, which had been packaged similarly and offered a creepy, slow-burning and truly explosive story.

Because I Was Lonely tells the story of two teenage sweethearts who, once they become lonely stay-at-home parents, reconnect via Facebook. There were some good things about the book. The Facebook messages integrated into the text were believably childish and the flirting awkward and really quite realistic. There were some descriptions of the loneliness of raising young children that seemed to speak to a deep personal experience.

However, the climax felt a bit meh compared to the build up, and the ending fizzled out. This book also did this thing that has irritated me more and more in contemporary novels written by women – it had a tendency to write all men as if they are stuck on permanent sex pervert mode. If they’re not staring at a barmaid’s “ass” (despite the fact that the novel was set in the UK and at no point did the barmaid own a donkey, or even take anyone to a donkey sanctuary), they’re sexting old girlfriends. Male distress is expressed through sexual dysfunction.

because I was lonelyThe problem with this isn’t intrinsic per se, it’s just so predictable, and I wasn’t sure that any of the characters were surprising. The lonely mother who used to be an under-confident but effortless hottie. The husband who is trying his best but is lured astray by a younger woman. The ruthless career woman who masturbates with a big silicone dildo. The stay-at-home dad who feels emasculated by his wife.

So, it’s a reasonable summer read, but don’t expect anything dramatic. By the by, it’s also a pretty grim view of marriage, so not recommended for a romantic break.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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What She Never Told Me – Kate McQuaile

Rating: 5 stars

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Louise Redmond is back in Ireland, where she was born and grew up until her mother, Marjorie Redmond, persuaded her to go to England to study music. She’s no brothers or sisters and she’s never known her father: all her mother’s told her about him is that he was an Englishman named David Prescott, who left Ireland before Louise was born. Her much-loved stepfather, Dermot, has already died, and now the death of her mother after a very short illness leaves poor Louise with many unanswered questions, trying to sort out who she really is and what to do with her life.

And she’s doubly bereft: Sandy, her husband of ten years, has left her. As Louise tries to make sense of everything, she’s haunted by shadows of memories from when she was a tiny child, memories she finds unsettling and threatening. She seeks help from her mother’s older brother, whom she barely knows, and accidentally stumbles upon what may well be the key to her life. But there are lots of twists and turns on the way, before she eventually discovers the truth about her parents and her family, and is able at last to achieve a greater peace with herself and come out of her mother’s shadow and into the light.

I read this over the course of two long train journeys, and was completely gripped. Kate McQuaile has created a rich variety of characters, who weave their through the complexities of the plot. I loved the descriptions of Louise’s journeys through different parts of Ireland, from the rich suburbs of Dublin to rural Kerry to find the family she never knew she had. She has the love and support of her oldest friend, Ursula, and her stepsister, Angela, both of whom are unfailingly kind and generous, but it’s a difficult journey which Louise is on and many truths and lies have to be uncovered along the way, both from other people to her and also from her to other people.

Should people ever tell lies or hide the truth in order to be kinder? These are tricky matters and many of the characters have got it wrong at times; sometimes their motives have been far less than kind, too, and more to do with self preservation. In the end even Louise has some truths which she understands are best not told, not just to protect herself but to be kind to other people. But finally she has achieved a greater peace than she could have dared to dream of less than a year before.

A terrific first novel – I strongly recommend it.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Lavinia’s Book Pick, September 2017: The Crossing – Andrew Miller

A Word in Your Shell-like

Our old pal Lavinia Collins is back with some more book picks for us! And not a moment too soon. With autumn lurching in, we’ll need all the brightness and joy we can get.

When you’re done reading this, why not check out Lavinia’s new Arthurian fantasy, The Cornish Princess? Monsters, magic and medievalism. What more could you ask for?

The Main Event

the crossing.jpgThis book was recommended to me by my mother, and like a lot of books my mother recommends, it contains quite a lot of sex (which she claimed to have no recollection of), including a particularly striking passage in which one of the characters compares a particular act to being sucked by a heifer. When I showed this passage to my current companion their only question was, “What is a heifer?”

So why I am recommending this heifer book? I didn’t love it. Isn’t it weird to recommend books you don’t love? Maybe, but I’m still thinking about it. It was a rather odd book, really. It centres on this character, Maud, a scientist working in pharmaceutical research, her relationship with her partner and her child and, most of all, other people’s assessment of her, and of her coldness and apparent self-interest.

A lot of the blurb extols what an incredible character Maud is, but what I found most interesting was the way that the other characters seemed not to be able to fathom her, and what that says about what both the author and society at large consider strange, unacceptable, mysterious, unusual, and incompatible about Maud’s personal qualities and womanhood and/or femininity.

Food for thought.

You’ll love this book if you like:
– Unusual family dynamics
– Lots of detail about boats
– Heifers

You might want to avoid this book if you dislike:
– Tattoos
– Boats (there really is a lot of detail about boats)

Happy Reading!

lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

Rating: 4.5 stars

I Let You Go.jpgPublished in hardback in 2014, this first novel written by Clare Mackintosh has now sold over a million copies and won the Crime Novel of the Year award last year. Clare has plenty of experience of crime investigations, having worked in the police for twelve years, including time in the CID, so the police attempts to solve the shocking event that happens in the opening pages ring utterly true, including the inevitable worries about understaffing and overtime costs, both of which naturally affect the course of the police investigation which follows.

Initially, I was confused between the voice of the first person narrative sections – a young woman whose son has died and who is fleeing her past – and the third person narrative sections following the police officers’ working to get justice for a dead boy and his grieving mother. Then suddenly the novel really clicked in and I read it compulsively, adjusting between the different voices and shifting of times back and forth to build a horrifying and compelling picture of the events leading up to and following the horror of the prologue. By the final chapters I felt as if I were living alongside the terrified young woman, too scared to breathe, needing to run but petrified of moving an inch.

The plot twists are unexpected and shocking, and at the same time utterly plausible. I sympathised with the police struggling to keep going through their heavy workload, while trying also to maintain a grip on their family lives.

Read this: but I strongly recommend not too late at night if you’re at all of a nervous disposition.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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House of Orphans – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

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Early this June, when Helen Dunmore died at the age of just 64, I was reading her novel House of Orphans, published originally in 2006; it’s only now, nearly nine weeks later, I feel able to put into writing my thoughts on the book.

House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1901, at a time of political unrest and ferment, as the Finnish people struggled to resist the power of the Russian Empire and the ever-tightening grip of the Tsarist Finn leader Bobrikov. Eeva is the young daughter of a revolutionary and after being orphaned  she has been sent far from her home city of Helsinki to an orphanage to be trained for suitable domestic work. Local doctor, Thomas, a widower living alone, offers her work as his housekeeper. He is drawn to her unusual and thoughtful presence, and understands that she is no simple uneducated girl, but is intelligent, well-read and an independent thinker.

Thomas is a kind and unusual doctor, prepared to use both modern methods of medicine and old-fashioned remedies. His generosity leads him to help Eeva to leave his home and go back to Helsinki to return to her childhood friend, Lauri, and seek a different way of life, far away from the orphanage and domestic servitude. What she finds is love and constancy from Lauri, and from a new friend Magda, and bitter betrayal from Lauri’s new “comrade” in the political struggle, Sasha.

The harshness of Finnish winters is vividly described, along with the grim realities of young people living under a harsh regime and struggling to make ends meet. The kindness of Thomas shines through the pages, as we see him helping all his regular patients, as well as the orphans, living in their own strict regime, and Eeva. But Helen Dunmore has created a three-dimensional character here and we understand that he is not without fault, and that his own daughter feels betrayed by him. Eeva is a complex young woman, and I felt immense sympathy for her long struggles and relieved that she’d found the loyal support of Thomas, Lauri and Magda.

I felt that Dunmore had shown us a glimpse through a crack into lighted rooms in which they were all living and breathing. In some ways I wanted to know what happened next to the leading characters, so real had they become to me by the end of the book. But mostly I felt I’d been privileged to witness these scenes. That was enough, like looking at a famous painting and wondering about the real life of its subject.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

Rating: 4.5 stars

my name is lucy barton.jpgI picked up My Name is Lucy Barton in a jetlag haze at Euston station. I’d bought one of those irritating Virgin super-off-peak tickets and I’d been awake for 24 hours and, because I was looking at three more before my train was going to depart – or at least the train I could afford to take – I shopped for books in order to keep myself awake. Of course, this meant poor old Lucy Barton didn’t get read right away, but sat in my bag, waiting for the opportune moment.

That moment was another train journey, another few hours to put away. I was meant to be having an important catch-up with the person opposite me, and certainly I wanted to hear all of their gossip, but I did find Lucy hard to put down. I enjoyed this book very much. There was a remarkable lightness of touch about it that is so often missing from novels. Not too much is explained. Not too much is described. Sharp images come into focus, but Strout doesn’t worry about describing every moment. We get the characters firmly, strongly, vividly, but without explanation – or at least, in most cases without explanation – of how they came to be the way they are.

My Name is Lucy Barton is the story of a woman’s life, how she came to be the way she is. A lot of it deals with the deep economic divide in America, but a lot of it, too, is just about personal experience, about the way that people relate to one another. It’s a charming book.

So why not 5 stars? Well, it’s not really poor old Lucy’s fault, but I’ve noticed a trend in current “literary” novels that has started to irritate me: a lot of main characters are written as naive, childlike, sort of wide-eyed with wonder at the world, or engaging with the things around them in a deliberately naive way. It annoyed me in The Buried Giant, and it was the reason I gave up on a book called The Portable Veblen even though, quite by chance, I actually knew of the work of the economist Veblen before I picked it up. (The book is not about him.) Now, the style does work and make sense in this book, but it also feels like something that is very trendy now.

Nonetheless, I would really recommend this book. It’s delicate, moving, engaging. And not just for reading on the train.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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