The Lying Room – Nicci French

Simon & Schuster

Rating: 5 stars

Neve Connolly’s life is in the middle of being turned upside down. She and her husband Fletcher are stressed and worried about her daughter Mabel, who is about to start at university, and is clearly struggling with a major eating disorder. Amidst her worries about her family, Neve’s recently gone part-time at work, and to really complicate things she has been having an affair with her new boss, Saul:

In the last few weeks she had travelled into another country, where the rules no longer applied. She understood with absolute clarity that what she was doing was wrong. She was deceiving Fletcher but she wasn’t going to deceive herself.

Then early one morning she receives a text:

I’m free until midday. Come as soon as you can.

Hurrying to Saul’s flat, she finds he’s been murdered. Her reaction to this leads to a chain of events that spirals well out of her control, as she tries to keep up appearances at work and with her family and friends and colleagues. Her life, which is always busy, with Mabel and sons Rory and Connor to look after, and a constant whirl of social events with old friends, three of whom she’s worked with ever since they were in their late twenties and not long out of art school. They all get involved in the police investigation into Saul’s murder, with the detectives, particularly DCI Hitchings, turning up frequently and unexpectedly at the office, at Neve and Fletcher’s home, and even at Neve’s allotment. And as the investigation proceeds, Neve finds that she’s not the only one who’s been lying about relationships and events. The problem is, for Neve and for the police, who is still lying and who is telling the truth? Or who is telling any part of the truth? And who is covering up the truth to protect whom?

the lying roomNicci French novels at their best are compelling page-turners, and The Lying Room is one of the finest yet! Two of us read it in the space of just three days, both utterly gripped by the complex and twisting plot and by the struggle to make out who is telling the truth, and who is lying. Who should Neve trust? Should anyone trust Neve? When we compared notes afterwards, we each revealed moments when French had had us absolutely perplexed, trying to work out who the dangerous killer was, and as to how on earth the Connollys were going to survive the ordeal. We both felt there was definite room for a sequel, with tiny moments of doubt as to Neve and her family’s safety and ability to go forward with life.

A gripping read, with a rich cast of credible characters and vividly drawn scenes – we both thoroughly recommend it.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Binding – Bridget Collins

The Borough Press

Rating: 3.5 stars

I was lured into Bridget Collins’ The Binding because of my own long-standing interest in book history and medieval bindings, so I have to admit a degree of prejudice in my expectations when I took this book home and discovered that it was not about magical medieval bindings, but set in a zeitgeisty cod-Victorian fantasy world. Nonetheless, I dived in.

the binding

The Binding tells the story of a young man named Emmett Farmer who is… a farmer (a joke that does not go unemployed in the book itself) but who, after a long and unexplained illness, receives a mysterious summons to be apprentice to a bookbinder. In this world, a bookbinder is one who can exorcise memories from a subject, and bind them into a book. It’s a sort of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Victoriana remix. Bookbinders are outcasts, and their magic is suspect, but Emmett has been chosen for some reason and must follow the calling. Then, of course, he finds a book which bears his own name…

The Binding rests on a fantastic idea, and it’s explored in great detail in the book, which is a huge part of its appeal. First, we see ‘binding’ as a mode of dispatching traumatic memories, a form of medicine, and of healing. But as Emmett travels to the town from his rural bindery, we meet those addled by selling too many of their memories, and those coerced into giving their memories up. As one might expect, giving up a memory isn’t as simple a healing process or as much of a freeing panacea as it initially seems.

There’s lots to recommend The Binding: in many places the writing is truly beautiful, and the whole concept behind the book is captivating. At its heart, also, is a simple, human story. But there were lots of things about it that left me wanting more. Many of the characters came in broad strokes, from an aloof and unscrupulous binder to a wicked serial-rapist aristocrat to an innocent little chambermaid. Nor did Emmett himself – or the other narrator who takes over for the final portion – have a particularly strong or distinctive voice. There’s a romance at the centre of the story, too, and although we are told it is passionate, it’s strangely lacklustre and heatless on the page. The book cover compares it to Sarah Waters, but I didn’t find the same ratcheting sexual tension in the pages of The Binding and it made the romance feel emblematic rather than real and involving.

Nonetheless, I’d heartily recommend The Binding on the strength of the great idea that underpins it and the enjoyable and – for want of a better word – quaffable ease of the prose. You’ll never look at a book the same way again.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Agent Running in the Field – John le Carré

Viking

Rating: 4 stars

Le Carré is the old fox of British fiction. His novels of spying, intrigue and terrorism have spanned my reading life from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the ’60s to this current blast against Brexit, Putin, Trump, Johnson, and the whole rotten world order where ideology is lost to money. The old cry that genre fiction suffers from literary snobbery never diminishes. But if you think le Carré’s novels are about spying and not human nobility and frailty you miss the point of his work.

agent running in the field.jpg

Nat is forty-seven. A spy, a traditional agent runner who has graced the stage for a little too long. He is brought home to his long-suffering, pro bono lawyer wife and traditionally feisty and difficult daughter for a pension and badminton. But he is given one last chance in what is now an underfunded, crumbling SIS Russia section. After decades of somnolence Russia is now a huge threat. Nat is to take charge of the Haven, a nest of ageing and largely used-up Russian double agents in a peeling house in Camden Town. The only spark of life is the brilliant probationer, Florence, who is building a case against an obscenely rich oligarch. How far do you think she’ll get with that when half London is owned by Russia?

Nat, rather weirdly, befriends Ed, a twenty-something who inhabits the fringe of the spectrum and challenges him to badminton matches. Ed is in the media – but we don’t believe that, do we? Nat tells Ed that he’s a businessman and, though they have little in common except visceral hatred of Brexit, they meet twice a week.

The novel is modern in its concerns. The Foreign Secretary (Johnson) is “pig-ignorant”; the Cabinet are tenth-rate; Trump, a neo-fascist, is Putin’s “shithouse cleaner”. Le Carré believes that Brexit is a twin-pronged plot by British posh boys who see filthy lucre for themselves and Russia, aided by their puppet Trump, in breaking up Europe. Keep this thought in mind as the web develops. It’s the whole point.

Le Carré’s style is as crisp, honed and clear as ever. But in a novel set in 2018 I’m afraid his vintage shows through alarmingly at times. An editor should have dealt with many of the time warps. A few examples at random:

Young girls and their swains splash and chatter.

A Caribbean-born receptionist addresses Nat as “Mister Sir Nat”.

Whippersnappers.

Gymnasium.

Not immune to female charms.

Doing something “hush-hush”.

Twenty-somethings having regular girly lunches at Fortnum’s. (Perhaps they do. If they ever did.)

It is in Nat’s relationship with Florence and his daughter that we can feel the author’s age showing through most clearly. Younger readers may be angered, but they should forgive this in an eighty-eight year old and survey the bigger picture. All such awkwardness could have been removed by a modern editor, of course. But perhaps le Carré won’t be edited. I don’t know.

The plot involves a “sleeper” who wakes, an MI5 clerk who spies through idealism, dirty politics, and a rather contrived love match. There are unlikely coincidences and a hurried incredible denouement.

A great read with flaws. I hope he writes for at least another ten years.

CAV Profile RichardReviewed by Richard

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The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read – Philippa Perry

Penguin Life

Rating: 4 stars

the book you wish your parents had readThe parenting book du jour, Philippa Perry’s The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, promises that, through kindness, compassion and understanding, you can avoid ‘screwing up’ your child. It takes a big-concept rather than task-specific approach (e.g. there is only one chapter on ‘behaviour’ and no chapters on things like ‘bedtime’ or ‘potty-training’) and comprises six sections: Your Parenting Legacy, Your Child’s Environment, Feelings, Laying a Foundation, Conditions for Good Mental Health, and Behaviour: All Behaviour is Communication.

Certainly it’s easy to see why this is the big parenting sensation of the moment. Its prose is clear and concise, its message is simple, and it offers many great examples of how its philosophy (I would avoid saying ‘methods’) has benefitted families. It’s a quick read, it’s not burdened down with jargon or complex theorising about why the way it recommends is the right way, and it is an enjoyable and interesting as well as a useful read.

I’m writing with some degree of bias, since I am a new parent and this book heartily recommends doing many of the things that align with my own personal preferences; most notably, it is very strongly against sleep training, which I cannot bring myself to do despite the recommendation of more “traditional” parenting advice outlets. Hurrah! I’m off the hook. It is also broadly in favour of a more liberal and permissive style of parenting than an authoritarian and routine-based one, which suits me better in terms of my own lifestyle and preferences for organising myself, so I think I was always going to be warmly disposed to the message of this book.

And the message of the book feels very current: it is about compassion, understanding and adapting with your child. It is not a guide to how to get your child to fit in with you, or another routine (@ Gina Ford), or how to ‘train’ them to behave. In fact, it is more about training parents to engage with their child as another human to connect with rather than an as-yet-unformed adult to be shaped.

So, in the main, I thought this was an accessible, warm, sensible and highly practical parenting book. There were a few moments, however, that jarred with the praise of the book as ‘warm’ and ‘encouraging’. There is a fair amount of commentary along the lines of “If you do x y z you will inhibit your child’s potential for future happiness” or emotionally stunt them in some other way – one does not expect a parenting book to be without warnings – but sometimes patronisingly followed with or preceded by “Now, don’t throw this book away in a temper if you have been doing x y z – there is always time to change your ways.” The assumption that a reader who had been acting contrary to the book’s advice would have a ‘fit of temper’ seemed condescending and also like a sort of smart-Alec trick: if you disagree with me, I know I’ll be making you angry, and if you are angry that only means I’m right. I thought the book would have been better, felt warmer, and felt more collaborative with its readers without this.

Overall, though, I would strongly recommend to anyone. It is as much about our relationship with our own parents as with our children, and contains much interesting food for thought.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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The Porpoise – Mark Haddon

Chatto & Windus

Rating: 5 stars

Mark Haddon is most famous for his remarkable novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, published in 2003 as, unusually, both children’s and adult fiction, and subsequently adapted into an award-winning play at the National Theatre. It won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award – in the Novels rather than the Children’s Books category – and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, as The Curious Incident was considered his first written for adults; yet Haddon also won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a once-in-a-lifetime award judged by a panel of children’s writers. The book was also long-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize.

the porpoise.jpgSince then, Haddon has published two more novels and a beautiful collection of short stories, The Pier Falls. And 2019 sees another departure for Haddon in his new novel, The Porpoise, a compelling blending of modern novel with legends, myths, and ancient history. The different strands intertwine in a vivid and electrifying tale, combining episodes of action, from shipwrecks and fierce combat scenes, to daring escapes and shape-shifting moments. His story-telling makes great use of present tense, which sends sparks throughout the whole novel. It’s impossible to define The Porpoise – the plot is based on the Greek legend of Apollonius, who exposes a king’s incestuous relationship with his daughter; fleeing the king’s wrath, Apollonius endures many harrowing exploits. (This legend is the basis for the play Pericles, thought to be written by Shakespeare and one George Wilkins, and it’s a measure of The Porpoise’s extraordinary compass that this pair of Jacobean writers form a sequence of rich scenes.)

“Something peculiar is happening here,” someone thinks. “Time is repeating and rhyming…”

In the opening section, wealthy Philippe is widowed by a horrific plane crash in which his new daughter Angelique is the sole survivor. As Angelique grows up, Philippe keeps her isolated from the world and eventually starts sexually abusing her. Haddon shines a light on the way money distorts the moral atmosphere, and cuts off dissent, making it impossible for outsiders to accept the truth of what is happening, let alone intervene. Philippe’s power over Angelique is complete and she has no one to help her and no way of escaping the web in which she is entrapped. The modern scenes are entwined and interwoven with the ancient tales of Pericles/Apollonius in a way I found gripping and at times shocking. I wanted to read on quickly, but the language was so sparing and beautiful that I had to linger over it.

A remarkable book. Please don’t be put off by mentions of ancient and obscure source material: this is a rich masterpiece of a novel, well worthy of many prizes and of reading and rereading.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Baby Books

It’s never too early to start reading with your child. They may not grasp the finer nuances of Crime and Punishment at six months, but that’s no reason not to introduce them to the world of books. To that end, we’ve compiled two lists of books, to read to, and with, your baby. They’re not exhaustive lists, by any means, but every book here is tried and tested, and much-loved. Pull up a softly lit reading chair, and dig in.

Reading with Your Baby

Reading is one of life’s great pleasures, so why wouldn’t you want to pass it down to your children? Books are tactile things, and the sooner you can get your baby used to what they look like, and smell like, the better. A word to the wise, though: once your baby gets to four or five months, they’ll want to get involved with turning the pages / putting the entire book in their mouth. Board books are a great way to read with your child without their ripping out a page of your much-treasured Each Peach Pear Plum.

 

the tiger who came to tea

Mog, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Judith Kerr, who died earlier this year, was a prolific children’s author. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a great choice for older readers, but our favourites for reading with babies and young children are The Tiger Who Came to Tea, and the Mog series. Gentle and funny, with lovely pictures, they’re classics for a reason.

 

giraffes can't dance

Giraffes Can’t Dance

By Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, Giraffes Can’t Dance tells the story of Gerald the giraffe, who can’t dance… Or can he? Absolutely charming, all in rhyme, and with delightful pictures on every page, this is a must-read.

 

what the ladybird heardWhat the Ladybird Heard

Julia Donaldson is another hugely prolific writer, and is a former children’s laureate. There are lots of books to choose from, but What the Ladybird Heard is our pick for this list. More great pictures, and an exciting and funny story. The lesson will go over babies’ heads, of course, but it’s perfect comfort food for adults too.

 

the worm and the birdThe Worm and the Bird

A bit of a curveball here. Coralie Bickford-Smith’s The Worm and the Bird is what the internet would describe as a big mood. Beautiful, engrossing pictures throughout, and fairly light on text. It’s not the cheeriest read, and some parents will want to avoid, but it has a poetic simplicity that we love, and children can get lost in the pictures.

 

baby orcaBaby Orca

A proper “baby book” to finish off this first list. Baby Orca, illustrated by Yu-hsuan Huang, is simple and fun, a finger puppet book which describes the life of a little orca. Visually stimulating and engaging, babies love it. Also check out other puppet books in the series.

 

Reading to Your Baby

What’s the point of reading books my baby won’t even understand? Well, your baby likes your voice, and it’s never a bad time to get them used to how a story sounds – its rhythms and patterns. It’s great for their development, and it’s a wonderful bonding experience. If you have the voice and the intonation for it, you could read absolutely anything – the dictionary and the phone book come to mind – but why not read something you’ll enjoy too?

 

pooh sticksWinnie-the-Pooh

A. A. Milne was well-known in his own lifetime as a “serious” novelist and playwright. What has survived and flourished in the decades since his death, though, is Winnie-the-Pooh. And for good reason. It’s impossible to top the Pooh books and poems for sheer inventiveness, wit, and charm.

 

the wind in the willowsThe Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows was a big influence on Milne’s writing in Pooh, and there are some similarities in the characters, but nothing can match the poetry of The Wind in the Willows. The language ebbs and flows, taking us through all four seasons, down by the riverbank and beyond. As with the Pooh books, the best illustrations are by E. H. Shepard.

 

the bfgThe BFG

There are, of course, lots of Roald Dahl books we could have picked, but The BFG might have the best words. Delumptious, gruncious, squibbling and rotsome. Gobblefunk, whizzpopping, schnozzles and snozzcumbers. It’s a delight.

 

harry potterHarry Potter

We couldn’t not mention this, could we? It’s great to read, though. You can do the voices and everything. It’s impossible to unpick, but somewhere there’s a formula in here for the most addictive book series there is. I’ll say it – J. K. Rowling is a genius. One word of warning: as they go on, they get longer and longer, and creepier and creepier. You might want to stop before you get to the end (if you can tear yourself away), or you’ll risk not finishing until your child is thirty-five.

 

alice in wonderlandAlice in Wonderland

Another classic to round off. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are perfect, weird, mad stories. More great words, more great flowing passages, more great characters, and plenty more opportunities for silly voices. They’ve got it all in spades.

 

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.

bitter orange.jpg

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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