Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

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This is the final offering from the wonderful novelist and poet, Helen Dunmore, who died last June. And what a fine last novel it is.

I was gripped right from the outset when the author explains what led her into wanting to find out more about one of the characters, Julia Elizabeth Fawkes; after seeing her grave in a Bristol cemetery, with the inspiring headstone, bearing the words “Her words remain our Inheritance”, Dunmore first wanted to find out more about her and then imagined the world she inhabited.

Julia is central to the novel, but it is her daughter, Lizzie, whose moves we follow intensely, taking us with her on a dangerous journey with her husband John Diner Tredevant. Diner, as he’s known, is a property developer in Bristol in 1792, just as the French Revolution is coming to a head, with disastrous consequences for the Bristol property market, while Lizzie, his young wife, comes from a revolutionary background, and at first supports the changes in France. Lizzie is torn between her feelings of duty and loyalty, both to her husband and to her mother and stepfather Augustus. When Julia dies after giving birth to Lizzie’s half-brother Thomas, Lizzie feels compelled to take care of him, despite her knowledge that Diner strongly disagrees with her. Over the months that follow, matters come to a head for Lizzie and her loved ones, and she finally learns more about Diner and his first wife, who was French, and whom he’s told her has died in France.

As ever, Dunmore creates fully credible characters, from Lizzie and Diner to their servant girl Philo, Julia and Augustus, their servant and companion Hannah, and Augustus’s friend Caroline Farquhar, who has plans of her own for baby Thomas. The background of the French Revolution threatens and rumbles, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes quietly in the background, making lives which are unstable already even more so. As winter approaches and settles, life becomes more and more arduous for Lizzie.

The descriptions of life in Bristol in 1792 are so vivid I really felt as if Dunmore had been there and experienced the cold hard winter days herself, and understood exactly how tough life had been for Lizzie, isolated in her brand new house on a street which Diner has been developing at great personal cost, both emotional and monetary. His schemes fail. In the wake of the Revolution, workers are laid off and not replaced, and his grand plan cannot be completed. His own house, built to be a show home of sorts, has its furniture removed.

Dunmore was noted for undertaking intense research, absorbing it and then using it to breathe life into every tiny detail in her novels. In The Siege she brought to life the appalling war-time years in Leningrad when hundreds of thousands of people were trapped within the city for long months. In Birdcage Walk, it’s the dual background of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, with its creation of new levels of wealth and poverty, which comes to life in the pages. Diner’s increasingly menacing presence and Lizzie’s bravery are compelling forces, working together and against each other by turns. And we feel Julia’s presence through Lizzie long after Julia has died.

I shall miss Helen Dunmore’s piercing intelligence and humanity, and her ability to weave life and magic into imagined people in real situations, and real people in imagined situations. For now, it’s time to turn back to her earlier works, starting with Zennor in Darkness, and reread them, savouring each in turn.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Stopped Heart – Julie Myerson

Rating: 5 stars

When Paula Hawkins said this book was “bloody brilliant” she was absolutely correct. This was one which I couldn’t put down, so long as I was reading it in the daytime. At nighttime, though, I had to stop reading it in the hope of getting some undisturbed sleep.

Some chance!

There are two parallel and overlapping stories, set many years apart, but with time not seeming to be a barrier recognised by some characters in the way that most people experience it. In the past story, Lottie is one of seven children of a hard-working rural family, whose lives are thrown upside down by the arrival one stormy night of a mysterious red-headed man calling himself James Dix. Lottie is not an ordinary child; she talks of lives before and lives to come after in a most unsettling way.

“When I was in heaven, I saw it.”
Jazzy frowned. “But only dead people go to heaven, Lottikins.”
“That’s right. I died… I did! After the bad man hit me with the knife, I did.”

In the present time, Mary and Graham Coles are moving to the country to make a fresh start, and get away from their past. But what they find instead is that a different past comes to haunt Mary in their new home. Like Lottie, she sees glimpses of the past, but in her case it’s not her past which is haunting her. Her step-daughter Ruby turns up unexpectedly to stay and also feels uneasy about her father’s new home, saying she’s seen a man outside staring at the house.

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Over the course of the book the two tales collide and impact on all the lives of the characters in ways which are often deeply unsettling. Eliza, the oldest daughter of the farming family, gets slowly drawn into a web laid by James Dix, and the consequences are catastrophic. Mary Coles tries to come to terms with her own past and the past of the house in which she is now living. She and little Lottie see it all: their own lives and the lives of others, and are unable to change the course of what must happen.

This is an absolute must-read novel, which sent shivers down my spine and set me listening to every noise in the house. Read it: but not late at night.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Lavinia’s Book Pick, January 2018: First Love – Gwendoline Riley

This book was given to me by my good and dear and true friend Kay, and it turned out to be a good and dear and true gift.

First Love Riley.jpgFirst Love is a snapshot into Neve’s marriage via a flashback into her first love. It’s a simple concept, and the style itself is not wordy or flowery, and yet it communicates something real and complex. Riley has a talent for writing speech that reads as real, and for communicating relationships clearly but not explicitly.

First Love is one of the best novels I have ever read. I do not want to give too much away about it, but it was a true and painful and subtle and beautiful picture of a relationship that was told with a delicacy that it’s rare to see in literary fiction now.

Go out and read it immediately.

You’ll love this book if:
– You like literary fiction
– You are interested in what makes people tick

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You do not like books

lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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The Good Guy – Susan Beale

Rating: 3.5 stars

good guy.jpgThe Good Guy is described on its back cover as a ‘slightly gossipy summer read’ and tells the story of a tyre salesman called Ted who, through absolutely no fault of his own, ends up cheating on his wife Abigail with an impressionable young woman named Penny who he – completely by accident – tells that he is a widower raising a young child alone.

The Good Guy is an interesting read, and I spent the whole book trying to understand why I was (unsuccessfully) being apparently strongarmed into seeing Ted as a decent person when from start to finish he lies to both women and berates his wife for not cleaning the house when she is the sole carer for their young child. He seems to feel entitled to his affair, and again and again the narration seems to be pushing us towards seeing him as a genuine “good guy”. Ted was an interesting character, a portrait of inadequate American masculinity, the crushing pressure of expectation, the ability of ordinary people to commit heinous acts of deception, but what he was not ever was a “good guy”. And yeah it’s set in the 1960s in the suburbs, but that doesn’t make much of a difference.

Then I read the author’s note at the back, and it became clear to me that this book was something of a passion project and deeply personal. I certainly felt a little uneasy about my own readiness to judge this story harshly – it felt, as I read it, like a story I had heard a thousand times before. Perhaps because I read this right after Because I was Lonely, another disheartening story in which men are presented as biologically incapable of fidelity.

I can see what Beale has done here. She has written with compassion for all her characters and created a world in which she genuinely sees everyone as well-intentioned but easily misled. What this book did well was portraying the focus on social appearance vs reality, and the way in which people were trapped by these pressures in the sixties.

My reservations with this book were just that I found it impossible to like Ted, and I didn’t feel like the title was meant to be as ironic as it should have been. But this was an interesting read, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a vintage aesthetic. And who knows, perhaps many of you won’t judge Ted as harshly as I did. After all, for many people being a “good guy” is in the eye of the beholder.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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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!

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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