The ‘Not So’ Secret Diary of a Pawnbroker – Elliot Stanton

stanton pawnbrokerWhat a rich range of characters Elliot Stanton has encountered in his working life. And how well he brings them to life in this book. Pete Dawson, his narrator, is a fifty-year-old who is married to Kathy, with three grown-up children – Melissa, Simon and Leanne – and who has spent nearly all his working life as a pawnbroker in London. At fifty Pete is now part owner of a firm of East London pawnbrokers, jewellers and cheque cashers. The richness of the characters who are Pete’s customers in this book smacks of first-hand experience, as does the wealth of detail about the day-to-day running of the business. Stanton divides his characters into four categories – Normal, Disillusioned, Stubborn, and Funny.

We encounter characters like the various members of the Kowalski family, with their varying characteristics summed up by his narrator’s nicknames, such as The Appeaser, The Monobrow, or The Brave. Then there’s long-time regular customers Mavis Davis and her husband Bob, real old-fashioned Cockneys, who even invite Pete and Kathy to their home for an “evening soiree”, and Pete’s colleagues ­– business partner Phil, and Sabrina who works in the shop for them.

Sabrina is a young woman, who has graduated from working as the shop’s Saturday girl to being a regular employee. She has a long-term boyfriend, Daz, with whom she has endless problems and who sounds like a bit of a love-rat. I found the relationship between Pete and Sabrina not really credible and often too dominant in the book. I wanted to hear far more about the customers and their lives and problems. There were so many of them whom I wanted to know more about, whether it was the Kowalskis, the woman who keeps turning up wanting Pete to have dinner with her, or ex-Councillor Bridger with his array of musical instruments which he claims have played a major role in pop history (eg. the synthesizer played by Gary Numan, or the electric guitar played by Don Henley on Hotel California). Mrs Mullaly brings in fiery hot curries; Joy Ramsey has a different reason for her delay each time she calls. Numerous customers struggle with the complexities of basic maths in making payments, or have their hopes dashed to realise that the jewellery they believed to be gold is fake, or to find that Pete doesn’t believe that their Rolex is a genuine one and in either case the pawn value, if there is one, is pence. I’d have loved to know more about these people and their lives, and what brought them to this East London pawnbrokers.

Mr Stanton has some great ideas here and a wealth of characters and stories to tell – it’s a shame that he’s not always made the best of them. If he had concentrated on the other characters and left aside some of the detail with the narrator’s life and obsessions, such as with the upcoming Olympics, or his potential relationship with Sabrina, this could have been a really fascinating book, one telling the reader about a life of which most of us know nothing and would like to learn much. The other problem I had with what was in so many ways an engaging book was my annoyance with the overall lack of quality of proofreading throughout it. So many times I found there were simple mistakes with areas like use of punctuation or with layout, as well as some really basic errors that could and should easily have been corrected (e.g. “I slipped back out the shop to return at returned to work”).

Rating: 3 stars

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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On a Small Island – Grant Nicol

When the author sent through the review copy of this book, he said, ‘I hope you enjoy it.’

on a small islandEnjoy’ is the wrong word. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset or unsettled by a novel. Grant Nicol tells the story of Ylfa, a free-spirited but directionless young woman living on her own in Reykjavik. When a young man is horribly murdered on her father’s farm she is determined to unravel the mystery. However, she isn’t prepared for what follows. What should have been an isolated incident spins into a dark and crooked tale involving kidnapping, arson and rape.

At its heart, On a Small Island is about our inability to escape our past. The setting in Iceland is perfect, and Nicol gives a wonderful sense of the claustrophobia of a small community. The denouement is unfortunately handled a little too quickly, but the book remains gripping throughout.

I’m not sure I can say all that much more without giving too much away. Read this book. Just don’t expect to sleep easily for the next week or so.

Rating: 4.5 stars

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Before I Go To Sleep – S J Watson

before I go to sleepI galloped through this pacy and taut psychological thriller in one cold and rainy day. It’s a great achievement for a first novel, which arose from the author’s participation in the first Faber Academy Writing a Novel course. The device of the narrator, Christine Lucas, having two separate streams – the present voice and the extracts from her written journal – interwoven together works brilliantly, and keeps up a terrific pace, so the reader is never quite sure of what the outcome will be. The narrator has suffered from what we’re told initially is a hit and run accident leaving her with long term memory loss, so that each day for many years now she has woken not knowing where she is or who she’s with, needing to be reminded of her past. Each morning, she’s convinced she’s a young woman, only to find she’s approaching middle age – a constant nightmare, both for her and apparently for her devoted, long-suffering husband Ben who each day afresh reminds her of his name, their joint past, their present home (which feels like an alien environment to her). The bathroom has photos of them together in much earlier and happier times, and of her separately at various points over her lifetime.

Christine’s world is being shaken up, seemingly, by the interest of a young neurologist (Dr Keen) who has recently taken a keen (ha!) interest in her case and decided to try to drag long-lost memories out of her brain’s dustier filing cabinets so that she can start again to live from day to day instead of taking each day separately. The descriptions of medical treatments aimed at retrieving her lost memories were well written, and the horror that is lying in a full scanner unable to move and clutching an alarm buzzer while being subjected to noises so loud that one can’t think was brilliantly drawn. There were plenty of clues as to which way the plot was going to twist (oh yes, there’s a big twist), often in descriptions of meals.

But I can’t help feeling disbelief that a neurologist would have involved himself to such an extent that he was driving out to collect Christine for appointments, and arranging for her to visit houses where she’d lived prior to her memory loss. What about his other patients? Were they simply put on hold? Particularly in these stretched times for the NHS, no neurologist (or other specialist) I’ve ever encountered would have the time, let alone the ability to devote so much time to a single case, no matter how fascinating.

I also felt that there was a real psychological flaw to the whole plot. I really couldn’t believe in any of the characters other than the narrator herself. I couldn’t credit that the men involved at the heart of the book would have behaved as they did, particularly over such an extended period of time. Had it been a five-year time frame from Christine’s initial accident to the present, I’d have gone along with the men’s behaviour far more readily, although clearly she would have felt considerably less shocked to be waking up each morning to see an older woman looking back at her from the bathroom mirror. But it didn’t feel credible that it would have continued for a period of around two decades. That’s at the root of the problem with this novel for me – for it to work at all from the point of Christine a long time has to have passed, but it then didn’t work from the point of view of other characters. There were also two major “accidents” which Christine survived and in both cases the details of how she’s escaped death are glossed over. So, although I greatly enjoyed Before I Go To Sleep, I did feel it had weaknesses. It felt a bit like an old-fashioned Chinese take-away meal of a book to me – very enjoyable at the time of consumption but afterwards rather unsatisfactory.

Rating: 3 stars

(Before I Go To Sleep has now been made into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong as Christine, Ben and Dr Keen.)

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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