Snap, crackle and a bit of pop

17 11 2018

Snap by Belinda Bauer


On a stifling summer’s day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack’s in charge, she’d said. I won’t be long.

But she doesn’t come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.

Three years later, Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they’re alone in the house, and – quite suddenly – of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother. . .

The Val McDermid endorsement together with all of the other quotes full of praise drew me to wanting to give this a go. It’s a really good premise with a couple of great characters at the heart of it and the plot fairly rattles along. I must admit to feeling a wee bit let down with the ending but perhaps that’s a little harsh. Still an entertaining read.



So many books, so little time

27 10 2018

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


In a small East Anglian town, Florence Green decides, against polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop.

Hardborough becomes a battleground. Florence has tried to change the way things have always been done, and as a result, she has to take on not only the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even supernatural forces too. Her fate will strike a chord with anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.

It’s a battlefield in microcosm. Having opened her dream shop Florence comes under sustained assault, polite of course, from the many locals who want it to fail. It’s a beautifully written, precise and compact novel which captures perfectly the petty and mean aspects of village life. Everyone seems to be against Florence and the odds really are stacked against her and her shop. It doesn’t end well.

This has recently been made into movie but I suspect it will struggle to capture the low key impact of this very good story.


Dear oh dear

20 10 2018

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher



Finally a novel that puts the “pissed” back into “epistolary.”

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby. In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.


“Hilarious”, “witty”, “I love this novel” are just some of the quotes on the cover of the book. I’m afraid I wouldn’t deploy any of them in describing it. I really, really, really wanted to love this but I’m afraid it was just a bit dull. There were momentary sparks of humour but I just could not get excited about Fitger and his correspondence which seemed to cover most of the bases of academic life but just in a rather predictable manner.

Maybe the sequel will be a bit more fun.

(And no, I know I couldn’t do better.)


She bangs the drums

14 10 2018

Little Drummer Girl by John le Carre


Charlie, a jobbing young English actress, is accustomed to playing different roles. But when the mysterious, battle-scarred Joseph recruits her into the Israeli secret services, she enters the dangerous ‘theatre of the real’.

Set in the tragic arena of the Middle East conflict, this compelling story of love and torn loyalties plays out against the backdrop of an unwinnable war.

What feels like a very long build up eventually delivers on its promise with a pretty gripping thriller. Charlie is a strange choice for a spy but plays a convincing part in an complicated and high-stakes plot to trap and kill a Palestinian. Le Carre provides what feels like an accurate picture of the Middle East at the time and uses it well as the backdrop to a not wholly uplifting tale.

We’ll have to see what the new TV series is like.

The patience of a patient

30 09 2018

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


The final curtain is closing on the Second World War and in an abandoned Italian village. Hana, a nurse, tends to her sole remaining patient. Rescued from a burning plane, the anonymous Englishman is damaged beyond recognition and haunted by painful memories.

The only clue Hana has to unlocking his past is the one thing he clung on to through the fire – a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, covered with hand-written notes detailing a tragic love affair.

I didn’t read it when it won the Booker originally and decided to read it recently despite the Golden Booker award.  It really is a terrific novel, brilliantly written and quite captivating. The second world war detail is outstanding and the characters are all superbly drawn.

I wish I had read it earlier. Highly recommended.


Florentine follies

22 09 2018

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham


Mary Panton walls up her desires in a beautiful villa high up in the hills above Florence, as she calmly contemplates her disastrous marriage. But a single act of compassion begins a nightmare of violence that shatters her serenity. She turns for help to the notorious Rowley Flint, and through him comes to realise that to deny love, with all its passions and risks, is to deny life itself.

A short novel of two parts, the first evocative, languid and contemplative as Mary reflects on her life as she looks out over Florence, and the second a roller coaster of events which changes the course of her life for good. Really well-paced, perfectly pitched and crafted, it’s a classic Maugham and well worth a read.


four stars

Small town boys

15 09 2018

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani


Into the insular town of 1930s Ferrara, a new doctor arrives. Fadigati is hopeful and modern, and more than anything wants to fit into his new home. But his fresh, appealing appearance soon crumbles when the townsfolk discover his homosexuality, and the young man he pays to be his lover humiliates him publicly.

As anti-Semitism spreads across Italy, the Jewish narrator of the tale begins to feel pity for the ostracized doctor, as the fickle nature of a community changing under political forces becomes clear.The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is a gripping and tragic study of how lives can be destroyed by those we consider our neighbours.

A quite outstanding book, set in the same place and time as the equally marvellous The Garden of the Finzi-Continis which I inexplicably have failed to review here previously. It’s a beautifully written and translated tale which is perfectly paced and judged. Painful and thoroughly compelling it really is a thoroughly recommended read.



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