Bookmark with Wendy Holden's name printed on the surface

Daily Mail Book Reviews

Feb 2013

Cover of The Dazzle

The Dazzle

by Robert Hudson

Cape £16.99

I have been visiting Scarborough since I was a child and have long thrilled to its connections with Piers Gaveston and Anne Bronte. And in particular its harbour front Fifties ice cream bar. But only now, thanks to Robert Hudson, do I know this queen of the Yorkshire coast to have had an additional line to its rod.

In the 1930s it experienced a brief, heady phase as home to a fashionable sporting phenomenon. This was giant tuna fishing, which attracted a rich and racy international crowd. In this rich and racy mix of a novel, centring on a high-stakes Thirties rod-off, Hudson mingles the reckless American celebrity likes of Martha Gellhorn and Zane Grey with invented Brit aristos like John Fastolf, dilettante owner of the eponymous yacht of the title. Sex, drugs and ichthyomania; Moby Dick was nothing like this.

Cover of A Working Theory of Love

A Working Theory of Love

by Scott Hutchins

Viking £12.99

Hero Neill’s a single guy; sensitive, self-deprecating and disappointed in love. His job is to help build a computer that simulates human responses. You can see where this is going, romantic-irony-wise.

Plus, the computer’s been programmed with Neill’s own dead father’s diaries, which opens up a whole new existential father-son relationship flank.

Hutchins’ publishers are keen to position him as the Nick Hornby of Silicon Valley and they may well succeed. The book’s really well-written, clever, funny and full of fascinating ‘Frisco lifestyle details. For me it slightly lacked passion and was a tad over-contrived, but a stylish performance nonetheless. High-end bloke lit, aimed squarely at the nerd generation.

Cover of Learn Love in a Week

Learn Love in a Week

by Andrew Clover

Century £12.99

Witty, insightful and well-written bloke-lit examining contemporary relationships among fashionable types.

Gorgeous Polly and handsome Arthur have been married for ten years when a rich former boyfriend hoves unexpectedly into view.

Can Polly resist? Can Arthur save their marriage?

Different people take over the first-person narration, which I always find confusing. But that might be just me.

Great fun, anyway.

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Dec 2012

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

Oh Dear Sylvia

by Dawn French

Michael Joseph, £18.99

Oh Dear Silvia’s heroine never speaks, never moves. She is in a coma and visited in her private ward by a succession of family, friends and staff both hospital and household. They perform, in turn, self-revealing bedside monologues to the unconscious patient, each monologue forming a chapter of the book.

A great, neat device, very Talking Heads and indeed it would work brilliantly as a play. As a novel, and despite the skill and wit of the writing, it lacks warmth and this is possibly because Silvia, as revealed through those who come to see her, seems to have been a pretty unsympathetic person.

Among the visitors I found New Age Jo, the sister who smuggles in a dog to try ‘animal therapy’ on her prone sibling, a bit unlikely. But Tia, the sunny-natured Indonesian cleaner who loves celebrity magazines and indiscriminate swearing, is a delight.

For all its humour it’s a pretty bleak scenario, even so. Writing seems to have unleashed the dark side of Dawn French.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

Eloise

by Judy Finnigan

Sphere, £16.99

Another televisual titan takes to the typewriter. Finnigan’s debut novel, set in Cornwall, is a spooky romance in which mentally fragile heroine Cathy is haunted by the ghost of her dead friend Eloise.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s daughter meets a wildly handsome boy who may or may not be Eloise’s descendant. Brooding from afar is Eloise’s malign ex-husband.

This might all sound familiar and indeed it is a little bit ‘Wuthering’, a little bit ‘Rebecca’ but it manages a life of its own thanks to Finnigan’s lack of pretension, light touch and obvious passion for the Cornish landscape which is so lovingly described it’s almost a character in its own right.

A warm and promising debut.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

The Winding Road

by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Sphere, £8.99

The Eagles has landed – at least in my bookcase. This is the first CHE novel I have read and I enjoyed it immensely.

Cynthia, who sounds like something out of a novel herself (by PG Wodehouse), is a wonderfully deft writer who pulls off, seemingly effortlessly, that trick of combining several dense plot strands simultaneously.

In this instalment of the story of the glamorous Morland family, New York couturier Polly is engaged to the handsome, Presidentially-ambitious Ren Alexander. But why does her cousin engage a private detective to probe his past?

Meanwhile, in London, the Brit end of the family faces the General Strike. Instantly absorbing.

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Nov 2012

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

When in Rome

by Nicky Pellegrino

Orion, £12.99

I loved this book so much I could hardly wait to get to the computer to type its praises. And as I have a broken arm at the moment, you can take that as the most ringing of endorsements.

The poverty-stricken life of Serafina is transformed after she lands a job as PA to Betty Lanza, wife of Fifties Italian singing sensation Mario.

I don’t know about you, but there’s absolutely nothing I like better than what I call ‘governess’ novels - about self-effacing servants of the famous, wealthy and capricious. This book has inside-track glamour in spades, and all the colour of La Dolce Vita-period Rome.

But there’s an irresistible layer of melancholy, too, as Serafina struggles to relate to the family she has left behind, and witnesses at first-hand the decline of the once all-conquering Lanzas. An original subject and beautifully handled. Brava, Nicky.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

The Age of Desire

by Jennie Fields

Ebury, £14.99

Another ‘governess novel’, how lucky am I?! And actually Anna, the co-heroine of this one, does actually begin as a governess - to the young Edith Wharton. And after Edith emerges into fin-de-siècle American society, marries money and then becomes, by degrees, the US’s most celebrated woman writer, humble Anna is still her closest confidante.

Fields’ beautiful biographical evocation flips between the lives of the famous author and her maid/amanuensis and builds a  picture of an extraordinary, mutually interdependent friendship.

Up front, Wharton’s life is all super-glamour - being a literary lioness in Paris and London, car-touring in grand style with Henry James, living it up in beautiful houses. Only retiring, self-sacrificing Anna knows the real Edith - the sexless marriage, the self-doubt and frustration and, eventually, the passionate, ill-starred Paris affair with Morton Fullerton.

An imaginative tour-de-force with the best-written naughty bits I have ever read.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

The Merde Factor

by Stephen Clarke

Century, £12.99

Maintaining the Paris theme but moving into modern times and concerned with a less romantic side of life in the French capital, this novel will ring les grandes cloches with anyone who has ever had the slightest brush with French bureaucracy.

Hapless Englishman Paul West finds life in Paris a serious challenge - he’s hampered with a Withnail-like friend; he can’t trust his French business partner etc. But the plot, a drawn-out farce, is hardly the point. Clarke’s real subject, on which he is brilliant, is the French themselves.

The scenes in Left Bank American diners, Marais boutiques and passport offices are little comic masterpieces - but best of all is the chapter in which West’s neighbours shout abuse at each other out of the windows. Formidable.

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Sep 2012

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

All She Wants

by Jonathan Harvey

Macmillan, £7.99

Salty working-class Liverpool humour, camp one-liners and a cast ranging from an aspirational mum to a closet gay brother means that reading All She Wants is like watching an updated version of one of those Seventies Carla Lane sitcoms. This absolute whopper of a book has impressive TV pedigree too – the heroine is a soap star and author Jonathan Harvey writes for Coronation Street and Shameless. We follow the comical-tragical and generally accident-prone passage of Jodie from British Soap Awards glory through the disaster of her marriage and her London acting training among fancy types called Moth. It’s a changing landscape littered with jokes – the Liverpudlian tanning salon Now Is The Winter Of Our Discount Tans was my favourite. Harvey’s first novel reflects his screenwriter background – there is little description of characters and places. But its wit, irreverence and irrepressible joie de vivre is more than compensation.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

Just Like Proper Grown-Ups

by Christina Hopkinson

Hodder and Stoughton, £12.99

Hopkinson’s hit first novel, The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs, mined the seam of comic domestic urban discontent and it is here she returns for her follow-up. Tess is thin, glamorous, successful, single and child-free. Then she drops the bombshell of her pregnancy on four close friends who she asks to be godparents to the newborn child. However, art gallerista Sierra, lovelorn teacher Michael, rich serial singleton Owen and wrinkled-obsessed yummy mummy Lucy are all battling their own demons concerning age and responsibility. While I didn't find the characters all that sympathetic, it’s sharp, funny and deliciously rude so plenty elsewhere to enjoy.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

Stop The Clock

by Alison Mercer

Transworld

Yummy mummies called Lucy are everywhere at the moment, there's one in this book too. This Lucy isn't as contented as she looks either and gets things off with a bang (quite literally). From this exciting start it all romps along quite happily in the tried and tested three-very-different-friends-wanting-different-things-from-life mould. The other friends are Natalie, whose beige home reflects her inner uncertainty, and thrusting journo Tina. Mercer has a satirical eye which she puts to good effect in describing such cornerstones of middle-class life as private ante-natal classes and bitchy newspaper columnists. A funny, promising debut.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

Life, Death and Vanilla Slices

Jenny Éclair

Sphere

Anne is a middle-aged South London doormat. Her husband is a surgeon and they have two horrible, spoilt and sneery teenage sons whom she has to leave behind when her elderly mum in Lancashire is hit by a car. Jean, the mother, has severe head injuries which precipitate a long trip down memory lane; the chapters in which she recalls life as a young wife and mother in kitchen-sink Sixties Lancashire alternate with Anne’s contemporary experience as unappreciated spouse of a wealthy doctor. Building grimly up all the time in the two tales is the mystery of what happened to Anne’s younger sister. Éclair’s survey of what it means to be a woman in two contrasting eras and sets of social circumstances is wise, hyper-detailed and very witty, although it is also terribly sad.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

Separate Lives

by Kathryn Flett

Quercus

Kathryn Flett’s first novel is a triumph, a hilarious dissection of life among North London yummy mummies. Susie and her boyfriend Alex are fully-paid-up designer-clad Sunday supplement types with fashionable club memberships and fancifully-named children. But when Susie finds a mysterious text from a mysterious woman on Alex’s phone, and then Alex loses his job, the proverbial hits the Philippe Starck fan. The fall-out sees the whole tribe upping sticks and moving to Random-on-Sea. But will a Georgian Dream Home in a run-down town east of Brighton and full of men with beards get the couple back on track, especially as Susie herself has a skeleton in the closet? Funny, spiky, unforgivingly observant and full of fabulous middle-class lifestyle detail.

Cover of All She Wants by Jonathan Harvey

Wife 22

by Melanie Gideon

Harper Collins

More middle-aged discontent under the microscope. Alice is the downtrodden wife of a Californian advertising executive and mother to more of those Angry Birds-playing, constantly-texting children. Her Googling habit brings into her spam-box an invitation to become a participant in a marriage research project. Alice becomes anonymous Wife 22 and is handled by faceless Researcher 101; answering his sets of questions is at first therapeutic and then becomes something rather more – and rather less anonymous. What will be the effect on Alice’s own marriage? By this ingenious premise Alice’s whole sexual, marital and maternal life is laid bare and a wonderfully clever, sad and funny read it is too.

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Mar 2012

Can We Still Be Friends

by Alexandra Shulman

I absolutely love novels about the Eighties, there have been some corkers recently including Anna Blundy’s magnificent The Oligarch’s Wife and Penny Vincenzi’s An Absolute Scandal. The latest to dip a literary toe in this most glittering, poppy and fashiony of waters is the editor of British Vogue. Post-university, three girlfriends launch themselves on life, one as a journalist, one in PR and one as a youth worker. Their respective ‘journeys’ result in rehab for one, divorce for another and becoming a lesbian for the third. Shulman wonderfully evokes that ping-pong between trivial and tremendous so characteristic of the Eighties - the death of the miners and the dawn of the gourmet sandwich, the rise of Pilates and the fall of the Wall. Humorous highlights include the rich-liberal milieu of the youth worker’s parents, all white basement kitchens and dinner parties for Philip Roth. Shulman is also great at atmosphere, whether the fetid heat of August nights in Pimlico or breezy Algarve beachsides. An engaging debut, alive with human sympathy.

Briefs Encountered

by Julian Clary

I really enjoyed this book, it’s so funny it makes me snort with laughter even to think about it. As the title implies, and as anyone remotely familiar with its author might expect, it’s very gay indeed. National-treasure actor Richard Stent buys a country house in Kent once belonging to Noel Coward; the story then alternates between Philip’s discovery that his new home has some very un-blithe spirits with The Master’s Twenties adventures in the place. Clary, who has a hilarious cameo role in the story as himself, switches effortlessly between the eras and his eye for comic detail is inspired.

The J M Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society

by Barbara J Zitwer

The eccentric-clubs-as-titles trend picks up again with this, Barbara J Zitwer’s first novel. Joey is a single female New York architect sent to the English countryside to oversee the renovation of the house in which J M Barrie wrote Peter Pan. The caretaker is a grumpy but dishy widower and in the grounds Joey finds a pond in which a group of feisty old ladies, friends for life, exchange wisdom and wisecracks around the ritual of a freezing daily dip. Love, enlightenment and risk of frostbite follow.

The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year

by Sue Townsend

Michael Joseph, £18.99

Who doesn’t occasionally feel that life’s too much and we’d rather stay in bed? Eva Beaver takes this to the extreme. As her children go to college, Eva dives under the duvet. She doesn’t get out. Her complaining mother, grumpy mother-in-law and adulterous scientist husband have to run the household between them, with the help of black white van man Alexander. The novel’s a parable about modern life; celebrity culture, immorality, gadgetcentric children. After advising a depressed taxi driver, Eva’s canonised by the media; Lourdes-like hordes gather beneath her Leicester bedroom window. Meanwhile, her hyper-computer-literate twins have no ability to read people and fall foul of a student psychopath. Yet for all its darkness – because of its darkness - the book’s hilarious and totally Townsend. She may have trouble with her sight but she sees clearer than anyone. There were parts where I laughed until I cried.

Daughters

by Elizabeth Buchan

Penguin, £6.99

Like Eva Beaver, Lara Russell is a mother in crisis. Not in the provinces, however, but the familiar Buchan stamping-ground of middle-class London. One of Lara’s daughters is getting married and she’s not sure about the groom. Her ex-husband is marrying too. Meanwhile her youngest girl, under the worrying influence of a schoolteacher, is rebelling. Most confusingly of all, Lara might be falling in love. And did I mention the dark secret in her past? With her trademark cool, skill and sensitivity, Buchan effortlessly weaves these complex strands into a rewarding, thoughtful and dramatic read, possibly her best one yet.

This is Life

by Dan Rhodes

Canongate

Dan Rhodes, where have you been all my life? Or, rather, where have I been all of yours? This novel was a revelation, not least because of its absolutely beautiful cover. If you love Paris, wonder what French people are really like and suspect contemporary art might have an amusing side, this charming, clever comedy is for you. Parisian art student Aurelie tosses a stone in the air to kick off a project, this begins a chain of events by turns comic, dramatic and touching. Characters include the celebrated contemporary artist ‘Le Machine’; a charming baby called Herbert and Lucien, a tour guide obsessed with Japanese women. The wit is spot-on, the writing immaculate, the atmosphere so French you can smell the Gauloise and yet it was written in Buxton during the epic winter of 2010. Not the least of its miracles, that. Anyway, I loved it.

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Feb 2012

The Soldier’s Wife

by Joanna Trollope

Military wives are much in focus at the moment, so this examination of an army marriage is right on the money. What I particularly admired is that Joanna doesn’t, as I first feared, give us a tale about the knock on the door and the coffin at Royal Wootton Bassett. She is interested in what happens on leave, when soldier reunites with wife, when the terror and adrenalin of Afghanistan meet what’s been building up domestically in Wiltshire. Major Dan’s done six months in Camp Bastion and is still in a mess (both sorts). Alexa, meanwhile, has been struggling with three-year-old twins, a teenager who hates boarding school and the tempting offer of a career of her own. Who will compromise? Written with all Trollope’s customary skill and panache, this is an absorbing look at the modern military wife who no longer automatically follows the drum (unless it comes with a Gareth Malone TV series).

Alys, Always

by Harriet Lane

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

If I could have a novel made to order, like a Savile Row suit, it would probably be this. In Harriet Lane’s wonderful debut, the life of lowly hack Frances changes utterly when she finds a woman dying after a car accident. The woman, it turns out, is the wife of a literary big beast and Frances, is, guess what, a lowly sub on a newspaper’s books page! Spotting a chance, she slowly ingratiates herself with the bereaved family and before either they or their friends even realise, she is a fixture. Can she become a permanent one? Superbly, even poetically written with an almost feverish hyper-realism, this All About Eve for our times misses no telling detail of the difference between the entitled and the unentitled classes. A brilliant idea, brilliantly realised. I loved it, loved it. I’ve run out of superlatives and all that remains to say is that I wish I was you. I wish I hadn’t read it and had that pleasure to come.

The Colour of Rust

by P A O’Reilly

Blue Door, £12.99

A breath of breezy, irreverent Australian air as we plunge into the wild world of single mum Loretta. She’s struggling with two challenging children, various mad relatives and small town life in general, not least the fact the local primary school’s about to close. Big-hearted and outraged, Loretta flies into action, the whiff of local council corruption only makes her more determined. What sets this downhome comedy apart from the usual is how wonderfully well it is written. O’Reilly is funny and touching by turns and her style has a spare elegance and intelligence that reminded me of another of my favourites, the great Laurie Graham.

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Nov 2011

The Best Of Me

by Nicholas Sparks

Sphere £19.99

In this latest heartwringer by prolific US megaseller Nicholas Sparks, teenage sweethearts from opposite sides of the tracks are forced apart by the realities of life. Years later they meet again, but can they pick up where they left off? This contemporary Romeo and Juliet tale show Sparks firmly on form with yet another of the emotional, firmly American-set books about modern family crises that he does so well (he is particularly good on adolescents). I rather love Sparks’ covers, which tend to feature blondes in jeans drifting along lonely strands. Interestingly, this cover’s blonde is snogging someone resembling celebrity cheese-farmer Alex James; make of that what you will.

The Red Thread

by Ann Hood

W W Norton, £8.99

Another example of what’s big in America right now, The Red Thread is a feel-bad-feel-good tearjerking family saga with exotic connections. It’s the story of Maya, who, after her own daughter dies, opens an agency placing baby girls from China with American couples. The stories of would-be parents alternate with the tragic tales of babies up for adoption to form an inevitably mawkish but entertaining soap opera. I can see it going down a storm with book groups. The title refers to the red thread of Chinese myth which apparently connects those meant to be together.

Bird Brain

by Guy Kennaway

Jonathan Caper, £14.99

Finally, by way of a change, a book only a Briton could have written. Shooting-mad, tweed-clad aristo ‘Banger’ Peyton-Crumbe goes to the big grouse moor in the sky after his gun explodes in his face. Reincarnated as a pheasant, he sets about outwitting the humans; meanwhile, his gundogs and the local police hound are convinced his death is murder and set about exposing the (as it were) fowl play. Eccentric and anthropomorphic, this is a book you’ll either love or hate. I liked it. It’s high-spirited, subversive and full of wry social observation and excellent jokes. Think Paul Torday meets Chicken Run.

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Oct 2011

The Decision

by Penny Vincenzi

Headline

800-plus pages is a lot of reader bandwidth to occupy, but Penny Vincenzi does it with aplomb. This saga, like many of her others, is set in the recent past, the Swinging Sixties, all colt-legged girls, chaps in sports cars and a heady feeling of possibility. Posh Eliza, debutante turned fashion editor, defies her parents to fall in love with angry young property developer Matt, a man whose shoulder has more chips than Harry Ramsden’s. While not exactly subverting stereotypes it romps glamorously along, is very well written and there’s plenty of ceiling-hitting sex and good characters. What more could anyone want? For all it almost crushed me to death in bed, I enjoyed it hugely.

The Very Picture of You

by Isabel Wolff

Isabel Wolff is a wonderful writer who weaves humour and pathos to great effect. Ella, her latest heroine, is a kindly portrait painter whose subjects confess all as she works. Adulterous MPs, old ladies with a past and bored, rich resentful wives end up singing like canaries over the linseed and cadmium white. But Ella has her own issues to resolve; a growing attraction to one particularly risky subject and an enduringly painful episode in her own past which, in the course of the novel, is resolved with a brilliant twist. I loved this book, with its compelling characters, thoughtful air, warmth and wit.

The First Wife

by Emily Barr

Rebecca is a well-trodden track for novelists and here is another take on the classic ingenue-marries-man-with-dead-first-wife plot. A bold take, certainly; its social realism would make Daphne gasp and stretch her eyes. Lily is a beautiful oddball who’s fallen through the social security net and, with the help of a gay ex-addict, gets back on her feet to take the cleaning job where she meets the charismatic husband. There’s a dead wife, obviously, a mystery and a dramatic climax, but what Barr brings to the party is making Lily someone apart from conventional society, an endearing outsider who observes, often wryly, from a distance. Romantic, moving and wonderfully different.

The Golden Hour

by William Nicholson

William Nicholson’s last novel followed a handful of well-heeled Sussex types over a few summer days. The Golden Hour picks up some of the same characters and adopts the same soap opera format. I enjoyed it very much and especially loved the despairing TV writer character Henry and the downbeat film scriptwriter Alan, both of whom must surely be informed by Nicholson’s other life as the writer of Gladiator, Shadowlands etc. Nicholson sends up the world of boneheaded TV commissioning editors and flaky film people so brilliantly I wished he would dump all the other characters, good as they are, and do a proper Tom Sharpe take on these areas alone. Really wonderful comedy is so rare in novels these days. Come on, William! For me?!

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Sept 2011

The Language of Flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

An angry adopted Californian girl distrusts people but has an empathy with flowers. She communicates through them, using the almost obsolete code of hidden messages. I loved, as I always do, the bootstraps bits, where destitute, starving, park-sleeping Victoria gets her break with the florist and, through her brilliance at arrangements, goes on to transform the business. I was less keen on the angry bits – furious former foster children are all over fiction at the moment, trailing clouds of over-justified destruction that can sometimes defy sympathy. It’s a real page-turner however, and defty written. The meanings-of-flowers motif works well, its Victorian restraint and subtlety an interesting contrast with the emotional histrionics of contemporary San Francisco. It’s sort of misery memoir meets Interflora, but none the less enjoyable for that.

The Painted Lady

By Maeve Haran

Blonde beauty Frances has grown up amid tattered bedhangings, freezing palaces and the exiled supporters of Charles II in Paris, for whom, when the Merry Monarch makes his comeback, it’s party central in London. The Number One Big Man, it turns out, has his eye on virginal Frances, but she resists his periwigged and priapic advances because she’s in love with someone else. None of this washes with either the Queen or Charles’ minxy mistresses who think Frances is just playing hard to get. And then the Great Plague and Fire come along just to complicate things yet more. Can Frances hold out, and hold on to her man? It’s evocative, colourful and exciting but while there are plenty of heaving bodices, it’s a tad restrained on the ripping front.

Lucky Bunny

By Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson is one of those writers so gifted and assured you relax just five words in. Take me anywhere you like, you say to the book. I’m in your hands. Where Jill takes you here is down the old East End, through a horrid Second World War childhood, a spell in jail and then the glamorous but seedy underworld of the Fifties. It doesn’t sound so lucky, admittedly, and heroine Queenie is no angel. She is, however, brave, funny, resourceful and beautiful and you’re on her side from that fifth word in I mentioned.

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July 2011

Night Road

By Kristin Hannah

MacMillan £12.99

Don’t take this book into a hair salon. It’s so sad that if you’re anything like as mawkish as me you’ll be weeping beneath your foils and pretending it’s hayfever. Similarly, if you’re the kind of parent (and who isn’t?) who dreads their children driving cars, it might not be the most relaxing of reads either. Jude is the perfect mother. Her home is perfect, her husband is perfect, her twins are perfect. But the fear of something threatening all this is never far away and when motherless outcast Lexi arrives at her childrens’ school, it does. Love and loyalty come disastrously into conflict and it’s not just Jude’s control that’s broken. Whilst it’s the kind of book that plays shamelessly on everyone’s worst fears, it is movingly written and plotted with the heartless skill of Greek tragedy. You’ll keep turning the pages until the last racking sob.

Ophelia in Pieces

by Claire Jacob

Short Books, £12.99

Law & Peace

by Tim Kevan

Bloomsbury, £11.99

Barrister Ophelia is in pieces because she has been working so hard she’s neglected her family and her husband has had an affair. Her self confidence in her job and relationship with her son go down like so many dominoes; the tin hat is conclusively put on when one of Ophelia’s cases brings her into contact with some very unpleasant, dangerous and ultimately threatening people. Can Ophelia put herself back together again? It’s a very well-written, thoughtful and moving debut by a practising barrister and deals with many burning contemporary issues. However, my favourite bits were the wonderfully sinister, mean and Dickensian barristers’ clerks! More slimy clerks in Law & Peace, the second novel to emerge from The Guardian’s BabyBarista blog. Written from the male barrister’s perspective (again by a real life wig-wearer), this funny, sharp account of backstabbing Bar life makes a great companion volume to Ophelia and comes highly recommended.

The Secrets Between Us

by Louise Douglas

An underconfident heroine meets a mysterious and handsome man in an exotic Mediterranean location. He persuades her to return with him to his West Country mansion, which is thick with memories of his beautiful, disappeared wife. Sound familiar? This novel doesn’t disguise the fact it’s a reworking of Rebecca, but why should it? We all love Rebecca, and I enjoyed this updated version in which secretary Sarah meets Alex in Sicily and returns with him and his son to Bristol. Sarah is slightly more promiscuous than The Second Mrs de Winter, and I missed Mrs Danvers. But the evil mother-in-law is an excellent second and the introduction of a child into the plot works brilliantly.

The Lovers of Pound Hill

by Mavis Cheek

Hutchinson £12.99

The Gnome, a hideous, priapic chalk figure cut in the downs, has sniggered down for centuries on the sleepy village of Lufferton Boney. The village wakes with a start when bodacious archaelogist Molly Bonner rocks up and draws everyone from the suspicious barmaid to the embittered wife of the local doctor into her plans to tidy their ancient site. But is this really all Molly is up to? Cheek has assembled a wonderful range of comic posh-village types, from the smooth-tongued antique-dealer to the tippling lady of the manor. Lively, sunny, positive, this is a real cheerer-upper of a book. You’ll love it.

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May 2011

The Beauty of Humanity Movement

by Camilla Gibb

Atlantic Books, London £12.99

A novel whose hero is an ancient Vietnamese noodle-seller might sound a bit of a stretch. But if I tell you that only five pages in I was rushing into the kitchen looking for soy sauce and chopsticks you have some idea of how compelling this book is. Hung, the noodle-seller, once ran a restaurant where, in the dark days of Ho Chi Minh, dissident poets, artists and writers gathered. Now the grand-daughter of one of those artists, the American-raised Maggie, has come back to Hanoi looking for clues to her ‘disappeared’ relative. Can Old Man Hung give her the answers? And why hasn’t he spoken to his neighbour, who he used to love, for 40 years? It’s a sort of Indochinese Garcia Marquez and the most moving, romantic, funny and informative book I have read in a long time.

The Trouble With Alice

by Olivia Glazebrook

Short Books £12.99

Olivia Glazebrook is a talented, witty writer with a sharp eye for social observation. I loved her descriptions of five star hotels and trendy London types. But otherwise, this book’s too dark for me, although perhaps not for you. Basically, Alice’s luxury holiday has unexpectedly tragic consequences. A car crash, the loss of a baby and then the steady withdrawal of Alice’s boyfriend lead to full-scale and minutely-detailed breakdown in the Maggie O’Farrell tradition.

Only Time Will Tell

by Jeffrey Archer

Not having read Jeffrey before and not sure what to expect, I was touched and enthralled by this tale of how Harry from the Bristol backstreets learns not to lick his soup bowl as he rises from obscurity to Eton. As in all rags-to-riches stories the metamorphosis is the best bit and Archer describes with enjoyable brio how the gifted choirboy, flanked by his two best mates, learns social graces, dodgies bullies and wins scholarship after scholarship. He's about to marry into the upper classes when tragedy strikes on the steps of the altar. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing any more. Or the trademark twist, which is gasp-making.

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Apr 2011

Hill Farm

by Miranda France

Chatto, £12.99

After bored farmer’s wife Isabel meets exotic aromatherapist Sheila, there’s change as well as ylang ylang in the air. Could hunky Aussie Jack have something to do with it? Hill Farm reads like The Archers written by Tolstoy hedge-fund farmers, sinister farmhands, colourful incomers and bored country teenagers are all sketched with detail and verve. The comic description of two lady churchgoers deserves especial mention in dispatches. This debut novel from a well-known travel scribe twists coming-of-age drama with Karenina-esque sensual discovery. It perfectly captures the more Gothic aspects of country life.

What Women Want

By Fanny Blake

Blue Door £7.99

Isn’t it awful when a much-loved friend takes up with a bloke you really don’t like? All that conniving to meet her alone and trying to avoid him in conversation? I’ve long thought it would be a good subject for a book, so clever Fanny Blake to do just that with her debut novel. Divorced Bea, shakily-married Kate and widowed Ellen have been friends for years. But then Ellen meets the charming Oliver, whose feet are under her reclaimed-pine kitchen table in no time. Is he for real? The others have their doubts, to say the least. A thoughtful, funny and warm read, full of wry and well-observed detail.

A Secret Kept

by Tatiana de Rosnay

Pan £7.99

According to her less-than-modest press release Tatiana de Rosnay is descended from a long line of eminent diplomats, actresses, scientists and painters, as well as Kristin Scott Thomas. Her novel Sarah’s Key is being made into a film starring Isambard Kingdom Brunel. No, hang on, something’s back to front there. But does it matter; does all this make her current offering any good? It starts with a near-fatal car crash ( all the literary rage at the moment) and proceeds via an affair with a mortician and the death of a teenager to a supposed moment of revelation. You might like it, especially if you liked her first one. Chacun a son gout, after all.

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Mar 2011

A Man of Parts

by David Lodge

Harvill, Secker £18.99

Yes, David, and it’s pretty clear which parts we’re talking about here! The possibly surprising fact that moustachio’d, weedily-built Wells was more love machine than Time Machine is the theme of this extraordinarily rich, wide-ranging, hugely entertaining novel. Despite this rampant libido, the one-time most famous writer in the world seemed to have an uncanny knack of picking sex-averse women to marry, hence the sequence of mistresses to make up the deficit. The most important and beloved were brainy Cambridge philosophy student Amber Reeves and, more famously, journalist-feminist Rebecca West. Runner-up was Elizabeth von Arnim, an Edwardian chick-lit writer who liked to make love on newspapers and whose books, to Wells’ chagrin, occasionally outsold his own. While the sex and mistresses is fun, my favourite part of the book was the beginning; Wells’ discovery of learning and his own incipient brilliance in the unused (by its owners) library of Uppark, the stately home where his mother was housekeeper. A treat of a read, not least because of the wonderful, rolling ease with which Lodge writes. Or, rather, with which it reads; prose like this does not come without effort.

Lucky Break

Esther Freud

Bloomsbury £11.99

To paraphrase Tolstoy, while all successful actors are alike, each unsuccessful actor is unsuccessful in their own way. This terrific novel, breezing along in Freud’s pitch-perfect prose, follows some of the ways. It’s a sort of Fame for the middle classes; a group of students start at a prestigious London drama school, the race is on. Our heroine is plump, unpretentious Nell, flanked by beautiful, capricious Charlie and tortured, talented Dan. The drama school, for all its high-faluting theories of Acting and Being, is as ruthless as X Factor; the unpromising are weeded out, including (shock!) Nell, who we’re rooting for. But failure is SO much more interesting, as well as funnier, than success; I loved especially the hilarious episode, I’m guessing based on truth, when a Dan desperate to reboot his career takes long-suffering wife and four children to LA only to end up jobless in a one-bedroomed villa with the rain beating down in the manky swimming pool. There is a happy ending, but it’s all so horribly, wonderfully real otherwise; actors do shifts in cheap restaurants, hand out flyers in Edinburgh, develop career-crippling skin conditions, despair in bedsits. Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Mail-Reader!

Rescue

by Anita Shreeve

Little, Brown

I hadn’t read any Anita Shreeve before – she writes in that very spare American style. That can. In parts. Read almost like a script. It’s fast-paced and skilful, free of all detail but the actually significant, and cuts straight to the chase to get you right in the heart of the action. Our hero, paramedic Peter Webster rescues an attractive young woman from a car crash. Later, in the hospital, he (slightly unethically) notices the outline of her nipples under the sheet. He falls in love with this long-legged, long-haired Sheila (not Australian, she actually is called Sheila), who’s ballsy and funny and hustles pool (whatever that means). On the downside, she’s an alcoholic on the run from a bad relationship. Ignoring all the obvious warning signs, Webster goes right ahead and marries her; predictably enough she soon goes off the rails again and eventually walks out. All this is the middle of the novel, though, the beginning and the end concern the couple’s daughter, teenage Rowan living with her father and going off the rails herself. Is Sheila the only person able to help her? Will Webster be able to find her, and what will happen then? Dramatic, touching and witty by turns, Shreeve is especially strong on family relationships.

Saints and Sinners

by Edna O’Brien

Faber and Faber

Oh Edna O’Brien, how do you do it? Here am I, only halfway through my fourth decade and practically welded to my thesaurus as le mot juste (le mot anything, frankly) evades me with increasing frequency. While Edna, now in her eighties, effortlessly produces all the right words in the right order, and all the poetry that implies. This new collection of short stories is imbued with delicious melancholy; O’Brien sees tragedy and beauty in everything from the Irish who built London (Shovel Kings) through swingers in a bed and breakfast (Sinners) to a meditation on mothers and daughters (the heartbreaking My Two Mothers). With Edna, the ordinary becomes epic.

Stuart Evers’ Ten Stories About Smoking is a masterpiece of packaging. A paperback looking like ten cigarettes is slipped inside a cardboard box like a fag packet. It’s Stuart Evers’ debut collection – is he a lucky boy to have his publishers make such an effort! I enjoyed the ten tales, with their musing, film noir atmosphere; Evers is a deft, spare writer much occupied with chance encounters, of sibling relationships, of the drama of the everyday. And of smoking, of course; fictional puffers range from skint Linda, hoping to land a nannying job with her brother and his snotty wife, through O’Neil, a fatty aimed at being a fitty, to guilty insomniac Peter, who may have blood on his hands. None of these smokers are wildly happy or successful; are you trying to tell us something, Stuart?!

Are high-concept short story collections the thing of the moment? Another is Ariel Sabar’s Heart of The City, a book I adored. Sabar, whose own parents met in Washington Square, NYC, advertised for real-life stories, past and present, of couples meeting in New York’s public places. The result is a wonderful, life-affirming collection of romances, all the better because they’re real. My favourites were the tales from the Forties and Fifties in which hunky, polite sailors straight out of On The Town meet and marry runaway waifs or provincial secretaries. But the contemporary ones are lovely too, with spiky grad students hooking up with irresistible geeks at Starbucks. What really strikes home is the sheer humour, patience and good manners of most of the men, even the modern ones. New York, New York, it sure is a wonderful town.

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Feb 2011

Monsieur de Montespan

by Jean Teule

Gallic £7.99

Many novels have been written about the Sun King’s mistresses; Jean Teule has approached the subject via a fascinating new route. He imagines the world of the Marquis de Montespan, husband of one of the most famous of Louis’ ladies. It’s a rotten world, quite literally; even the great folk of the Court are riddled with STDs and stuff the cavities in their teeth with butter. Husbands are thrilled when the King wants their wives for sex; it means money, position, power. Not for Louis-Henri de Montespan. He adores his Marquise, the frisky Francoise; he doesn’t want to lose her and refuses to take her lying down, lying down. But defying the King is as courageous and unheard of as loving one’s wife. I rooted wildly for the brave Marquis in his hopeless stand, and mourned for him and the other tragic victims of Louis XIV’s droit de seigneur, including the Montespans’ little daughter who never sees her mother again.

The Pile of Stuff At The Bottom Of The Stairs

by Christina Hopkinson

Hodder

What wife doesn’t wish her husband was tidier? Although few, possibly, would go to the lengths of Mary, who, enraged by Joel’s laissez faire attitude to everything from cleaning to picking up the children, decides to keep a chart of all his transgressions. The danger with marriage-moan-lit is that one can get tired of the whinging wife, not to mention the husband, but there’s a lightning rod here in the shape of a mother-in-law you actually want to strangle. It’s fantastically well-written, searingly truthful, occasionally very moving and obviously trying desperately to be seen as 2011’s I Don’t Know How She Does It. To which one can only say good luck, obviously.

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Jan 2011

Some great Pops to start the new year; a real feast of reading. Literally so with Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector (Atlantic £12.99). Emily and Jess are not just very different sisters, but metaphors for California new and old. Emily is the driven CEO of a super-successful internet start-up, Jess the offbeat philosophy student in search of a meaning to life. While Emily’s company soars into the stratosphere at its IPO (launch into the stock market), Jess works part-time in a bookshop and hangs with tree-huggers and a rabbi. There’s an almost infinite number of subplots, one involving the collector of the title, but my favourite bits by far were those contrasting the tune-in, turn-off, drop out lifestyle with the betrayal and swashbuckle of Silicon Valley techies about to hit the financial big time (and then lose it all again). Computers never seemed so exciting! Goodman is everything it says on her tin – a wonderful, lyrical writer etc – but she also has an astute eye for comedy and some bits were truly hilarious. Read this to sound knowledgeable about internet IPOs when Facebook hits the stock market next year.

Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was an international hit in 2007; The Lake of Dreams is her follow-up and covers some of the same ground – buried secrets resulting in devastating family revelations and so on. Bleak House apart, I have to say that this isn’t usually my cup of tea, but LOD is an absorbing, perceptive and moving tale that fans of the former novel will lap up. Certainly, there are a whole new lot of memory keepers and daughters, with a suffragette, a famous artist and a eye-pricking separation thrown in, all written in Edwards’ trademark lush and sweeping style

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I loved Nicholas Dickner’s Apocalypse For Beginners (Portobello, £12.99), a sharp, funny and wacky romcom from the acclaimed Canadian author of Nikolski. It’s long, hot summer in Canadian suburbia when teenage Mickey runs into teenage Hope at the empty municipal stadium. If you think this sounds like a game of Consequences already you ain’t heard the half of it; Hope lives in a petshop and, her name notwithstanding, comes from a long line of doom-mongers who believe the end of the world is nigh (the exact form Armageddon will take is revealed to them at puberty). Hope is yet to receive her revelation, however; Mickey hopes for a few of his own in the meantime. Does he get any? You’ll have to read it to find out; all I can say is that it gives a whole new meaning to the term nuclear families and you’ll never see either noodles or feminine products in the same way again. I also predict that the last line of the book will end up on tattoos and T-shirts everywhere.

I must confess that when I first picked up Love Virtually (Quercus, £9.99), the prospect of a German novel in which an affair is entirely conducted by email made my heart sink. Hadn’t we been here before? The strange thing is, I rather enjoyed it. It is quite staggeringly straightforward with no subplots or complexities whatsoever, just two characters on whom the reader is forced to concentrate as their originally accidental encounter turns to mutual intrigue and then to desire. It’s the kind of book you can read while doing several other things at the same time, but sometimes that’s just what you need.

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Oct 2010

Inheritance

by Tara Palmer-Tomkinson

Pan, £12.99

Back in the day, as they say, I used to ghost Tara’s Sunday Times column, which gives me a more than usual interest in this, her first novel. There may be an element of autobiography; Inheritance’s heroine is a glamorous socialite called Lyric Charlton. Her rich parents live in a mansion in the country with Old Masters and servants but she nevertheless overcomes these privileges to develop a major drugs problem. After The News of the World ring up the mansion during Daddy’s birthday dinner she hits rehab, then tries to rebuild her life despite the hindrance of various frenemies. But will a sexy gardener help her blossom as a person? There is definitely heart here, which warms things up, plus some compelling characters, my favourite by far being Lyric’s neurotic snob of a mother. Glamour addicts will love the lavish detail about expense-no-object parties on places called Sin Island, concluding only when guests private-jet off to Venice for breakfast.

Priceless

by Nicole Richie

HarperCollins, £12.99

Nicole Richie, daughter of Lionel and one-time BF of Paris Hilton, is a sort of Stateside Tara equivalent. Nor do the resemblances end there – their books open identically with the heroine touching down in her private jet. As with Tara’s offering, the reader is blinded at first by the sheer fascinating detail of life among the super-rich, but after a chapter or two one starts to long for a character to identify with. I rather struggled to do that with Charlotte, the heroine, a spoilt Park Avenue princess who falls on hard times after Dad does a Bernie Madoff. Will she survive the mean streets before she makes it in the music biz? It’s well-written, pacy and confident, but I have to say the press release about Nicole made even better reading. She has two children called Harlow and Sparrow, for starters.

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