Started but not finished:
- Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss – a sparely but powerfully written period novel, I was nonetheless lacking the compulsion to continue reading after several chapters. Will probably return to it at a later time.
- Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale – A boy journeys with his grandfather through the harsh winter of the Belarusian forests to bury the ashes of his mother. Another of those bleak novels suffused with fairytale elements, I was quite enjoying this but not completely captivated (it could go either way) and have put aside to continue later.
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – 3.5
An elderly lady’s friend is missing, and nobody seems to care. But Maud’s memory is increasingly patchy, and recollections of her sister’s equally mysterious disappearance in their childhood confuses matters further (the stories of the two different disappearances are told in alternating chapters).
This is a very likeable, ultimately uplifting story about age, family and friendship, but with a healthy dose of mystery mixed in for good measure. There are moments of humour, moments that are genuinely touching, and enough suspense to keep the pages turning. But ultimately, it was just a middle-of-the-road, light read with no great surprises in store. It has some themes in common with War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen, but WCH is much sharper, more cleverly constructed and – for my money – far superior in every way. But possibly less to the mainstream taste…
Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville – 3.5
Two connected tales are told in alternating chapters: the story of a mysterious girl at the turn of the 20th century who is found in the garden of a psychoanalyst, and the story of a spoilt brat several decades later who is being raised by her father (a concentration camp ‘doctor’) and a housekeeper full of dark tales – but whose world is turned upside down by her father’s untimely death. As the title would suggest, parts of the story are quite dark: there is (non-graphic) sexual abuse, Krysta alongside her father’s dead body, twisted fairytales, and of course the Holocaust theme – but this is marketed as a young adult as well as adult book, and I think is probably suitable for age 16+.
Certain elements in the construction of the story seemed a little too well signposted (although probably no more than in your average mainstream novel), but the way the two stories interlinked, when revealed toward the end, was not quite as straightforward as I had supposed, which was a bit of a relief. I felt like the depictions of the concentration camp were actually not as dark as they would/could have been in an adult novel, and perhaps suffered for a slight lack of grit. My biggest disappointment, though, was the ending, which is where I felt the novel really pandered to its young adult market with a determinedly positive perspective. Overall, it was a decent read which held my interest, but was far from a great read.
The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann – 4
Arthur Gillies is a man with a double life – a stolid middle class wife and daughter in the suburbs balanced by high class brothels, a mistress and a son in the city. Arthur has his cake and he eats it, too. The novel, however, does not so much tell Arthur’s story as the people around him: how Rita, Annetta and Sal end up living in one of his houses, the sorry state of his grown-up son, and the smothered lives of his wife and daughter.
It’s ultimately a sad story, yet not bleak or depressing – it’s alive with vivid characters and the positive energies that surround Arthur. While the very ending is somewhat contrived, it is a surprisingly enjoyable read overall, told in strong, non-flowery prose. Some of the themes combined with style of writing reminded me a little of Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore, but this was a far more satisfying read.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue – 4
Blanche, a burlesque dancer, is content with her ‘bohemian’ lot in life until the day her cross-dressing female friend is shot dead by a bullet intended for her. Blanche is convinced her ex was behind the trigger, but he has disappeared – along with their infant son. In the midst of a stifling, pox-ridden, San Francisco heatwave she tries to get to the bottom of Jenny’s murder, to find her baby, and to find a way to escape her old life…
Based on a true unsolved murder case, this novel successfully brings to life the stifling heat and squalor of the new city of San Francisco, and the horror of such institutions as Doctress Hoffmann’s baby farm. The story begins with the murder then flicks back and forth between the two weeks leading up to it, and the days following. It can be a little hard to empathise with Blanche, who has the wherewithal to keep a tight grip on her finances, but is otherwise, predominantly, led through life by her libido. However, the scenes with the baby P’tit temper this somewhat. Jenny is the enigmatic, carefree character who keeps her past behind a closed door but asks the questions that set in motion the whole chain of events. To me, she seems to be represented a little superficially, almost a caricature.
Although in some instances I feel as though Donoghue has been constrained by the true facts and people involved with the case, I enjoyed her solution to the mystery, and overall, my criticisms are minor. An enjoyable read that will appeal to fans of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. It also reminded me of the very entertaining A Factory of Cunning by Philippa Stockley.
Turning the Stones by Debra Daley – 3.5
A girl comes to in the dressing room of a house she doesn’t recognise, with the dead body of a man she does know nearby. She has no idea what has happened, but she knows she must escape before the blame is cast upon her. Thus begins a frantic journey, while Em recollects the years she has spent as a foundling brought up as a lady’s maid (leading up to this point), and a woman she does not know calls her ‘home’ to Ireland.
A mix of landed gentry and bankruptcy, smugglers and curses, this is quite a readable story with just enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages but somehow fell a little short of really engaging me. Not as good as but along the right lines for fans of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – 3.5
A young wife arrives at her new home in Amsterdam to find life is not to be as she had anticipated. Her husband is mostly absent, and his austere sister rules the house. An unexpected wedding gift of a cabinet-house provides some diversion for Nella, but when the miniaturist she commissions to make its contents begins sending (uncannily perceptive) unsolicited additional items, Nella is unsettled. As the truth about Johannes’ disinterest in his new wife becomes apparent, Nella’s obsession with the elusive miniaturist grows, as does a secret kept by her sister-in-law…
But really, there’s not much more to it than that: nothing took me by surprise, and overall, I was underwhelmed. I’m really not sure why it has received quite as much hype and praise as it has… It’s not a bad read, but is a fairly indifferent one which pales alongside the strong prose and plots of other historical novels I’ve read.
What Was Promised by Tobias Hill – 4
A pleasure to read after the uninspired prose of most of the above! This is the story of three young families in post-Blitz London. In spare, uncomplicated prose, Hill vividly evokes the period and the unique characters driving his story, in which one incident has repercussions for all of them over the years to come.
The first half has echoes of Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’; the chance encounters of the second half are perhaps slightly less believable, but still held my attention. Beautifully drawn and quietly, respectfully emotive, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.