Maddy Alone: Pamela Brown

★★★½

The Blue Door: Book II

In the wake of Mishima, I needed something totally different: something charming, cuddly and heartwarming. With relief, I turned to the second book in Pamela Brown’s Blue Door series (the first was The Swish of the Curtainwhich I reviewed some time ago), telling the story of a band of ambitious children who set up a theatre company in their small town of Fenchester. In this sequel, the older children have achieved their dreams and are now studying at stage school in London, but poor Maddy, the youngest, is only twelve years old and has been told she needs to stick with ordinary school for the time being. Pushed to her limits by the thought of all the fun the others are having, Maddy begins acting up; but soon she discovers a marvellous opportunity right on her doorstep, which will change her life once and for all.

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Life for Sale: Yukio Mishima

★★★

Yukio Mishima’s name has been appearing on my recommendation lists ever since I started reading Japanese fiction, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Newly published by Penguin Modern Classics, in a fresh translation by Stephen Dodd, it tells the story of Hanio Yamada, who is thoroughly disillusioned by the world around him. Having failed in a suicide attempt, feeling crippled by the sheer meaninglessness of existence, Hanio comes up with a plan. He places an ad in the paper: ‘Life for Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a twenty-seven-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.’ He simply doesn’t care any more. Let someone else make the decisions for him! He’s prepared to relinquish his entire existence to the whims of another person. His offer leads him into a series of bizarre adventures which foreshadow Murakami’s surreal worldview, and which force Hanio to confront how he really feels about life.

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The Stranger Diaries: Elly Griffiths

★★★½

Clare Cassidy is au fait with Gothic drama. She’s an English teacher at Holland House school, formerly the home of the reclusive Victorian author R.M. Holland, whose eerie short story The Stranger is one of Clare’s favourite pieces. But Clare prefers the Gothic to remain within the pages of her books. When her friend and colleague Ella Elphick is murdered, it initially seems to be just that: a shocking, upsetting, horrifying crime. Yet there are disturbing elements to Ella’s death. A scribbled note is found beside her body: a line from The Stranger. Her murder bears some resemblance to one of the deaths in that story. And worse is to come. For Clare, a committed diarist, suddenly discovers that someone else has been leaving notes in her journal – someone who apparently has knowledge of the crime, and has been able to get access to her most personal possessions. Griffiths’s novel is a satisfying combination of old-school Gothic and thoroughly modern thriller – even if its final denouement is a bit limp.

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The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood

★★★

Society has collapsed. The crumbling economy has snatched away the chance for most people to have jobs, homes, security. Vicious, drug-addled gangs roam the streets, preying on the vulnerable. Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their house and are now living on the street in their car, scraping a meagre existence thanks to Charmaine’s work as a waitress in a dive-bar. They still have their pride, but it’s on the blink; and Stan is on the point of turning for help to his estranged criminal brother (the aptly-named Con) when Charmaine sees an advert that changes their lives. It offers hope. The chance to have dignity restored. A roof over their head; a purpose in life. In return, they just have to take part in a social experiment. Oh, and, once you’re in, there’s no turning back. As you’d expect from Margaret Atwood, this is a high-concept dystopian fable about the corruption of power and the subjugation of the individual for the ‘good’ of the whole. It lacks the taut urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale and veers into absurdity in the later chapters, but it’s nevertheless a sobering vision of a not-too-distant future.

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Will and Tom: Matthew Plampin

★★★★

Will Turner arrives at Harewood House in the summer of 1797 in a turbulent frame of mind. His invitation from ‘Beau’ Lascelles, the eldest son of Baron Harewood, could be the beginning of something big. Will’s talent has been noted by his contemporaries and by the press. Now he might be able to win the greatest prize of all: an understanding patron. On the other hand, in order to achieve said prize, Will is going to have to endure several days in the company of frivolous aristocrats without causing offence which, for an obstinate working-class Londoner with a chip on his shoulder, won’t be easy. And worse is to come. For Will isn’t the only painter who’s been invited to Harewood this summer. When his boyhood friend (and fellow – rival? – painter) Tom Girtin unexpectedly turns up, looking mightily comfortable in this aristocratic milieu, Will bristles, assuming they’ve been set up to compete for the nobles’ amusement. But the truth – if truth it is – turns out to be more peculiar than even he could have imagined.

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Jingo: Terry Pratchett

★★★½

The Discworld Reread: Book 21

When a mysterious island rises abruptly out of the sea, right under his boat, fisherman Solid Jackson knows precisely what he’s going to do. He’s going to claim that land in the name of Ankh-Morpork and become a national hero, no question about it. Unfortunately for Solid, he isn’t the only one present at the moment of the island’s apparition, and his great rival Arif promptly decides that it actually belongs to his own country, Al-Khali. As the fishermen scurry home to inform their respective governments, their dispute swiftly escalates to the level of international diplomacy… and worse. While this book sparkles with all Pratchett’s characteristic verve, reading it is a mitigated pleasure, because a satire on the stupidity of racial intolerance, hate crimes and the futility of war feels so bloody pertinent in the modern world. And, unlike the good citizens of Ankh-Morpork, we don’t even have Sam Vimes and the City Watch standing by to save us…

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Aspects of Love: David Garnett

★★

I know virtually nothing about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Aspects of Love, except for the song Love Changes Everything, which was on a CD we used to play in the car during long journeys. I certainly didn’t know that the musical was based on a book, still less that said book was a product of the Bloomsbury Group. When I stumbled across it by chance, I decided that I simply had to give it a go – though I can’t say that I enjoyed it. It’s a self-indulgent triumph of style over substance and, while it’s a quick read at fewer than 150 pages, it lingers in the mind for the wrong reasons: for its unpleasant aura of exploitation and emotional manipulation. It becomes even more sinister when you realise that it was inspired by events in Garnett’s own life.

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The Barefoot Woman: Scholastique Mukasonga

★★★★★

Scholastique Mukasonga’s mother used to tell her daughters that it was their duty to cover her when she died. By shrouding her body in a pagne, the colourful wrapper worn by both women and men, they could preserve decency and allow her soul to safely move on to the next stage of its journey. But Mukasonga was living far away in France when her mother was horrifically murdered, alongside her sisters, brothers, neighbours and friends, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Unable to fulfil her mother’s wish, Mukasonga instead pays tribute to her with this extraordinary memoir. It is a celebration of one remarkable woman, but also of all the women whom Mukasonga knew as a girl: the energetic, creative, passionate, devout neighbours who helped an exiled community to maintain its dignity in the face of racial hatred, and who fought to give their children as normal a life as possible in a world where nothing was normal any more. Blessed with a lyrical and eminently readable translation by Jordan Stump, this little slice of vanished Rwandan life might just end up being one of my books of the year.

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Murder at the British Museum: Jim Eldridge

★★

I’m intrigued by stories set in museums, mainly because I love seeing what authors think curators do with their time (hint: less of the jungles, secret societies and revivified mummies; more ferreting around in dusty boxes. Or maybe that’s just me). This particular book caught my eye because it’s set in my own stomping ground. How could I resist a murder mystery in the hallowed halls of the British Museum? In retrospect, I probably should have done: partly for the usual reason (indignation at a lack of familiarity with what the building actually looks like), and partly because I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. But there’s still a measure of interest to be found in this tale of dastardly doings in Bloomsbury, and in the enterprising duo who are called in to help solve the crime and – more importantly – salvage the Museum’s reputation.

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Jumping the Queue: Mary Wesley

★★★

I read The Camomile Lawn as a student and, being young and naive, was impressed by its suave, sophisticated, witty characters. With this in mind, I happily snaffled Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue when I found it on a bookshop expedition to Winchester with H. Now I wonder whether, if I were to reread The Camomile Lawn, I would find there the negatives that I noticed here alongside the wit and sophistication: detached indifference; clever people behaving horribly to one another; a rather nihilistic view of the world. What, really, is the point? That’s the question we find the recently widowed Matilda Poliport contemplating as the book starts. Carrying a basket of wine, cheese and fresh bread, she’s heading down to the beach for a picnic before she ends it all. When her plans are frustrated, she heads back to a life that she thought she had all neatly tied up; but this time she has an unexpected companion: a soul almost as lost as she is. Be warned. This is not a cosy piece of classic fiction. This is fiction with claws. And teeth.

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