Nutshell: Ian McEwan

★★★★

Imagine that you’re privy to a murder plot: a fiendish, heinous plan to kill your father. Imagine that one of the conspirators is your own mother. Even worse, her accomplice is your uncle, your father’s own brother, who has slipped happily between the prematurely-vacated bed-sheets. And imagine, in this horrific scenario, that there’s absolutely nothing you can do but listen as the scheme unfolds along its pernicious course. That’s the fate of our narrator in this brilliant, playful novel, who is rendered powerless by virtue of being a nine-month-old foetus within his mother’s womb. A cross between Hamlet and Look Who’s Talking really shouldn’t work, but this does, triumphantly: it’s one of the most sumptuously-written books I’ve read in ages.

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Bite-Sized Memoirs

Bite-Sized Books

Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…

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Before I Go To Sleep: S.J. Watson

★★★★

Further thanks to everyone for your support and messages over the last few days. Give yourselves a pat on the back for being wonderful human beings. For my part, I’ve decided that life is far too rich and busy to sit around feeling sorry for myself, so let’s forge onward and get back to thinking about good books and gorgeous art and crazy operas and all sorts of other lovely things. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to focus on my blog but, you know what? I’ve realised that writing The Idle Woman is one of the great joys in my life and the best possible tonic for my spirits. So you can all imagine me right now, curling up contentedly with a cup of tea after a busy day, in order to thrash out my thoughts on my most recent read. And this one requires a bit of thrashing.

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Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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The Jealous One: Celia Fremlin

★★★½

Celia Fremlin’s works have recently been reissued by Faber Finds, in neat little ebooks with come-hither pricing. I hadn’t heard of her before, but was intrigued by her themes of suburban unease and mystery, and chose The Jealous One as my introduction to her novels. First published in 1964, it occasionally shows its age, but its essential story is one that doubtless remains painfully familiar in the present world. Rosamund and Geoffrey have been married for years, united by their gossiping about their London neighbours and by shared despair over their feckless teenage son. But when the exuberant Lindy moves in next door and inches her way into their lives, Rosamund discovers how painful jealousy can be. And then, one day, she wakes from a feverish sleep and a dream of murder… to find that Lindy has vanished.

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The Last Romeo: Justin Myers

★★★

Some people say that most first novels are thinly-described autobiography. In this particular case, the disguise is as robust as the Emperor’s New Clothes. Justin Myers, author of the popular Guyliner blog, is probably best known for his ruthless takedowns of the Guardian’s weekly Blind Date column (an occasional guilty pleasure on a Friday afternoon). But he started out as a cataloguer of the gay dating wilderness: a mission shared by the protagonist of his first novel. Blending acerbity with vulnerability, this is a rom-com for the online dating generation, told with panache in Meyer’s distinctive voice, but it rarely convinces as a novel rather than a memoir with names changed.

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The New Mrs Clifton: Elizabeth Buchan

★★★★

In 1974 a young couple move into a house beside Clapham Common in London and begin the long task of doing it up. Some months into their refurbishment, when working in the garden, they make a shocking discovery: the skeleton of a woman in her late twenties, who has been murdered with a blow to the back of the head. She died some time between 1945 and 1947. But who is she? Rewind thirty years to autumn 1945, to a London emaciated and embittered by wartime privation, where the thrill of victory has worn off to leave behind an aching desperation. Intelligence officer Gus Clifton returns home from his posting in Berlin to his family home in Clapham; to his sisters Julia and Tilly, and his fiancee Nella. It should have been a happy homecoming. But it bears a sting in the tail, for Gus comes home with his new wife. Krista. A German woman.

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Excellent Women: Barbara Pym

★★★★

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Barbara Pym and now I’m wondering how on earth I managed to avoid her for so long. First published in 1952, Excellent Women is a comedy of manners set in contemporary London, in a community based around the local church. At its heart is Mildred Lathbury, orphaned clergyman’s daughter and self-professed spinster: one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied upon to keep the parish running, join in with the flower rota and man the stalls at the church fair. Mildred’s world has the stifling cosiness of a small village, where everyone knows one another’s business and gossip greases the cogs of life. But around her, the world is changing. When a young couple moves into the flat below Mildred’s, she finds herself unwillingly dragged into their vibrant, unconventional, and entirely shocking lives.

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Crippen: John Boyne

★★★★

A Novel of Murder

In July 1910, the SS Montrose sets sail from Antwerp on her regular crossing to Canada, and the first-class passengers begin the cautious task of getting to know one another. The pushy Mrs Antoinette Drake and her daughter Victoria are, evidently, going to be trouble; so is the half-feral Tom, nephew of the mysterious Matthieu Zela who has bespoken the Presidential Suite. But there are some amenable characters on board too. Martha Hayes is a quiet spinster hoping to make a new life for herself in Canada; and the self-effacing John Robinson and his seventeen-year-old son Edmund are also escaping to a new world. Meanwhile, back in London, a horrific crime is discovered. Cora Crippen has been murdered and buried in tiny pieces in the cellar of her house. Her husband, Dr Crippen, has absconded with his mistress. But where can they be? And will there be enough time for Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard to track them down?

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The Alchemist of Souls: Anne Lyle

★★★½

Night’s Masque: Book I

Larry Rostant’s Renaissance cover art has once again persuaded me to take a punt on a novel: a compelling blend of fantasy and gritty historical fiction, populated by players, spies, noblemen, and swordsmen who are down on their luck. This is London, in the fading days of Elizabeth I’s reign, but not as you know it. The queen tarries at Nonsuch, mourning her late husband Robert Dudley, while the reins of power are in the hands of her elder son Prince Robert. The capital seethes not only with religious strife, but also racial tension, for the discovery of the New World has brought Europe into contact with the skraylings: human-like and yet not human; great craftsmen, traders and warriors. And the imminent arrival of the first skrayling ambassador to the Court of St James may well be the spark that ignites the blaze. Imagine Shakespeare in Love seasoned with grit, intrigue and more than a hint of otherworldly magic.

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