My Latest Reads

This is another quirky, readable book by a first time author. It was a birthday present from the Eldest of the Darling Daughters who hasn’t read it but thought, from the reviews, that it would be right up my street.

 

Which is an appropriate idiom, as it happens, because the central theme of the book is the secret life of the residents of The Avenue, a (hopefully) fictional road which will have every reader wondering just what goes on behind the curtains of all their own neighbours’ houses. Only joking!

 

The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of nine year old Grace who, with her best friend Tilly, seeks to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Mrs Margaret Creasy of Number 8 The Avenue, while at the same time looking for God, having been assured by the local vicar that he is “everywhere”, sorting out in Biblical terms, the sheep from the goats - hence the title of the book.

 

If you like neat endings, with everything explained, then this book may have you howling with frustration. The reason why Margaret Creasey disappeared is hardly credible, at least one of the secrets unveiled is a deliberate and rather horrific crime which will presumably go unpunished, and God is “revealed” in a most mysterious way. Some of the darker events recounted seem to get lost in the overall narrative, almost as if they are after thoughts rather than the events which shaped a person’s later actions. But forget all that - this is a book to suspend disbelief and just enjoy, especially young Grace’s acute and funny observations on life. The narrative flips between 1976 (with very evocative descriptions of that long, hot summer which those, like me, of a Certain Age will remember so well) and 1967 which can be a trifle confusing and the best chapters are definitely those narrated by Grace.

 

However it was the friendship between Grace and Tilly which captivated me most. The author perfectly captured how the relationship between two close friends is never as clear-cut as it may seem - that the confident one may be every bit as reliant on the more apparently reticent partner. It reminded me in some ways of my relationship with my own Little Sister, where, despite being the older, I was every bit as dependent on her, as she was on me. Perhaps that’s why I could recognise the essence of the girls’ friendship so well and why, for me, it was the most believable relationship of the whole story.

 

For everyone who likes their books quirky, different and full of larger than life characters.  

Long Lost Family - that TV programme where people trace their lost parents, children, siblings, which always makes me weep - is among my viewing favourites. Whenever it comes on, I can be heard commenting how much I love that “nice” Nicky Campbell.

 

So imagine my shock to read the first sentence in “Blue-Eyed Son, the story of an adoption”: “I was committing adultery in Room 634 of the Holiday Inn in Birmingham when my wife rang to say they’d found my mother.” Cue crashing sound of wholesome reputation hitting the ground.

 

Yet, in many ways that opening sentence simply heralded this brutally honest account of how Nicky Campbell traced first his birth mother, then his natural father - and the many mistakes he made along the way, hurting his adopted family and the half-sister he grew close to, by thinking to protect them from all knowledge of his covert investigations.

 

Mr B is also an adopted child so this is just the kind of book we love to read together, providing many opportunities to compare the writer’s voyage of discovery and the feelings it aroused in him with Mr B’s own, sometimes rocky, sometimes joyful, journey.

 

In Nicky Campbell’s case, it was his natural father he came to feel closer to than his mother - but at the same time it was the discovery of his birth family’s IRA roots that brought him face to face with the uncomfortable realisation of the completely opposite views held by his two different families. The affection he feels for his adopted father, who died before he began his search, made the comparisons even more painful. 

 

The chapters exploring the Irish roots of his birth family are engrossing though, for me, it was the developing relationship between Nicky and his sisters - by adoption, by birth - that I found most interesting. The interspersing of first-hand accounts by his half-sister, Esther, added to the overall picture of a man on a mission. 

 

Reading the book made me realise that Nicky Campbell is probably the perfect presenter for Long Lost Family because he knows at first hand the pitfalls as well as the pleasures of tracing a lost family.

 

I’ve (almost) forgiven him the adultery because at least he was honest about it...

I have met Simon Brett a couple of times though I wouldn’t expect him to remember me. We were once both speakers at the same conference on ageing and he was quite impressed, I seem to remember, when I said my eldest granddaughter (then just a littl’un) thought OAP stood for Old And Proud.

 

Lots of the questions he was asked by our audience were about his Feathering series of crime novels - the village of Feathering being loosely based on Tarring, just up the road from me (as in, Tarring and Feathering, get it?!)

 

I immediately went to the library to borrow one of these books, which detail the crime investigations of an unlikely couple of friends, Carole, an ex-civil servant, and Jude, a healer. I then, as is my wont when I find a book I enjoy, proceeded to read a good number of the novels. They don’t take themselves too seriously but offer lots of acute social observations to make the reader laugh, all the while trying to decide on the least likely character to have committed the murder. (Lots of murders happen in Feathering; it’s such a good thing that the residents of real-life Tarring are more law-abiding.)

 

It’s a while since I have returned to Feathering but The Killing in the Café, which I borrowed from the library, was exactly the same mixture of mystery and mirth I remembered. Perhaps the relationship between Carole and Jude was explored in a little more depth, with family worries making the uptight Carole open up a bit more to her friend. 

 

If you like your crime novels deep and complicated then Simon Brett may not be for you. If you like them frothy, unlikely and with many a merry sideswipe at conventions, then you might want to give the Feathering series a try. 

 

The Killing in the Café does introduce a few changes - Jude and Carole have swapped their customary chardonnay for Sauvignon blanc. Otherwise it is business as usual for our amateur sleuths.

 

Cheers!

Maeve Binchy books to me are what a comfort blanket is to a baby. The ultimate go-to read when I want to access my Inner Feel-Good Factor.

 

I thought I had read just about every novel written by the Marvellous Maeve - then I came across “Minding Frankie” in the book-shelves of the Guild Care charity shop and was as sure as I could be that this was a story yet to be revealed.

 

It’s not that Maeve Binchy doesn’t deal with tricky topics: “Minding Frankie” covers death, alcoholism, the enduring legacies of dysfunctional family life. It’s the story of young Noel, an alcoholic no-hoper, who discovers he is to be a father to a baby born to a dying mother. Minding Frankie will either make him or break him. 

 

Two very different women are doing their best to influence the turn of events. Moira is the social worker who believes Frankie will be far better off adopted by a steady nuclear family. It’s an unsympathetic portrayal of a social worker which my sister, herself a former social worker specialising in child protection, will almost certainly think is unfair. Plus Moira’s back story is unremittingly sad, going a long way to explain her stance when it comes to wanting every baby to have a guaranteed happy childhood. As readers, however, our sympathies are all with Noel so even acknowledging the sadness in Moira’s life doesn’t make us like her better. 

 

The other woman is Emily, the American cousin who arrives in the community and ever so gently shakes it up, somehow seeing what is needed to bring folk together, to help them realise their dreams and to hold Noel together until he is strong enough to stand alone. I found the comparison between the two women and the way each chose to work, fascinating.

 

As is usual with Maeve Binchy novels there is a massive cast of characters, many recognised from previous books. I sometimes felt as if I needed a family tree, and / or a map of the village so that I could ensure I was making the right connections.

 

At the heart of the story is Frankie - and the way a whole community comes together to help Noel bring her up and keep her safe. The end of the story is both heart-breaking and heart-warming.

 

Classic Maeve.

The blurb on the back cover of Robert Goddard’s “Take No Farewell” warns the reader not, on any account, to be tempted to read the last pages first, because in so doing “you’ll spoil the book’s best surprise.” 

 

Occasionally, if I am finding a book a little heavy going, I have been known to flick through the pages to see if events are likely to speed up a bit. I realise that this is not something I should admit to, having set myself up as a Reviewer of Books but I am nothing if not honest. Anyway I had the warning on the back cover plus a teasing prologue to stop me on this occasion.

 

As it happens, I wasn’t in the least bit tempted to read ahead. I love a good murder mystery and was fully engrossed in this tale of a man setting out to prove the innocence of a woman accused of murder - a woman he had loved and betrayed twelve years before.   

 

Geoffrey Staddon is a believable character, a hero with flaws. He isn’t immediately likeable in view of his earlier behaviour but there’s no doubting his desire to put things right and for this reason the reader has to be on his side as he struggles against the odds to repay his debt to his former love. This book was originally published under the title Debt of Dishonour and I can’t quite understand why anyone would think the new title more fitting. 

 

It’s a long book, over 550 pages, and full of twists and turns which keep the reader turning the pages, in doing so uncovering a rich cast of well-drawn characters. The woman at the centre of the story, Consuela Caswell, is something of a mystery but there’s no mistaking the hatred she stirs up among the public at large, baying for her blood. For, yes, as an explanatory note at the start of the book makes clear, this book was set at the time when a conviction for murder meant death by hanging - so Geoffrey’s increasingly desperate bid to prove Consuela’s innocence takes on added urgency.

 

I really enjoyed this book - a good, long read - and, no, I didn’t guess the surprise ending…

Latest comments

24.09 | 18:00

I’m glad you liked it, Sally. Jaqui x

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24.09 | 08:25

Beautiful piece. Thank you. Sally

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30.08 | 19:32

P.s. I absolutely adored Gipsy Tart, and, yes, my son has his work cut out!!

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30.08 | 19:26

I too went to school in Kent where my Aunt worked as a dinner-lady. I got seconds sometimes thirds of my favourite pud, the said Gipsy Tart. My son’s a dentist!

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