Book Review: The Crime Writer, by Jill Dawson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_Crime_writerA novel about a novel about an author. While this sounds complicated, it is a good description of Jill Dawson’s tale based on the life of Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith was a superb crime writer whose novels were adapted for stage and screen. She was a difficult, eccentric woman but a brilliant crime writer and very popular in Europe and England where she chose to live, away from her home in America.

Dawson has used much of the biographical information available to create a crime story centred around Highsmith’s move to rural Sussex. It is 1964 and in attempting to focus on completing two novels, and maintain an affair with the wife of a leading banker, Highsmith finds herself the leading character in her own crime story. She gets to live what she has spent her life writing about.

I was familiar with both the writing and the life of this troubled author and found The Crime Writer captured not only events, but the disjointed, alcoholic and often depressive nature of Highsmith’s behaviour. Small details help to create a believable world out of which such captivating tales emerge: An obsession with snails, a desire to avoid publicity and the difficult memories of childhood are but a few.

By the end of this captivating tale I had to revisit my own collection of Patricia Highsmith’s writing. While a work of fiction it had enough fact to make me re-read The Price of Salt but with a new depth of understanding.

Reviewed by by Kathy Watson

The Crime Writer
by Jill Dawson
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781444731125


Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_everyone_brave_is_forgivenThis literary blend of historical fiction and wartime romance places you in wartime Britain, contrasting the fates of the upper- and lower-classes in London during the Blitz, and showing the effects of modern siege warfare on the British army men who occupied the island of Malta from 1940-1942.

Mary North is the first upper-class Brit we are introduced to in Everyone Brave is Forgiven, in a very dramatic first few pages – she joined the war effort the day it was declared, leading to her first job, as a schoolteacher. Not what she had in mind at all (as the daughter of an MP), but as she begins work, she realises that she thrives on teaching. Unfortunately, she isn’t quite what the head of the school had in mind either, so she just as swiftly gets let go before the children are evacuated into the countryside, but continues a relationship with Zachary, a little African-American boy who is the only person of colour in her school.

Mary meets Tom Shaw, head of the district her school was in, and persuades him to give her a new group of kids to teach: the ones left behind, and those that were rejected by the host families of the British countryside for being different, or difficult. Mary falls in love with the earnest Tom, who has himself decided to give the war a miss. Tom’s roommate Alistair, however, volunteers early on, and completes his basic training in time to walk backwards out of France with the rest of the British Army. Alistair and Mary meet while he is on leave, during a double date that was for the benefit of Mary’s friend Hilda. Looks are exchanged, plus Mary is the beautiful one, but of course there is the little matter of Tom.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is based on the true story of author Chris Cleave’s grandparents. Both of his grandmothers were in London during the Blitz, and he took elements of truth from the stories of both – one was an ambulance driver at the time, the other got engaged to his grandfather while he was on leave from the Army – to create Mary North. His grandfather was stationed in Malta during the siege, with little hope of survival, and dulled instincts due to starvation rations.

First of all, did the upper-class Officers of the British army really go on like that? Blackadder really didn’t have to look too far for an easy parody, did it? The dialogue between Simonson and Alistair is probably meant to serve a leavening purpose, given they are at that point stuck in Malta for the foreseeable future, with too little food, and no way of getting more thanks to constant air siege, but I did want to throw the book across the room more than once. Perhaps Cleave reasoned that you couldn’t overlook the jolly good fellows, because the British class system is, in essence, why Malta held out for so long – over 180 nights of continuous bombing from the Luftwaffe. That didn’t make the waffle any easier to enjoy.

This story is interleaved with that of our heroine Mary North, the privileged finishing-school student who is eager for adventure during the war. Her relationship with Zachary and latterly the other negro orphans who pitched up at London’s Lycaeum Theatre during the siege was well-formed, if stretching the imagination a little at times. I appreciated the injection of reality coming in the form of one of the senior minstrels from the Lycaeum’s blackface show, telling her to move on, because they were concerned that people from higher up might notice the fact they had a few legally dodgy operations going on there.

I was disappointed overall with this book. I was telling a friend how flowery and over-wrought the prose was at times – there’s even a one-page wondering about what happens to conkers when the children aren’t around to play with them – and she reminded me of Cornelia Funke, who noted during Writer’s Week that when writing for children you don’t get to play around with language – it is pure plot. That is not to say that beautiful writing, and long books can’t be incredible, but the writing in this book wasn’t extraordinary enough to be leaving extraneous description, or wonderings, on the page.

I believe that for every book that one person dislikes, there will be another 1000 people who will love it, given the opportunity to look between the covers. So if the rest of the story sounds fascinating, and you want to peek into areas of wartime London that you haven’t yet read about in fiction, then this may be a book for you.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Everyone Brave is Forgiven
by Chris Cleave
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781473618701


Book Review: My Grandmother Sends her Regards & Apologises, by Fredrik Backman

cv_my_grandmother_sends_her_regardsAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

This book has been translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch. Fredrick Backman is a Swedish blogger, columnist and author. His debut novel A Man called Ove was a number one bestseller worldwide. This is his second novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Elsa has a Granny who unlike any other Granny has made up a secret language that only the two of them use. She has also created this magical world of make-believe just for Elsa. When Elsa is born, Granny stops travelling the world to work with children in war torn countries – she spends all her spare time nurturing and developing Elsa’s intellect and sense of humour, which is not unlike her own.

Granny’s rather unusual sense of humour is one that not everybody, including Elsa’s own mother understands. It gets Granny into all sorts of trouble. When Granny gets ill and then dies, she leaves Elsa a task – to follow clues, retrieve envelopes and deliver them to whomever they are addressed to.

This is a fabulous book, escapism at its best. We would all love to have had a Granny in their lives who was like this – well I would!

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards & Apologises
By Fredrick Backman
Translated by Henning Koch
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781444775846

Book review: Glow, by Ned Beauman


This book is available in bookstores nationwide. 

Ned Beauman’s latest novel, thriller Glow, ranges from gritty South London to a mine in Burma/Myanmar, from a Pakistani police station to an Icelandic fishing wharf, and a few places in between. It features an almost encyclopaedic description of modern Class A drugs and their effects; an investigation into the ethics of multi-national companies; foxes that are smarter than the average bear; and the underground radio broadcasting and rave scenes of London.

Our hero is Raf, an underemployed sufferer of non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome (yes, it really is A Thing), which makes his love life hard to manage but allows for a great plot device – Raf is awake at all sorts of weird times, which helps to move the plot along. Beauman has sectioned his novel into small chunks based on a day and time stamp, so we get a real sense of the problematic nature of Raf’s syndrome. Along with his best mate, Isaac, and a mysterious beauty, Cherish, Raf finds himself being sucked into events he doesn’t understand, involving unexplained disappearances, foxes behaving unnaturally, a jittery self-serving whistle blower, and white vans that don’t make engine noise.

fantastic_mr_foxTwo things really impressed me about this novel. The first is Beauman’s use of language. Reading Glow is like watching a world class gymnast perform – you’re not quite sure how he pulls it off, but it’s something spectacular to watch. As I read, I kept finding passages I wanted to share; this one, describing a vicious hangover, made me laugh out loud:

“What he hates about whisky hangovers, he thinks now, is the synthesis they achieve between the spiritual and the gastric, as if your soul needs to throw up or your stomach has realise life is meaningless. And there’s more moisture between his toes than in his mouth.”

The second thing that impressed me was the descriptions of a sinister “marketing” tool being used by big business, •ImPressure. Using everything posted on social media, and CCTV, a company can target influential individuals and trend setters in a to change their thinking and behaviour. It’s Big Brother to the nth degree, and it’s very realistic – it was probably the most scary thing in the book, and I’m not sure where the line between fact and fiction lies. More towards fact, I fear.

Glow is a page turner, and an enjoyable read. I didn’t leap to the same conclusions as Raf as he tried to untangle the web he found himself in, and couldn’t see how he was working things out, but that was much better than having plot twists telegraphed chapters ahead as sometimes happens in thrillers. The scene setting was realistic and rang true, particularly in London, although the repeated discussions about neurochemistry got a bit tiresome. At 249 pages it is easy to devour over a weekend or a short plane trip, or on your commute.


Reviewed by Rachel Moore

by Ned Beauman
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781444765526

Book Review: Letter Composed during a Lull in the Fighting, by Kevin Powers

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

Iraq veteran, Kevin Powers, will take cv_letter_composed_during_a_lull_in_the_fightingyou to Hell and back, if you let him. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting is a feverish tour of a traumatised psyche. And our guide ‘won’t be the hero’ but rather takes the form of a dissociated subject trying to ‘earth’ himself, and tabulate reality. This poetry dances between the ordinary ‘useless things’ and the horrific. Its characters are ‘dead men walking’ – men who are ‘home and whole, so to speak’, but who ‘can’t remember how to be alive’. These are men ‘unraveling’, ‘evaporating’, struggling to reclaim ‘the firmness of reality’.

Through his poetry, Kevin Powers gives voice to the near ineffable. He dissembles monstrous situations into their discrete parts, to effect vivid images. War, for instance, ‘is just us/ making little pieces of metal/ pass through each other’. But it is the inhumanity of the return home that is most unsettling. In the poem ‘Separation’ a returned soldier contends with the psychological traverse between his experiences and those of his war-naive peers. Having fought for his country, he has become a psychological expatriate. But self-alienation is equally a potent force and Powers articulates this in his poem ‘Elegy for Urgency’:

‘If only you could recall the name,
which you are sure is resting
right there on the tip of your tongue
with the rest of your life.’

Yes, Kevin Powers will take you to Hell and back, if you let him. But there is no Satan working in the killing fields. Rather, the work of the enemy is viewed as a sequence of mis-timings and ‘Clayton’s’ choices. Three young men are killed ‘whose crime/ was an unwillingness/ to apply the brakes in time’. A boy fortuitously avoids ‘almost getting shot’. The world of war works by the mantra ‘so be it’. Possibilities dissolve into actualities, as though arbitrarily.

While war may lack parameters, language doesn’t. Like a come-back to TS Eliot’s Prufrock, Powers declares ‘I can tell you exactly/ what I mean’. There is something menacing about the directness of language here. Words are likened to explosives. ‘If this poem had wires coming out of it,/ you would call the words devices’. Powers handles words carefully, at times hesitating, at times qualifying statements with ‘I think’ and ‘I mean’. One feels his words are pedantically chosen, which is no accident, if Atwood’s dictum is correct – ‘War is what happens when language fails’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Letter composed during a lull in the fighting 
by Kevin Powers
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781444780819