Monday, 13 August 2012

The House at Sea's End: A Ruth Galloway Investigation ~by Elly Griffiths

There is something alluring about stories featuring old buildings and 'The House at Sea's End', by Elly Griffiths, is no exception. Here we have a house perched on the edge of a crumbling cliff on the north Norfolk coast, inhabited by three generations of the same family - a family with a secret.
This is the third book in the Ruth Galloway series, but I must confess that it is the first one I have read.  It was easy to jump straight in and begin mid-sequence, but having read this one, I know I will go back and read the others, because, in short, I liked this book.
Ruth, our protagonist, is a 39 year old archaeologist who sometimes takes times away from her usual job lecturing at the university to help the local police with murder investigations.  This book begins with the birth of Ruth's daughter Kate, whose father is D.C.I. Harry Nelson - the man whom she works alongside, when solving crimes, who also happens to be a married man.  
So, in this novel, Ruth, back from maternity leave, is called in to identify some bodies found under rocks when a cliff collapses.  The six naked men appear to have been executed, as their hands are bound together and they lie back to back.  All of this is very interesting, as it points to a British war crime from the Second World War, but what is even more compelling is the drama unfolding between Ruth and Nelson, as she struggles with being a mother and he struggles with not being a father to their daughter, Kate.
Ruth continually assures herself and us, that she is not in love with Nelson, but she isn't kidding anyone.  And after one night, when they are trapped together in a snow storm...well... but I will say no more... only, that Griffiths's novel is something like a mixture between Bridget Jones's Diary, Foyle's War and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries... so if such a cocktail seems tempting to you, then you should give this series a try.  I realise that all of the comparisons translated well to the silver screen, and so too would this novel, if it has not already done so. 
Interesting too, is how Griffiths has added an extra dimension to her novel: there is a lovely symmetry to the book, as the author considers the idea of how the eventual location of a missing body in war-time, be it during the Second World War, or the Bosnian Conflict, can mean all the difference to a grieving family.  By comparing elements of the two conflicts, the 1940 murders seem more recent and all the more relevant to modern readers.  The plot is not overly complicated but does include a higher than usual number of Irish characters, all of whom have a taste for the demon drink; something that is somewhat stereotypical in truth.  Still, the characters are interesting and entertaining, none more so than Ruth herself, which is why I recommend this book for a cosy read on a rainy summer's evening, when the house is quiet and you want to settle down to a not-too-taxing murder mystery, with friendly characters and a teasing love triangle to boot.  Just sit back and enjoy!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English ~ by Natasha Solomons

What is it about eccentric British people that is so appealing?  Well here we have a Jewish refugee from WWII, who has escaped Nazi Germany with his wife Sadie and daughter Elizabeth, who desperately wants to be accepted into English society.  Central to the story is the list that the refugees are given to enable them to assimilate into English society.  Finding the leaflet nigh on useless, Jacob amends the list, adding to it everything he notices about the English.

However, he still suffers from discrimination and is refused entry into a respectable golf club.   Undaunted, he decides to move to Dorset and build his own golf course, and in doing so becomes as eccentric as Bilbo Baggins himself! Here he and his wife come face to face with middle England and this is where the author, Natasha Solomons comes into her own.
Her descriptions of the villagers are akin to those of Thomas Hardy, as she creates endearing characters that jump off the page.  Equally, she creates beautiful glimpses of the English countryside, so that we can almost feel the scent of flowers in the air, and dappled light shining overhead.

More than anything though, I loved reading about Sadie Rosenblum, the forgotten wife, who expresses all her sadness and grief over the loved ones and way of life left behind in Germany, through the recipes that she makes from her mother's old cookbook.  The Baumtorte that she bakes, often the height of a small man, is something I will never forget.  It is a cake to remember and basically is like a pile of pancakes, each one sealed to the next with lemon icing.  When the village women eat the cake, they feel Sadie's sadness.  While her husband ploughs through the stones and scrub of the Dorset hills, making his golf course and changing the physical landscape, Sadie moves away the prejudices and small-mindedness of the people through the simple art of baking.
All night long she mixes and stirs her grief away.  She maintains her sanity too by dipping into her memory box containing a few trinkets and the only remaining photos of family members killed in the war.  She longs to look back to Before, just as her husband longs to move forward into the future.  She watches him change his name to Jack, wear tweed suits, buy a Jaguar sports car and feels that once again she is being left behind.  More than this I cannot say.  You need only rest assured that Solomons is a fine story teller who punctuates her tale with highs and lows at just the right places, making the plot bounce along pleasantly.

If you enjoyed 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand', or 'The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society', then you will love this book.  It contains a wonderful blend of comfortable characters and tragic historical background.  Just like one of Sadie's memory cakes, all the flavours of this book are delicately balanced, so feel free to open it without fear of reading harrowing war details; it is not that kind of book.  Instead, it deals with the survivors of the War, mentioning only happy memories of a life in Berlin before it all went bad.
In essence the book is about finding a home in the strangest of places; how we humans, like the humble tortoise, carry our homes with us wherever we go.  We learn that place does not matter, but that the people in our lives are irreplaceable. What you can expect from this novel is to feel inspired by human kindness and happy to be alive: what more can you want in a novel?

Note:  This novel is published under two titles:  'Mr Rosenblum's list: Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman' and 'Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English', but it is the same book.  Whichever edition you fancy, I urge you to give this book a chance - your inner book-God will thank you!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

To be Sung Underwater ~ Tom McNeal

If it is a great summer read that you are looking for, then look no further than 'To be Sung Underwater', by Tom McNeal.  It tells the story of Judith Whitman, an unhappily married mother of one who suddenly does not feel that she belongs in her own house any more.  Her family has outgrown her, her husband is having an affair, her teenage daughter is embarrassed by her.  So, she sets up home in a storage facility and makes up a new identity for herself.
I suppose we can all relate to the desire to disappear for a while, to our own private sanctuary and in this way, the book reminded me, favourably, of Anne Tyler's 'Ladder of Years', with escape and the need to be visible being central themes.  Here Virginia Woolf's notion of a room of one's own takes on an urban, modern feel, as Judith literally recreates her teenage bedroom, complete with her old furniture and quilt, the very place where she lost her virginity some 28 years previous.
This of course gets her reminiscing about her first love, Willy Blunt, who thought her 'dangerous' when first they met.  In a series of erotic flashbacks we watch their story unfold, during a summer full of secret rendezvous in out of the way places.

The sexual awakening of Judith Whitman is beautifully dealt with and this is just one of the many reasons why I was so surprised to realise that this book was written by a man.  He really describes the world exactly as seen from a female point of view, be it Judith's tender affection and loyalty to her father or the abrasive, railing against her mother.  The child of separated parents, it is difficult for Judith to see the bad in her father, allowing in him the sexual freedom that she despises in her mother.  The irony is, of course, that Judith herself is no prude, although she expects her mother to be one.

As such, the novel is a close study of how mothers and daughters interact.  Firstly we see how Judith and her mother have incompatible lifestyles, the daughter being shocked and embarrassed by her mother's partying when her marriage breaks up.  However, when Judith begins the steep decent into her own mid-life crises, the parallels between her teenage self and her own daughter are all too evident.  The only permissible intimacy between them occurs when Judith dares to kiss her daughter's ear as she lies sleeping.  The sadness of this should devastate Judith, but she too has moved on.  So, McNeal has drawn a plot that comes full circle: as a daughter she pushed her mother away and as a mother she in turn is given the cold shoulder.

Yet, as the circle turns, Judith learns how it feels to become an outsider when her daughter and husband grow closer and begin to exclude her.  So, Judith ultimately becomes more like her mother, which is something that every adult can relate to, despite our protestations that that will never happen to us. Such echoing through the generations, is fascinating to read and makes this book an incredibly enjoyable read.

Yet the book also considers the relationship between daughters and their fathers.  It seems that Judith's relationship with her father only develops fully when her mother has been left behind and her parents separate.  In a scenario that would have pleased Freud greatly, she becomes the main woman in his life, or so she thinks.  She accepts his strange foibles and his sexually appetite for younger women, because he is her father - totally irreplaceable. Indeed, their relationship is the most important of her life and the flashbacks deal with her love for her father as much as her love for her old boyfriend.

He is an English professor and this enables McNeal to reference many classic novels and their characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett, from 'Pride and Prejudice' and Isabel Archer from 'Portrait of a Lady'.  This sometimes can be very off-putting in a novel, but not so here.  In capturing the adolescent mind, McNeal depicts Judith imagining herself as a character from a classic novel, which is very much in keeping with the pretensions of a teenage girl on the brink of  adulthood.  It added to the realism of the story and made me want to read more Henry James!

McNeal also writes incredibly witty dialogue, which would translate into a wonderful film script.  Everything Blunt says is clever and entertaining, which is one of the reasons why he is such a compelling and downright attractive character.  This, actually, is one of the flaws of the book - Willy's charm.  He is so charming in fact that is unfathomable as to why Judith could bring herself to abandon him and marry another man.  Foolish the girl who married Malcom, with his million, instead of William with broad smile and grey eyes!

So, considering all the references to Lizzy Bennet, it is possible that McNeal is considering what if Elizabeth Bennett regretted marrying Darcy after all.  Would she have wondered what if?  I think not - Wickham and Mr Collins have nothing in common with the charming Mr Blunt.  It applies better to Isabel Archer, a girl who receives multiple proposals and marries a vile, devil of a man in error.  Yet, in a modern society where numerous partners are now the norm, McNeal is tapping into our tendency to wonder 'what if' and to look nostalgically behind, at past lovers, when future relationships are too exhausting to contemplate.
This is a fine novel, erotic, fun and thought-provoking.  It will leave you digging out your old phone book and searching for old lovers on Facebook.  What you do if you find them is your look-out, but I recommend you read this book before picking up the phone and saying hello!