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Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

by Mitch Albom

Eddie is about to die. We read the countdown to his death as he tries to save the life of a little girl at the funfair he is in charge of repairing. When he reaches heaven, he meets five people who have each altered his course in life and are waiting to explain his existence to him…

Absolutely effortless prose – I felt like I glided through this book on a wave of absolute fascination. It is interesting, satisfying and intriguing. At first I worried that it might be saccharine or sentimental, but it is honest and genuinely moving. There is certainly no predictability to the storyline but there is a nice device of returning to Eddie’s birthday in different years to connect the various lines of narrative and punctuate the visits with his five people. Every action and every character rang true for me and I felt strongly connected to the story almost from the first paragraph. A genuine pleasure from start to finish.

reviewed by Annie Smith

Friday, 18 April 2008

In the Dark

by Deborah Moggach

In London, 1918, Eithne Clay, widowed by the war, struggles to keep her dismal boarding house going in the face of unpaid rent and food shortages. The lodgers, all in the dark in their own ways – the blind Alwyne Flyte; Mr Spooner, who doesn’t leave his room; Winnie the housemaid who views the world from ‘below stairs’ – inhabit a dreary establishment where nicotine has drained all colour from the wallpaper, and the nearby railway blows smuts of dirt and soot through any open window. Into this cheerless scene strides Neville Turk, whose butcher’s shop blazes electric light into the foggy street. But there is something dark about him too, because despite the scarcities and privations of the war, Neville Turk seems to be a man with plenty to offer. ’People pressed their noses against the glass, gazing into his theatre of meat – shapely legs of mutton… glistening necklaces of sausages.’ Soon parcels of meat are arriving at Palmerston Road on a daily basis.

In the gloomy grip of adolescence, 14 year old Ralph Clay hovers on the fringes of boarding house life, observing the burgeoning love affair between his mother and Neville Turk. Ralph is both repelled and fascinated by their passion, unyielding in his dislike of the butcher. ‘I’m a vegetarian’, he declares, as Neville Turk woos not only Mrs Clay but the hungry lodgers with his munificence, ‘a platter of rump steaks swimming in rich brown gravy’.

The residents of Palmerston Road are as pitiable a cast as any drawn by William Trevor or Brian Moore. But as Deborah Moggach turns a spotlight onto each one, every character yields other dimensions. Mrs Clay, genteel and respectable, her dreams unfulfilled by her late husband, sees a lavish lifestyle beckoning, and cannot resist the advances of Neville Turk. Ralph’s clarity of vision makes for an enjoyable journey for the reader. Winnie’s vision of herself is poignant. This is a wonderful book, which will repay re-reading, not least for the Dickens-like naming of characters.

In the Dark was longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2008.

reviewed by Máire Napier

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Book news - The Orange Prize shortlist

The shortlist for the main Orange Broadband Prize has just been announced here and our clever contributors have already brought reviews of Lottery and The Outcast to you ( with When We Were Bad currently high on my own to-be-read pile). The shortlisted authors are Nancy Huston, Sadie Jones, Charlotte Mendelson, Heather O'Neill, Rose Tremain and Patricia Wood.

The shortlist for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers was announced earlier this month and the authors and titles can be seen here.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Speaking of Love

by Angela Young

Obviously, a title should draw you to a book and it was very much the title – in my current state of raw broken-heartedness – which drew me to ‘Speaking of Love’, as though perhaps, it could teach me something.

A quick glance at the back cover synopsis helped: What happens to relationships when you don’t speak of love? Another plus is the suggestion that if you like Maggie O’Farrell, then you’ll love Angela Young. But the thing which most encouraged me to put the book into my pile of birthday-voucher-delights was the five line biog at the back: This first novel was written by a graduate of the MA Creative Writing course at Middlesex University. At only half way through a BA I have a long way to go, but sisters under the skin and all that.

So I opened the book with a fairly mixed bag of anticipation, expectation and caution. Only to be enchanted from page one. This is a story told mostly in flashback, from three different people: Iris, the storyteller, Vivie, her daughter, and Matthew, Vivie's childhood friend. Through their eyes and their memories we see how Iris lost her storytelling mother and her silent father, how she fell in love with Kit, the poet, and how he wouldn’t be owned. It’s the tale of how a mother lost her daughter, and feared she would never find her again, and of a daughter who has been terrified into not wanting to be found. It’s a book of heartbreak and sorrow, so how it becomes a tale of hope is beyond me, but fortunately not beyond the pen of Ms Young. This is her first novel, and it’s a true hope that it won’t be her last.

reviewed by Alison Watson

Friday, 11 April 2008

Book news - Galaxy British Book Award Winners

The Galaxy British Book Awards ceremony was held this week, with an Outstanding Achievement award going to J.K. Rowling.

Other major awards went to Ian McEwan for On Chesil Beach and to Khaled Hosseini for A Thousand Splendid Suns.

The full list of winners and other nominees can be seen here.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Black Plumes

by Margery Allingham

By the time Margery Allingham came to write Black Plumes she was well established as a first rate crime novelist. This was partly due to her creation, the much loved Albert Campion, but as this novel shows, she is a writer of great quality. A classical and well-crafted whodunit, this also happens to be a fine novel about how the atmosphere within an enclosed society can easily become soured by ambition, jealousy, and thwarted desire. It also proves that an Allingham book did not need Albert Campion to make it a success.

If I had any niggle, it was a slight over dependence on the ‘…in years to come X would remember this moment…’ device. Other than that it was a fine portrait of a claustrophobic situation, of fear and suspicion. There is an added piquancy to this, given that it was written in 1939, with dark clouds gathering over Europe for a second time in a generation.

The characters are well drawn and inhabit the story quite naturally, even though most are out of their natural environment. The plot is intriguing and contains some wonderfully dramatic set pieces. And always there is Allingham’s dry wit and wonderful observation, small touches of characterization that bring even the minor characters to life.

This would make a marvellous film. Rather, it would have made a marvellous film in the days when the British film industry was still good at this sort of thing – telling a great story with quality acting and highly professional cinematography. These days it would be done on television and treated as a lavish costume drama with some high profile adaptor changing the story for no apparent reason or it would be sent up in a treatment that producers would call ‘ironic’.

Given that Margery Allingham is a far better writer, I would contend, than Agatha Christie and given that her stories are far better constructed, more intriguing, and peopled with believable characters, it seems a crime that her books are not all in print and readily available.

reviewed by Graeme K. Talboys

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The House at Midnight

by Lucie Whitehouse

From the opening page, I was hooked on this brooding, psychological suspense story from Lucie Whitehouse. Even the cover is alluring!

After the suicide of his uncle Patrick, a successful art dealer, Lucas Heathfield inherits Stoneborough Manor, an isolated mansion in Oxfordshire. It quickly becomes a perfect retreat for his close-knit friends from London. Jo, the narrator, is thrilled when Lucas – who is her oldest friend - finally declares his love, soon after their first visit on New Year’s Eve. She’s always hoped they would get together. However, Jo soon starts to sense something malevolent and oppressive about the house. It seems to be having a strange effect on Lucas, who becomes haunted by the death of his uncle and obsessed by cine films of his mother’s friends at Stoneborough, thirty years earlier. The group is strangely similar to their own and the films reveal things about Lucas's family that he never suspected before.

As the house’s energy starts to affect them all, Jo finds herself drawn to Greg, a newcomer to their group, and over a hot, sultry summer secrets are spilled and rivalries forged as friendships begin to unravel.

This is real Barbara Vine and Donna Tartt territory - an insecure group of people sharing an old house - and Lucie Whitehouse ratchets up the tension in this eerily atmospheric debut. Stoneborough leaps off the page in a Gothic manner, and the cast of characters are engaging and vividly portrayed. It’s an intimate look at growing up, changing group dynamics and how money can change people, but the real star of the story is the house itself.

As I live in the Chilterns I can also vouch for the author’s descriptions of the area, which are satisfyingly authentic!

reviewed by Karen Clarke