I have endured very mixed results in my novel reading this year, especially since we first entered pandemic lockdown back in March, an experience I’m sure is familiar to many of you. I’ve DNF’d several highly-recommended books, which is unusual for me, I normally stick with books or at least flick through to the end, no matter what. I’ve been underwhelmed by a few books in series I’d previously enjoyed, and some favourite authors with either new to me books or re-reads have been frankly disappointing. I’ve given up trying to analyse why this is, and how much of it is due to the pandemic, but while I have been reading through sleepless nights more than ever, a much lower percentage of them have rated more than three stars, and a good few considerably less. However, I am going to emulate one of my favourite food critics, Jay Rayner, and only include positive reviews here (though as ever, I have tried to explain in all my Goodreads reviews, why I have been less complimentary about others).
First up then, a series I was still enjoying back in March, Stella Riley’s Rockcliffes. The Player is the third book, and my favourite so far. I do love a tortured hero, and you couldn’t get more tortured than Adrian, who left England when the woman he loved fell off a parapet and died in front of him, just before she delivered some heart-breaking news. After ten years spent making a living as a card shark and actor, Adrian is forced back to England when he inherits an earldom. Meanwhile, Caroline Maitland, a plain Yorkshire lass with a fortune, is being wooed by the baddie of the story, the man who seduced Adrian’s first love, so he plans his revenge by stealing Caroline for himself. Put like that, the plot sounds somewhat contrived, but who cares, it was an excellent escapist read. Adrian has tons of opportunities to deploy his many disguises, and Caroline is a doughty and very likable heroine with a mind of her own. As with the previous Rockcliffe books, it’s impossible not to compare some aspects of the story to Georgette Heyer (in this one, The Masqueraders) but if anything Riley is paying homage, and there’s never any question of plagiarism or even inadvertent copying, more like a tongue in cheek tribute. The writing is fresh. The action makes this a page turner. The romance is breath-taking. An excellent feel-good book with a lovely ending. How I would love to see this made into a film.
The Garden of Lost and Found by Harriet Evans is a timeslip, which I love when it is well done, and this one, with a few caveats, was. In the front story we have Juliette, a strong and likeable heroine caught in a rut that will be very familiar to some, struggling to retain a sense of her own identity. The back story concerns the painting of the title, a depiction of Liddy, the artist’s wife, and two children in the garden of a house which Juliette inherits. So we have our mystery – is the painting really lost, and if so why? And wrapping around that, we have Juliette trying to piece her life back together. As I said, I enjoyed this, but I do have a few quibbles. My main one is that there was simply far too much back story, leaving insufficient words to spend on the interesting aspects concerning Juliette’s new life, and Liddy’s failing marriage. All the secondary characters were well-drawn, but there were too many of them and so I felt a bit cheated – Juliette’s childhood friend and boyfriend, for example, was built up to be someone key to the story, but in the end he didn’t contribute more than a walk-on two role. Her various friends in London and in the country too, played minor parts, and I felt that one would have done, and allowed her to have a couple of more meaningful scenes with them. Beatrice, her teenage daughter, was a story in itself, yet you got the impression that she was thrust centre stage at some points, then arbitrarily confined to the back stage as the story hurtled towards its conclusion. And finally Juliette’s parents. I don’t want to spoil it, but they were more or less estranged from her. The reasons are explained, but given very little page space, there’s a quick reconciliation and we move on. This is the one bit of the plot that stopped me in my tracks (not in a good way) and again, I wonder if they were really essential, or if the other part of the story concerned (sorry to be cryptic) could have been unfolded in a different way. But that said, I DID enjoy this – I’m always a bit pickier with a book I liked. And I will certainly be coming back for more of this author.
The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott is the kind of first book I would have given a great deal to have written, a poignant and moving story dealing with a very difficult time in history, and one often ignored. Northern France has been devastated, and is trying to rise from the ashes of destruction caused by the First World War, but not everyone can move on. This is a story about two people trying to reconcile themselves to loss and to the feelings they have for each other which are forcing them apart when it’s obvious they are desperate to be together. How do you mourn when you can’t be sure that the person you have lost is really dead, when you convince yourself that he is merely ‘lost?’ There are any number of characters in this book caught in this limbo. They dedicate their lives to trying to document every ending or they try to locate every grave. There are characters who exploit the pain and grief of those, and characters who try to ameliorate it, like the photographer of the title. The imagery in this book is utterly brilliant. There is France reduced to bricks and rubble. There are bodies being dug up by ploughs. There are graves marked by wooden crosses being dug up and relocated. There are the now iconic war cemeteries under construction. And there are memories of the conflict popping up in every village, town and city. There’s ample evidence of the human spirit’s capacity to survive and endure. In some cases to exploit too. But there’s also overwhelming evidence of the cost – of the lives half-lived, of the lives destroyed, of people who have become shells of their former selves. In the end, this was a hopeful book, which shows the triumph of the human spirit in times of real tragedy, and reading it in just such a time added to my enjoyment (I know that’s not the word) of it. This is a mystery and a homage and a romance too. So moving and so beautifully written. Highly recommended.
Lisa Jewell is another author I turn to when I need a comfort read, a good story that will transport me from the real world, with a cast of well-drawn characters that I can believe in, love, hate and root for (or against!). The Family Upstairs didn’t let me down, and pulled me out of my fiction depression back in April. A creepy house, a weird inheritance, three stories told in parallel coming together nicely (and this was done well, so often it isn’t!). A mystery. Sunshine. Nice in the south of France, one of my favourite cities. And a cult. There you have it! But it’s Lisa Jewell’s ability to tell a story that hooked me. She cuts off and leaves you hanging forcing you to turn the page. And she has great characters!!! Really loved this.
Celeste Ng was a new to me author recommended by my sister. Little Fires Everywhere is now a tv series, and I can see why it would work, it’s a very cinematic book with a fast-paced story and some intriguing characters. We have a nice, middle-class Edward Scissorhands-type American town, and into it come Mia and her daughter Pearl, ready to stir things up. We have the Richardson’s three teenage children who are, without knowing it, ripe for being stirred up, and we have Elena Richardson, a woman who plays by the rules, but who would have liked to have been a rebel, provided it didn’t involve breaking the rules. And so a fire is lit under all of them. The story unravels at quite a pace, and careers backwards and forwards in time, with the perspective/point of view jumping about at about the same rate. I found this a little disconcerting at first, but quickly got used to it. This is a genuine page turner of a story with some very real social issues at the heart of it, not least racism and prejudice. It’s the sort of story I can imagine stirred up some ‘middle’ Americans (I loved the whole thing about the baby dolls).
It’s really well-written, the characters are three-dimensional, and of course we all relate to Mia and hate Elena – well sort of. I raced through it, and only when I got to the end did I start to fret at some of the plot holes and the issues with the motivation of some of the characters – what on earth was Mr Richardson doing for most of the book, for example. This is a woman’s story, so the male characters are a little less well-drawn and little more than plot-creations, but I don’t have an issue with that. Thoroughly enjoyable and just the sort of read I needed at the time. Though I’m not sure that it would stand up to a second reading, I am intending to watch the tv version once I get out of my tv slump (which is a whole other issue).
After a series of disappointing reads and books I didn’t finished or have not yet decided whether I can finish, I recently turned to Georgette Heyer. (Happy sigh!) I have no idea how many times I’ve read Bath Tangle, but it’s been a few years since the last time. I still really enjoyed it and raced through it, but I did find this time that I was a bit more critical, particularly of the ‘hero’ and heroine’, Serena and Ivo. They are both very strong-willed, even arrogant characters, and I think that Heyer intended them to be that way. They are very much products of their environment, extremely privileged, single-minded, and to a degree scornful of what is seen as weaknesses in others. In fact on occasion they border on the unlikeable. I certainly don’t think I’d have got on with either of them, yet they work because they are true to what Heyer perceived as their ‘type’, I think. She draws them with an accent bordering on irony, something else I didn’t detect before, and though she is sympathetic to them, she is not indulgent. Oddly, this time around I found myself much more in sympathy with Fanny and Hector whom in the past I’ve been slightly scornful of – they were much used and abused, and ‘nicer’ but not in a twee way. It’s very odd how your enjoyment of something can be so coloured by a situation. My reading has been all over the place in this pandemic, and while I still very much enjoyed this one, it was in a very different way from before.
I then launched straight into another Heyer, Lady of Quality, which I’ve read about five hundred times. Oh, how I loved this book, which had it all, sparkling wit, an entrancing hero and heroine, some excellent secondary characters, and a very satisfying ending. I had only two issues with it. Firstly, I did think that poor Maria, while extremely amusing as a character, was drawn with a very brutal and slightly patronising pen. The lot of the spinster without means in Regency times was pitiable, and that is indeed referenced, but the fun being poked at her at times was painful to read. My second issue was simply that the story was too short. Lucilla’s fate was too neatly sorted, the romance over too quickly, and what of Mr Kilbride, so nicely set up as a baddy and then abandoned. But it’s not often you finish a book wanting more, especially when you’ve read it so many times. Loved it.
Have you read any of these books? How has your reading changed in these dark times? Have you been rediscovering old favourites, turning to new genres, or not reading at all? I’d love to hear how your experience compares to mine – and of course I’d love to know if you still read romance!
You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.