What I’ve Been Reading – A Festive Fiction Feast

Usually I read my fiction on my Kindle, because I read in bed and don’t want to fall sleep with my glasses on! My morning reading hour (one of my favourite times of the day) is usually reserved for non-fiction and research. But I had a stack of hard-back fiction piling up recently, and decided to indulge in a bit of binge reading of it in the mornings over the holidays and I’m pleased to say that every single one of them lived up to my very high expectations.   

I dived into Love Me, Love Me Not by Kirsty Capes before the holidays. I will confess up front that I know Kirsty from her other life working for Mills&Boon, and it was only very recently that I discovered that she’d written two books herself. This is the second of them. I don’t often say this, but it totally blew me away! I loved it with a big love. I raced through it, I laughed, I cried, then I cried again. It featured that very rare thing, a totally perfect ending, as far as I am concerned, that balanced what you wanted the outcome to be with what was appropriate to the story. Basically, I can’t praise it highly enough.

Lucy Banbury is a very difficult heroine in every way. She’s prickly, she’s defensive, she’s hyper-aware of her image, she’s created a public persona that she inhabits so well that she hasn’t a clue who she really is. At the start of the book, she has discovered that she is adopted, and is in the process of trying to shore up the ‘perfect’ life that she’s created for herself, to paper over the ever-widening cracks, and to bury all the questions this discovery has raised, deep, deep, deep. She’s helped by the fact that her adoptive parents won’t talk about it. She’s helped by the fact that she believes her friends all really despise her and so she doesn’t feel the need to confide nor is she encouraged to. She’s helped by the anodyne work she does, and the anodyne relationships she forms using a dating app. But still, the cracks in the façade continue to grow. And still, Lucy struggles to ignore them. She breaks down, then she picks herself up. Those occasional windows into her state of mind are heart-wrenching for those who see them and for the reader, and the sheer effort of will it takes her to pull herself back together makes your teeth clench. You want her to break down, but you don’t, because it wouldn’t fix her, it would destroy her, and my goodness, as a reader you really want Lucy to make it.

This is a voyage of discovery novel, a personal, highly emotional journey taken by Lucy, but also by her family, by her flatmates (who I loved, and who have all sorts of issues of their own). Lucy is beautifully, delicately drawn. She’s so vulnerable, she’s so prickly, she’s so endearing, and there are so many times that you want to hug her. And so many times that you want to shake her. And so many times that you want to say, just talk to him/her. There are romantic elements in this story, but the main romance is the one Lucy has with herself and her adoptive family – eventually. Clearly, the author has drawn from her own experiences, but equally clearly, she writes beautifully, evocatively, brilliantly.

I didn’t want this to end, and in a way it didn’t, which may be a sticking point for some. I’ve said I loved the ending and I did. It doesn’t tie up all the ends neatly. It doesn’t give you answers – in fact there’s one big question that is very, very bravely left unanswered – kudos for that! The ending was perfect for the story. It was a perfect story. Just in case I’ve not made it clear – I loved this, and her first book, Careless, is already on my Kindle.

Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite authors, an auto-buy who I will happily acquire in hardback. So I came to her Shrines of Gaiety  book with a strong conviction that I was going to love it – and I did! Nellie Coker is the queen of London’s underworld in the Roaring Twenties. Based on a real person, Nellie is the central character in the novel, with her family, her nightclubs, the girls who dance in them for money, the police who protect her and the other underworld gangs who respect her, all orbiting around her. The book opens with Nellie being released from prison, then jumps backwards and forwards in time, just as you’d expect from a Kate Atkinson book. And just as you’d expect, the novel is littered with fabulous characters, driven by an enthralling story, and sparkling with wit. Am I being too enthusiastic, too flattering? Nope!

Nellie is a very ambiguous character. She’s a crook, and she doesn’t have a heart of gold – I’m not sure she had any sort of heart. As far as she’s concerned, she’s a business woman, and the success of her business, and protecting her family, are what drives her. I would have liked more of an insight into her thoughts, I’d have liked to know more about her, but the point about Nellie is that she’s opaque. Her children are an eclectic collection. Edith is a chip off the old block. Betty and Shirley (that reminds me of Pepsi and Shirley who started out as the backing singers in Wham) are Oxford-educated Bright Young Things, seemingly vapid, but with their mother’s cool detachedness when it comes to emotions. Ramsay is a classic ne-er do well. Niven (love that name, I’ve only ever encountered one Niven in my life) is the mystery man who appears and disappears at key points with his dog, and who gives the impression of always being introduced by a thunderbolt, as if he’s on stage – which of course he is. And then there’s poor also-ran Kitty, who never quite finds her place in the family. We know next to nothing of their origins (Nellie seems to make up different stories depending on what suits) and aside from Kitty, none of them seem to care. Are they puppets dancing to Nellie’s (and Atkinson’s) tune? That is one of their purposes, but it’s not the only one. There’s nothing one-dimensional about any of them, but there are many deliberate cliches – because after all, one of the many aspects of this book is that it’s a pastiche.

What else is it? A crime story. Re-written history. A flag-waving book for women’s role in the London underworld. It’s a really tragic history of the many forgotten and abused and abandoned women who helped it prosper – because behind every single one of Kate Atkinson’s book is human tragedy. It’s also a very witty romp speckled with dark humour. A fabulous read. I loved everyone in the book, and when it finished, I wanted to hear more from them, which is always a great sign. The ending dashed one of my hopes, which I won’t go into because of spoilers, but on second thoughts, what I’d like is more of Kate Atkinson in this rollicking, mocking, fun mood and not a follow on. Since this is only just out and there’s no chance of that, and since I’d also recently re-read all of the Jackson Brodie books (for about the third or fourth time) I made to with re-watching the BBC TV series instead (and loving it).

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell is one of those books which I’ve been wanting to read for ages. I had it on my Kindle, which as I have mentioned I only read at night in my bed, but Wolf Hall isn’t the kind of book you can fall asleep over. So in December I dived in to a print copy.

Wow, wow, wow! I had read A Place of Greater Safety a long time ago, and marvelled at Mantel’s ability to immerse you in history but also to make heroes of traditional ‘baddies’ (and in this she was so ahead of the game). And this is exactly the trick she pulls of with Thomas Cromwell – a man so often reviled, and who I knew very little about (same as most people I expect) save that he was responsible for helping Henry VIII get his hands on the wealth of the monasteries. Mantel invents a personal history for Cromwell that is utterly believable – and makes a really credible case at the end of the book for what she has dreamt up for him using a very few known facts. She makes him real. Vulnerable. Tough, A man of integrity, even though many of his decisions and actions are seriously dodgy. She makes you root for him, believe in him, and LIKE him. She makes you feel sorry for him, sad for him, wish him well, grieve with him, wonder what he’d have been like if he hadn’t lost his wife and daughters. Thomas Cromwell is a man you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of, but he would be a totally amazing friend, and a fabulous and fascinating guest to sit next to at dinner.

This is history retold at its very, very best – though Mantel isn’t strictly in the business of retelling, more unfolding, letting it play out as a film, letting you experience it with Cromwell, and in her own words, without hindsight. Her thoughts at the end of the book on the writing of it really made me think – it’s a novel, it’s not history, so the subject of the novel, our anti-hero, doesn’t know what’s coming. He’s just living his life, getting on with surviving and doing well – he hasn’t a clue what lies ahead. Of course we do, and that gives an added edge to the story – not only knowing how Anne Boleyn’s fate plays out, but also Thomas More’s (the man usually made out to be a saint, here portrayed in a much more brutal manner). We read (in my case, I romped through it) with a sense of doom and anticipation, wanting to say to Cromwell, wait, listen, stop, re-think – wanting to save him. (Though his downfall comes long after the end of this book.)

You don’t need to know much of the history to love this book though a little helps. You need some peace and quiet, some time to concentrate and revel in it, to inhale the book in big gulps, not little sips. I loved it. I already have the second book lined up, but first I’m going to treat myself to watching the BBC TV series.

I bought The Romantic by William Boyd immediately in hardback when I read that Boyd had returned to the ‘fake’ life – a genre that I utterly loved in Any Human Heart (Logan Mountstuart for me is one of the most memorable literary characters, and given my current lockdown/aged 60 memory that’s saying something). I have a big lurv of William Boyd, as an author he’s right up there (well, almost) with Kate Atkinson so I had high hopes.

Once again, he met them. Boyd’s newest hero is Cashel Greville Ross, and his ‘biography’ spans pretty much the whole of the 19th Century. What a century to choose – and obviously it’s no accident – with transformative change rife in the world, industry, travel, attitudes, politics, and communication. Are parallels to be drawn with recent history? You can do that, and I expect I will on my second reading, but as for the first – you are simply too drawn into the book to do anything other than keep turning the pages and to wonder, what next. The book romps through history in classic Tom Jones style, with Cashel playing bit parts at Waterloo, meeting up with Byron and Shelley in Italy, heading to America to set up a farm, and trying to discover the source of the Nile amongst other things. To be honest, my one carp (and it’s very personal) is that this is a century I know so well from my own research and writing, that I did find some of his journey predictable. But that really is a very minor carp. It’s not the events, but Cashel’s appearances in them that you’re interested in, his utter self-obsession and his peculiar mixture of charm and avarice making you sway between love and hate as the book progresses. You want him to succeed, not to become rich but to find happiness.

Cashel is a romantic in the sense that he follows his heart – or so he thinks, actually quite often his heart conveniently instructs him to follow the money. He falls in love with Raphaella, a beautiful Italian contessa, and has a wildly passionate affaire with her that is doomed – of course it’s doomed, this is a romance. For the rest of his life, Cashel dreams of his happy ever after, though that doesn’t stop him settling down with various other ‘loves’ who he duly leaves, encouraged by his fickle (or pragmatic, depending on your point of view) heart to seek his fortune elsewhere. None of them measure up to Raphaella, and he can persuade himself that he can therefore abandon them, because he has to be true to her. Does he ever get his HEA? I am soooo not going to spoil it by telling you!

I loved this book. It’s not only a fabulously pacy read, there are layers to it that require at least another reading to explore. You forget it’s a ‘fake’ biography, even though you are warned at the beginning in the prologue by Boyd himself that ‘all biography is fiction’. This is a novel, he tells us – and of course we know that – but is it also a warning about the many, many biographies floating about these days. Sensationalist, to degrees unbelievable, books that are determined to prove that their author is a major influencer in the world? Boyd reminds us again that The Romantic is a literary joke, to a degree, in the final pages. In Cashel’s voice this time, while he’s trying to construct his own life story, finding his memory ‘elusive and tricky, malleable – like his imagination…’ He discovers a wish to please rather than to be accurate. He finds nothing depressing looking back at his life, he finds nothing ‘macabre or ghoulish’ because that’s not what he wants to see – and not what he wants to portray. He is selective about what he wants to put on the page, in other words, and though in his case it’s all positive, there are two caveats. The first is what my Open University History tutor would call unwitting testimony – what he reveals about himself in the telling without knowing he’s doing so. His ‘true’ character, if there is such a thing, the negative traits I’ve already mentioned. The second thing is that he’s deliberately chosen to tell his tale in a positive light, but that doesn’t preclude him telling another, much darker tale, should he decide to do so. Biography is fiction, simples, is what Boyd seems to be saying.

These and other questions, I shall return to on my second reading. As for the first – it was a pure delight. If you’ve never read any William Boyd you’re missing a treat, he’s a first class story-teller who has a talent for creating characters that spring to life and won’t leave you alone. 

Have you read any of these books? Do you agree with my assessment. Have you any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

These are my favourite recent reads. You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.

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