The Almost-Made-Its

I’ve read a lot of books over the past couple of months, not all of which proved quite right for Shiny. The following are two very gentle, very undemanding novels that work well on their own terms and only missed the cut because they were a little too sweet and cosy for a general recommendation.

 

Francesca and the Mermaid by Beryl Kingston

francesca and mermaidThis is a romantic fairy tale in modern day dress. Francesca is on a holiday cruise with her partner, the intolerably bumptious Jeffrey, when she spots a mermaid splashing in the waters. Surprised by the sight, she finds herself confiding in a fellow passenger, Agnes Potts, who is older and a little infirm, but sprightly in spirit and a straight talker. As the days pass it becomes clear to Francesca that the mermaid is a harbinger of great change and a sign that she should put her life in order. Jeffrey is behaving even more obnoxiously than ever, and by the end of the holiday she decides to leave him. Agnes invites her to stay with her in Lewes, offering Francesca a wonderful retreat from the world in her untidy house, and while recovering the lost shape of herself, Francesca decides to start painting again, taking the mermaid as her first subject. This painting will introduce her to widowed Henry Prendergast who owns the local potteries, and who has plans to alter Francesca’s life in all possible ways.

There’s an almost magical moral universe at work in this novel, in which Francesca’s fortunes just get better and better, despite the villainous Jeffrey’s rather weak attempts to derail her. Creativity, success, friends, love, security, money, all begin to shower down upon her, and we are told, often, that this was the happiest of all times for her. In fact, the insistance on paradise and good fortune ended up making me feel that some terrible sadness had been at work in the author’s life, this was a novel of such fierce wish fulfillment. And then I noticed that the dedication was to a lost son. There might be no connection at all; best to pay me no attention. In any case, this is the novel to give to someone going through hard times who wants uninterrupted comfort in their reading. The good characters are richly rewarded, their lives healed and their desires satisfied, whilst the bad characters get their comeuppance. It is charming, and sometimes touching but it can be a little overwhelming in its goodness.

 

The Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

whitstable pearlSet over the course of Whitstable’s annual oyster festival, this is the first in what I imagine will be a new crime series featuring Pearl Nolan, a seafood restaurant owner who has always harboured a desire to become a detective. Years ago, a teenage pregnancy prevented her from entering the police, but now that Charlie is grown up and away at university, Pearl has a little more time on her hands and she starts a fledgling private investigation agency out of a shed at the bottom of her garden. And then it just so happens that she stumbles upon a couple of corpses in quick succession, one of which is her old and dear friend, Vinnie, a local fisherman, the other the first ever client to call upon the services of her agency.

Curious and determined to become involved in the investigation, Pearl dogs the footsteps of the Chief Inspector assigned to the case, Mike McGuire, in a way that in real life might well earn her a charge of obstructing the course of justice. But eventually her knowledge of the local area, and the local people, provide her with some useful leads. The investigation is also easing Pearl over a difficult time in her family, as Charlie’s new and perfect girlfriend, Tizzy, is driving a gap between mother and son, and we’re given a hint that romance between Pearl and Mike McGuire is not entirely out of the question.

This is a very easy book to read (the author is a regular writer for Eastenders, in case you’re interested) with a strong sense of place and a neatly unspooling plot. The characters are lively and well-drawn, and it’s essentially one of those novels that feels as if you’re watching a good quality midweek television drama. I did enjoy it, and it’s well-constructed, so it’s hard to say what holds me back from a full appreciation. I think it lacks a bit of spark, something to make it more memorable than it is. But in all honesty, I hardly ever read the first book in a crime series as I tend to think they are never as good as the ones that follow subsequently. If you enjoy relatable, cosy crime then definitely consider giving this one a try, and I’ll certainly be curious to see where the author takes her characters as the series continues.

A Double Anniversary

SNB-logoYes,  it’s our first year anniversary at Shiny New Books and we’re celebrating with our 5th edition. Please do go over and check out our reviews, features, interviews and articles. Plus, we’ve got a special announcement about our new Shiny Book Club.

And on the 2nd April, this blog marked its 9th anniversary. That’s scary, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel as if nine years have gone past, though a lot has happened, admittedly. Nine years ago, I had just come off work on sick leave from the university, my son’s voice hadn’t even broken, and Mr Litlove was working for a different company. We were all quite different people, I think; there’s been a lot of changing and growing and developing going on here in all that time.

But the main constant – and the loveliest gift of all from blogging – has been the company of many dear virtual friends. So many of you have been visiting here faithfully for years, and I can’t thank you enough for that. And it’s been an extra delight to have good friends from the Reading Room become good friends at Shiny, too.

So a special thank you to Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Bookgazing, who are all on the Shiny Adventure.

And I am so pleased to direct you towards some of the fabulous reviews and articles in our 5th edition by these wonderful people:

Danielle picks us Books for Spring

Jean encourages us toward Reading in Translation

Arti considers the role Stefan Zweig played in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ingrid interviews American giant of letters, Phillip Lopate

Stefanie reviews Orlando and The Waves

Susan reviews the new Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter

Denise reviews Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Karen reviews The Man In A Hurry by Paul Morand

And now that Shiny no.5 is finally out, I catch up with my email correspondence! If I owe you an email, a thousand apologies – I’ll be writing very soon!

 

 

 

A Word From Our Sponsors

SNB-logoYes, in just a week’s time we’ll be unveiling the new Spring edition of Shiny New Books! If I’ve been a little quiet lately, it’s because I’m working my way through the reviews for Shiny. This time around, I’ve decided to become even more picky about what I put in the magazine, and among the highlights there’ll be Sarah Hall’s mesmerising new novel, The Wolf Border, an absolutely brilliant book of cinema history, Five Came Back, about Hollywood directors who took their skills into the Second World War, Alexandra Fuller’s moving memoir of her failed marriage and the legacy of her African upbringing, Leaving Before the Rains Come, and a wonderfully funny and touching crime novel from Malcolm Pryce, The Case of the Hail Mary Celeste. And more! But I’ll mention just those for now.

Also some exciting news – we’re beginning a book club! I won’t say any more about that either, but I hope you’ll check out the details next Tuesday.

Right, I had better get back to the reviews. This afternoon I’m writing about a novel that’s recently out in paperback, all about ballet dancers. Have you read it too?

 

The Faithful Couple

faithful coupleOne of the bits I really like in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary is the fight scene between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. What makes me laugh every time is how real they manage to make it look – all clumsy grappling and uncoordinated lashing out, the impetus to hurt the other person kept in check by the much stronger desire not to be hurt oneself. They are two boys having a scrap in the playground, not Hollywood actors in a polished and well-choreographed routine and it’s very endearing.

It was the same sense of scrappy realness, a bit clumsy, a bit awkward, often mortified, that kept me engaged and enjoying The Faithful Couple, A. D. Miller’s bromance about long-term friendship between men. Adam Tayler and Neil Collins meet in California while travelling, Adam as part of a gap-year after his degree at Durham, Neil as a treat after he jacks in a pharmaceutical sales job. There’s a distinct, nuanced difference in class. Neil, though he also has a degree, will be trapped on his return into working at his widowed father’s dreary stationary shop in a dull, grubby part of London. His mother died when he was 14, and his older brother has gone off the rails. Adam comes from an entitled family, a jolly, confident bunch, his father in shipping insurance, his mother helping charities. Adam has the money behind him to be idealistic, and is intending to work in television.

But first: California. The young men fall into an easy, feckless friendship, their comfort with one another spiked at the edges by an undercurrent of rivalry. Travelling up the West coast of America, they urge each other on to bad behaviour, running out of a bar without paying. It’s nothing really, they are good boys at heart. But on a camping trip in Yosemite, the competitiveness gets a little out of hand over a young woman named Rose. Adam is aware of her age, and does not pass this information on to Neil. There is an ugly incident, but one that eventually passes over without any dire consequence. Back in England, Adam and Neil cement their friendship, the secret sin that lurks between them exerts a uniting effect, not least in their desire to cover it over.

But as the years slip by and things do not fall out as expected – Adam’s career repeatedly stagnates, his ambition lost to the daily grind of family life, whilst Neil moves from dotcom to property to financial management, making money all the way – the California incident begins to fester. It’s Adam who lets himself become needled with guilt. Partly the birth of his daughter affects him with superstitious karmic fear, but there’s also an unarticulated disappointment to deal with, that on paper, Neil is doing better than he is. In the unwritten laws of his upbringing, Adam realises that this inability to let an old, half-forgotten incident go is as verboten as any other form of weakness:

To moon over a girl was gay. To worry over exams was nerdy. Everyone was supposed permanently to be on good form, as if they were well-conditioned, moodless racehorses… They were all or nothing people, Adam realised, his family, his breed. Their only game plan was to get all the way through, right to the end, thinking as little as possible, in the hope that they could outrun it – whatever it was that they were frantically eschewing, the neglect or abuse or adultery.’

Adam can’t quite leave it alone; he has to use the incident in California as a stick to beat himself with, except of course he keeps missing and hitting Neil instead. The underlying preoccupation of the story is whether the men will allow it to destroy their friendship – something we come to understand is meaningful and important to them – or if they’ll find a way to neutralise their growing resentment.

This is a thoughtful, touching novel that feels unusual in its male-driven perspective. The question of whether men can still love one another as friends in a typical new millenium middle-class life that is far too bothered about money and success and advancement is not one that often gets asked – or at least, not one that gets asked to the exclusion of all else. The prose is supple and clever, though occasionally Miller does ask it to do too much, to fit in too many thoughts – there are sentences that require the reader to put on her wader’s wellies to get across. And I fear women might not care much for the way women are seen through the eyes of the main protagonists. There’s nothing sexist here. It’s just that women aren’t seen very much; the male gaze still tracks other, more self-regarding prizes than the happiness of those who love them. But I fear that may just be realistic. Other than that, Miller is particularly good on class, and on the changing face of life in London, and on bringing up children, and on the relentless, indefatigable competition between men and just about everyone and everything else. It’s that detailed attention to authenticity that makes this novel a pleasure to read.