Just once in a while, if we’re really lucky as readers, a book comes along that makes you want to turn it upside down and shake it just to see how the author managed to pull off such an accomplished and stirring tale. The problem with novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides is that they make it look easy. The other problem is that it can be such a hard act to follow, you find yourself rejecting all kinds of other books in search of another ‘perfect’ read. Set in early-‘80s America, and focusing on a handful of college students and their struggle to make sense of it all, ‘The Marriage Plot’ focuses mainly on the beautiful Madeleine, a by-the-book English student who falls like a ton of bricks for the charismatic Leonard. Devastated by their breakup, she quickly grabs a second chance at love when her ex – hospitalised for depression – agrees that he needs her in his life. Meanwhile, the lovelorn Mitchell, pining for Madeleine while on a post-graduation tour of Europe andIndia, wonders if he will ever attract the object of his affection. If that sounds a bit too much like boy loves girl who loves other boy, ‘The Marriage Plot’ is actually much, much more. It’s a story of dawning realisations, of growing up, of settling, and then tearing up the rule book. As the characters go on their voyage of discovery, we are with them each step of the way. Utterly engrossing; I got to the end and wanted to start reading it all over again.
My Dad Was Nearly James Bond by Des Bishop
The story of Des Bishop’s dad Mike is fairly well known inIrelandat this stage – thanks to an RTE documentary and a stand-up show of the same name. It is to Bishop’s credit, then, that the book manages to take a fresh approach to a story, going over a lot of the same ground covered earlier, but also including new details of his father’s life that he had not known earlier. Most of all, it is a loving tribute to a man who was clearly adored by his family even if, as Bishop points out, they may not always have realised it. He writes of the disconnect from his father he experienced as a teenager when he swapped his Queens home for boarding school in Ireland. He also mentions his own emotional shortcomings and wonders how much of it is to do with his upbringing. Bishop has always been insightful on matters pertaining to the Irish psyche and he highlights a particular aspect of his show which gets huge laughs inIrelandbut sorrowful tut-tutting in theU.S.– the part where he talks about his mother being raised by alcoholics. As a kid, he sometimes wondered why his father rarely lost his cool and, indeed, was something of a softy. When he discovers the shocking violent abuse in Mike Bishop’s own youth, it is something of a eureka moment. Unlike many of the cardboard-cutout, dull-as-dishwater ‘celebrity’ bios which dominate at this time of year, ‘My Dad Was Nearly James Bond’ is a well-written and insightful tale of a pretty cool family.
Cover image of The London Train by Tessa Hadley
Starting with the poignant image of a man arriving at a nursing home hours after his mother’s body has already been removed and her room stripped of her presence, ‘The London Train’ rollicks gently through the countryside shedding further light on the life and loves of the newly bereaved Paul. The calm contentedness of his rural Welsh existence with wife Elise and their two young daughters is breached firstly by his mother’s unexpected death, and then by the disappearance of his teenage daughter. The child of his first marriage, Pia has left home and refuses to tell her mother where she is now living. When Paul eventually manages to track her down, he discovers that Pia has established a new family, and he finds himself oddly attracted to her unusual domestic setup. Through repeated train journeys fromWalestoLondon, more of his story is rolled out. Meanwhile, Cora has just moved back fromLondontoCardiff, abandoning the life shared with her high-ranking civil servant husband for the newly-renovated blank canvas of her parents’ old home. But when her sister-in-law contacts her to say her estranged husband has disappeared, she finds herself rethinking some of her life-changing decisions. Through Cora’s job as a librarian, Hadley has incorporated some illuminating insights into libraries and librarianship. This is a beautifully written book, with a story that meanders purposefully through the lives of the characters, occasionally picking up steam, but mostly just chugging along steadily.
The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill
This was my first venture into the detective fiction of Susan Hill, and it comes as a pleasant surprise to learn that this is in fact the sixth outing for Simon Serrailler. With freak weather and flash floods hitting southernEngland, a shallow grave is unearthed on the moor in Lafferton. When the remains are positively identified as those of a local well-to-do teenager who disappeared sixteen years previously, Serrailler has the unenviable task of trying to solve a very cold case. When a second set of remains proves harder to identify, and with police cutbacks hitting hard, he finds himself working around the clock. The intrusion of work into his personal life hits hard when his widowed sister accuses him of letting her down, and he struggles to keep his focus after meeting a particularly attractive woman. Meanwhile, an elderly woman in the village makes plans to travel to a Swiss assisted-death facility, and a new facility for dementia patients is not all it appears to be. There are enough references to an intriguing back story that suggest the previous Serrailler novels are well worth a look, but ‘The Betrayal of Trust’ also works well as a stand-alone story.
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