The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell

Title – The House We Grew Up In

Author – Lisa Jewell

Published – 2014

Genre – Fiction

I’m still trying to clear a  backlog of book reviews that I should have written / published so this will be a shorter than normal review.

As this isn’t strictly crime fiction I might never have picked it up but it was in a goody bag I got from … somewhere which I opened on the train home and was gripped. Although billed as ‘fiction’ the heart of the story is a family secret and a tragedy that has shaped the lives of the Birds so it certainly shared some characteristics with crime fiction, particularly the desire for the reader to figure out what had taken place before the author revealed it.

The opening makes the book feel as if it will be a twee domestic drama; a mother and daughter returning to the mother’s childhood home to clear the house and discovering that her mother had developed into an extreme hoarder. While this is set in the present day there are two other threads to the story which are told in parallel – the first is an exchange of correspondence between the late Lorelei Bird and a man that she’s met through the internet. This has quite a poignant quality to it as it’s one sided, a bit like an Alan Bennett ‘Talking Head’ but it’s through these emails that we learn about how Lorelei sees her family. The second thread starts back in 1981 and tells the story of the Bird family through their annual Easter Egg hunt and gives the reader the opportunity to follow the family as it slowly disintegrates.

It soon becomes clear that in all times and all ways this family is pretty dysfunctional, it paints a dark picture of family life and the impact of unrecognised or untreated mental health issues. The fallout affects the different members of the family in different ways – I thought the characters were well written and even though I didn’t particularly like Lorelei I was still interested in her. The pressing reason for reading on, however, was the need to discover what the pivotal event was that was at the heart of the story.

If there was something that I wasn’t happy about it was actually the nature of the secret. When you’ve built a whole book around something shocking that has taken place you need it to really shock the reader, perhaps I read too much crime fiction where ‘anything goes’ but I did feel a little underwhelmed by the actual event.

Not a book I might normally choose for myself but nevertheless an enjoyable read.



Rescue – Anita Shreve

51COB0351LLTitle – Rescue

Author – Anita Shreve

Published – 2010

Genre – Fiction

I have to confess to being a huge fan of Anita Shreve. I enjoy her prose and her (usually) female-centric novels which have relationships – often under stress – at their core. In Rescue the main character is a chap – paramedic Peter Webster. Now in his forties bringing up his teenage daughter alone, the story tells how as a rookie he begins an affair with Sheila, a young woman that he treats at the scene of an accident. Webster is a small town guy and Sheila is more worldly-wise – things are never going to run smoothly.

I’ll stop describing the plot there – the blurb on the book gives a lot more away but not having read it (I never read the blurb before the book) I enjoyed the story as it unfolded.

The two characters start a relationship without really knowing each other and they have their own issues and obsessions. In part the story deals with obsession and addiction but it’s also about the importance of family and what sacrifices parents are prepared to make.

I’m impartial enough to say that this probably isn’t Shreve’s best book, the characters aren’t all as fully drawn as those in some of her other novels and I didn’t find the main ones particularly engaging. I just wanted to tell Webster to get a grip! I did enjoy the main themes of the story and I wanted to know what happened, but I did’t quite care enough.

If I haven’t put you off completely I would suggest reading Fortune’s Rocks or The Weight of Water.


The Well – Catherine Chanter

51yfvMatgNLTitle – The Well

Author – Catherine Chanter

Published – 2015

Genre – Fiction

Hard on the heels of The Testimony this is another book that’s hard to categorise. Although there is a more traditional element of crime fiction, The Well is set in a near future where there is some sort of climatic disaster taking place, which puts this on a “semi-post-apocatlytic” footing. Unlike The Testimony, however, there is just a single voice and a single point of view; our narrator is Ruth who has recently returned to her home under a version of house arrest.

Home for Ruth is The Well, a literal oasis in a drought stricken country. Ruth and husband Mark set out to escape to the country from a turbulent time in London. When they chose The Well it was a smallholding like any other in a rural English village. When a lack of rain started to affect the country the change passed them by because The Well seemed unaffected. As their continued ‘good fortune’ alienated them from their neighbours word spread and people arrived to see for themselves. These arrivals included Ruth’s daughter and grandson and a group of nuns the ‘Sisters of the Rose of Jericho’. The Sisters see Ruth as an essential part of their worship and as she becomes increasingly estranged from her husband she is drawn into the women-only group and their religious fervour.

The book opens as Ruth is returned to The Well and her contemplation of the events that brought her there provides the backstory. Gripped by grief over the cataclysmic days that led to her incarceration she doesn’t prove to be a particularly reliable narrator but Chanter manages to hold back the key events from the reader until quite a way into the story. The threads of the story mix together the mystery that surrounds Ruth’s incarceration with the unusual climate at The Well. During her incarceration Ruth is grief-stricken and withdrawn and her interaction is limited to only a handful of characters, meaning that a lot of the story is told as she reminisces on events before the pace picks up when the events reach a climax both in the present and in her memory.

If I were to draw comparisons I would say that this was somewhere between Joanne Harris’s Chocolat and Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson. There’s a mix of religion and religious fervour that they all touch on with women at the heart of the story. They also mix religion with the unexplained (which of course The Testimony deals with too). Chanter’s prose is beautifully written and evokes the charm of The Well and its idyllic setting.

I found it hard to ignore, however, the occasional break with the fictional setting that had been created (how do you get flowers from a garage during years of drought …?) and the odd anachronistic detail could be jarring – better to not think about the impact on the outside world too much. As with The Testimony the first person approach does mean that the true external impact on the rest of world isn’t really communicated which isn’t always so easy to ignore as a reader – there are some ‘whats, whys, hows’ that could have been answered.

The Well won Chanter the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize in 2013, which is for an unpublished debut novel by a woman. Thank you to Peters Fraser + Dunlop for the review copy of the book.


Blink of an Eye – Cath Staincliffe

blinkofaneyeTitle – Blink of an Eye

Author – Cath Staincliffe

Published – April 2013

Genre – Fiction

After reading a stack of books which deal with the investigation of crimes it’s refreshing to look at things from another angle. In Blink of an Eye we follow the impact of an accident that changes the lives of those involved ‘in the blink of an eye’.

The story is told from the viewpoint of two main characters – Naomi and her mother Carmel. After leaving a summer barbecue at her sister’s house Naomi is involved in a horrific accident. In that moment her life and the lives of those closest to her are irrevocably changed. The story is about the emotional fallout from this event and the impact it has on the relationships of Naomi and her family.

There is also something of a crime fiction element to the book. Naomi seemingly can’t remember the details of the accident and a remark made by her sister prompts their mother to try to piece together what happened. Despite the fact that Carmel is a social worker she is unable to deal with the crisis in the way that she knows she should, so she begins to try to piece together what happened to Naomi – quizzing those who were at the barbecue.

The stresses and strains that the accident puts on the family and particularly Naomi are very credible and it brings to the fore some of the tensions within the family and Carmel’s reminiscences fill in the background.

I have to confess that I didn’t find Naomi a completely likeable character but I did feel for Carmel and her husband. And it’s all too easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who makes a small error which has such devastating consequences. I was really drawn into the story and like the Nicci French books the characters’ lives are rich in detail, which really brings them to life.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view at Reviewing the Evidence.


A Gathering Storm – Rachel Hore

Title – A Gathering Storm

Author – Rachel Hore

Published – 2011

Genre – Fiction

This is the fifth title by Rachel Hore, following on from the success of A Place of Secrets, which was a Richard & Judy Bookclub selection. I have to confess that I didn’t enjoy Place of Secrets when I read it, and I nearly gave up when I thought that A Gathering Storm was going to follow the same formula. Fortunately I didn’t, as it actually turned out to be an enjoyable read.

After Lucy Cardwell’s father dies she discovers references to Rafe Ashton, her great-uncle and someone she had never heard mention of, amongst his things. Lucy’s father seemed to have been troubled before he died and when she is presented with the opportunity to visit the village where her grandmother grew-up she takes it. In fact after a disagreement with her boyfriend she makes a spontaneous decision to spend a week there.

Trying to find out more about her family’s history, Lucy is introduced to Beatrice Ashton, an elderly village resident in her eighties, who happens to be Rafe’s widow and the former best-friend of Lucy’s late grandmother Angelina.

So the similarities to the previous book are an “intrepid” young woman in the present in an unsatisfactory relationship who has a chance meeting with a handsome stranger. At the same time she becomes involved in finding out more about a story from the past.

But there the similarities end. Beatrice herself tells Lucy her story, and it’s told in a very straightforward way. During her stay in Cornwall Lucy visits each day and over the week Beatrice tells the story of how she met Angelina, grew up alongside her family, and then how their lives took separate paths after the breakout of World War II. Beatrice’s story is fascinating. There’s obviously a secret that she’s been keeping all these years and this is alluded to very early on, but the reader doesn’t have their suspicions confirmed until almost the end of the book. Beatrice’s story is of her coming of age during the early years of WWII, and I have to confess to having a soft spot for these stories (Sarah Harrison’s Flower’s of the Field comes to mind, although set in WWI).

Lucy’s own story is a simple romance, but ties neatly into the story Beatrice is telling, as her love interest is a soldier on leave. The threads of sacrifice for your country are mirrored without it feeling contrived.

There were one or two places I felt a little let down by the book, a few mysteries which went unsolved, but as one of my complaints from the previous one was that all the loose ends were tied up to neatly, it’s hard to be critical. The story had none of the supernatural elements of its predecessor and although I wasn’t too fussed by Lucy, Beatrice’s character was welll written and I really felt for her.

Score – 4/5

Cool Hand Luke – Donn Pearce

Title – Cool Hand Luke

Author – Donn Pearce

Published – 1965 (this edition 2011)

Genre – Modern Fiction

I was lucky to win a copy of this book on Twitter courtesy of @CorsairPR. Corsair acquired the rights earlier in 2011 and the publication of this edition ties in with a West End production of Cool Hand Luke, starring Marc Warren.

I have to confess that this isn’t a book I would have necessarily chosen for myself, but I did enjoy it. Interestingly there is an introduction to the novel by Antonia Quirke which provides some background on the author and his own experience of time on the Hard Road (chain gang to you and I). The novel came first and then Pearce co-wrote the hugely successful screenplay. Apparently he never quite bought Paul Newman’s portrayal of Luke, and I should go back & re-watch the film soon to see how the two compare.

The story of “Cool Hand Luke” is narrated by one of his fellow prisoners, but before Luke arrives on the chain gang we get an introduction to the hardship and privation and monotony of the life on the Hard Road. The prisoners (who all have nicknames) seem to be resigned to serving their time  and they are certainly looking for a quiet life, not wanting to make their situation any worse than it already is.  This doesn’t stop them dreaming of life in the “Free World”.

Luke’s arrival (actually he’s called Lloyd until he gets his nickname) is preceded by the discovery of a discarded newspaper telling the story of his arrest  for beheading parking meters, so when he arrives at the prison he already has a reputation with his fellow inmates. He starts off by keeping himself to himself, but slowly he becomes more involved in the prison life, until the infamous scene from the film where he demonstrates his ability to eat more than anyone else in the prison. He does nothing overt to attract the attention of the guards, and in fact proves himself to be the hardest worker on the road.  He seems to have a certain smugness or knowingness about him which keeps him a little aloof from the others, but when his brother leaves him an old banjo he opens up by singing the stories of his past.

It’s not long after this that things start to go wrong for Luke – and initially it’s through no wrongdoing on his part. After that it’s a slippery slope. The authorities are determined to better him and he seems equally determined to resist giving in to them. Needless to say it all ends in tears. Luke was never going to be a man to bow down to the establishment – he just wanted to play it cool.

I enjoyed Pearce’s use of language and because of the style of narration the book felt like it would be great one to read aloud – perhaps that’s something which helped make it seem such a good choice for a film. The writing certainly reflects the style of the period. Despite the serious subject matter none of it is written in way that seems to be looking for our sympathy, just an account of how it was, which seems fitting.

Score – 4/5

The Fort – Bernard Cornwell

Title – The Fort

Author – Bernard Cornwell

Published – 2011

Genre – Historical Fiction

I’ve been a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell’s for a long time, and although it can seem that reading his books have become a habit, he really doesn’t disappoint.  My initial introduction was through Redcoat and the Starbuck Chronicles – for some reason I am fascinated by the early conflicts in America, so I was delighted  to find that the latest book was centred around a confrontation between the Redcoats and the Patriots.

Summer 1779. Seven hundred and fifty British soldiers and three small ships of the Royal Navy. Their orders: to build a fort above a harbour to create a base from which to control the New England seaboard. Forty-one American ships and over nine hundred men. Their orders: to expel the British. The battle that followed was a classic example of how the best-laid plans can be disrupted by personality and politics, and of how warfare can bring out both the best and worst in men.

I have to confess that I usually spend the first chapter or two of one of Cornwell’s books in a state of confusion. They usually avoid too much scene setting and plunge you straight into the story where you have to try to figure out who the different characters are & what’s happening. The Fort is no different and I’ve also broadened my knowledge of sailing and military terms!

The book is based on actual events that took place in 1779 and the historical notes at the end are great supplement to the  story. But this is no weighty tome describing the events – Cornwell uses characters on both side of the conflict to put the reader in the midst of the action. Some of these characters – like Peleg Wadsworth and General McLean are true heroes – honourable, brave, patriotic, but there are others who are cowards, and malingerers. And Paul Revere – I don’t want to give too much away, but what a revelation.

As the assault by the Patriots on the newly constructed Fort George is by sea there is quite a mix of sea and land combat.  Cornwell could never be accused of glorifying war and whether it’s on the fields of Waterloo or Azincourt there is huge attention to detail and the gruesome results.  If anything I think that the skirmishes on the land let the book down a little –  I would have preferred a bit more time spent in the thick of the action, but that’s a small gripe.

 This was a fascinating story and a great read- made all the more remarkable because of the true story on which it is based.

Score – 4/5