The Tortoise and The Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Originally published in 1954, this was Elizabeth Jenkin’s sixth novel. It tells the story of Imogen, the beautiful much younger wife of Evelyn Gresham, a QC who is successful, self-assured, and expects his wife to have everything he needs at all times.

Their son Gavin is oblivious to his mother and lives an idyllic life in their lovely country home.

Everything changes for Imogen when her husband Evelyn begins spending increasing amounts of time with their neighbour Blanche Silcox. Initially, Imogen has no fears whatsoever of her husband falling in love with her -after all, Blanche is dowdy, and nowhere near as attractive as Imogen.

What Imogen fails to realize though is that Blanche has many other attributes that are very attractive to a man such as Evelyn. She is wealthy, has great taste, is an organizer extraordinaire, and can do most things to which she sets her mind.

As the novel progresses we begin to understand the motivations, rivalries, jealousies and desires of the three main characters.

The characterization in this novel is sublime. Hilary Mantel was a fan and said of it:

“A subtle and beautiful book . . . Very few authors combine her acute psychological insight with her grace and style. There is plenty of life in the modern novel, plenty of authors who will shock and amaze you – but who will put on the page a beautiful sentence, a sentence you will want to read twice?’ HILARY MANTEL, Sunday Times.

A slow-burning study of one woman’s slow descent into despair as she watches on helplessly as she loses everything she holds dear. This novel packs a powerful punch and is beautifully told. It’s not full of action, so if you prefer your novels fast-paced, this will not be for you. Rather it is a psychological study of a marriage and the fragility of happiness.

I found it a very poignant novel, especially the ending. I felt sympathy for Imogen as well as frustration that she didn’t stand up to the indomitable Blanche (who was in my view the worst kind of woman.)

I highly recommend this novel.


The ‘Old Filth’ Trilogy

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I wish I could remember who it was recommended Jane Gardam. I think I read about it in one of my many newsletters about books. Whoever it was – bravo! I discovered a new author – always great – and a superb one at that.

The Old Filth trilogy is about a barrister named Sir Edward Feathers. He has an extremely difficult childhood which includes being sent to a foster home where he has all sorts of mishaps and adventures and this provides the reader with an understanding of his future motivations and behaviours. Despite a difficult start in life he goes on to train in the law and is incredibly successful in his profession.

Sir Edward Feathers was a ‘Raj Orphan.’ His father worked in Singapore and he was sent away. He always believed he would be reunited with his father and this separation affects his life deeply.

The book is narrated in the 3rd person and begins when Edward is retired and living in Dorset with his wife Betty. She and another character called Edward Veneering are the other two main characters in the book and they are the focus of books two and three. The story then jumps back and forwards in time but this is done seamlessly.

The prose is rich and detailed as we follow Edward from childhood to London and then Hong Kong which is where he gets his nickname ‘Old Filth. Filth is an acronym that stands for ‘Failed in London try Hong Kong.’

Jane Gardam has won numerous literary awards and I can fully understand why. This novel is so rich in evocative gorgeous geographical detail of all the various countries Sir Edward Feathers travels to or lives in. The dialogue is witty and sharp and the novel is full of wit and compassion while describing some of the darkest days of colonial and post-colonial Britain and the Far East.

I was immediately drawn into the story and the characters.

I highly recommend this trilogy. I look forward to reading more Jane Gardam. If you have read any of her books I would love to know which ones you enjoyed. Thanks!

Review of Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

I read this book after hearing several people on social media raving about it, such as Elizabeth Day, whose recommendations I usually love.

For the first time after reading a book, I genuinely couldn’t decide whether I loved it or hated it.

Reading the reviews on Amazon, it’s clear that one of the bugbears of many readers is the author doesn’t identify the mental illness that the main protagonist Martha suffers from.  This jarred with me, and I felt when it was revealed – or not as the case was – it broke up the flow of the narrative.

It is left open for us to decide which I agree is a bit of a cop-out.   However, I do understand the author’s reasons for doing so.  It gave her free rein to do what she wanted with the character’s illness.  Make of that what you will.

The novel centres around Martha who is the narrator.  She is married to the very long-suffering Patrick.  She has a close relationship with her sister Ingrid who bounces from one pregnancy to the next. 

How Martha feels about her sister’s ability to fall pregnant so effortlessly, is a bit of a mystery and the answer unfolds gradually throughout the novel.

The parts of the novel I felt that were courageously dealt with and beautifully written were Martha’s relationships with her sister, her husband Patrick, and the dramatic relationship she has with her mother Celia.   

The complexity of family relationships is portrayed in all its rawness but the use of humour lightens the darkness when most needed. There are some exquisite moments between Martha and Ingrid and Martha and her mother, particularly towards the end.

The last third of the book was where it picked up for me.  Up until then, I wasn’t hooked, so if you stick with it, it does get better as it goes along.

Whether you like this novel or not, I feel will come down to your feelings about how the author dealt with Martha’s illness. It may be the one weakness in the novel that readers just can’t get past. I found it frustrating, but ultimately it didn’t ruin the novel for me.

There are some brilliant one-liners throughout and I did find myself laughing out loud several times. 

Meg Mason is acerbic, doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life and uses humour to great effect.

I think this is a novel that needs to be read on holiday, so you can fully absorb yourself in it.  I think I missed out perhaps on how good it is by reading it over a few weeks. 

I may give it another go.   But I would absolutely love to hear what you thought.  Did you enjoy it?

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

The release of this novel was a huge event in the literary calendar, following the success of Rooney’s previous two novels. I loved ‘Conversations with Friends’ and ‘Normal People,’ so I dropped lots of hints around books I’d love to get for Christmas and my husband kindly obliged!

‘Beautiful World, Where are You,’ lived up to expectations for me and perhaps even exceeded them.

Rooney tends to focus in on a small number of characters in her novels and this one revolves around Alice, a novelist who has moved to Mayo after suffering a breakdown, Eileen, her best friend who works at a literary magazine, Simon, Eileen’s friend and ‘on again off again’ lover who is exceptionally handsome, and Felix a local guy who works in a warehouse.

The novel begins as Alice meets Felix for a date (they met on a dating app) and Rooney’s subtle prose is immediately in evidence:

‘A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door. Her appearance was neat and tidy: white blouse, fair hair tucked behind her ears……..At eight minutes past seven, a man entered through the door. He was slight and dark-haired, with a narrow face.’

And off we go into Rooney’s millennial angst-ridden journey. As the novel unfolds the dramatics between all four characters develop as they each try to figure out their place in the world. Rooney intersperses third-person narration with chapters consisting of emails sent between Eileen and Alice. For me, this was the only part of the novel I questioned. I found the content of the emails pretentious and overly thought out.

What I adore about Sally Rooney is her powers of observation and ability to express at such a deep level what her characters are feeling. I actually felt my stomach churn when reading one of the scenes at a party, remembering what it feels like to be isolated, confused, and alone despite being surrounded by people.

Her writing is subtle but it draws you in so deeply to the characters’ feelings, anxieties, and desires. I felt a huge relief to have passed through that stage of my life!

Alice is a successful novelist and I wondered how much of the author’s life was in this character. She is successful and swings between being superior and aloof, to exceptionally needy. What Rooney does with all her characters is give you so much to work with that you end up feeling empathy for them, despite their flaws. I found Eileen a harder character to like. Simon, I would have liked to have learned more about and Felix was my kind of man – he had his faults but he wasn’t pretending to be anyone he wasn’t.

Rooney has been criticised for being shallow in her politics, or for trying to be too clever in her opinions. While I do find some of her characters’ opinions ridiculously pretentious, I can forgive that given how well I feel I know them by the end of the novel. That is her gift in my opinion – characters that stay with you.

I adored this book and highly recommend it.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times: Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2021 by [Naoise Dolan]

When reading a novel, I don’t have to like the main character, but it helps if they have a few redeeming qualities.  For me, Ava doesn’t.

I feel this novel is too clever for its own good.  There are many witty lines throughout, and the use of language is razor-sharp, but it’s all just a bit too pretentious for my liking.

You don’t have to be 22 anymore to remember what it was like.  I thought I would identify with the main protagonist somewhat as I too had been a TEFL teacher and had also worked abroad (not teaching TEFL.)  However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Ava is self-centered, totally lacking in real self-awareness – although from her stream of consciousness ramblings you would think she was as enlightened as the Buddha himself – and totally lacking in empathy or compassion for anyone.   She is also incredibly pretentious.

Ava is in Hong Kong working as a TEFL teacher when she meets a wealthy banker named Julian.  After a few dates, Ava moves in with him.  There appears to be no genuine feeling on either side.  Julian seems perfectly contented to let Ava stay in his apartment rent-free for as long as she wants.   I never understood why.   He could have had the sex without the added complications.

Ava then meets a wealthy Hong Kong Lawyer named Edith, and as their friendship develops you do at least see a modicum of genuine self-reflection on the part of Ava, as she realizes her feelings for Edith are a lot more complicated than she realised. 

I felt the sense of place in the novel was weak.  I didn’t feel the atmosphere of Hong Kong.  Streets and restaurants were named but could have been anywhere.

There were some incredibly witty lines throughout the novel, and I did find myself laughing out loud several times. 

Naoise Dolan, like her contemporary Sally Rooney, studied English at Trinity.  She clearly has an excellent grasp of the English language and uses it to superb effect.  What I feel she lacks is maturity with regard to portraying the complexity of real emotions.   In short, she needs to grow up, and I think as a writer she may produce some incredible work when she does.

Review of Jane’s Away by Clare Hawken

In the interests of transparency, Clare is a friend of mine and was my next-door neighbour when we lived in Zambia. I have known her since we were both kids!  

When I first met Clare she always – and I mean always – had her head in a book.  She was constantly reading, and I was fascinated by this, because I thought I read a lot until I met her!

I then discovered through her letters to me at boarding school – (yes, we both went to boarding school and yes, we did write to each other – no email in those days!) that she was quite the talented writer.  Her letters were always witty, eloquent, and never ever boring.

I am thrilled to see her first book on Amazon, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  I am always honest in my reviews whether the person is a friend or not, but I think if I had truly hated the book, I wouldn’t have reviewed it! These are the joys of having your own blog – you can do what you like!

Fortunately, I am delighted to say that I am far from hating it.   

The narrative is written in the third person, as we are introduced to Roger Kurmudge on his retirement day. It is evident from the start that Roger is interested in one person – himself. He is vaguely aware of others including his wife Jane, in so far as she is there like a comfortable pair of shoes that you don’t realize how much you love until you lose them.

Jane heads off to the hospital to have a day procedure – a mole removed.  Roger duly turns up after his retirement bash to pick her up and discovers that not only is she not at the hospital, but she is not at home, and he has no idea where she has gone.

This is the beginning of Roger’s awakening.  The novel sets out to show what happens when you have taken someone for granted your whole married life and suddenly, they are not there. The realization dawns on Roger that Jane looked after everything, and not only did she do it without complaint, but she loved him even though he didn’t deserve it.   He also discovers that she has a life of which he was totally unaware.  Quite the rude awakening!

The reader is left guessing as to where Jane has gone, why and will she ever return – all questions that Roger asks himself every day as his despair increases.

For me it is the characterization that makes this novel so strong.  Roger’s grandson Alfie is a wonderful character and adds much laughter and poignancy to the book.  He is immediately endearing by dint of calling his grandfather ‘Woger’ and making a beeline for the café whenever they go out – boy after my own heart! Alfie is the catalyst for much of Roger’s transformation and growth.

This heart-warming tale covers a lot of issues such as loneliness, parental angst, grief, and betrayal, but does so wrapped up in humour and a narrative that’s as comforting as a hot chocolate on a winter’s day.

For me, the test of a good novel is whether I care enough about the characters to want to know what happens to them after the story is over. ‘ Jane’s Away’ passed this test with aplomb and I am delighted there will be more to come from the Kurmudge family.

Highly recommend!

The Secret Place by Tana French

I was given this novel back in 2015 and have finally got around to reading it – Crazy, I know, but you haven’t seen all the books I have yet to read and if you did, I hope you’d sympathize!

I have heard great things about Tana French and she’s very highly respected in Ireland, so I picked up this large book and looked forward to some escapism.

The novel is written predominantly from the perspective of Stephen Moran, an ambitious detective who currently works cold cases, but would like to work in the murder squad.  Later the narrative switches to the perspective of three different female students at a prestigious all girls boarding school.

One of these students brings Detective Moran a note which was pinned to a noticeboard in the school called ‘The Secret Place,’ where the students can anonymously post notes to get things off their chest.   The note simply says, ‘I know who killed him.’

Cue Moran’s opportunity to work with Detective Conway on the unsolved murder of Chris Harper from the neighbouring private and also exclusive boys’ school.

Conway is a brash working-class female detective who has no time for niceties and Moran has to bite his tongue and swallow his pride more than once while trying to build a connection with Conway which proves an almost impossible task.  Watching the relationship between the two detectives develop was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the novel for me.   

The two pay a visit to the exclusive St Kilda’s school to find out who is behind the note. The murder took place a year previously and remains unsolved much to Conway’s frustration.

My issue with this book was that it could have done with a bit more editing.  The action takes place over the course of the day as the two detectives interview all the main players again and again.  Every detail is explained, every emotion described.   The plus side of this is it builds the atmosphere and the tension.  The negative was that I was exhausted by the time they were half way through the interviews.

The real power of this novel lies in the strong characterization of the two rival groups of teenage girls.  The angst, the loyalty and the sheer energy of their friendships are immediately recognizable to any of us who have lived through those teenage years.

The viciousness of the evil Joanne on the one hand is a marked contrast to the love and loyalty Holly’s group have for each other.  The feeling at that age that these are the only people who will ever understand you and you will never be able to live without them, is beautifully portrayed.  

Overall, I did enjoy the book and I would certainly consider reading another Tana French novel.  Maybe just a slightly shorter one next time.

Reviews of ‘Behind Her Eyes’ by Sarah Pinborough and ‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones

Behind Her Eyes

I came to this book as a result of the Netflix series.  I read the book and watched the series.

I talk about this book in a previous live on my Facebook page, so you can go and watch the video.  However I’ll go into a little more depth here.

The novel is told from two different perspectives.  That of the fragile Adele who is married to David and that of Louise – a single mother who lives in London.

Louise meets David in a bar one night, they hit it off and share a kiss outside before he runs off.  To Louise’s horror, the next day when she goes to work, she discovers that David is her boss.  He is a psychiatrist, and she is his secretary. 

When Adele then befriends Louise and Louise becomes further involved with David, the story takes a more sinister turn.

Adele is certainly not all that she seems.  This novel takes you on a rollercoaster ride of who is telling the truth and who is lying.   The tension does build exquisitely and it is definitely a page turner.

What I couldn’t’ decide with the crazy twist at the end was whether I loved it or hated it!  The ending is so mad that you really do go WHAT??!

This is clearly the author’s intention and to that end she did a magnificent job!

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

There’s something so juicy about reading someone else’s letters.  It’s like getting a private peek into their innermost thoughts.  Tayari Jones uses this device to great effect in this prize-winning novel.

Roy and Celestial are a recently married couple on the up.  Both of their careers are going well, and life is good.  That all changes one night when Roy is dragged out of his bed in a motel they are staying at together, and accused of a rape he didn’t commit.

Roy is found guilty and receives a twelve-year prison sentence.   The novel then changes from first person narrative to letters exchanged between the couple while Roy is in jail. 

Tayari Jones deals with the issues of marriage, race (Ray is African American) love and fidelity.  It is exquisitely written with the emotions of Ray and Celestial’s souls being laid wide open for the reader.    The letters are raw and heart breaking. 

Marriage can be a compromise at the best of times, but when put under this kind of pressure, individual tensions come raging to the surface.

Roy has to question everything he has ever known about his own identity, that of his wife and the fabric of his entire life.

This is a beautiful portrayal of what happens to people when everything they love is torn from them, when they have to question everything they thought they knew, and what it means to love.

I highly recommend this novel.  It is worthy of all the praise it has received.

Reviews of Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh and Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I read Fifty Fifty following the discussion on ‘Between The Covers,’ the BBC Radio Two book show that was on TV last year.   As soon as I heard the words ‘courtroom drama,’ I was in.  I love books, films or TV shows that revolve around court cases.

I was also interested as Steve Cavanagh is from Belfast like me.

The premise of the novel is that two sisters, Sofia and Alexandra are both accused of the same crime – murdering their father.   The question is -which one of them is guilty?

The novel is narrated by three different characters as we follow each of their stories.  First up is Eddie Flynn, a criminal lawyer who is sharp and now working with recently retired Judge Harry Ford. He is representing Sofia. To be totally honest I can’t remember that much about Eddie Flynn in terms of character, so he didn’t stick in my mind. 

The second strand of the narrative comes from the defence attorney Kate Brooks who is representing Alexandra.  She’s a bit wet behind the ears, but a likeable character who goes on quite a journey throughout the book.

The third view point of the novel are the chapters entitled ‘She’ and they are told from the murderer’s perspective.  A very clever idea, as we get an insight into the murderer’s mind, but the author also manages to throw us a few red herrings!

What I enjoyed most about this novel is the pace, it’s fast – no waffle! It also keeps you guessing.  I think I changed my mind three times about who the murderer was, despite having it right first time!

A good escapist novel for those who like their crime fiction fast paced, a bit tongue in cheek at times and with plenty of bluffs and double bluffs!

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Rarely am I left not knowing whether I liked or hated a book – in fact, I believe this is a first, but I was genuinely left a bit perplexed by this book.  I couldn’t decide.  I thought bits of it were brilliant and other parts were so boring and left me scratching my head.

Toby Fleishman is a doctor who appears to be pretty self-obsessed, has something akin to an eating disorder and thinks about nothing more than when he’s next going to have sex.  I found him a total bore. 

He is currently going through divorce proceedings with his soon to be ex-wife Rachel.

One morning Rachel leaves their two kids with him (Hannah 11 – spoilt brat and Solly younger and much sweeter) and goes off to a yoga retreat but fails to return to collect them at the appointed time. 

She doesn’t come back, and Toby is unable to make contact.

I couldn’t quite figure out what this part of the story was meant to convey – that Rachel was a bitch? That Rachel was mad?

The narration I also found totally confusing.  The novel is narrated by Libby – an old friend of Toby’s. But this didn’t become clear to me for quite some time.  It seemed to start in the third person and then be narrated by an unknown voice.  Not sure where I missed the note!  Perhaps I just wasn’t concentrating.  This book requires concentration at times.

The second half of the novel was where I began to tune in and enjoy it.  The author turns marriage on its head, and everything we think we know turns out to be wrong.  There’s much more to Rachel than we were led to believe.  

Libby wakes up and sees Toby for what he is – narcissistic and needy.

I think the point the author is making is that we stereotype genders, professions and even people, when there’s usually a lot more going on than meets the eye.

There’s no doubt the author is full of razor-sharp wit, insightful asides, and interesting view points on many subjects.  It was all just a bit too confusing for me.

I think the nub of it was that I didn’t care two hoots about either Toby or Rachel, and if you don’t get invested in the characters there’s not much point really.

However, I do know I am in the minority regarding this book, as it seems to have many adoring fans.

Let me know what you think!

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I adore novels with a strong sense of place and ‘Small Pleasures’ certainly fit the bill. Set in 1957 in the suburbs of London, Jean Swinney works as a feature writer at local newspaper, ‘The North Kent Echo.’  She lives with her elderly ailing mother and from the start it’s clear that Jean’s life is one of domesticity, boredom, and responsibility.  She enjoys the ‘small pleasures’ of a sherry now and then, a few cigarettes while lying on the lawn, or a day trip away from the suffocating atmosphere in which she resides.

With the arrival of a new story to investigate, Jean’s life suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. A young Swiss woman called Gretchen Tilbury contacts the paper to say that her daughter Margaret is the result of a virgin birth.   When Jean investigates the story, she gets more than she bargained for.  She begins a friendship with Gretchen, Howard and Margaret that will lead to unusual and devastating consequences.

This novel had me hooked from the start.  Written in the third person, the narrative is perfectly paced, and after just a few pages I felt Jean was someone I would certainly go for a drink with. I sympathized immediately with the situation she was stuck in with her cantankerous mother.  Every aspect of Jean’s life is beautifully detailed, with the small details such as a dinner of ‘liver and onions, and tinned pears with evaporated milk for pudding’ creating a vivid picture of life in 1950s London.

Jean’s relationship with the Tilbury family develops slowly and yet I was immediately drawn in to the impact the small gestures of kindness shown to Jean by the family had on her.  The warmth between Gretchen and her daughter Margaret serves to highlight the lack of affection Jean has had in her own life, and makes you feel for her all the more.

I loved the character of Jean.  I thought despite her circumstances she was – as they probably would have said in those days – a plucky ol bird!  She may be somewhat naïve but paradoxically I think she is also switched on in many ways and knows there is something more to this story from the start.

Her friendship with Howard is extraordinarily moving and would bring a tear to a glass eye!

I loved the characterization, the sense of place and the gradual unfolding of the narrative – all exquisitely timed and oh so beautifully written.

There are only about 5 or 6 books that I own that I re-read for pleasure.  I will certainly be adding this one to the list.   A wonderful novel.    Delighted to see it getting all the coverage it deserves.