THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE by John Boyne

As a child, I was fascinated by the story of the Romanov family, and especially the mystery of whether Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, survived the firing squad that executed her parents and siblings. This book reminded me that, as an adult, I remain just as susceptible to the same fairy tale like intrigue that used to captivate me.

As with so many of Boyne’s novels, THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE takes historical events as the framework for a fictional account, in this instance of a love affair between Anastasia and Georgy, one of her father’s soldiers, plucked out of Kashin, “a dark, miserable, fetid, unhealthy, squalid, depressing wreck of a village” and transported to the Royal household. On his first night there he catches the eye of a young girl in the street, only later to learn who she is. The two begin a clandestine relationship and, when the family are taken to Ekaterinburg following the Tsar’s abdication, Georgy pursues his true love.

THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE moves between the present day, where Georgy has recently retired as a librarian at the British Library in London and is caring for his wife Zoya, dying of cancer, and his ever more distant memories – of Anastasia, of the aftermath of the political turmoil that wracked his homeland and the events that forced him to flee Russia. Despite Boyne being hugely sympathetic to the Romanov family and barely paying lip service to the misery and hardship for which they were responsible, he has written a moving and enduring story. One that takes in much of the 20th century and much of the human condition, from love to loneliness. In fact I defy anyone not to get caught up in the romance and sadness of the tale he has spun. It’s pure escapism and a joy to read.

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SWING TIME by Zadie Smith

Wow – this is Smith back on form and with a novel that’s apparently superficial plot about a young woman working for a Madonna inspired superstar belies its dark heart and complex sub narratives.

It opens with the unnamed narrator hiding out from the press in an upmarket London apartment block. Then it takes us on a journey of discovery about what she has done to end up there. Moving back and forth in time, we explore her childhood on a London estate, raised by a black mother, an ambitious community activist determined to chase an education for them both, and a white father, who turns his back on promotion to go back to working as a postman.

As an adult she has difficult relationships with both parents, caught up as she is in a transient life that spans every continent. They simultaneously make her feel guilty and proud, with encounters prompting both memories and soul searching about the accuracy and meaning of those memories. From a childhood with strong roots and connections she moves into an adult lifestyle where being off line for 72 hours is “among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times”.  Despite her apparent success at escaping the estate where she grew up, the replacement is not as glittering and glamorous as it appears and the lack of real connections with people and places dogs our narrator. She feels she has spent her life attaching herself to the light of other people – first Tracey her childhood friend and dance prodigy, later Aimee, singer, dancer, tyrant, benefactor, adoptive mother and one of a category of people “of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.”

The layers beneath this story of a girl making something of her life are remarkable. Smith isn’t afraid to tackle big topics here – with a lightness and subtlety that means I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to check I had them right. Most notable is when the narrator discovers Tracey is being abused, a realisation they both treat as “absolutely true and obviously untrue”, prompting the observation “perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these”. The idea of children being a mix of knowing and innocence is something Smith comes back to again and again, including in the shape of a universal “girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

She cleverly picks apart notions of success and happiness, and also delivers wonderfully astute and social commentary. In common with Smith’s other novels, she mocks all her characters and the prejudices, assumptions and inconsistencies with which they go forth into and shape their worlds. So for example, the other mothers disapprove of Tracey’s mother finding a job and neglecting her children almost as much as they were critical of her being a lazy and unemployed. Everyone is trying to better themselves, to escape, to change, and yet, Smith forces us to ask, what exactly does better mean? This is starkly brought home by the contrast between what Aimee’s body guard sees when the entire entourage travel to Gambia to help build a school and what our narrotor sees:  “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty…” And do we measure our own success objectively or always in relation to someone else’s?

SWINGTIME has a soundtrack to die for and language that sings. It has characters that seem familiar and at the same time intriguing. It has a story that flies of the page and says important things about race, about class and about gender. Pretty much all I could want from a novel, really.

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HE SAID/SHE SAID by Erin Kelly

he said she said by erin kelly

Laura and Kit witness a rape whilst at an eclipse festival in Cornwall.They call the police and are called as witnesses in support of the survivor, Beth Taylor. So begins a nightmare that sees their lives turned upside down and their trust in one another destroyed.

Kelly deploys the classic unreliable narrator technique to great effect here and I never really knew who was being honest or accurate. She steadily reveals crucial details and doesn’t give too much away until right at the close. It’s a very atmospheric novel too, with a growing and claustrophobic sense of the past closing in on the present, and an ever present undercurrent of latent violence. Laura’s pregnancy and high levels of anxiousness, coupled with Kit’s obsession with chasing eclipses moments all add to the mood.

Clever, never cliched and deeply compelling, this is Broadchurch in book form (and in fact she has written a best selling novel inspired by that TV series). Perfect for the beach and whiling away sunny days.

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A COMPLICATED KINDNESS by Miriam Toews

a complicated kindness by miriam toews

Sixteen year old Nomi is about to leave school and “already anticipating failure”. Her favourite quote is “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge” and she wonders if it’s possible to donate her body to science before she’s actually dead.

She lives with her father, Ray, in a small Mennonite town called East Village. Her mother, Trudie, and older sister, Tash, left town a while back. One day Nomi finds her mum’s passport and wishes she hadn’t – the “Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful” story she has told herself involves Trudie travelling the world, having adventures.

Growing up Tash and Nomi are allowed to “listen to the names of dead people being read out in a terrifying monotone” but not “the Beatles singing all we need is love”. Ray spends a lot of time at the local dump “where he could organize abandoned dreams and wrecked things into families, in a way, that stayed together.” He and his daughter communicate mostly by writing notes to one another. He is “stuck in the middle of a story with no good ending”. She is smart, rebellious and will never leave him behind. The complicated kindness that gives the book its name might set them both free but will it make them happier?

This came highly recommended so I was looking forward to reading it. It’s a sweet, simple, poignant and funny coming of age novel  and Toews has won various awards – presumably in large part because the way she’s depicted life in East Village is incredibly authentic. But truth be known I was rather disappointed. Despite all that’s going for it, A COMPLICATED KINDNESS left me feeling something was missing or lacking. There was so much potential and yet it didn’t really go anywhere other than the kind of dead end that’s East Village. Perhaps that was Toew’s intention, I don’t know, but whilst I wanted to finish her book, much like Nomi I was also very much looking forward to being out of there.

 

 

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THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, THE SILKWORM & CAREER OF EVIL by Robert Galbraith

There’s nothing like a trilogy of crime novels to kick off the summer holidays and make lying on a beach in 30 degree heat even more appealing. When that trilogy features a broke, troubled and cantankerous army-veteran-turned-private-detective named Cormoran Strike, and is penned by JK Rowling writing under a pseudonym, things cannot get much better.

Each book deals with a different distinct case, giving Rowling the chance to employ her prodigious story telling skills and plenty of opportunity to skilfully and gradually develop her main characters. THE CUCKOO’S CALLING revolves around the suicide of a troubled but glamorous young model. THE SILKWORM is set in the literary world and soon sees a missing husband turn up as a the victim of a particularly grisly murder. CAREER OF EVIL is easily the darkest of the three, featuring as it does a serial killer obsessed with severing body parts.

Starring in them all is also Robin Ellacott, originally hired as a secretary and soon taking on the role of Strike’s side kick. Her relationship with him and with her jealous fiancee brings a lovely warm human element to the books, offsetting what is otherwise some quite grim content. Rowling has done herself proud in every way though and I devoured the whole series, loved Strike and was cheering for Robin from page one. Perfect holiday reads.

If you don’t fancy the books, the BBC has made THE CUCKOO CALLING into a TV series, starting August 26th and starring Tom Burke from The Three Musketeers and Holliday Grainger (random fact – she was in the same dance classes as my daughter when they were both small children!). I’ll be tuning in…..

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DEATH OF A SHE DEVIL by Fay Weldon

Ruth Patchett is back. She’s 84 and living in the High Tower, one time love nest of her rival Mary Fisher who now haunts the tower. A senile Bobbo (whom Ruth plotted to send to prison in THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL) is ensconced in the uppermost Lantern Room and the rest of the tower complex is home to the staff and supporters of IGP, the Institute for Gender Parity, set up when Ruth realised the opportunities for pretty and plain girls would never be the same so decided to focus on goals such as closing the pay gap instead.

One of the residents is Valerie Valeria, young, ambitious and an altogether different kind of feminist from Ruth.Valerie’s plans for IGP include glossy catalogues, a bullet proof Mercedes and much spectacle and expense reuniting Ruth with her estranged children and a surprise grandson, Tyler.

This isn’t nearly as good as THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL, which I remember devouring when I first discovered it, but Weldon has written another funny and smart reflection on gender politics and how it affects our every day lives. Especially interesting is how she integrates new debates about gender and sexual identity – albeit not as thoroughly or as deeply as they deserve. Valerie persuades Ruth’s grandson Tyler to transition, a story line which affords plenty of opportunities to reflect on the impact of testosterone and oestrogen, but leads the she devil to some rather suspect conclusions. Other characters  touch on the way feminism has evolved and the differences between various struggles for equality. Weldon’s satire is genuinely non discriminatory and she directs it with equal savagery at all, and especially at those who seek to use feminism to pursue their own goals. As one of the older women in the tower, Dr Simmins, remark at one point: “So whatever changed, except perhaps, these days, gender? There were nice people and nasty people and some of them were M and some of them were F: and a whole lot in between.” Despite these themes, Weldon’s wit and story telling powers mean there’s nothing worthy or overly earnest about what is a gutsy, gleeful if somewhat less radical novel than is predecessor, and one that builds beautifully to the most fitting of deaths for the ultimate she devil.

 

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THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES by Kate Tempest

Harry is a high end drug dealer, in partnership with her lifelong friend and back-watcher Leon. One night she meets and falls for Becky, a dancer, who also waits tables in the family cafe and gives massages to strangers in hotel rooms. She notices Pete in the family cafe because he’s reading a book written by Becky’s estranged father. The two get talking then get together. Pete is Harry’s half brother but none of them realise the connection until Harry throws a surprise party for Pete. A surprise party at which Harry also discovers she knows Becky’s drug dealing uncles – and not in a good way.

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES explodes into being as Leon, Harry and Becky are fleeing London with a suitcase full of money. The opening prose is pure poetry  and it only gets better and better. This book is gritty, funny, sexy and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Tempest has created characters that are so real it hurts sometimes. They are linked not just by the story she’s woven but by being variously abandoned and ambitious, and the bricks of their lives, from childhood upwards, are carefully laid and cemented together, generation on generation.

Tempest has captured London too, “cocksure, alert to danger, charming”, in particular parts of my south east corner where “The road is strewn with picked clean rib bones, and the faint smell of boozy piss mixes with the sweet rot of skunk smoke.” But she’s been clever enough not to let the city take centre stage, with a story and a pace that’s irrepressible.

A book about the bass line, THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES thrums with truth, from lines like “People are killing for Gods again. Money is killing us all.” to the way Tempest steadily unpicks the relationship women have with their bodies and their sexuality. It’s a book with purpose but never feels worthy. A book that’s incredibly daring but never tries too hard.

Tempest is a poet, a rapper and spoken word performer. She gives us phrases like “Harry’s voice is a broken window, letting the rain in.” and “She swallowed her doubt, but the hook stuck in the flesh of her mouth, pulling her upwards, away from him.” At times the words on the page feel like song lyrics, so I wasn’t surprised to learn after reading it that THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES is a companion piece to her Mercury Music Prize shortlisted debut album EVERYBODY DOWN.  It certainly made me sing. It made me want to fling open windows too and read passages to passers by, at the same time as wanting to hunker down and greedily savour every word in the peace of my own company.  Extraordinary.

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