Book review: ‘Clever Girl’ by Tessa Hadley

Clever GirlSometimes a character reveals her layers slowly, showing the tiniest glimpse of soul spread thin over many pages. A novel builds and builds, progressing to an explosive end, and we hurry toward it — unable to pause before we know the illustrious End.

Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl fits the first description, certainly, but this is the sort of novel — definitely literary fiction — that enfolds you gradually. There is no dynamic pay-off, no shocking reveal or plot twist. It’s quiet, enveloping, sharply-focused and beautifully written. As with The London Train, Hadley draws us deeply into the lives of her characters — and though we may not love these people or feel endeared to them, exactly, they are alive and memorable and real to us.

Stella was real to me.

From the beginning of Clever Girl to its satisfying end, we span half a century of our narrator’s life. Stella morphs from a young girl preparing to share her single mother with a new husband to an impetuous, lonely teen mother and, later, a middle-aged woman wondering where everything got so twisty. The story opens in 1960s England and progresses almost to present-day — a transition that could have felt clunky and odd in the hands of a less skilled author, but believe me: Hadley is more than up for the task.

What kept me so captivated by Stella, her sons and the strange layers of their lives was absolutely Hadley’s writing. Gripping, detailed and so focused that sometimes it took my breath away, this is not the sort of story you tear through at breakneck speed — or skim halfheartedly with “Survivor” on in the background. To look away from the text for even a moment is to miss some gorgeous, transient moment; and as Stella’s story is revealed slowly in careful insertions throughout the text, it has a very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feel. I loved that.

An older, wiser, more chastened Stella is obviously recalling the details of her youth — and we know things about the fate of characters long before the action is revealed. In that way, Stella functions as our omniscient narrator; even in the brilliant moments, we know darkness is coming. That effect left me both curious and unsettled, and I often hurried through passages so I could finally uncover the fate of these poor people.

And poor they were. Not financially, maybe, but definitely in spirit. Valentine, Stella’s irreverent boyfriend, is a fascinating character; I didn’t guess his secret for a while, but then it was impossible to ignore. He was the typical “bad boy” arriving to both fascinate and horrify Stella and Madeleine, her best friend, and you couldn’t help but wonder what was hiding beneath that sheath of dark and dirty hair. All in good time.

While I didn’t love Stella, I respected her — and everything she’d gone through. She makes some questionable choices, yes, but it wasn’t hard to separate those calls from the overarching hippie-commune-love-fest of the 1960s and ’70s. In time, she grows into a respectable person and mother — even if she seems to need rescuing from various men to finally pull herself together.

If you love literary fiction and character studies, Clever Girl is a fantastic novel that provokes questions of love and purpose through life’s dips and turns. But if you’re a reader who leans more heavily into action-packed plots or prefer a faster pace, I could see Hadley’s novel leaving you a bit cold. For me? Well, I loved it, just as I loved The London Train.

Hadley is a truly gifted author. Honestly, I’m in awe of her skill — and will look forward to reading more of her work.

4 out of 5!

Pub: March 4, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Sleeping Arrangements’ by Madeleine Wickham

It’s official: I’m severing all ties with Madeleine Wickham. After reading a few of her books and consequently wanting to shove most of them into a mud pit, hopefully to be swallowed whole, I’m placing her on Meg’s Banned List until I’m somehow convinced to give her a second chance.

And I can be rather stubborn about these things.

So here we have Sleeping Arrangements, a tawdry and droning little book centering on two families thrust together unexpectedly on holiday in Spain. Chloe is desperate to get away with her long-time partner, Philip, and their two sons. When an opportunity to stay at an old friend’s villa pops into their laps, Chloe eagerly accepts an invitation to get away for a much-needed break.

But when they arrive, she’s shocked to find another family already soaking up some rays on the property — and it just so happens she has quite the history with Hugh, a charismatic businessman who broke her heart more than a decade before. Hugh has his hands full with two young daughters and his wife, Amanda, a snotty and self-indulgent trophy wife who seems to be nothing more than a status symbol. And then the real fun begins.

I borrowed a copy of Sleeping Arrangements on audio from the library and listened to the whole novel quickly, though I can’t say it was with much enjoyment. These characters are annoying, spoiled and pretty insufferable. I felt zero empathy for Chloe or Hugh, both of whom acted like petulant children for most of the narrative. Philip was an affable dullard and Amanda a total twit, so that left me with . . . who? Jenna, the rebellious Australian nanny brought along to care for Amanda and Hugh’s squealing daughters? Sam, the teenage boy obsessed with what’s hidden beneath Jenna’s bikini? Gerard, the over-the-top snobby wine critic who masterminds this whole “mix-up”?

Eh. The whole novel just left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s all so faux angsty and ridiculous, and I couldn’t muster up an ounce of enthusiasm for this unhappy British lot. If I’d had my nose in a paperback or — shudder — a hardcover, I would have surely tossed it aside after just a few chapters. But since it was on loan and on audio, I stuck it out.

But would I recommend it? Only if you like your chick lit with a healthy dash of unpleasant, ridiculous characters and unfeasible situations. And I don’t think you do.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312943970 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audiobook borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘The London Train’ by Tessa Hadley

Paul should be happy. His life is filled with warm days in Wales, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. Though he hasn’t written much in years, the possibility exists that he could again — someday. Sometime. The idyllic country life is a far cry from his upbringing in England, and he likes it that way. It makes me feel . . . at peace, perhaps.

But a call reporting his mother’s death, though not unexpected, sends him writhing from his cocoon. And it’s not long before he receives more news — this time about his eldest daughter, Pia, born during his first marriage. She’s gone missing, her mother says; she hasn’t sent word of where she’s gone, just disappeared into the ether of London. And Paul — her distant, unavailable father — should recover her.

In the second half of Tessa Hadley’s The London Train, we meet Cora — a solitary librarian to Cardiff, Wales, newly separated from her husband and struggling to repair the crumbling facade of her childhood home. After escaping London and her life with Robert, a serious public official, Cora throws herself completely into the aging house. And just as she’s come to grips with her new world, something comes along to change it all over again.

A novel in two parts, we’re not told if or how these people know one another. We’re presented the facts — unchangeable; serene — by an omniscient narrator, someone who puts Paul and Cora’s defects and stunning qualities equally on display. We know Paul is not a capable man; we realize he’s not always a likeable man. But, despite everything, he’s trying. We think he’s trying.

Hadley’s novel has the unique distinction of being both high-brow and accessible. It’s not written with flowery, over-the-top language, but it’s not colloquial or dull, either. Hadley has a way of introducing us to people that we don’t particularly sympathize with but still feel as though we understand. Upon completing The London Train, I can’t honestly say that any of these people could be my best friends . . . but I don’t need them to be. I can read about them and their difficult, messy lives, then move on.

Very introspective, this novel falls into the category where not much actually happens — but so much does. As the story unfurls and reveals more and more about Paul and Cora’s lives, particularly in the past, we’re painted an accurate glimpse of two very interior lives. The novel could have become dry — very, very easily — but, you know? It didn’t. It really didn’t. I started reading on a Friday evening and wound up finishing almost half before my body threatened to pummel me if I didn’t sleep. Hadley’s writing is mesmerizing.

Though it lacked the strong emotional ties I crave to really make a book a favorite, I can certainly see why The London Train was longlisted for the Orange Prize and is generating buzz. The story’s strength, like all good books, lies with the characters. For good or for ill, these were people I really got to know. Without much difficulty, I could probably sketch you a list of their likes and dislikes, pains and triumphs. They’re people who will stay with me, especially Paul. It brings chance encounters to new, romantic and heartbreaking heights.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062011839 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ by Helen Simonson

In Edgecombe St. Mary, England, Major Ernest Pettigrew lives a quiet life surrounded by books, friends and hunting companions. A widower, the Major has filled the world he once shared with Nancy, his beloved wife, with the words of Rudyard Kipling and other classic authors. He’s managed to form a peaceful existence apart from his grown son, Roger — a man who spends more time worrying about careers than tending his relationship with his kind, outgoing American girlfriend.

And then steps in Mrs. Ali.

In the wake of his brother’s death, the Major has floundered with simultaneous feelings of grief, remorse and anger over a gun in Bertie’s possession. Left to the boys by their dying father, the twin guns were intended to be a set — but Ernest, entitled to both as the eldest son, found one of the two given to his younger brother. Bertie’s widow doesn’t have immediate plans to reunite the guns, it seems, and would rather see them sold for a healthy sum than given to the Major. And he won’t stand for it — though it’s not about the guns, he thinks. It’s about more. It’s about a lifetime.

It’s under this tidal wave of feeling that Mrs. Ali waltzes into Major Pettigrew’s life, her presence a soothing balm akin to a mother’s touch. The widowed owner of a local shop, Jasmina Ali — a Pakistani woman who has spent her life in England — rejoices in the work of Kipling as much as the Major, and their unlikely friendship begins to progress over shared cups of tea, leisurely book discussions and rides into town.

Too bad Edgecombe St. Mary doesn’t seem to progress with it.

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, my second read for the literary fiction category of the Indie Lit Awards, is a quiet novel centering around family, expectation, grief, friendship and late-blossoming love. While the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali is certainly a central tenet of the plot, the novel seems to vibrate more with stories of loss, duty and expectation than joyful displays of love.

What I enjoyed the most about Simonson’s novel, described as a “comedy of manners” by some, is its distinctly British flare. While Roger dates an American, Sandy, the differences between she and her new British neighbors and boyfriend are very pronounced. The characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand pay careful attention to the differences between residents, not the similarities; a distinct sense of “otherness” plays a large role in the book. Frank Ferguson, an American with Scottish roots and a title to his name, is made to feel like he’ll never be completely accepted in British circles — unless he brings his checkbook; Mrs. Ali’s nephew, Abdul Wahid, is too young, grouchy and Pakistani to be accepted in the village — or as a business owner. But they all wish it could be different.

It’s hard not to fall in love with the Major. He’s polite to a fault; poetic at heart; loyal and true to those closest to him. With a flighty, self-absorbed son like Roger — a man I wanted to punch in the face until the closing pages of the book — the Major certainly has had his hands full. And it’s for that reason that I wanted only the best for him . . . and so, of course, hoped he would find love with Mrs. Ali. No matter what anyone else had to say about it.

Major Pettigrew tackles many Big Issues like racism, the destruction and building-up of the English countryside (always a hot button issue), family dynamics, aging and religion, but it manages to do so in a way that didn’t make me feel like I was reading a sermon or political pamphlet. Simonson doesn’t seem to have an agenda — unless it’s one of tolerance, the overarching message I felt here.

Did I fall as in love with this novel as many other readers have? No. I’ll be honest: at many points, I found it slow. Over the course of a week’s worth of reading, I often found myself having to backtrack to pick the story up again. Many characters came and go at random, and many of the village residents were interchangeable to me. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Major Pettigrew; I did. I just felt bogged down at points, lost in a maze of people and issues that were hard for me to sort through. And sometimes, I found it boring.

Still, for readers who enjoy British fiction and novels of manners, Simonson’s book might be a worthwhile companion for a Sunday afternoon — and is one I would recommend. Though I snorted aloud at some of the Major’s sarcastic comments, I didn’t find this book to be “funny” by any stretch . . . seek it out for a thoughtful, memorable and contemporary look at love, aging and family.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0812981227 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Cover The Butter’ by Carrie Kabak

When first we meet Kate Fanshaw, she’s a woman with one broken spirit. Back from a weekend trip with her aloof and inconsiderate husband, Rodney, she finds her lovely English home in a shambles — and all at the hands of her teenage son, Charlie. Bottles are strewn about; urine puddles on the floor. And after a disastrous weekend spent trying to “reconnect” with her boorish husband, Kate has definitely had it.

We know where she is now.

Just not how she got there.

Carrie Kabak’s Cover The Butter, first published in 2005, is the story of one woman’s coming-of-age: the twists, turns and broken relationships that brought her to that wrecked kitchen in what was once her marital home. We’re introduced to her controlling and manipulative mother, Biddy; her mousy but attentive father, Tom; her Scottish grandparents, the true heroes of this story, Mamgu and Griff; and Kate’s best friends from school, Moira and Ingrid. We travel back in time to when Kate was a teen herself, standing complacently as Biddy ordered her about. Trying to please her mother. Trying to get her mother’s attention.

Kabak’s novel is, first and foremost, an exploration of motherhood — and what it means to be a mother and a daughter. And Biddy? Well, she isn’t a very good one. The entire length of the book, Biddy dangles her approval over Kate’s head like a balloon: visible but always out of reach. Unattainable. It’s not until she meets Rodney — dependable, boring, from-good-stock Rodney — that Biddy finally begins to show her only child some approval. And Kate craves it like a drug.

I started Cover The Butter over the weekend and devoured it quickly, soaking up as many passages at a time as I could. Highly readable and with excellent voice and flow, Kabak’s writing was engaging, entertaining and unique. Told entirely from Kate’s perspective, I really felt like I got to know our heroine — and could relate to her struggles to please everyone in the world but herself. When her mother dismisses her dreams of baking and canning preserves, she banishes them, too. When Rodney tells her he’d prefer her to stay home with the baby, building her life up within the home, she does.

On the surface, it seems as though Kate allows her parents, friends and boyfriends to control her — and as we make our way through the decades of her life, that definitely seems to be the case. It’s not until she finally gives herself permission to displease her parents and live for herself that she’s free. And it takes many years to get there, yes, but get there she does. I’ve read reviews expressing frustration and total annoyance at Kate’s door-mat-ness, and I understand where readers are coming from — but for me? It was all very true to character. After a lifetime of being molded by her mother’s talons, Kate wasn’t going to suddenly kick off her shackles and tell them all to get bent. What child doesn’t search for love and affection from a parent? And hurt when they don’t receive it?

The book’s strength, for me, came from Kate herself. It was fascinating to read about a woman’s entire life — or, well, the life she’s lived to date. Sprinkled with plenty of humor and anecdotes, Cover The Butter had a serious side, too, and dealt with plenty of growing-up issues. But for as dense as that sounds, the story flew by in Kabak’s capable hands. By the time I’d reached the story’s denouement, I was shocked. Over so soon?

Fans of women’s fiction and/or British fiction might find this a warm, interesting and entertaining read that hasn’t garnered much attention. And if you head into the novel knowing Kate lives most of her life on someone else’s timeframe, you’ll appreciate her a little better. And hopefully cheer a little louder when she’s finally released from those bonds.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451218353 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The News Where You Are’ by Catherine O’Flynn

Someone hands you a slim paperback with a nondescript blue cover. “This book is about aging, death, and transcendentalism — where do we belong? What are we doing here? Are we making an impact?” they begin. “It’s also about grief and loss, and how that can affect a person deeply. And about family — the people we love who don’t always love us back. Not in the right way, at least.

“It’s about making a mark on the world and looking beyond the here-and-now. It’s about what matters. It’s somber, melancholy and reflective. Not necessarily uplifting. So . . . want to give it a read?”

If that had been how I’d come to possess Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, let me tell you — I would never have reached for a copy. As a general rule, I try to stay away from novels dealing with grief and loss; there’s enough sadness in the world without me having to read about it in my off hours. (You know, I work at a newspaper. Death is par for the course.) I like my reading upbeat and philosophical, but I can tolerate somberness from time to time . . . as long as it serves a purpose.

Books that are depressing just for the sake of “art” — for the sake of being depressing? You know, not so much. I have enough on my mind.

But let me tell you, friends: if I hadn’t cracked open the spine of O’Flynn’s stunning book, it would have been a terrible misfortune. It took me months to finally settle into the nooks and crannies of this engrossing story, but once I did? There was no letting go.

Frank Allcroft is a middle-aged television reporter for Heart Of England Reports, a British news program. Content with life alongside his loving wife, Andrea, and their young daughter Mo, Frank enjoys his work but can’t shake an endless nagging at the back of his head: the guilt he feels over his mother, Maureen, depressed and living in a senior facility. Frank’s father, a renowned architect, constructed many buildings in Birmingham prior to his death — but slowly, one by one, the city is now tearing them down.

Left only with a bitterly unhappy mom and sinking beneath the weight of his father’s long-past inattention, Frank develops a morbid obsession with the subjects of many of his news items: locals who died alone, only to be discovered days — or weeks — after their passing by the odd passerby. Saddened that anyone should reach the end of life in solitary confinement, Frank makes it his mission to attend the funerals of these people — a pastime that bothers Andrea.

It’s one such death that hits him more deeply than most: that of Michael Church, a man he immediately recognizes in a photo because of his large, piercing blue eyes. He turns out to be the childhood friend of Phil Smethway, legendary local TV personality and Frank’s predecessor on Heart Of England Reports. Phil died mysteriously — and not that recently. A victim of a hit-and-run. Michael was found dead, cold and alone on a park bench. And Frank is beginning to wonder if there may somehow be a connection.

Though it took me about twenty pages to get hooked on The News Where You Are, I had a tough time setting the book down after that. Frank was a lovable hero: serious, but not dryly so; a man who took his obligations seriously and dearly loved his family; a good friend, employee, husband and father. Centering around Frank and his attempts to unravel the life (and death) of Phil and his father, he’s someone who immediately endeared himself to me. Prone to melancholy but desperately trying to fight it — and I could relate to that.

The novel’s strength really comes from its dark humor — O’Flynn’s ability to create comical characters like Cyril, a barely-working writer who supplies Frank with his famously corny on-air “jokes” (he pays a pound or two for each), and Walter, a fellow resident at Frank’s mother’s retirement home who won’t let Maureen’s bad moods dissuade him from befriending her. Sprinkled in is that trademark British sense of humor, which perfectly balances out the somber subject matter. A few one-liners actually had me giggling.

More than anything, though, I’m walking away from this one with a greater understanding of what it means for something to be permanent — and what we leave behind as our legacy. Frank is obsessed with the fact that his father’s Birmingham is being torn down and replaced by “modern” buildings. Talking about Michael Church, Frank says:

. . . When you go back and scratch at the surface you find the people who knew him and who he’d meant something to or who he impacted in some way. He left traces. Then at the other extreme there are people like my father who leave behind this very tangible, physical legacy. Concrete proof that he existed, but if all his buildings went, what traces of him would remain?

O’Flynn’s insights into life and death were thought-provoking and very affecting, and I may or may not have been the woman sitting in Panera crying into her tomato soup right before I finished the novel.

I could go on and on about this one, but I’ll wrap it up: a moving, memorable novel about family, friendship and what we leave behind. Read it for the lyrical writing and unexpected levity; finish it for the mystery and complex, realistic and endearing characters.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402241429 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

Book review: ‘Dating Mr. December’ by Phillipa Ashley

Emma Tremayne arrives in Bannerdale, a quaint town in the English countryside, after a disastrous break-up — and has plenty of her own baggage from the exchange. But ever the consummate PR professional, Emma accepts a new job and finds a daunting task ahead of her: helping the Bannerdale Mountain Rescue team raise much-needed funds.

The answer is something that has worked before, Emma claims: a calendar featuring the hunky men of the squad — in the buff. But not all members are ready to drop trou for the “greater good,” and especially not Will Tennant, a local entrepreneur and businessman. Citing that the exercise is degrading and will surely make the team a laughingstock, Will does his best to unhinge Emma’s plans.

Until he begins to realize how completely dedicated to her work Emma is, which impresses him. And how lovely she is when she’s begging to be taken seriously. And how attractive her figure is when she’s wearing a skirt, or muddy boots, or jeans . . .

You see where I’m headed, friends. Phillipa Ashley’s Dating Mr. December is a classic nice-girl-meets-supposedly-bad-boy storyline, sprinkling in a few new details for flavor. Will is broody and difficult, but also devastatingly handsome and charismatic; Emma is serious and hurt — a bit timid from her recent heartbreak — but also wildly attracted to Will. It’s a recipe for . . . well, not disaster. But entertaining foibles, sure.

Going into the novel, I’ll admit I was expecting something a little more holiday themed. Will is “Mr. December,” the featured man for the calendar’s December, but the book doesn’t take place at Christmastime. Also? What Will and Emma are doing, for the vast majority of the book, couldn’t be called “dating.” It could be called fantasizing, building sexual tension, bantering and throwing longing looks, yes, but definitely not “dating.”

That nit-picky stuff aside, I enjoyed this story — a light romp through the British countryside with two people who met as strangers — or even adversaries — but found a way to work together . . . and even fall in love. Emma and Will’s conversations were fluid and fun, and Will’s unexpected romantic side was definitely swoon-worthy. Unlike some of the romance novels I’ve read recently, author Ashley wasn’t eager to just throw these two into bed; the plot built slowly but realistically, and I didn’t feel as though their feelings had been forced or manipulated.

There were times I was a little annoyed at some of the obvious tropes — like Emma constantly needing Will, a member of a rescue team, to rescue her — but I still enjoyed her character. Smarting from that betrayal, Emma was delicate and in need of some TLC. And fortunately for her, Will wasn’t the woman-using scoundrel the folks of Bannerdale made him out to be. I liked him, too.

Fans of romance will find this story charming and quick — and not lacking on the sexy scale. But don’t let the Santa hat on the cover fool you (and that’s not supposed to be Emma, is it? She’s a brunette) — it’s less about the holly-jolly and more about the misunderstandings between would-be romantic partners. But, you know — that’s fun, too.

And look for the TV adaptation of the story, “12 Men Of Christmas,” on Lifetime — it stars Kristen Chenoweth and Josh Hopkins of “Cougartown” fame. I’ll be tuning in this holiday season!

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402241429 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review