Reservoir 13

by Jon McGregor

I downloaded this book a while ago – in 2017 I suppose, when it was Costa Book of the Year and made it onto the Man Booker longlist.  I’m not sure what inspired me to go for this particular book.  It sat in my electronic library until a couple of days ago, when I was visiting my aunt who had a paperback copy in her bookcase.  I asked if I could borrow it, thinking it would be a good read for the Christmas holiday (it was).

The book was not quite what I expected.  The opening lines, the chapter structure (thirteen chapters), even the title, made me think that this was a mystery which would ultimately, if not pleasantly, be resolved.  I was wrong – but perhaps this is already a spoiler.  What you have here is a beautifully-drawn picture of a rural community in early 21st-century northern England.  The residents of “the village” – we are not told the community’s name – lead their normal lives.  They marry, get divorced, have children, work, play, sleep, get ill, die.  They have relationships of various kinds with their neighbours.  They observe, or don’t observe, the natural phenomena around them and the passing of the seasons – which the author describes in brief but stunning detail.  The event with which the book opens, is the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl, a visitor to the community.  She is last seen just before New Year’s Eve.  The whole village turns out to help hunt for her, but they fail to find her.

Each chapter records the occurrences in one of the thirteen succeeding years.  We learn of the lives of the different members of the village community, and how Becky Shaw’s disappearance affects them.  They reflect on it – sometimes – but mostly they go about their lives in the aftermath of the incident.  They are real people, living real lives.

This is an unusual, beautiful and reflective book.  It is one that will, I think, linger with me.


The Ballad of Peckham Rye

by Muriel Spark

This is only the second book I have read by Muriel Spark, the first being the rather lightweight The Abbess of Crewe.  Well, perhaps I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie when I was a teenager – I’m a bit hazy about that. This novel certainly has more about it than that did The Abbess.

The story: a young Scot named Dougal Douglas (alter ego: Douglas Dougal) moves to Peckham and takes a white-collar job in a factory.  He appears to have no relevant experience, other than an arts degree.  He is given the freedom to define his own role, which appears to be a mixture of what would today be called HR, process engineering and marketing.  He talks a lot about psychology, and wins over his management and the people he encounters with his apparent understanding of human nature.

The narrative develops through his encounters with his colleagues and the girls and men who work in the factory. He spends more time out and about than in his office.  We learn at the very start of the book that he has left Peckham, leaving a trail of human devastation behind him.  Douglas is not a likeable person – more than this, he is depicted, and perhaps believes himself to be, some kind of devil –  but the way he behaves and the behaviour of others towards him are beautifully observed and described with a black humour.

This book would encourage me to read more by Spark, whereas The Abbess of Crewe left me cold.

Home Fire

by Kamila Shamsie

Aneeka and Parvaiz are twins, raised by their sister since their mother died when the twins were only twelve.  The family lives in Wembley and is well-loved by members of the local, diverse community.

The story is split into section, each based primarily on the experience of one of the main characters, but with the whole still flowing as a story.  At the start, Isma is starting a new life as a PhD student at a Massachusetts college, having had her education interrupted during the years when she was caring for and financially supporting the twins, nine years her junior.  Life seems to be looking up when she meets and is immediately attracted to Eamonn, himself from London and half Pakistani.  We learn of Isma’s previous connection with Eamonn’s politician father.  The story of her own father begins to unfold, and at the same time the reader learns (though it is not spelled out) that Parvaiz has gone to Raqqa to fight with IS.

The story takes Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka and Karamat is turn as the primary actors, as it moves towards its inevitably tragic end.  The modern setting for this ancient story is littered with hashtags, Skype calls, text messaging – and yet this does not seem contrived but fits the action perfectly.  I feel that if I were to re-read this novel in twenty years’ time, whilst some of these things might appear old-fashioned, they would still fit the era (now) and place in which the the story is set.

Only on finishing the book did I read that it is based on the story of Antigone.  To my shame, I am largely unfamiliar with Ancient Greek myths and legends, so I read up on this one and I can clearly see the references in the inevitable and tragic fate of Parvaiz and Aneeka, but also in the names of the main characters.

This book gripped me from the start, and I read it in two days.  I had also enjoyed Shamsie’s earlier novel Burnt Shadows, but this most recent novel seemed more believable as a story, and perhaps less didactic than the earlier book.  It is one of those novels that you feel will give up even more in a second reading.  I hope so, since I may well recommend it for my book group.


by Margaret Atwood

Wow. I could have given this post the title “My favourite Canadian”, so entranced am I by Atwood’s writing. Not a word out of place, not a superfluous phrase.

This is the third book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, or – as in the case of Jacobson’s My Name is Shylock – attempted to read. I came to it through another book blog, on which various people claimed it was the best of he bunch (so far). So I determined to give it a try.


The story is that of The Tempest. This is not a play I know well, but the author helpfully summarises the plot at the end of the book. Even without this summary, you feel you know the story well by the time you finish this novel. Why? Well, at least in part because the story is played out twice, in some detail, in the course of the novel.

Felix’s own exile echoes that of Prospero with his (in Felix’s case dead and imagined) daughter Miranda. The friends who send him there are every bit as evil and scheming as Antonio and Alonso. Felix’s plan to trick them into submission relies on the present-day ‘magic’ of electronic technology. And aside from this, there is a play within the play, as Felix stages, in the prison, the production which allows him his revenge.

The plot is ingenious and yet somehow believable. Even Ariel and the goddesses have a role in the prison production that seems entirely right and, if contrived, then contrived by Felix and not by the story’s author.

Atwood’s writing just gets better and better. This is the best thing I’ve read in months: for plot, characterisation, language and sheer chutzpah.

I Saw a Man

by Owen Sheers

I know Owen Sheers as a contemporary Welsh poet.  I had not appreciated that he has also written a couple of novels, until I read a review of this book on the Bookertalk blog about a week ago.  So I picked out his book on my next visit to our local library in Bishops Cleeve.

I admit to being a little apprehensive; I have read novels by other poets* and found the language too ‘poetic’ and disruptive to the narrative flow.  The first few pages of this book were beginning to confirm my prejudices – but I quickly realised that any descriptive flourishes served the story and the characters, rather than the other way around.  It captured my imagination from the start.

The story unfolds gradually, as we get to know each of the three main characters (Michael, Josh and Samantha) and something of their ‘back story’.  In the case of Michael, his recent past defines him, as he grieves for his wife.  We learn about this death in the first few pages, but the details of her death unfold slowly, and it is not until another character, Daniel, is introduced – about a third of the way into the book – that we learn the circumstances of Caroline’s death.  Another event, another accident, no less cataclysmic in Michael’s life, takes place as the action of this story unfolds.  There is a huge build-up, with Michael at first innocuously and then questionably exploring his neighbours’ house.  The reader knows something is going to happen (and would know this, even if the book’s cover hadn’t warned us of an “event that changed all their lives”).  It does happen, but not until halfway through the novel.  The author keeps the reader in suspense as Michael enters each room of his neighbours’ house in turn.  Is there someone else in the house?  Will Michael be surprised by someone returning, or an intruder?  Is something going to happen to Michael?  What actually happens was a surprise to me.

That Sheers manages to keep the story together, and keep us interested in the characters, in the lead-up to this event as well as in its aftermath in the second half of the book, is a great credit to him as a writer.  I found myself wanting to keep reading, feeling the experiences of each of the main characters as they come to terms with their choices, their actions and the unpleasant and unexpected but to some extent ‘accidental’ consequences.

This book reminded me in many ways of Ian McEwan’s Saturday – but don’t let this put you off if you are not a McEwan fan.  It has made me want to go back and read that book again, to see how close the two stories and the author’s treatment of them really are.  I suspect that the similarities will be less obvious than my memory suggests.  I haven’t read other reviews (apart from the one mentioned at the start of this one) and so don’t know whether other readers have drawn the same parallel.

I Saw a Man was a satisfying read.  I will look out for more of Sheers’ writing – and take a closer look at his poetry too.


*In the Wolf’s Mouth and The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds fall into this trap, in my view

The Rector’s Daughter

by F M Mayor

This book was recommended to me by Pat Ranson, who had rediscovered it among the books she had kept since her youth (it has her maiden name written in the fly leaf) and highly recommended it.

I found the language somewhat hard-going to start with.  The novel was written in 1924 and it shows its age.  True, the author uses her characters’ language to help us understand them.  Kathy and her ‘set’ use the fashionable slang of the time, which comes across as disrespectful and at times shocking (she is free with expletives and mild swearwords). Mary’s father, the rector of the title, on the other hand, is very careful and proper with his language.  He speaks little with Mary, and is as undemonstrative as Kathy is open and engaging.

The book’s success lies in its well-developed, beautifully understood characters.  The unfulfilled love that Mary and Mr Herbert have for each other is desperately sad, but entirely believable, as each of them gets locked into a life that is not what they would have wished for.  In their own ways, each of them manages to live a fulfilling and fulfilled life; though it is with some relief that we see Mary die not long after her fortieth birthday, having seen and felt her trepidation at the prospect of living into her eighties, as her father did.

Even the minor characters, such as Kathy’s friends and Mary’s friend Dora and her family, are well-drawn and easy to imagine – and this is not because they are stereotypes.

I don’t think I would have persevered with this book if not from loyalty to Pat, who lent me the book.  But I am so glad that I did.  This book really moved me, and gave me a new insight into the power of fiction to help readers to better understand the range of human emotion, by showing a truthful glimpse into the lives of others.

[Footnote: Flora Macdonald Mayor was herself the daughter of a rector and scholar.  She was born in 1872.  She became engaged but her fiancé died, and she never married. She died aged 59.  Juliet Stevenson has read the novel for BBC Radio 4’s Neglected Classics season, but the recording is unavailable on the internet at the time of writing.]

3 October 2017

Having recommended this book for our book club, I needed to read it again and re-familiarise myself with it.  I’m not sure that I enjoyed it as much this time round.  I became increasingly frustrated with Mary, who seems incapable of letting go of her infatuation with Mr Herbert even after she has embraced her new spinsterly life.

What did ring true was the depiction of Mary’s grieving process after the death of her father.  And Mayor includes many delightful observations about human nature which are satisfying to read:

“It may be because shy people have suffered so much from being left out that they, above all others, make their guests feel at home.”

“To have the hand pressed in an overflow of enthusiasm for some one else is specially uncomplimentary.”

(describing Mrs Herbert) “If Kathy had probed her, Mrs Herbert would only have repeated it was a pity . The ladies of her generation were incapable of discussion . They were as inarticulate as the uneducated, though often almost erudite.”

“The English doctors got rid of patients to the Riviera, the Riviera doctors sent the poor shuttlecocks back to England.”

If I could sum up the impression this book leaves me with, it is: gently understanding, with humour and compassion.

Where my Heart Used to Beat

by Sebastian Faulks

I came to read this book by a slightly different route than usual.  Here’s how.  My son and daughter-in-law visited us just before Christmas, and were planning to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.  They asked me what gift I thought my aunt would like.  More specifically, if they bought her a book, which one.  David suggested Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings.  Well, I had enjoyed this book (though it was a bit of a slog, in parts), but I wasn’t convinced that Wendy would like it.  I had just read something, while browsing a website, about Sebastian Faulks’ latest novel.  I thought it sounded interesting, and suggested that title to David and Debbie.

Wendy often leaves some of her gifts with us, to deliver to her when we next visit her by car.  That way, she doesn’t have to carry heavy items – especially books – on the coach.  Since she seemed inclined to leave this book, I asked if I might read it before returning it to her, and she agreed.  Just two weeks before our next scheduled visit to Wendy, I deemed the time right to start reading this book.


So there’s the background; what about the book?  I have to say that I relished every page.  Faulks is a skilled user of language, able to draw detailed and vivid settings and characters.  But I’m afraid that some of his books have left me cold.  In particular, I didn’t enjoy Human Traces – and so I was a little cautious when I realised that this book also explores the workings of the mind through the experience of a mid-twentieth-century psychiatrist (in fact, two such).  I need not have worried.  The narrative cleverly delivers the life story of Robert Hendricks in his own words, at the same time as his growing understanding of what his life has meant, the effect his relationships have had upon him, and the supreme importance of memory in all our lives.

Though other critics may complain that there are elements of the novel that don’t easily fit the narrative, I found few if any of these.  I found, instead, that I could get inside Hendricks’ head and understand life as he sees it.

Highly recommended.  Indeed, I believe I will recommend this book to my book group.  It offers plenty to talk about – and I don’t think we have read a book by this author yet.