The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

This is a lovely little book: a bittersweet romantic comedy that captivated me from the very first page.

A young woman, Laure, arrives home late at night, after dinner with friends. As she arrives at her apartment block somebody tries to snatch her handbag. She resists, but she is shoved against the door frame and her bag slips from her grasp.

She can’t get through the security door without her keys; she can’t call anyone because she relied on the mobile phone in her bag to remember their numbers; and she can’t get anywhere or do anything without the cash or cards in the purse in her handbag.

It was fortunate that the manager of the hotel across the road saw her very real distress and offered her a room and a bed for the night. Everything could be sorted out in the morning. Except it wouldn’t be that simple.

23129712The next day a bookseller, Laurent, sees the bag sitting on top of a rubbish bin. He recognises that it is a very good bag, not the kind of bag that would be casually discarded, and so he picks it up to hand in at the police station. But he found it wouldn’t be that easy. He was too early and would have to wait for an hour, and then there would be forms to complete and questions to be answered. Laurent couldn’t wait; he had a shop to open and so he left, intending to do something about the bag later.

In the end he decided that he would examine the contents of the bag and see of he could find the owner himself. Of course the purse, the keys and the phone were gone but there were things that could be helpful; a keyring with a hieroglyph, a dry-cleaners ticket, and a novel, personally signed to ‘Laure’ by the author.

And he found a red notebook, that the owner had used to scribble all sorts of notes. He felt rather guilty, reading something so personal, but he hoped that he might find a stronger clue to the identity of the bag, and the more he read the more he realised he really wanted to now her.

Laurent’s efforts to find Laure had results; he found her home, he met her cat, but Laure wasn’t there.

There are more twists in the tale – some predictable and some not – before it reaches exactly the right ending.

This is a story that screams ‘FILM ME!’ I can see it, I really can.

The setting, a lightly romanticised Paris – including a lovely, lovely bookshop – is lovely.

I liked the people. The two leads were nicely balanced, and they were well supported by a jealous girlfriend, an opinionated teenage daughter, a helpful colleague …. It’s a very well balanced cast.

There are lovely details: literary references – that I must confess I didn’t know well enough to know how significant they were; Laure had an interesting occupation; and she had a lovely cat who had a small but significant part to play.

The story is a little contrived, of course it is, but it works well and it does come from the characters; their actions and their emotions.

It works beautifully, as the most charming of entertainments.

I was engaged, and I cared, from start to finish.

Flight by Isabel Ashdown

‘Flight’ – Isabel Ashdown’s fourth novel – is an engaging and emotional story, exploring the ties – and the breaking of the ties – between three people. 

Wren, Rob and Laura.

Rob and Laura became the closest of friends when they  were young children. Wren become friends with both of them at university; they became a closely-knit, beautifully balanced threesome. That didn’t change when Wren and Rob became a couple, when they married, when they had a child. You might saw that they were their own chosen family.

That changed when Wren’s numbers came up in the first National Lottery draw. She told no one, she simply packed her bags, kissed her baby daughter goodbye, and walked away from her life.

FLIGHTIn time Rob and Laura would become a couple, and Laura would take the place of the mother Phoebe had never known.

Twenty years after Wren left Laura was approached by a reporter. He was working on a ‘where are they now’ story about the winners of the first lottery draw. She was already unsettled, because Rob had received a letter and was evasive about what it said and who it was from. And so, when she had a hint of where Wren was she decided it was time to find her , to understand why she had left, to somehow come to terms with what had happened.

There’s a certain level of contrivance in the plot, but no ore than is needed to make the story work. It works very well, because everything that I read felt so real and so possible. And because the characters and relationships were so very well drawn. That make it so easy to believe that I was reading about real people; ordinary people whose stories became significant in the wake of one momentous decision.

I had been concerned that I would struggle to care about the woman who made that decision, but I found that he did. It helped that she chose the life I might wish for in times of trouble – a small house on the Cornish coast, alone but for the company of dogs – and it helped even more that it was clear that, though she would not – or maybe could not – make amends, her life was constrained by the guilt at what she had done and the grief at what she had done.

It was quiet – she was quiet – but it was there.

The woman who had picked up the pieces was easy to like. She was loyal to all those she loved, she put herself out to do what was best for them, and because she was open and honest I found it easy to understand and share in her feelings. I realised that she had both lost and gained a great deal when she effectively stepped into the shoes of a missing wife and mother.

I appreciated that the story affected not only the main characters, but also a younger generation and an older generation. And most of all I appreciated the relationships and the interactions between the characters; they rang so true, with all of the awkwardnesses,  uncomfortable silences and unexpected turns that happen often in life and not quite so often in fiction.

The settings – a London suburb and the Cornish coast – were exactly right, and well chosen details helped to make the story sing. I particularly liked the understanding of the relationships between a woman and her dogs, and between those dogs and their beach ….

The narrative moves between character and through time quite naturally,  always moving the story forward, always holding the attention.

‘Flight’ is a an engaging and emotional human drama; a story to make you feel and a story to make you think.

Clay by Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison’s first novel weaves together a human story of four people whose lives are changed when their paths cross with the story of the seasons changing in a city centre park that those four people all love.

TC is 10 years-old, his dad has recently left, he has no real friends, and mother often forgets to give him lunch money or to have food in the house for other meals. And so he spends his time in the park, using the book about nature that his father had left behind – wrapped ready for his birthday – to track the animals that live there.

Sophia is a 78-year-old widow, living in a small flat on a rundown estate. Her daughter would like her to move but she doesn’t want to leave the park where she and her husband spent many happy hours, because they shared a love of nature. She sees TC from her window, and she likes to see his love for the park, but she is concerned that he is always alone and sad.

STL1338CLAY_316804k (1)Daisy, Sophia’s granddaughter, lived in a much nicer area and she went to a private school. She loved to visit her grandmother, who was much more easy going that her mother, and she has come to share her grandmother’s love for seeds and insects and all the small things in nature that so many others failed to notice.

Jozef, is a middle-aged Polish immigrant who works in house clearances by day and in a takeaway by night; observing the small park as he mourns the farm he lost because he couldn’t deal with new EU regulations. He realises that TC is alone outside for far too long and he sees signs that he is hungry, so he tactfully offers him food and tries to he his friend.

Time passes, seasons change and relationships shift as Melissa Harrison tells her story in lovely, lyrical prose.

The story is subtle and the writing is understated.

The juxtaposition of life in the park and life on the estate is striking, and the balance between the story of the human lives and the story of all that life in the park is very well judged.

She catches the teeming life in the park quite beautifully

“…. hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn cups like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate … “

She catches the human lives just as well. She is gentle with her characters; she understands them, and their relationships with each other, and their love of the park. The relationships between the generations are particularly well drawn. Sophia and her daughter try to understand each other, but their differences mean that they never quite meet. The friendship between Jozef and TC grows beautifully.

But there were gaps. I didn’t understand why Linda’s daughter suddenly decided that gardening would be her consuming passion. I didn’t understand what made TC’s mother so very neglectful. Questions like that bothered me.

And I saw rather too much of the workings of the plot. There were many moments when spotted something that I knew would be significant and I knew why it would be significant. I was right.

And yet when the consequences of all those things played out I found that I was involved with these people and their lives, and I was  moved by what happened.

Melissa Harrison has grown a little more as a nature writer than she has as a storyteller, and I think that with a just little more growing  she might just write something very, very special.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

I was intrigued by the scenario.

When she was eight years-old Peggy’s father told her that the situation he feared had come to pass. The world had ended and everyone was dead, except for the two of them. They were still there because he was a survivalist, because he been preparing for what had happened for years.

He took her away from their London home to live in die Hütte, a wooden cabin, deep in a remote forest somewhere on continental Europe.

He lied. The world hadn’t ended. Her mother wasn’t dead. The world continued to turn without them.

But they lived in the forest for nine years ….

25020744The story opens in 1985, when Peggy is seventeen years old, and has returned to her old London home, with her mother and the nine year-old brother she hadn’t been there to meet.

She is adapting to the change in her life, and the new knowledge that change has brought her.

She is thinking of the hot summer of 1976  when her father taught her survivalist skills  while her German mother, a celebrated concert pianist, was away on tour.

And she is thinking of those nine years, how they began, how they survived, how things changed, and how they ended.

Her voice is lovely; naïve, confiding and utterly compelling. I was captivated and because of that, and because her perspective was held so perfectly I didn’t worry about all those practical questions about what happened and about how ever it could have happened.

At first Peggy enjoyed the adventure, setting up a  new home, exploring the woodland all around, and finding a new and very different way of living.

Her descriptions were lovely and so very evocative. They drew me right into the story.

I was concerned, by the whole situation, and because as Peggy  described her father I realised that he was obsessive — and dangerously so

When winter came, and snow fell, Peggy and her father were trapped in  die Hütte. and food and water ran desperately short. I feared for them, and because I perceived him with adult understanding and Peggy’s understanding was still childish I found more reasons to be fearful.

Over the years Peggy learned and understood more. She began to question her father’s authority and judgement. And she began to realise that her father’s obsession was turning into madness.

That was why when she saw signs that they weren’t alone, that someone else had survived and was living in the forest, she said nothing to her father and set out alone to try to learn more …..

Claire Fuller has woven together elements of dystopian stories, elements of grown-up  fairy stories, elements of psychological studies, to create a first novel that is so very distinctive.

And there’s more than that.

This is a story underpinned by wonderful understanding of different relationships. First there is the relationship between a husband and wife who have grown apart but stayed together; then there is the relationship between father and daughter that evolves in the most extraordinary circumstances; and finally there is the relationship between mother and daughter that has, somehow, to be rebuilt.

There are interesting touches, there are lovely idiosyncrasies – thinking points would be the right collective noun, I think -in all of the aspects of the story; I could write reams, but if you’ve read the book you know, and if you haven’t you should it’s lovely to find these things and to think about them as the plot and the relationships evolve.

The evolution of the plot and the relationships made this story utterly compelling. As it moved backwards and forwards in time I had to keep turning the pages to find out exactly how Peggy got home.

The answers to my questions – and the end of the book – came quickly. It was unexpected, and yet it was utterly believable. I might have worked it out, I might have spotted the clues, but I didn’t.

I was left with questions about Peggy’s reliability, questions about exactly what happened, and question about what would happen after the final page.

But I was left with no doubt at all that this is a wonderfully accomplished debut novel.

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

Ruth Dugdall’s new book spins around one striking event.

A child plummets from the Humber Bridge. He is seen by a schoolteacher, who had been fishing on a day when he might have been – some would say should have been – at a union rally. He plunges into the water, in front of his stunned teenage daughter, in a desperate attempt to rescue the child. His cause is hopeless; the boy is lost.

CCTV footage and witness statement led the police to two young brothers, who had fled from the bridge as the boy fell. They were tried, convicted, and imprisoned; but of course that wasn’t the end.

This story begins eight years one, when the younger of the two brothers – who had been known to the media as Humber Boy B – was released. He was given a new identity, and he was expected to start a new life, leaving everything and everyone he had know behind.

Responsibility for the newly renamed ‘Ben’ fell to probation officer Cate Austin. That’s what made me eager to read this book, when the subject matter would usually make me wary. I read Ruth Dugdall’s two earlier novels that followed Cate’s life and work a few years ago, and I was very impressed.

Humber Boy BThe perspective is interesting, because this is a crime novel about not detection and investigation but the consequences of crime and what happens in the future to the accused and the convicted. It is clear that the author, a former probation officer, knows of what she writes; and I appreciate that Cate is utterly believable as a professional woman. She’s a a single mother,  who copes well with her teenage daughter, and her daughter’s relationship with her father, who lives nearby with his new family. And she is good at her job,  aware of the importance of the work of the probation service, and of the difference if makes.

Her own story is secondary, but it  has similarities with the case she has been assigned without that ever seeming contrived. There are many thoughtful touches like that in this book.

Ben’s is the highest profile case Cate has ever had to manage, and she is apprehensive. She is well aware that there are many who believe that he shouldn’t have a fresh start in life, that he hasn’t been punished enough, and there will be some who to find him. She knows that media coverage and social media pose a threat. She also knows that after eight years – from the age of ten to the age of eighteen – in an institution ‘Ben’ would have a lot of adjusting to do, that it would be difficult, that success was by no means guaranteed.

The story moves, quite naturally, between different perspectives in the past and in the present.

A picture of that day in the past is built up slowly, from the accounts of those who were close to events, or those who crossed paths with those involved. It’s very effective; making it clear that there was a chain of consequence, and that many lives were affected. It was clear that those should have cared and supported ‘Ben’ let him down badly; it was also clear, as his story in the present unfolded, that the system that had been supposed to rehabilitate him and prepare him for his new life had failed.

Cate did what she could, and she wanted to do more, but she was constrained by her superiors who felt that enough time and money had been spent on one undeserving young man, and by changes to the way the probation service was expected to operate.

Even though I knew what he had done, watching ‘Ben’ trying to deal with things was moving. He had no idea how to live in the new flat he had given; he didn’t know what things cost; he didn’t know how buses worked or where to go and what to do; he didn’t know how to be around people, or who he was supposed to be.

And then there were extracts from the Facebook page created by the mother of the dead boy, who wanted to find Humber Boy B. Not, she said, because she wished him harm but because she wanted to meet with him, to talk to him, to try to understand what had happened. There was another poster though – ‘Silent Friend’ – who wanted more for the bereaved mother, who seemed more than ready to act on her behalf.

All of these threads work together to move the story forward, with the question of what happened – and what would happen – always hovering.

The style is understated, the story of what has happened – what is still happening is clear, but it is never sensationalised. And though there is an obvious parallel between this story and Jamie Bulger case, there are enough differences and enough respect for this story not to feel exploitative. The understatement was very effective, because it made the tragedy, the horror, of what had happened all the clearer.. The ending was unexpected; it turned everything on its head, and it still has me thinking.

This is a book that works as a human drama, it works as a social study, while remaining a very good – and very readable – piece of crime fiction.

Rise by Karen Campbell

It was the setting that drew me to this book: Kilmarra, a small community in the Highlands of Scotland, close to standing stones that had been there so long that all memory of how and why they had been placed there was long gone.

The story that played out there was like nothing I’ve read for a long time, but that story – and the telling of that story -always had me wanting to keep turning the pages to find out a little more and to live a little more with everything that was happening.

It was absorbing and it was intriguing.

Justine Strang fled Glasgow on a bus to anywhere. She was desperate to escape from Charlie Boy, who had been violent and abusive, who had drawn her into a life that she didn’t want. When she caught sight of the standing stones at Kilmacarra she was drawn to them; she didn’t now why, but she decided to get off the bus.RiseMichael and his wife Hannah moved to Kilmacarra in an attempt to rebuild their lives after her affair. He had been a minister, but he had become a councillor, though he still who preached at the local church.

Hannah was looking to the future; working on a novel and campaigning against plans for wind turbines. Michael was finding things more difficult. He was having a crisis of faith, he was struggling to come to terms with his wife’s infidelity, he was finding it difficult to play all the roles that life was calling him to play, and the ‘ghost’ that spoke to him was becoming more insistent, more human, and much more troubling.

Justine appeared as Michael was faced with a crisis – one of his sons had been badly hurt in a road accident – and so she was able to find herself somewhere to stay – at least for a while – by presenting herself as someone who had worked with children, someone who was willing and able to step into the breach and look after his other boy.

She meant no harm, but Charlie Boy was looking for her, and for the money she had stolen from him; and that might do a great deal of harm.

The story shifts between the different protagonists, always with an unusual and strangely engaging mix of dialogue, stream of consciousness and descriptive prose, and yet always carefully delineated so there is never any doubt who each moment belongs to.

There’s a lot going on – in the background and in the foreground – and Karen Campbell handles it all deftly. There were just a few moments when the drama felt too much, when the elements felt a little unbalanced, but they didn’t really undermine the story.

The style is literary and the reality that underpins the characters, their situations, their worlds, made this feel like a thriller. I was drawn in, I cared, I believed, even though I wasn’t sure that I liked these people, or would care to meet them in real life. Because, I think, the text was underpinned by the author’s love for her characters and their concerns, for their country’s history and its future

It helped that she balanced the seriousness of the story with some lovely wit, the kind that comes naturally when people live and work together and know each other well.

The contrasts are what really struck me. Local dialect is mixed with 21st century profanity. The ugliness and violence found in the big city contrast with the beauty of the village in the glen. The past – in the standing stones and an archaeological dig – it set against the future – the referendum is to come, and a wind farm may be coming too.

That, together with the gloriously expressive prose and the unfolding human drama, held me from start to finish.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

At first glance I thought that ‘The Girl in the Read Coast’ looked like a crime novel, but when I looked more closely I found that it was rather more than that: a story of a mother and a daughter, and of the practical and emotional consequences of the crime that separates them.

23289469Beth is a woman adjusting to a as a single mother to her adored daughter; because her husband left her for another woman.

Carmel is eight years-old; she is bright, sensitive, a little bit dreamy, a little other-worldly even, and she is very close to her mother.

Now every mother is thinks her daughter is special, and Beth is no different; what is different is that there really might be something – a special gift – that sets Carmel apart.

All of this becomes clear as the narrative moves backwards and forwards between them. Their two voices were distinctive, they were engaging, and they both rang true. I found it easy to turn the pages quickly.

What would happen was foreshadowed:

‘”You realise, Mum, that I won’t always be with you,” she said, her voice small and breathy in the fading light.

Maybe my heart should have frozen then. Maybe I should have turned and gathered her up and taken her home. Kept her shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow, so my stomach would have to be cut open before she could be found. But of course I thought it meant nothing, nothing at all.’

At a local storytelling festival Carmel drifts away when her mother is distracted for a moment. Beth looks for her, sure that she will be able to pick out her daughters red coat from the crowd – Carmel adored the colour red. She couldn’t; Carmel had vanished and her worst fears became her new reality.

That red coat had made it very easy for somebody else to pick out Carmel. She was tricked into believing that she was being fetched for a reason by a person who would spin a very clever web of lies.

The story continues to move between mother and daughter, as one must deal with overwhelming grief and guilt, her ex-husband’s accusations of not having looked after their daughter properly, the pain of separation and not knowing; and the other must deal with a new and very different life, with the loss of everything she had ever known, and with the fear that she would lose the little girl that she knew she was.

‘I start talking and I say it real fierce. I have to say it before it all gets forgotten.

“This is what you must remember. My name is Carmel Summer Wakeford. I used to love in Norfolk, England. My mum’s name was Beth and my dad’s name is Paul. He has a girlfriend called Lucy. I lived in a house with a tree by the side and a spider’s web my the back door. My mum had a glass cat she kept by her bed. There was a picture that said ‘There’s No Place Like Home’. The curtains downstairs were orange. My teacher’s name was Mrs Buckfast. One time my dad took me sailing. My name is Carmel. My name is Carmel Summer Wakeford”

I stop and look around me.

I’m Carmel. I’m alone.’

Though there is a crime this book doesn’t follow the investigation: it follows the lives and the emotions of Beth and Carmel. Their voices ring true, and their stories continued to engage my heart as I followed episodes of their lives over a period of years.

23289469So, is this a good – or maybe even a great – book?

Well, the heart says ‘yes’ but the head says ‘I’m not so sure’.

The writing style is lovely, it’s haunting and images of stories and storytelling are very effectively through; but sometimes that softens the impact of emotions and events. The episodic story structure loses some significant moments – and leaves some major practical points unexplained.

There are times when the story slows and there are times – particularly at the very end – when it feels rushed.

It was were unanswered questions, but I felt that there were rather too many of them; and I wish that the question of Camel’s ‘specialness’ had been handled differently.

And yet I was engaged, I was involved; I cared from the first page to the last, and I had to know what would happen.

This is a good book; it’s very readable, and it would be a lovely holiday read.

My reservations stem simply from the fact that it could have been more.