A Review of “Keep Your Eyes on Me” by Sam Blake

I love a good thriller and “Keep Your Eyes on Me” doesn’t disappoint. It truly is a page-turner. The premise is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel – Strangers on a Train, and of course, Hitchcock’s movie of the same name. However, that doesn’t take away from this novel. The two protagonists are women, two very different women, but equally determined to avenge the wrongdoers.

Lily and Vittoria meet in a waiting lounge in an airport and before long they get into conversation, becoming more and more intimate as time passes. Lily tells Vittoria about how her brother, Jack, was taken advantage of in a card game; he has lost the family shop to a man with a suspicious history in the Art business. Why would he want Jack and Lily’s shop? Was he dealing drugs? Laundering money? Or what? And Vittoria – she is tied up in a prenuptial agreement with her unfaithful husband and would do anything to get out of it before she is left with nothing.

Lily is the softer of the two, more worried about her brother than anything. Vittoria is tougher, and it is she who works out the plan of revenge. At this point the reader is fully involved and reading quickly; the tension makes it hard to put it down. You know there is more going on than you’re aware of – something devious at the back of everything but what could it be?

The prose is straightforward, without fluff or padding; the dialogue is terrific; the plot ingenious and the characters believable. And the ending – it’s ambiguous, and all the better for it!

It took me a couple of chapters to get really into this book but apart from that it’s terrific and I am happily giving it 4.5 stars.

A Review of “A Friendship” by William Trevor from the “After Rain” collection

William Trevor often makes me laugh. There are situations in his novel, “The Old Boys” that I remember at odd times and that make me laugh out loud no matter where I am. And this story does the same, but only at the beginning. It’s a thing that William Trevor does – you think the story is about one thing but it turns into something else entirely. The friendship in question is between Francesca, married to pompous Philip and with two sons, and Margy who livens up Francesca’s life with tales of her various love affairs. The two have been friends since childhood but have very little in common. As Trevor says:

“Their common ground was the friendship itself.”

Francesca seems an ethereal creature, tall and blonde, hardly aware of her surroundings, or of what her boys are up to. Margy, however, sees everything, She is small, dark, quick, with a touch of spite, especially where Francesca’s husband is concerned. And this spite is what eventually wrecks the friendship. Philip doesn’t help  himself however; he is known as “bad news” in their dinner circle:

” . . . he displayed little interest in the small-talk that was, increasingly desperately, levelled at him . . . he was not ill at ease; others laboured, never he.”

Margy, on the pretense that it was time she thought about settling down, proposes that they contact their old college friend, Sebastian. But Sebastian had always fancied Francesca, and shortly after they all meet up for lunch, he and Francesca begin an affair. Margy facilitates this by lending them her apartment from time to time.  Philip finds out by accident, a slip in conversation:

“Oh heavens, I’ve said the wrong thing!”

Philip pretends that he and Francesca often meet up with Sebastian. He confronts Francesca, who is contrite and says it wasn’t much. They have a row, clear the air, and decide to continue as before, with one difference:

“‘Drop me?’, Margy said, and Francesca nodded . . . ‘It’s how Philip feels.'”

“On the pavement . . . they stood for a moment in a chill November wind, then moved away in their two different directions.”

This is the body of the story, but it begins with Francesca’s two sons, aged six and eight, pouring wet cement into their father’s new golf bag, complete with new clubs. Even thinking about this makes me laugh. Trevor writes it down in such a matter of fact way, without as much as an exclamation mark.

“Sharing the handle of the bucket, they found they could manage to convey their load . . . they had practised; they knew what they were doing.”

“‘We know nothing about it,’ Jason instructed his brother. ‘Nothing about it,’ Ben obediently repeated.”

Francesca is oblivious; Margy sees it straight away but says nothing and the four sit down to lunch. Ben decides to break the monotonous silence and mentions his teacher:

“‘Miss Martindale’s mother died . . . a man interfered with her.'”

His mother is shocked but Margy is amused.

“Ben said all the girls had cried, that Miss Martindale herself had cried, that her face was creased and funny because actually she’d been crying all night. Margy watched Jason worrying in case his brother went too far.”

And that’s all there is about the boys, except for a sentence to say that when tackled by their angry father they said it was just a joke. But for me, they make the story memorable. I loved the pair of them. Very often children are interesting and exciting and you wonder what will become of them. But generally very little does; they grow up and stop pouring cement into new golf bags.

The writing, as always, is delicious.

A review of “Blood in the Valley” by Jean M Roberts

I was sorry to come to the end of this book. Although it finished in exactly the right place I was loathe to leave behind all the characters I had come to know. This is a story about the birth of the United States, and although I briefly studied the American War of Independence at school (a long time ago), it was so interesting to read about it in a novel, and to see what it must have been like for the families who lived through it.

When we first meet Catherine, the main character, she is minding her baby brother, so we see her first as a loving, caring and kindly girl and as she grows to womanhood her personality doesn’t change – although during the war she taps into parts of herself she didn’t know existed! Her husband, Samuel, is a decent, hard-working man who loves his family, and when the war begins he proves himself to be brave, steadfast and intelligent and plays an important part in the outcome of the war. The other characters, their family and friends, are people anyone would like to spend time with.

The narrative drive in this book is very strong and I was drawn into it straight away. The writing is clear and precise – there is no padding here. You can see the families and hear them talking and you understand how they feel. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the countryside:

“The falling water sparkled like gems reflecting the early morning sunshine. The river flung itself over the falls, cascading seventy-five feet or more into a boiling cauldron before rushing away in swirling eddies toward the Hudson.”

God, religion and the community is of extreme importance and the base of all social life for these pioneers and settlers. It’s where Catherine met Samuel, and there are some romantic occasions, which I loved, and which make you aware of how different life and language was then. Samuel says to Catherine:

“Miss Wasson, I have had a delightful day . . . I hope you will allow me the pleasure to call on you.”

At the advice of Catherine’s uncle, three related families decide to move to New York where land is “plentiful and cheap“. These are big families with a lot of children, many of whom bear the same names. I could easily imagine the family gatherings with all ages present; the feeling of belonging to a clan; everyone with the same objective – to live and love and farm and bring up their children in peace and safety.

The journey to New York is long, dangerous and arduous, by land and sea. But they make it, and eventually Samuel builds a wonderful house in Cherry Valley where they settle down and run their farm. But there is now the threat of war and I’m aware that some of these familiar and well-known characters are going to die. I read on with trepidation . . .

The families are separated by the war but for me this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book – so many letters going forwards and back, so full of love and hope and encouragement. There is a fantastic occasion (referred to above) when Catherine takes to the ramparts of the fort where they are staying, with a rifle, an unheard of thing for a woman to do, and she earns herself a place in history.

And so, to a perfect ending when the war is over: The United States comes into being and American citizens can rebuild their houses and their lives and their families again.

I  would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical novels and family sagas, and a book with a strong narrative drive. The pace and shape of the book is so good; there is no slump in the middle, no part is too long or too short.

I give this book 5 Stars.  

Elizabeth Merry

09/06/20

A review of “Never Let Me Go”

I hardly know how to rate this book. It’s a great book but – I didn’t like it. It cast an atmosphere over me every time I picked it up, and even appeared in a dream or two. And it left me with several questions.

The premise is this: Children/Clones are bred for the sole purpose of donating their organs when they reach thirty or so. They are brought up in special schools with Guardians and Teachers. They have  no contact with the outside world other than seeing delivery men, gardiners, postmen etc. When they are very young they are told of their future – and not told. They know – and they don’t know:

Since I went to a boarding school myself (but no boys) I could identify with the intensity of every little thing; the way every word and rumour is scrutinised for meaning and consequences; the importance given to the unimportant; the groups forming and re-forming, the conspiracies. At lessons the emphasis is on creativity; drawing and writing being particularly encouraged – why? This question, at least, is answered eventually. All the children read literature and philosophy and spend hours discussing these topics.

The main characters are Kathy and Ruth, best friends from their earliest memories which seem to begin when they are five years old. And later on, there’s Tommy, who forms the apex of a triangle which dominates their lives. When the book begins, Kathy is caring for Ruth who has just become a doner. The narrative goes back then to their childhood, and is riveting! This book is a page-turner for sure. Kathy is like Darrell Rivers in “Malory Towers” (if anyone else remembers that far back), a good, caring girl with a big heart. Ruth is devious and controlling, and Tommy needs a good shake, but each in her, or his, own way is loyal to the others.

When they grow into teenagers they are moved to other homes, in smaller groups; they know what is coming but they never speak of it.

“By that time in our lives, we no longer shrank from the subject of donations . . . but neither did we think about it very seriously, or discuss it.”

Apart from the fact that they are sterile, they are the same as other young people, although sex is treated in a very matter of fact way; no coyness, no mystery, no romance, no future either. Relationships form, break-up and begin again.

Right from the beginning there is an undercurrent of uneasiness, an unspoken fear which works its way into the readers minds. It did to mine anyway! And you care about these characters. Is there no way out of their terrible future? Have they no choices? This book is a great read and, of course, the writing is impeccable. I love Kazuo Ishiguro and I am obliged to give it full marks even though I didn’t like it.

A Review of “Life for Sale” by Yukio Mishima

I was interested to read “Life for Sale” as I am not familiar with Japanese writers – except for Kazuo Ishiguro who grew up, and lives, in Britain.

The protagonist, Hanio Yamada, fails to commit suicide and decides to put his life up for sale, hoping that someone else will do the job for him. There follows a series of adventures as different buyers turn up with a proposition but no situation works out as planned and he remains alive, becoming wealthy as each sale brings in a lot of money – and a few dead bodies.

The book is well paced and so quotable! (I had to choose among so many.) It is a surreal tale with impossible scenarios, including one with a vampire:

“There was a lustrous quality, for sure, but it was the lustre of a corpse. The faint boniness of her arms betrayed her extreme thinness. And yet her breasts were full and firm, while her stomach was soft and white like a vessel brimming with an abundance of rich milk.”

And I did laugh out loud a few times:

“A dead body reminds me a bit of a bottle of whisky. If you drop the bottle and it cracks, what’s inside pours out. It’s only natural.”

“Tall, and probably rather snooty, the steward had clearly just spent a lot of effort squeezing blackheads. “

Eventually Hanio has to re-think his life and his decisions.

“How fearless, utterly fearless he had felt when he first put his life up for sale! But now, a warm furry fear clung to his chest, digging its claws right in.”

I don’t think I’ll read this book again but I did really enjoy it and will read this author again.

Excerpt from “Coming Up for Air”by George Orwell

“A fat man of forty-five, in a grey herringbone suit a bit the worse for wear and a bowler hat. Wife, two kids and a house in the suburbs written all over me. Red face and boiled blue eyes. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But the thing that struck me, as I gave my dental plate the once-over before slipping it back into my mouth, was that it doesn’t matter. Even false teeth don’t matter. I’m fat – yes. I look like a bookie’s unsuccessful brother – yes. No woman will ever go to bed with me again unless she’s paid to. I know all that. But I tell you I don’t care. I don’t want the women, I don’t even want to be young again. I only want to be alive. And I was alive that moment when I stood looking at the primroses and the red embers under the hedge. It’s a feeling inside you, a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.

Review of French Exit by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s latest book, his fourth, published in 2018 and it certainly lives up to the standard of the other ones. Ablutions, the first, The Sisters Brothers next, and Undermajordomo Minor – I love them all. It is impossible to categorize them as they are all completely different.

So, French Exit – as the title implies is mostly set in France although the first quarter of the book is set in New York. It is a wonderful romp of a book – you’d pick it up with a smile of anticipation. The main characters are the wealthy Frances Price and her son, Malcolm. Frances is beautiful and elegant and totally irresponsible. Malcolm is vague and pleasant. He is engaged to Susan, a girl he professes to love but can’t quite commit to.

The story takes off when Frances realises she has spent all her money and is completely broke. The pair decide to go and live in France when a friend offers them an apartment in Paris. They sell everything they have left, jewellry, pictures and furniture and take  all the cash with them. They also bring their cat, Small Frank, so called because Frances believes him to be a reincarnation of her husband, Franklin.

To give a small flavour of the text:

‘Frances sniffed the flowers and asked, “Who has died, and what was their purpose, and did they fulfill their potential?” The doorman didn’t hazard a response. Frances made him uneasy; he believed there was something quite wrong with her.’

‘Frances suddenly became aware of the chair’s dimensions. It was an exciting thing to know and she was happy she’d been told about it. “What did he choke on?” she asked. “Ah, lamb.” “And have you eaten lamb since?” “No. But, you know, I never liked lamb much in the first place.”‘

‘Tom’s foremost characteristic was his handsomeness; his second was his normality; his third was his absolute lack of humour; his fourth, his inability to be embarrassed.’

In France they pick up an entourage of hangers-on, impossible to describe. I have looked for quotes to illustrate them but it’s impossible to take them out of context.

The book is very funny but all along it has a darkness to it. It is perfectly shaped and paced and I can only recommend that you read it.