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Friday 17 November 2023

Mutton's Books for November


Dear friends. The darker months bring the promise of more time for reading. I'm on target to finish my challenge of 100 books in 2023  (Goodreads) but need to read a bit faster to make sure. 

As always I hope to bring a varied selection for you, fiction and non-fiction.

Water by John Boyne  (5 out of 5)

I was new to John Boyne. This fine Irish writer is noted for books including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,  adapted into a 2008 film of the same name.

Water is a short novel, the first in a series about the elements.

The writing is absolutely beautiful.

The story revolves around the wife of an Irish swimming coach jailed for paedophilia. This has real-life echoes because Irish swimming was rocked by cases involving senior figures George Gibney and Derry O'Rourke.

Vanessa Carvin flees to an Irish island, changing her name and cutting off her hair. Her daughter Rebecca refuses to speak to her. She is weighed down by the guilt of not knowing what her husband was up to.

She doesn't live like a recluse but gets to know some of the 400 residents. She takes a 25 year old man half her age as a lover in a joyously uncomplicated and undemanding relationship.

Surrounded by water, and seeing the anger of water on a stormy night that nearly tore the door from its hinges, Vanessa starts to recover from the trauma of the media spotlight. A conversation with her husband and a surprise visitor lead us towards a redemptive and triumphant conclusion.

Tears of a Shadow by Oliver Silver (4 out of 5)

The book starts with a very disquieting prelude where 2 individuals are waiting to give a performance.  They appear to be in a cellar, and there's just one piece of furniture, a shabby sofa. "Uncle Simon" comes down the rickety stairs and demands to see what they've prepared. Michael has nothing, his brother Jonathon is word perfect with Hamlet. 

Fast forward and Jonathan is an actor whose life is spiralling out of control. He's having problems finding acting work, he's cruel to his on-off girlfriend,  drinking too much, taking drugs, and getting into fights. 

He's obsessed with his brother Michael, a successful businessman with a wife and son. Michael tries to hold him at arm's length.  Silver creates an uneasy atmosphere that fizzes with tension. Eventually the traumas of childhood and PTSD resurface with devastating results. 

A promising debut from Silver. 

The Snow Girl by Javier Castillo  (3 out of 5 stars)

A three year old girl disappears during a crowded Thanksgiving event. Miren Triggs, a student journalist, makes finding out what happened to Kiera Templeton her life's work. 

The book has multiple timelines for different protagonists. Castillo loves the device of ending a chapter on a cliffhanger and then reverting to a different timeline. 

The book shines a light on gun culture in America, as well as the detailed and time consuming policing needed for resolution of cases of missing people.

I had to suspend belief on a couple of occasions, particularly with the number of attacks and attempted burglaries that seemed to follow Miren (unrelated to the main plot).

Miren's character development throughout the book is fascinating: initially she is fearful and needing to speak often to her mother. Later, as a seasoned journalist, she is a cold and determined assassin.

I found it an intriguing book but it didn't quite add up to the hype.

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan  (3 out of 5 stars) 

Regular readers will know I'm a great admirer of writer Ian McEwan, and recently reviewed his latest novel Lessons.

Catching up with his back catalogue, I decided Amsterdam was a must read, as it was the novel for which he won the Booker Prize.  

It's a fairly slim volume of 173 pages, published in 1998.  It starts with the death of Molly. Two of her former lovers, and friends, meet up at her funeral. 

There's a lot of focus on Molly and her unpleasant demise, with the once vibrant woman reduced to a shell of a person and entirely dependent on her husband for care. The two friends, Clive and Vernon, make a pact that should one of them become similarly incapacitated, the other will help facilitate their end, in Amsterdam.

I won't give any spoilers but both men - one is a celebrated composer, the other a newspaper editor - make dubious moral decisions and end up in Amsterdam. 

I didn't realise until I read the reviews later that the book is supposed to be a dark comedy.  

I found the race towards the ending a bit undignified and a little confusing. I didn't feel I knew any of the characters very well, except perhaps the dazzling Molly, and she was dead throughout the book.

It was, unusually for McEwan, a bit of a dog's breakfast.  I was surprised that it won the Booker, as some of his other novels, notably Atonement and Lessons, are far more deserving. 


Went to London took the dog by Nina Stibbe  (4 out of 5 stars)

I wasn't expecting to find this quite as addictive as it proved to be.

Writer Nina Stibbe, 60, goes back to London after several decades away to live as a lodger with author Deborah Moggach. She doesn't know "Debby" but she has a big house and is often away. 

Stibbe takes her baleful dog Peggy, who gets nervous on the underground. Her two children are also both in London at university.

The real reason she has left Cornwall - and we don't learn it for some time - is separation from her husband, although it doesn't seem to be getting her too down. "Need to talk about possible divorce settlement, which I will do, but I can't deny that feeling sad kills my creativity."

Her daily diary includes snippets of the news plus memorable tweets and posts from Instagram and Twitter/X, as well as anecdotes about Debby and the many other writers who cross Stibbe's path at breakfasts, lunches or trips to the garden centre.

She is sometimes a bit judgmental, but who isn't when you reach your 60s with a wealth of experience behind you? I felt a bit slighted when she was scathing about someone who wasn't a dog lover, as I could also be described thus. My beef is not so much with dogs but their owners, seeing so many bags of poo dangling from trees, and badly trained dogs in the nearby forest. 

Some of her assertions had me laughing and nodding. Yes, Paul McCartney did raise the bar very high for men. I'm less convinced about James Herriott, tending to think of a rather fraught Christopher Timothy, but Michael Palin would have been another candidate.

An excellent book for dipping in and out of. I enjoyed Stibbe's wry take on life.

From SOE Hero to Dressing the Queen by Lynda Rowland

The name of Sir Hardy Amies is well known in connection with the late Queen Elizabeth. He was one of her couturiers. 

But there was a lot more to him than fashion.  He was an intelligence officer during the Second World War and his work for the Belgian resistance effort. as part of the Special Operations Executive, was so significant that he was awarded l’Ordre de la Couronne, or Order of the Crown, by the Belgian Government in 1948. 

Not only did Sir Hardy conduct these operations, but he also simultaneously developed his burgeoning fashion business through the British Board of Trade’s drive to promote UK manufacturing throughout the conflict.

He was a man who at once epitomised and challenged the reality of being homosexual in an era when society was deeply unaccepting. He was thrust into what was an overtly macho and potentially hostile environment and, against that backdrop, made a valuable and courageous contribution to the war effort.

The Queen was obviously aware of his proclivities: when she knighted him, he said he expected he was the first queen she had honoured, and she laughed. 

A well researched and fascinating account of an enigmatic man.  

I hope you enjoyed this month's selection and can find at least one book you'd like to read. Sharing this post with these fantastic sites.


Husband and Wife by KL Slater

Death at Paradise Park by Ross Greenwood 

October Books including reviews of Geneva by Richard Armitage, The Ideal Couple by Annie Willett and The Wisdom of Sheep and Other Animals by Rosamund Young. 


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  1. I enjoyed your thoughts on the books! From Soe Hero to Dressing the Queen sounds like an amazing book!!!

  2. Some great books on here - like the sound of Nina Stibbe's diary and snow girl


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