I read seven books in April.
Jeannie’s War by Carol MacLean
A couldn’t-put-down family saga set in Glasgow in 1939 and, yippee, the first in a series called The Kiltie Street Girls.
The first Girl is Jeannie Dougal who lives with her widowed mother, wayward teenage sister, Kathy, and small brother and sister – except that the younger two are currently evacuated to Perthshire and the fate of older brother Jimmy who is in the army is constantly on her mind. Jeannie has become engaged to the handsome and comparatively well-off Arthur Dunn but comes to realise how overbearing he is.
In the munitions factory she makes friends with three girls whose lives become entwined with hers and with her family.
The Second World War shows no sign of falling from popularity as a background for novels. (Last month I read A Wartime Secret, this month We Must be Brave, see below, and I have The Watchmaker’s Daughter lined up.) I look forward to hearing more from Kiltie Street.
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan
Vaseem Khan was the keynote speaker at the Scottish Association of Writers conference this year, and a very entertaining one he was too. I bought this book, the first in a series, and asked him to sign it. I told him I was going to read it first … but I’d like it signed for my brother who has been to India on business many times and he wrote a very nice personal message inside. Brother was delighted (and yes, I told him I’d sneaked a read). Terrific characters (two- and four-legged) and a great plot.
On the day he retires, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovers that he has inherited an elephant, an unlikely gift that could not be more inconvenient. For Chopra has one last case to solve ...
The Sentinel by Lee Child with Andrew Child
The first book written by the two brothers. More of the same – violence and mayhem and our hero walking off into the sunset having sorted it all out with more violence and mayhem.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Original take on the spy novel. In 1940, Juliet Armstrong, alone in the world and just eighteen, is recruited to MI5. Mundane typing and dangerous liaisons follow – and an unexpected ending – told in Kate Atkinson’s brilliant writing.
The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon
Best-known as the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Mark Haddon turns his attention here to short stories. Apparently he wanted to experiment with writing styles and genres but not commit these to a whole novel.
So the first story, for example, is about the collapse of a pleasure beach pier and it’s told by an omniscient narrator who observes the scene before, during and after – the innocent holiday makers, the deaths, the injuries, the traumas, the heroism. Not something you’d want sustained – as a reader or a writer – in a longer piece but the effect is stunning (if grim) here.
In fact all the stories are dark and disturbing and only too memorable – I wanted to, but couldn’t stop thinking about The Island, based on Greek mythology, long after I finished reading it.
We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet
‘Domestic stories of women’s lives in wartime are common in genre publishing but rarer in literary fiction.’ began the Guardian’s review of this book.
It’s 1940; Southampton has been bombed and homeless civilians arrive in busloads in the village of Upton. Childless Ellen Parr and her much older husband, Selwyn, help them to find beds for the night – and Ellen realises that among them is a small, unaccompanied girl. Pamela ends up staying with them for some years until … no spoilers.
Then there’s Ellen’s riches to rags back-story, her uncompromising friend Lucy who just walks off the page, and much else woven into the fabric of Upton over the years – the novel finishes in 2010.
I won’t read it all again (so little time so much to read …) but when I finished it I did go back and revisit the passage where Ellen and Selwyn first literally bumped into each other. For various reasons it was an unlikely match but that meeting very believably set the tone for their happy relationship.
The Nighwatchman by Louise Erdich
Read for book group. Set in 1953 in the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Thomas Wazhuhk, a prominent member of the Chippewa Council is extremely worried by the US government’s proposed new ‘Emancipation Bill’ which threatens the rights of Native Americans.
The book also follows Pixie who supports her family financially but wants, somehow, to get to Minnesota to find her missing sister.
The author, an enrolled member of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for this book. It’s a gripping read and opened up a world I knew almost nothing about.