The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The setting of The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is 1954 Nebraska, and 18 year old Emmett Watson has just been driven home by a warden. Emmett has just finished serving a year long stretch at a work farm, his punishment for inadvertently killing someone. It isn’t long before Emmett discovers that two of the other inmates have hitched a ride to his home, hiding inside the boot/trunk of the warden’s car.

Emmett had had big plans for his release. With his mother having left home years before and his father’s recent death coupled with the fact that the bank had just foreclosed on the family farm, Emmett has nothing to stop him from chasing his dream of taking his younger brother Billy and driving west to California where he plans to start his own business. Farming isn’t for him.

The unexpected and unwanted arrival of the two inmates who have absconded throws all Emmett’s plans into the air. A lot happens over the next ten days but with remarkable calm he manages to cope with all of the problems that his sometime friends cause him, mainly because Emmett is determined never to act rashly again as that is what had led to him being at the work farm/jail in the first place.

The Lincoln Highway is well written and I enjoyed it, although not as much as the author’s previous books A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility, both of which I really loved.

I was very happy to be sent a digital copy of this book for review by NetGalley via the publisher Viking. Thank you to both.

Mamma by Diane Tutton

Mamma by Diane Tutton was first published in 1956 but it has recently been reprinted by British Library.

The book begins with Joanna Malling travelling to the house she has bought, it’s moving in day but nothing seems to be going to plan, she’s even having second thoughts about the house. Joanna has had quite a sad life, widowed at just 21 with a small daughter to look after, Libby. It’s now twenty years later, Joanna hadn’t expected to remain a widow all those years but only one man had proposed to her and he was so much older she regarded that as an insult.

Now it’s Libby’s turn to get married, and her husband is 15 years older than Libby, so there’s only a six year age gap between Joanna and Steven. Joanna just can’t understand what Libby sees in him, they seem such a mismatched couple, but as she gets to know him better Joanna realises that she has much more in common with Steven than her daughter has and things get a wee bit awkward.

In an era when 41 year old women were regarded as being over the hill and fairly superfluous members of society this book has some rather uncomfortable moments with the horribly immature but pushy Libby not seeming to regard her mother as a human being at all. This was a good read.

Thank you to British Library for sending me a copy of the book for review.

There are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union by Reginald Hill

There are no ghosts in the soviet union by Reginald Hill is a compilation of short stories, the first of which is the title story and could be described as being a novella. The collection features various different styles, the title story being set in the Soviet Union was one of my favourites and surprisingly I really enjoyed Hill’s continuation of Jane Austen’s Emma, Poor Emma. I’m usually not at all keen on Austen ‘rip offs’ but this one was entertaining and surprising. Reginald Hill’s tale takes us to 20 years or so after the marriage of Emma to her Mr Knightley, the marriage has not fared well as over the years Knightly has turned into a ghastly man, but Emma has learned a lot over the years and is driven to actions which would have shocked her younger self, and so survives in that very male dominated society.

I’m way behind with my book review writing, but Jack decided to read this book too. If you’re interested you can read Jack’s far more detailed thoughts on this short story collection here.

Appleby’s Answer by Michael Innes – 20 Books of Summer 2021

Appleby's Answer cover

Appleby’s Answer by the Scottish author Michael Innes was published by Gollancz in 1973 so I suppose that means it’s vintage crime now although that seems a bit strange to me, however in some ways the book seems even older than that. It begins with Miss Pringle sharing a railway compartment with a strange man. Miss Pringle is a crime writer with a penchant for ecclesiastical settings and she’s travelling to London to attend a dinner with a group of fellow crime writers.

Captain Bulkington is the other traveller and strangely he’s reading a copy of one of her books, when he recognises her from the photo on the dust jacket the two get into conversation. Bulkington has a private school, a crammer which coaches young men to pass the entrance exam for top drawer universities. It’s a business that he has taken up since retiring from the army, but he has a proposition for Miss Pringle. He wants to collaborate with her in writing a book and invites her to stay at his establishment, but Miss Pringle has her suspicions about him and just agrees to correspond with him instead.

However she decides to travel to Bulkington’s village to do a bit of detective work and discovers that there are only two students enrolled in the crammer, and neither of them seem to be university material. It seems that Bulkington has some sort of hold over them.

Appleby and his wife have travelled to the same Wiltshire village to visit friends and so become embroiled in the affair.

This isn’t a murder mystery but is an entertaining read with quite a lot of humour thrown in. My copy of the book is an old Gollancz one and I couldn’t help thinking of Diana Athill who would have been working as an editor there when this one was published, I don’t think she mentions Michael Innes in any of her books though. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Runaways by Victor Canning

The Runaways by Victor Canning was first published in 1972 and it’s the first part of his Smiler trilogy. It was made into a film for US television in 1975. The book is about 15 year old Samuel Miles, his mother is dead and his father is away at sea most of the time, so his older sister and her husband look after Samuel while his father is absent. ‘Smiler’ as he is known is a bit of a handful for his sister, but there’s no malice in him.

However, he ends up being wrongly convicted of stealing an old lady’s handbag and is sent to a borstal for young offenders, he manages to escape only to be recaptured by the police on a stormy night. On the way back to the borstal he takes a chance to escape again and manages to fend for himself in the barn of a house which has nobody living in it.

Smiler isn’t the only one being hunted down. A cheetah has escaped from the famous Longleat Wildlife Park. It was the storm that gave Yarra the opportunity to escape when a tree was blown over. She heads for Salisbury Plain, much of which is used by the army for training. Unknown to the two escapees they take cover in the same barn, with Smiler being in the loft and so begins a wonderful relationship between the two.

This was a great read, aimed at older children or Young Adults as they say today in publishing. It’s very well written with some really likeable characters and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

I was sent a digital copy of this book by Farrago Books via Netgalley. Thank you.

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons was published posthumously in 2016 which was 27 years after her death.

Juliet Slater has just left school at the beginning of the book, she has done really well in her A levels but her father has decreed that she must get a job instead of going to university. Even a letter from the headmaster can’t persuade him to change his decision.

But unknown to her parents Juliet had struck up a friendship with an elderly and wealthy spinster and she takes herself off to live with Mrs Pennecuick – ‘Aunt Addy’, packing a case full of maths and science books so that she can continue her studies in the large house which has a bevy of Spanish servants. As you can imagine Juliet’s intentions are suspected by just about everyone, especially as she’s a very strange character. Nowadays she would probably be described as being quite high on the Autistic or Asperger’s spectrum but neither of those words appear in the book. Juliet has no interest in anything but mathematics and becomes obsessed by coincidences. It’s a word that she has to look up in a dictionary, helped by a library assistant as Juliet’s knowledge of anything outside maths and science is scanty. She’s not interested in any relationships with people and isn’t even grateful for all the help she gets from Aunt Addy, but Addy’s great-nephew Frank sees Juliet as his project, he thinks she might be a genius, and over the years he attempts to help her further her studies and to make her less self-obsessed and a bit more ‘normal’.

I enjoyed this one despite Juliet being so strange and unlikeable. There were plenty of other characters whose company I did appreciate, but if you’re expecting another Cold Comfort Farm you might be disappointed, I remember so many laugh-out-loud moments in that one, but Pure Juliet is quite different. The ending was very abrupt though, almost as if the author just got fed up writing it.

Thursbitch by Alan Garner – 20 Books of Summer 2021

Thursbitch cover

Thursbitch by Alan Garner was first published in 2003, I just noticed after I had bought it that my book is a signed copy. I’ve read quite a few of Alan Garner’s books over the years, they’re always a bit strange and this one is stranger than usual. To begin with it was just too weird for my taste but I did end up liking it, and it’s a difficult one to describe.

The setting is 18th century northern England – and contemporary. John Turner is a packman, carrying goods all over the country, anything that needs to be taken elsewhere, and sometimes he’s away from his home in very rural Cheshire for quite a long time with his horses and cart. It’s a time when most people hardly strayed from the neighbourhood that they were born in, so John/Jack is quite cosmopolitan compared with the locals.

I was more interested in the 21st century relationship between Ian and Sal though as they traversed the same hills that Jack had travelled through, albeit 200 years or so later.

This was one of my 20 Books of Summer.

Julia by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 Julia cover

I read Julia by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles for 20 Books of Summer 2021. It’s a book I’ve had for years and just never got around to reading it. I hadn’t ever read anything else by the author and I’m sorry to have to say that I won’t be reading any more as I really did not enjoy it. I hate slating a book and rarely do it, especially if the author is still alive.

At the beginning Julia is a 15 year old schoolgirl, a bit of an odd bod with no friends – not that she actually wanted any – seemingly even disliked by her very strict parents and not particularly close to her sister. When she takes on a job as a baby-sitter to a local family it’s just for the money, but soon she’s a part of the family, counts Joyce the mother as a friend and is adored by the two young boys. But from the very beginning she is interested in Peter, the husband and father. Peter is a violinist with an orchestra and a serial adulterer, so it isn’t long before he’s grooming Julia to be his next squeeze. She is besotted with him.

So begins a 20 odd year long on off relationship which does involves divorce then Julia and Peter getting married, losing a child, Peter resuming his usual bad behaviour in the worst way, more divorce, another marriage for Julia, the crazy and highly unlikely death of that husband who was a high ranking army officer, which was also totally unlikely as NCOs never get promoted to colonel, they only get as far as major according to an army friend of mine. Than Julia is supposed to be short of money – the author obviously didn’t know how much Julia would have got as the widow of a colonel!

For me the whole tale was just full of holes, badly written and included far too much sex – keep it off the pages please – I’m sure that others must like that though. The ending was so unlikely, I suspect that the author was going for an unusual and shocking twist, but it just wasn’t feasible if you read the book carefully as I did, while rolling my eyes. The author had Julia behaving in a way that I just couldn’t imagine any human being behaving, given the circumstances. It’s always difficult for me when there are no likeable characters in a book and in this one there were just a couple of very minor characters whose company I could have enjoyed.

I believe that lots of people are really keen on this author, particularly a long series that she wrote but I was so disappointed with this one and annoyed with myself for ploughing my way through it in the hope that it would improve – it didn’t – it got worse.

Perhaps it was my fault for buying a book solely because of the title, it hasn’t put me off the name Julia though. I had a sneeky peek on Goodreads and nobody has written a review of this book but lots of people have rated it with just one 5 star rating I think, but mainly threes or less. I will give it two, and that’s me being generous.

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons was first published in 2016 by Vintage Classics – posthumously obviously – as the author died in 1989. If you’re expecting another book like the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm you might be disappointed as this one is very different, but I really enjoyed it.

It’s the early 1970s and Wilfred Davis is still bereft after the death of his wife six months previously, but almost worse than that is the behaviour of his teenage daughter Mary who has left home for the bright lights of London, about 70 miles from her family home in Torford, without so much as a cheerio. Mary just wants to find a husband and have three children called Max, Hugh and Cilla, she thinks that London is the place to meet her husband. Wilfred is overcome by sorrow while sitting on a park bench, his sobbing attracts the attention of a man who gives Wilfred a linen handkerchief.

So begins a strange friendship between Wilfred and the man who is called Lafcadio and the two women that he lives with in one of the yellow houses that Wilfred can see from his own home. The yellow house has a strange atmosphere and from conversations between Lafcadio, Miss Dollette and Mrs Cornforth it seems that the three of them might have somehow been sent to help Wilfred – or maybe not Mrs Cornforth, there’s something quite scarily tempting about her. All of Wilfred’s problems clear up and his daughter is soon back in touch with him, it really seems like his life is being orchestrated from on high.

I loved the 1970s, I know we aren’t supposed to but I’ve never been able to understand that, just think of all the great musical artists who came to the fore then, and are still around doing their thing nowadays (apart from Bowie sadly) and this book just oozes 1970s somehow. Yes I DO love flares!

In the book Mary manages to rent a grotty room in a poor part of London – Gospel Oak – an area I don’t recall ever having heard of before, but I was amused to hear on the radio recently that it’s deemed to be a very posh neighbourhood now.

This was one of those books that for me had a song running through it – The Beatles, She’s Leaving Home. It was written by Lennon and McCartney and I believe that they got the idea for the song from reading in the Daily Mirror about a teenager who had run away from home, but that was in 1967.

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister

Close Quarters by Angus McAllister was published in 2017 and I decided to read it because Jack was literally shaking the bed with laughter as he read it. I have to say that although it is funny in parts, I didn’t laugh out loud.

The setting is Glasgow’s West End, which if you don’t know it is a rather cosmopolitan and up market area with expensive housing, due mainly to the proximity of The University of Glasgow and the attractions of the Botanic Gardens, a posh hotel and restaurants, eclectic shops, the BBC (once of Queen Margaret Drive but now housed elsewhere in the city) but also ‘normal’ pubs and shops.

A ‘close’ in Scotland is the communal entrance area and stairwell of a tenement building in Scotland. Most of the book features the inhabitants of 13 Oldberry Street, a tenement building which contains seven flats, and a small shop on one side of the ground floor. One of the longest inhabitants of the building is Walter Bain and close to the beginning we’re told that Bain is dead – murdered. It seems that the deed must have been committed by someone who lives in the building as the close security door hasn’t been damaged.

The rest of the book features how Walter Bain’s horrible personality impinged on the lives of his long-suffering neighbours. Bain behaved as if he owned the entire building and spent his time firing off badly spelled and ungrammatical notes to them whenever he thought they had committed a heinous offence – such as not shutting the gate, missing their turn at cleaning the stairs, or having their television on! Bizzarely his mantra is ‘this is a family building’ despite the fact that there are no children in any of the flats. His tyranny has ruled the building for years before someone snaps and does him in.

Suffice to say that everyone has a good reason to murder Bain, in fact – in other parts of Glasgow he would have been bumped off a lot sooner – but then there wouldn’t have been a book, there would just have been a few columns in the Scottish newspapers and a few minutes on the Scottish TV news!

There is humour in it, it wouldn’t have been Glasgow if there was no banter and I really enjoyed strolling around Byres Road and the West End, our old stamping ground, it just didn’t have me shaking with laughter and I guessed the culprit very early on, as did Jack to be fair. His review is here. I’ll definitely try some of McAllister’s other books in the future.