Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Fame at her fingertips

Crime has never been my favourite fiction genre. I’m absurdly squeamish and hate reading anything gory.

But over the last three years I’ve become hooked on Lynda La Plante’s compelling Anna Travis stories. I was gripped the moment I read the first one, Above Suspicion, and read the rest the moment they were published.

Silent Scream, out in paperback this week, is the fifth in the series. And yet again, despite the gruesome crime scenes, I couldn’t put it down.

This time round, Detective Inspector Anna Travis is assigned to investigate the murder of film star Amanda Delany. At 24, the stunning actress had fame, fortune, a £3 million mews house and a host of devoted fans at her fingertips. So who on earth would have wanted to kill her? And why?

As Travis (no one bothers with her first name) and the rest of the police team work on the case they discover that Amanda Delany’s public facade is actually a sham. Behind the glossy exterior was a lonely, damaged girl – with seemingly uncaring parents, a long list of ex-lovers, an anorexic body and an expensive drug habit. As the pathologist conducting the post mortem puts it: “The reality is, she was a shell of a woman.”

La Plante made her name with ITV’s much-acclaimed Prime Suspect, starring Dame Helen Mirren, but she’s also a highly-skilled novelist who weaves the horror of Travis’s day-to-day work with the machinations of her tangled love life. Much of the success of the Anna Travis series hinges on the on-off relationship between the young DI and her charismatic boss, Detective Chief Superintendent James Langton. The two were briefly an item, and there’s still a spark between them. But now Langton’s remarried and has two children and Travis, keenly aware that it’s crucial to keep her feelings for him “well below the surface,” has no intention of rekindling their affair.

The book has its fair share of preposterous moments, but somehow they don’t seem to matter. Just like the four earlier books in the series, Silent Scream races along at breakneck speed as Travis hunts for the sordid truth behind Amanda Delany’s terrible death.

It’s a mark of the Travis books’ success that the first two have been adapted for ITV, with Kelly Reilly starring as Travis and Ciaran Hinds as Langton. The TV dramas aren’t half as good as the novels but they’re a sure-fire sign that La Plante is on to a winner with Travis and Langton. The sixth novel, Blind Fury, is just out in hardback and hopefully there'll be more on the way.

Silent Scream by Lynda La Plante. Published by Pocket Books, £7.99

Emma's rating - ****

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A contemporary fairy-tale

It’s nearly 30 years since Barbara Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published to huge acclaim. Since then she’s produced just six more.

But her latest, Sex and Stravinsky, is well worth the wait. As work deadlines piled up, I kept promising myself one more chapter of this beguiling book before I rushed back to my desk.

At first glance, Oxford headteacher Caroline Silver is one of those annoying women who’s clever, beautiful and selfless. She’s an amazing cook, makes her own clothes and even transforms an old double-decker bus into an unconventional family home for her husband Josh and their ballet-obsessed daughter Zoe. Poor Zoe provides a memorable comic interlude when she’s forced to endure the school French exchange trip from hell.

But Caroline’s life is far from perfect. She’s saddled with a ghastly mother (Josh dubs her “the witch woman”) who favours Caroline’s self-centred sister, derides her efforts to please and bleeds her dry.

Meanwhile in South Africa, Josh Silver’s first love has problems of her own. Hattie Thomas is a children’s author who spends her days writing in the minimalist house designed by her forceful architect husband. Their sulky teenage daughter wishes her mother would “literally drop dead,” there’s a mysterious new lodger in the cottage at the end of the garden and Hattie's dissolute brother has vanished off the face of the earth.

The novel steps up a gear when the narrative switches to South Africa, where Trapido was born and brought up. Her account of Josh’s adoption by two generous-hearted human rights activists is deeply moving, while her description of the vast South African skies and searing heat makes you want to leap straight on a plane.

In many ways Sex and Stravinsky is a contemporary fairy-tale that shifts back and forth in time and across continents. Although the whirlwind exchange of partners as the novel races to its conclusion is far from convincing, Trapido’s seventh novel is a dazzling achievement. It’s beautifully-written, deftly-plotted and moves skilfully from domestic drama to global themes, and back again.

Sex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido. Published by Bloomsbury, £18.99

Emma's rating - ****

Monday, 26 April 2010

Shoes of giant people

When Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was published ten years ago, it won the powerful acclaim of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton. Now her first full-length novel since then has been shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.

The Lacuna is an epic tale which sweeps from the vibrancy of 1930s Mexico to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the US in the late 1940s and 1950s. The narrative is seen through the eyes of writer Harrison Shepherd, the son of a remote American father and a capricious, social-climbing mother who brings him up in her native Mexico.

From early childhood Shepherd keeps a diary. This comes stunningly alive when he encounters famed muralist and active Communist Diego Rivera, his beguiling artist wife Frida Kahlo and the exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky, who spent his final years in Mexico. By becoming part of their extraordinary circle and acting as their cook and secretary, Shepherd inadvertently throws in his lot with art and revolution – a move which is to have devastating repercussions.

Kingsolver has admitted that she originally imagined the novel without Frida Kahlo but that “she moved into it.” Weaving the stories of real-life characters into a work of fiction is fraught with difficulty, but Kingsolver, with her meticulous research and keen eye for historical detail, succeeds magnificently.

The only stumbling block is that the larger than life Kahlo and Trotsky, with his love of animals and hopes for a world cleansed of evil, prove far more enthralling than the modest Shepherd. At one point he admits to Frida that he is “a mouse creeping around the shoes of giant people, trying not to get stepped on.”

After Trotsky’s murder in 1940, Shepherd begins a new life in North Carolina, where he puts his masterly talents of observation to good use by writing novels. But to his dismay, his colourful past returns to haunt him when the FBI decides to investigate him. As Shepherd’s lawyer dryly observes: “If a man is not a Communist, they’ll prove he is.”

Largely written in diary format, interspersed with newspaper cuttings, letters and notes by Shepherd’s devoted stenographer Violet Brown, this remarkable novel is a finely crafted story of identity and loyalty. And as the title implies (lacuna means “gap” or “missing piece”) all too often there is a yawning gulf between what is true and what people simply assume to be true.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by Faber & Faber, £7.99.

Emma’s rating - ****

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Living daylights

Blueeyedboy is darker and far more complex than Joanne Harris's first psychological thriller, Gentleman and Players.

Set once again in the Yorkshire town of Malbry, it's the cleverly-plotted story of BB, a man in his 40s who lives with his mother and works in a dead-end job.

Sitting at home, BB spends his spare time caught up in a virtual world. He has set up a website called badguysrock and reinvented himself online. Using the moniker of blueeyedboy, he churns out a series of murderous fantasies featuring real-life friends and enemies.

But BB, it soon emerges, is an unreliable narrator. Harris herself has likened her novel to a Rubik’s cube, which twists and turns with no obvious solution in sight, and readers have to keep their wits about them to decipher what is fact and what is fiction.

One thing’s for certain, though - the devious BB is not what he seems. Harris gradually reveals the murky secrets of his past, including his toxic relationship with his mother (a chilling figure who collects hideous china dogs, forces her sons to wear the same colour each day and whips them with an electrical cord when they transgress), his feud with his two brothers, a string of unsolved local murders and the mystery of a blind girl prodigy who can “see” music.

Best-known for the fabulous Chocolat, her first novel, Harris began this book with a few fragments of plot and admits she was stunned by where it led her. During the course of her research she spent hours online, made friends using a pseudonym and became fascinated by the way people can choose how to portray themselves. As BB himself points out, “as long as it stays a fantasy, who really cares which role we adopt?”

Interestingly, each chapter of Blueeyedboy takes the form of a post on a web-journal. Some are public, some are private, but each specifies the mood of the writer, the time of day and the soundtrack they happen to be listening to. On public entries there’s even a comments box.

Harris has described her novel as principally a “black comedy, not to be taken entirely seriously.” I’d beg to differ. This is an ingenious, gripping read – but far from finding it comic, it terrified the living daylights out of me.

Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris. Published by Doubleday, £18.99.

Emma's rating - ***

Monday, 12 April 2010

Writing the tricky second novel

Former screenwriter Sadie Jones took the literary world by storm two years ago with The Outcast, her debut novel. Set in the stifling world of post-war Surrey, it was a runaway success, selling 400,000 copies, winning the Costa First Novel Award and becoming a firm favourite with book clubs.

Second novels are notoriously difficult so a lot is riding on Jones’s eagerly-anticipated follow-up. But Small Wars, published in paperback this week (April 15), is a fine novel, as assured and elegant as her first.

Major Hal Treherne is driven by two passions – his burgeoning military career and his adored wife Clara, the sister of his army friend James. After six years in Germany, where he spent his time “overseeing exercises that were almost uniformly without incident” and never once saw “a shot fired in anger,” he is keen to do the job he was trained to do. That is, to serve his country and lead his men.

Hal is delighted, therefore, when he is posted to defend the British colony of Cyprus in 1956. Clara and their small twin daughters sail out to join him and the family moves into married quarters on the army base. Clara enjoys days on the beach, Shakespearian readings organised by the Colonel’s wife and drinks at the officers’ mess.

One army wife claims Cyprus is just like “Cornwall in summer.” In fact it’s anything but. As Jones explains, the conflict had seen “a fledgling desire for independence harden into a terrorist campaign,” and Clara learns to her cost that bombings, ambushes and street fights are a terrifying daily occurrence.

As well as leading a series of bloody and often brutal skirmishes, Hal has to confront issues like rape, torture and murder. As he struggles with his own personal crisis, the beliefs and values he has adhered to all his life are called into question. Meanwhile Clara grows more and more fearful, both of the volatile situation her daughters and unborn baby are being exposed to and of her increasingly distant and unpredictable husband.

Like The Outcast, Small Wars is characterised by Jones’s cool, calm prose and keen eye for detail. From the idyllic home-counties villa of Clara’s childhood to the sun-drenched Cypriot hillsides where the guerrillas hide out from the British troops, her writing is vivid and compelling. Meticulously researched and emotionally powerful, this is a second novel to be proud of.

Small Wars by Sadie Jones. Published by Vintage, £7.99.

Emma's rating - ****

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Commune in the country

Rosie Thomas is a brilliant storyteller. Whether she’s writing about tricky teenagers or irascible grandparents, she has the knack of creating stories that resonate with her readers’ lives.

Now, in Lovers and Newcomers, she turns her attention to the trials and tribulations of turning 60.

A disparate group of friends - two couples, a glamorous widow and a gay man - have known each other since they were wild students in the Sixties. In those days they assumed they’d stay young and beautiful forever and joked that if they ever grew old they’d all move into a “fabulous, outrageous commune.”

Forty years on, they recklessly decide to give the commune idea a go. Desperate to stave off the unedifying prospect of old age, newly-widowed Miranda invites her friends to live in her rambling Norfolk mansion.

Penniless bohemians Selwyn and Polly work all hours to renovate a tumbledown barn adjacent to Miranda’s house, well-to-do lawyer Amos and his elegant wife Katherine draw up plans for a swanky house next door and set designer Colin, who’s mourning the death of his lover Stephen, flits between London, New York and the country.

The six throw themselves wholeheartedly into building new lives. The word “old” is banned (anyone who utters it has to pay a fine) and they laugh, dance, drink too much and behave badly – just like the good old days.

Except this time round, they discover that life is more complicated and they can’t simply put the clock back. Selwyn still carryies a torch for Miranda, Amos explodes with fury when an archaeological discovery threatens both his building work and his marriage and Polly worries how she’s going to make ends meet. As Katherine astutely observes: “It isn’t until you come to live in each other’s pockets like this that you start to see all the cracks.”

As always, Thomas weaves her characters’ stories together with such skill and warmth that you really care about them. She’s equally adept at conveying the hopes and fears of the younger generation too. At 25, Polly’s twin daughters look glossy and sophisticated - but they admit to feeling lost and abandoned when their parents sell the family home and move to the country.

The archaeological strand to the story isn’t as compelling as the emotional heart of the book, but once again Thomas has produced a sure-fire winner.

Lovers and Newcomers by Rosie Thomas. Published by HarperCollins, £12.99.

Emma's rating - ****

Friday, 19 March 2010

An eagle-eyed editor

The highlight of the week was the annual Romantic Novelists’ Association lunch. The RNA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and marked the occasion in style with a glamorous awards ceremony at London’s Royal Garden Hotel. Film critic Barry Norman presented the prizes (including lifetime achievement gongs to Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope.) “Ooh good,” he said when he opened the Romantic Film of the Year envelope and saw that An Education had won.

I was sitting next to Miranda Dickinson, whose heartwarming debut novel was one of the six books shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year award. Actually, the story behind her book, Fairytale of New York, is like a fairytale itself. Drama teacher turned copywriter Miranda submitted her unfinished manuscript to a website for unpublished writers – where eagle-eyed Avon editor Sammia Rafique spotted it and offered her a three-book deal. The book has sold more than 100,000 copies in four short months and Miranda, who was accompanied to the lunch by her proud mum and Sammia, still can’t believe her publishing dream has come true. A great read, it’s the story of Rosie Duncan, who seems to have the world at her fingertips. She has a thriving floristry business, fantastic friends and glitzy Manhattan lifestyle, yet behind her glossy facade lie years of heartbreak.

Another book I loved was Louise Bagshawe’s Passion. Bagshawe sounds a bit like Superwoman - as well as writing novels and looking after three children, she’s also a Tory parliamentary candidate. Her tale (half-thriller, half love-story) of shy Oxford academic Melissa Elmet, who is plunged into an international murder plot, is a glamorous, pacy blockbuster that reminds me of Jackie Collins.

But in the end Lucy Dillon’s Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts scooped the main prize. Lucy’s captivating book must be one of the few romantic novels to be set in a rescue kennels. It features sassy PR Rachel Fielding, whose aunt bequeaths her a dogs’ home, complete with an assortment of abandoned mutts. Rachel isn’t a “dog person” at all but as she battles to match the pets with new owners she learns important lessons about loyalty, second chances and unconditional love.

Lucy (pictured above), a glamorous redhead in sky-high heels, made a wonderfully gracious acceptance speech. Along the way she name-checked her two Basset hounds, Violet and Bonham, who were being looked after by friends back home in Herefordshire. So if you’re looking for a great read, try one of these. They prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that romantic fiction is blooming.