Wednesday, 3 June 2020

My Year in Books 2020: May

It's another short post from me this month. I'm still really struggling to read for pleasure during the lockdown (and, as you'll have seen, I haven't been able to write any other blog posts either). I started three books in May that I haven't finished yet, but I did manage to read three novels in a single weekend in the middle of the month. This post is just about the novels I actually finished in May (the others will have to wait until another time.

As always, in case you're curious, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March, April

The House of Lyall by Doris Davidson (2000)

I decided to have a weekend of reading books from my ‘random charity shop purchases’ pile. The House of Lyall was the first one I picked up off the pile. I knew nothing about it – and I’d never even heard of the author before – but I bought it at a charity book sale raising money for a local community group. Davidson’s book is a family saga (not normally a genre I read) set around Aberdeen, and it starts with the story of Marion Cheyne, a young girl who runs away from service and her family to begin a new life. Marion arrives in Aberdeen with nothing but the money she’s stolen from her former employer, but she soon falls on her feet and starts to build a new identity for herself. The story starts in 1894, but we follow her (and her family) through to 1955. As I say, this isn’t a genre I’m very familiar with, but I enjoyed the first part of the story. Young Marion isn’t a particularly likable character, but there’s something sympathetic and intriguing about her (and I don’t really need my heroines to be likable to enjoy their stories). As the story progressed, though, I became a bit frustrated with it. The pace was uneven, and it felt like we were rushed through far too much story in the second and third parts of the novel. Perhaps it should have been a trilogy? I struggled to follow/believe character motivations in the later chapters, unfortunately.

The Ambleside Alibi by Rebecca Tope (2013)

The next book on my charity pile was this one, which I bought at a booksale for a local care home. Again, I wasn’t familiar with the author, but I bought it simply because it’s set in Cumbria. What I didn’t know was that this is the second book in Tope’s Lake District crime series. However, that wasn’t too much of a problem, as there are only minor references to the first book in this one (and none of them are spoilers). As I haven’t read the first book, I had to ‘get to know’ the characters here, but that also wasn’t a problem. Weirdly, like The House of Lyall, this was another book that started really well, but disappointed me in the second half. I loved the introduction to what appeared to be an intriguing little mystery – florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown delivers a bunch of flowers to an elderly lady, which claim to be from a granddaughter she didn’t know existed. Shortly afterwards, another elderly lady is found murdered in her home. Are the two incidents connected? And how come Simmy has been dragged into both? I loved the sense of place that Tope evokes here, and the puzzle looked like it would be fascinating. Unfortunately, the book takes an odd turn part way through, and ultimately becomes rather far-fetched and – dare I say it? – silly. The real no-no for me is that no one really solves the mystery – the culprit just dramatically makes themselves known. A bit frustrating.

The Girl in the Painted Caravan: Memories of a Romany Childhood by Eva Petulengro (2011)

This was the last book I read during my charity shop weekend. And it’s the one I enjoyed the most (though not for the reasons I expected). I bought this one in a charity shop in Blackpool, as it seemed appropriate to buy a book by a Petulengro in Blackpool. Turns out Eva Petulengro made her name reading fortunes in Brighton, not Blackpool, but let’s not worry about that. Petulengro’s memoir is ostensibly a story of the lost Romany culture into which the author was born. And there are some charming (and deeply romanticized) details about vardos (caravans), horses and hawking pegs – all viewed through thoroughly rose-tinted glasses. But although that’s the aspect on which the book was marketed – and online reviews show it’s the aspect most people wanted to read about – there’s another story here that I found much more interesting. The book actually begins with a chapter set in 1964, where Eva reads the palms of (two of) The Beatles. It’s the story of how a young Romany girl, born in a traditional caravan to a travelling family, ended up as the clairvoyant darling of the Swinging Sixties. This story reveals much about Eva’s family’s showmanship, and along the way it encompasses Billy Butlin’s Skegness amusement park, some shrewd business decisions, and the constant evolution of working-class leisure activities. It’s not actually the story of the seaside resort of the fairground, but rather a glimpse into one part of the periphery. And what a delightful glimpse it is.