Book Review: Death and Other Happy Endings

I plucked Death & Other Happy Endings, by Melanie Cantor, from my TBR pile expecting it to be light-hearted and humorous. I have been struggling to connect with fiction recently and wanted a story that I could read effortlessly. The opening chapters proved somewhat slow but fine in setting the scene and introducing key characters. Then, after a rather unsettling episode in a park, I wondered if I should continue reading. I rarely DNF a book and chose to give it to page 100 before deciding. I’m glad I did. The remainder of the story offered a cheerful if unlikely tale.

The protagonist is Jennifer Cole, a forty-something single woman who works in HR. She has terrible taste in men, mostly due to her romantic, rose-coloured vision. She invents excuses for their selfishness in order to feel appreciated and loved.

Jennifer does have good friends, especially Olivia. She gets on less well with her older sister, Isabelle, who was regarded as the beauty of the family and married into wealth. None of the characters appear to lack means. They meet in expensive venues around London where they drink cocktails and champagne. Their’s is a life of comfort and privilege, shadows cast only by their own foolish decisions.

The balance shifts when Jennifer is told by her doctor that she has a rare and incurable illness. With only three months to live she decides to tell those who have caused her heartache in the past how this made her feel. In reconnecting, she brings them back into her life. Time has not changed their inherent character traits.

The writing flows nicely as the plot develops. There are, however, few surprises and little depth. What is portrayed is a world of beautiful people in comfortable cocoons dealing with the challenges of daily living. There is foolish behaviour and occasional sadness. They benefit from a rare support network of family and friends.

I was impressed by the portrayal of an over the top argument scene. The previously reticent Jennifer lets rip when her eyes are opened to a loved one’s true nature. The denouement is improbable but this is, after all, that type of story. I enjoyed the way the author wrote her happy ending.

I usually avoid romantic fiction but this tale provided enough to divert me and retain engagement. For fans of the genre this could be a popular read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan.

Book Review: You Never Told Me

You Never Told Me, by Sarah Jasmon, is a story of the pulls and disconnects inherent within families. Parents work hard to provide what they believe is best for their offspring without comprehending the blinkered lens through which they regard an ever-changing world. Decisions made reverberate across decades leading to schisms where appreciation was expected. Children struggle to regard parents as individuals rather than providers of support, in whatever form necessary. They resent criticism or any attempt to take control of decisions. Siblings grow jealous when caught in a net of duty when another appears to have achieved freedom and, perhaps worse, greater admiration.

The story opens on a Thai ferry where a hungover Charlie is returning from a disappointing party weekend at an island getaway with colleagues from the language school where she has secured temporary work. Charlie is on a sort of gap year, despite being a decade older than most who partake of this indulgence. She ran away from the prospect of the life she was expected to lead: marriage to her loving, long term boyfriend; paying off the mortgage on the house they bought together; caring for their dog. She is coming to realise that her current hand to mouth existence in this hot and sticky place is not the answer to her restlessness, and that maybe it is time to return to England.

Any potential for her usual prevarication is removed when she receives a message from her sister that their mother has been hospitalised. Charlie’s contingency planning for a need to pay for an emergency flight is non-existent. She appears to be living her life in the moment with no sense of what to do should her trajectory change. Not for the only time in the story, a kindly stranger steps in to help. She arrives back in Sheffield safely, albeit with minimal luggage and no money. By the time she walks to the hospital, her mother has died.

Charlie’s sister, Eleanor, is capable of taking charge – this despite, or perhaps because of, also having to deal with her father, husband and two young children. She cooks meals for Charlie who has installed herself in her childhood bedroom and borrowed clothes left by their mother. Charlie goes through the motions of each day without making plans. When it is announced that the family home is to be sold and that their father will move in with Eleanor, Charlie understands she must move forward but appears to have no idea how. Once again, her predicament is resolved thanks to the actions of others. Unbeknown to her daughters, their mother had purchased a canal boat. Charlie moves to this until she can work out what she now wants.

The mother, Britta, is portrayed as a bland and submissive character so her secrets – especially the uncharacteristic purchase of a boat – intrigue her daughters. Charlie resolves to dig further using the few clues uncovered. Eleanor is obviously struggling to spin all the plates she has been handed. Whilst supportive of her sister there is still resentment at the way Charlie upped and left for Thailand.

And then there is Max, the jilted fiancé, living in the joint owned house that he was left paying for, along with their dog who was left in his care. Charlie now wants her share of the house. And she wants the dog. All readers will get behind the dog’s right to her best life.

The main plot involves the slow uncovering of Britta’s background. This is well presented and structured. There are a few coincidences that help in Charlie’s investigations along the way, but also sufficient within the threads to maintain reader engagement. Depth is added through character development, especially around the familial relationships.

The story is told from Charlie’s point of view but in such a way as to offer balance. I became irritated by her constantly jangling nerves leading to loss of concentration, having to remind myself she was grieving. I wanted to tell her that headaches and inability to focus could be due to her apparent inability to feed herself, and then wondered how many people in her life had felt compelled to try to voice such unasked for advice. As usual I did not enjoy the sex scene but concede that it added another aspect to her backstory.

Charlie connects with her elder niece, Martha, who she recognises as needing a friend. I thought it a shame that even the little that was asked for – and promised – went largely undelivered. I understood the wider reasoning for inclusion within the plot but there is still a desire for children to be listened to and treated fairly; perhaps we all harbour scars from being ignored by adults with their skewed priorities.

One important thread that shines through is the portrayal of life on the canal. Despite her apparent flakiness (the escape to Thailand must have appeared like a bolt from the blue to her family), Charlie manages to pick up quickly how to manage a boat, largely thanks to the generosity of other canal people. Living on the water, by a public towpath, takes some getting used to. Charlie’s appreciation of her surroundings – its disconnect from life on land despite their proximity – is beautifully rendered. Wider attitudes to crusty canal folk is touched upon lightly.

The writing and pace are fluent and well balanced (although I did wonder from time to time what had been cut during editing). The nuances of family life are presented in a multitude of forms and from several points of view. The denouement neatens the weave of threads without offering solutions that are too machine perfect. This book was a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan.

Book Review: blueeyedboy

blueeyedboy, by Joanne Harris, is the second book in the author’s Malbry Series – psychological thrillers set in the fictional Yorkshire town. Having enjoyed Gentlemen & Players and Different Class, I was eager to read the remaining instalment. Although there are linked characters across the three books they are standalone stories. The structure of this one is notably different. Beware the media quotes on the cover telling the reader there is an ‘almighty twist’ in the tale and an unreliable narrator. While these elements are not unexpected in the genre, the hype did raise certain expectations. That I had guessed where the ending was going by the time I got there left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

The story is told in the form of a web journal called badguysrock. Most entries are written by the titular blueeyedboy with additions by one of his fellow members of the online group, Albertine. They and some of the post commentators appear to know each other offline. Who each of them is and their relationships to each other are kept vague initially to enable a slow reveal. blueeyedboy is writing what he claims to be fiction. The reader must tease out what is the truth from: the varying strands, changing details, and snapshots of key scenes.

blueeyedboy is one of three siblings born to a domineering matriarch who violently imposes her will on her children. The coercion and vicious punishments described are disturbing to read. That blueyedboy still lives with the women can only, perhaps, be properly understood by someone who has suffered domestic violence. blueeyedboy dreams of killing his mother. He writes in the web journal of previous murders he orchestrated but then reminds readers that his writing is fiction.

There are references to a dead girl, Emily White, who was regarded as a prodigy. There are also a number of women from the town who, over the course of his life, upset blueeyedboy and who are now dead. The strands of fact and fiction are kept shadowed by the changing details, and then additions by Albertine.

All of the characters interacted over several decades. Class boundaries caused resentments. The upper hand was gained on occasion through lies and threats. A wealthy gentlemen, Dr Peacock, took an interest when he discovered children had synaesthesia – the subject of a book he was writing. Their parents vied for the attention this presented, the chance for their offspring to be recognised as special by the wider community.

The portrayal of parenting is devastating. While most may not beat their children with a length of electric cable as blueeyedboy’s mother does, there are mental wounds inflicted when a child fails to live up to much vaunted expectations. Parents are eager for their peers to acknowledge the admirable qualities and talents of their children to the extent that young people are scarred when they feel they have disappointed. When do support and encouragement morph into parental obsession?

As the story unfolds and the nature of relationships is revealed there remains a question over what the truth may be as regards certain details. Names and nicknames overlap requiring a degree of going back through the text to work out who is being written about and how they met their end. blueeyedboy’s fictions are at times confusing. Albertine has memories she declined to share during attempts at investigation.

By the end of the book it is possible to work out what happened to most of the characters but, as a linear read, this was at times confusing. It is a puzzle whose pieces can shift in shape. There are themes explored – such as the parenting fails and domestic abuse – that add depth and deserve consideration. Compared to the other books in the series however, it is not as satisfying to read.

blueeyedboy is published by Black Swan. 

Book Review: Gentlemen and Players

Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris, is the first book in the author’s Malbry Series. The story is set in and around St Oswald’s, an old and long established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. The timeline moves between the present – when a new cohort of teachers arrive for the start of the academic year – and the years when one of these individuals was a child enacting a daring deception in a bid to reinvent themselves.

The child is nine years old when their tale opens. Living in the school gatehouse – a perk of Father’s job as porter – they are aware that the grounds and school are out of bounds. Nevertheless, they dare to sneak in, thereby discovering that no action will be taken so long as they remain invisible.

The child grows bolder. Keys are taken from Father and the main building breached. Over time the old building’s layout, the school timetable, and many of the teachers become familiar. The child covets the privilege of the wealthy pupils in their rarefied existence.

The child’s mother left her little family and does not maintain contact. Father is a drunk who at times grows violent. Being small in stature and lacking sporting prowess, the child is a victim of bullies at the local state schools attended. To escape this misery, a St Oswald’s uniform is pilfered and – renamed as Julian – the child starts to blend in occasionally as a pupil. A friendship is formed with another misfit. Leon and Julian delight in breaking rules within school and in the town when freed.

In the present day, the new teachers are observed by Roy Straitley – a Latin master nearing retirement who attended St Oswald’s as a boy and has worked there for more than thirty years. During this time scandals have been weathered – including improprieties and tragedies. Now Straitley is resisting changes being enforced as the new head attempts to modernise. Straitley’s caustic wit and underlying humanity make him a valuable character in portraying what a school can be.

“The reality is the stone; the tradition; the permanence of St Oswald’s. Staff come, staff go. Sometimes they die. Sometimes even boys die; but St Oswald’s endures, and as I have grown older I have taken increasing comfort from this.”

Now an adult in the guise of one of the new teachers, the child has returned seeking revenge. Plot development gradually explains what happened back in the day and why they wish to bring St Oswald’s to its knees. From the opening line the reader knows that, in this teacher’s opinion, ‘murder is really no big deal.’ The illicit St Oswald’s boy who remained invisible seeks both retribution and to finally be seen.

It took me some time to differentiate between voices – to work out, chapter by chapter, from whose perspective the narrative was being written. The many teachers and pupils introduced need to be remembered if threads are to be followed and understood. Although not difficult, this required a degree of concentration and occasional rereading.

Knowing that the author was once a teacher adds to the humour of many staff room observations. I enjoyed her comment to colleagues in the acknowledgements:

“any of you who may fear to meet yourselves in the pages of this book, rest assured: you’re not there”

Her characters are expertly drawn and recognisable as those who have haunted the corridors of every British school I have experienced as pupil and parent. Perhaps these didn’t all harbour a murderer but jealousies and resentments amongst both staff and pupils run as deep as depicted. The tension and mystery are tightly woven around more poignant revelations. The denouement is chilling but retains enough heart to leave the reader content.

Although perhaps not as well known as some of the author’s other works, the Malbry series is a personal favourite. The variety of characters along with the fine balance between dry humour and compelling thriller make for an enjoyable read.

Gentlemen & Players is published by Black Swan.

Book Review: The Trick to Time

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Having enjoyed Kit de Waal’s debut, My Name Is Leon, I was eager to read whatever she wrote next. Thus I was a little perturbed to discover that it was to be a love story – such tales tend to annoy me. I needn’t have worried. The Trick to Time is indeed about love but it explores the many hurts such fierce emotion generates, and how one may find a way to live with the damage inflicted.

The story opens in a coastal town in the South of England. The protagonist, Mona, is watching the sun rise from the window of her third floor flat when she notices a man doing the same across the street. They acknowledge each other, “like two characters in an opera”, before turning away to start their days.

Mona is approaching her sixtieth birthday. She lives alone, spending much of her time making high quality, collectible dolls that she sells in her toyshop and online. A local carpenter makes each body from wood which Mona then paints and dresses in bespoke clothes she designs and creates. The hair is human, sourced from a local hairdresser. Mona names each doll, talking to them as she works and chiding herself for such behaviour.

As well as making and selling dolls, Mona offers a service to women referred by a grief counsellor. There is a strong suggestion that she has experienced significant loss herself, the details of which are gradually revealed.

The tale is told across three points in time: Mona’s childhood in Kilmore, County Wexford, where she was raised by her father from the age of eight following the death of her mother; as a young woman working in a factory in Birmingham where she lived with other Irish in a boarding house before meeting the man she married; the contemporary setting as she contemplates loneliness and aging.

As a child Mona enjoys a carefree if somewhat solitary existence. When she reaches her teens she begins to yearn for more than the small Irish town can offer. Like many of her peers, she plots her escape.

Birmingham in the 1970s offers Mona the possibility of the life she has long dreamed off, until tragedy snatches it away.

In the present day, while out in town with a friend, Mona encounters the stranger she acknowledged from her window. Karl is a dapper dresser with impeccable manners and knowledge of fine living. He and Mona go on several dates, sharing elements of their histories yet not opening up about the most significant aspects of their lives. Karl’s attention leads Mona to ponder if she could love again.

If this were all I had been told about the book I would have had little interest in reading it. Love affairs, dolls, and an unfolding tragedy would not appeal. What makes it worth reading are the aspects and behaviours explored around these threads.

It is rare for any book to make me laugh out loud as I did reading a scene set in a hotel bedroom involving a sash window. It is even rarer for a book to make me cry which I found myself doing during the penultimate scene. I had guessed early on what may be regarded as a twist but this did nothing to detract from the depth in the portrayal. Throughout I found myself pausing to savour the evocative writing and to consider the reactions and development of the many characters. All earn their place.

Any Cop?: The pace, structure and flow of the prose are skilfully balanced making this an easy book to read. The substance is more challenging, dealing as it does with grief. This is a tale of survival, piercing in its honesty, intense yet humane. It leaves echoes beyond the final page.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Music Shop

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Rachel Joyce, an author in the vein of Joanna Cannon and Sarah Winman, has a knack of succinctly capturing the minutiae of everyday behaviours with piercing insight. In just a few words she paints an image of an attitude, action or expression that conveys more than mere description. Her characters are not just brought to life on the page, they become close acquaintances, the reader investing in their outcomes, feeling their joys and pain.

This latest work opens in January 1988, in a town that is changing under Thatcher’s Britain. The unnamed music shop is a relic of the old. It is located in a rundown side street – a row of tatty shops and their upstairs flats along one side; houses, many divided and sublet, on the other. The shop owners live above their businesses. They are an integral part of a small community.

The music shop is run by Frank and his assistant, the accident prone Kit. They sell vinyl records, eschewing cassettes and the newly popular CDs. Frank’s modus operandi is to tell his customers what music they need to listen to, something he somehow feels from their presence. He enjoys helping others but keeps himself emotionally distant, afraid of being hurt again.

Frank’s sheltered little world is threatened by encroaching gentrification, and by the arrival of a mysterious woman who faints outside his shop window one afternoon. When Ilse Brauchmann returns to thank Frank for his help he realises he may be smitten. It is almost a relief when he discovers she is unavailable as she is already engaged.

The story is interspersed with flashbacks to Frank’s childhood. He was raised by his single mother, a wealthy and Bohemian woman who insisted that her son call her Peg, refusing to act as expected or conform to anything ordinary. Peg entertained a string of boyfriends but her true love was music. She shared her knowledge and passion with her son, but offered him little else.

Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music with lessons to be given once a week. Using the stories his mother told he opens up to this enigmatic stranger. Alongside their burgeoning friendship, Frank and the other residents of Unity Street are being wooed by property developers. When they refuse the financial incentives, threats are made.

The character development is astute and often humorous but the plot arc lacked sufficient depth to keep me fully engaged. Although billed as a love story this aspect felt contrived in places. The strength of the writing is in the quiet observations of people, and in the music – its emotional impact and the anecdotes shared. Those with Spotify can listen to The Music Shop playlist, an eclectic mix with links explained throughout the tale.

Any Cop?: Despite my reservations there is enough pleasure to be derived to make this a book worth reading. It is a gentle, hopeful story. The resurgence in popularity of vinyl and the decline of CDs provides a fitting coda.

 

Jackie Law

Mothers’ Day – Guest Post by Emma Curtis

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Today I am delighted to welcome Emma Curtis, author of suspense thriller One Little Mistake (which I review here), to my blog. Emma’s book explores the tricky balancing act that so many women live juggling friendship, marriage and motherhood – and the catastrophic consequences of a seemingly small mistake. She has written this guest post for Mothers’ Day.

On Mothers’ Day, we reflect on everything our mothers did for us and we give them a call, or take them a bunch of flowers, and thank them. This is the time to forget the fact that as teenagers, we said to ourselves, if I ever have children I will never do that! It’s the time to forget the parties we weren’t allowed to go to, to forgive the unreasonable bedtimes and irrational decisions that were never satisfactorily explained. When you have your own children you quickly realize that even if you do have a mental check list of the dreadful things your own mother did, there is a one hundred percent chance your kids will be able to come up with some humdingers of your doing. Mothers’ Day is a time to remember that mothers are human beings, and if they make mistakes it’s because they love us and worry for us and sometimes overreact.

One Little Mistake is a novel about an ordinary wife and mother who doesn’t always get it right. But none of this would have mattered and she would have muddled on, just like the rest of us, had it not been for one major lapse in judgement. When I wrote Vicky Seagrave, I drew on my own experiences of falling into motherhood four years before I had planned or wanted to. It caught me and my husband by surprise and we were unprepared for every aspect of it: the love, the fatigue, the mess, the restrictions, the adjustment in our own relationship.

Vicky’s ‘Mistake’ has a catastrophic effect on her life, the reverberations rippling through her marriage, her closest friendship, her job and her position in the community, putting at risk everything she holds dear. One Little Mistake is a psychological suspense novel, so what happens to Vicky and the danger she puts herself and her family in, is of course extreme. However, at the heart of it I wanted to show the confusing side of motherhood: feeling out of control; discovering that it’s not all perfect baby skin, talcum powder and fluffy white towels like in the ads, that it’s mess and tears, it’s unwashed hair and eyes bruised and baggy from lack of sleep. It’s dirty dishes piling up and piling on the pounds. It’s being two hours into a six-hour train journey to Edinburgh and realising you forgot the spare nappies – yes, that was me! It’s keeping things going on the surface and trying to ignore the muddle churning underneath.

But above all, it’s a mountain that we climb not so much because we have no choice, but through animal instinct and unconditional love. And in the end, you kiss your children as they leave the house on their own for the first time and you know that it’s OK. You can forgive yourself the mistakes you’ve made, because they make you proud. And then one day, you tell your twenty-five- year-old daughter, sitting on the sofa glued to her laptop, that you love her and she answers distractedly that she loves you too.

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One Little Mistake is published by Black Swan, an imprint of Transworld Books.

 

Book Review: One Little Mistake

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One Little Mistake, by Emma Curtis, starts out as a comfortable, middle-class, smug mummy story but soon morphs into something a great deal more sinister. It focuses on a small clique of aspirational young marrieds who mostly know each other from the school gate. They help each other out with emergency childcare and provide eager, listening ears over coffee or glasses of wine. They admire each other’s home projects aimed at increasing resale value as much as providing congenial living space. They share gossip and offer sympathy whilst feeling both superiority and resentment about their own lives.

Vicky Seagrove has three healthy children, a supportive and loving husband, and a newly renovated home, yet still she wants more. When she is tempted to indulge in an affair she shares this sordid secret with her best friend, Amber. Although promising to keep it to herself, Amber is not impressed with such behaviour. Vicky has everything Amber aspires to but cannot quite acquire. When Vicky’s poor judgement puts one of her children at risk, Amber decides she can use her friend’s fear of being found out, especially by her husband, to her advantage.

Amber and Vicky have been close since meeting at their first NCT class and are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Amber is possessive of her friend and is piqued when Vicky spends time with Jenny, a young mum new to their neighbourhood. When Amber and Vicky both decide they would like to buy the same rundown house as a doer upper, their friendship is put under strain.

Vicky is naive and trusting but as dark undercurrents bubble to the surface even she begins to question Amber’s loyalty. She is shocked and embarrassed when her friend asks for help with a down payment. She does not anticipate that money is the least of her blessings that Amber intends to take.

Interspersed with the unfolding tale of potential domestic crisis is a story set eighteen years before. A young girl has lost her mother to a drugs overdose and ended up in care. She is uncomfortable with the family who foster her, fixating on her social worker as a potential parent. She finds that her desires are deemed unreasonable and her fears ignored.

The final third of the book is pure psychological thriller. The denouement is masterfully played. The outcome may be extreme, but in this rarefied world it seems love and loyalty rely on self interest. This is an engaging and darkly entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan. 

Book Review: Angel Bird

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Angel Bird, by Sanjida O’Connell, tells the story of Niall, a zooligist who travels to a remote town on the north east coast of Ireland to study the behaviour of magpies. Niall’s father and grandfather were also zooligists and he feels he needs to prove his worth. Niall believes that much of any creature’s behaviour is genetically ordained and lives his life accordingly. When being in Ireland triggers forgotten memories from childhood he is forced to confront the reality of the choices he makes.

Niall moves into a small rented house in a town where everyone knows everybody else’s business. He discovers that magpies are seen as harbingers of doom in this place, the devil’s bird. Undeterred he sets up the bounds of his research, content to live a spartan life as he studies his subjects. To supplement the meagre fare he prepares for himself at home he cycles out to a restaurant once a week where he meets a young chef named Eddie. Although drawn, he waits for her to come to him.

Eddie moves in with Niall and fills his home with her clutter. This irritates Niall at times but he accepts the unasked for change. He has embarked on a clandestine affair with the daughter of a wealthy businessman who rides her horse through his research area. He acts according to instinct rather than sense.

Niall is suffering nightmares, flashbacks to images of a child who is drowning and a woman surrounded by blood. As his research and personal life start to unravel so too does his grip on reality. He flees what he believes to be a perilous situation, unable to differentiate between hallucination and what is happening in real life.

The writing is vivid with sinister undercurrents. Niall comes across as detached, suppressing emotion and accepting what is offered despite misgivings. The setting is evoked with detailed imagery. There is an assumption that the reader will have a knowledge of nature that I struggled with at times but this sets the scene for the important role the magpies have in the tale. The author has captured the sense of the place and the vernacular of the people. The detailed descriptions of food suggest she has a mastery well beyond mine.

The cruelties of nature are portrayed in sometimes sickening detail. I wondered why it was harder to read of the avian suffering than that of the people. All of this adds to the layers being unpeeled as Niall’s past is revealed and the reasons for his conduct become clear. We start to see him through other’s eyes as he begins to look candidly at himself.

An enjoyable read that offers much to consider regarding human behaviour. This is a love story but so much more. The science was intriguing adding an unusual but fascinating dimension. I will never look at magpies in the same way again.

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is a road trip story with a difference. The protagonist is sixty-five years old and is travelling on foot. Although his journey teaches him a great deal about himself, others and life, the lessons learned by those he leaves behind are at least as powerful. This is a story of loss, and of the particular loneliness experienced by those who build walls around their emotions.

Harold Fry has been retired for six months and rarely goes out. He worked the same job for forty-five years but has few friends. His wife spends her days cleaning their already clean house and finding reasons to berate him. His days stretch before him with little purpose.

Into this sterile world arrives a letter from a former work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who Harold has neither seen nor heard from in twenty years. He learns that Queenie is in a hospice with terminal cancer. Unsure how to respond, he pens a brief reply and sets out to post it. When he reaches the post box at the end of his quiet, residential road he keeps on walking.

Harold has no plan and cannot explain his actions, even to himself. A chance encounter with a young cashier at a garage where he stops for food places the seed of an idea into his head. Rather than go home he decides that he must continue to walk, from Devon to Berwick, a journey of over five hundred miles. He will reunite with Queenie and somehow keep her alive. He is wearing yacht shoes, his usual shirt and tie; he has his wallet but no provisions and no phone.

As he walks Harold mulls over his life. He has many regrets but also imponderables over how he could have engineered more favourable outcomes. As well as this self analysis he starts to appreciate his surroundings, to which he had previously paid little attention. He encounters strangers and starts to listen to their stories.

Harold’s wife, Maureen, is left to come to terms with her husband’s inexplicable behaviour. She first feels anger and then bereft. A lifetime of not talking about how they feel prevents meaningful communication. Each must find their own way forward, one step at a time and alone.

This is a poignant and beautifully told tale. Harold and Maureen are recognisable to anyone who knows people of this age. How they are seen by others matters to them yet has stifled their potential. Their journeys are both physical and metaphorical.

I loved the language and imagery, how ordinary the cast of characters felt in what is an extraordinary tale. Those who helped along the way offered hope in a society that can seem so flawed. There remained selfishness, especially when the press became involved, but individuals shone through the collective toxicity.

A feel good tale with depth, advocating a willingness to look beyond the net curtains that shield inhabitants from the outside world. Read this book; laugh, weep and remember what it is to express love. I recommend it to all.