Book Reviews

    Reviews by readers of books read this year (2016/17) and stocked in The Malvern Bookshop


Reader Review Book

This is a murder mystery by a Master of psychological drama set in an old fashioned England of 30 years ago, but in all essentials, it is timeless. The writer examines not a crime but a family, an outwardly normal middle class family but internally dysfunctional and painful, so, so far, so typical. Vine however, unlike most of us, understands what is going on and explains it, by the events and words that lead to the hurts and wrongs. Luckily for the human race most people manage to shake themselves free of family before events get out of control and bang up against the law. But you could easily see how they could and this one does. The book is a mystery, you want to know what has happened, who is the perpetrator who the victim, the characters live with you and you take sides yourself. This tension continues to last page, until the very last paragraph has been read and like the characters, you come to terms with what has happened.

A Dark Adapted Eye

Barbara Vine




A modern American novel, people speak in it as they do in American films, short obscure sentences leaving you guessing as to what exactly they mean, well that is the men, silent ball game supporters, running, hanging out with neighbours in their yards, drinking wine or whisky (they are middle class). The poor women are having children, doing creative jobs, talking a lot and trying to make sense of it all. I didn’t find the main character particularly likeable I have to say, not sure if I was meant to. It is set in Detroit and is one man's struggle to create a satisfying life in the American economic system. The main dominant thing imposing itself on everything else was race. Are you black or white or in between. It reminded me of when I lived in Wales when the main talking point for everyone was are you Welsh or are you English. I didn’t want to have this stupid issue in my life so I left.

The book has lots of great insights into everyone's lives, not just Americans. Some quotes below might give you a flavour. Its a good book, you will whizz through it.

Technology and Pleasure

The trouble is people don’t use this technology to make them happier. They use if for pleasure. Whenever you get an advance like this the first thing it appeals to is the lowest common denominator. We have to evolve with the technology and that takes time.

Good Looks

In some places I travel to there isn’t a woman over the age of twenty that you or I would consider sexually attractive. … it costs money to stay attractive. … it occurred to me that what is going on here is an inside outside thing. A woman needs privacy to look good. She has to say to herself, I am going out to face the world, and that means somewhere to prepare herself. Its a question of real estate … from having a room of our own. In poor countries everybody eats together, everybody sleeps together, everybody lives in the street. But we build houses to go inside, which is fine, but then we have to deal with going out again

be careful of what you wish for,… I paraphrase

think of what you wished for when you were eleven, a teenager or whenever, it would cement you in time, you would not grow and develop, you would not want it now

You Dont Have to Live Like This

Benjamin Markovits



Jacquie I read this book in two days, a sure sign of a good book.  I did question how true it was though, the writing is polished, it had been thought about a bit too much for a personal account so I was not surprised to learn it was written 35 years after the events.  Lee's exploits reminded me of Hilaire Belloc's walks in Italy, massive climbing and endurance in extreme heat, on wine and very little food and shrugged off as normal.  Lee was clearly very attractive, with his youth, spirit of adventure, tall good looks, sense of fun and intelligence.  I didn’t like him though, I sensed 'nasty man syndrome'.  The Spain he walked through was impoverished, but this, horrible as it was, wasn’t the worst thing about it, it was the lack of care.  Men and women were separate, prostitution acceptable, men's drinking excessive, cruelty to people and animals rumbling in the background, but Lee did meet kindness, as ever out of the blue and from unexpected quarters.  The British Gov for example sent a destroyer to pick him up with one other from a seaside village when war threatened.  What a wonderful thing.  The Civil War came, the subject of Lee's third book in a trilogy, but I doubt it brought care and love into the community, I suspect that came later with tourism.  Read it yourself, you will probably disagree with me. As I Walked Out  1969
Laurie Lee

I read this book after seeing the recent film Mad To Be Normal about R D Laing with David Tennant as the man himself.  Mr Laing didn’t come out too well in that but I liked him more here, in it you see the intelligence and application behind the celebrity narcissist (which he undoubtedly was).  It was Laing's first book of many, the only one I have read but I suspect his best.  It has that originality and urgency that you get in really great books.  Laing is well read, he knows all the theories, but he pretty much ignores them and comes to each case new, hence the book is timeless.  As he says, theory distorts,

 “the American authors write their cases in terms of ego, superego, id which I feel puts unnecessary limitations on one's understanding of the material.” (p160)

 To him schizophrenics are individuals and their problems real.  Through hours of interviews with patient, family and friends he attempts to understand the reasons and origins for their behaviour.  Like Freud, he discusses particular cases in great detail (I wonder about the ethics of this) which of course makes fascinating reading.

 It seems any of us could succumb to schizophrenia though some, through genetics, are more likely than others.  In a sentence, the condition is a fear of the self being seen by others and being destroyed by others which leads to various strategies by the sufferer.  They invent an outer persona that interacts with the world, the inner real person they keep hidden. 

 “ … if the mother's or the family's scheme of things does not match what the child can live and breathe in.  The child then has to develop its own piercing vision and to be able to live by that – as William Blake succeeded in doing, as Rimbaud succeeded in stating, but not in living – or else become mad” (p189).

 The schizophrenic is not going to reveal himself to any philandering passer by.  If the self is not known it is safe.  It is safe from penetrating remarks; it is safe from being smothered or engulfed by love as much as destruction from hatred. (p164/5)

 – remind you of anyone?

 The great spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle who I and many others read today says it is our ego that gets in the way of our true being and all suffering comes from it.  Tolle says the way to overcome the ego is to live in the present and observe, whenever you feel any emotional upset whatsoever, that is the clue that you are resisting what is and your ego is getting in the way (I hope I have interpreted it right).  So our 'true' selves are not our selves at all.  Laing agrees:

 a partial depersonalization of others is extensively practised in everyday life and is regarded as normal if not highly desirable.  Most relationships are based on some partial depersonalizing tendency in so far as one treats the other not in terms of any awareness of who or what he might be in himself but as virtually an android robot playing a role or part in a large machine in which one too may be acting yet another part. (p47)

 but schizos take it further and introduce yet another level:

 “Indeed, what is called psychosis is sometimes simply the sudden removal of the veil of the false self, which had been serving to maintain an outer behavioural normality that may, long ago, have failed to be any reflection of the state of affairs in the secret self.  Then the self will pour out accusations of persecution at the hands of that person with whom the false self has been complying for years. (p100).”

 I fear you don’t have to be schizophrenic to be the above.  Tolle would say such behaviour is the Pain Body rising and taking over but normally it subsides and things return to a bearable state.  With schizos they don’t return to normal, they get worse and worse.

 In literature Laing sees schizos in Kafka but not Shakespeare.  In Shakespeare's world the clowns, lovers and kings all live before they die albeit in 'a tale told by an idiot', in Kafka's world it is much worse, his protagonists are de-constructed before they die.  It is William Blake he most admires, his Prophetic Books

 ' … require prolonged study, not to elucidate Blakes's psychophathology but in order to learn from him what somehow he knew about in a most intimate fashion while remaining sane.'

 Laing believes schizophrenia can be cured (though sadly doesn’t give examples).

The task of therapy then comes to be to make contact with the original self of the individual which or who we must believe is still a possibility if not an actuality and can still be nursed back to a feasible life. (p158)

 Yes but that individual is going to face a lot of difficulties of loneliness.  The individual if found will need to bolster that inner self through awareness and the support of a power greater than themselves. 

 This book is a classic, easy to read, you can hear the writer behind the words, and indeed the patients too.  Should be on your list of ‘must reads’.

The Divided Self, R D Laing, 1959

Gillian Litherland

Invitation to W is a day in the life type of story, but also covers a whole lifetime.  It was about two lovely girls and clothes, the colours, clinging, floatiness of them and, interestingly, how they were made (a lost history actually).  Two sisters and their different personalities governed by their looks, the pretty one confident, the less pretty one sensitive and kind and doomed to suffer bores, slights and hurts but also to seeing the good people. 

 The main character feels joy, rejection, dejection,  – the whole gamut of human emotions, from one moment to the next, occasionally due to nature or music but mostly as a response to the words, looks, nuances and overtures from other mysterious human beings, not knowing what is prompting them or what they mean.  Do they like me or not and if they do, do I like them or are they going to latch on and be boring.  At the end she realises:

 “They were so kind.  This was what real people were like after all, just as she had always imagined; not sinister, inexplicable, but friendly and simple, accepting one pleasantly, with humour but without malice, without condescension, criticism or caresses”

 A fantastic book and great writer. 

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann 1932


Jacquie Fox

Most people (but not me) know this books from the film, with Kate Winslet, I am sure she would have been very good in it and explained what it is about.  Certainly we could have understood the love part with such a heroine.  The Reader though is primarily about ideas, wedded to character yes but ideas is the point of it and because of this, at the end, a small part of me wondered about the veracity of it.  Don't get me wrong, the characters drive the plot but faced difficult circumstances, they all did.  What ideas does Schlink explore?, obsessive love, maybe, victims and perpetrators, yes definitely about this but who is what.  Harder, I am still wondering about that.  Also about obligations between people based on sexual love, family, work, friendships, many - where should our loyalties lie, this is not easy.  The author with a man's succinct way sums up a complex situation in a couple of sentences, but his protagonist cannot move on nevertheless.  Most readers will have their view of decisions made, mine differed from the main actor and I suspect I am in the majority. 

 I read this book very quickly, on the train as it happens, unaware of passengers, announcements and delays, always my personal gauge of a good book.

The Reader by Professor Bernard Schlink 1995 Germany


Eileen Peacock

Why is it that novels are about relationships, and more than that, nearly always about romantic relationships. I do know the answer. It is because the rest of life, work, hobbies, friends, children, housework, money – while it takes most of our time, provides only a hazy background to the real stuff. That is, relationships and our interior feelings known (or not) only to ourselves, in the search for fulfilment. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers thought wholeness and content was to be found in a woman, but doesn’t find it.

S and Ls is a spiritual novel of great truths that resonates today and will in a hundred years time, written by Lawrence when he was still in his 20s. It comes from real life and a thorough intelligence.

The book flows like a river, day to day, with day to day events, what happened, what was said and the emotions behind what happens, which the characters do not understand. Real life then. People are generally sad, uneasy with their family, colleagues, lovers and friends, at odds with them, because behind the outward things are deeper things. The need to possess, to be loved and thereby possess, bending the will of the other to behave in more refined ways, sex of course, and bonds between people that are strong but people grow apart even so. The main character is quite a cruel man, not deliberately so, but nevertheless very cruel to his lovers. Drawing them in totally and then leaving them, bereft and broken. Why does he do this? He is searching for that special bond of body, mind and soul, and when the women doesn’t match up, she is rejected. He is unhappy and unsettled. His greatest love is his mother and it is heart breaking their bond, the terrible inconsolable pain of a dear presence gone.

The couple of sentences below, taken almost at random illustrates the tone, it is just one of many thoughts DH shares:

If so great a magnificent power could overwhelm them, identify them altogether with itself, so that they knew they were only grains in the tremendous heave that lifted every grass-blade its little height and every tree, and living thing, when why fret about themselves. They could let themselves be carried by life and they felt a sort of peace each in the other … (p430 ff).

You probably read this book ages ago, do read it again as I did, and will again in a few years time (God willing).  Watch out in the bookshop btw for the biography of DH by Jessie Chambers, the real life rejected lover.

Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence, 1913
Eleanor Rand I was drawn to this book by Apple Tree Yard, the intense drama BBC put on early in 2017, based on the novel by Louise Doughty.  It seemed to me to be one of the few studies (since Madame Bovary) on women's passion, the out of the blue, all consuming, destructive and dangerous type.  Whatever You Love is as good as A T Yard.  It is set in a seaside town, the sort young people leave as soon as they can, but due to circumstances our protagonist remains.  She is a nice, working  woman, slightly bored, like most of us I suspect.  Then things happen.  A mystery, you never quite know if it the body or mind or who is driving what.  It is a novel of intense, unbearable longing, loss and eventually empathy.  Beautifully written and grounded in reality, I couldn't put it down and read it in one day.  It is still whirling around in my head now. Whatever you Love by Louise Doughty 2008

This was just about the most depressing book I have ever read, and that includes the biography of Lina Prokofiev.  It has all the Irish horror memes of repressed women, cruelty to children and totalitarian rule by Catholic madmen (aka Priests.  Because Barry is a great writer and I began it, I did finish, but it would have been better for me if I hadn’t.  Just like for the main protagonist it would have been better if she had died in her youth like so many of her contemporaries did who suffered the civil war (the one around the 1930s) and thus avoided the rejection by her nearest and 'dearest' and countless other indignities and heart breaks. 

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, 2008

Lina P is a fascinating study of a talented, intelligent woman who had the misfortune to meet and then fall for Serge Prokofiev.  He was an emotionally unavailable man, who wanted Lina but only in a supporting role.  She followed him erratically around Europe, unable to resist, her reputation devalued at a time when they were important in the relationship market.  Because of him she pursued a singing career, when she would have been much more suited to academia (she spoke five languages) or business or fashion.  Her career was never successful, she suffered from nerves, bad reviews and bitchiness.  Prokofiev only asked her to marry him when she eventually fell pregnant, but things didn’t improve.  The story of Lina tells of her relationship, the people she met in artistic Europe, the extraordinary return to Russia at the time of Stalin and her life there.  Not an easy life, or a happy one, though the last ten years, when she finally physically (though never mentally) escaped the clutches of Russia were the best of her life.  So, it had a happy ending.  You will never be able to enjoy Prokofiev's music again, so read at your peril. 

Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison 2014
Rosanne Shaw

Written in 1941 and set in 1939 this classic story of obsession is tough. Easy to read and brilliantly written, but tough. It is a sad story but what disturbed me most was the excessive drinking and smoking and the horrid environment of dingy gas ring flats and car polluted streets, so it is aptly named, reminding us of a nasty world no longer here thank heavens but we can almost remember it. Like all good books the story keeps you turning the pages but lurking behind it are profound truths. Describing the main character George Harvey Bone as a type - “just as certain people look unmistakably horsey, bear the stamp of Newmarket, he bore the stamp of Great Portland Street. He made you think of road houses and there are thousands of his sort frequenting the saloon bars of public houses all over England”. We know it is true, types are clearly visible today too, so how free are any of us and how much are we just victims of fashion and the economy. What is acceptable for people to do governs how they look and the diseases they will die from. The reader knows what George should do fairly early on in the novel but understands why he cant. He needs a help. So it is a lesson, and all of us would gain from reading it.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton 1941

Jacquie Fox

Was it worth re-issuing this book, by the writer whose name is so easy to forget, emphatically yes.  JW has a unique voice, his style is short, no words are wasted, but all is said.  This story is about William Stonor a curious character who we get to know as he proceeds through his life, along you get the feeling with himself, his own discovery of who he is, and it is a bit of a shock to us both.  He learns about himself by what happens to him and how he reacts.  Of course his character drives the actions but he, as are we, are surprised by what it does, by the hidden depths coming to the surface.  First his sudden and then life long love of literature and its justification for study, surely John Williams speaking here against the tide of change in universities.  Then about passion, which none would expect from this reticent, withdrawn man.  It is a good story, you will turn the pages wanting to know what happens and then at the end you will put the book down and think, what was that, what is a person, how can we ever know, ourselves, those nearest to us, or anyone.  Its super prose, and great feeling for the life and politics in a Missouri university way outback.

Stonor by John Williams 1965

Penguin Vintage


Eileen Peacock

I read recently that Stacton was the greatest American author of the 20th century and I thought, crickey, I've never even heard of him, so I read The Self Enchanted which was one of the only books I could find by him on the shelves and happens to be his third novel at the beginning of a career of writing fiction history and poetry.  Was it that good?  Well I'm not sure of that but it was definitely good.  This book oozed menace, it was about a disordered charismatic person, wealthy, living in sunny California but drawn to the north snowy remote states.  Stacton surely had observed such a type and knew the disturbing detrimental effect they had on people who were drawn to them.  He has constructed a drama based on personalities tussling with each other, driven by their passions which ultimately they cannot control.  Would I read another book by Stacton, yes, - if I could find one. 

The Self Enchanted by David Stacton,



Memoir! definitely the best book I have read this year, and I have read many.  It is also (to my shame) the first book I have read by John (Sean) McGahern, written I realise now, one year before his death.  While I was engrossed in it and even now, I felt I really knew Ireland, strange and foreign country (to us Brits) that it was (is?), and its spirituality the people felt so keenly.  Theirs was a hard life but the important thing was not this life but the next.  Sean himself was destined for the priesthood and this was an honour, the highest thing one could aspire to.  He was the eldest of seven, all of whom became wonderful people, and from such an appalling background.  Sean loved his mother and that was the main thing about him, she was a lovely woman, educated, spiritual, who walked the country lanes of Ireland with her children, collecting flowers for the classroom in which she was head teacher.  She earned the money, held the house together, gave the children morals, cooked the dinners.  The book though is dominated by the father, as awful as the mother is good.  I wish I could have had a conversation with Sean and said to him, 'do you not realise, your father was a psychopath, all this thought and coming to terms by you is pointless, he was a psychopath, you were unlucky the only thing you can do is get away' (all the children did as soon as they could).  There is so much in this book, what I have said above merely scratches the surface.  I have other books of his lined up to read.

Memoir by John McGahern


Rosanne Shaw

I read this book attracted by the author of one of the best Radio Dramas I have ever heard, adapted from a story of his which was about a chess game on board a boat.  Beware Pity was brilliant, equally good as the Chess Game and longer and more profound as well.  It is a good story, you want to know what happened next but what I liked about it was, unlike many people, Sweig took the important things of life seriously, for example the feelings of a 17 year old girl.  How many would give this any thought today at all, not even a sentence would be spent on it.  But Sweig doesn’t distinguish between people and he gives the young ordinary person a whole book.  To him all people are important and good relations and decency and good feelings between people are the most vital things in the world.  Writing in the 1920s and 30s he could be said to understand Freud though probably he never read him, he just knew the way a novelist knows, that emotional feelings are the basis of eveything and it is why this book will not date. 

Beware Pity by Stefan Sweig


What an awful book, I determined to finish it but my goodness it was hard, stupid sexist nonsense.  It was written in 1935 but had a definite 50s feel to it.  It was all about a whimpish, beautiful (yawn) woman, rescued by a dare devil brilliant charismatic man who adored her, and carried her through door ways and told her not to worry it would all be all right … say no more, you get it.   In the unlikely event that you want to read it, you will have to go elsewhere, it's not in the shop any more, thank heavens

Red Stefan

by Patricia Wentworth


Eleanor Rand

I was interested in this book as it is a topic that has dominated me for the last two years, that is, the nature of the psychopathic personality.  Edna O Brien of course is a brilliant writer with great insights into the human soul but I have to say, in spite of the quote on the cover, by Philip Roth no less ('this is her best book'), I don’t think it is her best book and I think the reason for that is that the book is dominated by an idea and not by the characters.  So the characters are pushed about in an illogical sort of way.  The idea is about refugees, refugees of all types from all countries who meet and mix together in refuges (what a good name that is) in order to survive.  They need first of all shelter and then jobs, so they can at least live and will take virtually anything going.  They are all scared, of whatever appalling thing has happened to them, and this is where the psychopaths come in, and of the authorities catching up with them and of losing their job.  Injustice continues in their lives albeit in a smaller meaner way, of the type that is not prosecutable unless you are a secure confident sort of person with a bit of clout.  They are all sort of amazed at being where they are, but … it can happen to anyone as this story so clearly tells us.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O Brien




A friend recommended this book to me, she got it from her local library (where incidentally they have a policy of only stocking books less than 20 years old – you what ??!!).  It is all unbelievable, the protagonist is the High Flyer, she speaks in a horrible language (Nutterguff, cut the crap, ) and earns megabucks and has a Life Plan.  Everyone has loads of money.  There are super attractive men all over the place and other nice religious people prepared to risk all to help this unattractive (and unbelievable) main character.  I know why my friend liked it, it is a psychological drama that builds to a crucendo and to be fair to the book, I read it, and it is quite long, I didn’t discard it, which I could have done.  But I am pleased it is finished and I can get onto something good, I shan't attempt another.

The High Flyer by Susan Howatch



Louise Symonds

The Ice is a Nordic Noir novel of the creepy scary type we Brits love. The author is young, blonde, Swedish and female and she gives the tone for the book. You can just imagine her working in the dress stores, walking the sludgy streets and sleeping in the sparse apartment blocks in which the drama is set.

It is a psychological thriller set against the backdrop of a cold snowy Christmas in Stockholm. The stylish dust jacket is stamped Guaranteed To Keep You Up All Night and I can confirm this is true, well almost in any case as I have to be out early for work, but I happily turned off the telly and read it by the fire through the evening. It took me a couple of days, and when I put it down I wanted to get back to it, to find out what happened. I was intrigued by the main characters and their interactions All of them, police, suspects, victims have their character flaws and these weaknesses, predilections, and traumas drive their actions and the plot. The prose is easy to read, no wasted words on description or extraneous characters. Grebe has written four crime novels with her sister Asa Traff which won various awards and also the Moscow Noir trilogy with Paul Leander-Engstrom. I imagine co-authoring hones the writing style and this shines through in the easy to ready first novel as solo author

The Ice Beneath Her: Camilla Grebe: Zaffre: translated by Elizabeth Clerk

2015  UK 2016:

Gillian Litherland This fascinating novel begins where most end, with a marriage. I adored this book. It came at just the right time for me, I am a woman at the end of her life suffering from the effects of bad men, who took home, money, jobs, friends and most of all, emotions. If only I'd read and inwardly digested Wildfell at the age of its heroine, and authoress, that is in my early 20s. Well actually I had read it, when I was about 12, and I dimly remember bits of it, but it had no effect on me then. In fact I may have put it down in the early pages after a passage on badger baiting (reader, get past this, it doesn’t feature again and bears no relevance to the plot). This time round every page was soooo relevant. Conversations are given verbatim, the heroine's feelings recorded in a journal (as one does), horrific domestic events occur daily, with their effects on the emotional life of our heroine detailed. The story is set in a backdrop of English country life. We are given genuine glimpses of the minor gentry in midlands England (so that's how one got through the days living in country piles surrounded by fields), of travel, meals, clothes and customs. This is Bronte world though and violence rumbles just below the surface, sometimes erupting onto the pages. How did Anne know so much at such a young age. She has a real understanding of the absolute importance of a good moral character fortified by religion, if one is to lead a happy, stable and useful life. Love and friendship are secondary. Without moral character one is lost, in this world and the next The Tenant of Wildfell Hall;

Anne Bronte


Louise Symonds
I'm afraid I abandoned this book about one fifth of the way in.  I will say straight away the fault is me not the writer, it is just not my sort of book.  I gave up the evening I saw Mission Impossible (No 4) on the telly over Christmas and the two stories became muddled in my mind.  Jerichp's War is very Mission Impossibily,  I stopped at the point a donkey entered the plot.  I am sure something nasty was in store for him and  I would rather not know.  The bit I read was about extreme characters working on their own carrying out highly secret and dangerous tasks that will alter the course of history, except no-one but us will know about them, as it is highly secret.  So if you like that kind of thing you may well like this.  The book is long, so one fifth was actually pretty good going, and it is plot and war technology, not character driven.  The protagonists are introduced just enough to explain why they are there, though I didn't get it.  Why for example would a young attractive graduate risk his life, take life and live undercover in war deprived Yemen rather than being a lawyer, adventure holidaying and drugging or whatever in London.  The people in it are called The Ghost, The Girl, Belcher and Jericho and are archetypes rather than people.  The Archaeologist, (aka The Girl) for example, I mean, which university did she belong to, and NO, under 30 year old women however blond and beautiful (yes she is) don't get to run digs, and where were the diggers and what was she digging anyway? 
The author, Gerald Seymour, is very experienced and very successful (he wrote Harry's Game), but I found the style difficult, it is very factual.  You have to read where the wounded man turns left, crawling on his belly, along the ditch, how long the ditch is, about the wire, the recessed doors, cement etc etc he has to negotiate while making an escape.  As I don't care about the wounded man I don't mind if he makes it or not, so this is boring to me.  But ... hands in the air ... I don't read war books.  Its a man's book I guess though I imagine most would find the length daunting and wouldn't pick it up in the first place
Gerald Seymour 2017 Jericho's War