Books Read in 2021 – 31. Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Crime

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Published: 1950

Rating: 3.5/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on the train. Bruno is immediately captivated by Haines and proposes that they sort out their respective problems by each murdering the person who is holding them back – Haines’ wife, Miriam, and Bruno’s father. There would be no link between them and neither would get into trouble. Haines is not keen and assumes that Bruno is talking hypothetically but when Miriam is murdered, he realises he may have to keep up his side of the bargain.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time but only recently purchased a copy.

This is starting to be a theme for this year’s reading but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I expected. Certainly, it was not as straightforwardly thrilling as The Talented Mr RIpley and I felt it lacked the tension of that novel. I did go back and forth between ratings as parts of it were very good but other parts left me feeling bored.

The novel starts strongly. The opening line – ‘The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.’ – immediately gives the reader an impression of an unpleasant atmosphere. This is not the start of a happy story. Guy Haines is the impatient passenger, desperate to get where he is going so he can get a divorce from his wife. He is caught in his unhappy and hateful thoughts by Charles Bruno, rich and ridiculous, who joins his carriage. Bruno is full of wild ideas. The main one that he shares with Haines is the idea of two strangers, meeting briefly, carrying out a murder for each other, and then never meeting ever again. So far so good. I was hooked.

However, it then seemed to take ages for the first murder to happen. I didn’t feel the build up of tension. It felt stodgy and I wanted to get past it. This is partly due to the fact that I had an idea of what was going to happen. This isn’t a book one comes to blind. I knew there was to be action and I was impatient to get to it. This may be my problem not Highsmith’s.

There are moments of high tension after that but I didn’t feel that overall it lived up to the promise of the meeting on the train. Haines’ panic after he has killed Bruno’s father is well described and the way he falls apart even though he now has everything he wants is convincing but I expected that this would be impossible to put down and it just wasn’t.

One of the more interesting elements of the book is the way that it is a metaphor for the hidden nature of homosexuality at the time of writing. Two strangers meet on the train, they hook up and go on with their lives except Bruno keeps appearing in Haines’ life spoiling his marriage to his new wife, making Haines ashamed of the things he has done. Bruno equally knows the dangers of seeing Haines as they need to remain undiscovered but he cannot keep away. When he removes Miriam from the picture, he is making a space for himself in Haines’ life that he cannot possibly fill. Haines immediately marries again, pushing Bruno back out of his life. This was more interesting then the actual plot.

The ending was disappointing. Although I sensed that getting caught was actually a relief to Haines, it still felt anticlimactic. And I felt that Bruno deserved more punishment than falling from Haines’ boat. None of it felt very satisfying. Perhaps I’ll stick to reading the Ripley books.

Top Ten Tuesday – Bookish Pet Peeves

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Top Ten Bookish Pet Peeves

  1. An obvious romance – I’m not a big fan of romance in general but it works best, I think, when there is some genuine peril (if that is the correct word). I find it annoying when the end relationship is never in doubt. Example: How to fall in love – Celia Ahern – the female lead, Christine is trying to help Adam win his ex-girlfriend back but, of course, this isn’t what ends up happening. Tedious.
  2. A disappointing end to a series – It is annoying when you invest the time to follow a series of books and then it turns out to be a rubbish ending. It’s exciting when you know that you are coming to the end of a series and the letdown of a bad ending is magnified by the number of books you have read up to that point. Example: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. The main problem is how much of the action takes place away from Katniss but it also the lack of a hunger games and the tedious love triangle.
  3. A movie cover – I understand why publishers feel the need to do this but it really is annoying. I much prefer a nice art print or something more abstract. The problem with a movie cover is that it gives you an idea of what the characters look like and it is hard to move past. (Incidental peeve – On my kindle, often the covers update when there has been a movie version which is very irritating.)
  4. The problems of posh people – I really don’t want to read about people with money who often have to make problems for themselves because otherwise their moneyed lives would be just fine. They are generally obnoxious and unpleasant. Example: The Secret History – Donna Tartt. The obnoxious, snobby students are so full of themselves and their professor is even worse. They end up murdering because they are beyond normal morality. Just unpleasant. (See also Amsterdam by Ian McEwan,)
  5. When you buy the next book by an author or in a series and the cover design has completely changed. When you buy a lot of books by an author – be it all in a series or not – it’s nice if the books all look similar to each other and sit nicely together on the shelf. However, publishers and fashions change and so do covers. I’ve not got the money to rebuy books just so they all look the same although I know some people who have. Example: Rebus Series – Ian Rankin.
  6. Pretentious prose – I do find it annoying when the prose style gets in the way of reading smoothly. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a clever phrase as much as the next person but it should be fluid. It shouldn’t be the author showing off their vocabulary. Example: Any recent novel by Ian McEwan.
  7. When someone is killed or dies in order for another character to learn some life lesson. It is usually women that have to go through things or be killed and men who learn something about themselves or live an improved life because of what they learned. Example: Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher. Hannah’s suicide, and all the things that lead up to it, are ultimately character development for Clay who realises what he needs to do to improve his own life.
  8. Teenage first person blues – I am quite far removed from my teenage years now but I do find myself reading fiction from the point of view of teenagers fairly regularly. I find it harder and harder to relate to a teenage narrator and their self centred worlds. Examples: Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, Turtles All The Way Down – John Green and the entire Divergent series.
  9. When they totally mess up the film / TV version – I’m not sure that this is really a book peeve but it is related. When you have really loved a book, you get excited to see what someone has done with it. While I know that everyone’s imagination is different but sometimes, directors seem to go out of their way to mess things up. Examples: The Book Thief, The Golden Compass, The Other Boleyn Girl to name but three.
  10. When it is impossible to suspend my disbelief – I think I am quite good at suspending my disbelief but sometimes things just get too ridiculous. Sometimes it depends on how good the prose is or how good the characters are and you would just about accept anything but if these are not so good then you are less able to disbelieve. Examples: Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens, The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman and Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus.

Books Read in 2021 30. The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

Genre: Cosy Detective

Narrative Style: First person from one point of view, third person from a lot of different perspectives

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Four septuagenarians meet every week to try and solve old police cases. Then a murder occurs that is linked to their care home. They can’t help but get involved.

Time on shelf: Not long. This was given to me by my father in law because he hadn’t really liked it and he wondered what I would think of it.

I’m always a bit sceptical of celebrities writing novels. Sales are based on the famous name rather than the quality of the prose so there is no need for it to be amazing. However, I did think that if anyone could do it well, Osman could. After all, he is clearly intelligent and witty so I had higher hopes for this then I would have had for any other celebrity effort.

This intelligence is clear throughout. The main reason that this book has two stars rather than one is that it is not badly written. Osman can string a sentence together and he has a good vocabulary. It is tightly plotted with plenty (perhaps too many) twists and turns. I can see why people might enjoy it. However, I found it irritating from almost the very first.

There are a number of problems. The first one to come to light, is the switching between characters. Osman has opted for one first person narrator and any number of third person perspectives. This isn’t a problem in itself but Osman’s chapters tend to be short and they jump around all over the place so you barely get to grips with one perspective before you have to deal with the next. It starts to feel a bit chaotic.

The next thing is the tone. This book is clever and it knows. There are lots of little jokes and asides. The prose really rubbed me up the wrong way. For example, ‘How peculiar to be in this room! He shivers. Probably just the cold.’ For a start, it is present tense which is annoying. Then it is supposed to suggest something about Father Mackie (the shiverer in question) and make the reader suspicious but it is so heavy handed and unsubtle that I couldn’t take it seriously.

The characters are a wacky crew. Elizabeth, the leader of the group, was formally a spy and her former exploits are dropped casually into the narrative. She has any number of useful contacts and is adept at being two steps ahead of everyone else. However, instead of seeming like a fully rounded character, she starts to seem slightly superhuman in her leaps of intuition. There really isn’t all that much more to her either. She’s a former spy and Osman never lets us forget it. Similarly, Ron Ritchie is a union man, through and through and, again, little more. Joyce and Ibrahim are even less interesting. Joyce is a bit drippy and Ibrahim was presumably included for diversity reasons rather than anything else.

Finally, there is not a single moment of this novel when I wasn’t aware I was reading a book. The events are unconvincing. The characters – particularly the police – are unconvincing. Then there are the number of twists and turns. A better name for this book might be A Plethora of Red Herrings. There are only so many times I can stand being lead up the garden path. This novel has you running up and down it constantly. Not satisfying. I will not be reading on. Not that it matters. No doubt, millions will.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Books on my Autumn To Read List

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

How it works:

I assign each Tuesday a topic and then post my top ten list that fits that topic. You’re more than welcome to join me and create your own top ten (or 2, 5, 20, etc.) list as well. Feel free to put a unique spin on the topic to make it work for you! 

A nice straightforward list this week – what I intend to read next. I can’t promise I will keep to it. I’m always getting distracted by new books but this is the intention. Any thoughts about any of them gratefully received.

  1. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. It sounds interesting and I really enjoyed Half A Yellow Sun.
  2. Jews Don’t Count – David Baddiel. I’ve just downloaded this onto my Kindle as it is an area I’m interested in knowing more about.
  3. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte. I read this at school and enjoyed it but I can’t remember it very well so time for a reread.
  4. The Long Call – Anne Cleeves. I really enjoyed the Shetland books but this is the first Cleeves book outside that series that I’ve bought.
  5. The Collector – John Fowles. I’ve been intending to read this since I was at university (which is a long time ago). I finally bought a copy last year.
  6. No One Writes to the Colonel – Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s a long time since I last read any Marquez. I’m not sure why as I enjoyed the others that I have read.
  7. Mysterious Skin – Scott Heim. Another book that has been on the reading list for a long time but I only just purchased.
  8. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin. I love the Rebus books but the only other non-Rebus that I read, I wasn’t that impressed with. We’ll see.
  9. On Beauty – Zadie Smith. I’ve read a few of Smith’s books in the past although I wasn’t that impressed with the last one (Swing Time). Time to give her another chance, I think.
  10. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain. I read Tom Sawyer a few years ago and thought it was about time I read this one.

Top Ten Books with a Number in the Title.

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

How it works:

I assign each Tuesday a topic and then post my top ten list that fits that topic. You’re more than welcome to join me and create your own top ten (or 2, 5, 20, etc.) list as well. Feel free to put a unique spin on the topic to make it work for you! Please link back to That Artsy Reader Girl in your own post so that others know where to find more information.

Here is my list. There is a surprising number of dystopias and science fiction in here, perhaps because of the use of years in titles. In numerical order:

  1. Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman (2001) Excellent dystopia with a focus on race and prejudice. Better than the TV show.
  2. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (1969) One of the best anti-war novels. A look at the effect of war on the mind.
  3. Starter For Ten – David Nicholls (2003) Romance based around a team taking part in University Challenge. The film was better.
  4. 11/22/63 – Stephen King (2011) Interesting science fiction / alternate history focusing on the question of what would have happened if Kennedy had not been shot.
  5. 13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher (2007) Girl dies so boy can learn to live a better life pretty much sums this one up
  6. Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith (2008) A thriller set in communist Russia. Okay thriller with some interesting political points to make.
  7. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953) One of my favourite dystopias. The idea of books being burned is so disturbing.
  8. 1984 – George Orwell (1949) Another brilliant dystopia. Particularly fitting reading in the current political climate.
  9. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke (1968) This did not help my paranoia about technology. Also interesting ideas about the nature of the universe.
  10. 20000 Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne (1869). Not a bad adventure but I did get fed up with the long lists of fish.

Books Read in 2021 29. I am the Messenger – Markus Zusak

Genre: Australian fiction, young adult, bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2002

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ed Kennedy is a no hoper. He drives a cab and hangs around with his friends. He has a dog and is in love with Audrey, one of his friends even though she is not interested in him romantically. He has no prospects and no ambitions. Then playing cards start to appear in his mailbox and his life changes irrevocably.

Time on Shelf: About six months. After reading Bridge of Clay last year, I was keen to read more Zusak.

I enjoyed this. It was an easy read – I didn’t realise when I picked it up that it was aimed at the teen market – and the characters were interesting. Ed was an observant and funny narrator and the messages he has to deliver are weird and I was keen to know who was sending them. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the other Zusak I’ve read. It’s sometimes a little weird when you read an earlier work by a writer and this felt like it just wasn’t quite there yet. It had a lot of Zusak’s quirks but they weren’t delivered quite as well as in the later books.

The opening chapter is one of the best I have read. Ed and his friend Marv are face down in a bank that is being robbed, rather incompetently. By the end of the chapter, Ed is a hero and his face is in all the newspapers. Not long after this, he receives the first playing card – the ace of clubs – which has three addresses on it. At each address, he has to do something to help the people who live there. This theme follows with the other playing cards. Some of the jobs are easy – pretending to be an elderly lady’s long lost husband, for example – and some are difficult – dealing with a man who comes home each night to rape his wife, for example. As the novel progresses, the messages Ed has to deliver become more personal and he starts to realise that there is more to him than just being a underage cab driver.

All the way through, I was curious about where the playing cards were coming from. I knew there was potential for it to completely spoil the story if I wasn’t convinced by it or if we didn’t get to find out. As it is, when Ed has delivered all the messages, a man appears who tells him he has arranged everything. He killed Ed’s father, made the bank robbery happen, forced the man to rape his wife and so on. He gives Ed all the notes he has made about it and sure enough all the events are in there. Clearly, this man represents the author who is controlling everything in order to make Ed a better person. I’m a sucker for fiction about fiction so that really appealed to me. (Obviously, you could see this as a religious metaphor if you wanted to but I prefer the idea of an overarching author to that of an overarching God.) It left me feeling happy and satisfied.

Books Read in 2021 – 28. The Fellowship of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1954

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When Bilbo Baggins decides he is going to leave the Shire, he leaves his heir, Frodo with an immense task. One of the items passed on to Frodo is a ring with immense power. This means that Frodo has to leave his home and take on the hugely important task of destroying the ring.

Time on shelf: These books belong to my husband and have been on our shelves for the entirety of our time living together so 25 years. As he was allowed to help me put together this years reading list, this was at the top of it.

I read The Hobbit a long time ago and really enjoyed it but when I tried to read The Fellowship of the Ring, I just couldn’t get into it. I tried a couple of more times over the years but to no avail so I was expecting this to be a bit of a slog. And in fact, the prologue explaining all the history was hard going. (I remembered that one of the previous times I hadn’t even made it through this part.) However, once the story got started, I started to enjoy it more.

Of course, I have seen the films more than once so I had some idea of the story – as most people do – but I didn’t remember it well and the book is quite different anyway so I wasn’t bored by the unfurling of the story. (The only slight issue being that the casting for some of the roles in the movie was so good that they filled my mind when those characters came up – Frodo and Bilbo mainly but also Saruman and Gandalf as well.) The plot is straightforward. Frodo is the keeper of the ring and he gradually amasses the rest of the group who will make up the Fellowship and they start to make their way towards Mordor. This is not an issue as there are enough ups and downs to keep the reader’s interest. Tolkien’s style is easy to read without being simplistic.

The heart of the novel is the friendship between the Hobbits and particularly that between Sam and Frodo. Sam is absolutely devoted to Frodo and is devastated when he thinks that Frodo may have left to carry on his journey alone. When Frodo is hurt, Sam stays by his side. He sneaks into the Council of Elrond in order to be close to him. There is a definite homo-erotic element to this, making their friendship tender and intimate. It makes up for the general lack of sexuality and romance elsewhere in the novel.

However, there were a couple of things that stopped this from getting five stars. First of all, the insistence of having the story unfurl around Frodo meant that there was a good amount of talk so that the reader could learn what had happened to the others. This slowed the action. (This is remedied in the films by having the action move between Gandalf and Frodo, for example.) There is also a lot of history that Tolkien has to somehow get into the story and again, this slowed things down.

The characters in the novel don’t particularly develop. The Hobbits are Hobbits with their appetites and their singing, the Elves are Elves and so on. They don’t change unless they come into contact with the ring. The focus is on the adventure rather than the characters taking part in it. This is part of the reason that I don’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy or adventure. I much prefer a story of character development. It is also quite a boyish book with few significant women but given that it was written in the fifties, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Tolkien if he could only imagine a world where men were free to go off on quests and did the majority of fighting.

Ultimately, this is a story of good and evil and the unlikely heroes these times make. It is easy to sympathise with Frodo as he is clearly not made for this sort of behaviour. The story trots along nicely although I didn’t feel compelled to immediately pick up the next instalment. I will read it though and that is something I did not expect to say.

Books Read in 2021 – 27. I am Legend – Richard Matheson

Genre: Horror, Post-Apocolyptic

Narrative Style: Third person, Chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1954

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Robert Neville is the last living human. The whole planet has succumbed to a bacteria that has caused them to become vampires. By day, Neville hunts for sleeping vampires to kill and fortifies his house. By night, he hides from the vampires on his street when they attack his house, desperate for his blood. How long can he carry on with his fight for survival?

Time on Shelf: This is a reread. I last read it when I was 18 – some thirty years ago. It was loaned to me by a friend that knew I liked horror. My reading matter then tended to be Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert. When it came up on the Kindle Daily Deal recently, I thought it was worth another look.

I like a book that sets out its stall straightaway. The opening sentence of I Am Legend – ‘On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when the sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back’ – lets you know exactly where you and Robert Neville stand. This is a man in peril. The peril is vampires. The novel starts off running and doesn’t really stop.

It seems that Neville is the last man standing. For some reason – he suggests a prior infection caught from a vampire bat – he is immune to the disease that has turned everyone else into blood sucking vampires and now he has to try to survive. Although they are very different stories, Neville’s plight reminded me a little of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. We only see Neville’s point of view. Flashbacks let us see what became of his wife and daughter and the mistakes he feels he made early in the plague. He was no one to talk to or to help him make decisions about the future. He is paranoid and easy to anger.

Understandably, it is often quite unpleasant inside Neville’s head. He is tortured by the female vampires outside who try and use their bodies to lure him out. At the beginning of the novel, he is driven to distraction by this display. He is unsure exactly what he might be capable of, his lust is so great. As timepasses, his psyche changes and instead of fighting blindly, he starts to think about where the plague came from and whether there might be a cure.

Matheson plays with traditional vampire lore. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire can be seen as a metaphor for the syphilis which was ravaging Europe at the time that Stoker was writing. In I Am Legend, vampirism is the disease, caused by a bacteria spread first by dust storms and mosquitos and then by the vampires themselves. Neville’s ideas about the bacteria lead him to working out why vampires cannot abide sunlight and why they disintegrate when they are staked. He also offers psychological conclusions as to why the cross is effective, making use of other religious symbolism if the vampire had originally been Jewish, for example.

As readers, we are close to Neville. We experience his highs and lows, when he rescues a dog, for example. We have faith in him and hope for his survival. At the end of the novel, Matheson shifts our perspective. It turns out the Neville is literally the last of his kind. The bacteria has mutated. People are more easily able to live with being a vampire. They are developing medicine to help with it. Neville has no future. He will become a representation of the past – a literal legend.

Even though I had read this before, the ending was still hard. It was like having the ground pulled out from under you. Obviously, we hope that Neville will somehow make it into a brave new world. It is both sad and satisfying when Neville realises that he will become a part of their lore, that this has been his role and now it is over.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Places to Read

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

How it works:

I assign each Tuesday a topic and then post my top ten list that fits that topic. You’re more than welcome to join me and create your own top ten (or 2, 5, 20, etc.) list as well. Feel free to put a unique spin on the topic to make it work for you! 

This week’s Top Ten is Favourite Places to read. I don’t really think about finding a special place to read. I always have a book about my person but it is more time than place that usually stops me from reading. Nonetheless, here are some of the places where it is good to read. Not quite ten but never mind.

  1. Bed – This is the place I read most often. I even get up early when I am going to work so I have time to read. It is a nice way to start the day and ensures that if nothing else, I get some reading done everyday. I used to read before I went to sleep but these days I’m often too tired to contemplate it.
  2. The sofa – This is the place I’m most likely to be found reading. I have a two seater sofa to myself as mu husband likes to sit in the easy chair. Often during lockdown, I would sit here for a few hours reading. One of the nicer things about lockdown was having the time to sit for a while and concentrate on reading.
  3. On the bus – As I can’t drive, I have to use public transport to get to work. Sometimes this involves two buses. Reading means that the time is not wasted. It means I actually look forward to my daily commute rather than hating it.
  4. On the train – This is different from getting on the bus. Usually it is a longer journey so it is a lot more relaxing. It is often the start of a holiday so again it feels different from the daily commute.
  5. In the bath – I used to love to read in the bath. I considered it the perfect relaxation. However, after a series of dropped books, I have given this up.
  6. In the pub – I often read in the pub if my husband is watching sport that I don’t like. Also, it is a good way to avoid being talked to if you are waiting for someone.
  7. At work – At the minute, I work in a school that has a program called Drop Everything And Read which means at a given time, lessons stop and everybody reads. It is always enjoyable to be able to have twenty minutes in the working day to be able to read.
  8. In the waiting room – Not really a favourite place but a place I often find myself reading these days.

Books Read in 2021 – 26. Here We Are – Graham Swift (contains spoilers)

Genre: Historical fiction, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Non-chronological, third person from multiple viewpoints.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ronnie, Evie and Jack are all performers and in the summer of 1959, they are all in Brighton performing on the pier. Ronnie is a magician, Evie is his assistant and also his fiancee. Jack is the compere and an all round entertainer. That is, until, at the end of the season when Ronnie disappears after a spectacular trick, never to be seen again.

Time on Shelf: This was a special offer Kindle purchase, probably at the end of last year so not very long.

I liked the start of this book more than the end. It begins with Jack Robinson standing in the wings, wondering how he was ever going to make himself overcome his ‘panic, vertigo, revulsion’ and actually get on to the stage. It is an interesting opening, capturing Jack’s frame of mind as he is distracted by the thought of his mother who had pushed him onto the stage, his mind moving through memories before Swift returns us to the present, explaining how Jack came to be there, waiting in the wings. I was immediately taken.

It felt like the focus was to be on Jack and his life, with Ronnie and Evie as secondary characters but the narrative suddenly jumps to telling Ronnie’s story, particularly focusing on his time as a child. We learn that his father, a sailor, brings him back a parrot but when he goes back to sea, his mother sells it without regard for Ronnie’s feelings. She tells Ronnie’s father that it flew away. When the war starts Ronnie is evacuated to Oxford. This section was well written and successfully evoked the era. Ronnie is sent away from working class London to what he views as a grand house in Oxford to stay with a family who genuinely love him and look after him. His mother is distant and seemingly unemotional. His father is an intermittent presence but Eric and Penny have been unable to have children of their own and so are desperate for someone to love. Eric passes on to Ronnie his love of magic.

It is when the narrative switches to Evie and the present day that I found my attention starting to wane. Evie is seventy five in the present day, Jack having died the year before. They were married and he had found fame as an actor of some renown and Evie was the manager of his production company. At the heart of this was Ronnie’s disappearance. Evie had originally been engaged to Ronnie but, inevitably, Evie was drawn to Jack who was a bit of a ladies’ man. And it does seem inevitable. There is nothing unusual or exciting about this part of the narrative. Swift captures her grief at Jack’s death well but I didn’t find her narrative as interesting as either of the men.

The action switches now between Evie’s day in the present and action in the past as she remembers the last weeks with Ronnie, the death of his mother and the first time that she sleeps with Jack. It was fairly obvious what would happen when Ronnie went to see his mother. It was predictable especially given that we know about Ronnie’s disappearance from the beginning.

I felt sorry for Ronnie but we don’t get to know how he feels except at one remove. Evie hypothesises that he knew straight away what she had done and as he disappears not long after then it is may be true. As Evie is the only one left alive, she gets to give the definitive version of these final events.

The disappearance itself is quite dramatic. Swift makes us wait to see what the great new trick was that Ronnie had planned. It may be that he had already decided to disappear and it actually had nothing to do with Evie’s guilt for sleeping with Jack. He has been performing a trick where he makes a rainbow appear across the stage and then a white dove would fly out. On the last night, it is a parrot that appears from under the rainbow and then Ronnie himself disappears.

After that, the actual end of the book felt a little anti-climactic. Evie returns from having lunch with Jack’s agent. She is tired and she goes to bed, thinking that she felt the familiar warmth of Jack’s body beside her. There is something in Swift’s prose that suggests she may be about to die as well. Obviously, I suppose, we never discover the whereabouts of Ronnie who like his parrot, might be dead or alive. It wasn’t that that made the ending feel a little flat. It felt a little like Swift had run out of steam and he couldn’t imagine a life for Evie without either of the men. That was disappointing because she had seemed quite a independent character earlier on.

So a good start but a disappointing end. Swift’s prose meant that this was readable throughout but I felt the plot let it down.