Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

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Livia Franchini – Shelf Life

After ten years together, Ruth finds herself suddenly alone. Neil has left and all that her life consists of now is her work as a nurse in an old people’s home and shopping groceries at the small Tesco close to her flat. How did she get here? First, the escape of her ill-willed mother, then her friend Alanna whom she met in nursery school and with whom she still works together, the different patients and their respective needs, and Neil whom she despite all the time together seems to have hardly known.

Shelf Life – a. the period during which a good remains effective and free from deterioration. B. the period for which an idea or piece of information is considered an advantage over the competitor.

Still after having finished reading the novel, I wonder about the link between the title and the plot. Yes, the groceries Ruth buys somehow play a prominent role since they provide the titles for the different chapters. But beyond this? So what else could the title refer to? The time the main character is considered young – might be, but Ruth is beyond this discussion and her age is of no importance. Even as a young girl she wasn’t actually judged pretty or attractive. An innovative idea or piece of information is also something I didn’t find.

Thus, just as the titles leaves me a bit perplex, the whole story only slightly touched me. There is some red thread, basically between Alanna and Ruth, which is a bit strange since her relationship and breakup with Neil somehow nevertheless make up the centre of the plot around which everything revolves.

I liked Livia Fanchini’s style of writing and I am sure she can tell an interesting story, but somehow “Shelf Life” confused me much more than it made sense. Her characters are definitely interesting in their very peculiar manners, but somehow it all seemed not fully developed to me.

William Shaw – Deadland

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William Shaw – Deadland

It’s just a simple thing, a petty crime, and they have done it before. But the two teenagers Tap and Sloth do not have the least idea what chain of events they trigger when robbing a bag from a random commuter. They find two mobiles in it, one a very expensive iPhone, the other an old-fashioned throw-away phone. Of course they cannot really sell the iPhone but maybe Tap’s mother’s ex Mickey can do that. The next day, Mickey is found brutally murdered.  But that is not the only case DS Alexandra Cupidi’s team has to deal with: in the local museum an arm has been found in a sculpture after visitors had increasingly complained about the smell. Whom does this arm belong to? And who would commit such a crime?

I have devoured William Shaw’s series on Breen and Tozer in the 1960s London and was waiting curiously for something new by the author. “Deadland”, actually the second instalment of this series, again is a murder investigation, but hardly comparable to the other series which quite logically comes with the setting in modern days Kent. Yet, as expected, there is a cleverly constructed plot which connects seemingly loose strands and keeps suspense high throughout the novel.

Apart from the murder investigation, which could hardly be surpassed, I most of all liked the characters in the novel. They are all quite unique and individual. First of all, Alex Cupidi who is a clever detective but also single mother to a rebellious teenage girl. I really appreciated how she copes with her daughter’s troubles and even though she doesn’t approve of all of her decisions, tries to keep connected to Zoe and show understanding. Also the two good-for-nothing boys turn out to be good kinds in their own ways and know good from bad.

Even though it is just a side-line in the plot, I found Constable Jill Ferriter’s struggles after having shared the bed with a colleague after too much drinking and regretting it later was quite interesting. She did something stupid she regretted afterwards, but there is no easy way out of the situation, first of all, she still has to work with that colleague and second, what would happen if she reported this assault? Not only since she is police and does not want to be a victim, but also because this could seriously undermine her position in a mostly male job.

All in all, a brilliant read that leaves nothing to wish for.

Zadie Smith – Swing Time

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Zadie Smith – Swing Time

Two girls have a dream: from their rather poor family background to the stages of the world, dancing and singing. But only Tracey is talented and can go to a dancing school whereas the narrator is forced by her mother – intelligent and wanting the best, i.e. social ascension by education, for her daughter – to attend a normal school with white girls. The girls go different ways and a couple of years later, the narrator is the personal assistant of one of the most famous stars in the world, the other is struggling with a non-existent career and kids. Their ways cross again and again and the question who has managed to make something of their life hangs in the air.

The friendship of the girls and their respective development is for me the central aspect of the novel, however, Zadie Smith has so much more food for thought in her work. First of all, how can two individuals who do not seem to be so different develop in completely different ways. They are friends, share common idols and ideas and are only divided by talent. Their background makes them outsiders, they – and their mothers – do not know the codes of behaviour which the other children easily manage. They make experiences the white girls would never make, what we would rather call sexual abuse is normal to them and something which seems to be usual and frequent in their communities.

Yet, it is not only the talent that divides them. The narrator’s mother is a typical example of a woman with intellect who does not want to accept social structures as God-given but wants to fight against the position she is allocated by educating herself and wanting the same for her daughter. She succeeds in making a career as a politician and uses her position to fight for her poor constituency – but she forgets her role as a mother. We do not see any love between the two, she is strict and well-meaning, but never affectionate and warm. It takes until her very last days until there is some kind of mutual understanding, but this comes too late for both of them.

Another superficial relationship is the one between the narrator and her employer, Aimee, the famous singer. She wrongly believes that in all those years, something like a friendship has developed, not seeing that she is paid for her role and there is not real personal affection from her boss. The narrator seems to be successful, she travels the world, makes a lot of money, but what has she achieved and especially, to what extent is she independent? She lives someone else’s life, has created nothing herself and does not decide on anything at all. In the end, she does not even have a home anymore. Is this really her life?

In connection with Aimee, we get another important aspect of the novel. Zadie Smith has already thrown a light on the relationship between the white majority in England and the immigrants from the Caribbean or other former colonies. The singer wants to do some good with her money – she possesses more than the GNP of some major countries – and thus sets up a girls’ school in an African village. She ignores local structures and how the teaching works – and what the girls actually need. But they can make nice pictures for the yellow press. We can recognize a lot of stars from the show business here, wanting to do good, but doing the wrong things and ignoring the reality of Africa.

There is so much more which would be worth mentioning, e.g. the narrative structure which springs in time and alternates different lines of the plot so that you only step by step can assemble the whole picture. The fact that everything is only told from the narrator’s point of view – a narrator who does not even get a name, which I think Is also remarkable. Yet, to come to an end, an outstanding novel with so many noteworthy aspects that you have a lot to think about after reading the novel.

Emily Barr – Blackout

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Emily Barr – Blackout

When Sophie wakes up, she knows something is wrong. But she falls asleep again before she can sort out things. When she wakes up next, she realizes that she is not in her bedroom, nothing looks familiar to her. The clothes she wears, the room around her and she feels sick. When she is strong enough to leave the bed, she finds out that she is in an attic and, to her surprise, the door is open and she can leave. She finds herself in Paris, but how did she get there from London? And how can she go back without money and a passport? But the most important question is: what happened between Sunday and today, Thursday?

Emily Barr’s quick read „Blackout“ plays we too very human fears: first of all, having a blackout, not remembering what happened during the last days, not knowing what to do, feeling completely lost. The second is the feelings Sophie has after giving birth to her baby: She does not recognize it as her baby, she cannot bond with it, she is ashamed that the baby she only perceives as a “creature” does belong to her. She had a certain expectation of what it would be when she becomes a mother and then the deep deception because nothing works out as planned.

Even if it is a rather short text, it is full of suspense and you are eager to find out what happened. The solution is convincing and thus, the whole novel is well-rounded crime story.

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

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Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

A summer house in the Hebrides. Mrs Ramsey is taking care of her family, although she sometimes wonders if this is really the life she has dreamt of. So does her husband. Even though the house is full of people, apart from the eight children there are numerous friends, many of them feel lonely and misunderstood. Even when they are together at the large dinner table. Ten years later, Mrs Ramsey is dead and the summer house forgotten. The war has left people with other thoughts. But now the family wants to go back to the residence which does not look as inviting as it did many years before. Yet, finally, they will be able to go to the lighthouse, since this time, the weather will be fine.

Virginia Woolf’s novel is not easy to access. We have three sections which could hardly differ more than they do. In the first part, we get a lot of insight in the characters’ thoughts and their feelings. Their emotional states are closely observed and it leaves you with an uneasy feeling since all of them are not able to express what they really think and want to say. They hide behind facades. In the second part, the point of view shifts; nature becomes much more present with its forces and what it dies to the house. It is only the servants that we meet and their thoughts on the family. Finally, the original task of going to the lighthouse becomes the big event in the last part. Unfinished tasks are now completed, even though the family is not complete anymore. Their lives have changed, time and the war have left scars.

As it is a classic, much has been said about the novel. The different approaches to life that the characters take and most of all its transience. The force of nature and opposed to it the attempt of seizing and getting hold of it with art. And of course the lighthouse as a guiding light, which the characters always see, want to go to and have to wait until the moment has finally come. Much of this is pretty obvious, but what I found much more impressive than the motives and metaphors was Virginia Woolf’s power of language and most of all, her capacity of creating an atmosphere. Sometimes dark, often moody, you cannot withdraw from what she creates and thus you become a part of the novel.

Matthew Costello – The Vanishing Tourist

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Matthew Costello – The Vanishing Tourist

Cherringham has regularly coaches full of tourists who come to see not only the lovely village, but to do tours around the historic sights.  It is mainly elderly people who take part in those tours and up to now, they all were carried back home safe and sound. But now, one member of a group is missing. His sister even comes from the States to have a look into the matter and since the police seem to be rather reluctant about that case, she asks Jack for help. How could an elderly American go missing in Cherringham and not be seen again? When they start investigating his past, Jack and Sarah come across a fact that makes things appear in a completely new light: the supposedly tourist did not come to enjoy lovely Cherringham, he was there for revenge.

Episode 18 of the British cosy crime series which was again well balanced between the idyllic village life where everybody knows everybody and where things move at a slower pace than in the big city and a murder case which had some surprises to offer and quite an unexpected motivation. As always, quick to read, straight from the beginning to the end without any side plots to distract from the main topic.