Summer reads from Country Life

The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale (Fourth Estate, £7.99)

Laura and Ben are student lovers who meet again some 20-plus years and several responsibilities later in Winchester. Laura has given up Paris to look after her frail, elderly mother; Ben, who is in a flagging, painfully childless marriage, is keeping an eye on his brother and his alarmingly late-blossoming sex life.

This being a Patrick Gale novel, unusual scenarios and obscure diseases abound: Laura’s mother, Prof Harriet Jellicoe, is an eminent virologist and naturist who enjoys gardening in the nude, even when it’s raining; Ben’s (gay) brother Bobby has the Mosaic (milder) variant of Downs Syndrome and Ben is not any old doctor, but one that deals, often squalidly and horribly fascinatingly, in sexual health.

Laura and Ben are ecstatic at finding each other again, but there is a feeling of limitation hanging over their passionate reunion, as neither can be free from guilt. As the title suggests, the story, written with Gale’s trademark tenderness and elegiac prose, covers the events of one day. It is more a novella, slim and satisfying, and the end will catch you completely unaware.

The Piano Teacher by Janic YK Lee (Harper Press, £7.99)

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Post-war Hong Kong, 1953, and the enigmatic, attractive Englishman Will Truesdale has the surprisingly lowly occupation of chauffeur to a rich but strained Chinese couple, Victor and Melody Chen. Except that, oddly, Will doesn’t seem to work very hard, and the Chens do not press him.

Twelve years earlier, Will is having a passionate affair with Trudy Liang, a beautiful and compelling Eurasian who knows everyone. But war turns hedonistic Hong Kong upside down and, while Will opts for the safer, if horrifically spartan incarceration, Trudy stays on the outside playing a dangerously flirtatious game with the Japanese.

The mystery of what has happened to Trudy, and to her coldly elegant cousin Dominick, begins to unravel when Will starts a languid affair with the Chens’ daughter’s piano teacher, Claire Pendleton. Outwardly a meek English woman married to stodgy, sweaty Martin, Will sees through Claire’s strange deceptions and she gains in confidence from the adventure of Hong Kong life.

Janice Lee is Hong Kong-born and, as she dedicates the book to her parents, you get the feeling that she has considerable insight into the terrifying reality of life in Japanese-invaded wartime Hong Kong, a time when compassion, reason and empire counted for nothing.
She evokes a totally recognisable picture of Hong Kong, part steam and squalor, part vitality and glamour, and her portrayal of human suffering and spirit is unbearably poignant. This is her first book, and it’s a riveting find.

Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek (faber and faber, £7.99)

This is a tale of two misunderstood women, who lived centuries apart. In the present day, there is the tolerant and plain Flora Chapman, whose show-off husband Edward dies while perpetrating one of his ludicrous schemes.
His dramatic departure gives Flora the peace she needs to embark on a project of her own, finishing another of Edward’s random, half-started ideas, a history of the village. In Edward’s chaotic notes, she finds the oft-used, scornful reference to Anne of Cleves as ‘the Flanders Mare’, a soubriquet at which Flora bristles.

When not placating her silly daughter, Hilary, sorting out the loose ends – and women – left behind by Edward, and enjoying a dreamy crush on Ewan, her kindly solicitor, Flora alternates between rustic village life and trips to the Louvre to prove that Anne of Cleves was neither plain nor stupid, but a popular and good woman who was utterly relieved not to have to stick with the ghastly Henry Vlll.

It’s an intriguing premise and, in the hands of Mavis Cheek, a reliably quirky and original storyteller, it really works. Read this clever book, and you’ll never look at Anne of Cleves in the same light again.

An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, £12.99)

In 1945, Jennet Mallow, an unsophisticated but supremely talented painter, moves from an austere Yorkshire rectory to take up an art scholarship in London and becomes caught up with fellow artist David Feaver. He is much fêted, but the dark reality is that his drink and depression problems may be greater than his talent.

They marry recklessly, have children, live in poverty and move to Spain, in search of the good life, and their free-loading friends follow them. Back in London, Jennet runs the house, ignores David’s carousing, finds herself a patron and emerges as a brilliant artist far more talented than her husband.

While her stock soars, her private live becomes a mess. David will not give up his long-time mistress, so she embarks on a one-sided affair with Lewis. Simultaneously, she meets Jack, the love of her life, a muddle which can only end in tragedy and loss.

An Equal Stillness follows art world trends from the 1950s to 1980s in a way that makes the story of Jennet Mallow read like a real biography. This first novel is a strange book, neither fact nor fiction, but lyrically written and intriguing until the last page.

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustveldt (Sceptre, £7.99)

This is the long-awaited new novel by the Norwegian, Brooklyn-based author of the acclaimed What I Loved. Her narrator, Erik – for some reason, it takes a while to get used to the idea that this story is being told by a man – is a psychologist, with a worrying amount of problems of his own.

For a start, he is lonely and lacking in purpose after the break-up of his marriage. He is desperately attracted to his lodger, Miranda, and with her enchanting daughter Eglantine, sees the promise of a ready-made family, but Miranda – who has a disturbing and intrusive former partner to contend with –  is not interested in him.

His sister Inga, with whom he is involved in unravelling an old family mystery evoked by a careless, provoking line discovered in the letters of his recently deceased father, is grief-stricken at the death of her older, famous writer husband, her distress exacerbated by the pursuit of a creepy journalist who knows secrets that will threaten the sanctity of the memory of her marriage.

The thoroughly likeable Erik gropes his way through these myriad mysteries and difficulties, not to mention dealing one or two nutty patients who form his daily bread, and you fear that he will go under, but gradually he makes sense of it all. There are many plots within this beautifully written book, but renaissances is the central premise, with Erik emerging a worthy, humorous hero.

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

Polly Noble, a North London single parent, is an overworked Jewish lawyer specialising in immigration law who is too harassed to see the implications of her own under-the-carpet au pair disappearing overnight.

Job is a stoic illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe who taxis her children to school; Katie is a broken-hearted refugee from New York who slaves anonymously for Polly’s friends at the Rambler (a thinly disguised Spectator) and is jolted out of her misery by the strange goings-on in the flat downstairs; Anna is a 15-year-old Ukrainian duped into prostitution but who gets a lucky break; and Ian is a supply teacher from South Africa, uncomfortable with his wealthy girlfriend and looking for his real father.

They appear to have nothing in common, but all of them have a strong social conscience that pervades their varying problems, but for which the mystery of the murdered girl found who met a bleak end in Hampstead Ponds might remain unsolved.

The reader knows from the start who the victim must be, but the question of how she got there and why these random characters are connected glues this brilliant read together. Amanda Craig, author of highly original novels like A Vicious Circle and Foreign Bodies – the dissolute journalist Ivo Sponge has appeared before in some of them – has painstakingly researched and imagined the misery of a displaced life, in which no one cares whether you live or die as long as you make someone money.

Hearts and Minds isn’t, however, a misery novel because the bleakness of situations is pierced by satirical humour, shafts of warming human goodness and good old-fashioned pace. It’s been four years in gestation, owing to the writer’s serious illness, and is well worth waiting for. One of the best reads you’ll find this summer.

The Best of Times by Penny Vincenzi (Headline Review, £18.99)

On a sunny Bank Holiday weekend, a lorry veers out of control on the M4, causing a multiple pile-up, death and serious injury. In the same way that Penny Vincenzi dissected the lives of people affected by the Lloyds debacle to good effect in her last book, here she considers the myriad reasons people in the crash might have been travelling on the motorway and how it will change their lives and those of the hospital staff.

Jonathan, a surgeon with the ‘perfect’ marriage, is arguing with his mistress Abi as he tries to finish the relationship. He becomes a hero of the scene, but, surely, his deception will catch up with him. Abi, meanwhile, begins an unlikely relationship with Will, the farmer who watches the catastrophe unfold from his fields, but she is terrified that he will be put off by her rackety past.

Mary is an elderly lady on her way to Heathrow to be reunited with her wartime love;Toby is late for his wedding, about which he already has serious misgivings, with his best friend Barney – the accident, and the deception surrounding it, will strain their friendship.

Patrick, the lorry driver, is left seriously injured but, worse, he imagines that it must all be his fault. The only person who could put his mind at rest, Georgia, an aspiring actress who is stretching her unhappily single agent Linda’s nerves by being late for an audition, does a bunk at the scene.

For many people, a new Penny Vincenzi is the ultimate summer reading treat but, although The Best of Times offers the familiar tantalising promise, it does not entirely deliver. It’s fun, but the writing lacks sharpness, the characters are dull and the outcomes too obvious. I ended up speed-reading the last few chapters so as to avoid carrying the weighty tome home on the plane.

Deadly Sins by Nicholas Coleridge (Orion, £12.99)

Miles Straker, spin doctor par excellence and tireless snob, is a wonderfully monstrous creation. As he looks out from his elegant Test Valley home, he is enraged to spot a hideous carbuncle on the horizon. It is the tasteless new mansion being built by Ross Clegg, whose supermarket chain will be a rival to upmarket Pendleton’s, owned by the upper-class family and clients whose association Miles cherishes.

Miles vows to break the cheerfully self-made and relentlessly likeable Clegg, but his own family and friends comically get in the way, intermingling with the enemy. Miles’s stunts become ever more outrageous and his tantrums ever funnier, as he spirals into madness and his disparate offspring and long-suffering wife make their own way.
The cover of Deadly Sins shouts ‘airport read’ but the writing is far superior to that. As befits his journalistic background, Mr Coleridge does not strike a single inaccurate note in this tale of social mores. A really entertaining read.