Author Archives: David Proffitt

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Harold Fry #1)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fryby Rachel Joyce

Recently retired brewery rep Harold Fry lives a quiet life with his wife Maureen in their South Devon home. He is a man of routine and simple pleasures with no discernable ambition other than to make other people happy. He never goes anywhere or does anything. Not, you might think, the most likely type of character to be the hero of a book. And if it had not been for the letter, you would be right. For Harold, the note he receives from along forgotten work colleague, Queenie Hennessy is the unexpected catalyst that changes everything.

It is not the letter itself, or its contents, that turn Harold’s life upside down. 

He had only left the house to post his short and simple reply, but as he walked down the roads to the post box, something changed within him. He continues past the post box, starting on a journey that would change not only his life but those of his wife, Queenie and many others who take inspiration from this strange man’s pilgrimage.

Not that he sees it that way. For Harold, it just something he has to do. 

What makes his journey so different and inspiring is that he is doing it on foot. Walking six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed would be a challenge for anyone, but for a 65-year-old man who, on his own admittance does not walk, wearing only a pair of yaughting shoes and with no map, compass or phone, this trip was never going to be easy.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage…” is a touching and entertaining tale of one man’s journey of self-discovery. Through the people he meets and recollections of his own long-buried memories, Harold learns again what it means to love and be loved.

The highs and lows of Harold’s journey are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I coldn;t help but have some sympathy for the poor man. I felt I understood his confusion and frustrations, although I like to think that I could get my own life in order without all the blisters and nights spent on park benches.

A thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking book. 

Missing You Already

Missing You Alreadyby Pauline McLynn

I always enjoy Pauline McLynn’s books. I like the gentle humour she brings to what are often challenging and emotional subjects. In Missing You Already, McLynn’s heroine Kitty Fulton faces the break down of a long-term relationship and the problems of dealing with her mother’s fight with Alzheimer’s.

Hardly what you would expect from a respected comedy actress, but that is what I find so appealing about her work.

Watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s slowly fade away is heartbreaking. Anyone who has had to cope with what has to be the cruellest of all illnesses will understand the pain and anguish Kitty faces as her mother drifts away from her. Whilst it does seem a rather odd choice of subject, and a very difficult one, McLynn seems to be at her best when confronting things no one else really wants to talk about. And of course, there is humour to be found in even the most tragic of circumstances. What comes through in this story is an incredible optimism and a wicked sense of humour that keeps the story buoyant and light.

Of course, there is a romantic twist to the story, although not in the typical rom-com style. Kitty has to deal with a lot of baggage from her past before she can consider making any new plans for her future. 

For me, this is one if Pauline McLynn’s best, with a page-turning combination of tragedy, humour, heartbreak and joy. An excellent read from an outstanding writer. 

The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Meby Ian Fleming

I am not sure why but when I read the James Bond series back in my youth, this particular episode eluded me. Anyway, a bit late but I have now rectified that and can happily say that I have now read them all – the Fleming novels at least. So far I have only managed one on the newer novels (Colonel Sun) and was not impressed.

Back to The Spy Who Loved Me. As with all but a couple of the Bond stories, the book and its film adaptation are about as alike as Blue Cheese and black puddings. I don’t even want to think about the film version of this which is, if memory serves me right, appaling. 

James Bond is probably one of literature’s most well known and enduring characters. But the books, particularly Fleming’s original series, portray a man far removed from the screen Bond we see today. 

In a deviation from his usual style, this particular adventure is told in the first person, but not by Bond. Instead, this is very much Vivienne Michel’s story, with Bond not making an appearance until page 108 (of 172). By then Vivienne has told us her life story and found herself, through no fault of her own, at the mercy of two thugs whos intentions are all not too clear. 

Bond, as expected, saves the day, but even then he is on the periphery. There are no spies and actually very little in the way of adventure. This is primarily the story of a young Canadian woman and her failed romantic and career choices. It is very much the odd book out as far as I can see, and although I enjoyed the story itself, I can’t consider it to be a serious part of the Bond canon.

 

Eligible (The Austen Project #4)

Eligibleby Curtis Sittenfeld

Pride and Prejudice is one of the great classics of English literature and undoubtedly Jane Austen’s most loved novel. Revisiting the Bennet family as part of the Austen Project is no easy task, But Curtis Sittenfeld takes on the challenge with some relish it seems. Not only does she transpose Austen’s most dysfunctional family into the twenty-first century, but she also manages to relocate them several thousand miles to the North American city of Cincinnati. Now I have to say that I was immediately put on my guard but such a bold move. The Bennet’s and their friends have always seemed to be the most English of communities. How could they ever be American? But once you begin to look at the characters, their lives, their prejudices and the social circles they move in, they just don’t exist in the UK anymore, but it seems they are alive and well and making a nuisance of themselves in Cincinnati. 

In their new surroundings, Liz is a magazine writer and Jane is a yoga teacher. They both live in New York but have returned to their hometown following their father’s recent health scare. Once they are back home the book follows the themes and general plot of the original story, but in some unexpected ways. Whilst the fundamental characters remain the same, the prejudices they face are very different indeed from those envisioned by Jane Austen in her original book. This new version tackles everything from class to racial and gender issues. In many ways it is like a mini soap opera with a whole host of twists and turns.

Whilst I enjoyed this modernisation of one of my favourite books, I did find it a little uncomfortable at times and through it lacked a little of the clever observational wit that made the original so endearing – and enduring. Of the books in this series, this is the one I felt the least connected with. Whilst the characters by and large remain true to Austen’s original creations, the twists ion the plot I found too far removed. That is not to say I didn’t like the book – I did. Sittenfeld is an accomplished and compelling writer but I sometimes felt she had her own agenda that had nothing to do with Austen’s classic. Although I haven’t read any of her other books I am sure I will before too long.

 

House of Shadows

House of Shadowsby Pamela Hartshorne

House of Shadows is a story of possession, betrayal, discovery, love and redemption. It is a ghost story without ghosts – or at least not in the way you might expect. This is possession, but not in the Exorcist, spinning head and strange voices way. The supernatural element of this compelling tale is much more subtle than that.

It is really the story of two women, separated by four centuries but united by their love and need to reconnect with their sons. Both women find themselves being manipulated by those they trust with dramatic and tragic results. 

When Kate Vavasour wakes in the hospital she remembers nothing of her life, her family or her friends. Everyone around her is a stranger. She doesn’t even know why she is in the hospital and no one seems in a hurry to explain it to her. When her memories do begin to come back it is very quickly obvious that that can’t be hers. In fact, they are the memories if Isabel Vavasour who had lived and died four hundred years before.

Kate now has to not only reconnect with her own memories, rebuilding her relationships with those closest to her but also try to make some sense of her visions of Isabel’s ultimately tragic life. 

As I said, this is not a ghost story as such Isabel’s presence in Kate’s life is a plea for help and as Kate begins to understand this, her fear is replaced by a dogged determination to find out all she can to answer Isabel’s questions about her son. What she doesn’t know is it was that very singlemindedness that landed her in hospital in the first place.

House of Shadows is a tense and thrilling novel that kept me gripped right from the start. It was easy to piece together what was really going on with all the characters. At the heart of the book are two young mothers, both married into the Vavasour family, and both driven by a deep and enduring love for their husbands and sons. But ultimately, both are blinded by unquestioning loyalty to friends who have their own agendas.

An excellent story very well told. 

The Herring In The Library (Elsie and Ethelred Mystery #3)

The Herring In The Libraryby L C Tyler

It all begins with Elsie and Ethelred enjoying a quiet game of Cluedo. As usual, Elsie is cheating, making up the rules as she goes along, very much as she does in life. By contrast, Ethelred plays by the rules and loses out as a result. Although I don’t think that she believes that rules are made to be broken the are certainly optional and are to be overlooked if they become inconvenient. Elsie Thirkwttle is a literary agent and self-proclaimed chocoholic, a juggernaut of a woman who takes no prisoners when it comes to getting what and where she wants. 

Ethelred Tressider is one of Elsie’s long-suffering authors who seems to have little enthusiasm for his chosen profession. He has been fairly successful, publishing novels under several pseudonyms, but he dreams of one day doing something serious under his own name. Elsie is not so sure.

This is the third outing for this unlikely literary pair who have developed an uncanny habit of being in the wrong place at the right time. In this case, the Cluedo theme merges into their real lives following the mysterious death of Ethelred’s former school pal, Sir Robert Muntham at a dinner party at Muntham Hall.

As a crime writer, Ethelred is expected to use his skills to help solve the age-old “locked room” mystery. But, as those who have read the first two books will know, Ethelred’s grasp of simple police procedures and interview techniques are not as honed as one might expect.

The same cannot be said of Elsie who’s natural scepticism and bulldog approach find her unravelling the truth while Ethelred is still blundering around the dark alleyways the lovely Lady Muntham has lead him down. 

Not only is “The Herring In The Library” a very funny and enjoyable tale, there is also a nicely plotted murder mystery to follow. I particularly enjoy the way these books switch narrative between Ethelred and Elsie. Their polar opposite observations and opinions make the whole thing so much more enjoyable than seeing things from one point of view. These are very much about the pair, not the individuals.

And as a treat, we also get a glimpse for the first time of one of Ethelred’s recurring characters, Master Thomas, whose latest adventure bears an uncanny resemblance to the predicament he finds himself in at Munford Hall. All in all, another excellent outing for the odd couple of crime fiction. 

The Railway Detective (#1)

by Edward Marston

The Railway Detective

I picked this book up during a brief stop at Pickering Station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Travelling on an old steam train brought a sense of nostalgia and finding that they had a series of books set on the railways of the mid 19th century, I just couldn’t resist.

The Railway Detective is the first in a series to feature Detective Inspector Colbeck of the newly created Detective branch based at Scotland Yard. Colbeck himself is a bit of a dandy – a well dressed, well-educated man who gets a little more than he bargained for when he heads out of the city to investigate a violent robbery on the railway. 

The expansion of the railways throughout the 19th century changed almost every aspect of people’s lives. It was undoubtedly a revolution, but not everyone was in favour of these new locomotives traversing the English countryside. The railways had their fair share of detractors and it is one such opponent to steam train who is the mastermind behind the daring crimes that Inspector Colbeck is called to investigate. 

The scheme has been planned with military precision and Colbeck soon finds himself dealing not only with the robbery itself but also murder, blackmail and kidnap. And who would have suspected that along the way, this clinical and driven policeman would find himself emotionally involved in the case? 

Morton obviously has an interest in the railways and is able to weave into the tale plenty of information about the trains and the people who worked with them. But it is not in any way a book just for enthusiasts. All in all, The Railway Detective is a good period detective story which just happens to be centred around the railways.

The characters are all very interesting in their own ways and I really liked the narrative which I found easy and quick to read. 

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

I have put off reading this book having read widely varied reviews. It seems that the book’s critics fall into one of two camps: those who get it and those who don’t. And I have to say that I am very firmly in the former. I not only got it, I loved it. from the very first page, I was captivated by the unique narrative style and almost as quickly entranced by the character.

It is the story of a young girl – Liesel Meminger – growing up in Nazi Germany of the early 1940s. The twist is that the story is told by Death, based on Liesel’s own words. Death first comes across the nine-year-old Liesel as she heads towards Munich on board a train with her mother and her little brother. It is an encounter that will change her life forever.

I can appreciate that the style of the narration may put some people off, but for me, the unusual way in which the story unfolds adds to the attraction of the book as a whole.

Dealing as it does with life during war-time Germany, it inevitably deals with subjects like the Holocaust and the Nazi party’s domination of ordinary people’s lives. The book deals with these things through the eyes of Liesel and passes no judgement other than her sense of injustice at the things she sees and hears. But it is not all doom and gloom. Liesel becomes very close to her stepfather, Hans, who instils in her a sense of hope and a love for reading. And it’s reading and a love of books that get her through the worst of times.

Of course, there have been innumerable books covering Nazi activities during the war years. Life in Germany and occupied Europe has been well documented but never quite like this. I found the whole thing to be very moving and totally captivating. 

The Book Thief is a great book that I felt deserves the positive critical acclaim it received. 

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Oveby Fredrik Backman

Every now and again you come across a book that really says something to you, and for me, A Man Called Ove is just such a book. From the very first page, I felt I understood Ove. To many of the people he meets he comes across as a grumpy old man, but, as is often the case, there is more to him than first meets the eye.

For Ove, life is simple and made up of two types of people: those who drive Saabs, and twits. And there are a lot of twits about! 

As the book progresses we learn more about Ove’s past and the events that shaped the man he became. The biggest single event being the day he met his wife-to-be Sonja. To everyone who knew them, Ove and Sonja were an odd couple, like chalk and cheese. But to Ove, Sonja was his world and without her, nothing makes sense any more.

But with the arrival of new neighbours, Ove’s life is about to take on a whole new meaning. 

A Man Called Ove is a delightful and very moving story. Fredrik Backman has a real gift for blending humour and pathos in a totally compelling way. There is a slapstick element to the story that makes the tragedy even more profound. For me, it is one of the best books I have read this year and one I can wholeheartedly recommend. 

Black Holes

Edited by Jerry Pournelle

Black Holes

I first read this book when I was a teenager. Jerry Pournelle himself wasn’t new to me but most of the other contributors were and I was impressed by the various approaches to the subject of Black Holes. Having re-read it again thirty years later I found myself still as impressed by the mix of stories and essays. You don’t often get fact and fiction sitting side-by-side and I find the concept both interesting and informative. Good science fiction (as this collection is) contains as much fact as fiction, but the addition of real ideas and discussions of concepts really opened my eyes as a teenager. 

Most of the pieces in the book were written in the mid to late 70s, with just one dating from 1968. Like all sci-fi of the time, it can seem a little dated with talk of tapes and such like, but the core concepts behind each story are as relevant today as they were then. Stephen Hawkins gets a mention in one of the articles, crediting him with being approaches to responsible for our notions of Black Holes and singularities. 

Revisiting a book from your past can often be disappointing, our memories often coated in that ever present rose coloured tint, but in this case I was far from disappointed. Black Holes is a great collection and a very enjoyable read. 

Authors included in this collection are Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Charles Sheffield, Robert Forward, R Bretnor, Gail Kimberly, Grant Carrington, George Zebrowski, Mildred Downey Broxon, Dian Girard, Michael Bishop, Peter Dillinger and Greg Bear.