Three shorter reviews

Trading Futures by Jim Powell

trading futuresMatthew Oxenhay is having an existential crisis.

He set his hippy ideals behind him long ago, swapping them for a career in the city, wife, kids, nice house in a nice London suburb. Then it was his 60th birthday, and shortly afterwards he lost his job, but his boss let him keep coming to work to sit in his old office so he didn’t have to admit it to his wife.

I had learned to read the runes; I’d too often seen them written for others. At the previous Board meeting, the youngest director, recently appointed against my advice, urged the need for us to be more scientific in our approach, ridiculed the use of gut instinct in a technological age. His eyes never once met mine, but his sights were trained on me. Decades ago, when I joined the Board, I made the same speech. I too never looked at the port-ridden soak at which it was aimed, whose job I envied and later got. We can fight battles only with the weapons we have. When we are young, we take up arms on the side of science, because art – in this context – requires experience and we do not have experience. When we are older, we take up arms on the side of art, because experience is our advantage, and because we can no longer be bothered to keep pace with the science. Domestic battlefields are no different. Men bear physical arms; women emotional ones. We always choose the weapon most lethal in our own hands.

He’s dissatisfied with his comfortable life and the empty nest in which he’s stuck with Judy and her friends, having few of his own. Added to that he’s drinking far too much. When he meets a woman who still has that idealistic spark, reminding him of a love lost when he was a student all those decades ago, he decides to gamble with his own future instead of gambling with other people’s money on the markets…

The first half of this novel is very Reggie Perrin-ish, also reminding me of Jon Canter’s excellent comic novel A Short Gentleman (reviewed here). As narrated by Matthew, there are some great one-liners and comic set-pieces, alongside some solid observations about sharp financial practices and it being a young man’s game. However, as this short novel progresses, Matthew becomes more and more unreliable as his crisis overtakes him and the light feel of the start turns increasingly dark – more like French novellist Pascal Garnier‘s minutely observed visions of the horrors of life in the provinces.

For a novel of just 155 pages (in the ARC), there was a lot to consider in this engrossing read. (8/10)

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Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan

dear amyI do like a psychological drama that wrong foots you, but can it live up to the hype?

A schoolgirl goes missing in Cambridge – a pupil in Classics teacher Margot Lewis’s class. A popular teacher, Margot and the girls understand each other. She is also the agony aunt for the local newspaper – the column is called ‘Dear Amy’. One day a letter arrives:

Dear Amy,
Please please PLEASE help me!  I have been kidnapped by a strange man and he’s holding me prisoner in this cellar. He says I can never go home. I don’t know where I am or what to do and nobody knows I’m here. […] Please help me soon. Bethan Avery

But Bethan Avery is the name of another girl who went missing twenty years ago. What’s happening? Is this linked to the missing Katie Browne? Margot gets more letters and goes to the police, and a cold case crime unit resourced by a Cambridge professor, Martin Forrester takes it up. They want to use the Dear Amy column to contact whoever is writing the letters …

Once started, I had to see it through to the end, wondering all the way how the letters got to Margot. How could they possibly have been posted? Alongside this intrigue is Margot’s deteriorating relationship with her husband who has been having an affair and moved out – she’s already quite fragile.

I did feel the book needed more editing. Some areas would have been interesting to explore in more detail such as her relationship with the pupils, the missing schoolgirl, and putting more suspense into her relationship with the academic/crime professor and so on. Others were unnecessary – although it did make me snort with laughter when I read her ex left her for a professor of metallurgy. (something I studied.) As the pages went on, it got increasingly far-fetched, and the ending was sudden and contrived.

Nearer the beginning, as Margot is a classics teacher, I was reminded of Natalie Haynes excellent psychological drama The Amber Fury, (reviewed here) but as I said above, this aspect wasn’t explored – and I don’t think this novel will be this year’s Gone Girl. (6/10)

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Look At Me by Sarah Duguid

look at meThis debut novel sits neatly between family and psychological dramas, being all all about the upset in family dynamics when twentysomething actress Elizabeth discovers a letter from a sister she never knew she had in her father’s drawer.

I found the letter the previous day when my father called from his holiday asking me to find a phone number for him. […]

‘This phone number. It’s scribbled on a receipt. It’ll be in my office somewhere. Just go and search.’ […]

Next to a bunch of receipts an old cinema ticket and a blue stapler, sat Eunice’s letter folded into a pink envelope. I opened it, curious at the pink, the feminine handwriting, at a whiff of scent that still hung around the envelope’s flap. […]

Was it worse that she was female? Isn’t being a sibling always an act of supremacy that’s tempered if just two of you exist? What would my brother Ig and I do with a third; what would I do with another woman? (p6-7)

The Knights are an unconventional family. Father, Julian, is a wine merchant, but was a hippy before, all pot and parties, “Temptation itself.” His wife, Margaret had died a few years ago falling down the stairs, and Elizabeth has not got over her mother’s death yet, maintaining her room as a shrine. The family are close. Neither Ig nor Lizzy have moved away from home, each having an apartment built into the former stables in their yard; Ig is a Reiki practitioner.

To Lizzy, finding out that she has a half-sibling, sired while Julian was married to her mother, seems a real betrayal by her father. “But it was different back then.” he says lamely. Her mother and Ig knew about Eunice, but they’d never told Lizzy – knowing she’d feel compelled to meet Eunice, and meet they do.

Eunice saw me. She waved, beginning to walk more purposefully, smiling all the time, bright and perky. I stayed where I was, just watching her. Cheerful, friendly, flammable. She came towards me, all synthetic cerise sweater and bubblegum-pink lipstick. Wispy hair, a mouse-coloured frizz, pinned with two grips decorated with fabric roses. […] A crystal heart stitched into her sweater glittered as the light hit it. When she reached me, she just stood there, stopping my attempt at a smile with the intensity of her bright blue gaze. (p19-20)

It’s the beginning of a game of attention-seeking between the two, the adopted Eunice desperate to find her real family and the wounded Lizzy aware that Eunice could take her place in her father’s affections. This is compounded when Eunice comes to stay after breaking up with her husband Mike…

As the story begins, Lizzy is auditioning for a part in a play, and once she gets it is toying with a sort-of relationship with her director who is using her and pushing her to get the performance he wants. In the play she’s required to swing on a trapeze, and the comparison with her balancing act at home is obvious.

The novel is structured into a drama of five acts with teasing cliff-hangers the end of each before the finale. Lizzy narrates throughout. I liked the way our loyalties switch between Lizzy and Eunice who are, as you’d hope, chalk and cheese. You can’t help but feel for both women, but rarely at the same time. More a story about reaching proper adulthood than coming of age, Lizzy must also come to terms with losing her mother. Will it come out OK in the end? That would be telling! This debut is all the better for not being overblown or over-complicated. Coming in at just over 250 pages, Look At Me is a quick read that I enjoyed a lot.

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Source: All publisher via Amazon Vine

Jim Powell, Trading Futures (Picador, March 2016)  Hardback 224 pages.
Helen Callaghan, Dear Amy (Michael Joseph, May 2016)  Hardback 400 pages.
Sarah Duguid, Look At Me (Tinder Press, Feb 2016), Hardback, 256 pages.

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