Tales from the Telephone Box

During the first lockdown of 2020, the village telephone box became a library.

This popular book exchange has now been adopted by the parish council and relies on kind volunteers to keep it tidy. The phone box library contains genres for all tastes, from sporting biographies and children’s books to bodice rippers and literary fiction.

My thanks to a small army of avid local readers for their reviews.

The Confession by Jessie Burton (contemporary fiction): this is a story of secrets and self-discovery. Rose Simmons is trying to find out about her mother, who abandoned her as a baby, and the last person to have seen her was a reclusive novelist, Constance Moreau. Rose gets a job with the writer and eventually learns what really happened. This dual narrative novel by the author of The Miniaturist and The Muse is a cracking read, taking you back to a louche Hollywood of the 1980s and then present-day London. I wasn’t invested in the story though because I didn’t care too much what happened to the characters. It’s an easy, well-written book but I much preferred The Muse. MH

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (historical fiction): I was drawn to this book by its beautiful cover. The contents didn’t disappoint. This very unusual and most enjoyable historical romp is set in London in the late 18th century. Our hero is merchant Jonah Hancock who rises to fame and fortune after one of his sea captains sells Hancock’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. This marvel is put on display and catapults the modest and unassuming Hancock into high society where he meets Angelica Neal, a beautiful woman and prostitute at the top of her game. There are some powerfully written orgiastic scenes that might offend some and a bit of fantasy creeps into the book in the second half but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The author’s characterisations and descriptions are captivating. MH

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (contemporary fiction): I read this last year after being bombarded with adverts and reviews about ‘the hit novel everyone’s talking about’. I see it’s now being made into an Amazon mini-series. Written in the style of documentary interviews, the story traces the meteoric rise to the top of an American rock band, not unlike Fleetwood Mac. It’s a story of clashing egos, with everyone wanting something different. Some great characterisation and evocation of the 70s rock scene but it took me a while to get into the interview format. I can see why it’s being made into a television series although I didn’t enjoy the book. MH

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (historical fiction): firstly, I should caveat this review by saying I tend to avoid books that are surrounded by ‘hype’ as I tend to be disappointed. I prefer to make my own mind up about what I like in a story and like to be ahead of the game when it comes to popular books. It comes as somewhat of a surprise when I picked this book up and now as I sit down to write my thoughts, I can hand on heart say I loved it! I chose this book because it wasn’t been pigeon-holed as ‘thriller of the year’ or ‘most talked about’. If anything, other views I had seen were quite vague about details of the book other than saying ‘this book stays with you’. What does that mean?! For once I must agree. I finished this book two days ago and it is giving me an awful book hangover!  From the first gut-wrenching chapters, where I wasn’t sure I could carry on, to the last chapter where I didn’t want it to finish, this book had me thinking of discrimination, bigotry, homophobia, love, family, the kindness movement and finally acceptance. It evoked such strong feelings that I wasn’t surprised to hear that there autobiographical components in the story. To summarise the story is the life, pre-birth 1945 to the death, so 70 years later, of Cyril Avery. It is predominantly set in Catholic Ireland during a time when being a gay person was considered not only illegal but also highly immoral. It meanders through his life stopping at defining points and obstacles he faces. It is so beautifully written there were times I wanted to be there with him, holding his hand. Goodbye Cyril. VP

The Shadow Box by Luanne Rice (thriller): I confess that I read this as a pre-release (Kindle first) but it has now been published. I was originally attracted due to being familiar with the author, who is well known for her excellent characters. That said I didn’t feel too invested in the characters in this book, perhaps because I found the plot a bit messy. In a nutshell you are introduced to the main character, artist Claire, as she is attacked in her garage (and left, assumed dead). A crime which she believes was carried out by her husband who, incidentally, is running for ‘Governor’. Enter the ‘who can she trust’ missive. Over the chapters she reflects on their life together and the mystery death of her husband’s first girlfriend when they were teenagers. The fact that she discovered the body of the deceased is the reason she dwells on the death some years later. Not only is there an attempted murder on Claire’s life there is also a double boat death mystery that needs solving and this creates a bit of character development that makes me, the reader, interested. The boat death tragedy involves children, are they safe? So, on reflection my synopsis makes the book sounds ok – a bit of mystery, a bit of a thriller. I would be interested in what others thought – have I been fair? VP

Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (contemporary fiction): this novel brings home the struggles that people face as they try to escape conflict and seek
asylum in another country. From the initial resistance to leaving Aleppo the protagonist, Nuri, and his wife, Afra, begin their perilous journey to safety. The author cleverly separates past and present through a single word break rather than hard chapters. In my opinion this adds to the beauty of the writing and the story. My husband doesn’t understand what I am trying to explain here so I suggest you read the book! While there are glimpses of how ugly and dangerous such a journey can be, thankfully the author doesn’t subject you to unnecessary detail. Rather, she allows your mind to make connections about the depravity faced. Having recently reviewed The Bees and about to start a book by the fabulous author Sue Monk Kidd who wrote The Secret of Life Bees you might think I had a bit of a thing for bee stories. The difference is that while Nuri is a beekeeper, I felt the bees in this story were more an analogy of strength and unity. Nuri rescues and nurtures a rejected and wingless bee and throughout the story you are provided with information about beekeeping and how hives operate – the killing of drone bees in order to protect the hive. Another story with difficult subject matter but excellently written. VP

The Iron Horse and A Christmas Railway Mystery by Edward Marston (crime fiction): These books are from the railway detective series, set in the Victorian era when policemen wore top hats and travelled on steam trains or horse-drawn taxis. The detective is Inspector Robert Colbeck and his assistant, Sergeant Leeming. Both have murders for the duo to solve and both have similarities. Both very good, old-fashioned reads with lots of twists and turns. D&AC

The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude and A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon (crime fiction): These are from British Library Crime Classics, old crime books from the 30s and 40s which been republished but have not lost any of the good old fashioned writing. Both have murders to be solved by solid police work and a hunch or two. Very good reds and no DNA in sight. D&AC

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield (historical fiction/Victorian gothic): This dark and atmospheric novel comes from highly imaginative author of The Twelfth Tale and Once Upon A River. I didn’t much like the first book but adored the latter. This one slots in between, publication-wise, and, for me, provided the missing link between the two styles. As a child, William Bellman takes out his catapult to fire a well-aimed pot-shot at a rook. This incident is witnessed by his friends and goes on to have an overbearing influence on the rest of his life. Following the success of the mill business he inherits from his uncle, he throws himself into setting up an emporium of mourning in London. The author captures this brilliantly. A very unusual book – a must for lovers of Gothic fiction. MH

Garden of Lost and Found by Harriet Evans (historical romance/saga): This isn’t the kind of book I usually read but I wanted something easy to sink into. It’s a biggish novel but a very satisfying, undemanding, comfort read, which is ideal in times of coronavirus. The two main plotlines straddle the centuries, telling the story of a great artist, a valuable painting and two women – one from Victorian times and the other from the present, who exchanges a failed marriage in London for life in the countryside with her children. The enigma of the painting and the love of family lie at the heart of the novel and link the narratives. Ideal for fans of Maeve Binchy and JoJo Moyes. MH

Erebus – The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin (non-fiction): As you might expect, Palin sprinkles his dry and gentle wit through this epic story of HMS Erebus which, in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, went on two of the most ambitious expeditions of all time. The first one saw her going further south any other ship had ever been. On the second, she disappeared in the Canadian Arctic with her 129-strong crew. For more than 160 years, her fate remained a mystery. Then, in 2014, she was found. Palin is a natural storyteller. This is a well-crafted tale, very readable and very fascinating. MH

The Bees by Laline Paull (dystopian fantasy): Ok, so firstly this book is written from the perspective of bees…secondly, I read this book about three years ago – after a recommendation on a yoga retreat (remember when we did stuff!). Even then it was strange, but utterly compelling. The story is a tale from the opinion of protagonist Flora 717, the main character, a cleaner bee with a drive which has the potential to both save and threaten the hive she is meant to serve.  Not only does the hive have the challenge of a bee threatening to rise above her station, it has also to battle outside forces, namely the impact on their natural habitats and the introduction of pesticides. Now if I was reading this this review, I would be questioning whether it was my type of book. My advice would be to give it a chance to speak for itself. I think you too will be drawn in and worry about how best to serve the Queen. Would I recommend? Totally. VP

The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (non-fiction): The sequel to The Salt Path. This will appeal to those who read her first book, as it continues with the couple’s story and their trials battling Moth’s illness and renovating a derelict farmhouse in Cornwall. Raynor Winn is adept at conveying emotion and the book is full of good descriptive detail. It is a good read, but somehow not as compelling a story as her first book. Perhaps because the characters and their trials were fresher the first time round. DH

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan (fiction): I like Amy Tan’s writing, and this one didn’t disappoint, although my husband didn’t get on with it at all, because it jumps around a lot, as it tells two parallel stories and is set both in the USA and China. I liked the characters and felt that they were very credible, and the narrative is told from both a Chinese and American cultural perspective. You get a sense of the cultural clashes and the personal relationship struggles faced by the protaganists as well as how the past interferes with the present.  DH

My Life and Rugby by Eddie Jones (autobiography): This was bought as a Christmas present for a family member who is a rugby fan but who, unknown to me, can’t stand Eddie Jones, so consequently he never read the book. My husband did start the book, but never finished it, declaring that he is ‘really dull’. So perhaps one to read only if you are really keen on Eddie Jones. DH

The Frozen River by James Crowden (non-fiction): Set in the 1970s, and written by a Somerset-based author, it tells the tale of his journey along a river with native Zangskaris during the winter in the Indian Himalayas. In retelling the story of both his stay in their village and his journey, it is rich in descriptive detail, which can get a bit heavy at times, but nevertheless is very authentic. I particularly liked the part where he describes how he skied solo over a mountain pass over a number of days. The book resonated with me, as I’ve trekked in the Himalayas and could relate to the detail. It will appeal to anyone interested in mountains and mountaineering. DH

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer (historical fiction): Not at all typical of some of Jeffrey Archer’s more recent attempts at commercial fiction, but all the better for that. It is based on the story of George Mallory who attempted to climb Everest during the 1920s. Indeed, he may well have successfully summited Everest, and this is what Archer speculates about. He gives a really good sense of the character of Mallory, and the story is rich in period detail and maintains suspense throughout the story. In other words, you want to keep turning the pages. Both my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. DH

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction): I think that this book will appeal to fans of Tracy Chevalier, as it is very much written in her typical style. It tells the story of a spinster in the aftermath of the First World War, who has the unusual hobby of embroidering bolsters and cushion for Winchester Cathedral. Through the story of the protagonist, Chevalier conveys what it must have been like for women of that generation who lost fiances in the First World War. All the characters in the novel are very credible and really bring the story to life. DH

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe (fiction): Will appeal to fans of Nina Stibbe, as it is very much in her style of writing exuding humour at every turn. It is an easy read and tells the story of a single mother and the attempts of her children to fix her up with generally unsuitable men. Beneath the humour the story is nuanced with the difficulties of single motherhood. It is a good read that generates empathy for the main character. DH

The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Dare, (fiction): This story explores feminist issues from the cultural perspective of a black Nigerian woman from an impoverished background. Although the story is often very sad, in the end I found that it offered hope and as such was uplifting.  The characters are all very well crafted and credible. I found it a very interesting story, despite the fact that it was disturbing at times. It will probably appeal more to a female audience. DH

The Autumn of the Ace by Louis de Bernieres (historical fiction): Daniel Pitt served his country as an RAF fighter pilot in the First World War and a spy for the Special Operations Executive in the Second. In the final part of Louis de Bernieres’ trilogy, however, his battles are closer to home. Can this flawed hero confront the problems from his past and reconnect with his estranged son? Can he put conflicts aside and accept that, although time passes, it is never too late to do the right thing? De Bernieres’ writing does not disappoint, with its vividly-drawn characters, powerful switches of points of view, pathos, humour and playful nods to his previous work, including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and the interconnected short stories of Notwithstanding. I loved it. MH

The Wheelwright’s Daughter by Eleanor Porter (historical fiction): When a landslip opens up a huge chasm in the centre of a Herefordshire village in Elizabethan England, the feisty Martha Dynely is immediately blamed for the catastrophe. She is an articulate young woman and viewed with suspicion in her local community, which is split by religious bigotry and poverty. As a character, Martha is complex and not instantly likeable, her pride and naivety getting her into ever-deeper water. Her first-person account is complemented by Porter’s descriptions of the local landscape, authentic dialogue and detailed research. But can she overcome the small mindedness of her local community and save herself from a witch’s fate? A tale of love, betrayal, superstition and fear. MH

A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison (historical fiction): The central character of Susan Charlewood looms large in this impressive debut. The book was longlisted for the Mslexia Unpublished Novel Award 2015. Susan is a resourceful and well educated young black woman looking for her lost brother in Elizabethan London. Spies, plots and hidden Catholic printing presses become part and parcel of her extraordinary life. These were turbulent times when people risked imprisonment or death for their faith. Susan is an extraordinary woman whose quick wit, thirst for knowledge and determination equip her well for the perils ahead. Seldom does the reader come across a historical black character like Susan nor experience a London like this: a stinking, crowded city in stark contrast to the rural idyll of her childhood. A Book of Secrets gives an urgent and exciting voice to a black woman in Elizabethan England at a time when slavery in England was not legally enforceable. Susan Charlewood is the kind of interesting and powerful character that merits another outing in a sequel maybe, especially in these troubled times when racial divisions and modern slavery are a scourge on our society. MH

The Song of the Skylark by Liz Shakespeare (historical fiction): Mary Mitchell is just nine years old when she is offered as a ‘prize’ to men drawing straws to win her services as a parish apprentice, in a practice which in the 19th century had died out everywhere else but Devon. She and her older brother are sent to work on a remote farm for a master with a volatile temper. They find solace at the local chapel, where brother and sister are taught to read. When life on the farm becomes intolerable, they take daring action to change the course of their lives. It brings them face-to-face with the cruel injustice of early Victorian England. This is a fascinating story drawing on original documents which give an insight into the farming and chapel communities of North Devon. As I became engrossed in the novel, I couldn’t help but think of parallels with the modern slavery of today, which has recently featured as a storyline on The Archers. Times change but, actually, they don’t very much, with history repeating itself all around the world, over and over again. MH