The Widow: a quiet but powerful voice

I’ve never been a real crime novel fan although I did enjoy Into the Fire by Manda Scott, mainly because of the sustained tension and the gripping and likeable characters. I heard about The Widow from Madeleine Milburn at a writers’ conference and she lauded the book because of its immediately interesting and arresting voice. The widow, Jean Taylor, is the only character who speaks in the first person although there is a roving perspective from the reporter to the detective to, occasionally, the victim’s mother and, once, the husband. The use of changing narrator, first to third and character to character makes the book edgy and interesting and sustains the tension. Fiona Barton, the novelist, has a background in journalism, so the reader is in safe hands.

The premise is a missing child and the suspect is Glen Taylor, Jean’s smug husband. Jean is passive, possibly even browbeaten, yet we suspect that she knows more about Glen’s suspicious behaviour than she admits. She seems to be a traditional, loyal wife but her admiration for Glen is occasionally interspersed with phrases like ‘No more of his nonsense,’ which makes the reader wonder if she knows more than she is telling the police: she may even be complicit. We don’t find out until the end of the novel and one of Fiona Barton’s strengths is that she keeps the tension pulsing until the final pages.

Jean is not an interesting character outside her role of widow:  she initially offers nothing but tacit support of her husband until her final rebellion. She is repressed and weak, but there is always the sense that she might be stubborn underneath and there may be another side to her. By the end of the novel we know what part she has played in the story of Bella’s abduction, but we do not understand much more about her as a character, other than her incompleteness and her dependence.We don’t discover if Glen has anything to do with the missing child, or what may have happened to toddler Bella, until the final chapters but Fiona Barton is clever in her manipulation of information, detail and inference, which makes for a compelling read.

Jean’s enigmatic character, and the fact that she isn’t really compelling except for her knowledge about the her husband and the crime he may have committed, is perfectly balanced by the relationship between the reporter, Kate, and the detective, Bob. Both characters retain the archetypal attributes a reader might expect in both professions: Kate is manipulative and cunning beneath a sheen of empathy and Bob is determined, tough yet conscientious and all-heart. They share motives but their methods are different and there is an interesting professional symbiosis between the two characters as the novel progresses.

Barton builds the tension perfectly and, as each perspective changes, we gain a full picture of the impact of Bella’s disappearance on all the characters’ lives. Bella’s mother, Dawn, develops from a distraught, struggling single mother to a media-savvy campaigner, and her metamorphosis is credible.

Despite all of the characters being exactly what you would suspect under the labels headlining each chapter – The Widow, The Detective, The Reporter, – Barton succeeds in making the novel harrowing and it is a gripping read. I think this is because the story is about a snatched child and it is the pathos and the concern hanging over Bella, contrasted with the buzzing media, the blustering cops, the panicking mother and the insidious denials of the suspicious husband which make us want to read on to the end.

Madeleine Milburn is right. The different voices, especially that of Jean the widow, who is placid,  enigmatic and wilfully ignorant, carry the story along at a fast pace and make the tension work well. The through-line of Bella’s disappearance is intriguing. Barton has been bold in her use of a stolen child as subject matter, and the inference of what might have happened. It is simultaneously unpalatable and yet consuming for the reader.

From reading The Widow, I learned that characters’ perspectives and voice can propel a novel and make it captivating, as can a theme which resonates with public interest. The Widow didn’t really need stronger or more interesting characters, although I looked for them. The main protagonists were pawns in a game of mystery and crime detection and what really catapults the story from chapter to chapter is the compulsion to find out what has happened to little Bella. We hope it will be alright but we fear that it won’t be. Jean the widow is the key to the answers and her calculated silence  must be unlocked to reveal the missing details. It is an interesting novel in the crime genre, handled with skill, confidence and expertise.

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‘It must be really hard being a vegan’

It’s something I hear quite often and I don’t mind at all when people say it. ‘It must be really hard being a vegan’ ‘You have to give up so much.’ ‘I could live without meat but exist without cheese? Never.’

I can understand why people make these comments. I’m less anarchic than I used to be. As a teenager, I would talk passionately about how meat was bad for the environment, bad for the health, bad for the animals. And so it is. But I have discovered that the best way to help people think positively about veganism is to feed them. For at least one meal, they’re vegan and who knows, they might consider having another.

I’ve done my share of cooking ‘worthy vegan food’ too: the tasteless, bland stuff with buckwheat, lentils, oats and very little else, that tastes like goat feed. I’m interested now in meals which are really nutritious, which pack in all the stuff our bodies need and none of the rubbish we don’t, allow us to peak with energy at the right time of day. It’s also important that we have meals which taste really good.

I’ve cracked making my own vegan cheese, using home made rejuvelac and soaked nuts and so I can do a really nice spanakopita with my own feta. I make melting mozzarella and hard cheddar with beer and brie and camembert and emmental. Home baked bread is crammed really full of good stuff such as chia seeds, sunflower seeds, psyllium husk  and linseeds and it is usually gluten free and always delicious. I make butter with coconut and rapeseed oils and soya lecithin and if I need to, I’ll make the occasional cake and muffin and dessert and ice cream, although salads and soups and stews and smoothies and savoury mains are my favourites, especially if they fuse lebanese, greek or asian origins. I’m branching out into soul food now and raw stuff is high on the agenda, thanks to a great local veg store.

Today I cracked a new breakfast. My  favourite Sunday protein breakfast is usually tofu scramble, although I do like making my own home made baked beans. Croissants, however, hit the plates for a change this morning as I had to find out if vegan ones were ok. They are really nice and not too hard to make and I’m told they are less greasy than the shop bought butter ones. I made them with wholemeal flour and vegan butter and shortening and they really worked well. I served them up with grape and red wine jelly, which has no sugar and is nicer than jam. A batch of dough makes 24 croissants so I put most of them in the freezer.They are next to the vegan ‘Magnum’-style  ice creams I made last week, which are packed with coconut oil, peanuts, dates, chocolate and vanilla. I’ll give most of them away as treats to non-vegans.

Autumn is a time for soups and stews and also for making lots of chutneys. I’ve made some good ones from fruits like peaches, apricots, plums, pears and mangoes.I’m pleased with the pickles and especially the pickled button mushrooms which are going down a treat. The sauerkraut has turned out to be very popular and is really gut-beneficial, so I’m happy with that.

I haven’t finished trying out new recipes by a long way. There are still vegan dishes to perfect: I’ve been working on cauliflower ‘steaks’ and carrot ‘hot dogs’ and they are almost there. It’s not hard being vegan as far as I’m concerned but I’m full of admiration for meat lovers who give it up. I know someone who adores the taste of a fried steak and hasn’t touched one in years. That’s impressive. But the days of rubbery vegan cheese and the cardboard textured lentil burger have long gone. To those people who aren’t vegan and don’t want to be: choice is everything, and you don’t have to give up for ever. But making a good vegan meal once or twice a week which tastes delicious and helps you bounce with health can’t be a bad thing. And who knows. you might even do it again. And again.

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‘The One in a Million Boy’ reviewed

‘The One in a Million Boy’ is a novel by Monica Wood, telling the story of unlikely protagonists, misfits who become close to each other, finding out about themselves as they explore new relationships. Ona Vitkus is 104 years old and her friendship with the eponymous unnamed boy is the central focus: he is interviewing her about her life, on tape, and encouraging her to aim for records in the Guinness Book. Ona has lived since the beginning of the 1900s,so she has fascinating stories to tell, and it is through the flashbacks to her recollections that we learn about her experiences and how she has become a complex and rich character.

Perhaps the other most interesting central character besides Ona is Quinn, the boy’s father, who is as compulsive a guitarist as his son is a collector of data.Early in the novel, the boy dies of a rare illness and it is the people  who loved him- Ona, Quinn, his ex wife, Belle- who develop and learn from the legacy of the eleven year old boy who touched their lives. Quinn is paying the penance for being a bad father: his need to play his guitar has kept him away from his son and Belle is wrecked by grief.

Quinn: playing guitar was the single occasion in his slight and baffling life when he had the power to deliver exactly the thing another human being wanted.

Some readers will compare this book to ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ because it is about an old lady. I enjoyed this book much more: ‘Elizabeth’ did not work for me so well in terms of the main characters but Ona is no stereotype: she is complex, charming and brave. She is flawed but not frail and she has learned to be resilient throughout her life and her past stories are utterly credible.

It is rare that we see Ona as simply an old lady: she is an independent and feisty woman, but Monica Wood carefully intersperses her strong moments with reminders that Ona has an ageing body. As readers, we respond with admiration but never pity.

What sets ‘The One in a Million Boy’ apart from many other novels in the same genre is how well written it is and how it never resorts to labels or stereotypes. The presence of the boy, with his love of facts and figures, is with us throughout the novel and it is his death which sets the other characters on the path to self discovery. Monica Wood’s story goes beyond loss and grief, though. Ona is an intriguing personality and her background story of immigration and integration is one which shapes her present day character. She may be old in years but she is always learning:

Because the story of your life never starts at the beginning

Wood tells us about the boy who visited her and helped her feed her birds:

He reminded her that she’d once found people fascinating. That she’d lived more than one life.

The boy’s interviews with Ona are one sided- we can only guess what he has asked her and that makes his presence, and somehow his absence, more poignant.

Although I found Quinn’s professional stroke of luck at the end of the story, and the result of ‘the song’ written by Ona’s husband a little implausible, the last few chapters of the novel make the whole book exceptional. There are readers who will be emotionally moved by the ending: it is surprising and cleverly contrived.’The One in a Million Boy’  is a layered story which charts the reconstruction of  three people who believed their lives were damaged beyond repair. The final pages are inventive and shrewd and I was thrilled by Monica Wood’s dexterity in making the ending of the story very resonant.Ona says:

You know, one meets so many people, the years pass and pass, but there are certain times, certain people— . . . They take up room. So much room. I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory. A little nick. But certain others, they move in and make themselves at home and start flapping their arms in the story you make of your life. They have a wingspan. . . .

This book comes highly recommended: it flies in the face of tokenist novels about characters who are ‘different’ and celebrates the real and valuable friendships which can come from people whose lives may appear, on the surface, to be incompatible.

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Happy September! Let’s bottle summer and keep it alive through the cold months

So many crises have been screamed from newspaper headlines this summer. We’ve read about the post-Brexit panic and the disharmony in both major political parties as new leaders put themselves forward. Politicians have been maligned and rejected and new leaders have emerged. We’ve read about the queues at Calais, the dreadful attacks in Nice and Munich, the threat of Trump and the massive political instability and uncertainty in the UK, the fall in the value of the pound, the mendacity of our leaders and the failed coup in Turkey, and the gigantic attack in Baghdad and 200 lives lost. This is not to mention the ongoing crises squeezed out of the news by this catalogue of terror and trepidation. The civil war in Syria rages on, as does the migration crisis it has sparked. I could go on.

It’s natural, then, that we hang on to the weather being kind and the hope of balmy days to come to soothe our troubled souls.

It is true: the warm weather brings optimism with it, however shallow and transitory. We are boosted by the vitamin D from the sun and, rather than being stuck indoors in front of the telly, we gravitate to the bottom of the garden with the barbecue or we head for the beach with a rolled mat and a bottle of coconut- scented factor 30.

Sadly, the summer ends sometime between August and October, and we will be left with nothing but memories of the fun we had and a fading tan. So, if we could bottle summer, and keep the elixir of happiness and well-being to warm us through the winter months, how would we do it? When winter’s icy blast is roaring round our ankles again and we want to do nothing but snuggle under a duvet with a hot water bottle or eat butter-soaked crumpets around a blazing fire, how can we banish the lethargy of winter and bring back the energy and joy of the summer months?

I have compiled a top ten of ideas below and I challenge you to try some of them out.

10: Shorts: There’s a freedom to wearing shorts when we have tanned legs and trainers or flip flops or open-toed sandals. Maybe we can hang onto our shorts as long as possible. We could even wear them around the house with reasonable central hearing to support our prickling cold skin. After a day at work, when you come home and fling your clothes aside, why not give a pair of denim cut-offs or some cool floral beach shorts an outing rather than lounge pants, jog bottoms or – dare I say it – the ubiquitous winter onesie?

9: Music: The music we play reflects not only our mood but the weather outside. Before we hear the opening bars of the Christmas Slade song once again, maybe we should be belting the Beach Boys out in the living room? What about some Good Vibrations, a bit of Surfin’ USA or the timeless Barbara Ann? Then, eyes closed, we’re on the beach again and the surf is rolling in and the sun is beating down.

8: Barbecues: It doesn’t always rain in the winter. So, in between downpours, why not put a tent up in the garden or on the front doorstep for shelter and recreate barbecue bliss? Whatever your dietary inclination, be it chicken wings or a roasted cob of sweetcorn, steak or veggie burgers or a chunk of tuna, it will taste special on the Barbie. Add a nice salad, a beer or lemonade with a sprig of bruised mint and you have summer on a plate! You can eat it snuggled in the tent in your kagoule. Bon appetit!

7: Beach life: I miss the beach when summer ends. Remember how wonderful it is, soaking up the sun, sand between the toes, and those long glorious walks into the sunset. We’re so lucky that there are beaches in abundance where we live, we can still spend a day on a glorious beach, even if it’s a bit windy. If it’s chilly, we can always wrap up in hats and gloves – wellies if need be – and what fun to have a water balloon fight on the sand in November!

6: Boules: Summer brings with it warm weather sports such as tennis and so, to relive the carefree days of July and August, we could stage our own boules competition. Complete with strawberries (I know they can be a bit tasteless out of season, but even a bit of strawberry jam on a scone may do the trick) and cream and a cup of best tea afterwards. Even if we play boules in the lounge with the sofa and TV moved to a safe place and celebrate afterwards with a cream tea, then it’s almost August again.

5: Swimming: It is such good exercise to swim, whether in the sea or in a pool, and what a shame to give up in September. There are lots of heated pools out there so maybe we need to deny the winter months by keeping a firm grip on the Speedos and diving in the deep end every week!

4: Ice cream: Ice cream tends to be the go-to treat in the heat of July. In the deep mid-winter, try a huge cone of your favourite ice-cream flavour or an ice cream lolly covered with chocolate. Now close your eyes and imagine the sun on your skin and the scent of the salty sea in your nostrils, and you can still dream while you devour one of the great tastes of summer as you lie in front of your log fire.

3: Picnics: I’ve tried this out myself and it is a fantastic treat for the whole family. Take a double bed and cover the duvet with a plastic table cloth. Now bring out the picnic hamper, the sandwiches and little quiches and cake and lemonade or a jug of Pimms and have a picnic in the bedroom. Invite family or friends, sit on the edges of the bed and enjoy a winter picnic even if it’s cold outside. No cow pats either. Bonus!

2: Books not TV: My plan this winter is not to vegetate every night in front of films and football. I’m going to put up a hammock in the living room and read even more books. A straw hat enhances the ambience. Who cares if it’s snowing outside? In my lounge, it’s August.

1: The great outdoors: This is a really big one for me. It is easy to enjoy the natural outdoor life in the summer, the fresh air, the countryside, the sea air, the bounty of flora and fauna we have on our doorstep. In winter, it’s still there; it simply manifests itself in different colours. There are lots of walks to be had, from beaches to woods to moors to coastal paths, and it just requires a little planning in terms of comfortable clothing and footwear. Whatever the season, there’s so much to discover outdoors and I’m not going to neglect it this year because of a bit of rain. If you can’t make it on foot and you have a car, a bike or access to a bus route, it’s only moments away. The countryside in autumn, with its musty smells and misty landscapes is to be captured, whether one is a photographer, a poet or a dog walker. Or even a lone stroller. I’ll see you out there. I’ll be wearing floral wellies.

We can’t all banish the winter with a jaunt to warmer climes, although I’m sure it’s a health booster to grab a fortnight in the Algarve or the Canaries in November or February. But if we are fit and happy, then we are fortunate and it’s all out there for us to enjoy. Of course, if we’re having a whale of a time, it will soon be Christmas before we know it. Then summer 2017 is just around the corner.

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