Category Archives: Title-A

A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley


Mary Wesley and I usually get on like a house on fire – I’ve enjoyed eight of the ten novels she wrote for adults – but this wasn’t the case with the ninth, A Sensible Life, the story of Flora who we first meet as a 10 year old child on holidays in France, walking a dog on a beach, as observed by 15 year old Cosmo from the shore, but who we never really get to know in any profound way.

Flora’s parents have no time for her and in the way of Mary Wesley’s ‘orphans’ she soon finds herself observing the people around her, including Cosmo’s family, and becoming peripherally involved – which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but isn’t if you’re Mary Wesley – on an irregular basis.

The main problem I had with A Sensible Life was the way that Flora was treated as an object by most of the other characters – from her parents who palm her welfare off on to other people, and then send her to boarding school in England, to the two young men, Cosmo and Hubert, who foist their sexual attentions upon Flora aged 15 but ignore her otherwise, to Cosmo’s mother, who is threatened by Flora’s sexual power and deliberately neglects her welfare as a consequence.  It was not only joyless reading but it also reflected badly on a culture that objectifies young women.

Problematically for the book, there doesn’t seem to be any point to this treatment of Flora.  She is barely affected by others’ behaviour towards her and they in turn, do not grow or develop in any way over.  Because nothing changes, there is no shape and no colour to the book, and no need for a resolution or climax, which, overall, makes for fairly pointless reading.

A Sensible Life is not one of Mary Wesley’s best.

Book Details:
A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley
Black Swan, 1990, 380 pages, personal copy.


BOOK REVIEW: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld


BOOK REVIEW: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, fiction, Doubleday, paperback, 2008, 555 pages.

Sittenfeld_American Wife

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is a loose fictionalisation of the life of Laura Bush, the wife of the former President of the United States, George W Bush.

It tracks the life of Alice Lindgren from young girl to First Lady and documents the events that occur along the way.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about her life and I think that’s the point — American Wife is a study in ordinariness.  It shows how an unexceptional young girl growing up in the American mid-west can, through various choices, find herself as wife to a President of the United States.  It was not something she set out to be, rather it’s a position that finds her because of the person she chooses to marry and his political ambitions as state Governor, and then as President.

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BOOK REVIEW: All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve


BOOK REVIEW: All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve, fiction, Abacus, paperback, 2003, 322 pages.

Shreve_All He Ever Wanted

Knowing very little about Anita Shreve’s work, I picked up All He Ever Wanted after reading somewhere online that it references Virginia Woolf’s notion from A Room of One’s Own that ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’.  More broadly, this is often taken as a claim for women’s independence.  All He Ever Wanted tips its hat to this idea but it’s not its central force.

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BOOK REVIEW: At Risk by Stella Rimington


BOOK REVIEW: At Risk by Stella Rimington, fiction, Arrow books – Random House, paperback, 2005, 454 pages.

At Risk is a contemporary espionage novel written by the former head of Britain’s MI5, Stella Rimington.  It’s the first in a (so far) series of five which has at its centre, the determined Liz Carlyle, an MI5 operative working in London.

Rimington At RiskLiz works in the counter terrorism section and at the Monday morning meeting of the Joint Counter-Terrorist group, there are alarming reports that an Islamic Terror Syndicate is about to deploy an invisible — a terrorist who, because they are an ethnic native of a country, can cross that country’s borders unnoticed and infiltrate its institutions with ease.

In other words, a native Briton with terrorist inclinations is about to enter Britain to do something dastardly.

Couple this news with a report from one of Liz’s old agents that there is some kind of ‘drop off’ coming from Germany and you have the beginnings of a tense and intricate plot that gradually unfolds itself like a piece of origami — logical, precise and economical.

The action takes place in Norfolk.  Liz works with MI6, Special Branch and the armed forces, desperately trying to work out the specific time and location of the threat to English security.  It’s naturally a race against time and Rimington keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if Liz will win the day and who will be a casualty of that win.

There were many things that I liked about this book — a zippy plot, a breathtaking finish, and a thorough laying of groundwork in terms of who Liz is and where she’s come from.

But the thing I liked most was the particularly strong characterisation of Liz.  Rimington has said that Liz is partly autobiographical and partly based on women she has met during her career.  As a consequence, Liz is a cracker — strong, intelligent, unprepared to brook any resistance, occasionally funny, often humourless but steadfastly committed to her job (to wit, the clinical decision she makes to dump her boyfriend because he threatens her independence and potentially her career).  She also has to contend with being a woman in a predominantly male world and I enjoyed her prickliness and strident attempts to maintain her equal status.

Having now read two Stella Rimington/Liz Carlyle books, At Risk feels to be a stronger novel than Illegal Action, which I’ve reviewed previously.  It feels as though a great deal of planning has gone into At Risk and Rimington has ensured she has dotted all her ‘i’s and crossed all her ‘t’s — plotwise and characterwise, that is.  It’s a very thorough piece of work.

I ripped through this book in a couple of days and recommend it for its strong female protagonist and its smart, intelligent and pulse-racing take on latter day espionage.