Hazel McHaffie

Richard and Judy Book Club


It’s always a thrill to hear people are enthused by books, but I’ve been especially touched and rather overwhelmed by the response to the bookcase we set up at the beginning of lockdown. Remember this?

It’s still going strong five months on; the wood has been bleached by the sun and rain, but hundreds of books have come and gone, thanks to the generosity and appetite of strangers, and I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve expressed enthusiasm for the enterprise. Cards and scribbled notes have been popped through the letter box; wee gifts have been left at the door. And shining through the messages, verbal and written, is a heartfelt appreciation for the healing power of reading:

I suffer from depression and my partner works shifts so I’m on my own a lot … your books really helped me to get through.

Love, love, love your little library!

I do a detour round this way just to see what books there are now.

It was great to have a purpose to my daily walk and a sense of excitement to see what would be new!

You’ve saved my sanity!

A very big thank you for keeping me sane with books from your lovely bookcase.

Every time we have passed your house we have also seen someone excited to see what book there is. We have seen children’s faces light up as they exclaim,’ There’s a Harry Potter book, Mummy!’ and that brightens our day. We pass most days and always find something interesting.

An added bonus is finding books left that I want to read myself. But this week there was an intriguing discovery. One of the books, The Sapphire Widow by Dinah Jefferies, had a sticker inside saying it was registered in a special scheme: Bookcrossing. Completely new to me. And irresistible:

If you love books let them go!

We’re helping to make the world a library, and you’ve caught a travelling book. Enter the BICD below and see where this book has been. Make a brief journal entry, then keep its dream alive … Read and Release it!

So, of course, I did – read and released and filled in the journal for this book’s travels. And discovered that thousands of books are circulating with journal entries tracking their progress. Who knew?!

The Sapphire Widow was readable too – apparently it was a Richard and Judy Book Club Pick in 2018! The year is 1935. The setting is Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). Louisa Reeve is young, prosperous, rich; daughter of a successful gem-trader; wife of the handsome reformed gambler, and thrill-seeker, Elliot. They seem like the couple who have everything they could want – except a child. After two miscarriages, and a stillborn baby, Julia, Louisa becomes haunted by these ‘lost children’. (My kind of territory!) Her husband does his best to make her feel treasured, but gradually she becomes aware that all is not well. He is increasingly absent. Shadows fall over her charmed life.

Then, on the night of their twelfth wedding anniversary party, a police inspector arrives and shatters her hopes for ever: Elliot has been killed in a car accident. But … he was far from where he said he would be, driving someone else’s car. Why? And why did he lie? From that moment life unravels for Louisa – everything Elliot had told her, is emerging as a tissue of lies; all her memories contaminated by doubt.

Leo McNairn is the owner of Cinnamon Hills, the plantation Elliot had claimed he had shares in, and it falls to him to tell Louisa about her husband’s secret life. Had the love between them ever been real? Her life, her marriage, her dreams for the future, lie in shreds at her feet.

Parts of the plot were less well-realised than others, tension fizzles too quickly for my taste, problems are too suddenly resolved, but I enjoyed the evocative way the author captures smells, colours, textures, sounds, temperatures, bringing this exotic part of the world to life. And I’m happy to send this book out on its travels for someone else to pick up. I shall await news of its voyages with interest.

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The Couple Next Door

Did you know it’s World Book Day today – Thursday 5 March? Yep; a celebration of writing and reading. Hurrah!!

So which of the hundreds of books I have on my shelves shall I share with you on this auspicious day? Ahah. Time methinks to confess.

I am officially at odds with the establishment. That was confirmed when I read a highly acclaimed novel which I sent for on the grounds that a) it’s billed as a gripping thriller and b) it sounds very like my own latest novel, Killing me Gently. Indeed, the similarities were too striking to miss:
the genre: domestic thriller
a baby missing
a marriage in trouble
the mum struggling to cope
readers finding it unputdownable.

All comments applied to Shari Lapena‘s book, The Couple Next Door, which predates my (apparently) similar tale by three years, but which I’ve only just discovered. I had to check it out, then! A couple of train journeys this week gave me the perfect opportunity to savour it without too many distractions.

The basic storyline goes roughly like this. Anne Conti is struggling to cope with her new baby, Cora. She’s not going out to work so the confines of home and constant exposure to Cora’s fussing, grind her down. Her parents are fabulously wealthy. They disapproved of her marriage to impecunious Marco, but to allow their daughter to live in style, they initially gave him money to buy a beautiful house and start up his own business. Father and son-in-law frankly hate each other. Marco has recently suggested to Anne mortgaging their home to allow him to expand the enterprise.

Living next door is seductive Cynthia Stillwell and mousey husband Graham. They invite the Conti’s for a dinner party to celebrate Graham’s milestone birthday, but at the last minute the babysitter cancels. Cynthia is adamant: no babies at her parties. Anne says, OK, she won’t go then. But against her better judgement, Marco persuades her to leave Cora asleep in her own cot, taking a monitor with them so they can hear if she wakes, and taking it in turns to pop across every half an hour to check on her physically. Shortly after 1 o’clock they return together … to find the front door ajar, the security light unscrewed … and the baby missing.

Shades of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann way back in 2007 evoked, huh? Layers of guilt and reproach and suspicion.

As the facts of their lives unravel, it’s clear that Baby Cora, barely six months old, blonde hair, blue eyes, weighing about 16 pounds, is alone in being entirely above suspicion. Everyone else is harbouring murky secrets and hidden lives: Mum, Dad, Granny, Grandpa, the couple next door! Who can you trust? Nobody is telling the full truth here. Detective Rasbach has his work cut out. Fortunately he’s nobody’s fool.

There are plenty of glowing testimonials for The Couple Next Door from well respected writers and publications. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. It bears the sticker: The most talked-about thriller of the year. It has attracted over 6500 comments on Amazon. Wow! Success by anyone’s measure. However, in the safety of my personal blog, I have to confess to personal reservations … seriously big ones at that.

Fair enough, the slow release of information casting doubt on the honesty of everyone, is  a page-turning tactic. The intriguing technique of the unreliable narrator keeps the adrenaline flowing. The principal characters are not very likeable or sympathetic or three dimensional, but at least we’re rooting for that little baby … and the detective. However, for me the style of writing really did not appeal. It reminds me of the audio description that provides information in a television programme for the benefit of visually impaired people – wooden, staccato, clunky. Points of view shift and we’re told bluntly what characters are thinking. All markers for ‘telling’ instead of more subtle and intriguing ‘showing’. I’m frankly astonished it has achieved such status.

So, though I can envy the author her success, I don’t wish I’d written her book. And I’m relieved that Killing me Gently could certainly not be suspected of being a re-hash of The Couple Next Door. Phew!

But let’s hear it for good books everywhere on this special day.  Long may they bewitch and inform and console and nourish us.



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