MARCH READING - Dreamers of the Day; The Tulip Virus; Silent Scream; Family Album

FAMILY ALBUM by Penelope Lively

Wow, two Penelope Lively books in as many months! This woman is such a great writer, weaving her characters - all from the same family of course - with each other, casting different interpretations on the same events, relating past events to present situations. She weaves a delicious web; slowly, gently uncovering the mysteries and things that happen in families, all under the veneer and appearance of everything being 'normal'.

In this little gem, the children, all six of them, are returning to the family home, Allersmead - a large and rambling, run down suburban house, perfect for a large family and extras. The parents are Charles and Alison, respectively a successful but reclusive anthropology writer, and a mother, a domestic goddess actually, devoted to the provision of food, beautiful food and plenty of it for her family.

In a family of this size, naturally, the personalities are very diverse and the interactions and relationships between all of them just as interesting diverse. Naturally too there are secrets which Penelope Lively unfolds and discloses in such a gentle and intricate way. The biggest secret of all becomes fairly obvious soon enough in the story, but the unfolding and acceptance of the situation is just so beautifully handled that it all just seems like the most natural thing in the world.

I loved the characters, all of them, and just like real humans they are likable and unlikable with their good and bad points. I loved the writing and the unfolding of the story and the way the relationships develop and work. All in the name of family love. Wonderful and inspiring.

SILENT SCREAM by Lynda la Plante

Who could forget DCI Jane Tennison as played by Helen Mirren in the ITV series Prime Suspect. A riveting woman playing a riveting character - flawed, ambitious, driven, trying to balance her private life with her professional life. La Plante is a very successful script writer for TV, starting in the 1970s on a children's programme, and moving onto adult drama in the early 1980s. Prime Suspect began in the 1990s, and started her on her crime/police fighting wave with strong women at the helm. It would seem like the next step, with such a successful formula, to begin writing books.

'Silent Scream' is the fifth book in the DI Anna Travis series and the first one I have read. And what a read it is. True to her Prime Suspect formula, Anna Travis is feisty, highly intelligent, likes to work alone, the lone woman operating at her level in her work place, prone to polarising those around her, and has a relationship just a bit too close with her superintendent. And it goes without saying that she is extremely attractive! I didn't feel like I had missed out on anything about Anna by not reading the first four novels. So if you are a die hard fan, this will be like meeting an old friend.

Anyway the story. Beautiful, young, rich, successful but very troubled actress Amanda Delaney is found murdered in her brand new apartment. Naturally the suspects are many and various and naturally, it falls onto the shoulders of DI Travis to solve the murder. Which, naturally, she does!

Riveting reading, plenty of red herrings, unsavoury characters, interspersed with Anna trying to live her own life. And because it is fast paced and action packed, there is no time or chance for boredom or tedium. An easy read perfect for a weekend curled up on the couch or sun lounger by the water.

THE TULIP VIRUS by Danielle Hermans

Way back in the 1600s, in Holland, the humble tulip bulb took over the world. Generally considered the first speculative economic boom/bust event, tulip mania made many fortunes, and just as dramatically lost them again. The ironic thing about the passion for tulips, is that the most highly prized and sought after ones, with their beautiful colour combinations and markings, were actually as a result of a virus.

The author, who is Dutch herself, has taken tulip mania into the modern day. Her novel is set primarily in the present, but she draws on the events of the 1630s to create her story. The story moves between the two time periods, and shows that the deadly sin of greed has not changed its shape and size over the last 500 years. A murder in 1624 is strangely repeated in 2007. The murdered man, also a Dutchman, is found by his nephew Alec, with a small book from the 17th century of beautiful tulip illustrations. This book becomes the key to Alec and his friends figuring out why his uncle died and the shadowy people behind the murder. Like all good thrillers, there are a number of red herrings and suspicious characters before all is resolved. Or is it.

The parts of the story that take place in the 1600s give the reader the background to the madness that took over the Dutch and the traders. They were the equivalent of the traders we have today who make and lose on the future prices of various commodities. In view of the almost collapse of the world economy just a couple years ago, primarily because of the sub prime mortgage market in the USA, where what was being traded were things that didn't actually exist, this story is very timely and could almost be seen as a modern day parable.

I am not sure if it really works as a murder thriller. There isn't that edge of the seat, page turner thing going on that we have are used to in our modern day thriller. The book has been translated from the Dutch, and I wonder if some of the urgency, fear and horror has been lost in the process. It is neither a thinking thriller nor a pot boiler thriller, and may be considered by some to be quite staid. But the historical aspect keeps the story alive and certainly makes you want to keep reading till the end.

DREAMERS OF THE DAY by Mary Doria Russell

About 2/3 of the way through this book there is a black and white photo taken in 1921 at the Cairo Peace Conference in Egypt. This conference was convened by Winston Churchill to work through implementing the mandates Britain had been awarded with regards to Iraq, Palestine and Jordan - in other words the creation of the modern Middle East. As we all know the Middle East is not the only area in the world where the repercussions of Britain's past attempts to redraw maps and boundaries are continuing to cause problems for all involved.

The photograph, taken at this very significant conference, shows a group of people sitting on camels in front of the Sphinx. Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine, Gertrude Bell, Lawrence of Arabia, the British ambassador to Egypt, and amongst others, two women standing next to an Arabian. Names known or unknown, the author of this novel has taken one of these two women, given her a name and a story that makes you want to pack your bags and head off to discover this very ancient and very beautiful, mysterious country.

Agnes Shanklin, indeterminate age (about 40 perhaps?), spinster school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, finds herself an heiress of moderate means and decides to travel to the Middle East where her sister and husband who were missionaries had known T E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. Agnes finds herself staying at the same hotel as the Conference participants and thus drawn into the day to day goings-on of the conference and the officials there. Naturally she falls in love, and who wouldn't want to be in love in such a place. But this is not really a love story, more a story of self-discovery. Agnes's self discovery is also our discovery of the rich history of Egypt and the background to the way that part of the world is now. Quite sad actually, and the author pulls no punches in what she thinks about the history of British involvement in this much troubled region. Agnes is an observer in the narrative rather than a participant, and this device makes it very easy to put in lots of history and commentary on the history taking place. I know this device to tell a story has been used before, and this story reminded me very much of 'Any Human Heart' by William Boyd, and it works.

I really liked Agnes, I would love to think that I could have been so intrepid way back in the 1920s to leave the middle of America and my nice safe life and step on a boat that takes me, literally and figuratively to the other side of the world. We don't often read novels that as well as enriching us through the story, also teach us and give us background to the world around us.