Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Light Reading by Aliya Whiteley


As part of my Arts Council England award, I am endeavouring to review novels written by authors living in either Devon, Cornwall or Somerset, or novels set in these counties. Light Reading is the first of these books that I’ve enjoyed enough to finish and review.

The blurb tells us that

“Prudence Green is a troubled woman. Stifled by her existence as an RAF wife, she’s dying for a bit of excitement. When one of the other women on the base commits suicide (having discovered that her husband is having an affair with a male comrade in Iraq), Pru and her best friend Lena are prompted to set off on a memorably surreal journey – a criminal investigation, a search for love and an exploration of Pru’s own dark past.

Which perhaps doesn’t sound a lot like ‘light reading’. From the cover image I was expecting a light-hearted comedy novel, so I was surprised to find myself confronted with some serious grit. Still, a seaside town in Devon, two RAF wives and a mysterious celebrity death sounded like an interesting recipe and I was certainly intrigued as to where this would all end up, particularly since I myself was once an RAF wife and I currently live in a small seaside town.

The book opens with a description of life on an RAF base. The boredom among the wives is pretty evident and the range of feelings regarding the RAF made me just a little bit nostalgic. There are those women who accept that detachments abroad are part and parcel of military life and there are those who feel bitterness towards an organisation responsible for taking a loved one so far from home and putting him in harm’s way. The book also touches on the resentment that can arise from a husband who adores the military lifestyle even though his wife abhors it. So far so accurate.

The detective story gets under way and Lena and Pru set off for Allcombe (a fictional town based on Ilfracombe) where they are to investigate the suicide of young TV star Crystal Tynee. They encounter po-faced locals, teenage thugs and a truly sinister care home owner (who still strikes fear into my heart). Somehow, however, the mystery element of the plot feels less important than the drama unfolding between the two friends.

Prudence and Lena make fascinating sleuths. Prudence is not a conventionally likeable character. She’s bitchy and mean-spirited and rarely has a good word to say about anyone or anything. Her main hobby is collecting suicide notes (she even swipes the note of the neighbour who commits suicide on the base). Lena is less prickly and puts up with a fair amount of verbal abuse from Pru but she’s also something of a train wreck, suffering from an eating disorder and struggling to come to terms with her husband’s betrayal. The dialogue between these two characters was riddled with tension and I very much enjoyed their interactions.

However, for me Allcombe was the real star of the show. Although buzzing in the summer, in the winter Allcombe is rather like a ghost town, with boarded-up shops, empty streets and rain-lashed promenades. ‘Place’ is where Whiteley really shines as a writer, often conjuring up settings that neatly reflect the emotional landscape of her main characters.

Light Reading is hard to categorise. There are moments of black comedy throughout the novel, but there is also deep bitterness and anguish. Earlier this year I was told about a new genre of fiction called ‘Chick Noir’, which is said to be postmodern chicklit with a dark edge, and perhaps Light Reading might fit that bill. Either way, Light Reading is a satisfying read with plenty of twists and enough conflict to keep the reader turning the pages. Although it’s probably far too early to be mentioning Christmas, I can’t help but think this novel would make an ideal Christmas present for fans of the detective and chicklit genres.

ISBN-13: 978-0230700628, Macmillan New Writing, 304 pages, £7.99, paperback.

* This is possibly a long shot but if any Vulpes Libris readers can recommend modern novels set in the Westcountry (or written by authors based in the Westcountry), I would be very glad to hear about them in the comments section below.

13 comments on “Light Reading by Aliya Whiteley

  1. RosyB
    November 18, 2009

    Do you think this sounds like one I might be interested in, Lisa? I like the sound of the eccentricity and the dark undertones and the Prudence character.

  2. Anne Brooke
    November 18, 2009

    Sounds off the wall for sure, Lisa! I’m rather taken with the suicide notes collection fetish – most odd …



  3. Lisa
    November 18, 2009

    Rosy, yes, I think you would like this one. It has a dark quirkiness that I think you’d enjoy.

    Anne, collecting suicide notes IS rather an interesting hobby, I suppose (although not one that’s ever occurred to me before, I must admit!) And ‘off the wall’ is definitely a good way of describing this book, which has a certain mad charm about it.

  4. Amy
    November 18, 2009

    You could try the Memory Garden by Rachel Hore. It’s set in Cornwall and is beautifully evoked. It is a fantastic read as well.

  5. Lisa
    November 18, 2009

    Many thanks, Amy. I’ll add Memory Garden to the list. DGR has recommended work by James Long and Helen Dunmore, so I have lots of lovely book-buying ahead!

  6. Neil
    November 18, 2009

    Hi, Lisa.

    Nice review.

    Not set in the West Country, but Fisher of Devils is a sorely under-rated, overlooked and occasionally misjudged comic fantasy by Ex-pat Devonian Steve Redwood:

    Might be of interest.

  7. Lisa
    November 19, 2009

    Thanks, Neil. Comic fantasy sounds great! I’ll look it up.

  8. Jackie
    November 21, 2009

    The cover does look much too lighthearted for the actual story. I wonder if the dropped ice cream cone is to symbolize something pleasant that has gone awry? Much like the marriage of the one character.
    Do you think this is the beginning of a series featuring Pru & Lena? Sounds like it has that potential.

  9. Lisa
    November 22, 2009

    Jackie, I hope this is the beginning of a series featuring Pru and Lena. The “A Lena and Pru mystery” on the front cover seems to suggest as much.

  10. Steve
    December 14, 2009

    Er… Jackie and Lisa, the cover blurb ‘a Lena and Pru mystery’ is an old advertising trick (think of the implications), and there might anyway be a small problem with a Pru-Lena series. I won’t say why, because there are people here who may (and ought to- a great read!) read the book later, but I draw your attention to the fact that at the end of the book Pru is upstairs.

    And the cover does a great disservice to the book. I suppose the red edge to the melted ice-cream could be meant to suggest blood – but it doesn’t! Rather it makes it look like an infinitely boring holiday romance! I would never have picked this book up in a shop, but luckily had already read some of Aliya’s writing, and knew it would be intelligent and unusual (well, the gal is from the Westcountry…).

    (And don’t believe a word Neil says – he’s just here for all the girls!)

  11. Neil
    December 17, 2009

    The original cover to the hardback painted a more obvious reflection of the book’s content, (by Alice Tait):

    But I like the paperback cover too. And I don’t think it’s too girly. Steve’s just not in touch with his feminine side. (In fact, I don’t think he’s in touch with many ‘feminines’ full stop.) To me the paperback cover says ‘splat’. Not sure who the designer/illustrator was.

  12. Steve
    December 18, 2009

    Confess, Neil, you just love ice-cream!

  13. Steve
    December 18, 2009

    PS what’s a ‘feminine’?

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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