A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Birth pangs…

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As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, her young slave, Florens, sets out to find and bring back the man the mistress thinks will be able to cure her. As Florens makes her difficult and dangerous journey through the still wild Virginia of 1690, where humans and beasts present different though equal threats, we will learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we will get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will.

I’m having a bit of a rollercoaster ride with Toni Morrison. Having been stunned by the power of Beloved, I was then a little disappointed by the heavy-handed symbolism of Song of Solomon, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. Having now read it, I suspect it may have layers of depth that would require further readings to fully catch, but even on this one reading I found it a wonderfully insightful and nuanced picture of the early settlers in the New World, and a beautifully told story of the human spirit battling against hardship.

Jacob Vaark has inherited a piece of land and sets out to farm it, sending back to England for a woman willing to become his wife. Rebekka tells her story of sailing across the ocean to marry a man she has never met. She is lucky – he is kind and they grow to love one another. We see the overcrowded filth and poverty of the London she has left behind and her growing delight at the space, pure air, clean water of her new home. Jacob is kind in other ways, gradually collecting waifs and strays to work on the farm. Florens came to them as a child, traded as payment of a debt owed to Jacob. Lina, a Native American, survived the smallpox brought by the settlers which wiped out almost all of her village. Rootless, she too finds a home in the Vaark household. And Sorrow, turned out by her employers for the sin of being impure, is taken in by Jacob. But Jacob’s kindness is enabled by his investments in slave plantations in Barbados – the nature of America’s foundation is in the background but never forgotten.

….Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On he feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was that feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble stocks from the bashed and broken shoes, that made him laugh. A loud, chest-heaving laugh at the comedy, the hopeless irritation, of the visit. His laughter had not subsided when the woman cradling the small boy on her hip came forward. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency.
….“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.”

One of the things I appreciated about this is that Morrison doesn’t limit it to the story of African slaves. She shows that, while race is clearly already a dividing line, there are other factors – wealth and poverty, gender, competing religions – that define the hierarchies within this still-forming society. We hear about the indentured servants, often white, who are bought and sold much like the Africans; the women who are, if they are lucky, traded as wives; the Native Americans, their population already being ravaged by new illnesses even before they are driven from their lands. She also shows with a good deal of subtlety how kindness is easier in good times; that friendship between people wielding unequal power is fragile, perhaps too fragile to survive when times get tough. She shows how easy it is for good people to convince themselves that they have rights of ownership and control over the lives of others, and easier still to slide unthinkingly into abuse of power. In fact, in microcosm, she shows that the problems of today’s America arise from the circumstances of its conception and birth.

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

But these characters are not merely symbols of their race or place in society. In what is a very short book, each has time to develop into a fully rounded human being, complete with vulnerabilities and flaws, not always likeable but fully empathetic. Some tell us their own stories; others we are told about in third person. Florens has a dialect and uses a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, making her sections the hardest to read but also the deepest – she is the heart of the story. We learn about the men – Jacob himself and the two indentured servants who work on the farm – but the book is centred on the women, as individuals and on their relationships with each other. Motherhood is a major theme, and a difficult one at a time when infant death was a common occurrence. There are stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, the jealousies of those women who are childless for others who have healthy babies, the prejudices against mothers who bear children out of wedlock, even when this is as a result of rape, and the fulfilment that some women only find through motherhood.

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This doesn’t have the emotional impact of Beloved, but it’s a beautifully rendered picture of womankind in all her complexities, and of inequality, be that of race or wealth or gender or power, and how it distorts the human spirit. But Morrison offers the possibility for redemption. The stories of these women are hard, often bleak, and Morrison doesn’t provide facile, happy endings; but there is a sense that the love mothers have for their children gives hope for a better future. One day, perhaps.

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Book 16 of 20

The Observations by Jane Harris

Victorian sensation from the maid’s perspective…

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Bessy Buckley may be young in years but her hard and sordid upbringing means she’s old in experience. Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, she finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But the job has some strange requirements, such as that Bessy must keep a journal of her actions and thoughts every day, and show it to Arabella on demand. Soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…

In some ways, this is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it feel fresh is the perspective of Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. She’s learned to take care of herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much care and has retained the capacity to love, despite love having been in short supply in her brief life to date.

However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy (like the author) is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Contrary to popular belief I wasn’t around in 1863 when the book is set, but a lot of the dialect words and speech mannerisms are familiar from my youth, and the pawky, irreverent, occasionally bawdy sense of humour is just about perfect. I’ve seen non-Scots say they found it a bit tricky at first to get used to the language, but for me it was as natural as listening to people who were elderly when I was a child. It’s not overdone – it’s more the rhythms and style that make it work rather than excessive use of specifically Scots vocabulary.

Jane Harris

The story itself unfolds slowly and perhaps stays a bit low-key to really compete with true sensation novels. But I liked this more realistic approach and found the whole thing stayed very well within the range of credibility. It takes us to some dark places, not least in Bessy’s childhood, but Bessy isn’t the type to wallow – she prefers to shut her mind off to the bad memories as much as she can, and her resilience and strength make her an extremely likeable protagonist to spend time with. She’s not always wise in her actions but her intentions are usually good, and she’s hard on herself when she gets things wrong. There are some nicely spooky moments and plenty of drama to keep things ticking along, but the main joy is in the language and characterisation. While we get to know Bessy intimately, Arabella is more enigmatic – perhaps the reader understands her a little better than Bessy does. Again Harris is very skilled at playing into the reader’s expectations of this type of novel while leaving Bessy struggling to understand the psychological forces at play – the intellectual and physical repression of women, the Victorian tropes of hysteria and insanity, the Gothic horror of candlelit gloom and Freudian dream sequences, the hints of unacknowledged lesbian desire, etc.

I might have criticised it, as some have, for being a little too long and drawn-out for its content, but I enjoyed Bessy’s voice so much that I never found it dragging and would happily have stayed in her company for as long as she liked. Loved it, and will be seeking out more of Harris’ work – highly recommended!

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Book 11 of 20

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

Light entertainment…

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King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that Solomon, an elephant who has been living in Lisbon for the last two years after being brought from the Portuguese colonies in India, would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna.

This is one of these books that is full of delightful prose and a pleasure to read, but ultimately is so light that its effect dissipates almost instantly. Saramago uses Solomon’s journey to digress on all kinds of things, all in a tone of gentle mockery. The power of kings, the superstition of the common people, the religious changes that were taking place at the time, the untold stories beneath the bare facts in the historical records, the writer’s right to create rather than to simply record – all these are raised but in such a way as to leave them feeling like airy wisps of passing thought, not to be taken too seriously.

We hereby recognise that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have had cause to speak of austria and its people was not only aggressive, but patently unfair. Not that this was our intention, but you know how it is with writing, one word often brings along another in its train simply because they sound good together, even if this means sacrificing respect for levity and ethics for aesthetics, if such solemn concepts are not out of place in a discourse such as this, and often to no one’s advantage either. It is in this and other ways, almost without our realising it, that we make so many enemies in life.

So, not taking it too seriously then, it has to be seen as a whimsical fable and, as such, it works reasonably well. There are amusing episodes, like when Solomon is trained to perform a “miracle” at the behest of the local churchmen. There are mildly moving scenes, such as when Solomon says farewell to the soldiers who have accompanied him on the Portuguese leg of his journey. There are pointed (and sometimes rather snide) moments of social commentary: for example, when Archduke Maximilian promptly changes Solomon’s name to Suleiman as more appropriate to his new home.

But the story is too flimsy to bear even the light weight of Saramago’s musings, however entertainingly presented. Perhaps the fact that nothing much happens is part of the point, but for this reader it made for a rather wasted journey. I also found tedious, as I always do, the author’s attempt to jazz the thing up by the use of stylistic quirks – in this case, endless paragraphs, lack of capital letters for names and no quotation marks. However, he does it well, so for people who like that kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing they’ll like.

Knowing as one does the preeminent virtues of bodily cleanliness, it was no surprise to find that in the place where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendour. A somewhat relative splendour, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a greyish coffee colour and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu. He surrendered himself to being washed as if he were expecting a miracle, a baptism, but the result was there for all to see, hairs and freckles.

Overall then, I was amused but only fleetingly engaged either emotionally or intellectually. I understand this was one of Saramago’s last books and certainly the quality of the prose would tempt me to read some of his earlier works, in the hope that they may have more depth and fewer stylistic quirks.

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Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

Regency chicken soup…

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When Lord Spenborough dies in middle-age, he leaves a youngish daughter and an even younger second wife. Lady Serena, the daughter, is desperate not to have to live with her aunt, and Fanny, the young widow, is equally reluctant to return to the home of her parents. So they decide to live together, with Fanny as an unlikely chaperone for her headstrong step-daughter. Lord Spenborough has left an unwelcome surprise for Serena in his will, though. He has named as her guardian Ivo Barrasford, Marquis of Rotherham – his old friend and Serena’s former fiancé, the man she jilted just before their wedding. Under the terms of the will Ivo must give his consent if Serena decides to marry…

Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have long been my literary equivalent of chicken soup, something to turn to when comfort reading is in order. It’s been a long time since I last read this one, and I had unfortunately forgotten that it’s not one of my favourites, though still entertaining. Both Serena and Ivo are bad-tempered, volatile and domineering characters whose behaviour towards the people around them often crosses the line towards outright bullying. It’s a kind of take on The Taming of the Shrew – not one of my favourite plays, either – although in this case, happily, each is both tamer and shrew.

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Fortunately there are lots of secondary characters who are much more fun to be around. Fanny was fond of her much older husband, but it’s quite clear she was pressured into marrying him by her parents’ ambition for wealth and a title, while he married her primarily in the hope of getting a son and heir. This hope was unrealised, so that now the entailed property has gone to Serena’s cousin, and the two ladies are living in the Dower House. Bored, partly by the reduction in their circumstances and partly by the tight restrictions on entertaining while in mourning, they soon decide to take themselves off to the delights of Bath, ostensibly so that Fanny can take the waters for her health. There they meet Hector, an old flame of Serena’s, and soon the spark is rekindled. Hector’s lovely – handsome, kind, generous and in every respect so much nicer than Ivo – and he quickly becomes the alternative hero of the book.

There’s also Mrs Floore, the grandmother of an acquaintance of the ladies. Mrs Floore’s wealth came from trade and two deceased husbands, and she makes no pretence of being a fine lady. Her daughter, however, married into the minor aristocracy and has ambitions to shove her own daughter, Emily, further up the aristocratic tree.

Georgette Heyer

All the young people, in the usual way, will first fall in love with entirely unsuitable partners, then have to find some way of escaping from this tangle to finish at last with their true loves. There’s nothing very original about the plot, and it’s fairly obvious from early on who should and will end up with whom, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a lot of fun. Heyer always writes well, and the tone is light and full of humour. She concentrates entirely on the rich and privileged so there’s no depressing realism to lower the spirit. And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!

Being written back in the mid-’50s, it certainly doesn’t count as a feminist tract – the men are the masters and/or protectors of the women, so if that would annoy you, you should avoid at all costs. Personally, I suspect all the women turn into feminists after the weddings and the husbands are probably all hen-pecked into submission by the end of the first year. Except Hector, because he’s lovely… 😉

Frothy, light-hearted fun – perfect for keeping the blues at bay!

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Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Medieval demons and Edwardian doom…

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Young Maud Stearne is a lonely child, growing up in an old house in the midst of the Suffolk fens in the early 20th century. Her strict and domineering father doesn’t have much love or time for any of his children, especially his daughter, and her mother is almost permanently pregnant, though most of those pregnancies don’t come to term. Edmund Stearne, her father, is searching for a book rumoured to have been written by a medieval mystic, the Book of Alice Pyett. But during the renovation of the local church, Edmund finds a medieval painting of the Last Judgement – the Wenhaston Doom – whitewashed over during the Reformation; and he becomes obsessed with the demons portrayed on it.

The book starts in the ‘60s, when an elderly Maud is being pestered by a journalist to tell the story of the murder her father committed when she was young. One day he ran out of the house carrying a sharpened ice-pick and killed the first person he saw, and then went mad. No-one except Maud has ever known why he did it, and she has never spoken about it. Edmund spent many years in an asylum, painting demons, and has now died. Maud has lived an isolated existence in her childhood home since the tragedy and still doesn’t want to talk about it. But when for financial reasons she finally decides to open up, she chooses another recipient for the story – a young academic called Robin Hunter who has been researching Edmund’s paintings. The story Maud tells is one of Gothic horror, with at its heart the question – was Edmund driven mad by supernatural evil or are the evil things that happened a result of his existing madness?

I didn’t find this book nearly as scary as Paver’s earlier ventures into the supernatural – Dark Matter, the best modern horror story I’ve read, and Thin Air. However, it still has plenty to recommend it. It’s a slow burn in the beginning as we learn about Maud’s restricted life and her vague misunderstandings about what she calls her mother’s “groanings” – the miscarriages and stillbirths that happen all too often. But once Maud becomes a little older – her midteens – her father begins to involve her in his work, not out of affection but to save himself the annoyance of having a secretary in the house. As she types up his research notes, she also begins to understand what kind of man he is – cold, bullying, selfish, misogynistic. And increasingly obsessed by the feeling that he is in danger from the forces of evil.

The story is told as a third person narrative for the most part, but includes many extracts from Edmund’s journal and some from the Book of Alice Pyett. Gradually we learn how his researches are feeding Edmund’s obsession and, along with Maud, we become aware that there is a mystery in Edmund’s past.

The characterisation of both Maud and her father is excellent. Neither is likeable, though one’s sympathies are all for Maud. As she becomes aware that her mother’s frequent pregnancies are a result of her father’s refusal to practice any form of self-restraint, her desire to win his affection changes into a form of hatred. Isolated and unloved, she must work her own way through the difficult years of adolescence, and the position of women is such that she has no hope of escaping her father’s control. She is strong, but is she strong enough to face the atmosphere of dread that is slowly descending over the household?

Michelle Paver

Strip the horror element out completely, and it’s still a deeply disturbing picture of life under a tyrannical father at a time when children had no independent rights, and even adult women were entirely under the control of their husbands. Alice Pyett’s story is based on the famous medieval Book of Margery Kempe (which I haven’t read) and is of another woman whose life was blighted by excessive childbirth. Whatever demons are after Edmund – supernatural or self-inflicted – I felt he deserved all he got. But like most tyrants, even as he suffered, he made sure those around him suffered too.

After the relatively slow start, I found myself totally absorbed in the second half. It’s very well written and full of interesting stuff about medieval beliefs and superstitions along with lots of Suffolk folklore. I didn’t buy into the supernatural aspect, but it didn’t matter – the ambiguity means that it works just as well, perhaps even better, as a fully human story of madness and cruelty. People can be far more frightening than demons…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus.

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The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

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Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.

I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.

“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”

Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).

The monk and the glee maiden

There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.

“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”

But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.

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A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!

*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!

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Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Part saint, part sinner…

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Young Dunstan and his brother are sent off by their father to be educated by the monks in the abbey at Glastonbury. There, Dunstan will become fascinated by the processes involved in construction and smithing, and will decide early on that one day he will replace the current abbey with a great building for the glory of God and, much more importantly, for the glory of Dunstan. To achieve this aim he must become a monk and must cultivate the rich and powerful who will be able to fund his dream. This is the story of Dunstan’s long life, of the seven Kings he served and of the gradual coalescence of all the small kingdoms into one coherent England, ruled by a single monarch.

I’ve seen so much praise for Conn Iggulden over the years, but generally he writes “sword and sandals” stories about early wars, and the periods and subjects rarely appeal to me. So I was delighted to get the opportunity to try his work in this story, which is much more to my taste. You can now sign me up as a fan – he’s a great storyteller, and this is a great story!

I didn’t know much about the real Dunstan and deliberately avoided finding anything out before reading, so that I could accept Iggulden’s version at face value. His historical notes at the end of the book remind us that our knowledge of this early period – the 10th century, AD – is patchy, with many gaps that may never be filled. The main facts of Dunstan’s life are well documented, and Iggulden sticks to them. But that leaves him plenty of room to use his imagination to fill in all the bits that aren’t known and to create a characterisation that could be true, and is certainly believable.

The story is given in Dunstan’s own voice, writing his reminiscences towards the end of his life. This makes it a perfect format for an audiobook, and the narrator, Geoffrey Beevers, does a wonderful job of bringing the man and his story to life.

Dunstan playing his harp as the devil pays a visit…
but Iggulden reveals the “truth” behind the legend

Iggulden’s Dunstan is hardly saintly, especially in his youth and early adulthood. He’s deliciously wicked and does some pretty terrible things during his life, but somehow he keeps the reader on his side. I think it’s because he doesn’t really attempt to explain too much or to justify his actions – he occasionally feels guilt and a twinge of remorse, but he never wallows or gets mawkish about it. Instead he shows us the inherent instability and violence in a society almost perpetually at war, either between internal rival factions or against the Viking raiders who were a constant threat, and the use and abuse of power that was commonplace among those who could wield it. All of this makes Dunstan’s own actions seem far less out of the ordinary than they would be in a less lawless environment.

The stream of Kings all with annoyingly similar names provide the drama that keeps the story moving along at a good pace. Some are Dunstan’s friends, some mistrust him, some are outright enemies. As he ages, some of the later ones, whose fathers and grandfathers Dunstan had known, look on him as a mentor, and in some cases, at a time when primogeniture wasn’t quite as established as it later became, Dunstan is influential in ensuring their accession to the crown. Again, Iggulden appears to stick to the known facts but provides fictional stories to fill the spaces in-between, making each of these monarchs fully rounded humans rather than just names and dates in a history book, and keeping the whole thing firmly rooted in the attitudes of the day.

Conn Iggulden

As a monk and later Abbot of Glastonbury, and finally rising to be Archbishop of Canterbury – the top religious job in England – the early church plays a role in the story too, and again I found Iggulden’s portrayal entirely convincing. This was centuries before the Reformation, of course, but the corruptions in the Roman church already existed, and both real-life and fictional Dunstan were involved in rooting out the worst of these and transforming the Church in England to follow the Benedictine rule. Iggulden’s Dunstan, though, is hardly a devout, pious man, although his relationship with God and his religion deepens as he ages. He recognises his sins, but believes that God will weigh them in the balance with his great works – the buildings he constructed, his role as Royal Treasurer, his influence over the kings and, through them, the realm, and his transformation of the Church.

This is a lengthy book with a huge cast of characters, but Iggulden makes them all individual so that the reader doesn’t feel swamped by them. I felt fully immersed in Dunstan’s world, even though it took me weeks to listen to the whole thing, and I feel I’ve learned a lot about a period of history that was previously a blank to me. I do hope Iggulden writes more on subjects like this, although I’m now tempted to try his sword and sandals books after all…

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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

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The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

The Comeback Kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1979, and Anton Winter has returned to his parents’ home in New york after a spell with the Peace Corps in Gabon which came to an abrupt end when Anton nearly died of malaria. As he recovers, he draws closer to his father, Buddy, who is also recovering, from a nervous breakdown which caused him to have an on-air meltdown, bringing his hugely successful career as a talk-show host to a halt. Now Buddy wants to revive his career and he wants Anton beside him, working behind the scenes just as he used to do. Anton is beginning to wonder, though, if this how he wants to spend his life, as a kind of adjunct of his father’s. This is the story of both men’s journeys towards resuming their interrupted lives. And it’s also the story of Anton’s friendship with a neighbour of theirs in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York – John Lennon – another man on the point of making a comeback…

I had two distinct disadvantages while reading this novel. Firstly, I was never a serious Beatles or John Lennon fan, so many of the references flew over my head, and I was never in a position to say whether the depiction of John’s personality was authentic. Secondly, the book is filled with references to American culture of the era. Some of these are globally famous – movies, major actors, Presidents and major political events – but some are more specific to the US, such as TV shows, chat-show hosts, New York clubs and so on. Neither of these seriously impaired my ability to understand the story nor my enjoyment, but I feel I’d have got more of that pleasurable frisson of recognition that comes from being drawn back to a specific point in time if I’d been more steeped in the prevailing culture.

It’s very well written and the characterisation of both Anton and Buddy is excellent. Buddy is one of those sparkling, gifted people who dominate their company wherever they go – the type of person people want as a guest to entertain them. Anton loves his father dearly, but is beginning to feel that he wants something more than to be his father’s beloved son and chief assistant. Following his breakdown, though, Buddy is vulnerable and Anton feels a rather onerous duty, as well as a good-natured desire, to help his father back onto his pedestal. Anton’s growing friendship with John Lennon provides him with an escape from the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of living and working with his family, and at the same time gives him an insight into the kind of excitement of being friends with the famous which he has seen from the other side, with people wanting to be seen to be with Buddy. It’s an interesting examination of the impact of fame on those around the famous.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Dakota

The New York Anton has always known is the glittering, glamorous bit where everyone, it seems, is a celebrity of some kind, and where everyone knows everyone else. But of course there’s another New York, and even Anton, with his cushioned life, is becoming aware of the growing poverty and drugs problems that are leading to an atmosphere of violence and danger. It’s also a time of comebacks – apart from Buddy and John Lennon, Teddy Kennedy is running for the Presidential nomination, trying to recover from the scandal of Chappaquiddick, while Muhammad Ali is about to make his final comeback in a bout against Larry Holmes. Anton, watching these events, is wondering if comebacks are ever really possible, or even if they’re desirable. Is holding onto past glories a way of losing out on future possibilities? Again, even this non-American reader knows that New York too hit rock bottom and had to make a spectacular comeback of its own.

Tom Barbash

The other strand that runs lightly through the book is the question of why people become obsessed with celebrities. Lennon fans stand outside the Dakota in all weathers, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. For some, this is just a way of showing healthy appreciation, but Barbash shows the more fanatical side of it, such as the girl who is convinced that John is going to leave Yoko and marry her instead. We don’t meet the man who killed Lennon, but knowing that he’s out there adds a chilling edge to the fan worship that Anton has always accepted as part of celebrity life.

There’s a little too much referencing and name-dropping for my taste. While some of the anecdotes about various celebrities are amusing and/or interesting, I felt that fewer of them would have led to a tighter book overall. However, that’s a small criticism of a book that I found both entertaining and thought-provoking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

The mystery of the missing finger…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…

This isn’t my usual type of book at all, so I’m struggling a bit as to how to categorise it. While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to it, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. It’s not exactly fantasy, nor would I describe it as that horrible oxymoron, magical realism. It’s more like straight historical fiction where the reader is asked to accept the beliefs and what we would call superstitions of the prevailing culture as being real.

Normally, my too delicately attuned credibility meter would have been beeping hysterically and pointing to overload, but it’s done so well that I had no problem with buying into the folklore aspects. Partly, this is because the quality of the writing carries it; partly, because Choo explains clearly the cultural basis for the more fanciful elements as she goes along; and partly, because there’s a great story in here that works, to a large degree, with or without the mystical element. The folklore stuff adds an element of mild horror that gives an air of eerieness and fatalism to the overall story.

It’s told from two perspectives – Ji Lin as a first-person narrative and Ren’s story told to us in the third person. In the beginning the finger is the only apparent link, but gradually the two storylines will cross and merge. Ren is only eleven and is a total believer in the superstitions involved in the story, so that for him returning the finger to Dr McPherson’s grave is a matter of more than life or death. Ji Lin is older, educated and more modern in her outlook (perhaps a little anachronistically so at times, in fact), but even she is so steeped in her culture that she’s open to the prevailing beliefs.

I liked them both very much as characters and thought Choo used their different ages and backgrounds very effectively to show this colonial society from more than one angle. I also really enjoyed seeing a colonial society from the perspective of the “colonised”, as it were – so much British literature reflects the perspective of the colonisers, and shows the indigenous culture as foreign and strange. Here, the Chinese Malay culture is the normal one, with the colonial Brits as the oddities who dismiss as ignorant superstition whatever they don’t understand. Happily, Choo handles the colonial aspect without over-emphasising it. There’s a current tendency to portray all colonies as seething hotbeds of resentment with the indigenous people just waiting for an opportunity to overthrow their cruel imperial masters, but I felt Choo’s portrayal of two communities living separately but in one space, rubbing along reasonably well together but not fully understanding each other, was considerably more credible.

Both strands of the story, the real and the mystical, are quite dark, but the overall tone is lightened by Ji Lin’s voice. She might rail against the secondary place of women in her society and her lack of opportunities, but she’s also strong and independent, and determined to make her own decisions about her life. She adds some humour to the story and also some romance, though in line with the rest of the book her romance has darker shades to it too.

Yangsze Choo

I feel I’ve been especially vague and obscure about the plot of the book, even by my usual standards. But that’s because I enjoyed seeing the story develop for myself with no preconceptions, so I’m trying not to take that pleasure away from anyone else by telling too much. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness, and I’ll be looking out for more from this talented author. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

Adolescent obsession…

😐 😐

Brodie Moncur works for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer, Channon, at the turn of the 19th century. He started out as a piano tuner but now helps out with the general running of the saleroom, so when the new Paris branch is struggling the owner asks him to go over and see what he can do. Brodie has long been at odds with his father, a bullying hellfire preacher, and has no real ties in Scotland, so happily agrees. Once there, he falls in love with Lika Blum, the girlfriend of an Irish pianist. Then he stays in love with her for the rest of the book, has sex with her quite a lot, and fantasises about having sex with her most of the rest of the time. He has sex with her in Paris, the South of France, Scotland and St Petersburg. And maybe other places – I forget.

Oh dear! I remember jokingly making a note to myself in a previous review that I must stop reading books written by major male authors once they reach the age of 60, since hormonally they appear to revert to a kind of adolescent obsession with sex. William Boyd is 66 now, and let’s face it, he was reasonably obsessed even in his prime. It’s not that the sex is graphic, nor even particularly erotic. It’s just that it’s not nearly as interesting as a subject to this reader as it appears to be to the writer. Sex as a literary side-dish, fine, but it makes for an unsatisfying main course.

There’s so much potential in the story too, but very little of it is realised. None of the locations come to life, and the bits I’d have liked to know more about – his relationship with his father and family, for example, or what life was like in St Petersburg around the time of the Revolution – seem to be introduced and then sidelined and forgotten about. Brodie’s passion for Lika doesn’t burn up the pages, probably because she hasn’t got much personality – his desire for her is purely physical, although he calls it love. The stuff about the piano tuning is actually the best bit of the book, although even here one can tell Boyd has researched it to the nth degree and is determined to name every part.

William Boyd

There is a plot of sorts, around musical plagiarism and the rivalry of Brodie and the Irish pianist for the body love of the fair Lika. But when I tell you that, as it reached its climax, the three words I wrote in my notes are “ludicrous”, “laughable” and “dire”, you’ll be able to tell I wasn’t wholly impressed by it.

I am a long-time fan of William Boyd and when he’s on form he’s one of the all-time best storytellers out there. Unfortunately, sometimes his form seems to desert him, and for me this is one of those times. If you’re new to Boyd, don’t be put off him by this review. Read Brazzaville Beach instead – there’s sex in it too, but there’s also a good story…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Viking.

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Obsession and ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?

I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.

Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.

Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?

Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.

So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )

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Tombland by CJ Sansom

An England ripe for rebellion…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…

Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.

The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.

Robert Kett at the Oak of Reformation
by Samuel Wale (c.1746)

The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.

The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.

CJ Sansom

This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Orange sorbet…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Frances Jellicoe is happy when she is offered a job to survey the gardens of a decayed country house, Lyntons, for the new absentee American owner. Frances’ mother has recently died after years of ill-health, and for the first time in her adulthood Frances is free to make her own life. Leaving London and the flat she and her mother shared gives her a sense of liberty. When she arrives at Lyntons, she finds she won’t be alone. Peter has also been hired, to survey the architectural state of the house, and is there with his beautiful but mercurial wife, Cara. To Frances’ surprise, they befriend her and soon she finds herself caught up in their volatile relationship. As time passes, secrets from the past will be revealed that will impact on the events of that summer, the summer of 1969…

The first half of this book crawls along at a snail’s pace and I nearly abandoned it at the halfway mark. Looking at other reviews suggested, however, that it picks up in the second half, so I stuck with it, and indeed, it did hold my attention more as it went on. But, here I am, a few days later, struggling to think of anything to say about it. It’s one of those books that I neither loved nor hated, that filled a few hours in a reasonably entertaining way (in the second half), and that now, some three days after finishing, I can barely remember anything about.

It’s well written, especially the descriptions of the dilapidated old house, once home to a wealthy family and later requisitioned by the army to accommodate soldiers during WW2. The blurb tells us that Frances spies on Peter and Cara through a Judas hole in her bathroom, though in reality this forms only a tiny, insignificant part of the story. Mostly, she observes them directly, as they rather surprisingly choose to include her in all their activities. There’s also a totally unsuccessful attempt to introduce some ghostliness into the proceedings – this goes nowhere and adds nothing.

The three characters failed to convince me at all, though it’s enjoyable enough to read about them. Peter, a sensible, hard-headed type, seems entirely unsuited to the fanciful, fey Cara, and neither of them seem as if they would be interested in a dull middle-aged woman like Frances. Of course, Frances is an unreliable narrator (is there any other kind these days?) so who knows how much of what she tells us really happens? Not me, for one. There’s also what feels like some attempt to introduce a quasi-religious aspect to the story, which fell flat on its face as far as I was concerned.

Claire Fuller

Was I surprised by the big reveal? Not really. Did I care? Not really.

You know, I started out intending to rate this as four stars because, despite my unrelenting negativity about it, I did find it mostly entertaining once I got past that interminable first half. But I’ve realised while drafting the review that I can’t think of much positive to say about it, except that the writing was good enough to carry me through a rather pointless, unrealistic and ultimately forgettable plot. So a sorbet – enjoyable but not satisfying. Would I recommend it? Not really.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Fig Tree.

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Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

When in Rome…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young lawyer Cicero is already developing a reputation as a skilful lawyer and compelling orator, when one day a Sicilian by the name of Sthenius comes asking for his aid. The unscrupulous governor of Sicily, Verres, has used his position of power to openly steal from Sthenius and now Verres is using the law to further victimise him. Cicero realises that a victory against Verres would propel him into the public eye – a greatly to-be-desired outcome for a man with ambitions to win the most important office in Rome one day, that of the consulship. But while it might gain him the love of the people, it’s bound to antagonise the aristocrats…

We are told the story by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, who has invented his own system of shorthand and, as a result, has made himself essential to the great man. Robert Harris is the master of fictionalising real events in historical settings and does his usual excellent job here. Tiro really existed and did write a book about Cicero, long ago lost. Harris’ version of Tiro is a wonderful creation – he allows us to see Cicero from the viewpoint of someone loyal to him but not to the point of obsession, sometimes critical, sometimes mildly mocking. Tiro’s position as a favoured slave means that he has a good understanding of all the various players and the political games they are playing, but has no vested interest or opportunity for personal gain from them. This makes him a more objective observer than any of the other participants. From Tiro’s perspective, what’s good for Cicero is good for those dependant on him. Fortunately for Tiro, Cicero is also a good master who mostly is quite considerate, although from time to time he seems to forget that poor Tiro needs to sleep occasionally.

In his afterword, Harris says about the story that “the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope (a hostage to fortune, this), demonstrably did not happen”. This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Like most famous people from history, Cicero’s life is mostly fairly routine disturbed by the occasional major event. The major events here are brought to life brilliantly – the investigation of Verres’ alleged crimes and his trial at the beginning of the book and the battle for the consulship at the end. The long period in the middle when Cicero is making his name, forming alliances and making political enemies also feels realistic and credible, but unfortunately isn’t nearly so interesting. Also, the picture that develops of Cicero is possibly too real – in the end, he’s just a man jostling for personal power and wealth, and as such I couldn’t get too excited about whether he won or not. I had hoped for a hero and had to settle for a politician… and gosh, I feel I’ve had my fill of them recently!

Robert Harris

The only reason I haven’t given this the full five stars is that ancient Rome and all their shenanigans isn’t a period of history I ever find wildly interesting, and even though Harris makes it more fun than most writers, my usual problem remains of zillions of characters all with remarkably similar names all vying for election to short term positions of power. My lack of knowledge was both a benefit and a drawback. I’ve seen reviews from people who know Roman history and society who have criticised some of the factual stuff, but I didn’t spot any of that and was able to just enjoy it as a story. On the other hand, there are so many people involved, both centrally and peripherally, that I’m sure it would have helped to have at least some pre-knowledge of who they all were and what they were famous for. Harris does a great job of keeping the Roman newbie informed, but I still found myself constantly trying to remember what he’d previously told us about various characters as they re-appeared a few chapters later.

So overall not my favourite Harris, but primarily because it’s not my favourite period of history. Still an excellent read, though, that held my interest enough to make me want to continue on and read the other two books in the trilogy. And fortunately my lack of knowledge of Cicero and Rome means I have no idea what awaits me…

Book 2 of 25

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The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Folklore and gothic horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1857, and Audrey Hart has arrived on the Isle of Skye to assist an elderly lady, Miss Buchanan, to collect the old folktales before they are lost forever. The issue has become urgent because the Highland Clearances are underway, with landowners driving people out of their homes and crofts to make way for more profitable use of the land. With communities being broken, the old traditions are disappearing fast and with them the stories that have been passed down through the generations. But Audrey has another reason for going to Skye too – she spent some time there as a child with her beloved mother, who died on the island when Audrey was still very young. When young girls begin to go missing, the crofting folk believe it’s the work of the fairies. Suddenly Audrey finds herself caught up in a mystery full of folklore and gothic horror…

It took me a long time to get into this book, largely because I’m not an enthusiast for fairy and folk tales, and they play a big part in the story. Audrey is initially sceptical but seems very easily won over to the crofters beliefs, which made my inner cynic curl her lip and sneer a little, I’m afraid. However, the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me turning pages and gradually I found myself becoming absorbed. Audrey is torn – part of her is increasingly falling under the sway of the supernatural explanation, but her more rational side is still wondering if the reason for the girls’ disappearances might have more to do with humans than fairies.

Mazzola shows the cruelty of the Clearances well, although (and I could easily be wrong here) I felt her portrayal of the crofters as being still quite so steeped in superstition at this relatively late date might be a little anachronistic. It was as if they felt that everything that happened was down to the intervention of the fairy folk – no consideration was given to any other possible cause. The fairies here are of the evil kind and the folk stories tell of changelings and stolen children, and cruel punishments for those who don’t show proper respect to them.

Anna Mazzola

Anachronistic or not, though, Mazzola gradually builds up an excellent atmosphere of growing horror, and Audrey’s descent towards an insanity born of fear is very well done. There are lots of nice Gothic touches – a big old house with empty wings and rooms shrouded in dust-covers, strange noises and tunnels, dark nights and graveyards, and mysteriously threatening flocks of birds appearing at unexpected moments. The islanders are initially hostile towards Audrey, seeing her as connected to the landowners who are behaving so cruelly towards them. Since she has cut herself off from her family, Audrey finds herself isolated and alone, dependent on the goodwill of her employer. Mazzola uses this to show the still subordinate and precarious position of women without means of their own, and we gradually learn of the circumstances that have driven Audrey to leave the home that may not have offered her much in the way of love but at least gave her security from poverty.

By the time I got to the second half I was fully caught up in wanting to see how it would all be resolved. I had a pretty good idea of who were the goodies and baddies so the suspense really came from how it would be played out, and I found the ending quite satisfying. Considering all the folklore stuff isn’t really to my taste, Mazzola did an excellent job of gaining and keeping my interest and I’ll be interested to read more from her in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Tinder Press.

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Tangerine by Christine Mangan

It all began that day

😦

Alice and Lucy were once best friends, students together at the expensive Bennington College in Vermont. Now Alice is in Tangier with her newish husband. He loves the life there, the seedy bars, the feeling of danger in the streets as Morocco demands its independence from its French colonisers. Alice hates it, scared to go out alone and miserable when she goes out with her overbearing and unsympathetic husband (mind you, he’s also pretty miserable at having to go out with the whining, pathetic Alice). Suddenly one day, out of the blue, Lucy turns up at their door. This is the first time Alice and Lucy have met since that day… but no, of course we don’t get told what happened that day. As Lucy and Alice take turns at the narration, carefully ensuring their voices are indistinguishable to add an element of confusion, they each dance round the subject of what happened that day while being very careful not to tell the poor put-upon reader.

I made it to the 25% mark before deciding I could take no more. I don’t want to be unfairly brutal – this is a début, and it shows some promise. Regulars will know that I’ve spluttered with annoyance often over the whole “that day” faux-suspense thing that seems to be an essential part of so-called thrillers these days – presumably because the authors can’t actually think of anything thrilling to write about. (FF’s Tenth Law: having the narrator constantly refer to ‘what happened that day’ without informing the reader of what did happen that day is far more likely to create book-hurling levels of irritation than a feeling of suspense.) So Mangan is merely following the herd, and sadly it’s a big herd, getting bigger by the day. I was sucked in by the great cover – had this had the ubiquitous girl in the red jacket on it I’d have known to avoid it like the plague.

Had it just been the “that day” tedium, I would probably have stuck with it, though. The picture Mangan gives of Tangier at this point in time (1956) is quite well done, bearing in mind that we see it solely through the eyes of white colonials. This means there are some rather demeaning depictions of the locals that smack a little of good old white superiority, but I felt that was appropriate to the time and social status of the main characters.

Over a year now, and it was still cast in a hazy fog that I could not seem to work my way out of, no matter how long I tripped through the labyrinth. It’s better that way, my aunt had said afterward, when I had told her about the vaporous sheen my memories had taken on, how I could no longer remember the details of that horrible night, of the days that followed. Leave it in the past, she had urged, as if my memories were objects that could be packed away in boxes secure enough to ensure they would never let loose the secrets held within.

Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t tolerate the style of writing. Some people have praised it, so I’ll admit that’s a subjective thing. It’s well-written in a grammatical sense, and thankfully it’s in the past tense, except for the obligatory foreshadowing prologue. But it’s written in a kind of mock-Gothic manner, all overwrought and hyperventilating, that gradually began to drive me insane. I had company in my insanity however – in true Gothic fashion, both women have strange “nervous” conditions that cause them to have imaginary symptoms and so on, and we know from the prologue that at least one of them has totally lost her marbles by the time the story ends. It was at the point that one of them actually fainted – Mangan resisted the temptation to say “swooned” but I bet it was on the tip of her pen – that I gave up. I discovered when I looked at her author bio that Mangan did her PhD on 18th century Gothic literature, and was unsurprised. Nor was I astonished to learn she had then topped that off with a degree in creative writing…

Christine Mangan

I didn’t hate it and I don’t think it’s awful. It’s as good as most of these identikit “that day” thrillers and better written than many. It probably deserves three or even four stars. But it’s not for me, and since I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading, then I’m afraid one star it is. Oddly, I’ll still be intrigued to see how Mangan develops – if she can learn to match her style to her subject matter and free herself from the feeling that she must follow the herd, I feel she has the talent to evolve into an interesting writer. I wish her well in the attempt.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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Fatal Inheritance by Rachel Rhys

The pink house on the Riviera…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1948, and Eve Forrester is living a dull, restricted life in London with her staid, passionless husband. Out of the blue, she receives a letter telling her that a man she has never heard of has left her a legacy. To find out more, she’ll have to travel to the French Riviera. Once there, she discovers she’s been left a share in a lovely pink house overlooking the sea. The dead man’s family don’t know why he named her in his will either, and resent her very much. Pushed to agree to an early sale and division of the proceeds, Eve finds herself unwilling to comply until she can find out what’s behind it all…

Naturally, when writing a slow-burn book set in the fairly distant past, Rhys has used the present tense. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? No, nor would I. So, despite the fact that she does it as well as most, Rhys was always going to have to work extra hard to win me over.

To a certain extent she did, though it took a long time to really grab my interest. The first section in Cap d’Antibes is full of lengthy description that goes well beyond scene-setting. The house in particular is described in minute detail, putting me in mind of the kind of brochure that is produced for a house sale. But I was intrigued to discover the reason for the legacy and that kept me reading. I formed a theory fairly early on which proved to be completely wrong, so that’s always a major plus!

This is one of those books that works best if you switch off your credibility filters going in. If it weren’t for fear of spoilers, I could make a list of plot holes and inconsistencies, and little side mysteries that are left entirely unresolved and are completely illogical once the final revelations are disclosed. They add to the suspense during the read but are left hanging at the end. The story too requires quite a lot of suspension of disbelief. Within a week, this ordinary unremarkable woman is consorting with Princes and Hollywood stars, invited to their parties and weddings, and looked on as an intimate friend.

However, if you can buy into it, then it’s all quite fun. The rather faded glamour of post-war life in this playground of the rich and pointless is portrayed very well, with an underlying feeling of the desperation of people trying to party away the recent horrors of war. Rhys also shows the scars left after the Nazi occupation of France, with the lingering divisions between those who collaborated and those who resisted. And, in a time when the social order has been broken and reformed, she shows how it can be hard to know whether people are who they present themselves as, or if they have remade themselves to hide their unacceptable pasts. There’s a romance element which is quite enjoyable too, if a little clichéd, and there’s more action in the second half which speeds the thing along at a better pace than the slow first half.

Rachel Rhys

I’ve struggled to rate this one. I don’t think it’s up to the standard of her earlier novel, A Dangerous Crossing, and I suspect that may be, as so often, down to rushing it out without the kind of firm edit that was really required to tighten up the various plotting weaknesses and unnecessary padding. (No, I’m not blaming the editor – authors have the ultimate responsibility for their own books.) The present tense feels entirely wrong for the story and was a running, if minor, irritation to me throughout. However, once it speeded up a bit, I found myself turning pages quite happily and was certainly interested in discovering how it would all play out. But afterwards, I found myself asking – “but what about…?” And “why didn’t she…?” And “who…?” And that’s never satisfactory. So three and a half stars and a recommendation as an overall enjoyable read but not one to be taken too seriously.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Those magnificent men in their flying machine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

Suzanne Rindell has rapidly become one of my most highly anticipated must-read authors. This is only her third book, after The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch – both excellent. But she’s still improving with each book, and the joy is that each time she comes up with an entirely different and fascinating setting and story. I had mentioned in my reviews of both her earlier books that she sometimes gets so involved in creating an authentic setting that the descriptions can become overly long, creating a bit of drag in the mid-section. Not here! She achieves a pretty much perfect balance between scene-setting and plot, so that the pacing is steady and the forward momentum is maintained beautifully.

The book begins with FBI Agent Bonner showing up at the Yamadas’ farm looking for Harry and his father, who have apparently escaped from one of the Relocation Centers (concentration camps) to which people of Japanese heritage were sent following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From here, we are taken back to the past to learn how Harry and Louis befriended each other as children, across a racial divide and a family feud. We follow them as they develop into Eagle & Crane, seeing how their very different backgrounds (different in not quite the way you may be thinking – Rindell doesn’t do clichés) have made them the men they have become. We see how Depression and war affect California, and our young heroes in particular. And we get to know Ava, Earl’s step-daughter, who travels with the barnstormers and forms a firm friendship with both boys, gradually complicated by the growth of romantic attraction. Every now and then we flash back to the present of 1943 (the only part of the book written in present tense), where slowly Agent Bonner discovers what has happened to Harry and his father, and lets us see too how the other characters have fared.

It’s a slow-paced book that takes an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. While it has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period. She is clearly making a point about the racism underlying the internment policy, but she doesn’t thump the reader with polemical rants. Instead she lets us see through Harry’s eyes – a boy who thought he was American even though he knew he would never be treated in quite the same way as other Americans who looked like Louis rather than him. We also see through Ava’s initially innocent eyes – gradually awakened to an understanding of how thoughtless, low-level racism runs almost unnoticed as a backdrop to every aspect of Harry’s life.

But don’t let me put you off with my usual concentration on the political themes of the book! It also has an excellent story and the characterisation is wonderful. I loved learning all about the stunts the boys do, and about barnstorming in general. I enjoyed watching the careful way Rindell develops the setting, and found it so absorbing that I would find myself looking up after an hour or two, surprised to discover I was in 21st century Scotland rather than Depression-era California. The three major characters gained all my sympathy, even though they’re very different from one another, and I grew to care deeply about the outcome for each of them. And I was equally impressed by the depth Rindell puts into the supporting cast of characters – Agent Bonner, Earl, Ava’s mother, Louis’ family, and most of all the Yamadas as they find their American dream turning into a nightmare.

Suzanne Rindell

If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, this isn’t it. But if you want a beautifully written and insightful story about a time when political America showed itself at its worst and yet still with love and loyalty and friendship running through the lives of the people affected by it; if you want to be absorbed by the hopes and fears of a set of superbly observed characters; if you want to spend some time in a wonderfully authentic historical setting, then I highly recommend this book to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

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Smoke and Ashes (Sam Wyndham 3) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment. I thoroughly enjoyed the previous two, but really think this one is the best yet.

Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. In this one, after months of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement, the city authorities are struggling to maintain order. Many Indians have resigned from Government positions, leaving the police short-staffed and with the extra problem that those Indians who have remained have divided loyalties. Britain has decided to send the Prince of Wales, Prince Edward (later briefly Edward VIII) over to steady the nerves and rally the loyalty of the populace to the Empire, but Gandhi’s local representative is planning a major demonstration to coincide with the Prince’s visit.

The murders look as if they may have something to do with the heightened political tensions, especially since Section H – the secret service – are involved. But Sam is determined he won’t be sidelined from the investigation, and along with his loyal Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, sets out to discover what links the victims…

Prince Edward’s visit to India in 1921 – he’s the small one in the middle who looks like he’s doing a Charlie Chaplin impersonation while wearing a lampshade…

I love Mukherjee’s depiction of Calcutta – it always feels entirely authentic to me. Mukherjee treats both sides with empathy – although he shows the evils of some aspects of the Raj as a form of government, he depicts his British characters largely as good people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, and he manages to do this without making them feel anachronistic in their attitudes. Equally, while his sympathies might lie with the idea of independence, he doesn’t portray the Indians as uniformly saintly either. The Indian sergeant, Surrender-not (the nickname given to him by the Brits who can’t pronounce his real name, Surendranath), provides a kind of bridge that allows the reader to move between the two cultures, as we see him negotiate his often clashing duties to his family and his job.

The historical background too is always sound and Mukherjee brings real people into his stories in ways that feel accurate to their real lives. In this one, as well as Prince Edward, we meet Deshbandhu, a leader of the Independence movement in Bengal, and his young follower Subhas Chandra Bose, who would go on to be a major, if controversial, player in the events that finally led to the achievement of Independence.

As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which unfortunately I can say very little about for fear of spoilers. But it takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects – Mukherjee’s notes at the end show that, while he has fictionalised dates and people, the fundamental basis of the story comes from real events. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

I love the characters of Sam and Surrender-not, and the historical setting Mukherjee has chosen for the series. Top-quality historical crime fiction – highly recommended. But if you’re new to the series, do read them in order, starting with the excellent A Rising Man.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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