To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

The Pastor investigates…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

To Cook a BearWhen the Pastor goes walking round the woods and hills around his village in Pajala in the north of Sweden, seeking new botanical specimens, he is always accompanied by the young Sami boy, Jussi. Jussi had run away from his Lapland home and come south, and the Pastor had come across him living wild and near to starving. The Pastor took him in to his own family, and now Jussi is his faithful assistant. The Pastor, we gradually discover, is the founder and leader of the Lutheran Pietist Revival movement, Lars Levi Laestadius – a real person, who as well as his religious work made a name for himself in the scientific field through his work on botany. When a local maid goes missing and is later found dead, the villagers believe it was the work of a killer bear and they set out to hunt the creature down. The Pastor’s scientific knowledge and keen powers of observation lead him to think that the girl died at the hands of a human, but he can’t persuade the local law officer, Sheriff Brahe, to believe him. And then another girl is attacked…

This is one of these books that, despite having a murder mystery at its heart, falls very definitely into the category of literary fiction. As the Pastor and Jussi go about their investigation, the author slowly builds a detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century life here in this remote northern area where Sweden and Lapland meet, not far from the Finnish border. Life is hard, superstition is rife, and drunkenness is a curse on the population. The Pastor, himself of Sami origin, wants to stamp out the drunkenness and bring education to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of their physical and spiritual poverty. This is at the root of his Revival, and while it brings him the loyalty of many of the poorer people, it also makes him many enemies among the rich and powerful, or those who love alcohol more than God. Niemi assumes some knowledge of Laestadius and his movement, which may be the case for Swedes, but I had never heard of him. However, the story stands strongly on its own and a quick visit to my friend wikipedia filled in the background details after I’d finished reading.

Lars Levi Laestadius

Niemi shows how the Sami were treated not just as second-class citizens but as inferior beings, studied by anthropologists in the way botanists study plants. Laestadius’ movement was beginning to teach Sami and other children from these remote regions to read and write, and Niemi shows us this through the Pastor teaching Jussi, who is our narrator for most of the book. Jussi talks about the wonder of letters and how the written word seems to have given him a concept of self – the Pastor recording him in the parish register being the first time he felt that he existed beyond the moment, into a past and a future. He slowly learns to read, having to tackle not just his own native Sami language, but Swedish and even a little Latin so that he can assist with recording the Pastor’s botanical work. His wonder and musings on the importance of writing are beautifully done, and he is clearly a metaphor for what Niemi sees as Laestadius’ major contribution to the advancement of his own people, Niemi himself having been born in Pajala about a century after the time the book is set.

The letters by themselves were silent. But your lips could blow life into them. Turn them into objects, animals, names of people. And equally curious was the fact they continued speaking even when you had closed your mouth. When you looked at the letters, they were converted into words inside your head. No, not words – bodies. My eyes look at “Maria”, at the five letters, the five consecutive shapes, but in my heart and mind I see my beloved. Her cheeks, her shining eyes, her hands holding mine.

We also see the day to day life of the villagers; their work on their farms, their customs around marriage, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their saunas. The harsh winters are endured here, so close to the Arctic, and the short summers enjoyed despite the hard work of preparing for the next winter. Life is physical and often cruel, and there is no sentimentality about the wild creatures that present a threat or a food source. Some of the most brutal scenes are tough to read, but they ring true.

The plot itself is slow-moving in the extreme, but again that seems to arise naturally out of the way of life. Distances are far when they must be walked in cold, wet weather, and there is no detective force to call in when a crime is committed – just the local Sheriff and his constable, neither of whom has any training, or indeed, desire, to deal with anything more complicated than a drunken brawl. Forensic science doesn’t exist, although Niemi allows the Pastor’s general scientific knowledge to play a part, and finds ways to bring in some of the new sciences happening in the wider world, such as daguerrotypes.

Mikael Niemi
Mikael Niemi

The writing is excellent as is the characterisation, of Jussi and the Pastor especially, but also of a host of secondary characters, such as the Sheriff, the Pastor’s wife, and the girl Jussi loves from afar. The translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner is flawless, with enough Swedish, Finnish and Sami phrases to keep the importance of language in this place before the reader, but always used in such a way that the meaning is either given or is clear from the context. Although more of a depiction of a way of life, the mystery ticks along steadily, giving the book a sense of direction, and the resolution is completely appropriate to the story – if you read it you’ll see what I mean. And I hope that you do read it – a truly absorbing novel, and highly recommended.

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

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The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

The evil that men do…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Manningtree WitchesIt is 1643, the time of the English Civil War. In the town of Manningtree in Essex, men are scarce as the young and fit are off fighting. Rebecca West and her widowed mother are among the women who live on the margins of society, looked down on by the respectable matrons of the town for the crimes of being poor and husbandless. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives in town bringing his Puritanical ideas regarding witches, suddenly these women are seen as a threat – the cause of any ill which may befall one of the town’s worthy residents. And when Matthew Hopkins decides to style himself Witchfinder, the women find themselves in danger…

This is a re-imagining of the true story of the Essex witch trials of 1644-7, led by Hopkins and resulting in the deaths of many women, several of them from Manningtree and Mistley where the book is set. Hopkins died young and very little is known of him other than his witchfinding, and the women are mostly known only through the records of the trials, so Blakemore has created her story from little more than bare bones. In the afterword, she suggests that her aim was to give a voice to these voiceless women, and to tell the story of the persecuted rather than the persecutor. I’d say she succeeds very well.

Rebecca tells us the story in her own voice, and it is certainly not the voice of a shrinking victim. She may be powerless but she has strong opinions and a rebellious nature, and a sense of humour that helps her through the darkest times. She recognises the unfairness in society between rich and poor, man and woman, but there’s nothing she can do to change that so her aim is to get through life as best she can regardless. She has the benefit of physical attractiveness, but her low social status means that men are likely to look to her for sex rather than marriage. She doesn’t think of her mother and her friends as witches, but she knows they have a lot of superstitions, use folklore remedies in treating illnesses, and are not beyond cursing their irreproachable neighbours when angered.

England has been a religious mess since Henry VIII, and the “true faith” has changed so many times it feels understandable that Rebecca and her kind have developed a kind of cynicism over the whole subject. Hopkins, however, is a righteous man, sure of his faith, the most important line in his personal Bible being “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Or is it that he’s simply a straightforward religious misogynist, interpreting his sexual feelings towards women through the prism of his Biblical belief that all women are a) sinful and b) cursed? Blakemore gives the reader room to believe either version of him, or both.

The story itself is well told, with an excellent mix of light and dark – the light provided by Rebecca’s resilience and humour, and the dark by the events in which she finds herself caught up. I felt that perhaps the winding-up section at the end went on a little too long, somewhat reducing the impact of the trial and its aftermath, but otherwise I felt the pacing was good, holding my interest throughout.

AK Blakemore
AK Blakemore

There is, however, one major problem with the book which prevents me giving it the full five stars, and that, I’m afraid, is in the writing. Blakemore clearly has a lot of talent, but my one piece of advice to her would be to throw out the thesaurus and buy a good dictionary. It is much better to use a plain word correctly than a fancy word wrongly: for example, “rubbing one hand on a sordid apron” – yes, in some contexts sordid and dirty can be synonyms, but not this one. Then there are the shrieking anachronisms – “for shits and giggles”, “coin-operated”, “smack me upside the head”, etc. And the plain errors – who instead of whom, and so on. And sometimes the descriptive passages run away with her completely – “The sunbeams bouncing in through the parlour window feel like hot spindles to his eyes, and slice right through the soft, compromised meat of his head” or “While marching orders and tactical directives deliquesce on the brumal winds, the pyrotechnics of imminent apocalypse shimmer just as rosily on the ice-bound horizon as they ever did.” I hasten to add it’s not all like this by any means – for the most part her writing is very good, but she is clearly trying too hard to be “creative”, and there’s enough of it that it was a constant irritation to me, and took away from my ability to get lost in the story. It is ultimately the author’s responsibility to get the writing right, but yet again I have to ask, what did the editor do to earn his/her fee with this one?

The fact that I still enjoyed it despite these problems is an indication of the strengths of the story, the characterisation and Blakemore’s underlying writing talent. Hopefully as she gains experience she will learn to rely on these things and not stretch too far in a bid for an original turn of phrase. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

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

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Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The ghosts of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Last Days in Cleaver SquareFrancis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As part of my Spanish Civil War challenge I had just finished a biography of Franco (review to come), the last chapter of which detailed his long-drawn out and rather horrific final days as his body crumbled and haemorrhaged and his doctors refused to allow him to die. It is during those days that Francis, in his home in England, gradually reveals his experiences and finally the incident that has left him with a feeling of guilt all the years since. His hatred of Franco is visceral, his view entirely polarised by the atrocities he witnessed, although there are occasional hints that he is aware that there were atrocities on the Republican side too. We learn of Doc Roscoe, the doctor he worked alongside patching up the wounded under atrocious conditions. We hear the story of Dolores Lopez, now Francis’ middle-aged housekeeper, but back then a child caught up in the siege of Madrid. And we come to understand the haunting, literal and metaphorical, of Francis by his old nemesis, Franco.

Madrid, I murmured, the slurry way the madrileňos said it, the lispy first d and the fiercely clipped second one. I had once heard a flamenco guitar being so sweetly, so movingly played in Madrid, as bombs fell in the distant suburbs, then when the planes got closer the music abruptly ceased, and instead there was shouting. I saw a middle-aged man fall in the Gran Via and his wife sank to her knees beside him, weeping. He’d been shot dead. To see Madrid again before I died, this seemed suddenly of vital importance to me and I became elated and impatient and I didn’t properly understand why.

But this is not purely or even mostly a political novel. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. Did it make me cry? You betcha! But it also made me laugh, frequently, as Francis gives his often acerbic view of those around him, including his daughter and sister, both of whom he loves dearly but not uncritically. It’s also a wonderful depiction of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties. There are many parallels between Franco and Francis, not least their names, of course, but their habit in their final days of finding themselves in tears. They each have only one daughter, caring for them at the end of their lives simply as fathers regardless of their past or politics. Francis’ daughter is as well portrayed as Francis himself, as she tries to deal with this difficult, contrary, opinionated man who refuses to accept his increasing limitations. She ranges through patience, worry, irritation, bossiness, and all the other emotions anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will recognise, but there is never any doubt in either the reader’s or Francis’ mind that her overriding emotion towards her father is love.

SCW LogoBook 6

It’s a short novel, but has so much in it – truly a case where every word counts. Francis, writing privately in his journal, reveals more to the reader than he ever has to those closest to him, especially of his feelings for Doc Roscoe and for other men he has known over the years. Again a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality – Francis has chosen the easier path at that period of outwardly leading a heterosexual life. Yet one feels his relationship with his daughter is a major compensation for his lifetime of self-denial. And he is self-aware enough to gently mock himself so that one feels his life has not been a wasteland, although it is only now, as he faces his last days and recognises that his eternal enemy Franco is facing his, that he can finally try to come to terms with his past.

Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath

Why have I never come across Patrick McGrath before? A serious omission which I will have to promptly put right. It’s certainly not necessary to know much about the Spanish Civil War or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one, but recognising the accuracy of the depiction of Franco’s final days gave it an extra depth for me. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth – this gets my highest recommendation.

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

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Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Why not Bulgaria?

😦

Sweet CaressIn the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decided to emulate her uncle Greville and become a professional photographer. Many years later, Amory reminisces about where her profession has taken her over the years. And of course it has taken her to all the places we’d expect – the decadence of ‘30s Berlin, the rise of the Nazis, WW2, Vietnam, in most of which places, this being a Boyd book, she has sex with a “scandalous” edge – married men, women, etc.

I’m afraid I abandoned this halfway through, after it taking me over a month to get to that point. I used to love William Boyd and still think his earlier books, and an occasional later one, are great stories well told. But recently I’ve found myself struggling to get up any real interest in the lives of his characters or in their stories. This one has been told before and told better by Boyd himself, in Any Human Heart, the story of a man who lived through all the major events of the twentieth century (and had lots of sex). Why Boyd felt it would be a good idea to do it again with a female lead beats me, but even if I wasn’t having strong feelings of déjà vu I doubt if Avery would have won my heart.

The thing about her is that she goes to these interesting places – Berlin, London, New York – and seems to miss everything interesting about them, perhaps because she spends so much time in bedrooms. I found myself wearily wishing that just once an author would find somewhere new to explore rather than the overtrodden path of Nazis/WW2, etc. Not to labour the point, but the twentieth century lasted for a hundred years and involved countries other than the UK, the USA and Germany. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if some author leapt into the unknown and took us to, say, Bulgaria, or Bahrain, or Venezuela? I assume something must have happened in these countries over the course of a century. I know, I know – plenty of authors have gone further afield, but I was feeling bored and a little bitter while I was musing. Boyd used to be one of the authors to whom I looked to expand my fictional horizons, but recently his books feel safely settled in the overly familiar.

He also uses an odd device in this one, which I feel doesn’t work at all. Over the years in real life, he has collected random photographs from sales, etc., which he presents here as Amory’s work. This meant that, firstly, it often felt to me that he was manipulating the story to fit round the photos so that oddly random episodes would be included, like Amory briefly working as a fashion photographer, which didn’t sit well with the character or the overall thrust of her life. Secondly, the photos are not particularly special – for the most part they are rather mundane snaps of people doing random things. I felt that if these were supposed to highlight Amory’s talent, then the poor girl clearly didn’t have much.

Boyd, William
William Boyd

My other major complaint is that Amory comes over as such a passive character, which I don’t think was Boyd’s intent at all. I think he was trying to portray her as adventurous, daring, ahead of her time – an early example of a woman playing men at their own game. But at every step of her life (up to the halfway mark when I gave up), every job she gets is arranged for her by a man – her photographer uncle, her rich lover, and so on. Even when she crosses to Berlin to photograph the seedy side of life with a view to gaining some notoriety, she does so at her uncle’s suggestion and funded by his money, and on her return, it is he who arranges her exhibition and tempts the interest of the press. Amory fades to near invisibility in terms of her own input to the trajectory of her life.

So, bored and dismal, I gave up. Sorry, Mr Boyd!

People's Choice LogoBook 6 of 12

Oh dear, People! This was Your Choice for June, and I don’t blame you at all – I had high hopes for it myself. But I fear it turned out to be a major fail. Oh, well! 😥🤪😥

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The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Casting their nets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Silver DarlingsWhen the landlords throw the tenants off their crofts to make way for sheep, the crofters of the north-east of Scotland turn to the sea to make their living in the new industry of herring fishing that is springing up, aided to some degree by those same landlords (guilt money) and by government subsidies. This book tells the story of Catrine, a young wife whose husband has been taken by the press gangs, and her son Finn as he grows from childhood into manhood, and becomes a fisherman in his turn. And through them, it shows the way of life of these people, as they slowly become masters of their new trade, learning through hard experience and sometimes tragedy.

It’s very well written and along the way Gunn gives enough information so that readers with no familiarity with the story of the Highland Clearances will pick up enough to be able to understand the huge upheaval it meant for the crofters, economically and socially. Gunn shows it as not all bad (which is quite rare in Scotland, where bitterness over the Clearances tends to make us portray everything that came out of them as disastrous). He shows that the fishermen found that they could earn far more from fishing than they ever had from crofting, and many of the men took to a more adventurous life with enthusiasm. However, he also shows how it impacted their way of life as people became more village-based and old traditions, like oral storytelling, had to be nurtured in order to survive. Women had to come to terms with their husbands and sons being away at sea for lengthy periods, leaving them to maintain any land and smallholdings they had managed to hold on to. And ever present is the fear of death from sudden storms or accidents or, as Catrine experienced, the loss of menfolk who were “pressed” into serving in the Navy.

Personally I’m a plot-driven person, and that’s the one thing the book really lacks. It’s a slow look at society through Finn’s life in it, as boy and then man, and if there’s an overarching story at all, it is simply the one of who Finn will eventually marry. This lack of a driving storyline made it a slow read for me – I found it interesting in the way non-fiction is, rather than compelling as a suspenseful novel would normally be. There were several parts that I felt dragged, but there are also several parts where it picks up pace and emotion and becomes quite thrilling, such as the first time the men take their boat round the notorious Cape Wrath and finally make it to Stornoway, such a hard journey at that time that Stornoway feels like a foreign country. Or when the cholera epidemic hits the village, again shown very realistically with older, weaker people succumbing while the younger, stronger ones tended to survive. Gunn shows the primitive, almost non-existent healthcare in these poorer, remote communities, and how the people still relied on superstition and traditional remedies to get them through.

classics club logo 2Book 78 of 90

Gunn largely leaves out the politics of the Clearances – his mission is to show the birth of the herring industry rather than the end of crofting. He does this very well, and I felt I learned a lot about how the industry grew up from a small start, with a few wealthier men setting up as exporters and building trade routes to Europe, and gradually directing the fishermen almost like employees or contractors. We see the first signs of what has subsequently become a major on-going issue – the overfishing of certain areas and types of fish, and we see the men gradually spread out into new, more dangerous seas and begin to fish for other types of fish than herring, the silver darlings of the title. It all feels remarkably relevant now that fishing, like crofting before it, has become a declining industry, hanging on grimly in the face of all the economic and political odds that are stacked against it. We think now of the Scottish fishing industry as one of our national traditions under threat, just as the crofters were once driven from their land. This was an excellent reminder that in fact fishing has only been a major industry in Scotland for a relatively short time, historically speaking, and also a reminder that all industries pass in time, to be replaced by newer and, if we’re lucky, perhaps even better ones.

….This was the way in which he had seen Roddie, once when he was at the tiller, upright as if carven, during the storm in the Western Ocean, and again in the moment of the cliff-head, when eternity had put its circle about them, and he had known the ultimate companionship of men, had seen the gentleness, profounder than any crying of the heart, at the core of male strength.
….Finn experienced this far more surely than could ever be thought out or expressed in words. Perhaps here was the education that came from no schooling, came from the old stories by men like Hector and Black John and Finn-son-of-Angus, none of whom could either read or write. And the girl, not teaching, but singing the experience of the race of women in tradition’s own voice.

Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn

Although the characters would have been Gaelic or Scots speakers, Gunn has happily chosen to write in standard English throughout, making it easily accessible to non-Scots and non-Gaelic speakers. His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book. But equally he is great at showing the wild highland landscape, and the remoteness of the villages even from each other.

Overall, then, for the most part I found the book slow-going and longed for a plot to carry me forward. However, I found the look at this way of life interesting, interspersed with occasional dramatic episodes that for brief periods brought it thrillingly to life.

I read this as part of a Review-Along with blog buddies, Christine, Alyson, Rose and Sandra. I’ll add a link to Rose’s review when it appears (see below), and Sandra’s, if she decides to review it (also now below), and please check in the comments below to see what the others though of it. I’m hoping they all enjoyed it as much or even more than I did!

Rose’s review

Sandra’s review

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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Gillespie and IElderly Harriet Baxter sits in her London home, thinking back to when she was a young woman, visiting Glasgow for the International Exhibition of 1888. There, she fell in with the Gillespie family, and became involved in an incident that was to impact both her and them for the rest of their lives. She slowly tells the reader the tale…

Slowly being the operative word. If this book had been half its length it would have been wonderful. Instead, it crawls along at a toe-curlingly slow pace, with every moment of every day described in excessive detail. I was listening to the audiobook, which had the unfortunate effect that I couldn’t skim read as I think I tend to do when reading over-detailed print books. With audio, each word is given equal weight and this, for me, really highlights when an author has fallen self-indulgently in love with her own creation and has forgotten that the poor reader might prefer the story to move along at a speed slightly above the glacial. There! That’s my complaint over, so now on to the good points, of which there are many.

Harriet is a wonderful narrator, unreliable in the extreme, not terribly likeable, but compellingly ambiguous. Although it takes a long time to get there, we learn from foreshadowing that at some point there will be a trial in the story, although we don’t know who will be tried or for what, or whether whoever it is will be found guilty. But we do know that the outcome of the trial left Harriet notorious, and that she is now telling her version of events as a counter to a book which has come out making her out to be some kind of villainous monster.

Ned is a young painter, scraping a living out of his art but yet to really make his name. Harris has set her book at the time of the “Glasgow School” – a period when Glasgow was for a few decades a major artistic hub in the fields of painting and architecture particularly. Ned and his fellow artists are not in the first rank of this movement – rather they are shown as a kind of wider, secondary grouping inspired by the artistic buzz around the city. Harris doesn’t go into the art of the period in any detail, but uses it to provide a very authentic background to her group of artists and hangers-on, and Ned’s work is clearly influenced by the realism that was a feature of the real painters of the movement.

Taking tea at The Glasgow Exhibition, 1888 by Sir John Lavery, a painter of the Glasgow School

Harriet, although she would never admit it, is clearly obsessed by Ned, and jealous of Annie and their children for taking up so much of his time and attention. Harriet would claim that it’s Ned’s work that interests her – her belief that he has the talent to become one of the major artists of his day, with a little help from an altruistic friend. The reader suspects her feelings towards him might be little less lofty – a little more earthy, in fact. She soon becomes an intimate friend of the family, though one suspects that the family may be less thrilled by this than Harriet is.

Harriet’s voice is excellent, and Anna Bentinck’s first-rate performance does the character full justice (along with all the other characters, to whom she gives a myriad of authentic-sounding Scottish accents). As a single lady past the first flush of youth in the Victorian era, Harriet is of course outwardly prim and proper, but her inward thoughts allow us to know her mind is not quite as pure as a young lady’s should be! She is often very funny, usually unintentionally, and Harris is fabulous at letting the reader read between the lines of the picture of innocent kindliness Harriet is trying to paint of herself. The other characters are all presented through Harriet’s biased eyes, so that we can’t be sure if poor Annie is as ineffective a mother as we see, or if Sybil, the eldest child, is really as monstrously badly behaved as she seems. We can’t even be sure if Ned has any real talent. What we do know for certain is that Harriet is lonely and alone, and desperately seeking some kind of human relationship that will allow her to feel she has a place in the world. This means that even when she’s at her most manipulative, we can’t help having some level of sympathy for her circumstances. It’s all a masterclass in ambiguity, and even by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved Harriet or hated her, wanted to give her a comforting hug or throw stones at her. I’m very, very glad she’s not my (mythical) husband’s friend though…

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

When the story proper finally begins, well into the book, it becomes quite dark. Up to that point, Harriet has been at worst a little pitiable – a woman repressed by her society who is desperately seeking some way to validate her existence, even if only to herself. From there on (and I’m deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers) the reader has to decide if she is a monster or a victim. The beauty of the way Harris plays it is that it’s quite possible to believe she is both. Older Harriet, whose story we learn in short segments throughout the book, is a rather heart-breaking picture of the loneliness of a spinster, somewhat shunned by the world partly because of her notoriety but also simply because of her age.

So a wonderful portrait of an ambiguous character set against an authentic background of the Glasgow art movement – had it not been for the truly excessive, even though well written, padding, this would undoubtedly have been a five star read. As it is, four stars, and a plea for editors to take a stronger line with authors who fall too much in love with their own wordsmithery.

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Revelation (Matthew Shardlake 4) by CJ Sansom

“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

RevelationHaving now disposed of wife number 5, loveable heart-throb Henry VIII is busily wooing lucky Catherine Parr, who unaccountably seems a little reluctant to become his bride. It’s unclear if her objection is to the weeping, stinking sores on his legs or to his habit of beheading earlier spouses – some women are just picky, I guess. However, Archbishop Cranmer is determined to bring the wedding about, since he hopes that Catherine will drag Henry back onto the path of Reform from which he has been straying in recent years. So when a man in Catherine’s entourage is found brutally murdered, Cranmer is determined that the murderer shall be found before any whiff of scandal can attach itself to the Lady, thus jeopardising the King’s plan to marry her. Meantime, a fellow lawyer and friend of Matthew Shardlake is also found brutally slain, in circumstances that suggest the two crimes may be linked. Shardlake finds himself working for Cranmer in the hunt for a man who seems to be on a murderous spree inspired by the Book of Revelation

This fourth book in the Shardlake series continues to show the troubled era of Henry VIII and the English Reformation through the various crimes in which Shardlake becomes involved because of his connection to the power brokers in Henry’s court. By this stage, Henry has changed his mind about religion so often that the whole issue has become fraught with peril for his subjects, with the result that sects and cults are growing, each with their own interpretation of the Bible and matters such as predestination, purgatory and hell. Fanatics preach extremism to the gullible, while Henry’s men purge those who believe in the wrong version, and heretics – who only a few years earlier would have been seen as orthodox – are burned at the stake. And some, so messed up by the confused preaching of the times, become crazed, seeking to gain entry to Heaven by following their own corrupted version of the Word. It all sounds very 21st century, in fact!

Our murderer here appears to be attempting to bring about the End Times by acting out the horrors in Revelation. I’m not a Bible person myself, but I must admit Revelation sounds great – I really must read it! Gore, cruelty, torture, shrieking and screaming, eternal damnation and demonic mayhem – not quite Jesus Loves Me, This I Know, ‘Cos the Bible Tells Me So (which is about as deep as my religious education went). Through his characters, Sansom makes the point that many Christians didn’t feel Revelation should be considered part of the Bible, but also that it was then, as it still is, an excellent excuse for all kinds of craziness being allowed to flourish in certain sects. Shardlake himself shows the other side – that all the different versions of the “true faith” and all the cruelties done in the name of religion make it increasingly hard for many to believe in a loving God at all, however much they would like to. As well as the murders, Shardlake finds himself representing a young man, so screwed up by hellfire preaching about sin that he has become a psychological wreck, convinced of his own eternal damnation. He’s one of the lucky ones, though – merely committed to Bedlam rather being burned at the stake, so far at least.

As always, this is a massive and slow-moving book, both adjectives which should put me off completely. But it’s the depth of the characterisation and setting that holds my attention. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a bit like watching a long-running drama serial – spending time with the much-loved characters is actually more important than the plot. I’ve been listening to the books this time around, read by Steven Crossley, and he’s the perfect narrator for them. He maintains each voice consistently throughout the book, or the series if they are recurring characters, so that it’s always clear who is speaking. This isn’t always the case with audiobooks, since authors write for the page and allow punctuation marks to do a lot of the work, so if a narrator doesn’t clearly differentiate it can become confusing.

cj_sansom
CJ Sansom

All the regulars play a full part in this one, too, which is an added bonus. Shardlake is still the same honourable, decent, kind man as always, collecting waifs and strays as he goes. Barak and Tamasin are going through some problems in their marriage, and Guy has taken in a young apprentice, Piers. It’s the conversations between Shardlake and Guy that shed most light on the religious upheavals of the time, as each man tries to make sense of the many changes they have lived through. Theirs has become a deep and loyal friendship now, although there’s still room for them to disagree from time to time.

It’s redundant to say this is an excellent entry in the series, because they’re all excellent. I think this may be the only series to every book of which I have given the full five stars, and of course this is no exception. Highly recommended, book and audiobook both.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

The civilian war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In Diamond SquareOne evening in the early 1930s in Barcelona, young, motherless and naive Natalia dances with a young man at a fiesta in Diamond Square. They fall in love, though it seems an unequal love, more as if Natalia has fallen under Joe’s ultra-masculine power. They marry and have children, but the political situation is deteriorating and soon the nation will be plunged into civil war…

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life, before, during and after the war. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited.

The first section shows us Natalia’s marriage before the war. Initially overwhelmed by her rather bullying husband, we see her grow until they gradually become a more equal partnership, although still in a society that is very much a patriarchal one. She becomes a mother, and we see the traditions of the women around the subject of childbirth. Joe, a carpenter, decides to build a pigeon loft on the roof, and Pidgey, as he calls Natalia, soon finds her home full of pigeons who, like her children, seem to become solely her responsibility. Then war comes, and Joe – partly because he believes in it and partly because his business is failing – gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, leaving Natalia, the children and the pigeons to fend for themselves in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before.

SCW LogoBook 5

I don’t want to give too much of the story away, so I’ll leave you to find out what happens to Natalia and Joe for yourself (which reminds me, do NOT read the prologue before you read the book, since it’s really an introduction explaining why the author wrote it and reveals far too much about how Natalia’s story works out). The rather undramatic way the story is told works very well at allowing the tragedies inflicted on civilian populations during civil war to come through with a real feeling of truth and integrity. We see the random violence carried out by both sides, often on nothing more than suspicion – a man may have been thought to do business with the “other side” and this will be reason enough for him and his family to be terrorised and worse. We see how this gradually forces people on both sides more and more to the extremes, each seeing the other side as evil. And we see how impossible it is in this broken society for a woman to earn enough to keep her children above the starvation line. The tragedy is quiet here, but it is as devastating to the civilians as the guns and bombs are to the fighters.

We didn’t get up on Sundays so as not to be so hungry. And we took the kid to a [refugee] camp in a lorry Julie sent our way after I’d done a lot of persuading. But he knew he was being lied to. He knew better than I did that it was a lie and I was the liar. And we talked about sending him to a camp, before we actually did, and he’d look down and clam up, as if we grown-ups didn’t exist. Mrs Enriqueta promised she’d visit him. I told him I’d go every Sunday. The lorry left Barcelona with us in the back and a cardboard suitcase held together by a piece of string, and it turned down the white road that led to the lie.

And in the last section, we see the aftermath – the war over, but the impact on those involved reverberating through the following years. For some there is a future, but only when they can come to terms with what they had to do to survive.

Although, or perhaps because, Pidgey is an unremarkable woman who simply wants to be a wife and mother, I found myself fully absorbed in her story. Rodoreda shows how strong and resilient people have to be just to survive when society fractures and neighbour comes to mistrust neighbour. For little, ordinary, unheroic Pidgey, it may be too much to ask – as she nears the point of desperation, my heart broke for her and for all those civilians caught up in wars not of their own making.

Merce Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda

Well translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush, the book is quite short but packed full of power and emotion. There is no need to know anything about the Spanish Civil War in order to appreciate the book. It could, in a sense, be any civil war. However, it gives a great insight into the lives of women in Barcelona at this point in time, and adds some real depth to an aspect that is often somewhat overlooked in formal histories of the period – the impact of the war on non-aligned non-participants. Natalia didn’t care whether the Communists or the Fascists won, so long as whoever did provided bread for her children.

The sections set before and during the war are excellent but for me the final section, after the war, is a little too dragged out. It is an interesting picture, though, of the world resettling like a shaken kaleidoscope into a new pattern, not entirely dissimilar to the old, leaving unspoken the question of what it was all for – did anyone win? I will remember Natalia’s story.

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People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

On a mission…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The preacher father, Nathan, is enthusiastic and sure of his ability to bring the villagers to his rather wrathful version of God. The mother, Orleanna, and their four daughters are less keen, but being female their opinions don’t count, so at first they’re willing to try to make the best of it. It’s only for a year, after all. But when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

We are told from the beginning that Orleanna has left one of her precious children buried in the African soil, but we don’t find out which one till long into the book, nor how she dies. The first half of the book tells of the day-to-day life of the family as they begin to learn about the ways of the people they have come to live among. Gradually the older girls realise, each in her own way, that the Congolese are not in some kind of spiritual darkness – they have their own culture, beliefs and traditions, as meaningful to them as baptism and the Commandments are to Nathan. The poverty in their life is not of the spirit but of the body, scraping out a mean existence from land the forest is always seeking to reclaim, at the mercy of the rain – too little equals famine, too much, mudslides and destruction. Meanwhile, the white colonialists in the cities live in luxury gained through the exploitation of the Congo’s rich natural resources and its people.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Yes, it is a preaching, message-driven book with much to say about racism, the evils of modern colonialism, the greed of American capitalism, and the perversion of religion into a tool of subjugation and control. But it’s done extremely well and is beautifully written, and (perhaps because I agreed with most of what she was saying) I found I wasn’t irritated by the drip-drip of worthiness running through it. It’s also somewhat plotless – I’d describe it as a family saga except that somehow that always sounds like a rather disparaging term. It follows the girls from childhood into their middle age, so that we see not just what happened to them in the mission but how that period impacted the rest of their lives.

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly at the beginning of each section of the book and she is looking back from the perspective of her old age. The girls, however, are telling us the story in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. By the end of the book, they are of the age their parents were at the beginning, and so can perhaps understand and forgive more readily than their younger selves could.

Rachel is the eldest, fifteen when the book begins, a typical teenager, more interested in clothes and boys than religion and missions, and is frankly appalled at being dragged to a place where there are no cinemas or dances, no potential boyfriends (since to Rachel black boys certainly don’t count), and no electricity. It’s 1959, so no cell phones or internet – the girls are completely cut off from their former lives. Rachel is not what you’d call studious and she uses words wrongly all the time, which gives a humorous edge to her chapters. But she’s a survivor, protected by the shell of narcissism her prettiness has allowed her to develop.

….Slowly Father raised one arm above his head like one of those gods they had in Roman times, fixing to send down the thunderbolts and the lightning. Everyone looked up at him, smiling, clapping, waving their arms over their heads, bare bosoms and all. Then he began to speak. It was not so much a speech as a rising storm.
….“The Lord rideth,” he said, low and threatening, “upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.”
….Hurray! they all cheered, but I felt a knot in my stomach. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tramping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.

Ruth May is the youngest, just five when we first meet her, and to me her voice was the least true – she uses a vocabulary and thought processes well beyond her years, I felt. But she’s still fun, and unlike her sisters she’s young enough to adapt quickly to life in the village, befriending the African children and picking up their language easily.

Adah and Leah are twins, aged about fourteen at the start. Adah was brain-damaged at birth, and although highly intelligent she rarely speaks. She thinks oddly too, loving to find palindromes wherever she can and having a particular enjoyment in reading and writing backwards. I found this extremely tedious and was glad that she gradually grew out of it before I reached breaking point – reading backwards, I’ve realised, is not something I enjoy! Leah soon begins to show through as the main voice. Also intelligent, she is observant and interested in the world around her, though she’s still young enough at the beginning to not always understand what she sees.

Later in the book, we see how life plays out for the three surviving daughters. I need to be vague here so as not to give spoilers, but two of the girls make very different lives for themselves in Africa, while the third returns to America, though still carrying her African experiences in her heart. These three lives combined give Kingsolver an opportunity to show the broad history of this part of Africa and its troubled relationship with America over the next three decades or so, and she does it very skilfully so that it remains a personal story rather than sinking into polemics. She has an agenda and she gets it across, but it’s the girls, now women, who think the thoughts and live the lives that show the reader the contrasts, the politics, the aftermath of colonialism – no lectures from the author required.

There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.

Book 2 of 12

This was a People’s Choice Poll winner so thank you, People – you picked an excellent one! I thought this was a wonderful book, well deserving all the praise and plaudits it has received. It made me laugh and cry and care and think – isn’t that what all good fiction should do?

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Sovereign (Matthew Shardlake 3) by CJ Sansom

Conspiracy theories…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When King Henry VIII is progressing to York with his young wife Catherine Howard, Archbishop Cranmer appoints Matthew Shardlake to go there to assist in dealing with the petitions the locals will be making to the King. But Cranmer has another task for Shardlake while he’s there. Sir Edward Broderick is imprisoned in York, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy against the King, and Cranmer wants him brought safely back to London so he can be questioned by the Tower’s skilled torturers. Shardlake is reluctant – the idea of torture appals him – but when Cranmer gives an order it’s unwise to disobey. So accompanied by his assistant, Jack Barak, Shardlake goes. And it’s not long before he witnesses a man dying, perhaps by accident, but perhaps by murder. Soon Shardlake is sucked into a plot involving politics, the murky past of the Royal line, and the future of the Realm. And he’s in danger…

I loved reading this series and now I’m enjoying them just as much again as audiobooks. Steven Crossley does a great job again – his Shardlake is now how I imagine him sounding, and I’ve grown used to his Barak, though he sounds a bit older and gruffer than he did in my mind while reading. In this one there are lots of Yorkshire characters, and Crossley does them just as well. As always, there’s a huge cast, but he gives each one a distinct voice and manner of speaking, which I find a great help in remembering who is who when listening rather than reading. First rate narrations – a real pleasure to listen to.

Shardlake is now thoroughly disillusioned with Reform, having seen that the new regime seems just as cruel and unfair as life ever was when England was part of the Roman Catholic church. His faith has been shaken to the point where he’s not sure if he still believes in God at all, and he, like most of his countrymen, now sees Henry as a tyrant to be feared rather than a monarch to be loved. So his feelings about the prisoner are ambivalent – he doesn’t support the conspirators, but he understands their hatred of the King.

Meanwhile, Barak’s attraction to one of Queen Catherine’s servants means he and Shardlake are around the Queen’s retinue quite often, seeing things that Matthew finds deeply worrying. The young Queen is behaving foolishly, and that is a dangerous thing for a Queen of Henry’s to do. And a third strand is that Shardlake befriends an old lawyer who has had a falling out with his only remaining relative, and wishes to make up with him before he dies, which his physician has told him will be soon. Shardlake agrees to take the old man back to London with him and help him find his nephew.

As always with these books, it is long and slow, going deep into the way people lived in Henry’s England – both those at the top and those in the ranks below. The secret at the heart of the book, the one which causes all the trouble and puts Shardlake in danger, is based on a real rumour current at the time, muddied by a real prophecy which many believed (even though it was originally fictional). I won’t go into it any more deeply than that since that would take me into spoiler territory, but it gives the book a feeling of authenticity, which is what I always like about this series. Sansom, a historian himself, never produces a plot that feels anachronistic or as if it couldn’t have happened. And the blend between the historical characters and the fictional ones is so seamless I often have to check who really existed and who didn’t. That’s the one downside of the audiobooks – they don’t include the explanation Sansom usually gives as an end note, clarifying what is real and what he’s invented.

CJ Sansom

An excellent book, which again deepens our knowledge of Shardlake and our respect for him, and in this one we get to know Barak better and meet Tamasin, who will become a major character in the series as it goes on. It could be argued that the books get too long and could do with an edit, and I’d usually be arguing that myself, but I love the way Sansom shows us all sorts of stuff along the way that may not move the plot along, but builds up a full and fascinating picture of the time. In this case, the King’s progress takes centre stage and we learn all about the massive organisation that went into it – not as an info dump, but naturally, as Shardlake himself learns about it. And we are given a gruesome glimpse into some of the torture methods Henry’s henchmen employed – it’ll be a while before I make another dental appointment, for sure.

Great stuff – highly recommended, both book and audiobook.

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A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

A triumph of homage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.

As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:

The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.

On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.

The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.

On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)

So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.

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Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake 2) by CJ Sansom

Cromwell’s secret weapon…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1540, and lawyer Matthew Shardlake has taken on the case of a girl who has been charged with the murder of her young cousin. The girl, Elizabeth, is refusing to speak, partly from shock perhaps, but she also seems to be full of rage. If she won’t plead she knows she will be subjected to torture, but still she keeps her silence. At the last moment, Shardlake finds that she is to be given a temporary reprieve – twelve days more in the Hole at Newgate prison before the torture begins, unless Shardlake can get to the truth of what happened before then. But then Shardlake learns that the reprieve has been the work of the King’s vicar general, Thomas Cromwell. And in return, Cromwell wants Shardlake to do a job for him – one that may save Cromwell from the King’s growing displeasure…

The two cases in this story are completely separate and quite different from each other, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Shardlake books so enjoyable. While the Cromwell strand takes us deep into the machinations of the powerful men vying for the King’s favour, Elizabeth’s story is far away from politics, set in her merchant uncle’s home. This allows Sansom to roam widely through the streets of London, and the various types and classes of people who populate them.

Cromwell provides Shardlake with a new assistant, a tough young commoner by the name of Jack Barak who was once helped by Cromwell and now feels a great loyalty to him. Shardlake’s feelings are more mixed – he has been appalled by some of the things Cromwell has done in the name of Reform, including torturing and burning heretics, and is no longer as enthusiastic a Reformer as he once was. However, when Cromwell demands service a man has to be very brave or very foolish to refuse, and Shardlake is neither, plus he knows it’s the only way to gain time to investigate Elizabeth’s case.

Greek Fire, known in the book as “dark fire”

Cromwell has been told that the formula for an ancient weapon once used by the Byzantines, known as “dark fire”, has been rediscovered. Having told King Henry, he has now discovered that the men who promised to supply it to him have been murdered. Cromwell is already on extremely shaky ground with the King since it was he who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which turned out to be a disaster, and he knows that if he fails to provide the promised new weapon the King will be even more furious. Now the King has set his amorous sights on young Catherine Howard and Cromwell fears that, if she becomes Queen, then her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, will take Cromwell’s place as the second most important man in the land. So he tasks Shardlake with finding the murderers and, more importantly, with finding either the supply of dark fire he has been promised or at least the formula for it.

Elizabeth had been recently orphaned and sent to live in her Uncle Edwin’s family. She never fitted in with her cousins, two girls and a boy, all of whom seemed to enjoy teasing her about her less refined manners. But when she is accused of having killed the boy by throwing him down the well, her other uncle, Joseph, refuses to believe her guilty. It is he who begs Shardlake to take her case, and as Shardlake and Barak investigate, they will find that there are dark secrets in this family – dark and dangerous.

Both stories are very well told, and Sansom keeps the balance between them well, never losing sight of either for too long. Although Barak’s job is to help Shardlake with the dark fire investigation, he is happy to help with Elizabeth’s case too, especially since in some ways she reminds him of himself when he too found himself in trouble at a young age. Despite having little in common, the rough commoner Barak and the cultured lawyer Shardlake gradually begin to find a mutual respect for each other, and even the beginnings of friendship.

CJ Sansom

As always, the historical setting feels completely authentic, both in terms of the high events surrounding the King and court, and in the depiction of how people lived and worked at this period. Sansom gives an amazing amount of detail about all sorts of things, from the dinner-tables of the high and mighty to the inns and brothels of the poorer parts of the city, and manages to do this seamlessly as part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. It becomes an immersive experience, and I always feel a sense of dislocation when I return to the modern world. Both plots in this one are interesting, although I found myself more involved in the more personal one of Elizabeth and her family than in Cromwell and his political shenanigans. Brother Guy from the first book is now in London working as an apothecary. He and Matthew have become firm friends and he plays an important role in this book, which is an added bonus for me since he’s one of my favourite characters.

I listened to the audiobook this time, which is wonderfully narrated by Steven Crossley. I will admit his voice for Barak didn’t chime with my own idea of how he should sound at first but I soon got used to it. His Shardlake is perfect, though, and he uses a huge variety of tones and accents for the other people in what is a pretty vast cast of characters. It makes such a difference to ease of listening when each character is so clearly differentiated, especially in such a long book.

So, an excellent second outing for Shardlake and, in common with all the books in this series, gets my highest recommendation.

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The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Fictionalised history…

😐 😐

Kirstie Haldane has returned to her childhood home at Gleneagles to visit her family, bringing with her her new husband, Black William Macintosh of Borlum. Although Black William didn’t come “out” for the Young Pretender two years earlier in the uprising of 1745, his Jacobite sympathies are well documented – indeed, he spent several years exiled in America following the failed uprising of 1715. Most of the Haldanes are Whigs, so there is bound to be some political tension among the company, although all sides have now finally accepted that the Jacobite cause is lost, and all are agreed it’s time to begin healing the wounds. However, the government is still hunting rebels from the ’45, and when one such rebel turns up at the house seeking refuge, Kirstie’s young cousins hide him in the attic.

Oh, dear, I wish I was going to be saying how wonderful this book is, but I fear I’m not. I gave up just over halfway through because it was becoming a struggle to pick it up and read even a few pages each day. It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome. At the point I abandoned it, the only questions to be resolved were, firstly, will the young Jacobite be caught? I don’t care because he has been given no personality or involvement in the story. He has merely been stuck in the attic and left there. Secondly, will Kirstie discover that William once went through a form of marriage with a Native American woman during his exile? I don’t care, because I know enough about Kirstie to know she’ll easily forgive him, so what does it matter whether she finds out or not? And lastly, will young cousin Catherine and young cousin James, casting lingering glances at each other over the dinner table, get it together in the end? I expect so.

Book 67 of 90

However, as I said, it has strong points in its favour too, which is why I stuck with it for as long as I did. Mitchison is a descendent of the Haldanes of Gleneagles, and really this is more a fictionalised history of her family than a novel, hence, presumably, the lack of a strong plot. Many of the characters are real people, and the family is prominent enough that there would be documentary evidence of much of their lives, so I presume most of the background facts are true, such as allegiances during the rebellions, and the work that Mungo, the current head of the family, was doing to improve the estate. Kirstie and Black William are apparently inventions, however, although they have been given the names of people who appear on the real family tree, but about whom nothing much is known. Talking of the family tree, it covers four full pages and I never truly got to grips with how the innumerable cousins who appear were connected to each other.

Mitchison has clearly researched the period thoroughly and well, and gives a very credible account of the lives of the minor Scottish aristocracy of the time. She has her characters discuss all kinds of political and cultural changes that were taking place at this time – the land improvements that would soon become the basis of the Highland Clearances, the ongoing debate over the benefits or otherwise of the still new political Union with England, the repression of the Highland clans following the failed uprisings, the appalling conditions of the new class of industrial workers, the ongoing blight of serfdom in the mining industries, the still lingering superstitions around witchcraft, the impact of Enlightenment thinking on life in Edinburgh, and so on. She also gives very detailed descriptions of the everyday things of life – the food people ate, how they dressed, the kind of religious practices that would have been observed in Haldane’s Whig household and how they would differ from those held in Black William’s episcopalian home.

Naomi Mitchison

At first, I found this all quite interesting, although I did wonder how much of it would be comprehensible to anyone without a reasonable understanding of this period already – for instance, when she has her characters bicker over the relative merits of short leases and long leases in farming. But it soon palled, as Mitchison repeats and repeats – I lost count of how often she had her characters discuss the benefits of tree-planting, for example.

So I have mixed feelings about it. I rather wish she had simply done what she clearly wanted to do: that is, tell a straight history of her family at this period of time – the post-Jacobite era. In that way, she could have structured the discussions better and avoided the rambling and repetitive nature of them. I felt she did create a great picture of how they would have all lived, but the plot, such as it was, added nothing. Her use of language is great, though – standard English, as would indeed mostly have been spoken by this class at that time, but with plenty of Scottish flavour and rhythm to give it an authentic feel. But in the end, it’s too unstructured and messy to be a history, and yet doesn’t have a strong enough story to stand up to the weight of historical detail.

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A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A pastoral…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.

A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.

As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.

JL Carr

Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.

I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.

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Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake 1) by CJ Sansom

Monastic murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is the time of the Reformation, when Henry VIII has ordered his henchman Thomas Cromwell to strip the monasteries of everything valuable and then destroy them. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and one of the commissioners who are tasked with inspecting the monasteries prior to their dissolution. But now Cromwell has a different task for him. While acting as commissioner at the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Robert Singleton has been brutally murdered and an act of sacrilege has been carried out in the church. Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate…

This is the first of the Shardlake books, a series which has been a firm favourite of mine for many years. Sansom seemed to spring fully formed onto the stage of historical fiction, setting exceptionally high standards with this first novel. As a historian, he clearly knows the period inside out, and Shardlake – a decent man trying to navigate his way through the murky manoeuvrings of the Tudor monarchs and their ever-shifting cast of right-hand men – is an excellent guide.

In this first book, Shardlake is a convinced Reformer. Cromwell may be rough and ready, a rare commoner in the corridors of power, but Shardlake believes that Cromwell too is working for the cause of reform, although he understands that Cromwell has to compromise occasionally to keep his Royal master’s favour. However, during his time in Scarnsea, Shardlake will learn many things that make him question Cromwell’s integrity and the morality of his own role in doing Cromwell’s bidding. He will also see the human cost of the dissolution of the monasteries – elderly monks and monastery servants thrown out onto the streets to fend for themselves in a world with no place for them. While intellectually he feels that the Catholic church has long abused its power and should be brought down, he finds himself sympathising with those of the monks who refuse to recant from the form of religion to which they have devoted their lives, even in the face of the King’s wrath.

But Sansom also shows us the corruption within the monasteries, both financial and moral, which Henry used as an excuse for his campaign against them. And in turn, we see how Henry used the fabulous wealth he looted from the Church to consolidate his own power by lavishing his cronies with the land and great houses that had belonged to the abbeys and monasteries. While Shardlake remains true to the new religion, we see the first signs of the doubts that will eventually lead him to take a more cynical view of the process of Reformation.

All this history is mainly why I love the Shardlake books, I’ve learned more from them than from all the weighty history books I’ve read over the years because Sansom has a true gift for humanising the history. His characters are of their time – he never allows anachronisms to creep in, either in language or in his characters’ thoughts. In this one, homosexuality features, since it was one of the accusations regularly used against the monasteries. Sansom avoids giving Shardlake 21st century opinions on the subject, but also allows him to have a level of sympathy with what he sees as a moral weakness rather than an unforgivable sin. It’s done very well, so that it feels true to the time but doesn’t make for uncomfortable reading for a modern audience.

CJ Sansom

However Sansom also realises the importance of strong plots and this one is excellent. He rarely takes us directly into court circles, but the plots usually have something to do with the main events of the Tudor period. I won’t go into this one too deeply for fear of spoilers, but one of the monks is related to the recently deceased Jane Seymour, giving a certain sensitivity to the investigation, while later it appears that there may be some kind of link back to the time of Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell’s betrayal of this woman who helped him come to power. Shardlake has the first of several assistants who appear throughout the series – Mark Poer, a young man whose career is already blighted by a scandalous liaison with a lady of the court. We also meet Brother Guy, the Moorish monk whose discussions with Shardlake allow Sansom to lay out the religious differences of the time.

I listened to it this time round, narrated by Steven Crossley who does an excellent job, providing the monks with a wide range of regional accents all sounding completely authentic. There are few women characters in this one, but those that there are, he does very well. Having thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this one through audio, I’ll now be happily looking forward to listening to the rest of the series over the coming months – or years, perhaps, since each book is exponentially longer than the last!

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Execution (Giordano Bruno 6) by SJ Parris

Treason and plot…

😐 😐

Giordano Bruno has returned to England from Paris to bring a message to Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster. A plot is underway to assassinate Elizabeth and install Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne. Walsingham is aware of this already but sees a use for Bruno – to impersonate a priest who has arrived to bring Spanish aid to the conspirators. Walsingham also thinks Bruno might be helpful in finding out who murdered Clara Poole, a young woman who was one of Walsingham’s spies.

I’m afraid I found this incredibly slow and dull, and finally gave up just after the halfway point. Partly this may be because I already know the story of the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth quite well, and didn’t find this brought anything new to the table. I assumed that, given how well known the plot and its outcome are, the real story would be about Clara’s murder, with the Babington strand merely acting as an interesting background. But the emphasis, at least in this first half of the book, is almost entirely on Bruno’s infiltration of the conspiracy. Partly also, though, it’s because it moves at a glacial speed, being far too long for its content. Much of it is action-free, with too much dialogue. There’s one long, long section that takes place over a meal in an inn and is purely made up of all the characters discussing the plot so that Bruno and the reader know everything that has happened to date and who trusts and mistrusts whom – a lazy ploy of all tell and no show.

There’s no doubt that the research is good. The details of and background to the Babington conspiracy seem accurate, as far as I know, and the portrayal of the rather fanatical Walsingham is done very well. I don’t know much about the real Giordano Bruno so can’t say how accurate the fictional one is, but he’s quite a likeable protagonist. The descriptions of the London of this era ring true, and mostly the language is fine – neutral standard English rather than any attempt at Elizabethan dialect – with only the occasional jarringly anachronistic turn of phrase.

SJ Parris

As so often I seem to be swimming against the tide with this one – it’s getting almost universal praise from other reviewers so far, most of whom seem to be dedicated fans of the series. So perhaps it works better if you already have an emotional attachment to the recurring characters, or perhaps if you don’t know about the Babington plot going in. Though I can’t imagine anyone remotely interested in the Tudor period who wouldn’t already know what happened to Elizabeth and Mary respectively, making it obvious whether the plot succeeded even if you hadn’t heard of it before; and knowing the outcome means there’s no suspense. With such a well known event as the background, the murder story or Bruno’s personal story would have had to be much stronger than they are to dominate the foreground.

Despite abandoning it, I don’t feel it deserves the 1-star I usually give to books I don’t finish. It’s well written and well researched – I fear it simply didn’t hold my interest.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins, via NetGalley.

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Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

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Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Give me strength…

😦

An old man in Penang, the half-English/half-Chinese Philip Hutton, is visited by a woman who once loved Endo-san, Hutton’s one-time friend, martial arts teacher and platonic lover. At her request, Hutton tells the woman the story of his friendship with Endo-san, back in the 1930s.

She must have regretted asking. I started this utterly tedious bore-fest on 25th May and by 9th June had made it through just 33%, with every word a penance – clearly I committed some horrible sin in a past life and am being forced to pay for it in this one by reading overlong plotless contemporary fiction. Perhaps a plot develops later – I understood the book was going to be about the Japanese invasion of Malaya during WW2 but there was still very little sign of this at the point I abandoned it, except for some clumsy foreshadowing usually based on fortune-tellers’ hints and warnings.

The younger version of Hutton has all the ingredients to be interesting, and yet isn’t. Mixed race in a society where this was rare and frowned upon, he is something of an outsider even in his own family. But then he meets, as if by accident, a middle-aged man who offers, out of the blue, to become his sensei – a teacher in martial arts and a kind of spiritual guru. Not thinking this in any way odd, Hutton within a few weeks is pretty much an expert both at fighting and at all the mental discipline that comes with it. Who knew it was all so easy? I always thought it took years to master these skills. I think I might spend the rest of June becoming a master of aikido myself. I’m sure it’ll come in handy.

Tan Twan Eng

Along the way we are bored to death by treated to endless descriptions of fights – all stylised, of course, not real ones. This comes amidst the even more endless descriptions of every physical object or bit of landscape we come across, not to mention the historical factlets which are presented as just that – like extracts from a guide book to Penang.

What can I say? This book was longlisted for the Booker in 2007 and has thousands of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, with only 123 1-stars. Make that 124. Clearly it must be me, but I’ve suffered enough. I regret that I’m so old-fashioned as to expect stories to contain an actual story, but so it goes. One day I too may be enlightened enough to be able to appreciate hundreds of pages of nothingness – once I’ve mastered Zen in July perhaps. I believe one of the skills of Zen is being able to empty one’s mind completely. This book has given me a head start…

* * * * *

*coughs embarrassedly* This was the second winner of the People’s Choice poll, and the second I’ve abandoned. It’s not you, though, People – it’s me! I’m sure I’ll love the next one… 😉

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The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When all the world was gay…

😦

I normally start a review with a little blurb giving an idea of what the book’s about. Unfortunately, despite having read 53% of this immensely overlong tome, I’m not at all sure if it’s about anything much at all. And I’m not enthusiastic enough to read the other 47% in the hopes of finding out.

It starts off pretty well, with a lengthy section set before World War 1. Young George Sawle has invited a fellow student from Cambridge to visit his family. Cecil Valance is already making a name for himself as a poet and George’s younger sister Daphne is romantically thrilled at the idea of meeting him. It’s quickly clear however that she will have to compete with her brother for Cecil’s attentions. At every opportunity the two of them, Cecil and George, go off to find a place they can be private together for a bit of still-illicit rumpy-pumpy. This doesn’t stop the lovely Cecil from flirting with 16-year-old Daphne and even on one occasion sexually assaulting her. Though maybe that was supposed to be a seduction scene – I can’t be sure. These things are often a matter of perspective. Meantime a friend of the family, Harry, whom everyone thinks is courting Daphne’s widowed mother, is in fact attempting to seduce Daphne’s other brother, Hubert.

It’s beautifully written and very evocative, not only of the period, but of all the books that have already been written about that period. Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between sprang immediately to my mind and other reviews mention Forster, Woolf, DH Lawrence, et al. Is it derivative, then? I’d say certainly, though I gave him the benefit of thinking it’s deliberately so. The idea that all the men were either actively gay or being pursued by gay men seemed a bit unlikely on a purely statistical basis, but I made allowances for fictional licence. At this point I thought it had the potential to be excellent.

Then suddenly it skips forward to 1926. Cecil, our main character, is dead. And yet there’s still 80% of the book to go. Not to worry! George is now married though still gay. Daphne is married too, but wants to have sex with another probably gay man, whom, let’s be honest, George wouldn’t mind having sex with either. But please don’t be thinking Hollinghurst discriminates – Daphne is also hit upon by a gay woman. I was still interested enough at this point since some of the original characters were still central, and this section is largely about how they all felt about Cecil, alive and dead. And the writing is still beautiful.

Then whoops! 40% and suddenly we leap forward again, this time to around 1960, I think. And all of a sudden we have two new central characters, Peter and Paul. They’re both gay, you’ll be amazed to learn. The descendants of the original families are still around but they’re mostly new to the reader too, since many of the original characters are now dead.

I simply lost interest at this point. Long descriptions of Paul’s job at a bank and Peter’s life as a master at a prep school did nothing for me, and frankly, just as much as it’s unrealistic to have no gay characters in fiction, it’s equally silly for the vast majority of the men to be gay. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance, but balance is a tricky thing – it’s so easy to lose, and credibility along with it. But much more importantly than that, there appears to be very little connecting plot holding the various sections together. Yes, Cecil’s house appears each time and yes, some characters continue to be related to him, but more distantly with each passing time jump. I suspect Hollinghurst may be making points about how society’s treatment of gay men changed over the last century, and perhaps also about how the reputations of poets tend to fluctuate as each new generation of critics re-assesses them. Maybe if I was willing to read the other six hours’ worth (according to my Kindle) all would become clear, but, I ask myself, do I care enough to do that? And I answer – nope. Oh, well. Still, it’s beautifully written.

It probably deserves four stars for the quality of the characterisation and lovely prose, but since it bored me into abandonment, one star is all it gets.

This was the winner of the inaugural People’s Choice poll, but since it was my fault for buying the thing back in 2012, I promise I don’t hold it against you, people. At least it’s off my TBR now. 😉

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The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

All in it together…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In April 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted. This far away, almost unreported event would have wide-reaching consequences as unusually bad weather conditions raised food prices and created famine around the world. Through the stories of six people in different spheres of life, Glasfurd shows some of the impact of the volcano and, without beating the drum too loudly, hints at what we might expect in a future of uncontrolled climate change.

The six main characters in the book are unconnected to each other except by the impact of the volcano, so that in a sense it works like a collection of short stories, although the format means that we get a little of one story followed by a little of another, and so on. This can make it seem a bit fragmentary at first, and not completely balanced since some of the stories are stronger than others. But together they give a good picture of how life was affected in different places and by different sections of society at the same moment in time, and so once I got used to the format, I felt it worked well.

Henry is the surgeon aboard the British ship Benares, sent to Sumbawa Island to investigate reports of loud explosions there. It is through his letters home that we are told about the immediate devastation of the volcano on the local population, and of the dire failure of the British rulers to provide adequate aid to the surviving islanders, whose entire crops were destroyed and water sources polluted. Some of the descriptions have all the imagery of horror stories, made worse by knowing that they are true.

Glasfurd then swings away from Indonesia to our more familiar world some months later, once the atmospheric effects of the volcano had begun to seriously affect weather patterns around the world. We meet John Constable, trying to make his way as a painter and gain entry to the prestigious Royal Academy; and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, travelling with her lover Percy Shelley and her young son on the fateful trip during which she would find the inspiration to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein. But Glasfurd shows us the lives of commoners too – Sarah, a peasant girl doing jobbing work on farms in the Fens at at time of famine and increased mechanisation, and caught up in the protests and riots arising out of the desperation of the rural poor; Hope Peter, a soldier returned from the Napoleonic Wars to a land not in any way fit for heroes, desperately seeking some means of earning a living in a country that showed him no welcome home; and across the Atlantic we meet Charles, a preacher in Vermont, caught up in the lives of the farming community there as crops fail and the already hard life becomes even harder.

Weymouth Bay 1816
John Constable found new inspiration in the stormy skies of the year.

While I found all of the stories had enough interest in them to hold my attention, the two that stood out most for me were Mary Shelley’s and the young farm worker Sarah’s. Mary’s story centres on the famous challenge among the group of friends that included Byron and John Polidori to each write a story – a challenge that only Polidori and Mary met, with Polidori’s The Vampyre perhaps owing its place in history mostly to its connection to Shelley’s Frankenstein. But this is not a cosily described fun vacation – Glasfurd shows the hardness of Mary’s life, partly because of the harsh weather of the year, but also because of the grief she still feels over the loss of her first child and the uncertainty of her unconventional status as an unmarried woman living openly with her lover. Byron doesn’t come out of it well, and nor does Shelley really – although they both encourage Mary to join in with the challenge by writing her own story, they don’t treat her seriously as an equal. Of course, since her legacy turned out to be vastly superior and more influential than either of theirs, I guess they were right, but not quite in the way they thought… 😉

Guinevere Glasfurd

Young Sarah I loved – she stole my heart completely with her frank and funny outlook on her hand-to-mouth existence and her irreverence and lack of respect for the farmers, ministers and general do-gooders who felt that the poor should be grateful for a penny of pay and a bowl of thin soup after twelve or fourteen hours of physical labour. Her section is given in the first person, and her voice reminded me a lot of the wonderful Bessy in The Observations, another feisty young girl uncowed by the circumstances of her life. As the younger farm workers gradually band together to demand better pay and conditions, I was cheering Sarah on, but with a sense of dread since this was a period in which the authorities showed no mercy to challenges from those they saw as potential revolutionaries.

The book has had a rather mixed reaction because of the way the stories are rotated without ever becoming linked. It worked for me, perhaps because earlier reviews meant I knew what to expect going in. While my enjoyment of the various strands varied, I found it a great way to give a panoramic view of the year, from rich to poor, artist to labourer, and of how all of society was affected in different ways by the climatic effects of the volcano. One I happily recommend.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, John Murray Press via NetGalley.

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