When her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.
Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…
Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.
Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.
Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.
When retired policeman Tom Derry receives an anonymous letter enclosing a jade pendant that the writer claims belonged to a murder victim, he discusses it with Angus Sinclair, who had worked with him on the original investigation. Sinclair is worried – at the back of his mind he had always had doubts about the guilt of the man convicted and hanged for the crime. Not well enough to look into the matter himself, Sinclair asks his old friend John Madden to check things out.
Now in 1949, Madden is retired too, but he still has contacts in the force, not least Billy Styles who used to be his subordinate but is now a detective inspector. The murder took place back in 1938, when a small-time actress, Portia Blake, was a guest at a house-party. She went out for a walk in the woods, and her body was later discovered, strangled. A man with a previous conviction for attempted rape was in the vicinity and suspicion soon fell on him, and after interrogation he confessed. As a result, the investigation was quickly wrapped up and other possible solutions were never checked. So it’s up to Madden to track down the people who were there that weekend, and see if anyone else had a motive…
I’ve always enjoyed the Madden books, and this is an excellent addition to the series. They are somewhat quieter and slower than most modern crime novels, relying on the quality of the writing and the carefully created post-war setting to carry them. There is most definitely a Golden Age feel to them, quite intentionally, I think, though they are at the more thoughtful end of the Golden Age, or perhaps in the slightly later tradition of PD James.
In this one, we have the country house party, a rather upper class list of suspects, a traditional style of investigation carried out mostly through interviews of the various people who were there at the time, and a restricted time period for the murder, making alibi an important feature. There is also a connection to the Chinese Triads through one of the suspects – a half-Chinese man from Hong Kong. Normally I’d run a mile from a story about the Triads – not my thing at all – but I’m delighted to say that, while it’s an important element of the story, it’s somewhat understated and isn’t allowed to overwhelm the other features. At heart this is a traditional detective story, and the Triad storyline feels realistic within that.
In the last couple of books, I’ve lightly criticised the fact that much of the investigation is carried out off-stage, so to speak, with information being given to the reader via police officers talking to each other. I’m delighted to say this one doesn’t take that approach – it goes back to the, in my opinion, much more satisfying style of Madden actually getting out and about and talking to people himself. This makes the characterisation of the suspects much better developed, which consequently meant I felt more invested in the outcome. It also allows for deepening of Madden’s own character, since we see the investigation proceed from his perspective, though in third person.
The old regulars are here too – Angus Sinclair, curmudgeonly with gout, but his brain still sharp; Billy Styles, still faithful to his old mentor; Lily Poole, the lone female detective in this man’s world. I’ve always liked the way Airth deals with Lily – she is strong and intelligent, but not feminist in the strident sense, and the sexism she encounters isn’t ill-meant – just a true reflection of how things were back then. She realises it’s an unfair world but does her best to progress within the existing rules rather than constantly kicking against them. And Airth always lets her have a major impact on the investigation without it ever feeling forced or unrealistic for the time. Madden’s family is here too – his wife, Helen, able to cast some light on some of the suspects from her days as a society girl, and his daughter, Lucy, now a young woman, constantly sticking her nose in and gossiping about the case, but doing it all with a lot of charm (which manages, just, to stay this side of nauseating).
The solution relies a little too much on Madden getting a sudden intuition, but otherwise it’s both dark and satisfying. Airth includes the kind of class element that is so often present in Golden Age books, with the rather upper-class old school policemen tending to protect those of their own background; but he has Billy Styles comment on it, suggesting that winds of change are about to shake up the way policing is done in this post-war world. Altogether, an absorbing, rather slow-paced novel, but with excellent timing so that it holds the reader’s attention throughout. This would work fine as a standalone, with enough background given to each of the regulars to let new readers understand how they relate to each other, but as with any series it’s probably best to read them in order, starting with River of Darkness.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle (Pan MacMillan).
It is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city’s courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.
In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter’s Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.
These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian’s paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.
Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian’s son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it’s Tullia’s story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia’s case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.
In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro’s Cuba.
Terry’s connection to Titian begins in the National Gallery as he is admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can’t imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can’t imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.
I’ve been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it’s done gently – there’s no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian’s art that link these people about whom we’ve come to care.
I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I’ve tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it’s about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it’s about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life’s blows. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.
Maisie Musgrave is thrilled when she gets a job as a typist at the newly formed BBC. She’s not particularly pretty, and her relative poverty means she’s rather dowdily dressed. Both of which are a little unfortunate, since her main ambition is to find a man and get married. But once she becomes exposed to some of the new thinking at the Beeb, and especially some of the feisty and successful women making their names there, Maisie begins to develop ambitions of her own – perhaps to produce a radio show one day, or even write for the Radio Times. Those ambitions will still leave her enough time for a bit of dabbling in romance, though…
Stratford has clearly thoroughly researched this fascinating period of the BBC’s early history, while it was still struggling to work out quite what its role was to be. Many thought that radio was a passing fad and, at that time, the BBC wasn’t a news organisation as it is now. However, there were people within the organisation with very firm views on how it should develop and Stratford incorporates them into her story. Lord Reith is now always thought of as the father of the BBC, who gave it its mission statement – to “inform, educate and entertain”, specifically in that order. But in the book he’s shown as the upholder of the establishment and the status quo – a man who felt that women should know their place and stay in it. So his relationship with Hilda Matheson, also a real person, was never going to be easy – feisty, feminist, lesbian, friend to the Bloomsbury set and lover of more than one of them at different times. Hilda becomes Maisie’s mentor and influence, though Maisie has a strong enough personality not to come under Hilda’s sway entirely.
All good stuff, and I found Hilda in particular an intriguing character. I hadn’t heard of her before, but it seems she too was highly influential on how the BBC developed, particularly in terms of setting out to inform the newly enfranchised female population of Britain, many of whom were clamouring to know more about the political world so that they could participate fully. However, she also seems to have promoted her own leftish political agenda, this being before the BBC made impartiality its fundamental principle (in theory, at least). I’d like to read a biography of Hilda sometime, if I can find one.
And that rather brings me to the problem with the book. For the first half, there’s really very little plot. We simply follow Maisie as she settles in to her new job and begins to get to know the people she’s working with and for. It’s well written, Maisie is quite fun and there’s some humour in it…but no real story. But be careful what you wish for, because in the second half, when the story finally arrives, it’s kinda silly and not very well done at all. It revolves around the growing Nazi threat, with Hilda and Maisie becoming kind of unbelievable amateur spies. And it’s very stretched out with large sections where nothing happens to move the plot along. It feels like Stratford had done all the research, decided what characters she was going to focus on, but then hadn’t really been able to think quite what to do with them. A large part of me wished she had gone for a non-fiction approach, either concentrating on Hilda Matheson or widening it out to cover the early years of the BBC.
And I do apologise, sisterhood, but I am bored, bored, BORED, with every second story being about how fabulous/intelligent/feisty/strong all women are and how weak/sexist/corrupt/nasty all men are. Feminism was surely never about proving women were vastly superior to men… was it? So why has it become so??
* * * * *
FF’s Fourth Law: It’s not necessary for men to be made to look bad in order for women to look good.
* * * * *
Pretty much the only good men in this book are the gay ones – which I think might be taking the “diversity” agenda (gosh, how I hate what that word has come to mean) just a little too far. But then I seem to have forgotten to pay my dues to the Political Correctness Club recently…
So yes, I got a little tired of how the “feminist” aspects were handled, although to be fair it’s no worse in that respect than a lot of contemporary fiction written by women. *ducks to avoid the rotten tomatoes*
Overall, then, I felt it was a little let down by a weak plot and too much blatant political correctness seeping through. But it is well researched and well written, creating what feels like a reasonably authentic picture of the early days of the BBC, and certainly interesting enough to keep me turning the pages. I liked the characterisation of both the fictional and real people for the most part, and enjoyed the way Stratford kept the tone light with some well judged humour along the way. I will look out for more from this author in the future, and hope that experience will allow her to find a better balance between historical research and plot next time. And despite my reservations, I recommend this one as an enjoyable and informative read.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.
Daniel Mercier is eating alone one night in a restaurant when François Mitterrand, President of France, and some friends settle themselves at the next table. Daniel is thrilled to be so close to the great man, and begins to imagine that he’s part of the President’s group. When they leave the restaurant, Daniel notices that Mitterrand has accidentally left his signature hat behind. Succumbing to an overwhelming temptation, Daniel picks it up, crams it on his own head, and scuttles quickly out of the restaurant before Mitterrand notices and comes back for it. The strange thing is that, almost immediately he acquires the hat, Daniel, usually a rather diffident and anxious young man, finds his confidence growing and his bosses appreciating him more. So when he in turn accidentally leaves the hat on a train, he is very upset. But the woman who picks it up suddenly finds the desire and courage to change her own rather unhappy life…
And so the story progresses, with the hat being passed from one person to another. In each case, we learn a bit about their story and then see how the possession of the hat leads them to make fundamental changes for the better in their lives. The book is well-written and quite entertaining, though undoubtedly a little on the twee side for me. The stories vary in their interest level. One that I enjoyed tells of a ‘nose’ – a man who used to have a glowing reputation for creating lovely and highly successful perfumes, but who in recent years seems to have lost the knack. The descriptions of how he finds himself inspired by various smells that he comes across and how he then goes about recreating these is done well, and I enjoyed the idea of him being able to identify the scent each person he met was wearing. Other episodes were less successful for me – like the man who found his entire political outlook on life changing as a result of wearing the hat. Even whimsy must have some basis in reality, and the idea that one shows one’s conversion to socialism by buying up lots of expensive art to hang around one’s home seemed a little odd.
It’s not a book to over-analyse, but… well, when did that ever stop me? 😉 I found it intriguing in an irritating kind of way that all the men in the book were inspired to change either their working or political lives, while the solitary (beautiful, of course) woman’s story is one of breaking off a romantic relationship where she’s being used, and then finding true love with a man who gives her the support she needs. The book was written, I believe, in 2012 – have we really not got beyond these stereotypes? I also didn’t much care for the portrayal of Mitterrand – a man I know almost nothing about, so it’s not that I have a bias. In the book he comes over as rather creepy, misusing his position as President to use the Secret Service for personal rather than political purposes, and lasciviously drooling over a photo of the woman who briefly has his hat. For all I know, this might be an accurate portrayal, but even if it is, it didn’t feel right in a book as frothy and fanciful as this one is.
Still, it is quite readable and lightly enjoyable for the most part, so I’ll stop criticising now. Not one that worked terribly well for me, as you’ll have gathered, but I’m sure will work better for people who are more skilled than I am at immersing themselves fully in a bit of whimsy…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.
It’s 1935. When the medic for a Himalayan expedition is injured, Dr Stephen Pearce is asked to stand in. His elder brother Kits is already part of the expedition. There’s always been a sibling rivalry between the two brothers and, although acknowledging that Kits is the better climber, Stephen determines that he too will make it to the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. The team of five men proposes to tackle the South-West Face, a route taken by the earlier Lyell expedition which ended in tragedy after they were struck by an avalanche. Only two survived – Lyell himself, and Charles Tennant who has been haunted ever since by his experiences on the mountain. And so they set off… but Stephen soon begins to feel haunted himself…
After Michelle Paver’s fabulous Dark Matter, my expectations for this chilly ghost story were high indeed. Perhaps that’s why I found this one a little disappointing. I know this is becoming one of my most regular rants, so I’m going to give it a scientific name – FF’s First Law: The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story. This is a short book in comparison to most, coming in at 240 pages, but nonetheless it is too long for the story it tells. The result is that the first half, more or less, is simply a long description of the trek to the mountain and the setting up of the first camps, with a narrator who finds everything either disappointing or horrible. (“Well, I never expected this. The glacier’s horrible.” “More bloody cairns. I do wish they’d use flags.” “I don’t care for the knoll.” “I can’t get used to how cramped it is in my tent.” “Just now, he called me over to admire a giant ‘flower’, its trumpet head a blotched greenish purple, and bowed, like a cobra about to strike. He says it’s a snake lily. I think it’s revolting.”) I assume all this negativity is designed to show us, firstly, that the environment is harsh and unwelcoming and, secondly, that his mental state is already precarious, but I quickly found I had an overwhelming urge to shove him off the mountain.
It’s very well-written and gives a real feel for what a climbing expedition of that era would have been like, so in that sense it’s interesting but, although there is some foreshadowing of events to come, the anticipated atmosphere of impending horror doesn’t really take off until past the halfway point. Then, after the main events which really only fill about a third of the book, there is a long and unnecessary wrap-up in which we learn more than we need to about what happens to some of the characters in their future.
The bit in the middle where the horror actually happens, though, is excellent, right up there with Dark Matter. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. As we learn more about the history of the previous expedition, the story turns dark and cold indeed, and Paver feeds us the information bit by bit, creating a rising feeling of dread that tingles the spine nicely. By this stage the expedition has reached about 22,000 feet and each of the men is feeling the effects of altitude, so that even the narrator is not sure if what he is experiencing might be a result of hallucination. Paver is excellent at using the extreme weather and physical danger to add to the psychological terror and paranoia that have taken hold of Stephen’s mind.
Thinking about it, the book might actually have worked better without the horror element though. The story of the dynamics within the group and their patronising air of superiority to the Sherpas and “coolies” who accompanied them is very well done, as is the description of the practicalities and difficulties of the climb. Kits’ and Stephen’s relationship is an interesting and credible picture of the rivalries that can happen between brothers, especially when, as in this case, the elder brother inherits enough wealth to allow him to pursue his dreams while the younger brother must earn a living. Paver is very strong on the nuances of class, as she was also in Dark Matter. But, for me at any rate, the anticipation of horror to come meant that much of this seemed extraneous in the context and merely served to slow things down.
I’m struggling to rate it. Somehow it falls between two genres and as a result doesn’t quite work as well as it might have done had it concentrated on either. But both writing and characterisation are excellent, it has an authentic feel to the descriptions of the expedition, and the horror when it comes is skilfully done. So, while it didn’t quite meet my hopes for it, I enjoyed it overall and would happily recommend it, especially to people who don’t mind a slow build-up to their fix of horror.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.
The corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.
It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.
According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.
In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.
But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.
A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
Oliver Cromwell has set himself up as de facto monarch of England, living in Charles Stuart’s palace surrounded by luxury. Surrounded also by plots and plotters, he has a spy network to look after his safety and that of the Commonwealth. Amongst them is Seeker, aka The Seeker. When a man apparently loyal to Cromwell is killed, it falls to Seeker aka The Seeker to find out whodunit and why.
I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I didn’t have a clue what was going on for most of this book. Maybe if I knew the history of Cromwell’s England in depth, it might have worked for me, but all the factions left me baffled. As did passing mentions of various religious sects – Ranters, Levellers, Seekers (of whom, amazingly, Seeker aka The Seeker appeared to have once been one). The book is well written and MacLean’s research is clearly extremely thorough, but I never got to grips with it and never felt any connection to the myriad of characters who flittered mysteriously across the pages, some of them going by more than one name. One minute we’re in London investigating a murder, next we’re in Oxford foiling some Royalist plot or other, but not the Royalist plot presumably that we’re still trying to foil in London, assuming that is a Royalist plot and not something to do with the slave trade, or maybe opium!
I stuck it out to 80% and then threw in the towel, realising that I couldn’t care less who did what to whom or why, and positively couldn’t spend any more of my ever-shrinking remaining life-span reading the rest. Part of my problem was that Seeker aka The Seeker (who, if you remember, used to be a Seeker) actually seemed to be the equivalent of the head of the Gestapo, quite happy to take anyone who threatened Cromwell to the Tower for a quick bit of torturing and then a disembowelment or perhaps a dismemberment. I found it hard to see him as a hero – not sure why! The fact that his love interest was the sister of a man, Elias aka The Sparrow, who was possibly a Leveller and maybe a Royalist, or perhaps a disaffected Roundhead who objected to Cromwell behaving like a King (it might have helped if I knew what Levellers were. I’m pretty sure they weren’t Seekers, though.)… *takes a deep breath* Where was I? Oh yes, so Elias is not a fan of Cromwell but while he languishes in the Tower, where Seeker aka The Seeker put him, awaiting almost certain horrible death, his sister manages to fall in love with S aka T.S. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
Meantime, there are Dutchmen and invisible Welshmen, and Scotsmen, including one called Zander Seaton, though whether or how he was connected to Alexander Seaton, the hero of MacLean’s other series (the one I understood and liked), I have frankly no idea. Or was he just there as a kind of self-referential in-joke? I don’t know. I simply don’t know!
So I gave up and flicked ahead, and discovered that even when I knew whodunit, I still didn’t care.
Having said all that, it paints a good picture of plots, secrecy and the murky goings-on in Cromwell’s London. And I’m quite sure it would work much better for someone familiar with that period of history, or perhaps someone with more ability/willingness than I to follow nineteen different strands simultaneously while admiring Seeker aka The Seeker. But sadly, not for me.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
Young Jane Steele’s favourite book is Jane Eyre and she sees some parallels between her own life and her heroine’s. Not yet an orphan when we first meet her, the suicide of her drug-addled mother soon allows her to achieve that status. Jane has been led to believe that Highgate House should be hers, left to her by her father. But her aunt is living there now and shows no intention of giving it up. And her cousin Edwin is a nasty piece of work who is sexually harassing her. So she kills him. Then she goes off to a school chosen by her wicked and now grieving aunt – a school much like Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall, but with added sexual harassment. While there, she kills a man, but he deserves it, so that’s okay. Then she goes off to London, where she meets with all kinds of men practising different forms of abuse or sexual harassment, so she kills them.
I’m afraid I just don’t get what it is that other people are liking about this book. It’s a simple stream of man-hate – if the genders were reversed I’m pretty sure there would be howls of outrage from some of the same people who are praising it. Every man who appears (up to the 44% mark when I abandoned it with huge relief) is some kind of sexual predator, paedophile or wife-beater, and it is therefore shown as amusing, even admirable, that they should be murdered. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but the humour wears very thin after the same premise is used several times – man appears, man abuses girl/woman, man is murdered.
But assuming that for some reason our society is okay with denigrating men on a wholesale basis, that still wouldn’t excuse the writing. If pastiching or referencing a great writer, then one has to be able to reproduce or equal that writer’s style – comparisons should and will be drawn, especially if large extracts of the original, skilled writer’s work are used to head up each chapter. The language in this has no feeling of authenticity, no elegance of style, is sprinkled with anachronistic phraseology and occasional Americanisms, and frequently contains words that are incorrect in the context or, indeed, just plain wrong. Would people put up with a professional pianist who kept hitting the wrong notes? Or a surgeon who removed the wrong organs? Then I simply don’t understand why readers are willing to put up with professional authors who use the wrong words.
A couple of examples…
On the subject of her cousin Edwin, Jane muses: “Kin, kin, kin was ever his anthem: as if we were more than related, as if we were kindred.” I remain baffled as to what Faye thinks kindred means.
“Never having studied Latin previous, I congratulated myself when at the end of the hour, I was explaining the lesson to the perplexed circumference, and Miss Werwick forgot herself far enough to frown at this development.” I’m going to ignore “previous” because I think Faye’s using this incorrectly deliberately to try to give some kind of sense of outdated language. But perplexed circumference? I assume she means circle. Perhaps she thinks that because circles have circumferences then the words can be used interchangeably. Like milk and carton, perhaps, or chocolate and box.
I did think there was a certain irony to Faye introducing a character (an abusive male, obviously) whose major characteristic was his supposedly humorous incorrect use of words. Dickens can do that, because he is skilled with language. Unfortunately, here, it became difficult to differentiate between the character’s errors and the author’s. It’s odd, because in the only other book of Faye’s that I’ve read, her début in fact, I thought her writing was much better than in this. Perhaps it’s because she’s trying to emulate an outdated style of English English that doesn’t come naturally to her and is just not getting it quite right. I’m sure I wouldn’t get 19th century New York English right either (but then I wouldn’t publish a book written in it if I couldn’t).
However, given that the book has accumulated an astonishing number of 5-star reviews, it appears that the reading world doesn’t share my dislike for either misandry or poor writing. But I fear I can only recommend it to people who hate men and don’t mind having to guess what words the author meant to use…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.
Evie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Childhood friendships fracturing as adolescence takes its toll and her parents each forming new relationships after their divorce, Evie feels alone and suddenly worthless, unwanted, almost invisible. When she sees the girls in the park, she is fascinated by everything about them; their air of wildness, defiance of social conventions, even their look of tattered grubbiness has a glamour in her eyes. So when one of the girls, Suzanne, seems to single her out for attention, Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.
The story is told by Evie from the present looking back. Right from the prologue we know that some of the girls will take part in a horrific multiple murder, but we don’t know the details and we don’t know how involved Evie will be until the end. In fact, though, the actual event is secondary – the book is about the psychology of cults, about how vulnerable people can find themselves being led to behave in ways that seem incomprehensible to onlookers, giving them an aura of almost demonic evil. As has been well trumpeted by the hype surrounding the book, it is loosely based on the Manson murders.
This is undoubtedly one of the books of the year for me. Cline’s writing style takes a little getting used to – while excellent, she perhaps strives a little too hard to be “literary”, especially at the beginning. But either her writing settles down after that or I got used to it – whichever, I soon found myself completely absorbed in Evie’s story. The characterisation is superb, of all the characters, but especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval.
Evie is at that age when she knows all about the adult world but isn’t part of it. She understands that the girls from the ranch are in some kind of sexual thrall to Russell, but Cline shows Evie as still being at that stage when girls are more interested in their relationships with other girls, when even boyfriends and sex are more about peer pressure and being in with the crowd than about real attraction, sexual or otherwise. She is a lonely, vulnerable child-woman, wanting to know what it’s all about, wanting to be one of the girls, wanting to do whatever it takes to be permitted to stay around Suzanne. Even when she is inevitably drawn into the sex aspects of the cult, for her agreeing to participate is more to do with her crush on Suzanne than any particular admiration for Russell. Intriguingly and, to me at least, convincingly, Cline emphasises that it’s the girls who set the bait to attract other girls into the cult. The cult leaders aren’t let off the hook – they are clearly shown as abusers, but Cline shows the subtlety with which they indoctrinate these vulnerable, often damaged girls – and indeed boys – to become willing victims at first, and later willing participants in the victimisation of others.
Although it’s only touched on lightly, Cline shows the impact the Vietnam war was having on young people at this time, with a growing division between the ‘patriotic’, rather conservative pro-war faction and the more hippy anti-war culture, with both sides always aware that young men drafted to the war might die or come back horrifically maimed. And, again subtly, she shows the ‘generation gap’ that in some ways grew out of this, with young people losing respect for authority of all kinds, including their parents, and parents in turn baffled by their children’s rejection of their values. This aspect of the book reminded me of Roth’s American Pastoral, though seen this time through the eyes of the child rather than the parent; and of the musical Hair and its divided reception – the serious points it made about the anti-Vietnam movement, the hippy counter-culture and the growing disconnect between the generations somewhat lost on an older generation that became fixated in shock over its on-stage nudity.
In the present day, Evie is equally convincing as a damaged survivor of the cult. She is staying temporarily in the house of a friend, whose teenage son turns up unexpectedly with his girlfriend, Sasha. When Sasha learns that Evie was part of this infamous cult, her curiosity forces Evie to look back to those days and re-assess her own involvement. She sees some of her own vulnerability in Sasha, and also her own refusal to accept advice or guidance. We see Evie haunted still by the massacre, questioning her own level of culpability, her own willingness to step knowingly over moral boundaries in a bid to belong.
Overall, I found this a thoughtful and convincing look at how cults attract, especially in times of social unrest. It’s also a well-told and interesting story, though I feel the link to the Manson murders might actually work against it by raising expectations that it will be more sensationalist than it actually is. The massacre is foreshadowed throughout and the rather understated telling of it doesn’t lessen its impact, but the emphasis of the book is more on the psychological journey of the cult members to that point. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début – an author I’ll be watching keenly in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…
What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.
The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.
On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.
No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.
The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.
A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…
It’s 1958, and Greenwich Village in New York is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers – some, dilettante rich boys, others more serious in pursuit of their dreams. Here we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden is a young woman just arrived from Indiana, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff’s father has cut off his allowance, determined to force his son to earn his pleasures. But Cliff thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big, a break he feels his father could easily give him. Miles is black – a Negro, in the terminology of the time. About to graduate from Columbia, he’s working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. Miles also aspires to write, but unlike Cliff he has real talent and the industriousness to work quietly towards his goal. When their lives intersect, casually at first but gradually more intricately, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.
Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. The book is ambitious, looking at several different aspects of how life in this outwardly bohemian corner of society reeked of the same kinds of prejudice that were prevalent in the wider world. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy, a place where dreams arise out of drugs and booze and usually sink under them in the end, but where just occasionally a true talent can emerge. She is brilliant at capturing the speech patterns and slang of the time, never falling into the trap of over-using them.
In my review of her previous book, The Other Typist, I remarked that the book was seriously over-long for its content. I felt this may have been because she was trying to give a fullness and depth to her setting, but said that, in my opinion, she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler. I fear I have to make the same criticism of this one, but with less generosity – here it feels self-indulgent, as if she has fallen in love with her characters and her depiction of the Village, and wants to spend more time with them than is necessary. As a result, after a great start, the first half of the book tends to drag with very little forward momentum and no clear narrative drive. For too long, I had no glimmer of where we were heading.
Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.
However, from about the halfway point, the various strands begin to come together and the story she tells is more than worth waiting for. This is a hero-less book – each of the characters is flawed, each selfish in pursuit of his or her aims, each weak at points. But they are created so carefully that it’s easy to see why they are as they are and hard not to empathise with each of them, though perhaps not equally. While the voices of all three characters are excellent, Cliff’s is truly outstanding. He narrates his sections in a conversational tone, picking up the rather jazzy language and inflections of youth culture of the time and sustaining it wonderfully throughout. He is perhaps the most complex of the three, selfish and narcissistic, often seeming unaware of his flaws, then just occasionally using a kind of self-deprecating humour that leaves the reader wondering if he understands himself better than he pretends. Rindell handles this with great skill, so that there’s an ambiguity on occasion as to whether he believes his own self-justifications, and it’s unclear whether he knows how much he is revealing to the reader between the lines.
While Cliff’s problems are mostly brought on by his own weakness of character, blaming everything on the father he thinks doesn’t do enough for him, both Eden and Miles have to contend with issues forced on them by the society they live in. Eden has to overcome both sexism and anti-semitism in the workplace, while Miles has the double complication of being both black and gay, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime. Rindell manages the delicate task of handling all of these liberal concerns without the book ever feeling preachy – she keeps all of the characters living in their own time and doesn’t project modern sensibilities onto them. She leaves that up to the reader and it works much better as a result. And all of these issues feed into a fascinating and credible plot, rather than being the sole focus of the book.
While I struggled a bit with the first half of the book, I raced through the second half. Rindell is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and skilled new writers I’ve come across in recent years, coming up with original stories and great characters, and writing them with an easy assurance many a more experienced author must watch with envy. The Other Typist was a crossover between crime and literary fiction, but this one falls much more clearly into the latter category, which I feel suits her style better and is where her future should lie. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing how she develops.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.
Two clients turn up at Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in 221b Baker Street – a woman whose son-in-law has gone missing, and a representative of the Home Office who is concerned for the safety of the Malabar Rose, a priceless ruby gifted to the Queen with the condition that it is put on public display. Rather dismissively, Holmes brushes off the woman, suggesting her daughter’s husband has merely left her and will no doubt show up soon. He then turns his attention to ensuring the security of the ruby. Fortunately, Mrs Hudson doesn’t share his lack of concern regarding the missing man and decides to undertake her own investigation, with the help of her servant, our narrator, young Flotsam. As the two cases proceed, it gradually appears that there may be some links between them…
Well, I have to say that, despite all my anti-Holmes-pastiche prejudices and against all expectation, I thoroughly enjoyed this romp! It’s very well written with a good plot, and the Victorian world as seen through the eyes of Flottie is believably depicted. It’s a slightly cosier London than the one the original Holmes inhabited, but that works fine with the gentle humour in the book and the friendliness and support of the little community that surrounds Mrs Hudson and Flottie.
There is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the portrayal of both Holmes and Watson, each with their well-known traits slightly exaggerated. Holmes, it transpires, is perhaps not quite the great mastermind we thought, or at least not the only one in the household. As Mrs Hudson’s genius reveals itself, each of her discoveries is met by a knowing nod from Holmes as if to say he knew all along… but the reader isn’t so sure! Watson seems to have upped his alcohol intake quite a lot, along with his buffoonery and his susceptibility to a finely-turned ankle. Normally, these things would have me frothing at the mouth and possibly even gnashing my teeth but, partly because Holmes and Watson aren’t the central characters in the book, and partly because the mockery is done with warm affection for the originals, somehow it all works.
Flottie herself is a great character. A young orphan, Mrs Hudson took her in at a point when Flottie had been heading towards crime in order to survive. Flottie’s gratitude and admiration for her benefactor make both characters very likeable. I was particularly impressed by the way Davies handles Flottie’s ‘voice’. Although she is a 14-year-old uneducated maidservant at the time of the case, Davies quickly lets the reader know that Flottie is in fact telling the story in retrospect from when she is much older. In the intervening years, Mrs Hudson set her on the path to a good education and a successful career. This allows her to speak with an educated voice and a good vocabulary – no faux Cockney maid talk! It also means she can be more insightful and humorous about events than would sound realistic from the mouth of a 14-year-old.
The plot takes us into the world of theatre with conjurers, exotic dancers, and elaborate trickery, and it all takes place around Christmas so we get some mouthwatering descriptions of the kind of Christmas fare Mrs Hudson whips up for her lodgers when she’s not out detecting. The mystery is not so much whodunit as how was it done – or, in the case of the potential theft of the ruby, how will it be done and how can it be prevented. There are enough nods to the original stories to satisfy Holmes geeks, but catching these references isn’t necessary to enjoying this story on its own account. All in all, excellent writing, a strong plot, some likeable characters and plenty of humour – I’ll certainly be reading more in this series. Most enjoyable!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canelo.
It’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her.
The movie rights to this début novel have apparently been grabbed by Keira Knightley in conjunction with Fox Searchlight, and I can see why. Knightley would make an excellent Odalie – all Twenties It Girl on the outside, but underneath, chameleon-like, ambiguous, secretive and perhaps wicked. Or perhaps all these attributes are merely inventions of the obsessed Rose, a narrator who is profoundly unreliable. She lets slip quite quickly that she’s telling us her story from an institution, where she has ended up as a result of the events she is about to narrate, and it’s fairly clear that the doctor whose care she is under is of the psychiatric rather than the medical kind.
The book is not unflawed. In common with so much current crime writing, it is grossly overlong for its content, with huge stretches where nothing happens to move the plot forward at all. After a good start, I really struggled to maintain my interest level through the seemingly endless middle – it could easily have lost 100-150 pages and been a better book as a result. There are frequent digressions and little bits of side stories that never go anywhere, and far too much foreshadowing of the “but that would come later” variety in a not very successful attempt to hold the reader’s attention. I suspect the author’s intention was to give a fullness and depth to her carefully recreated world of speakeasies and bootleggers, but I felt she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler.
However, this is one where the positives very definitely outweigh the negatives. Rose is an excellent creation. She tells her tale in a rather stilted language, rather like the voice of someone pretending to be a social class higher than she is, or pretending to a level of education she doesn’t properly have. It’s sustained beautifully throughout the novel, giving her a very definite personality – one that shouldn’t be likeable but somehow manages to get the reader onside anyway. I think it was a risky and brave decision to use such a distinctive and stylised voice in a début, since I certainly spent the first few chapters wondering if it was the author’s own voice that felt stilted, but once I’d become confident that the voice was Rose’s, I greatly admired the skill with which it had been done. (Of course, if her next novel turns out to be in the same voice, I shall delete this… 😉 )
Because we only see through Rose’s eyes, the other characters are somewhat nebulous, changing depending on Rose’s opinion of them at any given point. Rose tells us she was brought up by nuns in an orphanage, so starts with a strict moral code and a prudish, judgemental attitude about the behaviour of all around her. Under Odalie’s influence, not to mention the champagne cocktails, her morals might slip a little but her feelings of moral superiority never do. In some ways she’s clear-sighted about her own weaknesses, but she’s a mistress of the art of self-justification. She’s jealous of Odalie in both senses – jealous of her easy charm and sophistication, and also jealous of her showing favour to anyone else. Rose assures us so often that her feelings towards Odalie are not “unnatural” that it seems as if perhaps they must be…
From about the halfway point, it becomes fairly clear where the book is heading, but this isn’t a weakness. The fun from there on is that the reader knows something Rose doesn’t know and, again, I feel the way Rindell handles this is extremely skilful. There’s enough humour in the book to keep it entertaining (except through that middle portion), but the plot at the heart of it has both darkness and depth. Rindell says in her afterword that she had deliberately nodded to Gatsby in places as a kind of homage to her favourite book. Yes, she has, in terms of the parties and lifestyle, but she has wisely made no attempt to cover the same subject matter nor pretend that her book comes from the same mould. This is historical crime, well written, cleverly plotted and with great, original characterisation, and I very much look forward to seeing how Rindell develops in future books. I hope that film gets made…
When fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. But Giles is under observation and someone sees Simon collecting the file. And so Simon is sucked into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.
It’s almost impossible to write a short blurb for this one that doesn’t make it sound as if it’s a spy thriller, and in many ways it is. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children – a book the author herself references in the text, so the connections are clearly intentional – where we see the story from the adults’ side. And it’s an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring and its association with homosexuality, at that period of the 1950s and early ’60s still a crime, and enough to destroy a man’s career and even life, if exposed.
The writing is excellent, quickly building up a tense atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion. The book is written in third person, allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the major characters in turn. Dunmore’s skill allows her to use tense effectively – the book is mostly written in the present tense, but slips in and out of past tense seamlessly when appropriate, so that the reader always knows where s/he is in the timeline. The “past” is there only to provide the reader with an understanding of why the characters act as they do in the present – the real story is of the weeks and months following Giles’ accident.
Cold War spy fiction is usually an almost entirely male preserve (with the exception of the occasional sexy femme fatale) and the Cambridge spy ring has been examined many times in fiction and fact, so to a degree Simon’s and Giles’ stories are familiar territory, though rarely in my experience told with such exceptional depth and credibility of character. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family.
Lily is intelligent and loving, never once doubting her husband’s innocence and fiercely protective of her children. But her childhood was filled with experiences that give her particular cause to fear and distrust the shady world of intelligence and security – a past she now fears may come back to damage Simon and the children. Dunmore brilliantly shows how Lily’s early experiences are both her weakness and her strength when she must start making decisions for her family.
Peter is the eldest son but still only a boy on the cusp of his teen years when the story begins. With his sister, at first his head is full of adventure stories, such as the aforementioned Railway Children, where somehow the children will find a clue that will save their father, or be able to survive on their own if, as they fear, both their parents are arrested. Dunmore again gives a superb portrayal of Peter suddenly being forced to grow up before his time and take on some of the responsibilities of the man of the family. Lily finds herself reluctantly leaning on her son’s strength, but simultaneously regretting that he is now losing his childhood too early, as she herself had done.
The family is at the heart of the book, but the spy story is excellent too. Giles is a low-level spy, once a golden boy but now his constant drinking making him something of a liability. We see the coldness at the heart of the spy ring – the readiness of each level of the organisation to sacrifice the people lower down in order to protect themselves. But Dunmore also takes us back to the time when Simon and Giles met, so that we can see how their relationship developed and understand why Simon still retains feelings of loyalty to this rather sad and broken older man who has dragged him into a situation that is destroying him and the people he most loves.
To understand the Cambridge spy ring, it’s necessary to understand the society of the time, so different to today’s. Dunmore’s depiction feels perfect – at no point did I have that jarring sensation of tripping over an anachronism. The physical stuff – furniture, cigarettes, food etc – is used skilfully to put us into this time period, without ever being overdone. But even more, she reproduces the social and emotional aspects of the time with great authenticity, especially with regard to the two aspects most closely associated with the Cambridge spies – the old boys’ network of class and social background, and society’s attitudes to homosexuality. Her characters’ reactions are always true to the period – no 21st century political correctness creeping in at inappropriate moments. I think the best compliment I can pay her is to say that the book reads as if it could have been written contemporaneously.
And so, when the end plays out with all the drama and suspense of any good spy thriller, it nonetheless all has a feeling of inevitability and truthfulness – none of her carefully developed characters could have acted in ways other than they do. A wonderful book, one of the best of the year for me, and I shall certainly be reading more of Dunmore’s books soon.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.
Brothers Phil and George Burbank are an odd couple but have always lived quite happily together, running the ranch they’ve taken over from their parents. Phil is the smart one, who could have been anything he chose, while George is quieter and not as bright as his brother. They rub along together well, though, each with their own tasks, and George’s stolid character gives him a level of immunity to Phil’s sarcasm and cruel comments. But when out of the blue George falls in love and marries, Phil’s sadism comes to the fore as he sets out to destroy George’s new wife, using her son as his weapon.
There is much to like and admire about this book but I’m going to start by mentioning something I wish I had known before choosing to read it – namely, that there are repeated episodes of animal cruelty throughout, that escalate towards the end of the book to a level where I had to skip a chunk of it completely. I’m not talking about the normal cruelty that happens as part of ranching – the castration scenes, for example. These I could accept as part of the story. But the detailed descriptions of animals being deliberately tortured for fun were too much for me, regardless of relevance.
However, for the right reader, this is a fascinating and powerful study of a sadistic personality, looking below the surface cruelty to find the causes. Phil’s parents always thought there was something not right about him, but seem more concerned with reassuring each other that his problems are not their fault than trying to deal with them. By the time the book starts, they have taken the easy option and gone to live in Utah, leaving their sons to run the ranch in their stead.
George doesn’t make any effort to prevent Phil’s cruelty, but his natural kindness leads him to try to put things right for the people Phil hurts. And it’s this that draws him to Rose in the first instance, after Phil had publicly ridiculed her son Peter for being a ‘sissy’. Like Phil’s parents, Rose has also always known her son is not like other boys but, unlike them, if anything that increases her love for him, and her fear of how he will cope with life. But as Phil’s constant sneering and contempt wear Rose down, the roles reverse and she finds herself relying more and more on her son’s seeming strength.
Written in 1967 but set further back in the 1920s, the book is really an examination of society’s attitudes towards homosexuality and ‘manliness’ at that time, particularly in the very male world of the cowboy. There’s a bit of stereotyping in the way Peter’s ‘sissy’-ness is portrayed, but this is offset by the otherwise excellent characterisation throughout. Phil is monstrous, but believably so, while the different weaknesses of Rose and George are convincing. The more peripheral parts of the book were, for me, some of the most interesting – the story of Peter’s father, failing as a doctor in this small place, and gradually diminishing; the episode of the “Indians” travelling back to visit the land of their fathers and becoming unwitting pawns in the power struggle on the ranch; and the lives of this traditional ranching community as the era of the cowboy was drawing towards an end.
So, if it weren’t for the animal cruelty, I’d be recommending this quite highly – probably 4 stars. As it is, 2½ – and you have been warned…
🙂 🙂 😐 (but probably more for the right reader)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
Regency London 1810: Bow Street detective Stephen Lavender and his colleague Constable Ned Woods are called to a derelict building about to be demolished. A neighbour insists there’s a woman in the building, but when Lavender’s men search it, they find no one. The demolition proceeds and when the wall falls down, the corpse of a beautiful young woman is revealed beneath the floorboards. It’s not long until she is recognised as one of the actresses at the Sans Pareil theatre…
This is a light-hearted romp, as much a romance novel as a crime novel really. In the beginning it looks as though April Divine has been murdered during a botched attempt to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, but gradually the plot widens out to take in aspects of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with spy rings and secret documents a-plenty. The plotting is undoubtedly the best bit of the book, though it’s not a mystery as such – the reader learns and understands what’s going on at the same time as the detectives.
I look for a couple of things in historical crime fiction. Firstly, the detection element must be in line with the time it’s set in – no amazing foresight to 20th century science, for instance. Secondly, the time period must feel right – the characters should either fit in to the contemporary rules of society or they should be obviously misfits and seen as such by the other characters. Sadly this book fails fairly spectacularly on both of these requirements. I stuck it out for about 70% and then couldn’t take any more, so skipped ahead to the end… I was interested enough in the plot to want to know who the baddies were, hence my generous 1½-star rating.
The whole thing around the Bow Street runners felt completely inauthentic somehow. It’s not something I know anything much about, especially in this period, but I couldn’t believe in Lavender’s character. He is highly intelligent and well educated, mixing with the aristocracy on terms of near equality, and yet working as a policeman in 1810? And also mixing socially with the constables who are clearly way down the social ladder? Even the use of the word “detective” feels all wrong for that period. Dickens was still hesitant enough to be using quotation marks around the word decades later than this period, long after Bow Street had given way to Scotland Yard. The Oxford Dictionary dates it to mid-19th century. That piece of in-depth research took me roughly 30 seconds.
The female lead is Dona Magdalena, a Spanish lady who has fled the war and is living in near-penury in a run-down part of London. Despite her aristocratic background, she is the love interest for Lavender. This is just so wrong for the class-ridden British society of the time. She too mixes with both nobs and the hoi-polloi – I’m guessing the book must have been set in a parallel universe, because it simply couldn’t have happened in this one.
The book is stuffed full of anachronisms in manner, behaviour and speech. The aristocratic women are all feisty, independent types out there in the world earning their own living. The amount of public kissing and canoodling that goes on would have shocked Ms Austen’s heroines into fits of the vapours, and I get the impression that more than kissing went on during the bit I skipped. My question is – why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people? Surely the point of historical settings is to show us how different society was, not to pretend it’s the same but have them in horse-drawn cabs rather than cars? People talking about feeling “challenged” by their jobs, aristocrats offering to help out the hoi-polloi in the kitchen – ugh!
And, you know, if you’re going to talk dirty, at least get it anatomically correct. Propositioning Constable Woods, a good-hearted prostitute offers him a special deal for quantity…
“Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”
Er… three backs. And I hasten to add the only research I did for that one was to learn arithmetic.
Enough already. Not my kind of thing, and I fear I can’t recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction to feel well researched and authentic. But it’s probably fine as a light-hearted romance in Regency frocks.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.
Not long after the end of WW2, London-based journalist Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea to follow up on the success of her humorous war-time columns. Coincidentally, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a man from the Channel Island of Guernsey, who has found her name and address in a second-hand volume of Charles Lamb, and asks for her help in finding more of his work, since the only bookshop on Guernsey closed during the German occupation of the island. He mentions the importance that the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in keeping up morale during the Occupation. Fascinated, Juliet asks for more details, and so starts a correspondence that gradually spreads to include more of the Guernsey residents. And after a time, Juliet realises that she wants her book to tell the story of the islanders and their Society…
The entire book is told in the form of letters, mostly between the Guernsey people and Juliet, but also including her existing friends and publishers. This technique works pretty well for the most part, though it does begin to feel a bit contrived, especially once Juliet decides to visit the island for herself. In the early part of the book, the tone is light, with a lot of humour, and Juliet’s letters give what feels like an authentic description of post-war London beginning to rebuild after the war – authentic, but with the tragedy carefully sanitised. The letters from Guernsey are equally light at first, as the islanders tell Juliet how the Society came about, and how they each found books that helped them in the dark days.
And the days for the islanders got very dark indeed under the German Occupation, as the food they farmed was taken by the occupiers, leaving them hungry to the point of near starvation, while other necessities became unobtainable with the islands being cut off from mainland Britain. The islanders tell about the sadness of the children being evacuated just before the Germans arrived, a separation that lasted till the war was over. And any infringement of the rules laid down by the Germans could lead to severe punishment, including being sent to the prison camps in Europe in the most serious cases.
The book is an odd combination of almost sickly sweetness combined with tales of terrible inhumanity and suffering. The characters are all too good to be true, dripping with 21st century political correctness, except for the baddies who are very bad. Not, as you may expect, the Germans, who when they’re not being cruel and vicious are all oddly nice, sensitive chaps – sending the islanders off to prison camps one minute and sharing their last potato with them the next. No, the real baddies are the ones who show what felt to me like more authentic 1940s attitudes – the ones who aren’t deeply sympathetic to women who had affairs with the German occupiers or had children out of wedlock, or who don’t think that homosexuality is a wonderful thing, etc. Whatever one might think of these attitudes, they ring truer to the time than the attitudes of tolerance and unselfish sweetness the authors give to the main characters. So that overall the Guernsey side of the story feels too fictional – inauthentic – even if the historical events are described accurately, as I assume they are. All the saccharin lessens the impact of the tougher stuff – an uneasy mix.
The characters are quirky, almost caricatures in some cases. The voices in the letters are all very similar, so that I constantly had to check the headings to see who was writing. There is a love story at the heart of the book which is quite enjoyable so long as your disbelief in the compatibility of the participants can be left to one side.
Overall, the humour and writing style make it entertaining enough to help the reader past the difficulties in character and credibility. I didn’t love it as much as the literally thousands of people who have given it glowing reviews, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it as a light, heart-warming read for those grey days when grim realism may not be what you’re looking for.
A man stands by the lift in his apartment block in the middle of the night, waiting for the men from the ‘Big House’ to come for him. It is 1936 in the Stalinist USSR, and the man is Shostakovich. The state newspaper Pravda has deemed his latest opera to be “Muddle instead of Music” – a piece designed for the bourgeoisie and therefore not acceptable for a Soviet audience. Now Shostakovich is expecting to be hauled away and grilled about his political beliefs, a dangerous thing for an artist under this brutal regime.
This short novel is a barely fictionalised biography of the composer, focussing on three major episodes in his life each 12 years apart. Shostakovich was eventually brought back into favour and even sent off to represent the regime in the US, but he lived always under the fear that one day he would again be ostracised, or worse. It is clearly well-researched, and is well-written, with Barnes using Shostakovich’s life as a vehicle to muse on the position of artists under totalitarian regimes.
From now on there would be only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.
Barnes looks at questions of bravery and cowardice, compromise and its debilitating effect on artistic freedom, and the blindness of the regime to the subtleties of irony. He shows clearly how an individual knew that any decision he reached might impact severely on his families and friends, and how this made the question of defying the regime more complex than the simple matter of personal bravery it might at first sight seem. One of the more interesting sections discusses the response of people living safely in the West, expecting Soviet artists to be willing martyrs without an understanding of the realities of living in perpetual fear, not just for themselves but for those around them.
…if the plan to take the worker from the coal face and turn him into a composer of symphonies did not exactly come to pass, something of the reverse happened. A composer was expected to increase his output just as a coal miner was, and his music was expected to warm hearts just as a miner’s coal warmed bodies. Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.
(Am I the only one thinking that coal miners probably didn’t have it too good under Stalin, either? I do get a little tired of artistic narcissism…)
I often find Barnes’ writing cold, and this short book falls into that category. In fact, I found myself questioning whether it could really be defined as a novel at all. It reads more like a series of connected essays based on carefully selected vignettes from the lives of Shostakovich and other composers of the time. It’s interesting enough and certainly readable, but I found it provoked surprisingly little emotional response in me considering the subject matter, nor did it add anything significant to a subject that has been dealt with many times before both fictionally and factually.
Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them?
I found myself comparing it to the novella Peredelkino in Ken Kalfus’ collection PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which tells essentially the same story about a writer caught under the restrictions of the Soviet regime. Kalfus’ story addresses the issues just as insightfully, but is much more clearly a fiction, with all the contrasts of light and shade that I felt Barnes’ book lacks.
So, in conclusion, this is an interesting read, but for me it fell between two camps and didn’t quite fit well in either: too cold and unemotional, and a little too polemical, to work fully as a piece of fiction; and without enough depth or detail to be fully satisfying as a factual account of Shostakovich’s life.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live isolated lives in their community, because everyone knows that their house at no. 124 is haunted. Sethe’s two sons have already left, unable to take any more of the spiteful tricks played by the ghost. But Sethe and Denver see the ghost differently. To Sethe it is the other daughter that she lost, a child known only by the single word carved on her gravestone, “Beloved”. The ghost is angry but Sethe understands why and endlessly forgives, no matter how cruel or violent her behaviour. And to Denver, the ghost is her sister, her only companion in her loneliness. Then one day a man from Sethe’s past arrives, Paul D, who knew her when they were both slaves on Sweet Home. It seems at first that he has driven the ghost away, until some weeks later a strange young woman arrives at the house – her name, Beloved.
Despite the ghostly presence of Beloved, this is mainly a straightforward account of the horrific treatment meted out to many slaves and of the need for the characters to face their past in order to be able to create a better future in their hard-won freedom. Beloved is an obvious metaphor for slavery itself, still haunting and torturing those who have apparently escaped its chains. And the ‘message’ is that freedom is as much a state of mind as of body – that slavery’s after-effects still have Sethe in its toils, and that even the next generations, embodied in Denver and the missing sons, live their lives in its shadow.
The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be. So scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.
The simplicity of the message does not, however, make it in any way a simple book. Morrison’s brilliant writing and imagery turn this into one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating books I have ever read. There is furious anger here, in scenes of brutal horror, cruelty and vile humiliation, but the overwhelming tone is of a sorrowful lament for humanity. And to make it bearable, just, there is also beauty, love, some kind of healing, and ultimately hope.
Sethe was born into slavery and sold to Sweet Home when she was a young girl – the only girl amongst a small group of men. Sethe had her pick of them and her choice fell on Halle. The story of Sethe’s time on Sweet Home is told in flashback, so the reader is quickly aware that some horrific series of events led to a heavily pregnant Sethe, alone, on the run, trying to make her way to the Free States. Her three children had been smuggled out before her and she is desperate to get to her youngest daughter, whom Sethe was still breast-feeding when they separated. But we also know from flashbacks to a later period, when Sethe has made it to freedom, that this is the daughter who dies in infancy.
Morrison uses the imagery of milk throughout the book, as a symbol of the bond between mother and daughter, and of the basic right of any woman to nurture her own child. Sethe herself was denied this right as a child – it was more economic for there to be one slave to feed all the children than to allow mothers to feed their own. So for her, giving her milk to her own children is a deep need, an assertion of her humanity. And in an act of extreme brutality, she is subjected to something that for her is worse than rape – the stealing of her milk, her children’s milk. It is this moment of fundamental violation that drives her to act as she does – to be willing to do anything rather than see her children, especially her daughters, raised as slaves.
Paul D’s story is just as harsh, and Morrison’s telling of it is an eloquent indictment of some of the worst practices inflicted on slaves – not just appalling physical cruelty, but a process of psychological dehumanisation that left the men stripped of the strength to rebel. And perhaps the worst aspect of it is that it is entirely believable – the basest cruelties carried out with a casual disregard – man’s inhumanity to man indeed.
They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.
And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt who folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last.
These are the histories that Sethe and Paul D, and Beloved, must face and understand before they can have hope of true freedom. As the memories, or rememories as Sethe calls them, are told, they will have to be able to forgive each other and themselves for the things they did to survive. And Denver, the one child not born into slavery, if she is to provide hope for future generations, will have to find some way to break the chains that bind her to her mother’s history. As the book draws towards the climax, these three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved, reveal their deepest selves in an intertwining stream of consciousness of unforgettable horror, power and dark beauty.
In the beginning I could see her I could not help her because the clouds were in the way in the beginning I could see her the shining in her ears she does not like the circle around her neck I know this I look hard at her so she will know that the clouds are in the way I am sure she saw me I am looking at her see me she empties out her eyes I am there in the place where her face is and telling her the noisy clouds were in my way she wants her earrings she wants her round basket I want her face a hot thing
Even when the imagery is at its harshest, Morrison fills it with a savage poetry that lifts it to something so much more than a mere catalogue of human baseness. The sheer beauty of the writing contrasts so vividly with the ugliness of the story that it, in itself, provides a kind of promise of redemption – a proof that humanity can indeed rise from the ashes, however devastating the fire. In the end, Sethe comes to believe that Beloved’s is not a story to pass on – but it is! It is a story that must be understood if we are ever to truly understand ourselves, and ultimately isn’t that what literature is for? Tragic that such a book should ever have come to be written, heartbreaking and devastating to read, but I count it a true privilege to have been given an opportunity to hear Beloved’s story.
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
Yes, although it is written about a previous time in history, it certainly is addressing questions that are still resonating throughout American society today. So – achieved.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
Yes, the story of slavery may be one that has been addressed before but I doubt it has ever been told so deeply and brilliantly from the viewpoint of a woman slave. So – achieved.
Must be superbly written.
Not just superb, but stunning, with a sustained power and beauty I’ve rarely encountered, especially in a story of such brutality. Achieved.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
You know, the straightforward answer to this would be no. It concentrates almost entirely on one aspect of the American experience, one part of the culture. But… I so want this to be my second GAN… so I would argue that to some degree the whole of American society is still suffering from the after-effects of its foundation on slavery, and is still trying, like Denver, to find a way to break those chains and become truly the country it wants to be – can be. So I’m going to say yes… and it’s my quest, so there! 😉
* * * * * * * * *
So, for achieving 5 stars and 5 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book not just to be a great novel and A Great American Novel, but to be my second…