Heartstone (Matthew Shardlake 5) by CJ Sansom

Who guards the guardians?

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When Queen Catherine Parr’s old servant comes to her with a legal problem, the Queen naturally turns to her old friend, Matthew Shardlake. The servant’s son had been tutor to two children until their parents died in one of the waves of sweating sickness that swept the country. The children, Hugh and Emma, had been given into the guardianship of an old family friend, Master Hobbey. Unfortunately smallpox ravaged the Hobbey family shortly after, killing Emma and leaving Hugh badly scarred. Some years later the tutor had visited Hugh, and had become outraged by something he saw as a monstrous wrong. He had placed a complaint with the Court of Wards, but before he could explain his concerns, he was found hanged. The verdict was suicide, but his mother finds that hard to believe. The Queen wishes Matthew to take up the case, with a view to finding out what it was that had so horrified the tutor, and to ensuring the well-being of Hugh. This will involve Matthew in making a trip to Master Hobbey’s home, Hoyland Priory, not far from Portsmouth, where the English army and fleet are massing to defend the country from an expected invasion by France.

Meantime, the story of Ellen Fettiplace continues from the previous novel. She is a woman Matthew met when he was dealing with a case that involved him visiting Bedlam, the lunatic asylum, where Ellen has been incarcerated for nineteen years. She has come to depend on Matthew, and he fears she has fallen in love with him. There is a mystery as to why she is in Bedlam and, since she came from a village in the same area as Hoyland Priory, Matthew decides to investigate while he’s there.

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The Shardlake books are so monumental in size and complexity that frankly it’s very hard to summarise what they’re about. The plots are always interesting and there are always several strands going on simultaneously, and at the same time Sansom fills in the historical background, gives a good deal of social history, and doesn’t forget to keep us up to date with the lives of all the regular characters. Here, we see the outcome of Henry VIII’s hubris in warring with France. Men are being conscripted into the army, huge warships are being built, vast expenditure on military preparations is causing high taxes on the wealthy and a devaluation in the coinage which is further impoverishing the poor; and in general England is suffering for Henry’s ego.

In Portsmouth, Henry’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose, has been refitted in preparation for the coming battle, and she plays her part in the plot too. Sansom manages to impart a ton of historical information interestingly, so we learn all about the ship and what it would have been like to serve aboard her, and we see how she fares when the battle commences. Shardlake and Barak travel south with a company of archers heading for Portsmouth, so we also learn about this aspect of warfare. And of course, Matthew as usual finds his cases leading back to the skulduggery of Henry’s court, so that we get an insight into the high politics of the day too. On top of all this, there’s lots of info about how wardship and guardianship worked, about the enclosure of common land, and about the legal system of the day. As I’ve said before, I’ve learned far more about the Tudor period from Sansom than from all the mighty history books I’ve ploughed through in my lifetime, with the added bonus that Sansom makes it interesting and enjoyable!

The Mary Rose
by Geoff Hunt, PPRSMA
via http://www.maryrose.org

Meantime, on the personal level, Jack is irritated to have to go away from London at this time, since Tamasin is heavily pregnant. Although Jack is still officially Matthew’s assistant, the two men are now close friends, almost family; and Jack, always loyal, is also able to be honest when he feels Matthew is making bad decisions. Guy is staying with Matthew after his shop was attacked, and Shardlake has a new steward who is not working out very well, and is giving Matthew yet another problem to solve.

Steven Crossley

Steven Crossley is again the narrator for this one, and his performance is really wonderful. It’s great having the same narrator for the whole series, since the recurring characters have the same voices each time, and I would find it very hard now to imagine the three major characters, Matthew, Jack and Guy, with different voices. But there’s always a cast of thousands (approximately) in a Shardlake novel, and Crossley does an amazing job of making each character distinct and individual, and immediately recognisable, which makes the listening experience so much easier and more enjoyable. He even does the women well, which is not always the case with male narrators. If the rumour is true that there’s a new Shardlake novel in the publishing pipeline, then I sincerely hope someone has already booked Crossley for the audio version!

You could certainly read this as a standalone in terms of plot, but to develop the emotional connection with the regulars it’s definitely better to read the series in order. And since each one is a masterpiece, that would certainly be no hardship – many, many hours of reading or listening pleasure!

Audible UK Link

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Lost in a labyrinth…

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Barcelona, 1945. Young Daniel Sempere is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, struggling to scrape a living in a city not yet recovered from the ravages of civil war. Daniel’s mother died when he was very young, and on the day that he suddenly discovers he can no longer remember her face, his father, as a kind of distraction, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mysterious place full of labyrinthine corridors where rare and banned books are piled randomly on shelves. There, Daniel is told he should select a book and it will then be his responsibility to ensure that his chosen book survives. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a forgotten author called Julián Carax. That night he reads the book…

Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters just yet.

And that almost precisely describes my reaction to this book, with the one proviso that it took me considerably longer than one night to read! It crept up on me gradually and for a while I wasn’t sure whether I was going to love it, but right from the beginning I found the writing compelling and intensely more-ish. And then the story began to darken and deepen, and I found myself lost, wandering the gloomy streets of Barcelona, past the decaying old houses deserted by those who had lost their wealth in the war, past the walls still pock-marked by bullets, searching with Daniel for the truth about what had happened to Julián Carax…

Book 10

It transpires that there is a man – no one knows who he is – who is bent on destroying all remaining copies of Carax’s books – no one knows why. When Daniel is threatened by this man, he decides he must find out what happened to Carax, who fled Barcelona for Paris and subsequently disappeared. It is said that he returned during the confusion of the war and, like so many others, met a violent death on the streets of Barcelona. But was this random chance? Or was Carax’s death deliberate, and if so, what was the motive? As Daniel searches, he finds that his own life seems to have many parallels to Julián’s – will Julián’s tragedy become his too?

There’s a whole bunch of great characters – Daniel himself, whom we see grow from boy to man over the course of the story; his best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, a beggar whom Daniel and his father befriend, giving him a job in the bookshop, and who provides a good deal of humour along the way; the evil Fumero, now a police inspector, a man who used the war as an excuse to practice his sadism, and is still corrupt and still feared by the people of the city. There’s the mysterious man who wants to burn all Carax’s books – a man so strange and frightening that Daniel is not sure if he is human or devil. And then there’s the story within the story – Julián’s story – where we meet his friends and family, all of whom play a role in the mystery of his life. Two parallel love stories run through the book – Julián’s long-ago, passionate, forbidden love for Penélope, which is at the heart of the mystery; and Daniel’s new, equally passionate, forbidden love for Beatriz. In both cases, the girls’ families see the men as beneath their class, unsuitable for their daughters. (The female characters are not nearly as well drawn as the men, but I’m not in the mood to criticise!)

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The whole tone is Gothic, full of crumbling buildings, labyrinths, exalted love and melodramatic tragedy. And it’s wonderfully done. This is not a sunny fiesta city – this Barcelona is a place where it rains endlessly, where people are poor and afraid, where the scars of war show on the buildings, and on the bodies and in the souls of the inhabitants. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, where so many small and large tragedies have happened, and where now people must put old enmities away and find some way to live together again. Fear and death stalk the streets, with the authorities and some individuals still taking revenge against those they see as enemies. And the people who should be symbols of safety – the police – are the most vengeful and vicious of all, led by Fumero, a man who uses torture and death to further his own aims.

But in reality the war aftermath is all an aside – an interesting setting to set up the Gothic tone. First and foremost, this is simply a great story, wonderfully told. And as it slowly, very slowly, unfolds, it becomes mesmeric – every word seems perfectly designed to lead us to the next. By the halfway point I was completely absorbed in the labyrinthine plot – lost, at that stage, but with total confidence that I was in the hands of a master who would lead me eventually to the centre where the truth would be revealed. And when it was, I found it completely satisfying – both stories brought to wonderfully believable, emotive conclusions.

I avoided this book for years because it received so much hype, but for once this is one that fully deserves all the praise lavished on it. If you are one of the two remaining people in the world who haven’t read it, then I highly recommend you do! Marvellous!

Amazon UK Link

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

Evil has come…

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It’s 1643, and England is in the midst of Civil War. Thomas Treadwater has been injured and is temporarily unfit for fighting, so when he receives a worrying letter from his sister he makes for home. Esther has written that their father has fallen under the influence of a girl he had taken in as a maid – Chrissa Moore. Hard for Thomas to believe since his father is a staunch Puritan with impeccable morals – not at all the type to fall into the clutches of a seductress. But Esther hints that Chrissa may have bewitched him. On arriving home, Thomas finds all the sheep on the farm dead or dying, his father struck down by apoplexy, and Chrissa in jail on the basis of Esther’s accusation of witchcraft. But is Esther telling the truth? As Thomas learns more he begins to suspect that evil has come to his father’s house… something more evil even than witchcraft…

The first half of this novel makes it seem as if it’s going to be a fairly standard story about a woman accused of witchcraft at a time of religious and social turmoil. Very well written and clearly excellently researched, there is enough mystery around Esther’s motivations for her accusations to make it interesting and compelling even in this crowded field.

But then, wow! Suddenly, about halfway through, Andrews takes it into a whole different direction – full-on supernatural horror, but soundly based on the superstitions, religious beliefs and mythology of the time. The suddenness with which this happens is jarring, or perhaps shocking would be a better word, although we have known from occasional chapters set sixty years in the future, 1703, that the events of 1643 have cast long, dark shadows, and that the story may not be over even yet. The change takes the book to an entirely different level, one where Andrews touches on some of the deep religious questions torturing England as the Reformation continues to rive the country – questions such as free will, faith, God’s plan and man’s submission to it, predestination, and the end times as foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Note to self: MUST read the Book of Revelation – it has inspired so much great literary and horror writing!)

Antichrist on Leviathan
from Liber Floridus, 1120, via wikipedia

I don’t want to go into the plot in any more detail since it’s one that works better the less you know going in. I was super-impressed by how well Andrews captured what felt like an authentic 17th century mindset, in all of her characters, but especially in Thomas. As for many others, the horrors unleashed by the Reformation in terms of persecution and war has led Thomas to question his own faith. He is a pre-Enlightenment man though he doesn’t know it, and his scepticism will play a role in how he acts. He turns for help in his troubles to his old mentor, John Milton (yes, that one), and through him we learn a little about the philosophical questions of the day. The whole thing is a fascinating imagining of what might come to pass if those parts of the Bible that sceptics call superstition and even believers think of as allegory turned out to be the literal truth. How would we respond? Is faith strong enough to enable us to submit to God’s will, or would we, with the best of intentions perhaps, try to thwart His plan?

The writing is great, as is the characterisation. Thomas, as our narrator, is the one we get to know best and it’s his confusion and moral dilemma that involves us most. But both Esther and Chrissa are wonderful creations too – Chrissa at first seeming the more complex of the two, but Esther soon revealing herself as something more than the simple innocent worried for her father that she first appears. Milton’s appearance might have seemed a bit too quirky if handled less well, but he’s not in it enough to overwhelm the story, and mostly acts as a vehicle to discuss the theological and philosophical issues of the day.

All of that might make the book sound heavy and ponderous – not at all! Andrews manages to get all this depth into what is fundamentally a thrilling horror story of the old-fashioned kind – free of graphic gore and based on the age-old debate of good versus evil, and man’s moral frailty. I wondered how much classic horror Andrews has read – some of the passages in the latter sections as the book builds to its climax put me in mind very much of the horror greats, especially the writing of William Hope Hodgson. It may be, though, that the similarity comes not from Andrews being influenced directly by these writers but by them all having been influenced by the same mythological and Biblical sources.

Rosie Andrews

I think this is a wonderful book – thrilling, thought-provoking, brilliantly achieved. I loved that Andrews put herself and her readers so firmly in the mind-set of the time and never let 21st century beliefs or attitudes distort the picture. I thought her horror writing was fantastic, creating some truly marvellous imagery. And despite my own strictly rational outlook, she immersed me in the beliefs of the time so well that I found the story credible within the world in which its set, and the ending entirely satisfactory. The thing I found hardest to believe, in fact, is that this is a debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what Andrews gives us in the future. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Review-Along! Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Woman, the temptress…

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As she dances for the crowds in the streets of Paris, the gypsy girl known as La Esmeralda incites passion in the breasts of two men, both forbidden to love in the common way: Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, bound by vows of celibacy; and Quasimodo, the hideous creature who lives in the cathedral, condemned by his deformities to be an object of fear or pity, but never love. Esmeralda herself has formed a passion for another man, one unworthy of her love, but who will rouse the jealous fury of Frollo, setting off a chain of events that will ripple out well beyond these four central characters into the very history of Paris…

I must admit that there were points in the first half of the book where I had a deep desire to hit Hugo over the head with a brick, in the hopes that it might inspire him to stop waffling about 15th century architecture and get on with telling the story. However, it is often these digressions that linger longest, and provide us with that glimpse into the thinking of past generations which makes reading classics such a pleasure. Even as I waited impatiently to get back to Esmeralda and her lovers, I enjoyed Hugo’s detailed descriptions of how Paris developed as a city, and how it evolved between 1482, when the book is set, and 1829-31, when it was written. I found his ideas about architecture being the way societies once recorded their histories and philosophies fascinating and, despite my lowly status as a lady reader, I was intrigued and at least partially convinced by his argument that the invention of the printing press, as a new and easier way to spread ideas, would remove this important function of architecture for later generations…

Our lady readers will forgive us if we stop for a moment to look for what thought might lie hidden behind the archdeacon’s enigmatic words: “This will kill that, the book will kill the building.”

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Hugo’s love for Paris is clear, though clear-eyed too. He rants about modern architects destroying the glories of the past (thank goodness he didn’t live to see the Louvre Pyramid or the Centre Pompidou, or the disastrous fire in Notre-Dame itself), and waxes sublimely on the city as a living entity with its people as its soul.

Usually the murmur that comes from Paris in the daytime is the city speaking; at night it is the city breathing; here it is the city singing. Lend an ear then to this chorus from all the steeples, spread over the whole the murmur of half a million people, the everlasting plaint of the river, the infinite breathing of the wind, the deep and distant quartet of the four forests ranged over the hills on the horizon like immense organ cases, damp down as if in a half-tone everything too raucous and shrill in the central peal, and then say whether you know anything in the world more rich, joyful, golden, dazzling than this tumult of bells and chimes; this furnace of music; these ten thousand brazen voices singing at once in stone flutes three hundred feet high; this city transformed into an orchestra; this symphony of tempestuous sound.

This seems a good point to lavish praise on the wonderful translation by Alban Krailsheimer, who also wrote the informative and interesting introduction and notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition. He brings the prose to life, avoiding any of the clunkiness that sometimes makes translated literature such a chore, and gives full play to the humour and tragedy of the story, and to Hugo’s passion in his digressions. (He also reverts to the original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris – apparently The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an English invention.)

In the second half, Hugo finally buckles down to the task of telling the story, not a moment too soon for this reader. And what a story! Although Krailsheimer informs us that Hugo’s initial remit was to follow Sir Walter Scott’s lead into the art of historical fiction, the book reminds me more of the style that Dickens would later adopt, of making his city and his society as much a feature of the book as his characters and their individual histories. Like Dickens he is also crying out for social change, specifically on the injustices of poverty and of the use of torture and capital punishment as methods of social control, keeping the powerful in power through fear. Writing while the reverberations of the French Revolution had yet to settle and when, therefore, the future form of government in France was still unclear, his open criticism of the monarchy and the ruling classes seems courageous. While the book is set several centuries before the Revolution, it is clearly his intent to show the vast social inequalities that led to it. Does the book have a hero? I’m not sure that it does at the individual level, but I felt that Hugo’s sympathies lay with his mob – not the Revolutionary mob of the 18th century, but their historical ancestors: the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. He doesn’t sanitise them – they are shown as debauched and depraved, but within their own microcosm of society they act according to their own moral code, and provide mutual protection from the corrupt and brutal ruling class.

(Djali the goat was my favourite character)

Two things surprised me most. Firstly, there’s a lot of unexpected humour amid the serious stuff, with Pierre Gringoire (apparently a real person, though I’d never heard of him) as the main comic turn who provides moments of levity to lighten the generally dark tone. I loved the whole story of Gringoire and the goat! Secondly, the way in which Hugo portrays Frollo’s battle with lust and sexual matters generally is so much more open and explicit than I’m used to in English literature of roughly the same era. Lust is seen as the driving force for all the passion in the book – Quasimodo perhaps is the exception to this, his feelings for Esmeralda perhaps more truly love, although even he is no stranger to the stirrings of sexual desire. I found it interesting that Esmeralda too was shown as a passionate being with her own physical desires – how different to the insipid sexless heroines of so much English literature. And I felt Hugo handled all this superbly – the characters and their motivations all felt true to me (and made me wonder whether Dickens’ caricaturing was a way to get round the literary repressions enforced on English authors of the time. Darcy staring at Lizzie across drawing rooms and ballrooms is about as close to lust as I can think of in classic English Victorian literature, though perhaps the success of the sensation novels suggests that the English appetite for lust was secretly just as strong as the French).

Victor Hugo

As always with these major classics, there’s far too much to discuss in a reasonable length blog post. In summary, then, after the long first half and the architectural longueurs in which he nearly lost me, Hugo won me over totally with the thrilling story and left me reeling at the end! And in the couple of weeks since I finished reading, I’ve found myself mulling over many of the issues he raised in his digressions, so that my appreciation of the whole book has continued to grow. It’s one I’d like to re-read, since knowing the outcome would lessen my impatience to get on with the story and allow me to savour all the rest in a more leisurely fashion. Heading for a paltry four stars at the halfway mark, by the wonderful end it had gained a well-deserved and brightly glowing five! (I’m even tempted now to read Les Misérables…)

I do hope my fellow Review-Alongers found as much in it to enjoy as I did. I look forward to reading their thoughts and will add links to their reviews below as I come across them. Please also check back to find out what our non-blogging friends thought, who will hopefully leave their comments on it below.

Alyson’s Review – see comments below

Christine’s Review – see comments below

Jane’s Review

Kelly’s Review

Margaret’s Review

Amazon UK Link

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

When the snakes are not the scariest thing…

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On St Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group of girls from the exclusive Appleyard College boarding school are taken to nearby Hanging Rock for a picnic. When the time comes to start back, it is discovered that three of the girls and one mistress are missing and, despite much searching then and later, no clues are found as to what has happened to them…

I was until recently under a misconception about the book in that I thought it was written much earlier than it was, probably sometime in the 1920s or so. In fact it was published in 1967, and that much later date shows through in the mild air of mockery Lindsay displays about the attitudes of the late Victorians, and in her hints that the root of the mysterious disappearance may lie in the burgeoning sexuality of these girls on the cusp of womanhood – as we know, Victorian ladies didn’t have sexuality at any age, much less as schoolgirls! This meant that I was at first surprised by the tone, which was considerably lighter and with more humour at the beginning than I expected, though it gradually darkens into something quite troubling and chilling.

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Ambiguity has to be handled well if it is to avoid being simply frustrating, and it’s the excellent way Lindsay balances the information she does and doesn’t give us that makes it work so well. There are all kinds of little mysteries surrounding the larger one, blank spaces that the reader can fill in for herself, clues and hints that might mean one thing, but could just as easily mean nothing. Legend has it that Lindsay wrote a final chapter revealing all (in a woo-woo kind of way – it’s summarised on wikipedia if you’re interested) but that her publisher suggested she cut it. If this is true, what a debt the book owes to the publisher – no explanation would leave the book lingering in the mind the way it does by ending as the published version does. Apparently, there’s a lot of doubt that the missing chapter really existed though (the suggestion being that the one printed sometime in the 1980s, after Lindsay’s death, was a hoax), and I think I prefer to believe that and give the full credit for the ambiguity to Lindsay.

The disappearance is, of course, pivotal, but it’s by no means the whole story. As time passes and no trace of the girls and their teacher is found, we see a ripple effect running through the lives of the people affected. Mrs Appleyard’s school, so successful, so exclusive, is now the centre of scandal and we see how this affects Mrs Appleyard herself and the other members of staff. The English boy, or young man, who saw the girls last as they made their way up the Rock, is haunted by the beautiful face of one of them, Miranda, and by what seems like a sense of guilt that he didn’t stop them; though at the time there was no reason to do so and, anyway, English Victorian propriety would not have allowed him to address young ladies to whom he hadn’t been properly introduced. Then there are the pupils, each missing their classmates to varying degrees and confused and frightened through not knowing what has happened to them. And the police, having to face accusations of incompetence for failing to find them. All of these ripples grow larger as time passes, so that as the incident itself begins to fade into the past, the effects of it grow and, with them, an impending sense of dread.

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There are lots of other interesting side aspects that make it more complex than it at first sight appears. Lindsay shows the born Australian’s affectionately contemptuous attitude to new arrivals from England, with their strict social protocols, rigid dress code and class divisions, while the new arrivals are having to learn a new way of life, complete with scorching heat, snakes, killer insects and the vast empty landscape where place is divided from place by distances unimaginable to the inhabitants of crowded little England. Indigenous Australians aren’t visible in the story but their culture is, or at least the idea that this land is ancient and imbued with legends and a strange spirituality not understood by the incomers, and therefore threatening. The Rock itself, with its strange monoliths and hidden caves, seems to exert a power that may be physical or a psychological effect, or possibly otherworldly.

Joan Lindsay

There’s also the time of writing. The ‘60s were such a time of social change – are there hints of homosexual undertones in some of the relationships? There probably wouldn’t have been in a novel from 1900, and there almost inevitably would be in a novel from 2022, but a novel from 1967? Beautifully ambiguous again, intentional or not. Hard to read it with modern eyes and not see things that may not exist, which seems quite appropriate to the overall tone!

The writing is excellent, both in the characterisation and human interactions, and in the many passages descriptive of the natural world which Lindsay uses to add to the feeling of strangeness that the newcomers feel. It’s surprising and disappointing that she wrote so few novels and that this seems to be the only one to have remained in the public consciousness. But if you’re only going to be remembered for one novel, then this is a wonderful one to be remembered for.

This was the People’s Choice winner for April. Well done, People – great choice! 😀

Amazon UK Link

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

Automata and missing children…

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Paris, 1750. Madeleine is desperate to escape from the brothel that her mother runs, so when one of the brothel’s clients, a policeman, offers her money to take a position as a maid in the house of Doctor Reinhart in order to spy on him, she accepts. Doctor Reinhart is an automaton maker, already famed for his life-like creations of birds and animals which he animates using clockwork. Madeleine is not told the reason the police are interested in the doctor; she is merely instructed to report on any suspicious activities. When she arrives at the doctor’s house she meets Véronique, the doctor’s young daughter, just returned from her education in a convent and now keen to follow her father’s footsteps and become an automaton maker too. Soon Madeleine becomes convinced that the doctor is indeed involved in a secret project, but despite her best efforts and the pressure being applied on her, she can’t find out exactly what. Meantime Paris is in an uproar over the disappearances of several children. At first the missing children came from amongst the many homeless waifs living on the streets, but now the children of tradesmen are disappearing too and rumours are flying as to who is taking the children and why…

I don’t want to say much more about the plot than that, because the interest of the book comes from the slow revelations that finally allow Madeleine and the reader to know what is going on. To be honest, I worked out parts of the mystery fairly early on, but it didn’t matter because the story is much more about the characters and how they are impacted by the events in the book. The historical setting of Paris in the reign of Louis XV is wonderfully portrayed – I’m no expert on the period so can’t speak to its authenticity, but I found it totally convincing. Mazzola takes us into the poorest and darkest corners of the city and to the dazzling court of the king, and shows us the huge inequities that only a few decades later would lead to bloody revolution.

The story is told from the perspective of three different women, though all in third party. Madeleine is the main character, and she’s very well drawn. We learn about her terrible but sadly not unusual experiences as a child forced into prostitution, though it’s made even harder by the fact that it’s her mother who did the forcing. But Madeleine is strong, determined not just to make a better life for herself but also for her young nephew Émile, who is a sickly child and an orphan, his mother, Madeleine’s sister, having died not long before the book begins. Madeleine is also unusual in that she has some basic education given to her by her father before he died. It is Madeleine’s ability to read and write that makes her useful to the police as a spy.

Véronique is the second perspective. Since part of the mystery revolves around her, we don’t get to know her quite as well as Madeleine until late on in the book. However, she too has had a difficult childhood and is now looking to forge a life and career for herself in a society that restricts opportunities for women of her class to little more than marriage or the convent.

The third perspective is a woman that we initially know as Jeanne but soon discover is in fact Madame de Pompadour. Through her we learn about the life of being the officially recognised mistress of the King, considerably more luxurious than Madeleine’s life in a brothel, but perhaps no more secure. Jeanne’s position is entirely dependent on Louis’ favour, and she knows that there are many who would happily see her fall from grace or take her place. Through her, too, we get to see the power struggles at court, with everyone jostling for the king’s patronage, and all completely uninterested in the poverty and growing anger of the Parisian poor on their doorstep.

Mazzola touches on many issues – women’s lowly status and lack of agency, slavery, prostitution, poverty, and so on. But in every case she shows us these things through the characters’ lives and actions – she doesn’t preach and she doesn’t get polemical. Hallelujah! Her characters are firmly rooted in their own time, and haven’t miraculously acquired twenty-first century attitudes and sensibilities.

Anna Mazzola

The story itself is wonderfully creepy, with Mazzola making great use of the settings and the doctor’s automata to create an atmosphere of mild Gothic horror. Apparently it’s inspired by a real scandal of children going missing in Paris at this time and some of the rumours that flew around, although Mazzola has created her own story from this base. There are hints at the supernatural, at the old story of science being allowed to run beyond control, at the lengths that obsessions will take people to and the lines that they will cross in pursuit of knowledge. And the resolution of the story is both dark and satisfying.

An excellent book – great setting, well-drawn interesting characters, and a story that intrigues and chills and takes us to the edge of the supernatural, but ultimately stays on the right side of credible. Loved it – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

A tale I have for you…
~ William Fowler

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The time is the 1570s. Mary Queen of Scots has fallen from power and fled to France, and the boy King, Jamie Saxt, is in Stirling Castle – for his protection or as prisoner is a matter of interpretation – while Scotland is being governed by Regent Morton. John Knox is dead but his Reformation is thriving. The power struggle between Reformists and Roman Catholics is ongoing, with control of the young King at the heart of it. Two previous Regents have died, probably murdered, and both factions have taken turns at burning “martyrs”. Our narrator is Will Fowler, little more than a boy when the story begins, off to study at St Andrews, even then one of the ancient centres of learning – and politics, and plots, and skulduggery. And when Will and his new friend Tom Nicolson accidentally become embroiled in an incident in a pub, they find they have unwittingly foiled a plot and, in so doing, have aligned themselves with the Reformists, making enemies of the powerful Catholic family, the Hamiltons, and becoming friends with the adventurous and dangerous young Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the “Bold Buccleuch”, and his kin. These friendships and enmities will shape young Will’s future, as will his love for Tom’s lovely and wilful sister, Rose Nicolson…

Do you ever get that lovely feeling that an author has written a book specially for you? That’s how I feel about this one. It has everything I want in a Scottish novel: an interesting period of history that has nothing to do with Jacobites, nor Mary Queen of Scots, nor Glasgow gangs, nor dreary twentieth century alcoholics; a wonderful use of old Scots vocabulary, but avoiding too much hard to read dialect; exciting adventures, happening to likeable and entertaining characters; real insight into how people lived, thought and acted in the time; knowledgable and affectionate insight, too, into the Scottish literary tradition; a touch of romance, but avoiding all soppiness; and some beautifully presented and well-timed humour, often at the expense of the religious divides that continue to plague Scotland into the present. I’ve loved Andrew Greig’s writing over several books, but often haven’t particularly enjoyed the subjects he’s chosen, so it’s a real delight for me to finally have the joy of that great writing in a story that seems custom-made to suit my preferences!

William Fowler of Embra (Edinburgh) was a real person – a makar (poet), writer, translator and courtier, who got involved in the various political shenanigans going on in Scotland at this muddled and perilous time. Here, Greig gives us just the early years of Fowler’s life, (and I sincerely hope he’s working hard on a follow-up, since the latter part of his career sounds just as interesting).

James VI of Scotland and I of England as a boy
“Jamie Saxt”

In theory I know about this period, having studied it somewhat superficially long ago, and as far as I can tell it’s historically accurate – it’s certainly entirely convincing, and delightfully free of anachronistic attitudes forced onto the historical characters. Almost every character in it is a real person – I think only the Nicolsons and occasional peripheral characters are an outright creation of the author, though I stand to be corrected if I’m wrong on that. Given that I struggled from time to time to place people in their correct factions, I did wonder whether this would be a difficult one for people with no knowledge of the history, but I found as I read on that gradually it all became clear, so I feel it would work even for newcomers to the period and is a painless and enjoyable way to learn a little about this interesting time. I felt that a character list showing titles and religious and political affiliations would have been helpful, especially in the early stages – I was reading a NetGalley copy, so don’t know whether that is perhaps included in the published version. There is a guide to archaic Scots vocabulary, in my copy at the end of the book, although happily (being an archaic Scot) I didn’t find much need to refer to it. Greig is great at putting possibly unfamiliar words into context so that their meaning is obvious.

Greig is himself a poet, and his love of being part of the long and ancient tradition of Scottish poetry shows through often in his work. Here he gives a lovely picture of the young Will’s development as a poet, at first derivative of the poets he himself revered before gradually finding his own style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much of Fowler’s poetry online, but I felt Greig gave a great flavour, not just of him but of some of the earlier poets he shows Fowler as admiring. (It (almost) made me want to revisit some of those early incomprehensible Scottish poets forced on me long ago in school!)

Andrew Greig

Goodness, 800 words* and I’ve barely mentioned Rose! Rose is a great character too, an intelligent and opinionated young woman restricted by both gender and class. Educated beyond her social level by her brother Tom, she struggles to conform to society’s expectations and, as happened frequently in those days to women who couldn’t conform, falls foul of the church. Will’s passion for her is beautifully done – a boyish infatuation that slowly matures into true friendship and love. Although Rose’s story gives a structure to the book, the real star is Will and the meat of it, for me at least, lies in the political machinations of the Reformation. Oh dear, I haven’t talked enough about the King, either, or Walter Scott and the border reiving, or the Earl of Bothwell, or Will’s adventures in Paris! There’s nothing else for it – you’ll just have to read it for yourself! My highest recommendation for this wonderful book!

*I seem to have confused everyone with this. I’m commenting on the excessive length of my review, not the book. The paperback is 464 pages and every word a delight.

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

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The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

And then you go and spoil it all…

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Emmett Watson has just been released from the juvenile work farm where he has spent eighteen months after accidentally killing another boy in a fight. While he was inside, Emmett’s father died and the bank has foreclosed on the mortgage on their Nebraskan farm, so now Emmett is left with only his car and $3,000 dollars his father has hidden for him away from the bank’s clutches, and his younger brother Billy to care for. Emmett was never keen on farming anyway, so he intends to take Billy to Texas and start a new life there. But Billy wants to go to California since he has found some postcards from their mother, suggesting that’s where she headed when she abandoned them long ago. And then two boys from the work farm show up, Duchess and Woolly, having hidden in the boot of the car that brought Emmett home. They have a different plan of where they want to go, and they want to persuade Emmett to come along. So the four boys set off on a journey, following the Lincoln Highway first east to New York, and then planning to drive from there west, all the way to the other coast…

I love Amor Towles’ writing. He has moments of beauty, moments of humour, occasional shafts of intriguing insight into history or literature or human nature, and he creates lovely characters. His characters rarely ring fully true, but they have that quality of the heroes and heroines of olden times, when we seemed able to accept people as wholly good in a way that feels rather out of place now in contemporary fiction. He gets away with this partly because of the quality of the writing, partly because he sets his novels in the past, and partly because he creates a kind of fairy tale atmosphere, where this reader at least can happily put her disbelief to one side for a while and simply enjoy the story.

Here, the three boys from the work farm are all good-hearted, kind and generous – the problems that led them there all arising as a result of useless, though not intentionally cruel, parenting. They all put each other above themselves, never behave inappropriately in front of eight-year-old Billy, and rarely do anything much that rises above the level of endearing naughtiness. The exception is Duchess, who is occasionally startlingly violent, but always for excellent, generous reasons. It’s all very Walton-esque – one can well imagine John-boy being just such a lad had he ever ended up in a work farm. Or perhaps like Alcott’s Little Men, where a little love is enough to wipe away the mostly deeply embedded trauma. Not believable, but reassuring to readers turning quiveringly away from real life in search of a bit of respite.

It’s a long and slow book – one to savour rather than to race through. Not much happens for most of it, just a series of minor incidents, most of them with a humorous edge though with an occasional moment of something a shade darker. The viewpoint jumps from boy to boy, sometimes first person, sometimes third, sometimes present tense, sometimes past, and along the way we gradually get to know each boy well, and learn about the history of their lives and what has brought them to this point. It took me a while to slow down to the book’s pace but once I had, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them all, even precociously annoying little Billy. I found I was looking forward to picking the book up each night to take me to a gentler, kinder world for a while…

***Despite my best efforts, what follows is mildly spoilerish, though of mood rather than incident, so if you intend to read the book soon, stop now! Suffice it to say, I disliked the way he ended it.***

Amor Towles

And then, as he has done before, Towles spoils it all with a completely jarring ending. Obviously I can’t go into detail, but I’ll just say that after all that goose-down soft relaxation, he metaphorically hit me over the head with a brick, and left me nursing my wounds. I still can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth – and bad taste pretty much describes those final few chapters. I don’t know what he was thinking. Was he playing games with the reader? Did it amuse him to calm us and soothe us and rock us gently and then set off a metaphorical bomb under us just when we least expected it? It certainly didn’t amuse me! Either write a sentimental piece of nostalgia for a non-existent time, Mr Towles, or write a hard-hitting novel – don’t swap genres in the last 5% of a book!

So, difficult to rate. I adored 95% of it and hated 5%, and that 5% ruined all that had come before. I’m going to give it four stars but that’s pretty arbitrary – I reckon I could justify any rating between one and five based on my conflicted and aggrieved feelings. Would I recommend it? Not sure – I’d like you to get as much enjoyment as I did out of the bulk of it, but I’d hate for you to end up feeling as I did when I turned the last pages…

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

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The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Mocking the Raj…

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Although life in the small fictional town of Krishnapur is currently peaceful for the British colonial community, the Collector fears trouble – he has been coming across small piles of chapattis left in odd places, and he’s sure he’s heard that this happened somewhere else, just before a native uprising against the representatives of the Raj. His fears are soon to be realised, and the British will be driven to take refuge in the Residency where they will have to withstand constant attacks, disease and starvation as they wait for the Army to come to their rescue…

Gosh, I don’t remember feeling quite so conflicted about a book for a while! On the one hand, it is written as a sort of farcical comedy which is totally at odds with the serious subject matter, especially as the siege progresses and the suffering and death of the British contingent grows. On the other hand, there’s no doubt it is quite funny in places. On the one hand, it is clearly mocking the whole concept of colonialism and the British attempts to force their culture onto another society. On the other hand, the natives are still shown as kind of comedy characters – none are fully characterised, they are mostly simply one agglomerated mass, and, unlike the Brits, they get no opportunity to redeem themselves through heroism before the end. On the one hand, Farrell mocks the position of colonial women – seen as useless but pretty ornamentation at best, or, should they fail to remain within the restrictive rules of the British society, disgraceful embarrassments at worst. On the other hand, for the most part this is exactly how Farrell treats them too, suggesting his egalitarianism wasn’t much more than skin deep.

The first section before the siege goes on way too long and there were times when I wasn’t sure whether to stick with it. At this stage, though, at least the humour feels in keeping with the rather light-hearted depiction of the fairly pointless existence of most of the Brits. However, it becomes much more interesting once the siege finally gets underway. There’s no doubt that Farrell has researched the period well and, while Krishnapur and his characters are fictional, much of the action is based on the real Siege of Lucknow of 1857. The humour persists too long into the bleaker aspects of the story, but gradually style and content begin to match more and I began to find that at last I was beginning to care about some of the characters as people rather than seeing them solely as caricatures of colonial “types”.

As well as colonialism, Farrell plays with contrasting themes of faith and science, civilisation and materialism, and honour and reputation. It all feels quite light and superficial because of the overall humorous tone, but I found that after I had finished reading it was these questions that lingered in my mind, more than the specifics of what had happened to the characters.

As cholera strikes the besieged community, the two doctors argue bitterly over how it is spread – by miasma, as was then mostly accepted, or through contaminated water, as some were beginning to think. As the people are trying to decide which medical advice to follow, the clergyman is insisting that their troubles are all a judgement from God on their sins, and exhorting them to trust in prayer.

When the Brits retreat to the Residency they bring all their precious but useless valuables with them – exquisite china, beautiful paintings, even large items of furniture which they had paid a fortune to have shipped out from England. But as hunger and danger strike, some of them begin to see the futility of possessions and would cheerfully give up their priceless antiques for a square meal and an unbroken night of safety. Some however cling onto their goods as if they are the markers of what makes them superior to the marauding natives out there.

JG Farrell

But when the situation becomes one of life and death, some of the old moral and societal standards fall away, and people begin to behave in ways that would have been unthinkable in the safe days, the respectable and the disreputable finding that they may have to rely on each other after all. And, in the end many of the characters show true heroism, even the most unlikely of the men facing the fighting with all the courage and initiative they can muster, and some of the ornamental women turning their hands to the sordid, dirty and dangerous job of nursing the sick and wounded.

Although I had mixed feelings about a lot of it, I found that as it darkened my appreciation grew, and by the end I was glad I had stuck with it – the destination made what had felt like a long and sometimes tedious journey worthwhile. Perhaps it’s of its time – Farrell was clearly modern enough to be critical of colonialism, but perhaps not yet modern enough to prevent himself from falling into some of the attitudes he was mocking. Or perhaps he was so modern that he was mocking the attitudes of the people who were mocking the attitudes of the colonialists! I’ll quickly pull myself out before I get even more lost down that rabbit hole, give it four stars and add the other two books in his Empire trilogy, Troubles and The Singapore Grip, to my wishlist, which I suppose can be taken as some kind of a recommendation!

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This was The People’s Choice winner for January and started the year off well, so good choice, People!

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Snow Country (Austrian Trilogy 2) by Sebastian Faulks

Hearts and minds…

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As a younger son, Anton Heidick is expected to stay at home in his small town in Styria and take over his father’s sausage-making business. Anton wants to go to Vienna to study though, and his parents don’t stop him although they refuse to support him financially. So he works his way through by tutoring the young son of a wealthy family, and there he meets Delphine, who is paid to teach French to the daughter of the house. This will be the beginning of a love affair that will have a major part in shaping Anton’s future. On leaving university, Anton decides he wants to be a journalist, and gradually builds a small reputation as a foreign correspondent, sent off to witness major events around the world. But it’s now 1914, and the clouds of war are gathering across Europe…

We meet Lena in the late 1920s, and learn of her difficult childhood as the child of an illiterate and often drunken woman, who earns a living partly through prostitution and partly by working as a cleaner at the Schloss Seeblick, a kind of mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia. Lena too makes her way to Vienna, where she becomes involved with Rudolph, a young left-wing activist. But things don’t work out as she expected, and when her mother dies she returns to Carinthia, and is offered her mother’s old job at the sanatorium. It is to here that, a few years later, Anton too will come, firstly to write an article about the sanatorium, and then to seek help for his own mental health problems, a leftover from his experiences during the war years.

The underlying plot in this is rather slight, based around Anton’s love for Delphine and Lena’s search to find a place for herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much sympathy or opportunity. But the story is in some ways simply a vehicle to allow Faulks to show us various aspects of Austrian society and to create a general picture of the period from just before the First World War to within sight of the Second.

Anton and Lena are the main characters, but three others play significant roles and give us different perspectives: Delphine, a Frenchwoman who will find herself living in an enemy country when the war starts; Rudolph, the young socialist that Lena is involved with in Vienna, who allows us glimpses of the complex political situation in this part of Europe; and Martha, the daughter of the founder of the Schloss Seeblick, who now acts as both administrator and therapist, and who gives some insight into the development of psychoanalysis in Austria in the wake of Freud’s theories. Unusually for contemporary fiction, all of the characters are likeable, and all are fundamentally decent people trying to do their best, despite their normal human weaknesses and flaws. I found that deeply refreshing, and was happy to find myself totally involved in each of their stories.

Anton’s career as a journalist also takes us to other places, giving little vignettes within the main story, designed to show the state of the world at this uneasy time. He visits Panama to witness the completion of the canal, and muses on the roles of France and America, the rise of the new powers in the world and the decay of the old. He casually mentions the workforce, treated little better than slaves, but as a man of his time, he accepts this without much question. Later he attends the trial in Paris of Mme Cailloux (a real person), wife of a prominent politician, who stands accused of shooting the editor of Le Figaro. This gives Faulks room to give an excellent picture of France just before the war, with half the population wanting peace and the other half clamouring for war to wipe out the stain of past defeats and show that France is a major power yet.

I would have happily had a whole book of Anton travelling from place to place, showing us the world through major news events. The sudden change to Lena’s life makes sense and works well in the end, but on the whole I didn’t find her life as interesting at Anton’s. However it’s through her relationship with Rudolph that we see the rise of extremism at both ends of the political spectrum initially, before fascism won out. Rudolph’s story also lets us see the growing resentment between the politically sophisticated and relatively wealthy Viennese urbanites and the people of rural Austria, poorer, less well educated and with fewer opportunities.

Sebastian Faulks

I feel I’ve made this book sound horribly heavyweight and a bit polemical, so let me correct that. Faulks writes with a light hand, and all these background events are never allowed to stop the flow of the human story of our characters’ lives. There are some tragic incidents which are treated with welcome restraint, some occasional humour to lift the tone, and affairs of the heart – not hearts and flowers romances, but grown-up, complex relationships with a feeling of truth about them. Of course I have some criticisms – perhaps a little lack of depth, too much discussion of Freud for my taste, a rather too neat ending – but none of these seriously affected my overall enjoyment. I was completely absorbed throughout and sorry to leave the characters behind when the last page turned. Apparently the book is the second in a loose Austrian trilogy, although each also stands on its own, and I’m looking forward to going back to read the first, Human Traces, and seeing where Faulks takes us in the third. Highly recommended.

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

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My Ántonia by Willa Cather

A nation of immigrants…

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One day in the late 19th century, two children arrive separately in Nebraska on the same train. Jim Burden is a ten-year-old boy, recently orphaned and coming to the prairie land to live with his grandparents. Ántonia Shimerda is a couple of years older, immigrating to America from Bohemia with her family. Although from different backgrounds and traditions, the children become friends, learning about the land and wildlife of their new home together as they explore it with some of the other children in the farming neighbourhood. Over the years their friendship will gradually fade as Jim goes off to university and later to live in New York, but he always remembers Ántonia, and now in middle-age has set out to write down his memories of her.

When reviewing a much-studied classic it’s next to impossible to find anything new to say, so this is simply a summary of the things that most stood out to me while reading rather than an attempt at a full analysis. To start, I’ll explain why for me it only rates as four stars – simply put, it has no plot, which regular readers of my reviews will know is one of the things most likely to make me grumpy about a book. Instead it is a description of the short-lived era of pioneering, a wonderful depiction of the land and people’s relationship with it before it was fully tamed, a foundational story of the creation of America or perhaps of the myth of America, and a coming-of-age tale of Jim, primarily, but also of Ántonia and of the frontier itself.

I felt it was an odd and intriguing choice for Cather to tell Ántonia’s story at a remove through the eyes of a male narrator, especially since I found Jim’s voice almost inexorably feminine, particularly when he reaches the age of developing sexual interest in girls. I was interested to read in the introduction by Janet Sharistanian in my Oxford World’s Classics edition that Cather’s deepest relationships throughout her life were with women, although Sharistanian is careful to clarify that there is no evidence as to whether those relationships were sexual. However, she quotes another academic critic whose views rather neatly summed up my own feeling about Jim as narrator and Cather as author: “Judith Fetterley posits that ‘Though nominally male, Jim behaves in ways that mark him as female’; that his ‘sexual self-presentation’ as well as his actions reveal his ‘gender ambiguity’; and that ‘My Ántonia is the work of a lesbian writer, who could not ‘tell her own story in her own voice’”. Sharistanian doesn’t agree with this wholeheartedly, but I do. I also felt it perhaps explains another aspect I found mysterious – that we are first introduced to Jim in an introduction written by another person, using ‘I’ and presumably Cather herself, who apparently shares these childhood recollections of Ántonia and yet never appears in Jim’s narrative. I felt that Cather had handed over not just some of the autobiographical facts of her own story to ‘Jim’ but also her internal feelings, and that he really has to be considered her alter-ego.

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The other aspect I found most interesting was that this is the earliest example I’ve read of what is now a standard part of American literature, and increasingly the literature of other Western nations – the ‘immigrant experience’ novel. This, however, is written not by the immigrant herself, but from the perspective of an established ‘American’ – that is, a person of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant stock (although the Burdens are certainly not WASPs). Ántonia is from Eastern Europe, Catholic and, like most waves of immigrants to the US (and elsewhere), looked down on and treated as lesser by those already established until they in turn become accepted and absorbed into the story of the nation. I wondered if Cather chose to tell the story from Jim’s point of view purely because that was her own perspective on Ántonia, or if again she felt that America was not ready to hear from the voices of recent immigrants. In our time, it would be rather frowned upon to tell the story of an immigrant in this way – we are much more into ‘own voices’ and reluctant to imagine ourselves into the lives and minds of ‘others’. I thought Cather did it excellently, never once demeaning nor falsely romanticising Ántonia or the other immigrant girls we meet, and showing them as having become both physically and metaphorically the mothers of the young nation.

She also has a wonderful sense of balance in the way she shows the immigrant girls as living in a male-dominated society but refusing the role of victim or underdog, instead exercising a lot of autonomy in the way their lives unfold. The overall impression I came away with is that she believed that waves of immigration, especially the women, strengthened the American bloodstock (to put it rather crudely).

Willa Cather

The writing is excellent, especially in the descriptions of the various settings. The vastness of the landscape, the strength and courage of the pioneers, the rapid development of towns and social order are all portrayed brilliantly, leaving a lasting impression on the reader’s mind – for this reader, more lasting than the lives of our major protagonists, I must admit, who largely felt as if they existed to tie together a rather disparate set of episodes illustrating facets of the frontier life. Ántonia herself disappears completely for large parts of the book and her story is often told at a distance, by some third party telling Jim the latest gossip about her. Again, Sharistanian suggests a long-running debate between people who think the book is fundamentally Ántonia’s story, or Jim’s. I fall into the latter category – for me, this is very definitely Jim’s story, and therefore largely Cather’s own. But mostly it feels like a part of America’s story, or of its myth-making of itself as a ‘nation of immigrants’ – that is not to denigrate the myth or to suggest it is untrue, simply to say that all nations form myths from their own history which reflect and influence how they feel about themselves and how they act as a society. And I feel this foundational myth-creation aspect may be why the book has earned its place in the hearts of so many Americans, and as a well-deserved American classic.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Worthy, but soapy and strangely unmoving…

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When inter-ethnic warfare in Nigeria leads to the Igbo breaking away to form their own short-lived nation of Biafra, the five main characters in the book find themselves caught up in the slaughter and mass starvation that results. Olanna and Kainene are twins, the privileged daughters of a wealthy businessman, who have both returned to Nigeria after being educated in English universities. Olanna is in love with Odenigbo, an academic with strong nationalist and revolutionary leanings. Kainene falls for Richard, a white man who is failing to write the book he came to Nigeria to research, and whose main purpose is to personify white guilt. Then there’s Ugwu, servant to Odenigbo and Olanna – his purpose appears to be to show how devoted the servant class is to the privileged who sit around pontificating while their servants do all the work of cooking, cleaning and bringing up their children for them, while having to beg for an occasional day off to visit their families.

This one took me nearly two months to read, largely because I found it almost completely flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. I learned a good deal about the background to the Biafran War, which happened when I was far too young to understand it but still registered with me and all my generation because of the horrific pictures of starving children that were shown on the news night after night for many months. I also learned a lot about the life of the privileged class in Nigeria – those with a conflicted relationship with their colonial past, adopting British education, the English language and the Christian religion while despising the colonisers who brought these things to their country. Adichie manages to be relatively even-handed – whenever she has one of her characters blame the British for all their woes, she tends to have another at least hint at the point that not all the atrocities Africans carry out against each other can be blamed on colonisation, since inter-ethnic hatreds and massacres long predated colonisation.

Biafran Flag

In this case it is the Igbo who are presented as the persecuted – the same ethnic group as Chinua Achebe writes about in Things Fall Apart, a book which I feel has clearly influenced Achebe’s style. The attempt at a degree of even-handedness struck me in both, as did the method of telling the political story through the personal lives of a small group of characters. In both, that style left me rather disappointed since I am always more interested in the larger political picture than in the domestic arena, but that’s simply a subjective preference. I felt I learned far more about how the Biafrans lived – the food they ate, the way they cooked, the superstitions of the uneducated “bush people”, the marriage customs, etc. – than I did about why there was such historical animosity between the northern Nigerians and the Igbo, which personally would have interested me more. On an intellectual level, however, I feel it’s admirable that Adichie chose not to devote her book to filling in the ignorance of Westerners, but instead assumed her readership would have enough background knowledge – like Achebe’s, this is a tale told by an African primarily for Africans, and as such I preferred it hugely to Americanah, which I felt was another in the long string of books written by African and Asian ex-pats mainly to pander to the white-guilt virtue-signalling of the Western English-speaking world.

Although I found all of the descriptions of life before and during the war interesting, the main problem of the book for me was that I didn’t care much about any of the characters. Just as I find annoying British books that concentrate on the woes of the privileged class, and especially on the hardships of writers, so I found it here too. Adichie is clearly writing about the class she inhabits – academics, politically-minded, wealthy enough to have servants – and I found her largely uncritical of her own class, and rather unintentionally demeaning towards the less privileged – the servants and the people without access to a British University education, many without even the right to basic schooling.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is far more interested in romantic relationships than I am, and the bed-hopping of her main characters occasionally gave me the feeling I had drifted into an episode of Dallas or Dynasty by mistake. I was also a little taken aback, given Adichie’s reputation as a feminist icon, that it appeared that the men’s infidelities seemed to be more easily forgiven than the women’s, even by the women. (I don’t think she’s wrong in this – it just surprised me that she somehow didn’t seem to highlight it as an issue.) But what surprised me even more, and left a distinctly unpleasant taste, was when she appeared to be trying to excuse and forgive a character who participated in a gang-rape of a young girl during the war. I think she was perhaps suggesting that war coarsens us all and makes us behave out of character, and I’m sure that’s true. But it doesn’t make it forgivable, and this feminist says that women have to stop helping men to justify or excuse rape in war. There is no justification, and I was sorry that that particular character was clearly supposed to have at least as much of my sympathy as the girl he raped.

So overall, a mixed reaction from me. I’m glad to have read it, I feel I learned a considerable amount about the culture of the privileged class of the Igbo and the short-lived Biafran nation, but I can’t in truth say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it.

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(Sorry for disappearing. I had a little health issue – nothing serious, but it left me kinda wabbit*. I hope to be back in action properly soonish.

*Wabbit: Scottish word meaning listless, lethargic, tired, and overcome with a desire to lie in bed eating chocolate. Though that last part may be just me.)

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To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

The Pastor investigates…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

Lars Levi Laestadius

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

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

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

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

Mikael Niemi
Mikael Niemi

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

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

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The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

The evil that men do…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

AK Blakemore
AK Blakemore

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

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

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

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Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The ghosts of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

SCW LogoBook 6

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

Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath

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

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

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Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Why not Bulgaria?

😦

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

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

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

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

Boyd, William
William Boyd

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

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

People's Choice LogoBook 6 of 12

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

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The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn

Casting their nets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

classics club logo 2Book 78 of 90

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

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

Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn

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

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

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

Rose’s review

Sandra’s review

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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

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

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

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Revelation (Matthew Shardlake 4) by CJ Sansom

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

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

cj_sansom
CJ Sansom

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

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

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

The civilian war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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

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

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

SCW LogoBook 5

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

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

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

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

Merce Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link