A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Harking back to the good old days…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov falls foul of the new Bolshevik regime in the Russia of 1922, they show him mercy because he had written a famous revolutionary poem back in 1913. So instead of killing him, they sentence him to permanent house arrest in the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The book is the story of his life there and, through him, of life under communism in the USSR.

The basic tone of the book is light and entertaining. Rostov is a noble from a wealthy land-owning family but on the whole he’s happy to go along with the ideals of the new regime, even if he’s not terribly enamoured of its practicalities. The depth in the book comes from various scenes and anecdotes that shed light on the changing Russia. Rostov occasionally gets nostalgic over Tolstoyan-like memories of winter sleigh-rides in troikas and aristocrat-filled dances. Even in his new life, Rostov is privileged – still rich and the Metropol is still the haunt of the upper echelons, though now these are drawn from the party hierarchy rather than the nobility. Towles uses this to show that life under the communists soon grew to resemble life under the Tsar – only the elite had changed.

Rostov is soon befriended by a little girl, Nina, also resident in the hotel because of her father’s job being attached to the regime. Nina’s character didn’t work so well for me – she often speaks with a vocabulary and level of understanding well beyond her years. However, in reality she’s something of a plot device to give Rostov a connection to the world outside the hotel and an opportunity to pontificate on his philosophy of life.

My initial impressions of the book were very favourable. Towles’ prose is excellent, often intelligent and sparkling with wit. I suspect it’s also full of references to Russian literature that went over my head because I’ve read so little of it, but it isn’t done in such a way that I felt ‘left out’. Unfortunately, as I went on, I began to find it too much of a good thing. I found myself longing for him to say something plain, rather than being relentlessly whimsical or turning every phrase into a beautifully constructed bon mot. This verbal playfulness not only slows the thing to a crawl but verges dangerously on style over substance.

Metropol Hotel, Moscow

My other major issue with the book is that, whether he means to or not (I’m not sure), the impression is that in his desire to ridicule the Bolsheviks and the Soviet system, Towles seems to be giving a rather glowingly nostalgic view of life before the revolution. Since life under tsarism was at least as brutal for most of the population, this is an odd tone to take, especially for an American. Being anti-communist shouldn’t make one pro the tyranny of an absolute monarch, I wouldn’t have thought. Towles seems to favour the aristocracy as being more ‘gentlemanly’ than the Bolsheviks (a real consideration when you’re a starving peasant, I’d imagine). And he does things that seem to suggest that the Count, by birth, deserves special treatment. It’s not that the Count gets special treatment that I found odd – it’s Towles’ implicit approval that jarred.

Amor Towles

As the book goes on, the story becomes gradually less credible, and the device of Rostov being stuck in the hotel begins to feel restrictive of how much Towles can show of the world beyond the doors. The end indulges in yet more nostalgia for the good old days when aristocrats lived in luxury, and we are left sighing for the beautiful estates and days of civilised idleness (that a tiny percentage of pre-revolutionary Russians enjoyed at the expense of all the rest).

Perhaps reading the book at a point when I’ve been so steeped in reading about the real history of the tragedies of the Russian people may have coloured my view somewhat, but I think I’d have been just as critical of the book’s apparent message at any other time. It’s very well-written, amusing and entertaining. But it’s too light for its subject matter – too removed from the real world to say anything substantial about life under the Soviets. Towles wants, I think, to make points about denial of individuality, loss of personal freedom, loss of civilisation, but his choice to use a hangover from the old ruling elite makes the politics feel wrong. A few people may have lived privileged, intellectual, art-filled lives before the revolution, but most lived in appalling conditions in both towns and villages, without education, suffering real poverty and hunger. For them, perhaps communism didn’t work out the way they hoped, but I doubt they got overly nostalgic about the past either.

So I have mixed feelings – in the end it felt oddly off-kilter, lacking any real profundity or depth, but even so I did find it an entertaining and enjoyable read for the most part and, on that half-hearted basis, would still recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

The perils of the prologue…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As the French Revolution is turning into terror over in Paris, Lizzie Fawkes is in Clifton in the south of England, where her husband is building an avenue of houses on the cliffs above the gorge. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a woman who has devoted her life to writing pamphlets promoting the rights of man and the emancipation of women. Lizzie’s husband, Diner, is of a more traditional cast, wanting and expecting Lizzie to find fulfilment in the role of housewife. He is older than Lizzie and was married before to a Frenchwoman, Lucie. Lizzie loves Diner and wants to make him happy, but she feels increasingly restricted by his demands that she doesn’t go out unaccompanied; and he seems jealous of everyone else she loves, especially her mother whom she adores. As Diner becomes ever more demanding, Lizzie begins to feel herself trapped…

I so wanted to love this book, especially since it turned out to be Helen Dunmore’s last. In a rather moving afterword, she explains that, although while she was writing it she didn’t know she was ill with the cancer that would kill her, she realised afterwards that the illness must already have been spreading through her. So it is poignant, though apparently coincidental, that one of the themes she wanted to examine in the book is that of how “the individual vanishes from the historical record”, especially women, whose lives were so often unrecorded and forgotten.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the book that prevent it from reaching the highest standards. Firstly, the idea of discussing the Terror in France via those wannabes who cheered the revolutionaries on from the safety of England means that there is never any sense of emotional involvement in the events going on over in Paris. This is further exacerbated by Dunmore telling us about those events through letters and newspaper articles rather than taking us there. Of course, this is how people in England would have received the news, so in that sense it’s an accurate portrayal. But it makes those passages feel more like a history lesson than part of a story.

The second, and for me the major, problem is that Dunmore begins the book with a short series of prologue-like chapters which basically reveal almost everything that is to follow. So we know from the beginning that the building boom will collapse when war begins and the houses Diner is building will be a victim of that. We know that Julia is soon to die and her writings will be lost and forgotten, leaving no trace of her in the historical record. And we know that a man will bury the corpse of a woman in the woods – and although we are not told which man and which woman, it becomes blindingly obvious almost as soon as the story gets underway. Suspense may not be an essential feature of all books, but I suggest there ought always to be at least some doubt about how things will play out. Of course, we don’t know exactly how it will end, but the bits that are left obscured are rather minor in comparison to those that are revealed too soon.

Helen Dunmore

There is no doubt about the quality of the writing, and the development of major and minor characters alike is excellent. I struggled with the idea that Lizzie would have given up a life of relative freedom to marry a man with such strict, traditional views on the role of women, but we all do stupid things for love when we’re young, I suppose. Dunmore’s portrayal of the stay-at-home revolutionaries rings true, as does her detailed description of life in Clifton at this moment in history. But I fear that detail itself gradually became my third issue with the book. Everything is described in far too much depth, from haggling over the purchase of a shawl to what to feed a baby whose mother can’t suckle it. Each bit is vaguely interesting in its own right, thoroughly researched and certainly well described, but it all builds up until I finally felt I was drowning in minutiae, with the story sinking alongside me. I’m not sure at what point creating an authentic background becomes information overload but, wherever the line is, for me this book crossed it. And I suspect that’s mainly because the prologue chapters had left me in little doubt of where the story was going so that I had no strong feeling of anticipation to drive me on.

So the book’s strengths lie in the quality of the writing and the authenticity of the setting and characterisation, and for these reasons it is still well worth reading. But sadly, the problems I had with it prevent me from giving it my wholehearted recommendation, much though I’d like to.

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

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Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

A candle burned…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Set to the background of Revolutionary Russia, this is a sweeping saga of doomed love. Separated from his family by war, Yuri Andreevich Zhivago is torn between his duty to his wife and family and his adoration of the lovely nurse Lara. Unfortunately, he seems to suffer from severe commitment issues alongside a healthy dose of narcissism but, fortunately, he’s such a wonderful, intelligent, incomparably talented poet and sensitive human being (we know this because he tells us himself) that all the people he abandons throughout his life still adore him – because they recognise his innate superiority to all other mortals. I think it was when Pasternak finally seemed to be trying to draw some kind of vague parallel between Yuri Andreevich and Christ that I really began to feel bilious.

I make it a general rule to try not to find out too much about authors because knowing about their lives tends to intrude on my feelings about their books. Unfortunately a couple of years ago I read The Zhivago Affair, an interesting (and recommended) book that tells the story of the publication of this book, and makes it clear that the parallels between Pasternak’s and Zhivago’s lives are so great that Yuri Andreevich can only really be seen as the author’s alter-ego. Pasternak himself moved his mistress in more or less next door to his wife and children and insisted on them all living in harmony, so he’s not up there on my list of favourite human beings. Therefore, I found Pasternak’s raptures over Zhivago’s character, intellect and poetic ability as nauseating as his justification of his adultery and treatment of his various women, all of whom simply adored him while recognising they really weren’t fit to shine his shoes.

….The night was filled with soft, mysterious sounds. Close by in the corridor, water was dripping from a washstand, measuredly, with pauses. There was whispering somewhere behind a window. Somewhere, where the kitchen garden began, beds of cucumber were being watered, water was being poured from one bucket into another, with a clink of the chain drawing it from the well.
….It smelled of all the flowers in the world at once, as if the earth had lain unconscious during the day and was now coming to consciousness through all these scents. And from the countess’s centuries-old garden, so littered with windfallen twigs and branches that it had become impassable, there drifted, as tall as the trees, enormous as the wall of a big house, the dusty, thickety fragrance of an old linden coming into bloom.
….Shouts came from the street beyond the fence to the right. A soldier on leave was acting up there, doors slammed, snippets of some song beat their wings.

Trying hard to put my antipathy to the author and main character to one side, there are some positives. Some of the descriptions of the freezing snow-covered landscape are excellent, as are the often poetic scenes of daily life in either city or country, and the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation serves them well. Pasternak assumes his readers will know the history of the period, so doesn’t tell it in any structured form. Instead, he gives sketches of various aspects of life – the breakdown of order in the cities, the drunkenness, brutality and hunger in the country, life as a forced conscript in the Red Army during the Civil War. In a sense, he uses Zhivago’s various women to illustrate or symbolise aspects of Russian society after the Revolution – those who emigrated, those who conformed as best they could to the new regime, those who were destroyed by it. There is an underlying, and largely underdeveloped, theme of individuality and art struggling to survive under first chaos and then growing state control of every corner of existence.

Zhivago and his lover, Lara

However, for me, the negatives outweigh the positives. The book is poorly structured, has no flow and relies far too heavily on increasingly ridiculous coincidences. There are parts where the author doesn’t bother to fictionalise at all, instead simply dumping factual information on the reader. The characterisation starts out fairly well but seems to fade as Pasternak becomes distracted, first by his vague and unsatisfactory forays into the political/historical aspects, and then by his increasing tendency to use Zhivago as a conduit to allow Pasternak himself to waffle on pretentiously about art and literature and indulge in a good deal of barely disguised self-adulation.

….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

The extracts from Yuri’s journal, where – in the midst of war, with people around him starving to death, with an abandoned pregnant wife and an increasingly neurotic mistress – he takes time out to do a bit of lit-crit of earlier Russian authors, feel like the ultimate self-indulgence. And to top it all off, Pasternak gradually begins to incorporate a kind of religious symbolism into the story, but again without enough depth or direction to make it work.

Pasternak and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara

I admit I always struggle with Russian literature, partly, I think, because even good translations still leave them feeling clunky and partly because the Russian propensity for having a cast of thousands, each with four or five variations of their names, means I always find reading them a tedious slog. In this one, a character mentioned once hundreds of pages earlier will suddenly re-appear with no re-introduction, no reminder of who they are or what role they have played. If that happened in a modern novel, I’d criticise it as poor writing, so I reckon the same standards ought to apply to classics. My truthful feeling about this one is that it may have come to be seen as a classic not so much because of its quality, but because at the time of publication in the midst of the Cold War, its mildly unflattering portrayal of the communist regime, added to the romanticism of its having been smuggled out of Russia and printed in the West, may have fed into the Western intelligentsia’s support for artistic dissidents and led to it being lauded because of its very existence rather than judged on its literary merits.

In conclusion, then, a flawed work in terms of plot, structure and characterisation but with the saving graces of some fine descriptive writing and occasional insights into Russian society before, during and after the Revolution. I’d recommend it more in terms of its historical significance than its literary worth and, on that basis, I’m glad to have read it.

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A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

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

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The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom Series 1) by Bernard Cornwell

A-raiding we will go…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Uhtred’s father is killed during a battle with the invading Danes, Uhtred is taken captive by the Viking Ragnar, who is amused and impressed by the courage the boy had shown in the fight. Ragnar treats him more as a son than a captive, though, and Uhtred, whose relationship with his own father was somewhat cold and distant, comes to love Ragnar, and quickly takes to the freedom of the Viking life, far from the tedious lessons in reading and Latin forced on him at home. But Uhtred knows that one day, when he is a man, he wants to regain the castle and land of his forefathers, which is currently being held by his uncle who in his absence has usurped him as Ealdorman of Bebbanburg.

The story takes place in the late 9th century, when the Danes were in the process of amassing territory and control throughout what would later become England. By the time Uhtred is old enough to become a full-fledged warrior, the Danes have control of three of the four old Kingdoms and only Wessex is still fully independent. But in Wessex, a young leader is set to become King – Alfred, a man very different from Ragnar and the Vikings, but with perhaps just as much steely determination under his pious exterior. Odin and Thor may be helping the Danes, but Alfred has a newer God on his side, one he believes in fervently. This will be a battle over competing religions as much as disputed territory. There’s quite a lot of humour around early religious practices, especially on the Christian side – at this point in his life, Uhtred finds the warrior-like Norse Gods much more appealing than the moralistic Christian one as presented by the ubiquitous priests, and loses no opportunity to shock and provoke them.

Eventually Uhtred will find himself torn between loyalty to Ragnar’s house or to his native countrymen, serving both in turn, and always with one eye on which side is most likely to help him regain Bebbanburg.

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in the BBC adaptation.
Ooh, I say! I’m sorry I missed it now…

I don’t read a lot of this type of sword and sandal epic so am no expert on the genre. But this one seems particularly well written to me and feels grounded pretty accurately in the history and attitudes of the time. There is a great deal of extreme violence, including a lot of rape and pillage and some pretty gory battle scenes, but Cornwell manages to achieve a sense of the true brutality of the time without lingering gratuitously on the details. The book is excellent on the depiction of Viking life – brutal and bloody – but they are not shown as the berserker savages they are sometimes portrayed as. These invading Danes are more than raiders – they want to settle the territory they have won, often maintaining control by allowing existing local lords to continue to rule as their clients.

In fact, Uhtred himself is the only one who comes across as any kind of berserker. He is no reluctant warrior – he revels and glories in the killing, and doesn’t much care which side he’s on. But he’s telling the tale in retrospect from when he is older and there is the occasional tiny hint that he may also have become wiser. Perhaps. In truth, I enjoyed Uhtred’s character but didn’t like him much. His lack of full commitment to either side makes him more credible, I think, than some of the single-minded heroes of fiction, but it doesn’t make him very admirable. And (this may be a girl thing) his crazed love of slicing bits off people at every opportunity didn’t endear him to me over much, fun though it was to read.

Bernard Cornwell

As he grows into manhood, Uhtred discovers women or, to be more accurate, the joys of sex. Again, happily, the details are largely left to the reader’s imagination. Cornwell doesn’t make a big feature of the lowly and subordinated place of women in this early society, but nor does he whitewash Uhtred into some kind of anachronistic 21st century “new man”. He makes it clear that rape was a commonplace of life, and that the Danes were not the only perpetrators. Women are objects, possessions, used either for sexual pleasure or as breeding machines, and often raped as a kind of declaration of victory in war. However, Cornwell manages to sneak a strong female character in, again not making her feel anachronistic, and there are hints that Uhtred may replace lust with love at some point as the series progresses.

This was my first introduction to this hugely prolific author and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Along with all the action, there’s lots of excellent descriptive writing – I especially enjoyed the sections relating to long-boats and sea battles, where Cornwell makes full use of the power and fury of sea and storms. I’ll happily read more of Uhtred’s adventures in the future, but I spotted that Cornwell’s newest book, due for release in October, is to be set in Elizabethan times amidst the playhouses and acting companies of Shakespeare and his ilk… and oooh! Now I’m torn…

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House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Dysfunctional family…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his daughter to the gods to gain their support for his war, his wife Clytemnestra plots a bloody and horrific revenge. In her grief and rage, she doesn’t consider the profound effects her actions will have on her surviving children – Electra, silently watching as her mother finds herself at the mercy of her lover and fellow conspirator, Aegisthus; and young Orestes, exiled from his home and facing many dangers as he fights for survival.

This retelling of the Greek tragedy is given in three voices. Clytemnestra comes first and it’s through her eyes, the eyes of a mother, that we see Agamemnon’s trickery and the horror of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Tóibín shows us the full brutality of both Agamemnon’s act and Clytemnestra’s revenge in all their blood-soaked horror. Clytemnestra tells us what she thought, said, did, but it’s in the gaps between that the reader learns how she felt – helpless in the face of a savagery she shares. Agamemnon’s murder is frighteningly well done, but then Clytemnestra finds herself not the mistress but the property of Aegisthus, a man revealed as a cold and cruel tyrant.

None of us who had travelled, however, guessed the truth for one second, even though some of the others standing around, maybe even most of them, must have known it. But not one of them gave a sign, not a single sign.

The sky remained blue, the sun hot in the sky, and the gods – oh yes, the gods! – seemed to be smiling on our family that day, on the bride-to-be and her young brother, on me, and on her father as he stood in the embrace of love, as he would stand eventually in the victory of battle with his army triumphant. Yes, the gods smiled that day as we came in all innocence to help Agamemnon execute his plan.

On the night of the murder, Orestes is kidnapped and held with the sons of other important men, all hostages to ensure their families’ compliance with the new regime. After some time, Orestes falls under the influence of Leander, who persuades him to escape along with a third boy, Mitros. Orestes’ section tells of the boys’ lives as they find ways to survive until they reach manhood. Again, there are some scenes of brutality but there is also love in this section as the boys, separated from their families, create a kind of new family of their own.

I found these first two sections excellent – Clytemnestra’s full of bitterness and rage, Orestes’ softer and quieter despite the episodes of violence. Unfortunately, after that point the book fell away for me rather. The third section is seen from Electra’s point of view. Ignored by her mother and grieving her father, Electra has inherited the family desire for revenge, but somehow I didn’t find this as convincing as Clytemnestra’s vengefulness. And when Orestes returns as a man, I fear I found him rather pale and insipid. Tóibín’s writing is always rather understated when it comes to emotions, and that usually works wonderfully for me – his descriptions of the actions and thoughts of his characters is enough to allow me to feel I understand the emotions that are driving them without Tóibín having to spell them out. And that’s how I felt about Clytemnestra and the younger Orestes. But with Electra and the older Orestes, the understatement is less successful, leaving me struggling to empathise with either.

Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was given to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.

They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I am not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.

Tóibín’s writing is excellent as always, especially powerful when showing the brutality in the earlier passages. But I found the latter half lacked that power and that, added to my lack of sympathy for the younger characters, meant I was left rather unmoved by their eventual fates. Of course, it’s an essential read for any fan of Tóibín, and it’s quite probable that my slight disappointment is largely caused by my overly high expectations. But it’s not one I would recommend as an introduction to his work – for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of many of his earlier books.

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

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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

What happens when the creative writing class goes wrong…

😡

I freely admit it – I’m pedantic. There are 171,456 words listed as being current in the Oxford English Dictionary, plus over 40,000 obsolete ones, and I feel that should be enough for most novels without the author feeling the need to create her own, or to use them in ‘innovative’ ways. So I quivered when, on page 1, Schmidt comes up with ‘My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop…’ When she repeats the sentence ‘The clock on the mantel ticked ticked.’ three times in the first few pages, it merely annoyed me three times instead of once. When she describes the maid as bringing with her ‘the smell of decayed meaty-meat’, I seriously considered turning vegetarian.

‘…strange feelings popped across my bones’, ‘My teeth were cold against my teeth’, ‘I shooed her along, my wrist a flick and crunch’, ‘Her chest heaved, soft, child-suckled breasts.’, ‘Her lips parted, a sea.’ But the clincher was ‘I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip…’

Since the book is unaccountably garnering positive reviews, clearly plenty of people like this kind of writing. But not me. Abandoned at 2%, since I can’t begin to imagine that any story could possibly compensate for the awfulness of the prose. I shall go off now and have some cakey-cake and a mug of coffee-flavoured sip sip in the hopes of heating up my teeth…

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

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Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore

An everyday story of country folk…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Ridd’s father is robbed and murdered by the infamous Doone clan, this should make young John their blood enemy. Instead, he falls in love with Lorna, the beautiful young granddaughter of Sir Ensor, the head of the Doones. Because, massive though he is and with a reputation throughout Devon and Somerset as a great wrestler, at heart John is a lover, not a fighter. Unless you threaten the people he loves…

After an exceptionally tedious first quarter, during which I many times considered abandoning the book, I gradually grew to quite enjoy it. Biographical fiction of this era tends to include the early years of the subject, meaning it’s often a long time before the story gets properly underway. Sometimes this works, if the writer fills it with interesting stuff – witness David Copperfield and his time living with the Micawbers. Other times it’s less successful, and I found John’s early life dragged, with very little incident to break up the admittedly excellent descriptions of rural life. The only real event of note is his accidental meeting with the child Lorna, whose infant beauty even then arouses his boyish fancy.

Eventually, however, John reaches manhood and, remembering the little girl, sets out to sneak into the Doone stronghold to find her again. The Doones are a gang of robbers and murderers living in a nearby valley, headed by Sir Ensor, a nobleman dispossessed of his land and fortune over a dispute between his family and the King. Although they terrorise the countryside, the locals seem to feel some strange kind of pride over them, as if they lend an air almost of glamour to the area. Which seems a little odd, since apart from murdering and robbing the men, they have an unfortunate habit of raping girls and women, and stealing them away from their families to force them into marrying the Doone men, who are not averse to a bit of polygamy. Call me old-fashioned, but the glamour escaped me…

By the side of the stream she was coming to me, even among the primroses, as if she loved them all; and every flower looked the brighter, as her eyes were on them, I could not see what her face was, my heart so awoke and trembled; only that her hair was flowing from a wreath of white violets, and the grace of her coming was like the appearance of the first wind-flower. The pale gleam over the western cliffs threw a shadow of light behind her, as if the sun were lingering. Never do I see that light from the closing of the west, even in these my aged days, without thinking of her. Ah me, if it comes to that, what do I see of earth or heaven, without thinking of her?

Having now fallen hopelessly in love with the lovely Lorna, John is conflicted about the Doones – he sees that they are bad, but doesn’t want to go against them for love of Lorna. Though remarkably, having been brought up by this horrid crew, Lorna has turned out sweet and moral and pure, and apart from old Sir Ensor whom she loves, has no high opinion of them; especially since she is being put under pressure to marry the nastiest of them all – the evil Carver Doone. (Cue booing and hissing…) Eventually, there will have to be a showdown, between the men of Exmoor and the Doones, and between John and Carver.

The major problem with the book is that it is incredibly slow. The actual plot is pretty underdeveloped – we are told about how horrible the Doones are rather than seeing it for ourselves. In fact, considering their central role, they appear very rarely. There’s a sort of detour into the politics of the time – the anti-monarchist plots and the Monmouth rebellion – but Blackmore assumes the reader’s familiarity with these events so doesn’t explain them, which left me heading off to wikipedia on more than one occasion. I don’t blame him for my ignorance, but nonetheless I always feel historical fiction should give enough background to allow the reader to understand what’s going on. There’s also a lengthy section where John is in London, where I swear nothing at all happens – nothing! John mentions afterwards that he met the King three times, but clearly this wasn’t important enough to show us as it occurred. Blackmore gives no feeling of what London may have been like in the period, beyond some discussion of bedbugs in various rooming-houses where John stayed.

Then the woods arose in folds, like drapery of awakened mountains, stately with a depth of awe, and memory of the tempests. Autumn’s mellow hand was on them, as they owned already, touched with gold, and red, and olive; and their joy towards the sun was less to a bridegroom than a father.

Yet before the floating impress of the woods could clear itself, suddenly the gladsome light leaped over hill and valley, casting amber, blue, and purple, and a tint of rich red rose; according to the scene they lit on, and the curtain flung around; yet all alike dispelling fear and the cloven hoof of darkness, all on the wings of hope advancing, and proclaiming, ‘God is here.’ Then life and joy sprang reassured from every crouching hollow; every flower, and bud, and bird, had a fluttering sense of them; and all the flashing of God’s gaze merged into soft beneficence.

Where the book does shine, though, is in its depiction of rural life. John loves his life as a farmer and through his eyes we see nature in all her kindness and cruelty. The harsh and bitter winter of 1683 is brilliantly depicted: weeks of deep snow and freezing fog followed by flooding when the thaw finally arrives. We are shown the hardships undergone by the men trying to save the farm animals stranded in the snow-covered fields, and learn of the toll, emotional and financial, as so many of the animals are lost.

The strange (to urban eyes) mix of affection and pragmatism the farmers have for their animals is beautifully described, making me long for those earlier times when farming seemed somehow less cruel, more natural, than our soulless meat production factories of today. We are shown the dependence of the community on abundant harvests and the way they come together first to bring in the crops and then to celebrate. The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.

There is also a good deal of stuff about the place of women in this society, which I’m fairly sure is meant to be tongue-in-cheek humorous rather than hideously sexist, though sometimes the dividing line is so faint as to be invisible. Certainly John is transparent enough to let us see that Lorna’s beauty of face and figure is as important to him as any loveliness of soul she may possess…

“What are you doing here, Annie?” I inquired rather sternly, being vexed with her for having gone so very near to frighten me.

“Nothing at all,” said our Annie shortly. And indeed it was truth enough for a woman. Not that I dare to believe that women are such liars as men say: only that I mean they often see things round the corner, and know not which is which of it. And indeed I never have known a woman (though right enough in their meaning) purely and perfectly true and transparent, except only my Lorna; and even so, I might not have loved her, if she had been ugly.

But there are also lovely sections, especially between John and his sister Annie, where John thinks he is showing his masculine superiority while in fact Annie is quietly guiding him and winding him round her feminine little finger. Much of John’s interactions with the many females in his life left me quietly chuckling, and suspecting that the women were chuckling too behind his back, but affectionately.

As the book nears its conclusion, the pace thankfully picks up and there are some fine dramatic scenes to end on. Is it a happy-ever-after or a tear-jerking tragedy though? Well, if you want to know the answer to that question, I guess you’ll just have to read it for yourself…

Book 10 of 90

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Escaping the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a-dangerous-crossingDays after the outbreak of WW2, a ship arrives in Australia, and a passenger in handcuffs is escorted off by the police. A local reporter tries to snatch an interview, to find out if the rumour is true that someone aboard the ship was killed…

After this great prologue that hints at much but tells us nothing that will spoil the story, we are whisked back to the beginning of the voyage. Lily Shepherd has left her home in England to go to work in Australia as a domestic servant. She’s trying to escape from the memory of something bad that happened, though at first the reader doesn’t know what this is, other than that it involved a man she had been in love with. She is on an assisted passage organised by the Church of England along with six other young women, all chaperoned by an older woman employed by the Church.

Lily meets the two girls with whom she’ll be sharing a cabin, and then later is introduced to the other passengers who have been placed at the same table with her in the dining room for the duration of the voyage. They’re a varied group, all of different classes and backgrounds – people whose paths wouldn’t cross socially in the normal course of things. But thrust into the sudden intimacy of having to live and eat together, barriers break down and unlikely friendships are quickly formed. Isolated from both past and future in this bubble, Lily soon finds that life on board becomes all-consuming, and begins to forget that when they arrive at journey’s end, all the passengers will revert to their own class and concerns, and that, as a domestic servant, she will be beneath the notice of most of them.

There is a young man at Lily’s table to whom she quickly becomes attracted – Edward, who is going to Australia for the sake of his health, having recently recovered from TB. His sister, Helena, is going with him and Lily is soon on friendly terms with them both, and has reason to think that her attraction to Edward is mutual. But their quiet life in tourist class is disrupted by the arrival of a glamorous couple from the first class deck, Max and Eliza, who promptly suck Lily and her new friends into their little circle. There is an air of scandal about Max and Eliza, though the gossip about them is vague, but it’s soon obvious that Edward has become infatuated. And while Eliza flirts with Edward, Max begins to show attention to Lily…

Rachel Rhys also writes psychological thrillers as Tammy Cohen, and I’ve had a mixed reaction to her in the past, partly because of my weariness with that genre. I much prefer her in this incarnation – although there is a crime here, this is more historical fiction in style. Her writing and characterisation are excellent, and she brings the claustrophobic atmosphere of forced intimacy aboard the ship brilliantly to life. When the voyage begins, the spectre of war is hanging over Europe but there is still hope that Germany might pull back from the brink. Rhys works this uncertainty through the plot, with some eager for war and some running from it. There are Jewish passengers aboard, fleeing from their homes to escape Nazi persecution, and we see the various reactions to them from sympathy to outright anti-Semitism.

Rachel Rhys
Rachel Rhys

But the main story is personal rather than political, as Lily gradually discovers that she’s not the only passenger who is trying to leave the past behind. The story is told in the third person, but as secrets are revealed, we see it all from Lily’s rather naive perspective. She is a level-headed, intelligent young woman though from a fairly sheltered background, and Rhys manages the tricky task of making her likeable and empathetic, while allowing the reader to see her flaws and weaknesses. The various on-board relationships take on an intensity in the confined setting, and soon little resentments become magnified until these sudden friendships begin to crack under the strain. Truthfully, I’d kinda guessed the big secret fairly early on but it didn’t matter – Rhys still managed to create a real atmosphere of tension and apprehension as she led the way to the shocking climax.

For all of us in book blog world, the book has another special treat. One of the characters is called after our very own Cleo, who bid for and won this honour in a charity auction – check out her post on it. Fictional Cleo did make me chuckle since I couldn’t help imagining the real Cleo in the character. It would have been worth reading it for that reason alone, and I freely admit that’s why I got the book. But I’m glad I did – it’s an excellent book with strong characterisation, a great sense of place and time, an intriguing plot and a dramatic but credible denouement. I’ll be looking out for more from Rachel Rhys in the future.

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

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The Good People by Hannah Kent

The story of a changeling…

😐 😐

the-good-peopleWhen her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.

Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…

Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.

Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.

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

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The Death of Kings (John Madden 5) by Rennie Airth

A new take on the Golden Age…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the-death-of-kingsWhen retired policeman Tom Derry receives an anonymous letter enclosing a jade pendant that the writer claims belonged to a murder victim, he discusses it with Angus Sinclair, who had worked with him on the original investigation. Sinclair is worried – at the back of his mind he had always had doubts about the guilt of the man convicted and hanged for the crime. Not well enough to look into the matter himself, Sinclair asks his old friend John Madden to check things out.

Now in 1949, Madden is retired too, but he still has contacts in the force, not least Billy Styles who used to be his subordinate but is now a detective inspector. The murder took place back in 1938, when a small-time actress, Portia Blake, was a guest at a house-party. She went out for a walk in the woods, and her body was later discovered, strangled. A man with a previous conviction for attempted rape was in the vicinity and suspicion soon fell on him, and after interrogation he confessed. As a result, the investigation was quickly wrapped up and other possible solutions were never checked. So it’s up to Madden to track down the people who were there that weekend, and see if anyone else had a motive…

I’ve always enjoyed the Madden books, and this is an excellent addition to the series. They are somewhat quieter and slower than most modern crime novels, relying on the quality of the writing and the carefully created post-war setting to carry them. There is most definitely a Golden Age feel to them, quite intentionally, I think, though they are at the more thoughtful end of the Golden Age, or perhaps in the slightly later tradition of PD James.

In this one, we have the country house party, a rather upper class list of suspects, a traditional style of investigation carried out mostly through interviews of the various people who were there at the time, and a restricted time period for the murder, making alibi an important feature. There is also a connection to the Chinese Triads through one of the suspects – a half-Chinese man from Hong Kong. Normally I’d run a mile from a story about the Triads – not my thing at all – but I’m delighted to say that, while it’s an important element of the story, it’s somewhat understated and isn’t allowed to overwhelm the other features. At heart this is a traditional detective story, and the Triad storyline feels realistic within that.

In the last couple of books, I’ve lightly criticised the fact that much of the investigation is carried out off-stage, so to speak, with information being given to the reader via police officers talking to each other. I’m delighted to say this one doesn’t take that approach – it goes back to the, in my opinion, much more satisfying style of Madden actually getting out and about and talking to people himself. This makes the characterisation of the suspects much better developed, which consequently meant I felt more invested in the outcome. It also allows for deepening of Madden’s own character, since we see the investigation proceed from his perspective, though in third person.

The old regulars are here too – Angus Sinclair, curmudgeonly with gout, but his brain still sharp; Billy Styles, still faithful to his old mentor; Lily Poole, the lone female detective in this man’s world. I’ve always liked the way Airth deals with Lily – she is strong and intelligent, but not feminist in the strident sense, and the sexism she encounters isn’t ill-meant – just a true reflection of how things were back then. She realises it’s an unfair world but does her best to progress within the existing rules rather than constantly kicking against them. And Airth always lets her have a major impact on the investigation without it ever feeling forced or unrealistic for the time. Madden’s family is here too – his wife, Helen, able to cast some light on some of the suspects from her days as a society girl, and his daughter, Lucy, now a young woman, constantly sticking her nose in and gossiping about the case, but doing it all with a lot of charm (which manages, just, to stay this side of nauseating).

Rennie Airth
Rennie Airth

The solution relies a little too much on Madden getting a sudden intuition, but otherwise it’s both dark and satisfying. Airth includes the kind of class element that is so often present in Golden Age books, with the rather upper-class old school policemen tending to protect those of their own background; but he has Billy Styles comment on it, suggesting that winds of change are about to shake up the way policing is done in this post-war world. Altogether, an absorbing, rather slow-paced novel, but with excellent timing so that it holds the reader’s attention throughout. This would work fine as a standalone, with enough background given to each of the regulars to let new readers understand how they relate to each other, but as with any series it’s probably best to read them in order, starting with River of Darkness.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle (Pan MacMillan).

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Titian’s Boatman by Victoria Blake

The art of living…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

titians-boatmanIt is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city’s courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.

In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter’s Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.

These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian’s paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.

titian_-_man_with_the_blue_sleeve_-_wga22932

Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian’s son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it’s Tullia’s story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia’s case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.

In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro’s Cuba.

Terry’s connection to Titian begins in the National Gallery as he is admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can’t imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can’t imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.

I’ve been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it’s done gently – there’s no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian’s art that link these people about whom we’ve come to care.

Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake

I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I’ve tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it’s about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it’s about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life’s blows. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.

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Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford

Inform, educate and entertain…

😀 😀 😀 😀

radio-girlsMaisie Musgrave is thrilled when she gets a job as a typist at the newly formed BBC. She’s not particularly pretty, and her relative poverty means she’s rather dowdily dressed. Both of which are a little unfortunate, since her main ambition is to find a man and get married. But once she becomes exposed to some of the new thinking at the Beeb, and especially some of the feisty and successful women making their names there, Maisie begins to develop ambitions of her own – perhaps to produce a radio show one day, or even write for the Radio Times. Those ambitions will still leave her enough time for a bit of dabbling in romance, though…

Stratford has clearly thoroughly researched this fascinating period of the BBC’s early history, while it was still struggling to work out quite what its role was to be. Many thought that radio was a passing fad and, at that time, the BBC wasn’t a news organisation as it is now. However, there were people within the organisation with very firm views on how it should develop and Stratford incorporates them into her story. Lord Reith is now always thought of as the father of the BBC, who gave it its mission statement – to “inform, educate and entertain”, specifically in that order. But in the book he’s shown as the upholder of the establishment and the status quo – a man who felt that women should know their place and stay in it. So his relationship with Hilda Matheson, also a real person, was never going to be easy – feisty, feminist, lesbian, friend to the Bloomsbury set and lover of more than one of them at different times. Hilda becomes Maisie’s mentor and influence, though Maisie has a strong enough personality not to come under Hilda’s sway entirely.

Hilda Matheson
Hilda Matheson

All good stuff, and I found Hilda in particular an intriguing character. I hadn’t heard of her before, but it seems she too was highly influential on how the BBC developed, particularly in terms of setting out to inform the newly enfranchised female population of Britain, many of whom were clamouring to know more about the political world so that they could participate fully. However, she also seems to have promoted her own leftish political agenda, this being before the BBC made impartiality its fundamental principle (in theory, at least). I’d like to read a biography of Hilda sometime, if I can find one.

And that rather brings me to the problem with the book. For the first half, there’s really very little plot. We simply follow Maisie as she settles in to her new job and begins to get to know the people she’s working with and for. It’s well written, Maisie is quite fun and there’s some humour in it…but no real story. But be careful what you wish for, because in the second half, when the story finally arrives, it’s kinda silly and not very well done at all. It revolves around the growing Nazi threat, with Hilda and Maisie becoming kind of unbelievable amateur spies. And it’s very stretched out with large sections where nothing happens to move the plot along. It feels like Stratford had done all the research, decided what characters she was going to focus on, but then hadn’t really been able to think quite what to do with them. A large part of me wished she had gone for a non-fiction approach, either concentrating on Hilda Matheson or widening it out to cover the early years of the BBC.

John, later Lord, Reith
John, later Lord, Reith

And I do apologise, sisterhood, but I am bored, bored, BORED, with every second story being about how fabulous/intelligent/feisty/strong all women are and how weak/sexist/corrupt/nasty all men are. Feminism was surely never about proving women were vastly superior to men… was it? So why has it become so??

* * * * *

FF’s Fourth Law: It’s not necessary for men to be made to look bad in order for women to look good.

* * * * *

Pretty much the only good men in this book are the gay ones – which I think might be taking the “diversity” agenda (gosh, how I hate what that word has come to mean) just a little too far. But then I seem to have forgotten to pay my dues to the Political Correctness Club recently…

So yes, I got a little tired of how the “feminist” aspects were handled, although to be fair it’s no worse in that respect than a lot of contemporary fiction written by women. *ducks to avoid the rotten tomatoes*

Sarah-Jane Stratford
Sarah-Jane Stratford

Overall, then, I felt it was a little let down by a weak plot and too much blatant political correctness seeping through. But it is well researched and well written, creating what feels like a reasonably authentic picture of the early days of the BBC, and certainly interesting enough to keep me turning the pages. I liked the characterisation of both the fictional and real people for the most part, and enjoyed the way Stratford kept the tone light with some well judged humour along the way. I will look out for more from this author in the future, and hope that experience will allow her to find a better balance between historical research and plot next time. And despite my reservations, I recommend this one as an enjoyable and informative read.

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

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The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

One for lovers of whimsy…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-presidents-hatDaniel Mercier is eating alone one night in a restaurant when François Mitterrand, President of France, and some friends settle themselves at the next table. Daniel is thrilled to be so close to the great man, and begins to imagine that he’s part of the President’s group. When they leave the restaurant, Daniel notices that Mitterrand has accidentally left his signature hat behind. Succumbing to an overwhelming temptation, Daniel picks it up, crams it on his own head, and scuttles quickly out of the restaurant before Mitterrand notices and comes back for it. The strange thing is that, almost immediately he acquires the hat, Daniel, usually a rather diffident and anxious young man, finds his confidence growing and his bosses appreciating him more. So when he in turn accidentally leaves the hat on a train, he is very upset. But the woman who picks it up suddenly finds the desire and courage to change her own rather unhappy life…

Mitterrand and his hat...
Mitterrand and his hat…

And so the story progresses, with the hat being passed from one person to another. In each case, we learn a bit about their story and then see how the possession of the hat leads them to make fundamental changes for the better in their lives. The book is well-written and quite entertaining, though undoubtedly a little on the twee side for me. The stories vary in their interest level. One that I enjoyed tells of a ‘nose’ – a man who used to have a glowing reputation for creating lovely and highly successful perfumes, but who in recent years seems to have lost the knack. The descriptions of how he finds himself inspired by various smells that he comes across and how he then goes about recreating these is done well, and I enjoyed the idea of him being able to identify the scent each person he met was wearing. Other episodes were less successful for me – like the man who found his entire political outlook on life changing as a result of wearing the hat. Even whimsy must have some basis in reality, and the idea that one shows one’s conversion to socialism by buying up lots of expensive art to hang around one’s home seemed a little odd.

Antoine Laurain
Antoine Laurain

It’s not a book to over-analyse, but… well, when did that ever stop me? 😉 I found it intriguing in an irritating kind of way that all the men in the book were inspired to change either their working or political lives, while the solitary (beautiful, of course) woman’s story is one of breaking off a romantic relationship where she’s being used, and then finding true love with a man who gives her the support she needs. The book was written, I believe, in 2012 – have we really not got beyond these stereotypes? I also didn’t much care for the portrayal of Mitterrand – a man I know almost nothing about, so it’s not that I have a bias. In the book he comes over as rather creepy, misusing his position as President to use the Secret Service for personal rather than political purposes, and lasciviously drooling over a photo of the woman who briefly has his hat. For all I know, this might be an accurate portrayal, but even if it is, it didn’t feel right in a book as frothy and fanciful as this one is.

Still, it is quite readable and lightly enjoyable for the most part, so I’ll stop criticising now. Not one that worked terribly well for me, as you’ll have gathered, but I’m sure will work better for people who are more skilled than I am at immersing themselves fully in a bit of whimsy…

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

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Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Horror in the Himalayas…

😀 😀 😀 😀

thin airIt’s 1935. When the medic for a Himalayan expedition is injured, Dr Stephen Pearce is asked to stand in. His elder brother Kits is already part of the expedition. There’s always been a sibling rivalry between the two brothers and, although acknowledging that Kits is the better climber, Stephen determines that he too will make it to the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. The team of five men proposes to tackle the South-West Face, a route taken by the earlier Lyell expedition which ended in tragedy after they were struck by an avalanche. Only two survived – Lyell himself, and Charles Tennant who has been haunted ever since by his experiences on the mountain. And so they set off… but Stephen soon begins to feel haunted himself…

After Michelle Paver’s fabulous Dark Matter, my expectations for this chilly ghost story were high indeed. Perhaps that’s why I found this one a little disappointing. I know this is becoming one of my most regular rants, so I’m going to give it a scientific name – FF’s First Law: The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story. This is a short book in comparison to most, coming in at 240 pages, but nonetheless it is too long for the story it tells. The result is that the first half, more or less, is simply a long description of the trek to the mountain and the setting up of the first camps, with a narrator who finds everything either disappointing or horrible. (“Well, I never expected this. The glacier’s horrible.” “More bloody cairns. I do wish they’d use flags.” “I don’t care for the knoll.” “I can’t get used to how cramped it is in my tent.” “Just now, he called me over to admire a giant ‘flower’, its trumpet head a blotched greenish purple, and bowed, like a cobra about to strike. He says it’s a snake lily. I think it’s revolting.”) I assume all this negativity is designed to show us, firstly, that the environment is harsh and unwelcoming and, secondly, that his mental state is already precarious, but I quickly found I had an overwhelming urge to shove him off the mountain.

kangchenjunga south-eest face

It’s very well-written and gives a real feel for what a climbing expedition of that era would have been like, so in that sense it’s interesting but, although there is some foreshadowing of events to come, the anticipated atmosphere of impending horror doesn’t really take off until past the halfway point. Then, after the main events which really only fill about a third of the book, there is a long and unnecessary wrap-up in which we learn more than we need to about what happens to some of the characters in their future.

The bit in the middle where the horror actually happens, though, is excellent, right up there with Dark Matter. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. As we learn more about the history of the previous expedition, the story turns dark and cold indeed, and Paver feeds us the information bit by bit, creating a rising feeling of dread that tingles the spine nicely. By this stage the expedition has reached about 22,000 feet and each of the men is feeling the effects of altitude, so that even the narrator is not sure if what he is experiencing might be a result of hallucination. Paver is excellent at using the extreme weather and physical danger to add to the psychological terror and paranoia that have taken hold of Stephen’s mind.

Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver

Thinking about it, the book might actually have worked better without the horror element though. The story of the dynamics within the group and their patronising air of superiority to the Sherpas and “coolies” who accompanied them is very well done, as is the description of the practicalities and difficulties of the climb. Kits’ and Stephen’s relationship is an interesting and credible picture of the rivalries that can happen between brothers, especially when, as in this case, the elder brother inherits enough wealth to allow him to pursue his dreams while the younger brother must earn a living. Paver is very strong on the nuances of class, as she was also in Dark Matter. But, for me at any rate, the anticipation of horror to come meant that much of this seemed extraneous in the context and merely served to slow things down.

I’m struggling to rate it. Somehow it falls between two genres and as a result doesn’t quite work as well as it might have done had it concentrated on either. But both writing and characterisation are excellent, it has an authentic feel to the descriptions of the expedition, and the horror when it comes is skilfully done. So, while it didn’t quite meet my hopes for it, I enjoyed it overall and would happily recommend it, especially to people who don’t mind a slow build-up to their fix of horror.

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

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A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham 1) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a rising manThe corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.

It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.

According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.

Abir Mukherjee
Abir Mukherjee

In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.

A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!

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

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The Seeker by SG MacLean

They seek him here…

🙂 🙂

the seekerOliver Cromwell has set himself up as de facto monarch of England, living in Charles Stuart’s palace surrounded by luxury. Surrounded also by plots and plotters, he has a spy network to look after his safety and that of the Commonwealth. Amongst them is Seeker, aka The Seeker. When a man apparently loyal to Cromwell is killed, it falls to Seeker aka The Seeker to find out whodunit and why.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I didn’t have a clue what was going on for most of this book. Maybe if I knew the history of Cromwell’s England in depth, it might have worked for me, but all the factions left me baffled. As did passing mentions of various religious sects – Ranters, Levellers, Seekers (of whom, amazingly, Seeker aka The Seeker appeared to have once been one). The book is well written and MacLean’s research is clearly extremely thorough, but I never got to grips with it and never felt any connection to the myriad of characters who flittered mysteriously across the pages, some of them going by more than one name. One minute we’re in London investigating a murder, next we’re in Oxford foiling some Royalist plot or other, but not the Royalist plot presumably that we’re still trying to foil in London, assuming that is a Royalist plot and not something to do with the slave trade, or maybe opium!

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts...
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts…

I stuck it out to 80% and then threw in the towel, realising that I couldn’t care less who did what to whom or why, and positively couldn’t spend any more of my ever-shrinking remaining life-span reading the rest. Part of my problem was that Seeker aka The Seeker (who, if you remember, used to be a Seeker) actually seemed to be the equivalent of the head of the Gestapo, quite happy to take anyone who threatened Cromwell to the Tower for a quick bit of torturing and then a disembowelment or perhaps a dismemberment. I found it hard to see him as a hero – not sure why! The fact that his love interest was the sister of a man, Elias aka The Sparrow, who was possibly a Leveller and maybe a Royalist, or perhaps a disaffected Roundhead who objected to Cromwell behaving like a King (it might have helped if I knew what Levellers were. I’m pretty sure they weren’t Seekers, though.)… *takes a deep breath* Where was I? Oh yes, so Elias is not a fan of Cromwell but while he languishes in the Tower, where Seeker aka The Seeker put him, awaiting almost certain horrible death, his sister manages to fall in love with S aka T.S. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

SG (aka Shona) MacLean
SG (aka Shona) MacLean

Meantime, there are Dutchmen and invisible Welshmen, and Scotsmen, including one called Zander Seaton, though whether or how he was connected to Alexander Seaton, the hero of MacLean’s other series (the one I understood and liked), I have frankly no idea. Or was he just there as a kind of self-referential in-joke? I don’t know. I simply don’t know!

So I gave up and flicked ahead, and discovered that even when I knew whodunit, I still didn’t care.

Having said all that, it paints a good picture of plots, secrecy and the murky goings-on in Cromwell’s London. And I’m quite sure it would work much better for someone familiar with that period of history, or perhaps someone with more ability/willingness than I to follow nineteen different strands simultaneously while admiring Seeker aka The Seeker. But sadly, not for me.

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

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Book 14
Book 14

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Dear reader, she murders the English language…

😦

jane steele 2Young Jane Steele’s favourite book is Jane Eyre and she sees some parallels between her own life and her heroine’s. Not yet an orphan when we first meet her, the suicide of her drug-addled mother soon allows her to achieve that status. Jane has been led to believe that Highgate House should be hers, left to her by her father. But her aunt is living there now and shows no intention of giving it up. And her cousin Edwin is a nasty piece of work who is sexually harassing her. So she kills him. Then she goes off to a school chosen by her wicked and now grieving aunt – a school much like Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall, but with added sexual harassment. While there, she kills a man, but he deserves it, so that’s okay. Then she goes off to London, where she meets with all kinds of men practising different forms of abuse or sexual harassment, so she kills them.

I’m afraid I just don’t get what it is that other people are liking about this book. It’s a simple stream of man-hate – if the genders were reversed I’m pretty sure there would be howls of outrage from some of the same people who are praising it. Every man who appears (up to the 44% mark when I abandoned it with huge relief) is some kind of sexual predator, paedophile or wife-beater, and it is therefore shown as amusing, even admirable, that they should be murdered. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but the humour wears very thin after the same premise is used several times – man appears, man abuses girl/woman, man is murdered.

But assuming that for some reason our society is okay with denigrating men on a wholesale basis, that still wouldn’t excuse the writing. If pastiching or referencing a great writer, then one has to be able to reproduce or equal that writer’s style – comparisons should and will be drawn, especially if large extracts of the original, skilled writer’s work are used to head up each chapter. The language in this has no feeling of authenticity, no elegance of style, is sprinkled with anachronistic phraseology and occasional Americanisms, and frequently contains words that are incorrect in the context or, indeed, just plain wrong. Would people put up with a professional pianist who kept hitting the wrong notes? Or a surgeon who removed the wrong organs? Then I simply don’t understand why readers are willing to put up with professional authors who use the wrong words.

Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order...
Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…

A couple of examples…

On the subject of her cousin Edwin, Jane muses: “Kin, kin, kin was ever his anthem: as if we were more than related, as if we were kindred.” I remain baffled as to what Faye thinks kindred means.

“Never having studied Latin previous, I congratulated myself when at the end of the hour, I was explaining the lesson to the perplexed circumference, and Miss Werwick forgot herself far enough to frown at this development.” I’m going to ignore “previous” because I think Faye’s using this incorrectly deliberately to try to give some kind of sense of outdated language. But perplexed circumference? I assume she means circle. Perhaps she thinks that because circles have circumferences then the words can be used interchangeably. Like milk and carton, perhaps, or chocolate and box.

Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye

I did think there was a certain irony to Faye introducing a character (an abusive male, obviously) whose major characteristic was his supposedly humorous incorrect use of words. Dickens can do that, because he is skilled with language. Unfortunately, here, it became difficult to differentiate between the character’s errors and the author’s. It’s odd, because in the only other book of Faye’s that I’ve read, her début in fact, I thought her writing was much better than in this. Perhaps it’s because she’s trying to emulate an outdated style of English English that doesn’t come naturally to her and is just not getting it quite right. I’m sure I wouldn’t get 19th century New York English right either (but then I wouldn’t publish a book written in it if I couldn’t).

However, given that the book has accumulated an astonishing number of 5-star reviews, it appears that the reading world doesn’t share my dislike for either misandry or poor writing. But I fear I can only recommend it to people who hate men and don’t mind having to guess what words the author meant to use…

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

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Book 13
Book 13

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Age of Aquarius…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the girlsEvie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Childhood friendships fracturing as adolescence takes its toll and her parents each forming new relationships after their divorce, Evie feels alone and suddenly worthless, unwanted, almost invisible. When she sees the girls in the park, she is fascinated by everything about them; their air of wildness, defiance of social conventions, even their look of tattered grubbiness has a glamour in her eyes. So when one of the girls, Suzanne, seems to single her out for attention, Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The story is told by Evie from the present looking back. Right from the prologue we know that some of the girls will take part in a horrific multiple murder, but we don’t know the details and we don’t know how involved Evie will be until the end. In fact, though, the actual event is secondary – the book is about the psychology of cults, about how vulnerable people can find themselves being led to behave in ways that seem incomprehensible to onlookers, giving them an aura of almost demonic evil. As has been well trumpeted by the hype surrounding the book, it is loosely based on the Manson murders.

This is undoubtedly one of the books of the year for me. Cline’s writing style takes a little getting used to – while excellent, she perhaps strives a little too hard to be “literary”, especially at the beginning. But either her writing settles down after that or I got used to it – whichever, I soon found myself completely absorbed in Evie’s story. The characterisation is superb, of all the characters, but especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval.

The Manson "family"
The Manson “family”

Evie is at that age when she knows all about the adult world but isn’t part of it. She understands that the girls from the ranch are in some kind of sexual thrall to Russell, but Cline shows Evie as still being at that stage when girls are more interested in their relationships with other girls, when even boyfriends and sex are more about peer pressure and being in with the crowd than about real attraction, sexual or otherwise. She is a lonely, vulnerable child-woman, wanting to know what it’s all about, wanting to be one of the girls, wanting to do whatever it takes to be permitted to stay around Suzanne. Even when she is inevitably drawn into the sex aspects of the cult, for her agreeing to participate is more to do with her crush on Suzanne than any particular admiration for Russell. Intriguingly and, to me at least, convincingly, Cline emphasises that it’s the girls who set the bait to attract other girls into the cult. The cult leaders aren’t let off the hook – they are clearly shown as abusers, but Cline shows the subtlety with which they indoctrinate these vulnerable, often damaged girls – and indeed boys – to become willing victims at first, and later willing participants in the victimisation of others.

Although it’s only touched on lightly, Cline shows the impact the Vietnam war was having on young people at this time, with a growing division between the ‘patriotic’, rather conservative pro-war faction and the more hippy anti-war culture, with both sides always aware that young men drafted to the war might die or come back horrifically maimed. And, again subtly, she shows the ‘generation gap’ that in some ways grew out of this, with young people losing respect for authority of all kinds, including their parents, and parents in turn baffled by their children’s rejection of their values. This aspect of the book reminded me of Roth’s American Pastoral, though seen this time through the eyes of the child rather than the parent; and of the musical Hair and its divided reception – the serious points it made about the anti-Vietnam movement, the hippy counter-culture and the growing disconnect between the generations somewhat lost on an older generation that became fixated in shock over its on-stage nudity.

Age of Aquarius-790-xxx

In the present day, Evie is equally convincing as a damaged survivor of the cult. She is staying temporarily in the house of a friend, whose teenage son turns up unexpectedly with his girlfriend, Sasha. When Sasha learns that Evie was part of this infamous cult, her curiosity forces Evie to look back to those days and re-assess her own involvement. She sees some of her own vulnerability in Sasha, and also her own refusal to accept advice or guidance. We see Evie haunted still by the massacre, questioning her own level of culpability, her own willingness to step knowingly over moral boundaries in a bid to belong.

Emma Cline
Emma Cline

Overall, I found this a thoughtful and convincing look at how cults attract, especially in times of social unrest. It’s also a well-told and interesting story, though I feel the link to the Manson murders might actually work against it by raising expectations that it will be more sensationalist than it actually is. The massacre is foreshadowed throughout and the rather understated telling of it doesn’t lessen its impact, but the emphasis of the book is more on the psychological journey of the cult members to that point. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début – an author I’ll be watching keenly in the future.

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

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Book 12
Book 12

Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

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*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11