The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

When the ordinary becomes extraordinary…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level.

There is an introduction and an afterword, and it’s essential to read them both. The book is presented as a manuscript come to light years after the author’s death, and translated by Burnet from the original French. This device is crucial in getting the full impact of what follows, but I’ll go no further than that since the journey is best taken without a roadmap. This is actually the second book featuring Inspector Gorski. I haven’t read the first one, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, but didn’t find that presented a problem – this one works entirely as a standalone.

The setting is the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s. A drab and dreary little town from the author’s account of it, a respectable backwater. It is brilliantly drawn – I could see the streets and the little run-down cafés and bars, where people have their regular tables and drink their regular drinks each day. I could smell the Gitanes, feel the rain, visualise each person, their class and social standing indicated with subtlety and authenticity. No wonder Raymond thought the next town along the road, Mulhouse, was an exciting metropolis in comparison, with its shops and cinemas and life!

Both towns are important characters in the book but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story. Gorski is a middle-aged man in something of a rut, but without the ambition or desire to find his way out. He is content to be the Chief of Police in Saint-Louis – a medium-size fish in a tiny pool – even if he’s not particularly liked by his subordinates nor respected by those at the top of the social heap. He’s less happy with the fact that his wife has just left him – he’s not altogether sure why and he’s not convinced that he wants to change whatever it is about himself that’s led her to go. He’s a decent man, but rather passively so – neither hero nor villain. It’s the skill of the writing that makes this ordinary man into an extraordinary character.

Raymond is on the cusp of adulthood and, faced with the sudden death of a father with whom his relationship has never been close, is unsure how to react. Burnet does a wonderful job of showing how hard it can be for a young person to know how to deal with these great crises that life throws at us. Raymond struggles to conform to other people’s expectations of how he should behave and seems at first rather unaffected by his father’s death. But as he gets sucked into trying to discover more about Bertrand’s life, Burnet quietly lets us see how grief is there, deep within him, perhaps so deep he can’t make himself fully aware of it – grief either for the father he has lost, or perhaps for the father that he felt he’d never really had. But at that time of life grief is rarely all-consuming – Raymond’s quest leads him into new experiences and new desires, and as he discovers more about his father, so he discovers more about himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

All the other characters we meet along the way are just as well-drawn, building up a complete picture of the two neighbouring societies at the heart of the story. Despite the relative brevity of the book, the secondary characters are allowed to develop over time, making them feel rounded and true. Short sketches of people who appear only for moments in a café or on the street all add to the understanding of the culture, which in turn adds to our understanding of how it has formed and shaped our main characters, Raymond and Gorski. Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life.

For me the place and people are what makes this book so special, but there’s an excellent plot at the heart of it too. There are definite undertones of Simenon’s Maigret in the writing, a debt Burnet acknowledges, and lots of references to the greats of French literature. There’s also a noir feel to it, though in line with the town this noir is greyish rather than black. As Raymond and Gorski each come to the end of their separate quests, I found it fully satisfying as both a story and a brilliant display of characterisation. And then the afterword made me reassess everything I’d just read…

Not a word of criticism in this review because I can find nothing to criticise. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. It deserves and gets my highest recommendation – superb!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4) by Elly Griffiths

Staging a murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold and snowy December in the Brighton of 1953, and magician Max Mephisto has top billing in the variety show at the Hippodrome, along with his new stage partner, his daughter Ruby. Ruby’s fiancé, DI Edgar Stephens, has to put his plans to see the show on hold when a girl is found murdered in one of the many boarding houses in this seaside resort. Nineteen-year-old Lily Burtenshaw has been found strangled, with her body carefully posed to resemble a famous event from history. This makes Edgar think of one of the other acts at the Hippodrome – a troupe of showgirls called Living Tableaux, who appear almost naked on stage in recreations of historical or artistic scenes, their blushes covered by a few strategically placed feathers and some unobtrusive flesh-coloured pants. Artistic, young DS Bob Willis thinks – or sleazy, in the opinion of his colleague DS Emma Holmes. The first task the detectives face, then, is to see if they can find a connection between Lily and the troupe…

After the last book in the series took us off to London and America, I was pleased that this one returned to the theatre world of Brighton. Griffiths evokes both time and place convincingly, especially the itinerant life of the performers and the boarding houses they make their temporary homes. She’s very good at showing how the paths of the show people cross and re-cross as they travel round the theatres of Britain, so that relationships are always being renewed or broken as bookings dictate. She shows the contrast between the seediness of backstage life and the glamour of performance, and how some love the travelling life while others see it as a short-term thing until they find something more settled.

In both her series, Griffiths tends to concentrate on the romantic lives of her lead characters more than is usual in police procedurals. This is something that a lot of readers particularly like about her books. Personally I don’t mind a bit of romance, but I find it’s often given too much prominence for my taste in Griffiths’ books, although I prefer the way she’s handling it in this series. But in this book, it all becomes a little too much, with every main character being in love or lust with someone, relationships starting and ending and lots of low-level romantic angst. It might actually be quite a realistic portrayal since most of the leads are youngish and single, but it gives the book a cosy-ish feel which somehow takes away from the story of the crime.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

However, the plotting is strong and the story flows well so that it held my interest all the way through. It’s more of a traditional length for a crime novel, thus avoiding the dreaded sagging middle – hurrah! And all three detectives are well-drawn and likeable – I enjoyed seeing Bob getting a bigger role in this one, and I was relieved that Emma didn’t spend too much of her time battling sexism (a theme with which I’m bored rigid). I did feel that Griffiths had to stretch a bit to make Max relevant to the plotting – if the series continues, it’s going to get progressively harder to work him in believably each time. Much though I like him, I’m kinda hoping that the development of Emma and Bob as stronger characters might allow Max to fade out a bit, leaving this as a more traditional police-based series, focused on Edgar and his team.

So overall, another strong entry in this enjoyable series – well researched, well plotted, well written. My criticism of the romantic angle is, I know, entirely subjective – Griffiths does it very well, and while it’s a weakness for me, I’m sure it will be strength for people who enjoy that aspect more. And otherwise, I like these characters very much and love the post-war Brighton setting. I hope there’s more to come…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

A wild ride through post-revolutionary Russia…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

The book was written in 1981 and is packed full of some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, so if you find it impossible to make allowances for different times, this is probably one to avoid. That would be a huge pity though, because it’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. And despite the outdated attitudes, it actually has a spunky leading lady in Eden, and Cabell gradually develops a good deal of sympathy for Nikolai, the gay servant who accompanies them on their journey. Partly it feels as though Cleary himself was struggling to get in tune with more modern attitudes (he would have been in his sixties at the time of writing) and partly he’s portraying what would have been the attitudes of society back in the early 20th century, so I was able to give him a pass and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! As the Rolls Royce travels south to the Caspian Sea, then over into what’s now Georgia, our intrepid heroes have to negotiate their way through White Army factions, Bolshevik villagers, louche aristocrats holding out on distant estates waiting to see what the future holds, Muslim forces intent on redressing old grievances, mercenary ship captains, deserts, mountains… and did I mention the dwarf? The one thing all these people and places have in common is that they all want to kill the travellers, though for varying reasons. They’ve reckoned without Cabell’s strategic ingenuity, though, not to mention Eden’s dexterity at bashing uppity men over the head with her handbag! But even Cabell and Eden seem incapable of shaking off the implacable dwarf…

Jon Cleary

Although it’s a wild adventure story first and foremost, Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. He doesn’t overtly take a side – he makes it clear the days of aristocratic rule had to come to an end, but he doesn’t laud the Bolsheviks either. All sides are shown as taking advantage of the chaos for personal gain, and he shows vividly the lawlessness to which the country descended – villagers holding kangaroo courts and carrying out summary executions; soldiers on all sides raping and pillaging as they rode through; aristos trying to get their valuables out of the country before they were confiscated by one faction or another. He also shows the anti-Semitic pogroms and the flight of Jews looking for their own promised land where they could live in peace. Again, Cabell recognises his own anti-Semitism, and learns over the course of the book to see the Jews as not just equals, but potential friends. Lots of stereo-typing, but also a good deal of recognition of the stereo-typing too – if one can bear the language, the messages are pretty good. Even the dwarf is treated somewhat sympathetically…

I loved this, despite my frequent cringing! Cabell and Eden are hugely likeable, and the young Prince and Princess become well developed characters over the course of the story too. The gay Cossack servant Nikolai might be clichéd, but he touched my heart nevertheless. And though he’s the baddie, Cleary’s depiction of the dwarf is nicely nuanced too, with a real level of understanding for his character having been distorted by the bullying and prejudice he’s faced throughout his life. I laughed, I sympathised, I held my breath, I shuddered and more than once I gasped in shock and surprise – what more could you ask for from an adventure story? Go on – stick your modern prejudices in a box for a few hours, and jump in the Roller… and keep an eye out behind you for the dwarf…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The quality of madness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes.

The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.

The quality of the writing is excellent and the structure works surprisingly well. I’ll get my major criticism out of the way first: I found it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old crofter living in a tiny, isolated and dirt-poor community in the Scottish highlands at this period could possibly be as literate and eloquent as Roderick is in his own written account. Apart from just the excellent grammar and extensive vocabulary, he writes in standard English throughout, which would absolutely not have been how he spoke. Burnet is clearly aware of this problem, so shoves in a bit about how Roderick was a kind of prodigy at school who could have gone on to further education if circumstances had allowed, but I’m afraid this wasn’t enough to convince. My minor, related criticism is that this also means the book makes no attempt to reproduce Scottish dialect or speech patterns – a bonus, I imagine, for the non-Scots reader but a disappointment for this Scot.

However, the storytelling is first-rate and Burnet creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. He shows the various powers who held sway over the crofters – the factor who was the laird’s main representative, the constable, elected by the crofters to enforce a kind of discipline among them, and the minister of the harsh and unforgiving Scottish church. And he shows how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The section supposedly written by J. Bruce Thomson gives a great insight into contemporary thinking on insanity, particularly as regards the effects of heredity and of in-breeding in these tiny communities.

The trial also feels authentic, especially the various extracts from newspapers which include word sketches of how the witnesses and the accused appeared to those in the courtroom. The reader has slightly more information than the jury, because we have had the opportunity to read Roderick’s account. But when the jury retires to consider its verdict, the jurors and the reader are left debating the same question of criminality versus insanity, and Burnet has carefully balanced the picture so that it’s not an easy question to answer.

I found it an absorbing read with a great marriage of interesting storyline and well presented research. As a character study, Roderick is fascinating – indeed, his whole family are. There are all kinds of hints of things that are never fully revealed or clarified, all of which add to the uncertainty of Roderick’s motivation; and the structure allows us to see him both as he chooses to present himself and from the viewpoints of the many other people who come into contact with him. I felt Burnet got just about a perfect balance between letting us feel we knew Roderick and reminding us that we can never fully understand what’s going on in someone else’s head – lots of lovely ambiguity.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

The book was shortlisted for the Booker and, to be honest, I can’t quite see why. It’s very well written and interesting and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see it winning crime or historical fiction awards, but I don’t feel it’s particularly ‘literary’ or brings anything hugely original to the table. This is not to criticise the book – it’s more a criticism of the Booker, which seems to have lost its way fairly dramatically over the last few years. Had Burnet taken that extra leap of courage to use at least some Scots rather than go for the easy (and more marketable) option of standard English throughout, then perhaps it would have taken it up that notch that would be needed to raise it from excellent to exceptional.

But excellent it is, and it would be unfair to rate it otherwise because it doesn’t quite live up to the unrealistic expectations the Booker shortlisting has created. As a historical crime novel, then – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Munich by Robert Harris

Peace for our time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s September, 1938. Hitler has delivered an ultimatum – the Czechs must withdraw from the disputed Sudetenland and cede it to Germany, or Germany will forcibly annexe it. Britain is torn – if Germany carries out its threat, there will inevitably be Europe-wide war, a war for which the British armed forces are woefully under-prepared. The British PM, Neville Chamberlain, must find a way to maintain the fragile peace, even at the expense of appeasing a regime that is already showing the hideousness of its true colours. But in Germany too, the Army is not ready for war, so Hitler faces his own pressures to come to an agreement. People on each side are warning that any agreement will probably be short-term – Germany will not stop its expansion ambitions at the borders of the Sudetenland. Delay will give both nations a chance to go into the war better prepared, but Hitler is unpredictable in the extreme and seems determined to proceed whatever the cost. As the two nations warily circle each other, two young men will play a secret role. Hugh Legat is a secretary in the British Foreign Office; Paul Hartmann is his equivalent in Germany. They know each other well – they studied together in Oxford and have a shared history that will be slowly revealed. And now they will find themselves thrown together again, in a shadowy world of secret deals and betrayals that may determine the course of history.

As always, Harris shows himself a master of riveting storytelling. The book is in fact a fairly straightforward account of the events leading up to and at the Munich conference where Hitler, Chamberlain and a few of the other European leaders met to determine the fate of the Sudetenland. Anyone of my generation will know the outcome, but I’m going to try to leave it a little vague, since the book would work, I think, as a good thriller for those younger people who may not. In truth the fictionalised aspect – the story of Legat and Hartmann – is rather lightly tacked on and in my opinion doesn’t add much. It feels as if it’s only there to justify the book being considered ‘fiction’. But the basic story is so compelling, I didn’t feel it needed much fictionalisation anyway, so that aspect didn’t bother me.

Chamberlain and Hitler shake hands in Munich, September 30, 1938
Photo: AP

What Harris does so well is bring the historical characters to life and take the reader deep into the complexities that faced them. Because WW2 did eventually happen and Churchill, the arch-opponent of appeasement, was ultimately proved right in his long-term predictions, Chamberlain has had a bad rap in this country – remembered as a weak, deluded man who allowed Hitler to manipulate him, largely because that’s how Churchill portrayed him. Harris doesn’t mess with the historical facts (as far as I can tell – I’m far from being an expert about this period of history), but he takes a more nuanced view of Chamberlain’s character, delving into his reasons, personal and political, for acting as he did. I found it entirely believable and oddly moving – the intolerable pressures we put on our leaders, and our unforgiving criticism if they fall short in any way. Churchill doesn’t appear as a major character, but is there in the background. Hindsight makes the heroes and villains of history – at this point, it still wasn’t clear if Churchill was right that war was inevitable or if Chamberlain was right in hoping that peace could be maintained. Britain – Europe – hadn’t yet recovered from WW1, and there was little appetite for more war in most countries.

The Munich conference itself is brilliantly depicted – Harris has the skill to allow the reader to become the proverbial fly on the wall. We see it mostly from the British perspective, and meet some of the more junior people there who would become leaders in their own right over the following decades. Hitler and his closest henchmen are mostly seen through the eyes of others rather than directly, and again Harris gives a somewhat more balanced view than the caricature Hitler is sometimes presented as. I don’t for one moment mean that Harris tries to whitewash him, but he shows how Hitler rose to power on the promise to make Germany great again after the humiliation of WW1 and the economic disasters that followed, caused partly by the war itself and partly by the terms of the peace treaty forced on them. But Harris also shows that there was opposition even at this point – a significant minority who recognised the evil of the regime and were doing what they could to stop him.

Robert Harris

I found this another completely absorbing read from Harris. I feel as if I have a much better knowledge of this crucial moment in European history and a deeper understanding of the personalities involved, especially Chamberlain. The joy of Harris’ writing, though, is that it never feels like he’s teaching or preaching – despite the plot being light and a little under-developed, it still allows him to make the story read like a thriller, with enough uncertainty so that there’s a real feeling of suspense even for people who know the historical outcome. I suspect that people who prefer an intense plot might feel a little disappointed. But for people who are more interested in the fascinating and entirely credible portrayal of the real people and events, I recommend this wholeheartedly. A great read.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

War and love in old America…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a young Irish immigrant alone in 1850s America when he meets John Cole, another boy who is destined to be his friend, companion and lover throughout his life. This is the story of their lives and, through them, the story of this period of American history. The boys work for a time as “girls” in a saloon, where they are paid to dance with lonely miners, but when they become too old to be convincing, they go off to join the army. Soon they are involved in the on-going conflicts with the Native Americans and later will be sucked into the Civil War.

When I finished reading this book, I had rather mixed feelings about it – the writing is often wonderful and Barry undoubtedly brings the army scenes to vivid and gory life. But truthfully, my eyebrows rose when the boys dressed up as girls and all the miners treated them as courteously as if they were really girls (not that I imagine they would have treated real saloon girls particularly courteously anyway); and continued to rise throughout all the gender identity stuff with which the book is liberally packed – yes, pun very much intended. I had no idea the early Americans were so politically correct as to accept transvestitism and transsexuality with barely a disapproving comment – how terribly inclusive they were back in those days! It’s suggested more than once that in fact all these rough, tough settlers were secretly enthralled by the idea of men appearing on stage dressed as women, finding them more sexually alluring and exciting than actual women. Hmm! Maybe it really was like that – how would I know? – but I found it pretty unconvincing, regardless of the skill in the story-telling.

What I found much more convincing were the soldiering aspects. The narrator, Thomas McNulty, is an uneducated man, though not unintelligent, and is entirely uninterested in politics, so that we get his view of events from a purely human angle, with no overt polemics. Clearly, Barry himself takes the modern view that what the settlers did to the Native Americans was a horrific atrocity, but he does an excellent job of showing how it may have been viewed differently by those involved; especially those who, like Thomas and John Cole, were at the bottom of the pile in terms of power – only obeying orders, as has been the excuse used for war-crimes for all the long centuries of history. At the time of this story, the struggle between the races has been going on for many years, so that it’s easy for the participants not to look for original causes – instead, each side has suffered tragedies that become excuses for revenge. Barry shows the horrors of battle and massacres in all their cruel and bloody detail and the power of his language makes these passages vivid and often deeply moving. Unfortunately there are so many of these incidents, though, that in the end I found them becoming repetitive and as a result the power diminished as the book progressed.

The sergeant whispers his order like the word of a lover and Hubert Longfield pulls on his string and the gun roars. It is the roar of one hundred lions in a small room. We would gladly put our hands over our ears but our muskets are raised and trained along the line of the wigwams. We are watching for the rat-run of the survivors. There is a stretch of time as long as creation and I can hear the whizzing of the shell, a spinning piercing sound, and then it makes its familiar thud-thud and pulls at the belly of heaven and spreads its mayhem around it, the sides of wigwams torn off like faces, the violent wind of the blast toppling others flat, revealing people in various poses of surprise and horror. There is murder and death immediately. There are maybe thirty tents and just this one shell has made a black burning cancer in the middle.

Barry also does a good job of showing how ordinary soldiers get drawn into wars they don’t necessarily understand nor feel strongly about. Thomas and John Cole end up on the Unionist side during the Civil War, but only because that’s where their commanding officers lead them. There is a feeling that they don’t really know what they’re fighting for and would as easily have fought as rebels had they happened to be in one of the Confederate regiments when the war started. As a political animal, I was rather disappointed that there wasn’t more about the causes of the Civil War but that, I believe, was an intentional decision and worked well in the context of the book.

Sebastian Barry accepting the 2016 Costa Novel Award. It was also longlisted for the 2017 Booker but didn’t make the shortlist.

Not content with dragging current liberal fixations with gender identity into it, Barry also has a shot at making some points about race – specifically, about the position of Native Americans in this new world. Though I found this aspect more credible, I didn’t feel he handled it particularly deftly or in any great depth – it felt to me rather tacked on as though he felt it ought to be there rather than being something he felt strongly about. The main Native American character, Winona, never came to life for me – she seems to be merely a foil about whom a few “points” could be made, and a hook on which to hang the loose plot.

In fact, the characterisation in general didn’t do much for me. At a late stage, Thomas says of John Cole “I never think bad of John, just can’t. I don’t even know his nature. He a perpetual stranger and I delight in that.” [sic] I too felt I still didn’t know his nature, but my delight in that fact was somewhat less profound.

So, given all my criticisms, it’s fair to wonder why I’m still giving the book 3½ stars. Firstly, the prose is mostly excellent, often beautiful, frequently moving, and I’m always more willing to forgive a good deal of other weaknesses if the writing thrills me. Secondly, I half read, half listened to this book, and the narration by Aidan Kelly is quite wonderful. The book is written in what is clearly supposed to be an uneducated Irish voice, with lots of grammatical and punctuation quirks, and can actually feel quite like hard work sometimes on the written page. But Kelly shows how, when read aloud, it sounds absolutely natural, as if an Irishman were indeed verbally telling the tale. Kelly brings out all the beauty in the prose, and the contrasts in humour, horror, sorrow and love within the story. It’s a remarkable performance, and I found myself actually preferring to listen than to read, sometimes going back to listen to a passage I had read to see how Kelly interpreted it.

Overall, therefore, despite finding it quite deeply flawed in terms of credibility and characterisation, my experience of reading/listening to it was an enjoyable one, and so in the end I would recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber & Faber Ltd.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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).

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link