Preparing For Summer School

Tomorrow sees the start of this year’s Summer School and we will be reading and discussing three novels grouped together under the title Paying the Price.  The books, A Whispered Name by William Brodrick, Rennie Airth’s The Reckoning and The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer all clearly share a wartime theme but they have other features in common too and when I kick things off at the start of our first meeting I shall want to draw attention to those as well as pointing out differences in the way in which war is treated. Coincidentally, I came across an essay, The Literary Response to the Second World War by Damon Marcel Decoste, in which he argues that literary responses to the two major conflicts of the Twentieth Century, both those contemporaneous and those written retrospectively, take contrasting approaches.  Put crudely, those which describe the actions of the First World War tend to concentrate on what we might loosely call ‘the pity’ of the situations in which combatants on all sides found themselves, while those which take the Second World War as their subject are more likely to focus on the lack of preparedness of a world which really should have seen it coming.

Of the three books chosen the first, A Whispered Name, is solely concerned with events that took place between 1914 and 1918 and, I think, falls neatly within the parameters of DeCoste’s argument.  Airth’s novel deals with the aftermath of both wars and, with its emphasis on the long term damage suffered by those who fought in either conflict, for me is still focused on the ‘pity’. However, Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is not so neatly pigeonholed. Personally, I don’t feel that the author is taking any particular moral standpoint in the way he writes about the events that overtake his heroine, Marion Sutro.  Perhaps distance has lessened the satirical edge that characterised novels written in the years immediately after World War II. Perhaps others attending the School will think differently.

The concentration on wartime events is not the only feature these three novels share.  Each of the books also draws our attention to what I like to call the uncertainty principle as it applies to narrative.  As Mawer comments

as with so many matters, the full story is complicated and appears different depending on how you look at it.

A narrative is a recounting of events inevitably given a personal spin by the individual  doing the recounting.  Either deliberately or through no fault of their own that person may omit events, misinterpret them or even falsify them.  And that is before we come to the whole question of the influence of choices to do with such things as tense, person and vocabulary choices.  In the first two novels, both of which are generically classified as crime fiction, the main protagonists start from a position of relative ignorance and have to repeatedly attempt to reconstruct a narrative that accurately reflects the original events.  Both emphasise how difficult it is to come to an understanding of what occurred and how the narratives we tell are influenced by what we believe/want to believe the truth is.  Mawer’s book is more concerned with the creation of a narrative as Marion Sutro develops the legend behind which she will hide as an SOE agent in France.  But, if everyone is dissembling and has been trained to do it well, then how do you know who you can trust?  And how easy is it to live according to a personal narrative that bears little resemblance to the truth of who you really are?

I am sure that as the week develops other commonalities will emerge and if I have the time then I will report back.  It might, however, have to be an overall round up at the end of the week.  If any of you know the books and have any points that you would like to make the do leave a comment and I will feed your views (duly acknowledged) into our discussions.



Between Silk and Cyanide ~ Leo Marks

When in 1969 Helene Hanff finally managed to get to London her beloved bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, had closed.  However, as she recalls in her memoir, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, waiting for her at her publishers was a letter from a man I never knew existed.

Dear Miss Hanff,

I am the son of the late Ben Marks of Marks & Co. and want you to know how delighted I am that you are here, and how very much my wife and I would like you to dine with us.

I do not know where you are staying so could you please ring me at the above telephone numbers? The second one is an answering service and any message left there will reach me.

We are both looking forward to meeting you.


Leo Marks

The Leo Marks that Hanff then goes on to describe is a writer best known for the script of the 1960 film Peeping Tom and for a number of plays that appeared in the West End.  Not once, in either this or in subsequent books, does she mention his wartime role as the man who completely restructured the codes used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents sent into Occupied Europe and further afield between 1942 and the end of hostilities three years later.  To some extent this silence isn’t surprising.  Given that Between Silk and Cyanide, the book in which Marks records his time with SOE, was not allowed by the powers that be to be published until 1998, despite having been written over fifteen years earlier, in 1969 Marks almost certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to discuss his wartime role. Apart from anything else, he would probably have had more than enough to say about the bloody-minded incompetence of many people still with a finger in the pie of government to put several cats among a whole flock-load of pigeons.

Having been fascinated by codes since the age of eight after he cracked the one used by his father to indicate what 84 had paid for a book, when he is called for war service he applies to work as a cryptographer.  Rejected by Bletchley Park, (who later recognise him as the one that got away) he finds himself installed with SOE training FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) to decrypt those messages that have been garbled in transmission.  If the wireless operators in Occupied Europe have to be asked to repeat a message then there is a far greater chance of their being captured and so the decryption of indecipherables is a unit priority.  Marks is horrified by the codes that the agents are being asked to use.  Based on a poem chosen by each individual agent anyone intercepting a message and working out key words has only to flick through a volume of best loved poetry to gain access to the code and thus read any future messages sent by that particular agent.  Consequently he devises a number of more secure codes, one of which involved a series of non-repeating keys printed on silk for ease of concealment.  Hence the book’s title: he saw the executive’s choice as being between providing either the silks or cyanide.  In fact, each of the agents did carry a cyanide table with them and despite Mark’s best efforts too many had to resort to using them.

Ultimately it became clear that agents would still have to have a named poem that they could use if their silks, and later their ‘one time pads’, were not immediately available to them and so Marks and his decoders set about writing original and often scurrilous verses that would be difficult to predict. The most famous of these is the one that Marks wrote after the death of a woman he had hoped to marry and which he later gave to Violette Szabo, the agent whose story is told in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.  

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Szabo was eventually executed in Ravensbrück in 1945.

Three things scream out from the pages of this book.  The first is the incredible bravery of the men and women who risked, and all too often lost, their lives in an attempt to free their homelands from occupation.  The second, the devotion to duty of the (mostly) women who struggled to decode the messages sent back, sometimes at the eight or nine thousandth attempt. And the third, the sheer stupidity and egotistical search for power of many of the people who commanded them.  Why Britain was not overrun in the early 1940s is beyond me.  The ordinary people may have been pulling together, but those at the top were definitely not.  I can only assume that the same was true of the German High Command and that one set of narcissistic idiots cancelled the other out.

Re-reading this book in preparation for the Summer School it seems clear to me that Leo Marks had Asperger’s and at quite a high level too.  Not only is this apparent in his fascination with codes but also in what we learn of his relationships and in his style of writing.  He assumes his reader is going to be able to follow all the minute detail he includes about the way in which the codes work and even though I am minded in much the same way as he was, I soon recognised that I didn’t need all the information he was giving me to get the gist of what was really important.  If you decide to read the book don’t be put off by all the coding information; you can manage perfectly well without it. And I would strongly recommend that you do read it.  The sacrifices of the SOE agents and those who supported them in the U.K. and elsewhere, deserve to be commemorated in the minds and hearts of those who came after.  And, as book lovers you will also relish all the mentions of 84 Charing Cross Road, the shop that Leo was intended to take over from his father and a place that he loved with a passion that Helene Hanff was replicate a decade or so later.

WWW Wednesday ~ July 31st 2019



WWW Wednesday is hosted by Taking on a World of Words

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading

Almost everything I’m reading at the moment is a re-read in preparation for either the Summer School or for one of the five book groups I now find myself leading.  Thank goodness three of these are groups organised very much like this meme, in as much as we talk about what we have just read and are intending to go on to read so no specified  texts are involved.  With a new library group starting in September, I’ve just put up a second blog site where I can record those books recommended at each meeting to encourage what might be called cross-fertilisation.  If you’re interested you can find it here. For the groups where we discuss a particular book, however, I am re-reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.  I normally love Barker’s work and I was intrigued by her stated subject matter: the Trojan War as seen from the point of view of the women involved.  First time round, however, I was very much underwhelmed by the novel.  I thought that those passages that were focused on the men came to life and involved me as a reader so much better than those from the women’s point of view.  I am going to be interested to see if I have the same reaction on a second reading and also how the rest of the group respond. We had a very positive discussion on Madeline Miller’s Circe a couple of months ago and inevitably comparisons are going to be drawn.

Recently Finished

Putting aside my re-reads, the most recent book I’ve finished is Stone Cold Heart, Caz Frear’s second novel in her series featuring DC Cat Kinsella. The first book, Sweet Little Lies, won the Richard and Judy search for a best seller competition and deservedly so, in my opinion.  Frear not only plots well – a must for genre fiction – but she also creates well-defined, believable characters and has a real feel for the rhythm of language.  The first book centred around a murder that proved to have links to Cat’s own family and as a result of her covering this up, her own career prospects are over shadowed by the possibility of her father’s criminal associates revealing her personal involvement.  This threat is very peripheral in Stone Cold Heart, which more centrally is concerned with the murder of a young Australian woman working in London as a PA to one Kirstie Connor, a woman whose family all ring alarm bells when the police start to investigate.  Chief suspect, however, is Kirstie’s brother-in-law, Joseph Madden, a man you really, really want to be guilty.  A complete narcissist, who believes the world owes him whatever and whomever he wants, there is ample evidence that Joseph can turn very very nasty when his demands aren’t met.  But the contradictions in his wife, Rachel’s, behaviour hamper the police as they try to build a case against him and when their eighteen year old daughter, Clara, also proves to have been lying, Kinsella and her colleagues, DS Parnell and the formidable but likeable, DCI Steele, have their work cut out to finally bring about a resolution.

Frear is definitely a writer to be watched.  I would put her up there with the likes of Jane Casey and Sarah Ward, which is high praise indeed.

Reading Next

The re-reading will continue, I’m afraid.  Thank goodness they are all such good books.  This week I have Simon Mawer’s Tightrope on my list and by the beginning of next week I want to be well into Leo Marks’ From Silk to Cyanide. Both of these are in preparation for our discussion focused on Mawer’s earlier novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, about a young woman, Marian Sutro, who served with the Special Operations Executive during World War II. Tightrope is a continuation of Marian’s story.  I hope those taking part in the Summer School don’t actually discover that this exists, as the earlier book ends on something of a cliff hanger which could be spoiled by knowing that there is a sequel.  From Silk to Cyanide is a factual account of what those young men and women went through, written from the point of view of someone who devised the codes by which they were able to send messages back to the UK.  Some of you may have ‘met’ Leo Marks through the pages of Helene Hanff’s accounts of her time spent in London. He was the son of one of the proprietors of the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road and he and his wife became great friends of the American writer.  Hanff portrays him as something of a dreamer, almost a bumbling P G Wodehouse type of character. There is no indication of the vital work that he carried out during the war nor of the suffering that he endured as agent after agent failed to return. You meet a very different man in his own book.

If I have time, as something of a light relief, I hope to get round to James Oswald’s latest book in his new crime series featuring Constance Fairchild, Nothing to Hide.  I’m a great fan of Oswald’s Tony McLean novels and the Fairchild stories, set in London rather then Edinburgh, are shaping up to be every bit as good. In the first there was one rather unexpected cross over character and so I’m intrigued to see if there is going to be any further interaction between the author’s two worlds.


Catching Up – Again!

I’m afraid I have been severely negligent of both my own blog and those of all my friends during the past couple of weeks.  Once again I have what I consider to be the excellent, if unwelcome, excuse of further dental surgery.  In the first stage towards correcting the damage that was (necessarily) done back in April, last week I had a bone graft and a pin inserted into my jaw.  This was every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds and not to be recommended as a recreational pastime.  My distress was only added to by the fact that the surgery was scheduled for the week after Wimbledon. I couldn’t even comfort myself by curling up and watching tennis all day long.  What I have been doing instead is blitzing on a re-read of the earlier books in the series from which two of the Summer School novels are taken so that, if necessary, I can fill in on back story.

The Rennie Airth novels are relatively straight forward.  So far I’ve re-read the first two in his series featuring John Madden, River of Darkness and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. In the first, set just after the Great War, Madden is still in the police force, but in the second, ten years on, he has been persuaded by his wife, Helen, to retire and go back to his farming roots, and is only caught up in the investigation when a local girl goes missing.  If memory serves me correctly, in the next two he continues to ‘flirt’ with the service in investigations which span the years on either side of the Second World War.  I chose the fourth book, The Reckoning, for the Summer School because it raises issues to do both with those men who were shot as deserters between 1914 and 1918 and with the women who served in the SOE in the later conflict and thus acted as a bridge between the other two novels.  What I had forgotten, however, is the extent to which Airth is concerned with the terrible psychological damage done to those men who came back from the First World War. In both these early books it is the prime motivating force behind the crimes that are committed, so I shall be interested to see if that is the same in The Dead of Winter when I get round to it at the end of the week.  Sometimes a concentrated re-read like this can throw up links between books that you wouldn’t necessarily notice just reading them as they are published.

William Broderick’s early novels, The Sixth Lamentation and The Gardens of the Dead also share certain characteristics, although in this case it is more to do with structure and style than with thematic content.  Brodrick writes beautiful prose.  I moved from the first of these to a novel by a much better known crime writer and very nearly threw their book away in disgust, so pedestrian did the language seem after The Sixth Lamentation.  From that point of view reading Brodrick is easy, but goodness do you have to keep your wits about you where the intricacies of the plot are concerned. Nothing is straightforward in a Brodrick novel and no one is what they seem on first meeting.  It works well enough in the earlier book, which was highly praised when it first appeared – one of those books that everyone was reading – but I found The Gardens of the The Dead a less satisfactory read when it was published and I felt the same about it this time round.  It may be to do with the fact that other than Father Anselm (the main ‘investigator’) I really couldn’t summon up sufficient interest in any of the characters to care what happened to them. Fortunately, A Whispered Name, complex though it isis even better than The Sixth Lamentation.  I think I had better leave enough time to read it twice, however, if I am going to lead a detailed discussion on it.

The only other book I’ve read over the past couple of weeks has been Tom Rackman’s Costa shortlisted novel, The Italian Teacher.  From the opening chapters you could be forgiven for thinking that the work is about the mid twentieth century artist Bear Bavinsky, so dominating is his presence both in the book and in the life of his wife, Natalie and their son Charles, otherwise known as Pinch, however, what the novel really focuses on is the effect that being Bear’s son has on Pinch, the Italian Teacher of the title.

Bear Bavinsky is a middle rate artist whose works consist of paintings of parts of his numerous muses’ (lovers’/mistresses’) bodies.  He is also a complete monster who believes that he can do whatever he likes, expecting the world to revolve around him regardless of who else is hurt in the process. Why nobody calls him out is beyond me.  He moves from wife to wife, leaving women and children pretty much abandoned around the world with no thought for anyone other than himself.  Even when they are in dire financial need he refuses to help them by selling any of his paintings, which he is determined will only go to museums and art galleries where his greatness can be widely appreciated.  But Bavinsky is no Picasso, and the public institutions don’t particularly want his works.  Their stores are full enough of mediocre art as it is.

The people who suffer most from this are Pinch and his mother, Natalie.  Both of them subjugate their own talents and ambitions to Bear’s demands. Every attempt that Pinch makes to establish himself – as an artist, an academic – his father undermines.  Bear may claim that what he wanted was for his son to push against his criticism and become stronger for it, but in their final confrontation he tells the truth when he shouts:

Do you honestly think I’ll be tagging along to gallery openings of my own kid? Listen to me. Hear this. You work for me. Get it? You always worked for me. … Get this: I win. You hear? I fucking win.

Ultimately, however, Bear does not win and neither does the institution that I take to be the author’s real target, which is the commercial art world itself, with its pretensions and its self-regard.  This was rather apt reading with a new series of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune due to start on Thursday.

Short Story Help Needed

As the heading says, I am looking for some help here.  Six months ago I started a Readers Group in the retirement complex where I now live.  We meet once a month and share our reading experiences since we last met over tea, coffee and a large box of biscuits.  It’s been very successful, not least because it has brought some people out of their apartments who would not normally join in with other activities.  One of these is my friend Graeme, who is in the early stages of dementia.  I think he is so brave to come and join in our discussions despite the fact he is finding it increasingly hard to recall what he has read.  I have suggested that he makes a few notes about what he wants to say to bring with him and that has helped but the time is coming when getting pleasure from a full length novel is going to be more difficult and so I tentatively asked if he would be interested in reading some short stories.  The problem is that, like me,  Graeme primarily  reads for plot and short stories don’t always fit with that type of reader’s tastes.  Furthermore, his real passion at the moment is Dan Brown and with my very limited knowledge of the genre I can’t think of a collection I could recommend that would fit his preferences.  I brought very few volumes of short stories with me when I came here and they are nearly all written by women.  I certainly don’t have anything I think would be suitable. Can anyone suggest anything that might be appropriate?  I would be very grateful and I know Graeme and his wife would be as well. Thank you in advance.

Burnt Island ~ Kate Rhodes

Like many readers I first came to Kate Rhodes’ work through her London based novels featuring psychologist, Alice Quentin.  While I enjoyed these in respect of both plot and character development, there was as much pleasure to be gained from her sensitivity to setting.  Already a published poet when Crossbones Yard introduced us to Quentin’s world, Rhodes brought her talents as a wordsmith to bear on the way in which she described the London locations in which the early books in the series were primarily set.  There were times when reading her work was like looking at one of Whistler’s remarkable sketches of the Thames’ waterside.  Latterly, Rhodes has moved her focus to the Scilly Isles, where DI Ben Kitto, newly returned to his home on Bryher after ten years in the Met’s Murder squad, is trying to come to terms with the loss of his partner in undercover work.  Describing the stark beauty of these islands has, if anything, given Rhodes even more scope for her talents and in this, the third book in the series, it is the wild landscape of St Agnes that forms the backdrop for Kitto’s latest investigation.

St Agnes supports a small community, but one which is augmented at certain times of the year both by tourists and visitors from the other islands in the archipelago.  Bonfire night is one of the latter occasions, when islanders from the other Scilly communities come over to St Agnes in order to enjoy both bonfire and fireworks.  However, before the celebrations can begin, the remnants of another fire are discovered and in them the burnt remains of a man.  It transpires that the body is that of Alex Rogan, an incomer  married to one of the island women, who is now pregnant with their first child.  A Professor of Astronomy, Rogan was drawn to the islands because of the purity of their night skies and to St Agnes in particular, where he hoped to set up an observatory that would allow both important observations to be made while encouraging visitors to an island struggling to keep its economy afloat.  At first, despite his Sargent’s reservations, Kitto’s suspicions centre on Jimmy Curwen, a local man suffering from severe psychological damage following a childhood trauma, who is only really happy when surrounded by the island’s wild life.  However, a series of threatening messages, written in the little used Cornish language, suggest that whoever is behind the attack is targeting incomers in an attempt to keep the island as it has always been and fighting against any change.

The threats raise a concern in Kitto’s mind for another recent arrival on the island, Naomi Vine.  Vine, a sculptor of some renown, has not fitted into the St Agnes’ community as well as Rogan.  Her plans to site a series of figures on the westerly beach, reaching out towards the boundary between land and the Atlantic, have been rejected and she is not slow to make her displeasure felt. Whereas the astronomer had worked hard to make friends among the islanders, Vine has stirred up considerable controversy with arguments both for and against.  When the artist goes missing, Kitto can only fear the worst.

While the descriptions of St Agnes bring the island vividly to life, they are not the only strong characteristic of the novel.  The plot is well thought through with just sufficient  indication of where it is going to make the final dénouement completely believable and the characters are persuasively drawn.  Furthermore, Rhodes is allowing the recurring characters to develop in a convincing manner. By the book’s conclusion both DS Nickell and DCI Madron, Kitto’s immediate superior, have developed a more realistic appreciation of the DI’s capabilities and of his working methods.  Kitto himself has not, perhaps, developed quite so much, although there are signs at the end of the novel that he is beginning to see his long term future in the islands and that his family life is going to become more complex.

Having read a really poorly written and badly plotted crime novel over the weekend, with character development so inconsistent with reality as to make me wonder if the book was eventually going to finish with the words and then I woke up and it was all a dream, Rhodes’ Burnt Island was just the corrective I needed.  It reminded me of how good our best crime writers are and that for the majority it is the case that just because they work in genre fiction their narrative talents should not be underestimated.

Once Upon A Time There Was A Soapbox….

OK so I know I’ve written about this before, and not all that long ago either, but yet again I’ve found myself putting down two books in succession because whatever the author was doing, or even thought they might be doing, they weren’t telling me a story.  I know that plot isn’t the be-all and end-all of a novel, but for me it is the most important aspect of narrative and if a book just ambles around and eventually goes nowhere then I’m sorry but it and I are going to part company.  I think I might be more attuned to this at the moment because of a conversation I had with my hairdresser on Thursday. She has two children, a boy, thirteen, who reads as if books were going out of fashion and a girl, eleven, who wouldn’t normally give them the time of day.  (Stereotypes eat your hearts out!)  Well, last week there had been a book fair at school and the lass had come home with not only a book bought out of her own money but also a bad case of what I call ‘just one more chapter’ syndrome.  (If you’re reading this then you know precisely what that is. I have lost count of the times I’ve been late as a result of ‘just one more chapter’.)  When I asked what the book was it turned out to be Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, the first in his trilogy about Lyra and the alethiometer and inevitably this brought to mind the author’s acceptance speech when the novel won the Carnegie Medal. In adult literary fiction, he claimed, stories are there on sufferance. Writers take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. If you want to find adult literature with stories, he asserts, then you need to go to genre fiction.

Now, I think Pullman is rather over-egging the pudding in what he claims about adult literary fiction, but nevertheless he has a point. I wouldn’t have had to go searching for a story in a book intended for children, nor in, say, a crime novel or a fantasy tale. Style over substance isn’t going to wash in any of those areas.  But we all need story.  It is how we make sense of the world.  It is how we come to empathise with people in situations we are never likely to encounter.  It’s why services like Netflix are so popular, because they dish up story after story after story.  As Pullman remarks, we need stories so much that we are even willing to read bad books to get them. I can verify that this is true because as a result of my two failures I picked up a crime novel that I had been avoiding as I knew how poor it would be stylistically, just because I had to have a story.  The poverty of its writing was made all the more apparent because I had just finished another crime novel, William Brodrick’s The Sixth Lamentation, which is not only a good story but is also beautifully written.  The contrast very nearly made me put down a third book, but no, it had a story and so I persevered, got involved and read on to the end.

Of course, there are some writers of adult literary fiction whom I can trust to give me a good story every time and to tell it stylishly as well.  Pat Barker, Penelope Lively, Maggie O’Farrell, Sebastian Barry, Patrick Gale, Simon Mawer, Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Hilary Mantel, Ann Patchett, Curtis Sittenfeld and Anne Tyler come to mind.  But when you’re taking a chance on someone new…well, it can be a chance indeed.

OK, I will get down off my soapbox now and go in search of a recent story that isn’t necessarily either genre fiction or written with children in mind.  If anyone has any suggestions they will be grateful received.

WWW Wednesday ~ July 3rd 2019



WWW Wednesday is hosted by Taking on a World of Words

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading

The  Summer School may not be on my immediate horizon but given how much else is going on at the moment I am already starting to prepare. Although I am only officially down to lead one of the discussions I always have to be ready to jump in and take over should there be any last minute problems with the other two.  This means not only reading all three of the novels in great detail but also checking out other books by the chosen writers which might have a bearing on the works we are considering.  I will be leading the session on William Brodrick’s third novel, A Whispered Name and so with that in mind I am re-reading his first, The Sixth Lamentation and will go on to look again at his second, The Gardens of the Dead.

The Sixth Lamentation is our introduction to Father Anselm, a monk of the Gilbertine Order, who, in his previous life, was a London based barrister. When an elderly man turns up at Larkwood Priory, now Anselm’s home, asking for sanctuary the monks are disturbed to discover that he is being sought as a Nazi war criminal.  Their immediate thought is to deny his request, partly because the law of sanctuary no longer holds force, but also because of the outrage they know they will face if they do take him in. However, pressure both from secular and Church powers is put on them to keep the fugitive within the confines of the Priory until further investigations can take place.  Anselm is desperate to be involved in trying to uncover the truth of the matter, but when he suddenly receives a summons to the Vatican he realises that there is more going on than he had bargained for and that it is not only the Church’s current reputation that is at stake.

Running parallel to this strand is the wartime story told by the now elderly Agnes of the suffering of those Jews who were taken from France during the German occupation and of the betrayal experienced by one particular group trying to help Jewish children escape to Switzerland.  In the manner in which books so often do seem to ‘talk’ to each other, this is very closely linked to what I have…..

Recently Finished

Our book group read this week was Bart Van Es’s Costa winning biography, The Cut-Out Girl.  Van Es is a Professor of Early Modern Literature at Oxford but his most recent book catalogues his attempts to learn more about his family’s background in Holland during the Second World War and in particular their relationship with Lien, a young Jewish girl whom they sheltered and helped to save from the Nazi Concentration Camps.  Her family having been wiped out, Lien asks to go back to the Van Es home after the war and continues to live with them until she leaves school and goes to train to work with children.  However, at some point in the years that follow she and the family become estranged and having made contact with the now eighty year old Lien, Van Es sets out to try and discover what lay behind the breach.

Perhaps inevitably, one of the things that we found ourselves discussing was the effect that the marketing machine surrounding Anne Frank has had on our understanding of what happened to the Jews, and particularly Jewish children, during the occupation of Holland.  While both Lien and Anne were sheltered by incredibly brave individuals, the stark fact is that over eighty percent of Dutch Jews died during the course of the war, more than double the number in any other western country and many of them were betrayed by people they had looked on as neighbours and friends.  From the distance of over seventy years, Anne Frank’s story can become romanticised.  There is nothing romantic about the memories that Lien offers to Van Es.

The breach in the relationship is, in some ways, nothing to do with those traumatic years and yet the very fact that Lien’s experiences have left her finding it hard to know who she is and how she might relate to those around her, that she has, in fact, become ‘the cut-out girl’, does perhaps play a part.  It is only after she has shed herself of relationships that are never going to work, set herself up in Amsterdam and visited Auschwitz to pay homage to the memory of her lost family, that she begins to understand who she is and who she can be.

Reading Next

The library has just sent me an email to say that my reservation of Tom Rachman’s Costa shortlisted novel, The Italian Teacher has come in, so I will probably pick that up tomorrow and begin it at some point over the weekend. And, continuing with my Summer School preparation I shall start my reread of the second of Rennie Airth’s John Madden books, The Blood-Dimmed Tide.  The Reckoning, which is the Summer School novel, is the fourth in the series and I’m intending to revisit all three of the preceding books and, if I have time, the fifth one as well. Number six, The Decent Inn of Death, isn’t published until next year.


And The Winner Is…..

So, the votes are all in, the counting has taken place and been verified by independent assessors and the result can now be declared: this year’s Summer School will be reading the three novels gathered together under the heading Paying the Price. To save you hastily scanning through previous posts to find out what they are, here is the list and contrary to the usual disclaimer, they are in a particular order.

A Whispered Name ~ William Brodrick

The Reckoning ~ Rennie Airth

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky ~ Simon Mawer

Collectively, these novels deal with issues to do with the First and Second World Wars and they need to be read in the order I’ve listed them because the central book looks both ways, back to to the First World War issues dealt with in the Brodrick novel and forward to those concerning the Second and written about by Mawer in the last of the trio.

A Whispered Name is one of Brodrick’s Father Anselm novels and deals with the question of those young men who were shot for desertion.  I am going to lead this discussion myself because one of the subjects that Brodrick is concerned with is the flexibility of narrative depending on who is telling the story. However, I know that I will find it very difficult to reread this book because the horror of what was done to those young men by their own side is truly abhorrent.  Nevertheless, it is an excellent piece of writing and certainly gives the lie to those people who decry genre fiction as ‘not really good literature’.

The second choice, The Reckoning, is the fourth in Rennie Airth’s series featuring DI John Madden.  This book is set in the late 1940s but deals with family secrets that stem from both the First and Second World Wars.  In the case of the First it is, like the Brodrick, to do with the question of desertion; in respect of the Second it is concerned with those brave individuals, members of the SOE, who put themselves in terrible danger by parachuting into occupied France to help with the Resistance.  This is a more typical crime novel than the Brodrick, but Airth is a seriously good writer and not, I think, well enough known.  I’m looking forward to introducing his work to a group that I think will appreciate him.

Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, (published in the US as Trapeze) tells the story of Marian Sutro, half French, half English, who is recruited by the SOE and then sent into South West France, officially to act as a Resistance courier.  Her real mission, however, is to make her way to Paris and establish contact with an old family friend who is involved in developing a nuclear weapon.  The novel is based, to some extent, on the wartime experiences of Mawer’s mother and other women whom she knew during that time.  This will be quite a hard hitting book to finish the week on but I’m hoping that it will encourage people to go off and read Tightrope, which carries the story forward and possibly Mawer’s other books about European conflict, The Glass Room and Prague Spring.  Again, he is a writer that I don’t think is well enough known.

I’m really pleased with this selection and as far as is possible, given the subject matter, looking forward to rereading them all.  If I have time I shall also try and reread Leo Marks’ book From Silk to Cyanide.  Marks, a member of one of the families which owned Marks and Co, better known as 84 Charing Cross Road, worked as a code maker for the SOE from 1941 to 1945 and the story he has to tell will prove useful background for the second and third books as well as being a worthwhile read in itself.

The Summer School will take place during the week beginning August 19th and as far as is possible I shall try and post about our deliberations as soon after they happen as I can.  If any of you want to read along with us and join in the discussion on line then you would be most welcome.


Sunday Retrospective ~ June 23rd 2019

I suppose this is really another catch-up post, which is disgraceful. One of the aims I set myself for this Summer was to get back to writing full reviews again but for some reason I am finding that very difficult.  Perhaps it has been because I have had too much else on?  Well, that won’t be a viable excuse after this week, when teaching other than a few seminars, finishes until the beginning of September.  So, maybe more luck then.

As you probably realise, I am always on the lookout for new authors of police procedurals.  This week I have rejected one (flat, clichéd writing; I didn’t get far enough in to find out whether the plotting was any good; I couldn’t read another page) and enjoyed another.  Critical Incidents is not Lucie Whitehouse’s first book by any means, but it is the start of a series featuring DI Robin Lyons.  When we first meet Lyons she and her thirteen year old daughter, Lennie, are on their way from London to Birmingham following Robin’s suspension from the Met.  Her refusal to charge a seriously nasty piece of work just because he is a seriously nasty piece of work with a murder she doesn’t believe he has committed has brought her into conflict with her superiors and when he then goes AWOL it looks as though her time with the London police has come to an abrupt end.  Unable to meet her financial commitments she is forced to return to her parents’ home and face her mother’s long-standing disapproval of the way in which she has insisted on bringing up Lennie as a single mother.

At least she has a job to go to.  Maggie, a family friend of long-standing and an ex-cop herself, employs her to work in her private investigative firm and they are both soon embroiled in the case of a missing girl, Becca, whose disappearance (not a child, not vulnerable) the local police don’t feel merits a full enquiry.  Also, she has her lifelong friend, Corinna (Rin), whose support during the months after Lennie was born was the only thing that allowed Robin to complete her degree and retain her sanity.

And then Rin’s house is set on fire.  She dies in the conflagration, her ten year old son, Peter, is seriously injured and the police are hunting for her husband, Josh, convinced that he is behind what has happened.  Robin, shattered by all that has occurred, refuses to believe this and so sets out to try and discover both what has happened to Josh and who is really behind the fire.

Inevitably, the two cases come together but not before Robin has alienated both Maggie and the West Midlands Police by her interference and inability to work as part of a team.  There is no doubt that she has an incisive brain and excellent intuition, but her lack of forethought and failure to see the bigger picture to my mind, at least, make her something of a liability. If the book has a false step then for me it comes right at the end when suddenly, against all indications to the contrary, she is in line for a promotion that will allow her to stay on Birmingham.  Not only is this unlikely given her previous behaviour, but also definitely not what she has apparently wanted for herself, and not what her daughter, Lennie, also desperate to get back to London, is likely to greet with any enthusiasm   It was too neat for me and not in line with what had gone before.

One point I must make about this novel is to do with setting.  As far as I can see Whitehouse has no links with Birmingham. According to the blurb at the back of my edition she was born in Gloucestershire, went to University in Oxford and now lives in New York.  If this is the case, then as someone who, until a year ago, had lived in the city all her life, I can only congratulate her on her research; I could have walked round all the locations she mentions without any difficulty.  I think the only thing she makes up is the name of the road where her parents live, and even then I’m fairly sure which road she has in mind.  For the moment, Whitehouse is a keeper.  I’ll see how the next book progresses Robin’s story.