Summer School

IMG_0031One of the things that I have managed to organise over these past months has been this year’s Summer School.  As anyone who has been reading my blog over the years will know, despairing at the cost of literary Summer Schools, I set about establishing my own. Participants are offered a choice of five sets of related books and we then meet on three afternoons during a week in August to discuss the selected novels.  I’ve lost count as to how long we’ve been going now but I think this is either the eighth or the ninth year.  Interest has never waned and I think there is even the possibilty that this year we may have to run it twice; as we meet in people’s homes there is a limit to how many can attend at any one time.  I should know by the end of next week what this year’s books will be but in case you would like to make your own choice here is the list of titles offered.

Family Relations

The Paris Wife ~ Paula McLain

Vanessa and her Sister ~ Priya Parmar

The American Wife ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

 

Vienna Nights

Waiting for Sunrise ~ William Boyd

The Third Man ~ Graham Greene

Mortal Mischief ~ Frank Tallis

 

Paying the Price

A Whispered Name ~ William Brodrick

The Reckoning ~ Rennie Airth

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky ~ Simon Mawer

 

Raiding the Bookshelves

The Bookshop ~ Penelope Fitzgerald 

The Secret of Lost Things ~ Sheridan Hay

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ~ Robin Sloan

 

Twinned

The Thirteenth Tale ~ Diane Setterfield

A Fearful Symmetry ~ Audrey Niffenegger

Sisterland ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

I have a sneaking feeling that I know what the result is going to be, although in a sense it doesn’t matter to me as I put the selections together in the first place and I am hardly likely to pick books I don’t want to re-read myself. They are, of course, all re-reads, you couldn’t put sets together in this way if you didn’t know what the books were about.

So, which three books would you choose if you lived close enough to join in with us?  It will be interesting to see if your selections are the same as those actually involved.

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Reading Again

sks41aSo, here we are, The Bears and I ensconced in a spacious if, at the moment, over warm flat in the small Worcestershire market town of Bromsgrove.  However, on sunny days like today, we have a beautiful garden to sit in plus the indescribable comfort of knowing that it is someone else’s job to look after it!  I may come from a long line of market gardeners but the green-finger gene most definitely missed me.  The uncertainty associated with any house move combined with my Aspergers has played havoc with my concentration really since the end of January when I first put an offer in for this place and so I took an executive decision not to attempt to read anything new other than those books that I would need for my two book groups; instead I have been spending time with old literary friends, people/characters that I knew I could depend upon when I just needed to get away from all the pressures that were mounting up. Of course, this has meant that all the projects I set up for myself at the beginning of the year have gone completely by the wayside.  In fact, I am going to have to go back to my earlier posts just to remind myself of what they were! But I am back now and hope to be writing at least twice a week and, just as important, visiting all my blogging friends again.  I have missed you.

 

Moving???

IMG_0001Just to let you all know that with luck and a fair wind we will be moving on Tuesday. ‘With Luck’?  Oh yes, it is still all in the balance, and if my Aspergers has had me hanging from the light fittings over the last few months as problem after problem has arisen you can imagine how I am feeling with the last forty-eight hours heaving up on the horizon. If the sale does go through, I don’t know how long I will be without broadband (did you know that if BT promise to deliver something on Monday they will then confirm it for Tuesday and actually deliver it on Saturday?) but this is just to reassure you that The Bears and I will be back probably sometime in June. Our love to you all.

Some Progress

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Last time I moved I swore never again.  Now, three weeks into the process of downsizing, I am remembering just why I was so vehement eighteen years ago.  When those that know about these things claim that it is one of the most stressful thing that anyone can undertake they are definitely not joking.  I think I have psoriasis on my eczema although if someone was to argue that it was the other way round I wouldn’t contend against it.

Actually, I have been comparatively fortunate.  I got a buyer the first day the house was on the market and she now has a first time buyer, so within a fortnight a reasonably short chain is in place.  However, I think her buyer is a game player, so chickens are not yet being counted.  The Estate agents are projecting a move around the beginning of May but again I’ll believe it when it happens.  Anyway, when I look at all that has to be done between now and then, the beginning of May 2019 seems like a better option.  The Bears vacillate between excitement and trepidation, with the exception of Jolyon Bear, who controls the purse strings; he just looks distraught all the time.  In fact, as long as they have their sofa, a nice warm fire and a plate of marmalade sandwiches they will be all right wherever they end up.

All this has done my reading progress no good at all.  When I ought to be concentrating on the book in front of me, I find my mind wandering off into room measurements and lists of people who will have to be contacted and worst of all, how to get rid of everything that I can’t take.  So, the only book I’ve finished these last two weeks has been Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for book group and that was a re-read.  We had an interesting discussion about that, however.  Most of us have teaching backgrounds of one sort or another and so as well as the parallels being drawn between what happens in the novel and the conventions of Greek drama we also had much to say about the responsibilities of teachers for their pupils, whatever age those pupils might be.  Julian Morrow came in for some harsh words.  At least this gave me an excuse not to talk about my friend’s husband’s new book when we met on Thursday.  Fortunately, we had so much business to get through on the agenda that the subject didn’t come up, but thanks for all your advice.

I have spent the weekend making lists of what has to be done and when. I always feel better when I have a list. I’m hoping that this means I can get back to more of a routine and start reading and commenting again.  I think my own posting will still be sporadic but I’ll pop in here every now and again and keep you updated.

A Moral Dilemma

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Briefly today as life becomes no less hectic.  I need advice.  Tomorrow I have to go to a meeting which will be chaired by a friend of mine whose husband has just published his latest novel to what can only be described as something less than critical acclaim. I haven’t had time to read it yet, so I can’t pass my own opinion on it (which may not turn out to be any more favourable than that of the critics), do I mention it at all?  All thoughts on the matter gratefully received.

The Dark Angel ~ Elly Griffiths

IMG_0001Just what do you do when the 2000 year old skeleton you are in the process of excavating rings you up and, when you fail to answer, sends you a text message?  You send for Ruth Galloway, of course.  The Dark Angel, Elly Griffiths’ tenth novel featuring the Norfolk based forensic archeologist, begins in the Liri Valley in Italy where Professor Angelo Morelli, an old acquaintance of Ruth, is clearly as concerned about his television presence as he is about ‘Toni’, the skeleton he is unearthing.  When his phone rings in the middle of shooting, the skeleton suddenly gets all his attention.  The television moguls are not, however, amused and so, in a bid to save his media career, Angelo invites Ruth, who much to her dismay he sells to them as an international bones expert, to come over to Italy and give her opinion about Toni’s provenance.

Ruth is not in a good place.  The Dark Angel takes up from exactly where The Chalk Pit ended, at DS Clough’s wedding.  As we follow Ruth and her six year old daughter, Kate, to the reception, it is clear that she has been stunned by the announcement of Michelle Nelson’s pregnancy.  Michelle is the wife of DCI Harry Nelson, who is Kate’s father, and the forthcoming birth of this unexpected child makes it very clear that any future that Ruth might have hoped for with Nelson is not going to materialise. When the call to Italy comes, with the promise of accommodation for her and Kate and the chance to stay on for a few days holiday afterwards, she welcomes the opportunity to get away.  Accompanied by her friend Shona and Shona’s four year old Louis, Ruth takes herself off to sunnier climes.

Although two murders are committed, one in Italy and the other in Norfolk, they are not the focus of this novel which is actually about the concept of family and the legacy of grievances which can resurface from one generation to another.  This manifests itself not only in the complications of Ruth’s relationship with Nelson but also in the history of Angelo’s family.  To some Angelo’s recently deceased grandfather is a hero, others are not so sure.  A member of the Italian resistance, he brought aid to the wartime partisans as they fought against the Nazis.  Some people, however, argue that such individuals only made matters worse for the populace in general, bringing the wrath of Mussolini’s black shirts down on everyone, regardless of their involvement.  Angelo and his mother Elsa defend his reputation vigorously but the undercurrents of ancient grievances are clearly there.

Wartime feuds are recent history, however, compared with the debate raging in academic circles as to the relative importance of the Romans when compared with the even older tribes who populated the region at the time when the smart phone savvy Toni was buried.  The Volsci (remembered mostly in Britain for their role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) have had little attention paid to them but their descendants are determined that the ‘family’ will not be forgotten and are prepared to go to some lengths to prevent further excavation of Roman sites, pushing instead for investigations into the other Italic tribes.

Into this mix is introduced Samir, a Catholic Syrian refugee, who is separated from his family and has risked life and limb in order to try to meet up with them in Italy where he hopes to be able to build a new life for them all.  There is an uncomfortable passage in the middle of the novel where his background is explained.  Uncomfortable, because of what it is describing, but also uncomfortable because the writing is suddenly different from the rest of the text and as consequence it sticks out as a polemic rather than being better integrated into the story.

But then the whole novel is something of a polemic about the complexity of family and the difficulties that defence of family brings with it and as a result for me, at least, this undermines the overall structure of the story.  The notion of the family is relevant to both crimes but the focus of the book is on neither and so they seem almost peripheral to what is happening.  This really isn’t a crime novel; it is a novel about Ruth and Nelson’s relationship and as such I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I have the earlier books in the series.  Its saving grace is that, Samir’s exposition apart, it still maintains the rather quirky narrative voice which presides over the action and lets no one get away with anything even so much as resembling a half truth.  Ruth packing for Italy asks What else does the conscientious mother need?  Antiseptic cream? Nit comb? Gin? and paying their respects to Sunday as a day of spiritual significance Nelson and Michelle are in the modern British equivalent of church: a garden centre. And it has Kate, a far more active presence than in previous books, who, with her Paddington hard stares is ever bit as effective as the narrator when it comes to deflating adult egos.  So, not a complete disaster, but not what I was looking for when I picked this book up.  I hope when we next meet Ruth it will be in a more crime focused context and that her personal life will be a little less to the fore.

With thanks to Quercus Books and Net Galley for making a copy of this book available.

The Lying Kind ~Alison James

IMG_0093Six year old Lola Jade Harper has been missing for seven months after disappearing from her mother’s home in Eastwell, Surrey.  A child likely to be at the heart of a bitter custody battle, she appears to have been abducted to order and inevitably her father, Gavin, is a major suspect.  Now Gavin has also disappeared and given that there have been reported sightings of Lola Jade on the continent, the National Crime Agency, once better known as Interpol, has been tasked to assist in finding him.  DI Rachel Prince and her Sergeant, Mark Brickall, are handed the file and told to liaise with the Surrey force in an attempt to discover whether the little girl has been taken abroad to keep her from her mother.

However, Michelle Harper may not be all that she seems.  While most of the social network comments are supportive of her, there are other indications that she is seriously unstable and very early in her involvement with the case Rachel finds herself questioning just how sincere Lola Jade’s mother is wanting to find the child. Making sure that her husband takes the blame appears to be much more important. When Gavin is eventually tracked down and it becomes apparent that his daughter isn’t with him attention turns back to the UK and Michelle Harper’s movements come under closer scrutiny.  Why has she moved out of the family home to live with her sister and what is happening to the money that has been collected on a just giving site to help with the search?

The Missing Child raises a number of interesting questions about the dynamics of family life.  If a marriage starts to go wrong how do you deal with the growing awareness that you have made a mistake?  Rachel herself has a failed relationship behind her: one from which she has withdrawn without allowing either herself or her husband any form of closure.  What happens when husband and wife have different views not only about having children but also as to how any children should be brought up?  How much can one sibling ask of another and what are the consequences when sibling bonds are broken?  And, most pertinently, what are the consequences when love for a child is subverted by love of oneself.  Alison James successfully manages to integrate each of these different strands into both the central plot and the background material she provides about her main characters in this her first novel.  At the end of the book the reader is left not only with a satisfactory storyline but also with sufficient detail about Rachel, her Sergeant and their personal and professional histories to feel that they are real people with real lives.

This is an accomplished first novel, well plotted, with convincingly drawn characters and also stylishly written.  It isn’t that often that the first in a series is strong enough to make me automatically put a writer on my go-to list of authors but I shall definitely be on the look out for Alison James’ next novel.  I think she may be a writer to watch.

With thanks to NetGalley for making this available for review.

Progress – What Progress?

ImageSo, this is the point in the month when I would normally look back over the previous four weeks, reflect on what I had read in that time and then project forward to consider what I was intending to go on and read in the coming days.  However, in order to do that I would have to have read something recently and feel that there was any likelihood of my reading anything in the immediate future. At the moment I am not sanguine about either proposition.

I started the month with the best of intentions and indeed could truthfully say that I made progress, but two weeks ago everything ground to a crunching halt.  I have had it in mind for some time that I would sooner or later have to downsize.  I love the house I’m living in now, but it is really too large for one person and where it is sited would be very impractical if I was unable to drive.  So, for the past couple of years I’ve had my eye on some apartments in a local market town where I already have an established community of friends. Two weeks ago one came up for sale. You can imagine the chaos that has since ensued.  I have to sell my home in order to buy the apartment, so I have to have a buyer before anyone else has an offer accepted. It has been as if a whirlwind has hit.  Three estate agents came round.  One uttered a brazen laugh at the end of every sentence; I would have killed her before the end of the week. Another made the fatal error of sitting on The Bears; she was lucky to walk out alive.  So that just left the third one.  On such things do vital decisions turn!

Then on Thursday ‘Ben’ came round to take the photos. As you can imagine, The Bears clammered to be included. Photos of three of the rooms will now prominently feature assorted groups of Bears waving wildly in a possibly (probably!) vain attempt to entice people to come and meet them.  Just as long as nobody thinks that they are part of the furniture and fittings. Last time I moved I had to extracate Josiah Bear from the pocket of one three year old viewer who was about to take him home with her.

On Friday morning I received a copy of ‘Ben’s’ deathless prose designed to tempt all and sundry not only to come and view the property but also to put in stupendously over the odds offers for it.  On Friday afternoon, pointing out that I do have a Ph.D. in English Language Studies, I went into the office and rewrote it for him.  ‘Adjacent’ is now his word of the day.

Inevitably this has meant that not only have I done very little reading but I have also been neglecting other people’s blogs. I apologise.  I hope that things will be a little less hectic now at least until (if) I get a buyer and will try and catch up with you all over the next few days. The last time I did this I was working full time and also sole carer for my eighty-three year old mother.  However did I manage it?  (The truth is that I very nearly didn’t and it was only a very supportive head of department who saved my sanity.)

What it does mean is that I am not going to set myself any reading goals for February.  I have a couple of pre-written reviews which will go up during the next week, but after that you may find that I am only around sporadically until, one way or the other, matters are resolved. The only book I will definitely be reading, and it is a re-read, is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is this month’s book club read.  With luck, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, in the meantime I am adopting the war time slogan and doing my best to keep calm and carry on.

The Only Story ~ Julian Barnes

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI think I came at this, the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Julian Barnes, from the wrong direction. No one who knows me will be the slightest bit surprised to hear that I latched on to the word ‘story’ in the title and assumed that the key element here would be a tying of the concept of story to the way in which we live our lives.  And, to a certain extent that is a concern addressed by the narrative that Barnes relates.  However, when Barnes talks of the ‘only’ story what he is specifically referring to is a love story.

Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real… Everyone does. It’s the only story.

The love story that Barnes goes on to relate is that of Paul and Susan, a couple who meet during one 1960s summer when nineteen year old Paul, home from university, decides to kill some time at the local tennis club.  He is paired with Susan for a mixed doubles tournament and the friendship that develops between them quite quickly blossoms into a much more serious relationship. However, to Paul’s nineteen Susan is forty-six and married with two adult daughters. The much older Paul, who narrates this story, recognises that to the reader this might seem problematic, even an error of judgment (the tennis club committee, which blackballs them both, clearly has even stronger feelings about the matter) but asks for a more sensitive understanding of the situation.

Perhaps you understood a little too quickly; I can hardly blame you. We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; where as the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise!

Well, however we may categorise Paul and Susan’s relationship, it not only continues, it absolutely thrives, even under the grumpy and sometimes violent auspices of Susan’s sexually estranged husband and eventually, Paul having completed his university course, they move into their own property as he begins his training to become a solicitor. But, while Paul is content with the situation, Susan begins to show signs of strain.  Her health, both physical and mental, starts to crumble and Paul is forced to question how wise, how stable, their relationship is. He is even forced to question its very foundation – the love which he believes to be the basis of everything else.

The older Paul who narrates the story would, I am sure, maintain that his love never falters, but it certainly changes and one aspect in particular that changes is the way in which he positions himself in relation to his actions as he retells his ‘only story’. At one point he asks

do all these retelling bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away.

In narrative terms he certainly distances himself further from the story of his and Susan’s relationship the further he moves from that initial attraction.  Thus, the story is split into three sections.  The first tells of those early years and the narrative choices reflect Paul’s observation that

first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense:

the narrative voice and tense of that initial section echo that.  The older Paul, however, is astute enough to recognise that it takes us time to realise that there are other persons, and other tenses and as the relationship begins to alter so, in the telling of the second and third sections, he distances himself further and further away from the both the action and from Susan, moving through a well controlled second tense in the middle of the text and then into third person, past tense in the final part until, as an elderly man, he can reflect on their time together from the distance of a limited third person narrator, who is well aware that in his recall of their relationship he may also be an unreliable narrator.

There has been much discussion in the press as to the merits of this novel, in particular in comparison to his award winning The Sense of an Ending. I thought that that was a magnificent work and while I find much in this new book to admire, it didn’t affect me in the same way as the earlier novel.  In part this may be because I didn’t agree with his basic premise.  If we do each only have one story to tell (and this is a proposition that Elizabeth Strout also puts forward in My Name is Lucy Barton) then I don’t think it is always a love story.  My primary story would be about me as a teacher because teaching pretty much defines who I always have been and who I still am.  Teaching is as natural an activity to me as breathing is to most other people.  The Only Story feels to me like a very personal response on the part of the author, possibly growing out of his own experience. Nevertheless, it is an extremely well crafted novel with many of those beautifully turned phrases and astutely authentic observations which are the hallmark of Barnes’ style as, for example, when he speaks of an English silence – one in which all the unspoken words of perfectly understood by both parties. So, while for me, this may not be quite his best work, it is still Barnes writing at the top of his game and I very strongly recommend it.

With thanks to Random House and NetGalley for making this available for review.

Perfect Death ~ Helen Fields

IMG_0245What drives someone to commit murder?  This has been a question raised in a number of crime novels I’ve read this year and it is certainly true of Perfect Death, the third in Helen Field’s Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanch and DCI Ava Turner.  Luc is still finding it difficult to settle into the Edinburgh set-up having been forced out of his job with Interpol following a false accusation of rape.  His gallic good looks don’t make the situation any easier and he remains the butt of DS Lively’s old school sense of humour.  The MIT squad are brought together, however, by the unexpected suicide of their old chief, the now retired DCI Begbie.  What on earth could have induced him to drive his car out to a solitary cliff edge, leave the engine running and feed a pipe in through the window?  Visiting his grieving widow, Ava finds unexpected evidence which links back to a certain Louis Jones, an informant, who has himself disappeared in very suspicious circumstances.

While trying to uncover the mystery in her old Chief’s past, Ava is also under pressure to discover who has been responsible for the death of teenager Lily Eustis.  Initially thought to be an accidental, if questionable, death, it becomes apparent that someone has fed her a high concentration of cannabis oil and left her die on a cold Edinburgh hillside.  Detective Superintendent Overbeck (or Detective Superintendent Evil Overlord as DS Lively prefers to call her) is not impressed when Turner wants to turn the case into a full scale murder enquiry and even less pleased when it is suggested that a second death, that of charity worker Cordelia Muir, might have come about at the hand of the same killer.  Serial killers play havoc with a force’s statistics and have a nasty habit of pushing up the overtime budget.  It is DC Tripp (clearly marked for rapid and well deserved promotion) who makes the connection between the two cases and from that point the race is on to find out who the killer is before they are able to strike again.

I came across Helen Fields first DI Callanach novel early last year and was immediately drawn into the world that she has created.  Her first two novels showed her to be  excellent at both character and plot development; Perfect Death only confirms my initial impressions.  Psychologically scarred by his experiences in France, Luc still finds it difficult to trust the people with whom he works and his obvious differences make it hard for his colleagues to settle with him.  However, there is a realistic growth of mutual respect as he not only brings about resolutions to some seriously nasty crimes, but also shows that he is willing to put his own life on the line when necessary.  Even Lively is prepared, by the end of this story, to go on the record with the opinion that he’s not a complete tosser. From Lively praise indeed.  Fields also deals well with the difficulties faced by newly promoted DCI Turner, exploring the problems which a change in rank, responsibilities and subsequent relations with colleagues can bring.

In respect of the plot elements of the novel Fields judiciously seeds her tale with slight indications of which way the story is going to develop.  Her choice of vocabulary is often very telling, for instance the use of a single word suggesting that a character who is apparently submissive is actually completely in control of the interaction in which they are involved.  This is clever writing.  There is no way that a reader can argue that they have been misled about someone, but equally they are going to have to read very carefully indeed to pick up on the clues that are dropped along the way.

Thematically, as I have indicated, the author is concerned with motive: what is it in a character’s past that compels them to behave as they do? She explores this not only in respect of the two criminal cases that are being pursued but also in regard to the relationship between Luc and the mother who seemingly abandoned him to his fate once the charge of rape was levelled against him.  When she turns up in Edinburgh to try and explain herself to him Luc, not unexpectedly perhaps, wants nothing to do with her.  However, what she subsequently reveals to him might well be seen as motive enough for her behaviour; I suspect that it will become a driving motive for Luc’s actions in future novels. A second developing theme is police corruption.  It is the driving force behind the investigation into Begbie’s death and the disappearance of Louis Jones and the indication is that even when the known rotten apples have been dealt with, there is still another in the barrel who remains to surface at a later date.  This is the second novel I have read this week which explores the less savoury elements to be found in modern policing.  It is a useful plot device applied sparingly, used too often it could be seen an easy way out of a narrative hole of the writer’s own digging.

Helen Fields began strongly and has continued to improve with each successive novel.  If you haven’t already discovered her work then I recommend going back to the beginning and starting with Perfect Remains.  If you do know her previous novels then you will be pleased to know that Perfect Death is every bit as good as what has gone before, if not better.

With thanks to Avon Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.