Bellman and Black ~ Diane Setterfield

At a time when everyone else in the blogging world seems to be reading Diane Setterfield’s latest novel, Once Upon A River, I found myself picking up her previous offering, Bellman and Black, it being this month’s choice for one of my Book Groups. I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, even though it was such a commercial success, and the fact that it was promoted on the cover as a ghost story didn’t do anything to attract me to this second volume – I haven’t read ghost stories since I was fourteen.  But that’s the whole point of a Book Group, isn’t it?  Or at least it is of the two to which I belong.  We read books we would otherwise never have picked up because we trust the instincts of the other group members.  I find it very hard to believe, but this particular group is now in its seventeenth year and during that time I have discovered several authors whose books I would never normally have picked up but who now feature regularly on my reading lists.  So, remembering that the person who had chosen this also introduced me to David Mitchell and Kamila Shamsie, I dived in.

When William Bellman is ten, cheered on by his cousin Charles and friends Fred and Luke, he takes up his catapult, pulls off a remarkable shot and kills a rook.  This is the novel’s opening scene and the reader is encouraged to believe that this incident will colour everything that happens to William from that day on.  Although a grandson of the local Mill owner, it is not William who is in line to take up the business but his cousin, Charles. However, Charles has no interest in the business, indeed no interest in living in England.  His love of painting takes him off to Italy and it is William who joins Paul, his uncle, in the family concern and whose fresh eye and keen brain soon transforms the Mill and all the associated trades.  When his grandfather dies and Paul takes over there is nothing left to stand in the way of William one day succeeding his uncle and not only running, but substantially expanding and innovating the Mill himself. Happily married and with four small children everything seems to be going William’s way until an unnamed epidemic (we speculated either typhoid or diphtheria) hits the village and his wife and three youngest children die while Dora, his eldest, is left both disabled and disfigured.

At each of the funerals he is called upon to attend William is drawn to a shadowy figure in black, someone he feels he should know but just can’t quite pin down in his memory. Memory is something that William avoids, even though Dora tries to recall the family life that they had once known.  William is all to do with thought and as the book reminds us,

[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.

In giving himself over entirely to thought and neglecting to remember his family and all those who were important to him, William cuts himself off from the people who love him and who might have saved him as he becomes more and more obsessed with meeting what he sees as an obligation to the black-coated, shadowy figure from the graveyard.  And yet, ironically, it is memory which is at the root of his next great business success as he goes on to found the magnificent London emporium, Bellman & Black, where everything you need to commemorate your recently departed loved one can be found under one roof.  It was the description of the building and the fitting out of this store (one bound to bring almost unlimited success at the height of Victorian mourning traditions) that I enjoyed  most.  Bought up in trade and with a love of ordering and organising, I was fascinated by the minutiae of how William builds this new business from quite literally the ground upwards.  But, although his name is over the door and on all the carriages and letterheads, the mysterious Black is never seen and gradually his absence begins to build in importance in William’s mind and brings about the novel’s conclusion.

We had a really good discussion about this book, mainly because although we had all found it eminently readable, we none of us thought that it quite held together. Our main complaint was that Setterfield had started too many ideas and not really developed any of them sufficiently. Too often we felt we were having to search for an explanation as to how a particular incident fitted into the overall scheme of things and as a result the ideas, if not the narrative itself, seemed disjointed and not fully developed.  Our estimation of the character of William, however, differed. While some found his obsession with his work disturbing and difficult to understand, others felt it chimed with the experience of trying to build a career in a challenging climate. Ulitimately, of course, William fails because to be obsessed with death in life is to deny living, until all that is left is death itself, those things which make living worthwhile having never been enjoyed.  The book begins and ends with William’s death.  Whether or not he can be said to have lived in the interim is for the individual reader to decide.

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Sunday Retrospective ~ February 17th 2019

It’s been a busy week!  It started with a visit to the dentist, never a good move.  In this case even less of a good move than usual as we ended up planning an intensive programme of further visits over the next six months or so.  There’s a passage in one of Helene Hanff’s books where she tells how she has been intending to visit London only to discover that she is going to have to spend her savings on dental treatment instead. I know just how she must have felt.  As I watched the projected costs mounting I could hear Jolyon Bear (he who keeps hold of the purse strings) in my head telling me that it is going to be the library for me for the next year or two.

Then I had my first assignment to write for my Shakespeare course – only 500 words, but that actually made it all the more difficult.  I just about managed it (518) in as much as I answered the question, but there was no room for eloquence and I always feel that anything you write should take account of the “music” of the words as well as the content.  This felt more like a simple check list of the points I needed to make than anything else.  Submitting it electronically was fun too as the instructions provided bore very little resemblance to what actually happened when I tried to download it onto the University site.  In the end one of the other students (a software engineer) and I found a way to get round the problem but IT support and I are going to have words tomorrow morning.  A Russell Group University should not be making mistakes like that.

So, all in all there has been very little time for reading or blogging this week.  I have just finished Mari Hannah’s latest Oliver and Stone novel, The Scandal, which comes out at the beginning of March so I will leave a review until nearer the publication date. I like Hannah’s work very much and for the most part this was no exception.  My one quibble was that she stood on a particular soapbox and thumped a particular drum rather too loudly and obviously and weakened her argument as a result, but more later.

I am also halfway through Diane Setterfield’s second novel, Bellman and Black which is next week’s Book Group choice.  I was one of the few people who didn’t like The Thirteenth Tale.  I was getting along fine with it until about three quarters of the way through and then the plot lost credibility for me and I felt cheated.  I was getting along fine with this book too until yesterday when it suddenly took a turn that left me feeling a bit grubby for reading it, so I’m not certain how I’m going to respond to what I still have left to read.  Still, at least there will be something to talk about next Wednesday. One of the things that I am most interested in is how unusual a choice it is for the person whose turn it was to select the book.  I’m also interested in the fact that I feel that way.  Perhaps we stereotype each other as particular categories of readers too easily.  It’s a lazy way of thinking.

Sunday Retrospective ~February 10th 2019

So, on to Twelfth Night this week for my online course.  I am much happier studying this play than I was with Macbeth.  It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage and was as responsible as anything for lighting in me the muse of fire (Henry V  next on the list) that has never since dimmed for a moment.  Actually, that first performance was staged by an all-girls’ school which, when you think about it, adds all sorts of interesting dynamics to the gender complexities that are at the heart of the play. Whereas Shakespeare had a boy playing a girl dressed as a man and being wooed by a girl who was also a boy while falling in love with a man who really was a man, that production had a girl playing a girl dressed as a boy being wooed by a girl who was also a girl but falling in love with a girl who was playing a man. Get your head round that, if you can. The last theatre production I saw played around with any number of homosexual innuendos but I’m willing to bet that that first staging, at the beginning of the 1960s and in an eminently respectable grammar school, didn’t have a lesbian overtone to be seen.  The focus of our study this coming week is the question of gender both on the Elizabethan stage and in the society in general.  I might bring that early staging up and see what others have to say about it.  Stirring again, you will notice.

Where my personal reading is concerned I have just finished Jo Spain’s latest book, Dirty Little Secrets. Spain is a writer I discovered last year through her Tom Reynolds’ series which, like this standalone novel, is set in the Irish Republic. I’m not a great lover of standalone thrillers, but I have enjoyed this author’s work so much that I thought it would be worthwhile giving this one a go; I wasn’t disappointed.  This may be in part because although it is a not one of the series, it is very much along the lines of a police procedure. It is, however, also due to the writers ability to unwrap mysteries slowly in front of her audience and allow them to play along with the detection game as well.

Olive is dead. More to the point, Olive has been dead for three months and none of her neighbours, in a small gated community, have noticed. It is only with the blue bottles and the smell become overpowering that the police are finally called in. They were community, however, is something of a misnomer, because the residents of Withered Vale have never exactly bonded. Each home keeps very much to itself, much to the annoyance of Olive, who would like to be part of the lives of her neighbours.   But would you want Olive involved in your life? As the story unfolds, told partially in flashback and from multiple perspectives, it becomes apparent that Olive has a way of ferreting out details of each household’s past and, whatever the circumstances, turning them into the dirty little secrets of the title.

Olive is dead, but is it a natural death, a terrible accident or was she murdered?  Frank Brazil, shortly to retire and happy just to put in a day’s work and go home, is called in with his partner Emma to try and find the answer.  But Frank and Emma each have their own secrets and as the investigation continues they, like the residents of Withered Vale, will find that by turning something into a secret you give it a power over you that it doesn’t necessarily merit.  It is the power that those secrets have, and the way in which they are coloured by the mind of the individual who either hoards them or discovers them, which lies at the heart of the book.  You may, as I did, realise who killed Olive some time before you get to the end of the novel, but that won’t stop you reading on because you will be as eager as I was to discover whether or not the other residents of the Vale will find the courage to face their secrets, acknowledge them openly and thereby deny them the power to continue controlling their lives.  Jo Spain is an excellent storyteller and if you haven’t yet discovered her work, then I seriously recommend her to you.

I don’t know how much personal reading I will get done this week because my first assignment is due in on the 19th.  It’s only 500 words long but that in itself makes it more difficult than if I could be expansive. I do have to find time to start Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black for my next book group.  Am I going to enjoy it?

Hagseed ~ Margaret Atwood

I have made it very clear over the past few years that I don’t approve of the Hogarth Press’s retelling of Shakespeare. For me the playwright’s works stand (or sometimes fall) on their own merits and I don’t see the point of attempting a rewrite.  I’m aware that this is perhaps not always a defensible position, given that nine times out of ten what Shakespeare himself was doing was rewriting the works of other people, but nevertheless  it’s my position and I’m sticking with it.  I wasn’t, therefore, best pleased when my Book Group selected Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hagseed, for February’s meeting. The more so because Atwood isn’t exactly one of my favourite writers either.  Well, we must all be prepared to hold up our hands from time to time and admit that we were wrong and this is my time to do exactly that, because I have to say that I loved it.

Atwood’s starting point is the Shakespeare festival in the Canadian town of Makeshiweg, I suspect a thinly disguised Stratford Ontario, where the director Felix Phillips is planning his production of The Tempest, a production he will never get to stage because he is just about to be forced out of office by Tony and Sal, two self-seeking associates who have taken advantage of the fact that Felix has concentrated solely on his creative work and given no thought to the other aspects of running a theatre company such as where is the money going to come from.  In this, Felix is just like the character he is preparing to play, Prospero, who is forced out of his dukedom because he has devoted himself to the Liberal Arts and neglected the duties of a ruler. At one point a character remarked that Felix makes crime easy and it is certainly true that he contributes as much to his own downfall as do those who depose him.

Deserted by his erstwhile friends, Felix takes himself off to a tumbledown countryside shack, presumably the cave of the island, where for eight years he thinks of little but survival, his daughter Miranda, now dead but still with him in his imagination and the possibility of revenge.  However, salvation of a sort comes when he is approached about running a Literacy Through Literature programme in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute.  Here he introduces the medium category prisoners to the works of Shakespeare, exploring those plays that he thinks will speak to their lives, their situations, in ways that enable them to identify with the characters involved. They start with Julius Caesar and we know that they have also explored Macbeth and Richard III. And then Felix’s moment comes.  Tony and Sal, now influential politicians, are to pay the Institute a visit and thus present Felix with the opportunity to exact his revenge.  Like Prospero, his enemies will be present on his turf and he will be in a position to manipulate them and bring about their downfall.  But how to persuade his ‘actors’ to perform The Tempest?  After all, there are fairies!

Something we were all agreed on was that Felix is a brilliant teacher.  The first thing he does when embarking on a new production is to ban the use of any swear words that aren’t in the play itself.  The prisoners can give free rein to any oaths that Shakespeare included but are ‘fined’ for modern equivalents. Can you think of any better way to get a group of mainly poorly educated men to do a close reading of a text?  He also encourages them to reimagine the characters and their situations for their own times and gives them  relative freedom to re-write areas of the play in their own words. Some of the raps they come up with for Caliban are superb.  I absolutely loved the way in which these men brought the text to life in their own terms.  It also means that if you come to the novel not knowing the story of The Tempest it really doesn’t matter because you will pick it up along with them.

Whether or not Felix is successful in his bid to revenge himself on Tony and Sal you must find out for yourselves. I was more interested in how successful Atwood was in reimagining the play for the twenty-first century and as far as I’m concerned she manages this on two levels. Firstly, I think her recreation of the actual story itself is, if not wholly believable, certainly as believable as the original and thoroughly entertaining. Felix manipulates his actors every bit as effectively as does Prospero and his enemies are made to rue the day they turfed him out of his ruling position. However, I also think she picks up on the theory that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was saying farewell to the theatre himself.  Although that isn’t going to happen immediately, I get the feeling that by the end of the novel Felix is realising that his time working on the stage is limited and that he will have to hand over the reins to people such as 8Handz Anne-Marie and Freddie, who follow him from the Institute back to Makeshiweg.  Is it a coincidence that the place where he creates his joint productions with his company of felons is called Fletcher, given that the only plays that Shakespeare would offer the King’s Men after The Tempest were written in collaboration with his successor as company playwright, John Fletcher?

(An aside: did he jump or was he pushed?  The times in the theatre world of the 1610s they were a changing. Tragicomedy was all the rage, a genre in which Fletcher excelled, but which was not really Shakespeare’s forte.  Were takings falling?  Was it suggested to Shakespeare that a structured retirement plan might be a good idea?  I simply ask the question.)

Anyway, you will have gathered that I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone. However, I did go off and have a look at the reviews and found something that I thought was very interesting indeed. While the press reviews that I found were all positive, in fact ‘positively’ glowing, there were a number of very scathing reviews from what I will call more academic sources. These criticisms centred around the fact that the reviewers expected Atwood to offer a more positive view of First Nation characters and those who would normally be seen as the underdogs in society.  They really objected to the way that she presented the prisoners. I found this very worrying. It was as if they felt that having brought Atwood onto the syllabus precisely because many of her novels do indeed address such subjects, they now had the right to dictate that she should only write to their expectations.  An academic’s role is to offer insights into a writer’s work, not to own it, not to control it.  My other book group numbers among its members several such academics. I think I might just put this on next year’s schedule and see what sort of a discussion ensues. Nothing like having a good stir now and then.

Sunday Retrospective ~ February 3rd 2019

A better week all round really. The second week of my course that was devoted to Macbeth had much more of an emphasis on the theatre of 1606 and the politics that might have influenced the subject matter that Shakespeare included in the play.   I am fascinated by the writer’s work in context and so delving into James I reaction to the Gunpowder Plot and his views on kingship (he believed not simply in the Divine Right of Kings but that God had decreed that kings were gods themselves) has been much more my thing.  Nevertheless, I shan’t be sorry to leave the play behind and start tomorrow on Twelfth Night, which is one of my favourite texts. Where my own teaching is concerned, we finished with King Lear this week but not before one of my group had been off and done some research into Nahum Tate, the chap who rewrote the play in 1681. Having discovered that he was also a hymn writer this lady had set out to pin down just which hymns he was responsible for.  I think it is highly appropriate, if not a little ironic, that his most famous opus is that most plagiarised of works, While shepherds wash their socks by night.  Serves him right!

Not content with surrounded myself with Shakespeare academically,  my leisure reading has also been Shakespeare based this past few days. The choice for tomorrow afternoon‘s book group is Margaret Atwood‘s novel Hagseed, which is of course based on The Tempest. You will remember that I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. I don’t like the idea of turning Shakespeare’s plays into novels and sacrilegious as it may seem to many of you, I’m not really a fan of Atwood’s work.  Well, I’m ready to hold my hands up and say I was wrong. I enjoyed every last moment of this book and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. I’m not going to say any more about it now, I’ll wait until after the discussion and then do a mid week post.  Something that I have found very interesting is the way in which reviews of the book divide. Those from the more general press are on the whole very favourable, but those published in academic journals,  considerably less so. That’s something I want to raise with the group when we meet and I’m tempted now to suggest that my other book group, which is a much more academia-based, put it onto their schedule.

My other reading this week has been Elly Griffith’s The Stone Circle, the latest instalment in her Ruth Galloway series.  I was disappointed in the last of these, The Dark Angel, which I felt got the balance between the crimes involved and the relationship between Ruth and DCI Harry Nelson, wrong. This is much better and again I will write about it after publication, which is later this week.

WWWednesday ~ January 30th 2019

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words and is a great way of taking stock of where you are in your reading journey.

What are you currently reading?

My Monday Book Group meets next week and so I am rationing out Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed so that I will finish it on Sunday and still have it fresh in my mind for the group discussion. A re-imagining of The Tempest, it is part of the Hogarth Press series for which they have asked established writers to each take a Shakespeare play and write an updated prose version. As a student of Shakespeare’s plays I don’t really approve of this idea. The plays stand in their own right and don’t need to be messed around in any way.  Add to that the fact that I’m no great Margaret Atwood fan either, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark if you thought I wasn’t really looking forward to this book. Well, the great thing about book groups is that they encourage you to read works that you would never otherwise have picked up and I have to admit that I am very much enjoying Hagseed.  So far, at least, there is none of the magic realism that I associate with Atwood and find very hard to come to terms with in any writer, and I have to say that I think she has found a setting which allows her both to re-explore the story behind The Tempest and the theory that in writing it Shakespeare was dramatising his own farewell to the stage.  The only works that post date this are co-authored with John Fletcher, who took over as the company playwright, and who was probably glad of a bit of support when following in such illustrious footsteps.

The main character is one Felix Phillips, a man who like Lear would see himself as more sinned against than sinning, and who, in the production he is staging at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, believes that he has an opportunity to take his revenge on the two people who ousted him from his job as director of a local theatre festival.  The way in which he persuades the hardened offenders who form his cast to vie for the role of Ariel, who they initially see as a fairy, is little short of brilliant and a perfect reimagining of the role in twenty-first century terms.  I’m really looking forward to next Monday’s discussion.

What did you recently finish reading?

I’ve just finished the most recent book in James Oswald’s Tony McLean series, Cold as the Grave. These are slightly unusual police procedural novels: unusual in as much as although there is always a crime at the heart of the story and, as would be expected, at the conclusion the actual perpetrator is brought to book, the force behind crime still remains at large.  Oswald seems to me to be more interested in the idea that the crime that we can see and punish is actually a manifestation of a power of evil that is as old as the world itself and almost impossible to apprehend.  In this instance the human representations of such evil are exploiting the fear of refugees from war-torn countries who have made their way illegally to the U.K. by threatening their children.  In many ways it is not an easy read, but unfortunately feels all too real.

I am suddenly aware of a contradiction here having just said that I don’t appreciate magic realism and yet I think if I had to try and describe what Oswald is doing in this series it is probably something very akin to that. Nevertheless I think these books are first rate and I shall offer a longer discussion of this particular novel nearer its publication date.

What do you think you will read next?

I shall probably pick up Elly Griffiths’ latest book in her series about Ruth Galloway, the Norfolk based forensic archaeologist whose work with the local police brings her  with uncomfortable frequently into the orbit of DCI Harry Nelson, the father of her seven year old daughter, Kate.  The Stone Circle is the eleventh book in this sequence and I’m hoping it will be better than the last one, The Dark Angel, which I felt concentrated too much on the relationship between Ruth and Nelson at the expense of the crime element in the story.  I shall go on reading these, however, partly because the quirky narrative voice that Griffiths uses always makes me smile and partly because in Kate, now seven, she has captured perfectly the potential for children to quite inadvertently show their parents up on every possible occasion.  This is another novel that is due out in a couple of weeks time and as with the Oswald, I’ll post about it in detail then.

 

Sunday Retrospective ~ January 27th 2019

I’ve spent most of this week immersed in Shakespeare. The group I’m teaching is just coming to the end of a sequence of sessions on King Lear, one of my favourite plays.  We’ve been looking at the production history and as you might imagine there have been more than a few stagings to consider. However, there have been a couple of periods when it has been absent from the stage.  In 1810 it was banned because it was thought that audiences would draw a parallel between Lear’s madness and that of George III.  When the King died in 1820 producers fell over themselves to be the first to stage it again.  Then, it fell out of favour at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries after Henry Irving flopped in the part.  I find it fascinating that one man could so dominate the theatre scene that his failure in a role could see it ignored for eighteen years.  Presumably there had to be something wrong with the play itself if Irving was unable to rise to its demands.

Of course, for most of the period between 1681 and the middle of the nineteenth century it wasn’t so much Shakespeare’s version of the Lear story that was staged as the adaptation made by Nahum Tate, probably the most well-known of the many ‘re-writes’ of Shakespeare’s play’s that graced eighteenth and nineteenth century theatres. Among many other changes Tate is best known for his alteration of the ending.  In his version both Lear and Cordelia live, Cordelia marries Edgar and they rule in her father’s stead.  Lear, Kent and Gloucester go off and live in ‘a cool cell’.  I take it that is a reference to the temperature rather than an indication that they were having a rave up every night.

So, I have enjoyed teaching King Lear.  However, my other contact with the Bard this week has been via the material I’ve been asked to tackle for the first week of an on-line course which for the opening fortnight is concentrating on one of my least favourite plays, Macbeth.  I have a theory about Macbeth.  I don’t think we have all the play as Shakespeare wrote it.  It is much shorter than any of the other tragedies, in fact I’ve seen it played without an interval in just over two hours. The only text we have is that which is in the First Folio and I suspect that all Heminges and Condell had to work with was what we would call a prompt copy, cut down to fit ‘the two hour traffic of our stage’.  By-laws meant that performances had to be over by a certain time and a four hour version of Shakespeare’s latest opus just wasn’t going to cut it. This, I think, is the reason that Macbeth as a character is so hard to make work psychologically.  He’s lost a lot of the stages in his downward spiral. What Burbage thought of having his part slashed like that, goodness only knows. Certainly, although I must have seen upwards of a dozen productions, I have only seen one that I thought successful; that was Trevor Nunn’s staging with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench and that only worked when it was in the confined area of The Other Place where a sense of claustrophobic evil could be built up.  Moved into the Main House it lost all its power. So, I have been ploughing my way through the play this week and trying, without much success, to drum up some enthusiasm for the on-line discussion that is part of the course.  Fortunately, the other plays involved are all favourites: Twelfth Night, Henry V, Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale.

All this Bardolodry has severely cut into my reading time and so the only book that I’ve completed has been Olivia Isaac-Henry’s Someone You Know, which I reviewed earlier in the week.  I’m not a thriller reader at the best of times and I don’t think that this is the best of times.  The thriller is the ‘in’ genre at the moment and as a result I rather think publishers are taking on board novels that they might otherwise have had second thoughts about. While Someone You Know is not by any means a bad book, I’m not sure it would have stuck out enough to attract attention if there weren’t a demand for this type of novel and to be honest I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t had a personal connection to the author.  I am not looking forward to my next meeting with one of the book’s dedicatees.

I do like police procedurals’ however and the more so when they are as well written as those by James Oswald.  I’ve just started the ninth in his Edinburgh series, Cold As The Grave and once I’ve whipped round everyone else’s blogs to see what they are up to I’m going to spend the rest of this wild Sunday curled up in my chair and being suitable scared by the wicked Jane Louise Dee who is back in harness again proving that unfortunately real evil is unlikely ever to be completely defeated.  I wonder if she was one of the original wyrd sisters?

Then it’s back to Shakespeare, not only for another week of Macbeth but also for a dose of The Tempest via Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed, her retelling of the play for the Hogarth series.  This is my next book group choice and if I’m honest, not one I’m looking forward to.  I have a fundamental problem with trying to rewrite Shakespeare in this way and although I know that this is reckoned to be the best of those so far published I am still very uneasy about the project.  I’m also not really a great fan of Atwood.  Oh well, maybe this will be the book that will convince me I am wrong about both Hogarth’s endeavours and the author.  Or maybe not!

Someone You Know ~ Olivia Isaac-Henry

When Tess Piper is thirty five she receives a message from her father that she has been dreading for the past twenty years: you need to come home, this time it really does look as if they’ve found her.  Tess is the younger and sub-dominate half of non-identical twins but when they were fifteen, ebullient and popular Edie went missing and despite an extensive police search and various false alarms over the years, the family is no nearer knowing what happened to her.  Tess, at least on the surface, has always hoped that Edie is still alive and that at some point she will decide to come home, but now it looks as though this is never going to happen.  So, Tess takes leave from her London based job and walks out of the flat that she is sharing with Max her now ex-partner of nine years and travels back to the West Midlands to be with her father, Vince, as they await the pathogist’s report.  When the news comes through that it is indeed Edie’s body that has been found and that there can be no doubt but that foul play was involved, the police re-open the inquiry and the family, including Vince’s brother Ray and his wife Becca come under renewed scrutiny.

Told in alternate chapters from Tess and Edie’s point of view, with Edie’s narrative taking us from the twins’ tenth birthday to the moment of her disappearance, the story not only of what happened to her, but also to Gina, the girls’ mother, gradually unfolds.  Are the Vickers, the oddly matched next door neighbours on the rundown estate where the family lives when we first meet them, somehow involved?  Or is Max, once besotted with Edie and possibly only in a relationship with Tess as second best, to blame for what happened?  Maybe Michaela, the older girl that Edie tags after when the family fortunes alter and they move to a ‘better’ neighbourhood had something to do with the disappearance? The police, both twenty years earlier and now, clearly think that someone in the family is behind the death and Vince and Ray’s attitudes towards staging an appeal or a reconstruction do nothing to assuage that view.  Or what about Tess herself?  She and Edie had argued that afternoon and their relationship, once so tight, had been strained for sometime as Edie fought for independence and Tess struggled to keep her twin close.  Certainly Edie’s erstwhile friends, now eagerly engaged in the vicarious ‘pleasure’ of social media mud-slinging, are sure that the ‘creepy’ twin was somehow involved.  Is it possible that Tess was responsible and has blanked out the memory?

I am going to ‘come clean’ on this.  I was asked to read Someone You Know as a favour to a friend (not the author).  However, although I love police procedurals, thrillers are not really my cup of tea, so I am probably not the ideal reader to judge the novel;  I’m not well enough versed in the genre to know how it rates against the considerable opposition out there.  It’s certainly well written and the dénouement when it arrives is plausible, although I think the subsequent conclusion is hurried through and some loose ends are left floating.  The structure, although it is one which is frequently used (Sophie Hannah, for example, manipulated it to considerable effect in Little Face) I found less satisfying.  I think this was because the chapters were so short, sometimes hardly a page in length, and I felt that I was having to switch focus too often and not being given the opportunity to really get to understand what was motivating either twin’s actions.  And, I never really appreciated how the teenaged Tess became the Tess of the present day action; there was a disjunction there I felt needed addresssing somewhere in the course of the narrative.

But, this is a first novel and it may be very good of its type. It’s certainly very readable but it didn’t make me want to go rushing out and look for more thrillers.  That is probably  more my fault rather than the author’s. Perhaps some of the triller readers out there could try it and let me know what they think.

Someone You Know is Olivia Isaac-Henry’s first novel and it will be published on February 4th.

Sunday Retrospective ~ January 20th 2019

Where Are They Now?

I don’t know about you, but when I’m ill I really don’t want to be reading anything new.  This is the time when I search the bookshelves for something that has given me pleasure in the past and wallow in a surfeit of re-reading.  And, that is precisely what I’ve been indulging in over the past couple of weeks while recovering from the dreaded lurgy. While I was really ill I stuck to books that I know so well I can practically recite them. 84 Charing Cross Road is a particular favourite. (Not books, I know, but never go to a production of Twelfth Night or As You Like It with me. I have been known to prompt from the audience, and woe betide a director who decides to cut any of my favourite lines.  I’m likely to demand an explanation there and then having supplied the missing iambic pentameters myself!)  Once on the mend, however, I searched through the available volumes and alighted on the two police procedural novels centred on war veteran Joseph Stark and written by Matthew Frank, If I Should Die and Between the Crosses, published in 2014 and 2016 respectively.  I don’t know about the later book, but the first of these definitely won awards and rightly so.  I read it at the latter end of 2015 and it was definitely one of my books of the year.  What is more, it bore a re-read and that isn’t always true of a book where plot and carefully placed reveals are essential to its success. But, for the last two and half years, silence.  Frank’s name is on a list I keep of authors to check off against forthcoming publications but at the moment I wait in vain.

Another such series that appears to have run into the buffers after only two instalments is that by Rob McCarthy focussing on one Dr Harry Kent, the first of which, The Hollow Men, was nominated for the Betty Trask first novel award.  I’m not certain what won that year, but it must have been pretty good to beat this, also a crime novel centred around the problems that veterans have returning to civilian life.  In this instance the main character is a doctor who has taken up a post in the NHS but who also serves as a police surgeon with the Metropolitan Police. McCarthy is particularly good at describing the temptations for anyone in the medical profession to self medicate rather than admitting to what they see as failure to adapt to life out of uniform.  To be fair, the second novel, A Handful of Ashes, was a 2017 publication, but there is no sign of a third.

Where are you both now? I ask.  And more to the point when are your books number three on the way?

Tell me, am I the only reader to get impatient in this way or are their authors whose next works you feel are becoming overdue?

 

Sweet Little Lies ~ Caz Frear

I am now back reading new fiction and this week picked up a first novel by Caz Frear, Sweet Little Lies.  This is also a police procedural set in London and featuring DC Cat Kinsella, a member of the Murder Squad, although perhaps not for much longer, given her boss’s concern about the effect her last case has had on her.  Cat, desperate to stay in the squad, is horrified then when the next major investigation turns out to have connections not only to her past, but more specifically to her current family dynamics. She ought to declare an interest and excuse herself from the inquiry, but both her precarious hold on her posting and the fact that a twenty year old personal mystery may at last be about to be solved keep her quiet and she continues to work the case knowing that at any moment she could be found out and face disciplinary procedures.

Both Cat’s story and the investigation centre on the way in which the sins of the father can be seen to blight the lives of their children.  Frear also reminds us that while the horrors of the Magdelene Laundries might be behind us there are still people are more than willing to exploit young women who find themselves pregnant and without any form of family support.  The story she tells is at times horrific, but unfortunately never pushes the bounds of believability.

I thought this was a well plotted first novel with some excellent characters.  I particularly liked the fact that all the police were decent human beings who deserved the ranks to which they had risen.  I am a little tired of police procedurals where squads are full of first class rotters who in many instances are as bad as the people they are pursuing.  Yes, I know that can happen.  I lived in the West Midlands through the 1970s, 80s and 90s; there is nothing you can tell me about police corruption.  Nevertheless, the bullying DCI has become something of a cliché and I was glad not to have to deal with one here.  I shall definitely be reading the second instalment, Stone Cold Heart, when it comes out later this year.  Please Ms Frear, don’t then make me wait for years for episode three.

 

Six Degrees of Separation From The French Lieutenant’s Woman to A Second Chance.

I know that I am horrendously late with this post, but I had it all planned out when the dreaded lurgy struck and I am loath to waste the thought that went into a meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best, which I have to come to really enjoy participating in. So, ten days late – here goes.

January’s Six Degrees of Separation has as its starting point John Fowles novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  I am of the generation who was bowled over by the 1981 film staring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. I remember the wonderful scene shot on the Cobb at Lyme Regis and I did think about making my first leap into Jane Austen’s Patience, which also has scenes set in that picturesque South Coast town or possibly to Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier for the same reason.  However, in the end I decided to stick with one of the stars of the film, Jeremy Irons, an actor I saw several times at Stratford but whose ‘acquaintance’ I first made through the televisation of Evelyn Waugh’s book, Brideshead Revisited.  There has been a later cinematic version of this, but for me it didn’t come anywhere near that earlier dramatisation which was my first introduction to Waugh’s works and which prompted a splurge on almost everything he had written.

Jeremy Irons played the part of Charles Ryder.  One of the novel’s other leading characters is, of course, Aloysius, Sebastian Flyte’s Bear.  As many of you know I too share my life with a number of distinguished and erudite Bears (they are looking over my shoulder as I write so I wouldn’t dare say anything else!) one of whom is also called Aloysius.  In our previous home Aloysius sat on the same shelf in the bookcase that contained all our Harry Potter books and as a result, in a reference to Hagrid’s role at Hogwarts, he became known as The Keeper of the Harry Potters.  My second link, therefore is to the first of the Harry Potter novels, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  I read this in my role of Lecturer in Children’s Literature and am therefore very proud of the fact that I was a Harry Potter fan before most of the world knew that he existed.

In this earliest novel Voldemort is searching for the philosopher’s stone in the hope that it will grant him everlasting life. Another novel in which the search for eternal existence is key is Peter Ackroyd‘s The House of Dr Dee.  Again, this was the first novel that I had read by this particular author and again, it sparked off something of a binge where Ackroyd’s novels were concerned. It could link into my fourth choice, in two ways. Firstly, there is a title link and secondly it is a novel which takes place in two different time spans.  As I want to use the second link between my next two books, I am going to go with the first of those and claim a link through the title of Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.

As some of you know, I run a Summer School each year, where we read three books linked thematically in some way and several years ago now that theme was ‘Then and Now’; all three books were set in both the author’s present and a particular moment in history. The House on the Strand was one of these, featuring a character who moves between his own time and the fourteenth century.  Another choice was Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott.  Stott is one of a number of writers who have written excellent books that I have really enjoyed but who appear to have vanished from the literary scene.  She is well known for her academic writing, but this 2007 work and a slightly later novel The Coral Thief, are her only works of fiction.  Ghostwalk is excellent.  It is a literary murder mystery set in present day Cambridge but also exploring that city’s past, in particular the life and work of Isaac Newton.  In fact, it links back to two earlier choices because the victim, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is writing a book on Newton’s involvement with alchemy.  Vogelsang dies with a prism in her hand and that, along with the Newton connection provide me with my final link to Jodi Taylor’s novel A Second Chance.

A Second Chance is the third in Taylor’s series The Chronicles of St Mary’s, which relates the adventures of an intrepid group of historians who explore historical events in contemporary time.  Don’t call it time travel. Dr Bairstow doesn’t like it.  At the beginning of this particular book Taylor’s heroine (?), Max, is busy preparing for the expedition of a life time, to visit Troy immediately before and after the Trojan War of The Iliad.  However, as a favour to Dr Bairstow she agrees to take a old friend of his back to seventeenth century Cambridge to catch a glimpse of his hero, Isaac Newton.  It is a the St Mary’s equivalent of the prime directive that its historians must in no way interfere with past events but sometimes Max just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or as she would see it the right place at the right time and who knows if Newton would ever have made all those discoveries about light if it hadn’t been for the small hand mirror that she carries to help her see what is going on when she is supposed to be keeping her eyes modestly to herself?  Newton runs off with her mirror and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, from the nineteenth century Cobb at Lyme Regis to a seventeenth century Cambridge quad in six moves.  Next month’s six degrees starts with Fight Club, a work I haven’t read turned into a film I haven’t seen.  I shall have to do some digging!