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!




Recovering Nicely

This is just to say thank you to everyone who sent good wishes for my speedy recovery from what can only be described as the dreaded lurgy. The Bears have tended me solicitously for well over a week now and they finally seem to be winning the battle against whatever bug it was that laid me low.  Normal service will be resumed in a couple of days.

WWWednesday ~ January 2nd 2019

Most of the books I have read over the holiday period have been forthcoming novels that I can’t really review fully until their publication date, so to fill the gap I’m going to take part in WWWednesday, which is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words, and tantalise you with brief summaries of some of the novels on their way in the next few months.  

What Are You Currently Reading?

I have two books on the go at the moment.  As before my bed time reading is a complete survey of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Sequence and I’m still working my way, a few pages a night, through Ship of Destiny, which is great because it means that there are still ten more books to go.  I wrote in more detail about this project here, so in future I’ll just note that it is on-going.

The other book currently on my reading table is the forthcoming novel from Kate London, Gallowstree Lane.  This is the third in her Collins and Griffiths series which is set in a London that Kate herself once helped to police.  I’ve hardly started this as yet, so I can’t say much about it other than that it is about an undercover operation that is threatened when a teenager is mortally injured and in asking for help threatens to bring the undertaking out into the open.

London’s work has a harsher edge to it than that of many of her contemporaries.  It took me two attempts to get into her first novel, Post Mortem, because the opening was so realistically hard hitting.  However, I have come to appreciate the veracity of her story telling and so I am looking forward to getting further into this latest instalment.  The book is published at the beginning of February so my review will be available in four or five weeks time.

What Did You Recently Finish Reading?

I’ve just finished the second in Dervla McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series, set in Galway on the West Coast of Ireland.  If you’ve read my previous post you will know that a re-read of the first novel, The Ruin, wasn’t as enjoyable as I’d hoped.  So I went into the new book, The Scholar, due for publication in March, with a certain amount of trepidation.  Again, I can’t offer a full review until the novel is published, but I can say that McTiernan has addressed two of the problems that concerned me in respect of The Ruin: the narrative line is tighter and the politics within the police squad more believable.  I do, however, have some concerns about the main plot, which hinges on a student at the local university submitting work carried out by someone else.  (I’m not giving anything away here, it is made clear very early on that this is the case.)  This is a situation I have had to deal with and although the deception is one that you might get away with for a short time, I’ve never known it run on for the two year period that is suggested here.  If class work doesn’t match up to written work someone will pick it up.  University lecturers aren’t as distant from their students as this suggests.

What Do You Think You Will Read Next?

My next read will be Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break.  This is for my Monday afternoon book club next week and several of the other members of the group have already said how much they have enjoyed it, so I am looking for good things.  Fantastic Fiction describes it as:

An intense exploration of love and uncertainty when a long-married couple, Gerry and Stella, take a midwinter break in Amsterdam to refresh the senses, do some sightseeing and generally take stock of their lives. Their relationship seems easy, familiar – but over its course we discover the deep uncertainties between them.

Gerry, once an architect, is forgetful and set in his ways. Stella is tired of his lifestyle and angry at his constant undermining of her religious faith. Things are not helped by memories that resurface of a troubled time in their native Ireland. As their vacation comes to an end, we understand how far apart they are – and can only watch as they struggle to save themselves.

I loved MacLaverty’s 1997 novel, Grace Notes, which was word perfect. However, I do seem to recall that whichever group it was I read that for had difficulty getting a handle on it for discussion purposes so I shall be interested to see how next Monday’s session goes. I’m rather glad that I’m not leading it.

Three Short Christmas Reviews

A Snapshot of Murder ~ Frances Brody

This is the tenth in Frances Brody’s series set in 1920s Yorkshire and featuring Kate Shackleton, a war widow who has drifted into the world of the private investigator.  It is 1928 and Haworth Parsonage is just about to be given to the nation for use as a Brontë Museum. Kate and five of her fellow photographers set off on their society’s first ever outing to record the event and to take photographs of the surrounding countryside, especially that associated with Wuthering Heights. Among the party are troubled husband and wife, Carine and Tobias Murchison. Theirs is a marriage that should never really have come about and one which has been placed under severe pressure both by his drinking and the fact that Carine has never stopped loving Edward Chester, her fiancé who failed to return from the trenches.  Also among the group are Derek Blondell, a teenager besotted by Carine, and Rita Rufus, another of Carine’s admirers. The photographers stay at Ponden Hall and it soon becomes clear that Tobias has history with the family there, who have no cause to welcome him into their home.  Thus, when he is stabbed in the crush of spectators gathered to witness the handing over of the parsonage, there is no shortage of potential suspects.

Aided and abetted by the ever reliable Jim Sykes, her niece Harriet and the intrepid Sergeant Dog (otherwise known as failed bloodhound number two) Kate sets out to solve yet another mystery. Despite the fact that there are some really very nasty people populating this novel, the overall tone remains that associated with crime fiction of the Golden Age rather than of contemporary examples of the genre and although I don’t really get on with the books actually written in that era, I do enjoy Brody’s work; this is one of the better books in the series.


Body Breaker ~ Mike Craven

Mike Craven, whether writing in this persona or as M C Craven, has been one of my discoveries of the year.  This is the second in his series featuring D. I. Avison Fluke a member of the Cumbrian FMIT.

When a body is found scattered all over the tenth hole of a local golf course it is Fluke and his team who are initially called in.  However, almost before they have got past the first stages of the investigation they are elbowed out of the way by a squad from the Met.  For whatever reason, the dismembered corpse is on their radar and they are intent on taking the case over.  Neither Fluke, nor any of his team, are happy about this, the less so when it becomes apparent that the name assigned to the victim is a false one and he is, in fact, Mark Bishop (Bish), an old friend of the Inspector, someone with whom he served in the marines. Characteristically, they are determined to continue with the investigation. Fluke’s personal involvement deepens when Jinx, a young traveller, turns up at his door claiming that she is Mark’s wife and that he told her if he was ever to disappear she should appeal to Fluke for help. Loathe to let the Met officers know of her existence, Fluke turns to the last person he should really involve, Nathaniel Diamond, the local criminal kingpin and asks him to find a safe house where Jinx can hide.

The plot twists and turns as Fluke gradually uncovers the reason why Bish had taken up the travellers’ way of life and why the Met are so interested in him.  Craven lays a number of red herrings and I fell for most of them.  However, I wasn’t as convinced by the ultimate reveal as I have been in the other two books of his that I’ve read and the final sting in the tail, the hook that is supposed to draw the reader to the next in the series, just annoyed me.  I don’t like these cliff hangers.  If an author’s work is good enough I am going to come back anyway.  And, in this case, I wonder if Craven hasn’t gone over the top and left his main character in a predicament too hard to write his way out of.  Is this why he has started to write under another persona, with a new protagonist? I shall have to wait and see.


The Ruin ~ Dervla McTiernan

The third of these short reviews is actually of a re-read.  I am just about to start the second of Dervla McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly novels, The Scholar, but, having read The Ruin at a time when I wasn’t really giving my full attention to what I was reading (moving house can be like that!) and not having reviewed it at the time, I thought I had better go back and renew my acquaintance with her characters and the setting first.

Cormac is a D.S. with the Irish Gardaí, based now in Galway, having just transferred from an elite squad in Dublin to be with his partner, Emma.  In his new posting he meets with considerable hostility and is pretty much consigned to re-examining cold cases.  Used to leading high powered investigations, Reilly is uncertain whether his reception in Galway is due to professional jealousy or, more worryingly, that there is a level of corruption among his new colleagues they are concerned he will pick up on.  However, one of the cases assigned is of personal interest to him.  Two decades earlier, as a rookie on the force, Cormac was sent in response to a call about, seemingly, a minor domestic.  What he discovered then has now resurfaced due to the apparent suicide of twenty-five year old Jack Blake. Jack’s sister, Maude, newly returned from Australia, demands that the investigation is re-opened, convinced that her brother was, in fact, murdered and pursuades his partner, Aisling, to join forces with her.  Reilly is ordered to reinvestigate the original call out and associated death and in doing so unearths a web of evil that has cast a pall over the lives of many of the novel’s characters.

The Ruin was published to great acclaim and I remember thinking when I first read it that it lived up to the hype.  After this second reading I am not quite so sure.  McTiernan’s over-riding concern is a particularly nasty type of child abuse and, to some extent, the use of religion as a means of covering up what is happening. I think at times she lets her desire to push home the message get in the way of plot coherence.  There is a side story about the rape and murder of young women on both sides of the Atlantic, which is vaguely thematically linked, but which can distract from the main narrative line.  Second time round, I also felt that the amount of hostility and indeed corruption that Cormac encounters in the Galway force is just too much.  I have friends in Galway and I am loath to think that their safety is being overseen by a set of Gardi who, with a couple of low ranking exceptions, are a darned sight worse than the criminals they set out to apprehend.  This isn’t going to stop me reading The Scholar because there is still a lot about McTiernan’s writing that I did enjoy, but I hope that in a few years time we will look back on this first effort and see it as just that, an apprentice piece from an author who has gone to become a master.

Sunday Retrospective ~ December 23rd 2018

For many people, Christmas preparations will have meant that precious little reading will have been done this past week.  For me, however, the opposite is true.  As we get ever closer to the 25th, keeping to my routine becomes more and more difficult and, as we approach the two week shutdown that seems latterly to have become accepted in the U.K., my tension levels rise daily.  If you have Aspergers, Christmas is an absolute nightmare and now that I no longer have immediate family to consider my way of coping is to bury myself even deeper than usual in narrative in all its forms.  Surviving the next two weeks will be dependent on having enough books, audio files and box sets to keep me so engrossed that I don’t notice how disrupted my world has become.  So, this week I have read Anne Youngson’s Costa nominated Meet Me At The Museum as well as  re-reading the two most recent episodes in Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series.  When I am feeling unsettled for any reason returning to favourite characters is always a good strategy, I find.

I wrote on Wednesday about how much I was enjoying Meet Me At The Museum, which I thought was far better than some of the more scathing reviews I’d come across.  As I finished it on Friday I saw no reason to change my mind.  This epistolary novel charts the growing friendship between two people in middle age, one, Tina, a farmer’s wife from East Anglia and the other, Anders, a curator at a Danish museum which houses the peat preserved body of Tollund Man.  For both, the correspondence opens up new ways of looking at the world and their letters become a conduit through which they explore their thoughts concerning the lives they have lived and are living now.  How did each of them come to their present situation? Are their current modes of existence any longer sustainable?  I found their ‘conversations’ made me think as well, especially about the importance of story and how, in one way or another, the stories a society tells about itself come to be acted out as ritual and in some instances as sacrifices.  Tollund Man has almost certainly been one such sacrifice but, as Tina gradually comes to realise, she too has sacrificed the life she could have had to fulfil the role her own society expected her to play.

 We should look inside ourselves for fulfilment. It is not fair to burden children or grandchildren with the obligation to make us whole

I went back to Jane Casey’s last two novels, After the Fire and Let the Dead Speak when I realised that we haven’t had a new Maeve Kerrigan book this year.  I knew I was feeling deprived for some reason.  For me, Casey is one of the very best crime fiction writers about at the moment. However, reading these back to back was interesting because I hadn’t realised until I did that that there are one or two gaps in the continuing story that runs under the individual crimes. This doesn’t diminish the separate novels in any way at all, but as a nosy reader I would like to know, for instance what happened when Chris Swain came up in court. Perhaps the two short stories we’ve been promised might fill in some of the gaps.

Then, last night I started on the books I’ve been keeping to one side precisely for this Christmas period.  First on the list is Frances Brody’s most recent Kate Shackleton mystery, A Snapshot of Murder.  I always enjoy these novels, mainly because they are set in a part of the country I know well.  To follow this I have forthcoming books by James Oswald, Dervla McTiernan, Kate London and Helen Fields as well as recently published novels by Tana French and this year’s great discovery, Mike Craven.  What I don’t have is a pre-publication copy of the new Ruth Galloway mystery.  Elly Griffiths’ publishers usually offer this on NetGalley in time for the holiday, but this year not so.  Never mind, it will be there to look forward to in February.  What I will have for Christmas Day itself is the new Chronicle of St Mary’s short story, traditionally published for Kindle on the very day. Christmas simply wouldn’t be Christmas without the annual unsanctioned (if not entirely illegal) jump into the past by Max, Peterson and Markham.  The Bears and I will read it over breakfast on Tuesday morning, knowing that, at the very least, a smile on all our faces is guaranteed.