Reviews ~ Catching Up

I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life.  She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place.  “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously.  I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”.  At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst.  Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.

An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris

This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list.  It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself.  Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book.  As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s.  I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent.  Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down.  Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair.  What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.

This is a chilling story extremely well told.  It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers

This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion.  It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed.  The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit.  Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience.  Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand.  I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.

 

Black Summer ~ M W Craven

Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here.  As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time.  Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton.  As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder.  If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe.  Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book.  However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw.   When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon.  Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do.  Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction.  Her incisive mind cuts through everything.  I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation.  Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it.  What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion.  Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series.  If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.

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WWW Wednesday ~June 12th 2019

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WWW Wednesday is hosted by Taking on a World of Words

The Three Ws are:

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

Currently Reading

I have two books on the go at the moment, Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy and Never Be Broken, the sixth in Sarah Hilary’s crime series featuring DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake.

An Officer and a Spy is the second of my 15 Books of Summer.  It’s one of the longer novels on my list so I thought I would get started on it earlier rather than later; it must be really dispiriting to get to the middle of August and discover that you still have three or four epic length tomes to read.  I picked this partly because I’ve enjoyed some of Harris’ other novels (I got bogged down in the Cicero series and didn’t finish book two) but mainly because it is about the Dreyfus Affair and this is an episode in history about which I have always wanted to know more.  History at school, for me at least, stopped in 1870 and this is set twenty-five years later in a France made paranoid by their loss of the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to the Germans.  So far I am enjoying it very much.  It’s very readable and my biggest problem, which is keeping track of all the characters, is ameliorated to some extent by the fact that Harris has provided a list of the dramatis personae.

Never Be Broken, like all the Marnie Rome novels, is set in modern day London and is a harsh reminder of what life is like in the capital both for the displaced and disaffected youth and under class, and the police who have to deal with the consequences of their circumstances.  Always underlying the tensions in these books is the fact that Noah is black and given that this particular instalment is concerned with knife crime this is especially relevant, as by many of the people with whom he comes into contact he is seen as a traitor; he has thrown his lot in with the wrong side.  Noah’s difficulties are compounded by the death of his brother, Sol, a victim of just such an attack while in gaol for gang related crimes.  This has mentally destabilised Noah, who only feels ‘comfortable’ when he can feel Sol’s presence at his side.  I’m about half way through this and I’m still not quite certain where it’s going. I suspect we may be in for a debate about the extent to which knife crime is being ‘encouraged’ by some of the very individuals who are so vocal about the disgrace of allowing ‘such people’ on the streets.  We shall see.

 

Recently Finished

I’ve recently finished Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, which was the first of my 15 Books of Summer and which I reviewed here and Elly Griffiths’ new novel for children, A Girl Called Justice.  Last week I said that I was going to curl up on Sunday afternoon with the second of these, a pot of tea and a plate of cake, which is just what I did.  However, the book didn’t prove quite as enjoyable as I had hoped.  A mixture of detective novel, school story and watered down gothic horror, the novel is set in 1936 when twelve year old Justice Jones is packed off to boarding school after the death of her mother.  Home schooled up to this point, Justice doesn’t quite know what to expect and while Highbury House, situated in the middle of Romney Marshes, isn’t quite Dotheboys Hall, with its freezing cold bedrooms and appalling food it isn’t far off.  Justice’s father is a Defence Lawyer (he defends murderers) and her mother was a detective novelist so, as you can imagine, it isn’t long before their daughter is on the trail of a mysterious death.  Aided and abetted by the maid Dorothy, she works her way through most of the Gothic and School Story clichés before triumphantly exposing the villain and setting us up for further adventures by deciding that perhaps boarding school life isn’t so bad after all. My problem was that I couldn’t see who I would give this book to. It wouldn’t appeal to boys at all and most of the Year Five and Six (9-11 years) girls I’ve taught would feel themselves far too sophisticated for both style and content.  However, equally, it would be a fairly advanced eight year old who could cope with the language and have the necessary reading stamina.  A bit of an enigma.  Would it have got published if it hadn’t been Griffiths?

 

Reading Next

At some point this week I am going to have to start Becky Chambers latest book, A Closed and Common Orbit.  This has been chosen for next week’s book group meeting and I have to say that I am rather wary as to how the discussion is going to go.  To begin with it is a sequel to an earlier novel and although the blurb says that it stands alone I am not sanguine that that will prove to be the case. In addition it is Science Fiction and the group as a whole aren’t keen on that particular genre.  I think the meeting could be a bit rough going.  The Amazon introduction reads:

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so alone.

But she’s not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

Have any of you read this or any other books by Chambers?  Am I worrying unnecessarily.

I’m also intending to start M W Craven’s second Washington Poe novel, Black Summer.  When I reviewed the first in this police procedural series, The Puppet Show, I wrote about how much I had enjoyed meeting the young statistical genius, Tilly Bradshaw, who acts as Poe’s sidekick.   Tilly does literal like no one else you will ever have met and as someone with Asperger’s I immediately felt at home with her.  I’m hoping she will have an even bigger role in this latest outing for the pair.

Notes On A Scandal ~ Zoë Heller (15 Books of Summer #1)

866EF277-F633-4E0D-B702-F64B2F15428CZoë Heller’s 2003 publication, Notes on a Scandal, ought to have been top of my reading list for that year.  It is, at least tangentially, set in a school and I am a sucker for stories with any sort of academic background.  Yet somehow I missed it, which is why it is now turning up as one of my 15 Books of Summer as I try to catch up with ‘the books that got away’.

At its core, Notes on a Scandal is a book about obsession.  It purports to chart the progress of pottery teacher, Sheba Hart’s, ‘affair’ with one of her underage pupils, Steven Connolly.  Over the course of two terms this relationship begins, develops and ultimately terminates, not only because it is discovered, but also because Connolly has got all the fun out of the situation that he is going to and he moves on to someone else.  Yes, Connolly’s mother, the police, the press and the public in general see him as the victim and I am in no way trying to defend Sheba’s actions, but I have taught the Connolly’s of this world and he recognises a weakness in Sheba that can be exploited and does so for his own amusement.  He can move on whenever it suits him because he has nothing invested in the relationship.  For Sheba it is a different matter because she becomes obsessed with the boy; an obsession which is given shape in the final sculpture she creates reminiscent of the religious image of the pieta.

However, it is not Sheba’s obsession which is at the heart of this story, but that of the narrator, Barbara Covett.  Barbara is, I think, a rather old-fashioned stereotype of the single woman who has spent her life teaching, hating every minute of it and believing that the world owes her something because of the way in which her obvious superiority is overlooked by those around her. Barbara tells the story of these event retrospectively, as Sheba, turned out by her husband and living, with Barbara, in her brother’s currently empty property, is waiting to hear if she is to be prosecuted.  The older woman, in an act that seems almost gloating in its nature, is writing a narrative account of what has occurred and in doing so reveals her own obsession with Sheba and the way in which in nine short months she has forced her into a position where she is almost entirely dependent upon her.  It is as sinister an act of manipulation as you are ever likely to encounter.

Barbara demonstrates that type of possessive nature which demands total devotion from whomever they fasten onto as the object of their desire.  Her fascination with Sheba is not the first such relationship she has imposed on another woman.  We learn of a previous ‘friendship’, also with a member of staff, Jennifer Dodd, who has had to threaten Barbara with a legal injunction to force the woman to leave her alone.  Interestingly, there is no real indication of there being anything sexual in Barbara’s attitude towards either Jennifer or Sheba, rather what she wants is for them to recognise her superiority and to acknowledge her supreme importance to them.  Speaking of Sheba’s friendship with another teacher Barbara says’

It amazed me that Sheba would bestow kind attention on such a cretin, while ignoring me.

And, when asked to join said cretin and Sheba for lunch

Clearly, she had not been informed about the cold war between Sue and me. This came as both a relief and a vague disappointment. Was it possible that I had never even come up in their conversations?

Gradually Barbara insinuates herself further and further into Sheba’s life, not only at school, but also her home life, until, when the affair with Connolly comes to light and Sheba is forced to leave the family home, she is able to take control of her almost completely.

As a creation Barbara is a remarkable piece of work.  Heller has created a character who, despite the fact that she is clearly an unreliable narrator, bending facts to suit her own ends and in order to bolster her belief that the world in general sets out to do her down, is nonetheless consistently believable.  In fact she is all the more terrifying because she is so believable and also because there are moments when Heller draws you onto her side. She is genuinely distraught over her cat’s death, for example, and while Pabblem, the obviously over promoted Head Teacher, is, when he encourages her to retire, correct in as much as she has has hidden what she knew of Sheba and Connolly’s affair, it is very clear that this is only an excuse to get rid of someone who sees right through him.  It’s a case of constructive dismissal if ever I came across one.

I wasn’t so sure about Sheba, however.  Perhaps it is because we only ever observe her through Barbara’s eyes, but I didn’t feel that I knew her well enough to see her as a fully developed character.  Maybe this is one instance when I really do need to watch the film, because Cate Blanchett will have had to have rounded her out in order to play the role.  I suspect that I should have given more attention to what we are told about her relationships both with her parents and her much older husband in looking for a source for her behaviour, but Barbara clearly dismisses these as unimportant and I’m afraid I followed her lead.

This is a hard book to say that I ‘enjoyed’ given that it is about such a difficult subject and it is told by such a nasty character.  However, it is not a difficult book to appreciate because the writing is excellent and the story compelling.  A good start to my summer reading.

WWW Wednesday ~ June 5th 2019

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WWW Wednesday is hosted by Taking on a World of Words

The Three Ws are:

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

Currently Reading

I am just starting the first of my picks for 20 Books Of Summer, or in my case, 15 Books of Summer.  Rather than physical TBRs, I have selected novels that I regret not having bought or read when they were initially published. Consequently, the order in which I tackle them is being dictated to some extent by the fact that I am sourcing most of the  books through the library. First to turn up was Zoë Heller’s 2003 Notes on a Scandal and I  have literally just started it this morning.  I can’t imagine why I have failed to read this sooner because it is set in a school and I have spent a life in education and rather than being put off by that I love anything with an academic setting.  As well as being about a school situation the book is also about the type of intense relationship that can develop in what is often a very inward looking and claustrophobic environment. Not infrequently such relationships have an unhealthy element to them and I am expecting tears before bedtime at the very least.

Recently Finished

My most recent read has been Matthew Pamplin’s novel, Mrs Whistler, which tells the story of Maud Franklin, Madame or muse to the artist James Whistler, during the four years from 1876 to 1880.  Given Pamplin’s qualifications, which include a PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, I am assuming that the story he tells and the portrait he draws of Whistler is reasonably accurate, which is a shame.  I have always loved Whistler’s etchings of London but when I look at them now I shall have to consciously put to one side the impression Pamplin leaves with the reader of a self obsessed man easily duped by anyone who tells him what he wants to hear.  It is apparent from the very beginning that Charles Augustus Howell (Owl) is a ‘wrong-un’, playing on Whistler’s ego to swindle him every which way, including passing on information to the artist’s arch enemy Sir Frederick Leyland, but Whistler is completely blind to this, mainly because he cannot believe that the world will not rearrange itself to suit his requirements.  I’m not certain who I wanted to bop most, Owl for being an out and out rotter, Whistler for being stupid enough to believe the lies he’s fed or Maud for sticking by him.  Maud at least has the excuse that if she left Whistler she would probably have found herself on the street and would have had no way of supporting the two daughters she had by the artist and whom he forced her to put out to foster.  It’s a very readable book and I persevered because I wanted to know if Owl’s perfidy would ever be uncovered but it left me very annoyed with all the characters involved.

Reading Next

Once I’ve finished Notes on a Scandal my next read for the Books of Summer is going to be Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy.  This is Harris’s retelling of the story surrounding the miscarriage of justice meted out to Captain Alfred Dreyfus in the France of the late nineteenth century. Dreyfus was accused of spying when in fact he was used by those in power as a means of covering up their own crimes.  I’ve always been aware that there was something called The Dreyfus Affair lurking in France’s past but I’ve never known just what the details were.  I trust Harris as a writer enough to think that he will give me an accurate account of what really happened.  Also at the top of the pile is Elly Griffiths’ first novel for children, A Girl Called Justice.  Set in the 1930s it is a combination of detective fiction and school story; what better could I ask for? Coming in at just over two hundred well spaced pages it shouldn’t be a long read and I think I shall keep it for Sunday afternoon and savour it with a pot of tea and a plate of scones.  Ruth Galloway would approve!

Midweek Reflections

With the 20 Books Of Summer Challenge starting next week and novels to finish for two book groups I’m in a sort of limbo state at the moment.  I need to finish my ‘prescribed’ reading, but not too soon, because I don’t want to start anything else that I may not finish before the Summer off on Monday. Given that I’ve got a pretty free weekend coming up I shall probably have to jump the gun and get started on my fifteen chosen books a couple of days early.

At the moment I’m half way through two books, one a re-read and the other a recommendation from a fellow blogger.  The re-read is Madeline Miller’s Women’s Prize shortlisted Circe.  I read and reviewed this when it first came out but the book group rule is that we don’t schedule novels until they are available in paperback, so six months has gone by and as I’m leading this particular discussion I thought I had better refresh my memory.  Not all books stand up to a re-read, however, Circe is, if anything the better for it.  I thought it was superior both to her first novel, The Song of Achilles and to Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which came out at pretty much the same time. I don’t see any reason to change that view.  One of the things that stands out this time round is just how well Miller respects not only the sensibilities of a modern audience but also the literary conventions of the time when the original story would have been told.  This is definitely a feminist retelling and yet the writer never attempts to explain away tropes that the original Greek audience would have taken for granted. God’s, dragons, a minotaur – of course such things exist.  Miller doesn’t try to suggest that they don’t while allowing her readers (me at least) to hold them in my mind simultaneously as both real and symbolic.

The other book I’m reading is Matthew Plampin’s Mrs Whistler, which was recommended by a fellow blogger and which has had some very good reviews in the press.  I was drawn to it because I simply love Whistler’s London prints in which he catches the essence of the city at the turn of the last but one century in just a very few lines.  I’m well aware that simply because someone produces a great work of art in whatever field, that doesn’t make them good or, in this context more importantly, interesting, but I live in hope. I haven’t got very far as yet and what I can say about it is that it is eminently readable, however, I’m not sure that when I get to the end of it I am going to feel that I’ve read anything of any weight or importance. However, it might make a good Summer School book, because I am always looking for works that won’t demand too much of those who attend. It is after all held during the holiday season. I could link it with The Girl With The Pearl Earring and search around for a third book about an artist to complete the trio.  Does anyone have any suggestions?  

High Rising ~ Angela Thirkell

It would not have been possible to hang around the particular corner of the blogging world that I have inhabited for the past decade or more without coming across reference to the works of Angela Thirkell.  Born in 1890, Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones and the goddaughter of J M Barrie.  She was also closely related to both Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin.  Following her return to England from Australia in 1929, after the failure of her second marriage, writing provided her with a source of income and she produced a series of novels collectively known as the Barsetshire Chronicles.  The reference to Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire is neither accidental nor inappropriate.  A more modern reader might also wonder about her ongoing influence in respect of the everyday stories of the good people of Borsetshire.

Despite the pleasure that Thirkell’s work has so obviously given to many of my blogging friends, I’ve never felt particularly drawn to her novels.  However, while I was nosing around the library last week, looking for something undemanding to relax with over the bank holiday weekend, I came across a copy of the Virago Modern Classics reprint of High Rising, the first of the Barsetshire series, and thought, “why not?”.  I have to say that I didn’t get off to a particularly good start.  The introduction is by Alexander McCall Smith, another writer whose works have never appealed, and I don’t think he does the book any favours.  It sounded too twee for words.  I came away with the impression of someone trying to be a female Wodehouse (whom I do enjoy) and failing.  I very nearly went no further.

Well, that would have been a shame, because although by the end of the book I felt I had possibly had sufficient of the doings of the worthies of High and Low Rising, especially the stereotypical young lovers, Adrian and Sybil, who really do deserve each other, there was enough wit in the writing along the way to make me smile and just occasionally to laugh out loud.  Central to the story is widowed novelist Laura Morland.  I assume that this is a thinly drawn portrait of Thirkell herself.  Certainly, Laura would agree with Thirkell’s often quoted remark that it is very peaceful with no husbands even though this means that she has been left to bring up four sons by herself and has taken up writing as a means of paying for their education.  At the time we meet her (presumably in the early 1930s) only the youngest, Tony, remains at home, although Laura is still concerned about money; after all she only has a London flat, a cottage in the country and a ‘middle-class car’.  (I would hate to hurt my car’s feelings but it is definitely working class.) Add to this her servant and fur coat and I found it hard to be convinced of her poverty but I suppose it’s all relative. Nevertheless, Laura is good company and she is also good hearted, determined to support as best she can her friend Anne Todd, who really is in a financially parlous state, bringing in a little money through typing manuscripts as she looks after her ailing and elderly mother.  She is also determined to save her friend and fellow author, George Knox, from the conniving wiles of Miss Una Grey, at present his secretary, but intent, by whatever devious ways necessary, on becoming something more.

The main thrust of the story is the unmasking of the aforesaid Miss Grey and the bringing together of Laura’s publisher, Adrian Coates, and George’s daughter, Sybil, not to mention providing life long security for Anne Todd. However, there are also some wonderful vignettes along the way, including the boxing competition at Tony’s school  and the evening Laura and George share at the first half of a production of King Lear.  (They get to the point at which Gloucester’s eyes are put out and Laura can take no more; part of me understands where she was coming from. Mind you, given that this was published in 1933, a Lear seen in London in the years immediately prior to publication  would have been John Gielgud’s first shot at the part and I refuse to believe that the verse was handled as excruciatingly as is suggested. If there was one thing Gielgud excelled at, it was handling verse.)

It was round about the Shakespeare incident that I began to feel I had possibly had enough of the worthies of the Risings.  If George really does think that none of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during Elizabeth’s reign then it is probably a good thing that he is having second thoughts about writing a biography of the Queen and while Laura might be happy to listen to his never ending over-blown opinions, I would have bopped him one.  There are, too, inevitably, I suppose, given when it was written, a number of attitudes quite frequently expressed that are uncomfortable today and which were beginning to really put me off the characters giving voice to them.  So, would I read another of Thirkell’s works?  Possibly, after a decent gap and in circumstances where I wanted something that wasn’t going to tax me in any way, but I don’t think I am ever going to be a great fan.  Still, at least I now have some idea of what draws those readers who are.

The American Agent ~ Jacqueline Winspear

The American Agent is the latest in Jacqueline Winspear’s novels centred around her private investigator, Maisie Dobbs.  This series, which begins in the late 1920s, has now reached September 1940 and, the so-called ‘phoney war’ over, London is being hit night after night, by the bombing raids of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.  Maisie and her friend Priscilla Partridge, both of whom served in France during the First World War, are now working during the hours of darkness as an ambulance crew, ferrying the injured to hospital through the blackouts and the chaos caused by the falling munitions.  On one such night a young American reporter comes out with them.  Catherine Saxon, the youngest child of influential parents, has defied her father’s wishes (girls, after all, are only good for dynastic marriages) and come to Europe in the hope of finding herself a regular spot as a wireless correspondent.  After time spent in Spain and Berlin, she is now writing pieces designed to encourage America to enter the war in support of those opposing the rise of Nazism and one such has been commissioned for the medium she hopes to conquer.  However, the next morning Maisie finds herself being approached by her old friend, Robbie MacFarlane, currently working in a rather more secret branch of law enforcement, with the news that Cath has been murdered and seeking her help in tracking down the killer.  Maisie’s task is complicated by the involvement of American interests in the shape of Mark Scott, clearly working within a rather different remit to hers but nevertheless the US State Department’s man on the spot.  She and Scott have run into each other before, in Berlin, and there is tension between them not only because there is an obvious physical attraction, but also because Scott seems never able to be open about just who he is working for and what his precise purpose might be.  This is certainly the case here.  While he definitely wants to know what is going on in the investigation, that is clearly not his main reason for being in London and both Maisie and the reader are left guessing just what his presence in the city is really all about.

I have read very mixed reviews of this, the fifteenth book in the series.  It is longer than most of the others and some reviewers have felt that it was slow to get off the mark, one suggesting that it could well lose the first hundred pages, which mainly deal with the terrors of facing the blitz night after night.  While I concede that the main storyline is perhaps not as clear cut as it might be, the investigation into Cath’s death and Maisie’s concern as to just what Scott is up to and whether or not he can be trusted don’t mesh well together, I thought this book was excellent in the way in which Winspear’s novels so often excel, namely in painting a picture of what life was like for the ordinary individual, especially the poor of London’s East End, during the difficult years of the 1930s and on into those early years of the war.  I wouldn’t have lost a word of those first hundred pages because they capture the terror of events and the resilience of the general populace in the months from September through to the end of the year, magnificently. Furthermore, they are essential to the main historical point that Winspear is addressing, namely the pressure being put on American correspondents by influential Isolationists to minimise in their reporting, the devastation facing not just London, but many other towns and cities throughout Britain, and the true threat of the Third Reich to world peace.  In many instances these people were driven not so much by a desire to keep their countrymen out of a European war but by entirely more personal reasons to do with their stock holdings in German companies.  Chief amongst these is a character only peripheral to Winspear’s narrative but in no way peripheral to what was happening in respect of the Isolationist cause, the American Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy.  I was still in primary school when his son, John, was elected President and, like many young people, I was won over by the charisma, but my parents were always very wary of him. For their generation, the name Kennedy was still pretty much a dirty word.

As usual, Winspear also explores the way in which larger events impact on her main characters.  Will Maisie’s eldest godson survive his time as an RAF pilot and what will happen to the youngest when he reaches an age where he will have to publicly defend his pacifist standpoint?   It is clear, too, that she is looking forward to later wartime events; her assistant, Billy Beale, is at the moment pleased that his eldest is stationed in Singapore.  That isn’t going to last. I hope that when/if she does tackle the horrors of what happened to those who were present at the fall of Singapore she acknowledges that there were prisoners other than those who were sent into Burma to work on the railways, prisoners who suffered just as much.  It always amuses me when commentators talk about how little we know now concerning North Korea. My father could have told you quite a lot about it, having spent three and a half years in the country after being shipped out of Singapore to the carbide factories there by the Japanese in the summer of 1942 .

So, perhaps not the greatest of Winspear’s crime novels, but I think still very well worth reading and one that will spark a lot of memories for those of us who have some personal connection with the events that form the backdrop to the main narrative.

15 Books of Summer

866EF277-F633-4E0D-B702-F64B2F15428COver the past few summers I’ve been aware of fellow bloggers taking part in Cathy746books seasonal challenge to read and review twenty books from their tbr lists. I’ve always thought it was a good idea, but somehow I’ve never caught the beginning of it.  Typically, this year, when I have become aware of people posting their lists of intended reads, I no longer have a mountains of unread books piling up all over the place. When I moved this time last year I had to get rid of around eighty percent of my collection and the tbr list was decimated.  (Actually, it was far more than decimated, which means that only one in ten went.  For me it was more like one in ten remained but I don’t think there is a term for that!). However, nothing daunted, I have drawn up a list of books that over the years I have somehow missed out on; books that I always meant to read but failed to find time for when they were current in my mind.  They may not be part of a physical tbr pile, but they are definitely mentally part of my tbr intentions.

You will have noticed, however, that I am not going for the full twenty.  Cathy allows participants to opt for a lower number, fifteen or ten, and when I look at my other reading commitments for the period between the 3rd of June and the 3rd of September, I think that twenty would be over optimistic.  I have five book group reads and three novels for the Summer School to get through during those months, as well as a list of thirteen new publications due which I will also want to read.  That alone is twenty-one books before I start to add anything else to the list.  I would like to think that I might manage three books a week, but as the Summer School books will have to be read before the week begins, and I won’t want to be reading anything else during the week itself, an additional fifteen sounds more reasonable.

So, my initial list, in no particular order, is:

  • Cloud Atlas ~ David Mitchell
  • Notes on a Scandal ~ Zoë Heller
  • The Honorary Consul ~ Graham Greene
  • A Dark-Adapted Eye ~ Barbara Vine
  • Quartet in Autumn ~ Barbara Pym
  • The Blue Flower ~ Penelope Fitzgerald
  • Mr Pip ~ Lloyd Jones
  • Amy and Isabelle ~ Elizabeth Stroud
  • An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris
  • The Noise of Time ~ Julian Barnes
  • English Passengers ~ Matthew Kneale
  • To the Lighthouse ~ Virginia Woolf
  • The Fountain Overflows ~ Rebecca West
  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum ~ Kate Atkinson 
  • My Lover’s Lover ~ Maggie O’Farrell

I only possess two of these books at present, so I am going to be dependent on the library to get me copies of the others, but I’ve checked and I don’t think that should be too much trouble.  However, it does mean that I can’t predict the order in which I am going to read them.  I’ll hang on to the two that are on my shelves so that if the library fails at any point I will have something to be going on with.

My other reason for wanting to take part in this challenge is that I hope it will get me back reviewing again.  I haven’t been doing enough of this lately and I am aware that I am not getting as much out of my reading as a result.  When you have to bring your thoughts about a book together so that you can write coherently about it I am sure the quality of your reading is of a different order.

I am very much looking forward to sharing this with everyone else taking part. This past year has been very disrupted in many ways, and I would love to think that (ongoing dental treatment apart) I could look forward to a peaceful three months concentrating on reading, writing and drinking tea and very little else.  Wishful thinking, probably, but we can all dream.

 

Summer School ~ 2019

It’s that time of year again when I begin to prepare for the Summer School that I run each August.  As some of you may remember, this started because I wanted to attend a Summer School but simply couldn’t afford the prices that were being asked.  Our variant, perhaps not as intensive or as academic as some, costs us each the princely sum of £1.50 plus whatever we have to pay for the three books that we study.  A bargain at half the price, I think you’ll agree.

Every year I offer five sets of three novels, each set being loosely linked by a particular theme, and the people who have signed up vote for their favourite.  We’ve only ever had one person pull out because their selection wasn’t chosen – we didn’t invite her back the following year! Books identified we then meet on the Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons of the August week that suits most people best.  Each book is introduced by a different member of the group and each meeting takes place in a different person’s home.  That way no one is put under too much pressure.  This is the ninth year we’ve done this, so we must be getting something right.  In fact last year, we came very close to having to run it twice because so many people wanted to come it was difficult to find living rooms big enough to take us all.

This year’s selection is as follows:

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

Retelling the Tale
The Secret History ~ Donna Tartt
The Song of Achilles ~ Madeline Miller
The King Must Die ~ Mary Renault

Twinned
The Thirteenth Tale ~ Diane Setterfield
Her Fearful Symmetry ~ Audrey Niffenegger
Sisterland ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

Obviously, as I’ve put together the sets of books, they are all ones that I wouldn’t mind re-reading but there are a couple that I really hope might come up this time.  What, I wonder, would you opt for?

 

 

Sunday Retrospective ~ May 5th 2019

It’s been rather quite round here lately.  Since I last posted I have spent another seventy minutes in the dentist chair, with the inevitable aftermath, and then had the household disruption of having my old boiler and the associated hot tank ripped out and a new, more ethical boiler, installed.  In fact, the father and son team who carried out the installation were superb and caused minimum mess and disruption, nevertheless, having someone else in the house, chatting and singing and generally being there when you’re used to being on your own, isn’t conducive to either reading or writing.  The up side of this is that the hot tank (far too big for a one bedroom flat) occupied a cupboard five foot by three.  This is now empty – but not for long. The walls aren’t strong enough to take shelves to be loaded down with books but the space is more than big enough for bookcases to go in there.  I reckon I am going to get another fifteen foot of shelving.  Given that since I moved it has had to be a case of one book in, one book out, this is a cause for celebration. The Bears are taking bets on just how long it is going to take me to fill it.  Let them know your predictions and they will quote you odds.

Where books are concerned I’m part way through two novels neither of which I am really sure about.  Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds is clearly a retelling of the Lord Lucan affair and as such there was always going to be a question over the narrative voice.  You can’t tell it from his point of view because you would have to take a stand on what happened to his lordship, but telling it from the nanny’s perspective is problematic as well, given that she is presumably going to end up dead.  It is Dawson’s solution to this which worries me.  At the moment I can’t see how the device she’s chosen fits with the rest of the narrative.  Maybe all will become clear if I get to the end of it.

The other novel is for a book group meeting tomorrow, so I must finish it tonight despite the fact that I am not at all convinced by it.  Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black has been much lauded and it appeared on the long and short lists for several awards but I just can’t see why.  It seems like a ragbag of ideas to me.  If I’m meant to take it seriously as  a slave narrative I can’t do that because so many elements are randomly unbelievable and I can’t find any other idea that serves as a focal point to hold the story together.  I’m hoping that someone tomorrow is going to show me where I have gone wrong with this book because at the moment I am flailing badly.  What do other readers think?