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.

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.