As the heading says, I am looking for some help here. Six months ago I started a Readers Group in the retirement complex where I now live. We meet once a month and share our reading experiences since we last met over tea, coffee and a large box of biscuits. It’s been very successful, not least because it has brought some people out of their apartments who would not normally join in with other activities. One of these is my friend Graeme, who is in the early stages of dementia. I think he is so brave to come and join in our discussions despite the fact he is finding it increasingly hard to recall what he has read. I have suggested that he makes a few notes about what he wants to say to bring with him and that has helped but the time is coming when getting pleasure from a full length novel is going to be more difficult and so I tentatively asked if he would be interested in reading some short stories. The problem is that, like me, Graeme primarily reads for plot and short stories don’t always fit with that type of reader’s tastes. Furthermore, his real passion at the moment is Dan Brown and with my very limited knowledge of the genre I can’t think of a collection I could recommend that would fit his preferences. I brought very few volumes of short stories with me when I came here and they are nearly all written by women. I certainly don’t have anything I think would be suitable. Can anyone suggest anything that might be appropriate? I would be very grateful and I know Graeme and his wife would be as well. Thank you in advance.
Like many readers I first came to Kate Rhodes’ work through her London based novels featuring psychologist, Alice Quentin. While I enjoyed these in respect of both plot and character development, there was as much pleasure to be gained from her sensitivity to setting. Already a published poet when Crossbones Yard introduced us to Quentin’s world, Rhodes brought her talents as a wordsmith to bear on the way in which she described the London locations in which the early books in the series were primarily set. There were times when reading her work was like looking at one of Whistler’s remarkable sketches of the Thames’ waterside. Latterly, Rhodes has moved her focus to the Scilly Isles, where DI Ben Kitto, newly returned to his home on Bryher after ten years in the Met’s Murder squad, is trying to come to terms with the loss of his partner in undercover work. Describing the stark beauty of these islands has, if anything, given Rhodes even more scope for her talents and in this, the third book in the series, it is the wild landscape of St Agnes that forms the backdrop for Kitto’s latest investigation.
St Agnes supports a small community, but one which is augmented at certain times of the year both by tourists and visitors from the other islands in the archipelago. Bonfire night is one of the latter occasions, when islanders from the other Scilly communities come over to St Agnes in order to enjoy both bonfire and fireworks. However, before the celebrations can begin, the remnants of another fire are discovered and in them the burnt remains of a man. It transpires that the body is that of Alex Rogan, an incomer married to one of the island women, who is now pregnant with their first child. A Professor of Astronomy, Rogan was drawn to the islands because of the purity of their night skies and to St Agnes in particular, where he hoped to set up an observatory that would allow both important observations to be made while encouraging visitors to an island struggling to keep its economy afloat. At first, despite his Sargent’s reservations, Kitto’s suspicions centre on Jimmy Curwen, a local man suffering from severe psychological damage following a childhood trauma, who is only really happy when surrounded by the island’s wild life. However, a series of threatening messages, written in the little used Cornish language, suggest that whoever is behind the attack is targeting incomers in an attempt to keep the island as it has always been and fighting against any change.
The threats raise a concern in Kitto’s mind for another recent arrival on the island, Naomi Vine. Vine, a sculptor of some renown, has not fitted into the St Agnes’ community as well as Rogan. Her plans to site a series of figures on the westerly beach, reaching out towards the boundary between land and the Atlantic, have been rejected and she is not slow to make her displeasure felt. Whereas the astronomer had worked hard to make friends among the islanders, Vine has stirred up considerable controversy with arguments both for and against. When the artist goes missing, Kitto can only fear the worst.
While the descriptions of St Agnes bring the island vividly to life, they are not the only strong characteristic of the novel. The plot is well thought through with just sufficient indication of where it is going to make the final dénouement completely believable and the characters are persuasively drawn. Furthermore, Rhodes is allowing the recurring characters to develop in a convincing manner. By the book’s conclusion both DS Nickell and DCI Madron, Kitto’s immediate superior, have developed a more realistic appreciation of the DI’s capabilities and of his working methods. Kitto himself has not, perhaps, developed quite so much, although there are signs at the end of the novel that he is beginning to see his long term future in the islands and that his family life is going to become more complex.
Having read a really poorly written and badly plotted crime novel over the weekend, with character development so inconsistent with reality as to make me wonder if the book was eventually going to finish with the words and then I woke up and it was all a dream, Rhodes’ Burnt Island was just the corrective I needed. It reminded me of how good our best crime writers are and that for the majority it is the case that just because they work in genre fiction their narrative talents should not be underestimated.
OK so I know I’ve written about this before, and not all that long ago either, but yet again I’ve found myself putting down two books in succession because whatever the author was doing, or even thought they might be doing, they weren’t telling me a story. I know that plot isn’t the be-all and end-all of a novel, but for me it is the most important aspect of narrative and if a book just ambles around and eventually goes nowhere then I’m sorry but it and I are going to part company. I think I might be more attuned to this at the moment because of a conversation I had with my hairdresser on Thursday. She has two children, a boy, thirteen, who reads as if books were going out of fashion and a girl, eleven, who wouldn’t normally give them the time of day. (Stereotypes eat your hearts out!) Well, last week there had been a book fair at school and the lass had come home with not only a book bought out of her own money but also a bad case of what I call ‘just one more chapter’ syndrome. (If you’re reading this then you know precisely what that is. I have lost count of the times I’ve been late as a result of ‘just one more chapter’.) When I asked what the book was it turned out to be Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, the first in his trilogy about Lyra and the alethiometer and inevitably this brought to mind the author’s acceptance speech when the novel won the Carnegie Medal. In adult literary fiction, he claimed, stories are there on sufferance. Writers take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. If you want to find adult literature with stories, he asserts, then you need to go to genre fiction.
Now, I think Pullman is rather over-egging the pudding in what he claims about adult literary fiction, but nevertheless he has a point. I wouldn’t have had to go searching for a story in a book intended for children, nor in, say, a crime novel or a fantasy tale. Style over substance isn’t going to wash in any of those areas. But we all need story. It is how we make sense of the world. It is how we come to empathise with people in situations we are never likely to encounter. It’s why services like Netflix are so popular, because they dish up story after story after story. As Pullman remarks, we need stories so much that we are even willing to read bad books to get them. I can verify that this is true because as a result of my two failures I picked up a crime novel that I had been avoiding as I knew how poor it would be stylistically, just because I had to have a story. The poverty of its writing was made all the more apparent because I had just finished another crime novel, William Brodrick’s The Sixth Lamentation, which is not only a good story but is also beautifully written. The contrast very nearly made me put down a third book, but no, it had a story and so I persevered, got involved and read on to the end.
Of course, there are some writers of adult literary fiction whom I can trust to give me a good story every time and to tell it stylishly as well. Pat Barker, Penelope Lively, Maggie O’Farrell, Sebastian Barry, Patrick Gale, Simon Mawer, Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Hilary Mantel, Ann Patchett, Curtis Sittenfeld and Anne Tyler come to mind. But when you’re taking a chance on someone new…well, it can be a chance indeed.
OK, I will get down off my soapbox now and go in search of a recent story that isn’t necessarily either genre fiction or written with children in mind. If anyone has any suggestions they will be grateful received.
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?
The Summer School may not be on my immediate horizon but given how much else is going on at the moment I am already starting to prepare. Although I am only officially down to lead one of the discussions I always have to be ready to jump in and take over should there be any last minute problems with the other two. This means not only reading all three of the novels in great detail but also checking out other books by the chosen writers which might have a bearing on the works we are considering. I will be leading the session on William Brodrick’s third novel, A Whispered Name and so with that in mind I am re-reading his first, The Sixth Lamentation and will go on to look again at his second, The Gardens of the Dead.
The Sixth Lamentation is our introduction to Father Anselm, a monk of the Gilbertine Order, who, in his previous life, was a London based barrister. When an elderly man turns up at Larkwood Priory, now Anselm’s home, asking for sanctuary the monks are disturbed to discover that he is being sought as a Nazi war criminal. Their immediate thought is to deny his request, partly because the law of sanctuary no longer holds force, but also because of the outrage they know they will face if they do take him in. However, pressure both from secular and Church powers is put on them to keep the fugitive within the confines of the Priory until further investigations can take place. Anselm is desperate to be involved in trying to uncover the truth of the matter, but when he suddenly receives a summons to the Vatican he realises that there is more going on than he had bargained for and that it is not only the Church’s current reputation that is at stake.
Running parallel to this strand is the wartime story told by the now elderly Agnes of the suffering of those Jews who were taken from France during the German occupation and of the betrayal experienced by one particular group trying to help Jewish children escape to Switzerland. In the manner in which books so often do seem to ‘talk’ to each other, this is very closely linked to what I have…..
Our book group read this week was Bart Van Es’s Costa winning biography, The Cut-Out Girl. Van Es is a Professor of Early Modern Literature at Oxford but his most recent book catalogues his attempts to learn more about his family’s background in Holland during the Second World War and in particular their relationship with Lien, a young Jewish girl whom they sheltered and helped to save from the Nazi Concentration Camps. Her family having been wiped out, Lien asks to go back to the Van Es home after the war and continues to live with them until she leaves school and goes to train to work with children. However, at some point in the years that follow she and the family become estranged and having made contact with the now eighty year old Lien, Van Es sets out to try and discover what lay behind the breach.
Perhaps inevitably, one of the things that we found ourselves discussing was the effect that the marketing machine surrounding Anne Frank has had on our understanding of what happened to the Jews, and particularly Jewish children, during the occupation of Holland. While both Lien and Anne were sheltered by incredibly brave individuals, the stark fact is that over eighty percent of Dutch Jews died during the course of the war, more than double the number in any other western country and many of them were betrayed by people they had looked on as neighbours and friends. From the distance of over seventy years, Anne Frank’s story can become romanticised. There is nothing romantic about the memories that Lien offers to Van Es.
The breach in the relationship is, in some ways, nothing to do with those traumatic years and yet the very fact that Lien’s experiences have left her finding it hard to know who she is and how she might relate to those around her, that she has, in fact, become ‘the cut-out girl’, does perhaps play a part. It is only after she has shed herself of relationships that are never going to work, set herself up in Amsterdam and visited Auschwitz to pay homage to the memory of her lost family, that she begins to understand who she is and who she can be.
The library has just sent me an email to say that my reservation of Tom Rachman’s Costa shortlisted novel, The Italian Teacher has come in, so I will probably pick that up tomorrow and begin it at some point over the weekend. And, continuing with my Summer School preparation I shall start my reread of the second of Rennie Airth’s John Madden books, The Blood-Dimmed Tide. The Reckoning, which is the Summer School novel, is the fourth in the series and I’m intending to revisit all three of the preceding books and, if I have time, the fifth one as well. Number six, The Decent Inn of Death, isn’t published until next year.
So, the votes are all in, the counting has taken place and been verified by independent assessors and the result can now be declared: this year’s Summer School will be reading the three novels gathered together under the heading Paying the Price. To save you hastily scanning through previous posts to find out what they are, here is the list and contrary to the usual disclaimer, they are in a particular order.
A Whispered Name ~ William Brodrick
The Reckoning ~ Rennie Airth
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky ~ Simon Mawer
Collectively, these novels deal with issues to do with the First and Second World Wars and they need to be read in the order I’ve listed them because the central book looks both ways, back to to the First World War issues dealt with in the Brodrick novel and forward to those concerning the Second and written about by Mawer in the last of the trio.
A Whispered Name is one of Brodrick’s Father Anselm novels and deals with the question of those young men who were shot for desertion. I am going to lead this discussion myself because one of the subjects that Brodrick is concerned with is the flexibility of narrative depending on who is telling the story. However, I know that I will find it very difficult to reread this book because the horror of what was done to those young men by their own side is truly abhorrent. Nevertheless, it is an excellent piece of writing and certainly gives the lie to those people who decry genre fiction as ‘not really good literature’.
The second choice, The Reckoning, is the fourth in Rennie Airth’s series featuring DI John Madden. This book is set in the late 1940s but deals with family secrets that stem from both the First and Second World Wars. In the case of the First it is, like the Brodrick, to do with the question of desertion; in respect of the Second it is concerned with those brave individuals, members of the SOE, who put themselves in terrible danger by parachuting into occupied France to help with the Resistance. This is a more typical crime novel than the Brodrick, but Airth is a seriously good writer and not, I think, well enough known. I’m looking forward to introducing his work to a group that I think will appreciate him.
Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, (published in the US as Trapeze) tells the story of Marian Sutro, half French, half English, who is recruited by the SOE and then sent into South West France, officially to act as a Resistance courier. Her real mission, however, is to make her way to Paris and establish contact with an old family friend who is involved in developing a nuclear weapon. The novel is based, to some extent, on the wartime experiences of Mawer’s mother and other women whom she knew during that time. This will be quite a hard hitting book to finish the week on but I’m hoping that it will encourage people to go off and read Tightrope, which carries the story forward and possibly Mawer’s other books about European conflict, The Glass Room and Prague Spring. Again, he is a writer that I don’t think is well enough known.
I’m really pleased with this selection and as far as is possible, given the subject matter, looking forward to rereading them all. If I have time I shall also try and reread Leo Marks’ book From Silk to Cyanide. Marks, a member of one of the families which owned Marks and Co, better known as 84 Charing Cross Road, worked as a code maker for the SOE from 1941 to 1945 and the story he has to tell will prove useful background for the second and third books as well as being a worthwhile read in itself.
The Summer School will take place during the week beginning August 19th and as far as is possible I shall try and post about our deliberations as soon after they happen as I can. If any of you want to read along with us and join in the discussion on line then you would be most welcome.
I suppose this is really another catch-up post, which is disgraceful. One of the aims I set myself for this Summer was to get back to writing full reviews again but for some reason I am finding that very difficult. Perhaps it has been because I have had too much else on? Well, that won’t be a viable excuse after this week, when teaching other than a few seminars, finishes until the beginning of September. So, maybe more luck then.
As you probably realise, I am always on the lookout for new authors of police procedurals. This week I have rejected one (flat, clichéd writing; I didn’t get far enough in to find out whether the plotting was any good; I couldn’t read another page) and enjoyed another. Critical Incidents is not Lucie Whitehouse’s first book by any means, but it is the start of a series featuring DI Robin Lyons. When we first meet Lyons she and her thirteen year old daughter, Lennie, are on their way from London to Birmingham following Robin’s suspension from the Met. Her refusal to charge a seriously nasty piece of work just because he is a seriously nasty piece of work with a murder she doesn’t believe he has committed has brought her into conflict with her superiors and when he then goes AWOL it looks as though her time with the London police has come to an abrupt end. Unable to meet her financial commitments she is forced to return to her parents’ home and face her mother’s long-standing disapproval of the way in which she has insisted on bringing up Lennie as a single mother.
At least she has a job to go to. Maggie, a family friend of long-standing and an ex-cop herself, employs her to work in her private investigative firm and they are both soon embroiled in the case of a missing girl, Becca, whose disappearance (not a child, not vulnerable) the local police don’t feel merits a full enquiry. Also, she has her lifelong friend, Corinna (Rin), whose support during the months after Lennie was born was the only thing that allowed Robin to complete her degree and retain her sanity.
And then Rin’s house is set on fire. She dies in the conflagration, her ten year old son, Peter, is seriously injured and the police are hunting for her husband, Josh, convinced that he is behind what has happened. Robin, shattered by all that has occurred, refuses to believe this and so sets out to try and discover both what has happened to Josh and who is really behind the fire.
Inevitably, the two cases come together but not before Robin has alienated both Maggie and the West Midlands Police by her interference and inability to work as part of a team. There is no doubt that she has an incisive brain and excellent intuition, but her lack of forethought and failure to see the bigger picture to my mind, at least, make her something of a liability. If the book has a false step then for me it comes right at the end when suddenly, against all indications to the contrary, she is in line for a promotion that will allow her to stay on Birmingham. Not only is this unlikely given her previous behaviour, but also definitely not what she has apparently wanted for herself, and not what her daughter, Lennie, also desperate to get back to London, is likely to greet with any enthusiasm It was too neat for me and not in line with what had gone before.
One point I must make about this novel is to do with setting. As far as I can see Whitehouse has no links with Birmingham. According to the blurb at the back of my edition she was born in Gloucestershire, went to University in Oxford and now lives in New York. If this is the case, then as someone who, until a year ago, had lived in the city all her life, I can only congratulate her on her research; I could have walked round all the locations she mentions without any difficulty. I think the only thing she makes up is the name of the road where her parents live, and even then I’m fairly sure which road she has in mind. For the moment, Whitehouse is a keeper. I’ll see how the next book progresses Robin’s story.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Zoë 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 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?
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.
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.
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!