Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns for the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of a book with item/items of cutlery in the title). It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read for years.

Description from the back cover:

Pretty, unworldly Sophia is twenty-one years old and hastily married to a young painter called Charles. An artist’s model with an eccentric collection of pets, she is ill-equipped to cope with the bohemian London of the 1930s, where poverty, babies (however much loved) and husband conspire to torment her.

Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with Peregrine, a dismal, ageing critic, and comes to regret her marriage – and her affair. But in this case virtue is more than its own reward, for repentance brings an abrupt end to the cycle of unsold pictures, unpaid bills and unwashed dishes . . .

My thoughts:

I quoted the opening and an extract from page 56 in one of my Friday Posts. Now I’ve finished the book I understand the opening sentence ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried’, because it’s such a sad and, in parts even a tragic, story. As the synopsis indicates this is set in 1930s London and Sophia and her husband Charles (both artists) live a life of poverty whilst he struggles to sell his artwork. Actually Charles contributes very little money and it is left to Sophia to earn whatever she can working in a commercial art studio and as an artists’ model.

Their marriage is blighted by Sophia’s money worries and Charles’s cavalier attitude to life. Things get worse when Sophia realises she is pregnant – Charles had told her before they were married he never wanted to have children – and she realises too late that her idea of birth control as being a matter of controlling your thoughts and thinking very hard, and saying ‘I won’t have any babies’ was quite wrong!  After the birth of Sandro, a harrowing experience that makes me so thankful for the NHS, their situation deteriorates even further.

Despite their circumstances, Sophia tells her story in a casual, matter of fact way, with much humour. Sandro is a small, sickly baby and Sophia was afraid he would die. She also thought that if she applied for free milk the council would take him away if on the grounds that his parents had no visible means of support. Charles is no help to her at all, he dislikes Sandro and wants him out of the way:

‘Babies have no feelings and would be just as happy in an orphanage as anywhere else.’ On the other hand, he would be much happier of the baby was out of the way, so to send him to a ‘home’ was much the most reasonable thing  to do. (page 71)

Theirs is a life of hardship and heartbreaking tragedy, but Sophia’s spirit is not broken despite the tragic events that descend upon her. From a lighthearted and comic beginning the mood of the novel darkens as it moves towards an inevitable tragic climax. What seems to make it even more tragic is the conversational tone in which it is all told, concealing such real pain. However, the novel does not end with tragedy – it is not all doom and gloom and as the opening page reveals Sophia survives to tell her story:

… it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a semi-autobiographical novel as indicated by this note at the beginning of the book:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Thankfully the really tragic events do not occur in these chapters. There are moments of comedy and humour throughout and the novel is written in a light, chatty style. It is a portrait of life in the Thirties, a life ruled by poverty and hardship and of a marriage destroyed by circumstances and personalities.

Barbara Comyns (1909 – 1992) began to write and illustrate her stories as a child. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, first published in 1950 was her second novel.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (4 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844089274
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844089277
  • Source:  library book
  • My Rating: 3★

Hannah Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Disquiet and dread permeate this novel

Harriet Said...

Blurb (from Amazon):

A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.

Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.

My thoughts:

Harriet Said is a dark story that turns child abuse on its head. It is an unsettling and chilling book, beginning as Harriet and her friend, an unnamed 13 year-old girl, run home screaming to tell their parents what had happened. Harriet says:

When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don’t stop running. just you keep going. (page 2)

It is one of those books that, although it is well written and makes compulsive reading, can’t be said to be enjoyable and the characters are not at all likeable.

It is set just after the Second World War in the Formby sand dunes on the outskirts of Liverpool.  During their school holidays the two girls make their way to the beach each evening, where they become friends with a group of lonely, dispirited middle-aged men.  They are not naive or innocent, but neither are they fully aware of the consequences of their actions as they set out to manipulate the men, the ‘Tsar’ in particular. They want to gather ‘experience’, which they record in Harriet’s diary:

A year ago to be called a Dirty Little Angel would have kept us going for months. Now it was not enough; more elaborate things had to be said; each new experience had to leave a more complicated tracery of sensations; to satisfy us every memory must be more desperate than the last.

… We took to going long walks over the shore, looking for people who by their chosen solitariness must have something to hide. We learnt early that it was the gently resigned ones who had the most to tell; the frantic and voluble were no use. (pages 39 and 40)

It is Harriet who decides their actions and dictates what to write in the diary.

They peek through the windows of the Tsar’s house and watch as he ‘lay pinned like a moth on the sofa‘ underneath his wife as she ‘poisoned him slowly, rearing and stabbing him convulsively. This sickens the 13 year-old, who wants to be loved by the Tsar, but Harriet decides that he is weak and submissive, saying that he likes being a victim and must be punished in a way he doesn’t like. From that point onwards events move rapidly to a shocking conclusion.

I’ve read a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books and each one has kept me engrossed. Harriet Said is the first one she wrote, based on a real event, and although she submitted it for publication in 1958 it wasn’t published until 1972 because of its subject matter – ‘What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief!‘ wrote one editor. I found it a disturbing story as the manipulation escalated and everything began to spiral out of the girls’ control as childhood fled from them.

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (6 Dec. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184408860X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844088607
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 stars on Goodreads)

My Friday Post: Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires. Harriet Said...

My opener this week is from Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve enjoyed all of Beryl Bainbridge’s books that I’ve read so far, so I’m keen to read this one – the first book she wrote and submitted for publication in 1958. However, it was rejected because of its content and was not published until 1972. It is set just after the war in a Liverpool suburb near the Formby sand dunes where Beryl Bainbridge grew up.

It begins:

When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

We rode the roundabouts, shrieking among the painted horses, riding endlessly round and round, waiting for the Tsar to come.

Blurb (from Goodreads):

Two schoolgirls are spending their holiday in an English coastal town: Harriet is the older at 14 and the leader of the two. The 13-year-old unnamed narrator develops a crush on an unhappily married middle-aged man, Peter Biggs, whom they nickname “the Tsar.” Led by pretty, malevolent Harriet they study his relationship with his wife, planning to humiliate him. Their plan quickly goes wrong, however, with horrifying results.

The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry

Blurb:

Kit doesn’t know who his mother is. What he does know, however, is that his father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends – or at least the friends with the most to lose by his death. Paul – the rising star in the Labour party who dreads the day a tape they all made at university might come to light; Alison and Robbie, corporate bunnies whose relationship is daily more fractious; Pris and Haze, once an item, now estranged, and finally Hol – friend, mentor, former lover and the only one who seemed to care.

But what will happen to Kit when Guy is gone? And why isn’t Kit’s mother in the picture? As the friends reunite for Guy’s last days, old jealousies, affairs and lies come to light as Kit watches on.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed The Quarry, the last book Iain Banks wrote. He explained in this interview that it’s a fairly simple book with not many characters, with only really one location and “it doesn’t muck around with flashbacks or narrative order.” It is quite strange really because he had already written 90% of it before he was diagnosed with cancer. I’m sometimes a bit wary of novels on cancer, but The Quarry isn’t in the slightest a sentimental book, nor is it solely about cancer, or death, although Guy does rant about it. I particularly enjoyed his rants – as well as those about cancer he also rants about God, faith, miracles, politics, celebrities, the ‘hounding of the poor and disabled and the cosseting of the rich and privileged‘, the unfair society we live in and so on.

Kit and Guy live in a house that is gradually falling to pieces, situated on the edge of a quarry in the Pennines. Kit is the narrator so we see the events of the weekend when Guy’s friends came to visit through his eyes, as they reminisce about their time as film students and search through the house for a video tape they had made that could ruin all of their lives if it became public. And, of course, he wants to know who is mother is, is it Hol, Ali or Pris, or someone else?

Kit is my favourite character. He is ‘very clever, if challenged in other ways‘, meaning he is ‘on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other.‘ He spends much of his time playing an online game called HeroSpace. I liked the descriptions of his rituals and his need for order – stirring tea and shopping in a certain order etc. Kit’s internal monologue on responding to conversations is also fascinating, illustrating his struggles to interact with people socially.

I read it quickly – it’s well written, easy to read and fast paced. The main characters, Kit, Guy and Hol are convincing characters, whereas the rest remained a bit blurred in my mind, despite the detailed descriptions of what they were wearing. The physical setting, whilst not actually precisely located, is good. I could easily visualise the house and its immediate setting next to the quarry, which plays a big part in the novel both as a physical entity and metaphorically – living on the edge of a precipice into which inevitably we will all fall.

I was gripped by the two strands – will they find the tape and what is on it and will Kit find out the identity of his mother? And Guy’s character is particularly intriguing. It’s an entertaining book, funny in parts, angry, sad and miserable in others and about relationships and secrets.

The Quarry is only the second book by Iain Banks that I’ve read. I’ve also read The Crow Road, which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I never got round to writing down my thoughts about it. I’m tempted to re-read it for comparison. I’ve started to read The Wasp Factory a few times and never got very far as other books pulled me away from it. So I’ll try that again and the only other book of his that I own, A Song of Stone.

A Life Like Other People’s by Alan Bennett

A Life Like Other People's

Alan Bennett’s A Life Like Other People’s is a poignant family memoir offering a portrait of his parents’ marriage and recalling his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of his unforgettable aunties Kathleen and Myra. Bennett’s powerful account of his mother’s descent into depression and later dementia comes hand in hand with the uncovering of a long-held tragic secret. A heartrending and at times irresistibly funny work of autobiography by one of the best-loved English writers alive today. (Amazon)

I really like Alan Bennett’s work and was pleased to find this little book in the mobile library recently. It’s a beautifully written book taken from his collection Untold Stories and illustrated with black and white photographs. There is drama in this memoir, but written with clarity and keen observation in quiet tones about lives that are anything but ordinary. It is a completely absorbing book as Bennett recalls his childhood. He writes about his family including his two aunties, Kathleen and Myra, two very different characters from their sister, his mother. They saw themselves as ‘dashing, adventuresome creatures, good sports and always on for what they see as a lark.‘ They wore scent and camiknickers, and had the occasional drink and smoked.

He writes of mother’s fears – ‘of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected‘ of her dread of being ‘the centrepiece‘ especially at her wedding. His parents didn’t like ‘splother‘, his father’s word for ‘the preening and fuss invariably attendant on the presence of the aunties.‘ Then there are the sad facts about his mother’s depression and subsequent dementia as she descended into delusion, her stays in hospital and the effect that had on the family.

There are revelations of family secrets and many touching and sad (but never sentimental) episodes, for example the futile search for Aunty Kathleen, suffering from a condition similar to Alzheimer’s, after she just walked out of her hospital ward. She was found several days later in drenched undergrowth in a wood near the M6.

It is a sad book but also a heart-warming story – the love of his parents and family shines throughout the book.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (3 Sept. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571248128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571248124
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.3 x 17.5 cm
  • Source: Library

The Malice of Waves by Mark Douglas-Home

The Malice of Waves (The Sea Detective) by [Douglas-Home, Mark]Blurb (from the back cover):

Investigator Cal McGill uses his knowledge of tides, winds and currents to solve mysteries no-one else can.

Five years ago, fourteen-year-old Max Wheeler disappeared from a remote Scottish island. None of the six police and private investigations since have shed any light on what happened.

Unable to let go, Max’s family call in Call McGill. Known as The Sea Detective  – hoping he’ll force the sea to give up its secrets. Yet Cal finds he is an outsider to a broken family, and an unwelcome stranger to a village that has endured years of suspicion.

Cal knows that a violent storm is approaching. But what he doesn’t know is that when it cuts off the island a killer will see their chance …

My thoughts:

The Malice of Waves is the third book in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective Mystery series and I think it is my favourite. It has an interesting opening scene as Cal sinks a dead pig into the sea off Priest’s Island (a fictional island) to try to work out where the tides, underwater currents and eddies might have taken Max’s body. It’s really a cold case enquiry and there is no new evidence to help him discover the truth. Each year on the anniversary of Max’s disappearance, his family hold a memorial service on the island. His father is convinced that the villagers are complicit in his son’s murder.

The Malice of Waves is just as much a story of the villagers as it is of the Wheeler family and the setting of Priest’s Island, beautifully described by Douglas-Hume, is also a major part of the book. The location came to life as I read the book, making it easy to visualise the scenes. It’s well written and easy to read, leading me effortlessly into the mystery. The police are also present on the island as DS Helen Jamieson is staying undercover in the village, helping Cal with his investigations. I like the insight into Helen’s unspoken feelings for Cal. Both her and Cal are strong, independent characters and the other characters are well depicted too.

Interwoven into the main story is ‘Pinkie’ Pyke’s story. He is a collector of birds’ eggs, but his interest is into rare erythristic bird eggs, those with pink or reddish colouring and there is a raven’s’ nest on the island.

The Malice of Waves is a fascinating book, not only an engrossing mystery, but also a study of the sea, of birds’ eggs (I had never heard of erythristic eggs before), of obsessions and of the way people cope, or don’t cope with grief. I loved it.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland – Mark Douglas-Home is a Scottish author.

Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books, which I enjoyed – but not any of his 44 Scotland Street novels. So when I saw Sunshine on Scotland Street in the library, going off the blurb on the back cover, I thought it would be a change from the crime fiction and historical novels I’ve been reading recently.

From the back cover:

Scotland Street witnesses the wedding of the century of Angus Lordie to Domenica Macdonald, but as the newlyweds depart on honeymoon Edinburgh is in disarray. Recovering from the trauma of being best man, Matthew is taken up by a Dane called Bo, while Cyril eludes his dog-sitter and embarks on an odyssey involving fox-holes and the official residence of a cardinal. Narcissist Bruce meets his match in the form of a sinister doppelganger; Bertie, set up by his mother for fresh embarrassment at school, yearns for freedom; and Big Lou goes viral. But the residents of Scotland Street rally, and order – and Cyril – is restored by the combined effects of understanding, kindness, and, most of all, friendship.

My thoughts:

Even though I haven’t read the seven books before this one I had no difficulty in following the storylines, although it is obvious that the characters all have backstories and previous relationships that are hinted at in this book. In a way it’s very like the Isabel Dalhousie books as the action is interspersed with McCall Smith’s philosophical and ethical musings, his thoughts about human nature and relationships, which in general I liked more than the story.

It begins with an amusing account of the preparations for Angus and Domenica’s wedding, which Angus seems to think will just happen without much preparation by him – a hole in his kilt, his lack of a ring, and he has given no thought at all about where to go for thier honeymoon. But his bestman, Matthew helps him sort out the kilt and ring problem and Domenica has arranged both the reception and the honeymoon.

After that Angus and Domenica disappear from the book until the last chapter, leaving Cyril, Angus’s dog in the care of the Pollock family, the insufferable Irene, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, 6 year-old son Bertie and baby Ulysses. Cyril and Bertie are my favourite characters in the book and their ‘adventures’ caused me much concern, as Irene does not like Cyril and stifles both Bertie and Stuart. In fact I wasn’t too bothered about any of the other characters, apart from Bertie’s spindly-legged friend from cub scouts, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and his mother who has no difficulty in putting Irene firmly in her place.

This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness. At the end as Angus looks round the group of people gathered for their homecoming party it strikes him that they are an ‘infinitely precious band of souls’:

And this realisation that he had was not specifically religious – although it could easily and appropriately be that. It was, rather, a spiritual notion – the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, exalting love. To see another as a soul was to acknowledge the magnifcent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different from seeing others simply as people. (pages 294 – 295)

Reading challenges: Read Scotland and What’s In a Name, in the category of a book with a country in the title.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus (18 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349139164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349139166
  • Source: Library book

The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Home

Earlier this year I read and loved The Sea Detective, the first Cal McGill book. Cal is an oceanographer using his skills in tracking human bodies and sea-borne objects. So I was really looking forward to reading the second book, The Woman Who Walked into the Sea. Maybe my expectations were too high because I was a bit disappointed – that’s not to say I didn’t like it because I did, but it lacked the pace and complexity of the first book and just didn’t grip my imagination in the same way. Cal is really a secondary character and there is very little sea detection in the story.

Set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby. An anonymous letter to a social worker reveals that her mother, Megan Bates, had last been seen walking into the sea. Her body had never been found and it had been assumed after her bag and hat had drifted ashore that she had drowned herself. Cal helps Violet with details of the tides and currents which convinces Megan had not committed suicide. She is determined to discover what had happened.

I liked the mystery surrounding Megan and the local people, most of whom have problems/secrets and then there is the ‘local’ mafia and a controversial wind farm proposal. But the appeal of The Sea Detective for me was not just the detective elements but Cal himself and his expertise in the marine environment, the mystery of how the ocean currents and wind speeds affect where things get washed ashore and tracking back to find where they originated.  And I thought this second book was unevenly paced, the action slowed down by long descriptive passages so that the suspense that had been built up drained away and my attention drifted.

So, even though I liked this book, I don’t think it quite lived up to The Sea Detective. There is a third book, The Malice of Waves and I hope that the focus is more on Cal and his sea detective work.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016 – by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

I’ve recently read John le Carré’s biography by Adam Sisman and inevitably it made me want to read le Carré’s books. I decided to start with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, first published in 1963.

Blurb:

a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an afterword by the author and an introduction by William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart.

Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.

My view:

This is a dark, tense book and quite short, just 252 pages. It’s complicated and although the language le Carré uses is clear and straight forward at times I wasn’t sure just what was going on, what lay behind the scenes – just what was Leamas up to, amidst the various deceptions and subterfuges? George Smiley does appear briefly in the book, but is there throughout in that he is masterminding Leamas’ mission.

Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. He goes to seed whilst working out his contact in the Banking Section, transforming into a drunken wreck no longer of use to the Secret Services, left without any money or a job until he finds work as a helper in a library for Psychical Research. Here he meets Liz Gold, who then unwittingly gets drawn into Smiley’s plan.

The atmosphere throughout is of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature. As the German, Fiedler says for a secret agent:

… deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but also from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earns a fortune, his role may forbid him the use of a razor, though he  be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide. (page 143)

By the end of the book Leamas is in despair as his mission seems to have failed,. Liz can’t work out which side he is on and he says:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. (page 243)

I hate it; I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay … but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men, written off for nothing. (pages 244-5)

But then again did his mission fail? This is one of those books that I find so hard to write about without giving away too much of the plot – the introduction by William Boyd begins with this statement, ‘New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit.‘ And indeed it does. I was glad I read it after reading the book, though, as it also gives an interpretation that I found helpful – in particular just what Boyd thought was meant by ‘coming in from the cold‘.

This fulfils the “Broken Object” category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (published in 2015) contains memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). I quoted the opening paragraph of this book and a teaser paragraph in an earlier post, First Chapter, First Paragraph.

It’s only a short book (168 pages), but it covers a wide range of Diana Athill’s memories, many images of beautiful places, and the friends and lovers she has known. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life.

She writes about her Great Grandfather’s garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, which she used to love visiting in the 1920s and 1930s, when her grandparents lived there. Her writing is so clear and precise, describing in detail its exact layout and expressing her delight in her memories of it.

In other chapters she describes post-war life and her visits to Florence, and in particular the Club Méditerranée in Corfu in the 1950s; her experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was struck by the disparity between the local people and the tourists/incomers; and the miscarriage when she was in her early 40s, when she nearly died. It was heart breaking to read this remarkably candid account both about what happened and how she felt, her detachment, her resentment that she had lost the baby, even her relief, and finally her gratitude that she was still alive, and her love of life:

‘I AM ALIVE.’ 

It was enough.

It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before. (page 87)

It is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. She writes about her decision to move into a home, persuaded by a friend who lived there and about how much she enjoys living there. And her main luxury now is her wheelchair, which she finds has unexpected benefits, such as when she was at an art exhibition – the crowds fell away from her in her wheelchair and she was able to lounge in perfect comfort in front of Matisse’s red Dance.

Of course, she writes about death and dying, as ‘death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now.’ She doesn’t find this alarming, and remembers when she was close to death after her miscarriage that her feelings were of acceptance: ‘Oh well, if I die, I die‘. Death is not something she fears, although she has some degree of anxiety at the process of dying and recognises that whereas it’s ‘unwise to expect an easy death, it is not unreasonable to hope for one.

This book has given me much to think about, including this paragraph:

Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now it comes out, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. (pages 5 – 6)

I loved it.

Slade House by David Mitchell

I was in the middle of reading two books on my Kindle, Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope and SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, when the battery died and I know I could still have continued reading whilst it was re-charging, but I didn’t. Instead I picked up Slade House by David Mitchell, a book I’d been thinking of reading soon and once I started it I didn’t want to stop. It’s not long, just 233 pages and they just whizzed past my eyes in no time.

Apparently it began as a short story on Twitter – but I didn’t know that – and is a sort of sequel to The Bone Clocks – but I haven’t read that, and there is a character near the end who also appears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – but I haven’t read that yet either!

None of that mattered. I suppose it’s the sort of book to read at Hallowe’en, but that doesn’t matter either, because I read it, devoured it I could say, yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. It’s a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. I read it as a fantasy, something that I couldn’t believe could ever happen (or at least, I hope not) – but that didn’t stop me enjoying it immensely.

It’s not easy to find Slade House. It’s down Slade Alley, which doesn’t normally exist and it only appears to those who have been invited, or are drawn to it. There is a door set into the right hand wall of the alley, a small black iron door with no handle or keyhole, that opens if you’re meant to enter. There you meet a stranger, are invited into the House, and find yourself in a strange and dangerous situation, and there is no way out – eventually you find yourself in a long attic at the top of the stairs – where something terrible happens to you.

The stories begin in 1979 (although in fact it begins much earlier than that) and ends in a strange and mystifying way in 2015. Each story is complete in itself; the people who enter Slade House do not seem to be connected in anyway – a young teenage boy and his mother, a recently divorced Detective Inspector, students on a Paranormal Society field trip, and then the sister of one of the students. The connection is the House and the brother and sister who occupy it – and to say what they were would be to reveal too much. Needless to say that I was hoping each time that the victims would escape their fate. I was gripped both by the individual stories and by Slade House itself, enchanting and darkly sinister. The sense of menace just grew as each victim succumbed and yet tried to warn those who followed.

Now, I’m keen to read both The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I bought a few years ago and is still sitting in my TBR piles and The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t got yet. It just shows how reading one book can seriously disrupt whatever reading plans I had!

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble

I began reading The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws in December and finished it this morning. It took me a long time not because it’s difficult reading (it isn’t) but because I only read short sections each day – I often read non-fiction like that.

FOREWORD

This book is not a memoir, although parts of it may look like a memoir. Nor is it a history of the jigsaw puzzle, although that it was what it was once meant to be. It is a hybrid. … This book started off as small history of the jigsaw, but it has spiralled off in other directions and now I am not sure what it is.

It is not the book she meant to write and it is not the book I expected to read. I enjoyed parts of immensely – those parts about her childhood, and life at Bryn, her grandparents’ house in Long Bennington and about her beloved Aunt Phyl (Phyllis Boor) and of course those parts about jigsaws, both personal and historical, about mosaics (looking at them as a form of jigsaw), the history of children’s games and puzzles and amusements. She does ‘spiral off in other directions’ which meant in parts it lacks a clear structure in a sort of ‘stream of conciousness’ style, particularly in her reminiscences and nostalgia about life (reproduced in some jigsaws) in a rural community that no longer exists.

I noted down a few points she made about jigsaws:

  • jigsaws renew the brain cells – that’s good! (page 66)
  • putting away a finished jigsaw can be a sad moment – I agree and usually leave mine for a while before dismantling them. These days I take a photo. (page 94)
  • because they have no verbal content they exercise a different part of the brain, bringing different neurons and dendrites into play. (that’s good too) (page 122)
  • some people disapprove of jigsaws, some of knitting, of card games and other activities and artistic traits. (page 187)
  • jigsaws maybe connected with depression and used as time-killers, filling empty days and evenings (page 242)
  • people can be addicted to jigsaws (page 244)
  • doing a jigsaw is like creating order out of chaos (page 245)
  • jigsaws reproducing works of art helps you learn about art (pages 250-1)
  • jigsaws as metaphors  and simile are everywhere eg wikipedia etc (page 267)

And, of course, reading this book has made me get out a jigsaw to do. This is a Thomas Kinkade jigsaw: Sunday Evening Sleigh Ride (1,000 pieces).

Sleigh Ride P1010859

I don’t think I’m a jigsaw addict, in the same way as I am a book addict, after all I do just a few jigsaws now and then, whereas reading is a constant and I feel lost if I don’t have a book on the go. And you may have noticed (from the side bar) that I am not currently reading a book! Time to find the next one to read …

Adding to the TBR Shelves

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

These recent additions to my bookshelves and the ever growing TBR piles are the result of my last visit to Barter Books. I took in two bags of books (20 books), books I’d read and decided I wouldn’t want to re-read, and came home with 7, so I’m still in credit there and at least, for the time being, have fewer books in the house. Six of the books are fiction and just one is non-fiction.

Stacking the Shelves Nov15

From top to bottom they are all crime fiction apart from the last book:

  • Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers – Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother the Duke of Denver is charged with murder. A series I’m dipping into now and then. This is the 2nd Lord Peter Wimsey book.
  • Strangers and Brothers by C P Snow – currently published as George Passant, this is the first in the Strangers and Brothers series. I read some of the series many years ago, so not sure if I read this one then.
  • Runaway by Peter May – In 1965, five teenage friends fled Glasgow for London to pursue their dream of musical stardom. Yet before year’s end three returned, and returned damaged.
  • The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine – A brother, a sister and a secret. Could you live a lie, to protect the one you love?’
  • Dead Men and Broken Hearts by Craig Russell – the 4th in his Lennox thriller series set in Glasgow.
  • Lennox by Craig Russell – the first in the series set in Glasgow in the 1950s. I love Russell’s Jan Fabel books set in Hamburg so am keen to see if I’ll also love his Lennox books.
  • Pastels for Beginners by Ernest Savage – a book to improve my pastel painting, I hope. This was published in 1980, with lots of detail and mainly black and white illustrations. I’d prefer more colour illustrations.

And yesterday I went to the library and borrowed these:

P1010807

  • The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.  Cath’s review at Read Warbler inspired me to read this book. She loved its conversational tone and Johnson’s insight into Churchill’s character – what made him tick. I reserved this book.
  • The Pattern in the Carpet: a Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble – a book that’s been on my wish list for years and there it was just sitting on the library shelves. Drabble describes is as a ‘hybrid’ – not a memoir, nor a history of jigsaws, although that is what she intended to write. It spiralled off in other directions and she is not sure what it is!
  • Katherine Mansfield: a Secret Life by Claire Tomalin. I reserved this book for two reasons – I’ve recently read some of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories and I’ve enjoyed other biographies written by Claire Tomalin.

Now I need to get reading!!

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

I really enjoyed The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s full of  eccentric and quirky characters, an intriguing mystery beginning with the death of an old woman, killed with breadcrumbs, then a car is burnt out with someone inside, and a pigeon is found with its legs tied together so it can’t fly.

But the main mystery Commissaire* Adamsberg has to solve is the strange tale a woman from Ordebec, a little village in Normandy, presents to him.

Blurb:

‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters.

She refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grisly end following a visitation by the riders.

Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously vicious and cruel man disappears. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.

My thoughts:

This is the 8th book in Fred Vargas’ series of Commissaire Adamsberg books. I’ve previously read two, so I’ve a bit of catching up to do. But although there are obviously events that I don’t know about (the appearance of a son, aged 28, that he hadn’t known about, for one thing) this doesn’t detract from the story. I loved all the strange characters – not just the odd people living in Ordebec, but also Adamsberg’s fellow police officers whom he describes as:

 … a hypersomniac who goes to sleep without warning, a zoologist whose speciality is fish, freshwater fish in particular, a woman with bulimia who keeps disappearing in search of food, an old heron who knows a lot of myths and legends, a walking encyclopaedia who drinks white wine non-stop — and the rest to match.” (page 67)

And I also loved the medieval myths and legends forming the basis of the plot: the ghostly army that gallops along the Chemin de Bonneval, led by the terrifying Lord Hellequin.

Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, and in this book his intuition and deductive reasoning have to work overtime. I was thoroughly immersed in this book, enjoying the humour as well as the mystery, intrigued to see how the crimes came together and how the pigeon was rescued. It’s original, and maybe not altogether plausible, but most definitely a treat to read.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.

*Commissaire is roughly the equivalent of a British Superintendent. His colleagues’ ranks in descending order are commandant, lieutenant and brigadier.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes has been on my radar for a few years now and I’ve seen a few other bloggers have been reading it recently – Cath for one at Read Warbler.

From the back cover:

After the death of her adored father, Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes settles into her role of the ‘indispensable’ maiden aunt of the family, wholly dependent, an unpaid nanny and housekeeper. Two decades pass; the children are grown, and Lolly unexpectedly moves to a village, alone. Here, happy and unfettered, she revels in a new existence, nagged only by the sense of a secret she has yet to discover.

And here is what I thought about it.

Published in 1926, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel. In the Introduction to this edition by Sarah Waters she states that it was an instant hit  with readers and critics and I can see why. On the surface it’s a gentle fantasy, but it’s not at all whimsical, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is beautiful, lovely lyrical descriptions of both town and country. It’s a book of two parts – the first about Lolly’s existence with her brother’s family in London, where she becomes increasingly disquiet and finds her self indulging in day dreaming about being

‘in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace. … Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, yet in some way congenial, a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill-omen. (page 67)

There’s a bit of a spoiler in this next paragraph.

The second part about her life in the little village of Great Mop, in the Chilterns in the Buckinghamshire countryside is in direct contrast, as she gradually regains the peaceful happy existence she had had growing up. But Great Mop is not just a sleepy backwater because as Laura discovers there are unusual forces at large and she finds herself with her neighbours at a night-time gathering dancing in a continual flux. Her life is changed forever as she meets Satan, who turns out to have a happy relationship with his servants and she enters into a new independence.

So this is a somewhat magical, mystical book and underlying the text is the changing position of women in society in the 1920s,  especially single women financially dependent on their male relatives, who previously were expected to remain within the family looking after elderly relatives, or as in Lolly’s case helping with looking after the children and the running of the household.  In moving away from her family Lolly asserts her independence and enjoys her single life as part of the village community.

So, it’s a book I really enjoyed, for its content, the characters and setting and last but not least Sylvia Townsend Warner’s style of writing. She went on to write more books and poetry, including these novels:

Lolly Willowes (1926)
Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927)
The True Heart (1929)
This Our Brother (1930)
Summer Will Show (1936)
After the Death of Don Juan (1939)
The Corner That Held Them (1948)
The Barnards of Loseby (1954)
The Flint Anchor (1954)
The Cat’s Cradle (1960)

A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell

Once more I’m trying to catch up writing about the books I’ve read recently so this is just a short post about A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell. It’s the sixth book in the series featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission, but it’s only the second one that I’ve read (I previously read the seventh book, The Ghosts of Altona). Craig Russell has now joined my list of favourite authors and I think Fabel now equals Rebus as one of my favourite police detectives.

In A Fear of Dark Water a massive storm hits Hamburg, flooding the city, just as a major environmental summit is about to start.  A serial rapist and murderer is still at large in the city and when the flood waters recede a headless torso is found washed up. Initially it’s thought to be another victim of the killer, who had dumped his victims’ bodies in waterways around the city.

But there’s more to it than that as Fabel’s investigations dig up a secret environmental organisation/cult called ‘Pharos’, that demands its members hand over all their wealth to it, and with an aggressive and hostile approach to criticism. Fabel is drawn into the high-tech world of cyberspace, particularly the Virtual Dimension site, where people create personalities who only exist in cybre-space and who only interact through the internet – a world unfamiliar to Fabel, who denies he is technophobic, insisting he is a traditionalist.

This is a fast paced and complex, multi-layered crime novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and that kept me guessing right to the end.

The Author

Born in Fife, Craig Russell served for several years as a police officer in Scotland, before becoming an advertising copywriter and later creative director. His Fabel novels were inspired by his long-standing interest in the language, culture and people of Germany.

In addition to his Jan Fabel books Craig Russell also writes the Lennox thrillers set in 1950s Glasgow and I hope to get round to reading those too.

The Devil’s Promise by David Stuart Davies

The full title of this book is The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Promise.

From the back cover:

The discovery of a corpse on a deserted beach is just the first in a series of mysterious and terrifying events that threaten Sherlock Holmes. While investigating the death, Holmes and Watson attract unwanted attention from the strange inhabitants of the nearby village, and are viciously attacked. Watson wakes to discover that months have passed and his friend is not the man he remembers. What has transpired during those lost days? And is it connected to the notorious “Devil’s Companion” whose descendants live nearby?

A book for RIP X, and one I had high hopes of when I read the Foreword by Mark Gatiss – an English actor, comedian, screenwriter and novelist, writing for Doctor Who and the co-creator of Sherlock. He wrote:

I think that Sherlock Holmes is imperishable, a brilliant British icon – indeed a worldwide icon. He represents the best of us. He is as clever as we would all like to be. He is surprising, capricious, slightly dangerous, strangely elegant, dashing, Byronic and the best and wisest man any of us will ever know.

I believe he lasts because we all want to be Sherlock Holmes and we all want to believe there are people like Sherlock Holmes out there, instead of the universe being completely chaotic, which is actually the truth.

This fabulous character is the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle who, in my opinion, was a writer of genius. No wonder many of us wish to tread in his footsteps. Sherlock now lives in other people’s stories too, as he does in The Devil’s Promise, penned by the great Davies, whose Sherlock Holmes writings have brought me hours of pleasure.

Holmes and Watson are staying in an isolated cottage in Devon when they they find themselves caught up in a nightmare scenario of a puzzling surreal nature they cannot understand. After Holmes discovers the body on the beach weird images appear on the door of the cottage, they are attacked by villagers, and meet a brother and his strange sister who warns them to leave or they will be killed.

But I was a little disappointed; it began well but later became repetitive – the dead body disappears and reappears and Watson keeps getting into fights, being hit on the head and losing consciousness. It has elements of suspense, as Holmes is coerced to take part in a ceremony to raise the Devil. But I began to think it was all very predictable – maybe it’s the cynic in me but I found myself reading just to see how it ended and whether it was as predictable as I thought it was. And it was, apart from the very last three sentences.

The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell

Last week I quoted the opening paragraphs and the description of The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell, a novel, which won this year’s Bloody Scotland Crime Novel of the YearIt’s an outstanding book, one of the best I’ve read this year. I suppose it can be called a modern Gothic tale as well as being a crime thriller. Russell is a new author to me, but by no means is he a new author, The Ghosts of Altona being his 7th book featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission. However, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment that I’d jumped into the series right at the end. And in a way it didn’t matter at all as in the first chapter Jan has a near-death experience when he is shot by a suspected child killer, which has a profound effect on his life and the way he views death.

Two years later his first case as a detective is resurrected when the body of Monika Krone is found under a car park, fifteen years after she disappeared. The prime suspect at that time was Jochen Hubner, a serial rapist, christened ‘Frankenstein’ by the press because of his monstrous appearance, but there was no conclusive evidence to connect him to her disappearance. Monika, beautiful, intelligent and cruel had been the centre of a group of students obsessed with the Gothic. Then ‘Frankenstein’ escapes from prison and there are more murders which Fabel thinks are linked to the discovery of Monika’s remains, all of men who were in the same Gothic set at university.

There are many allusions to the Gothic tradition and symbolism, the killings being reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tales, as well as philosophising on the nature of near-death experiences, Schrödinger’s cat, Cotard’s Delusion (in which sufferers believe themselves to be dead), and the intertwining of the hallucinogenic, the psychedelic, the spiritual and the macabre. All absolutely fascinating and incorporated seamlessly into the crime investigation so that I was turning the pages as fast as possible to get to the solution. It’s all very cleverly plotted, multi-layered and complex and I loved it.

As well as the story and the characters I loved the setting – Hamburg, a city I knew very little about before reading The Ghosts of Altona, the second largest city in Germany, a member of the medieval Hanseatic League. It’s a city of water with two lakes and the river Elbe running through it and it has more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. Altona, one of the city boroughs had been under Danish administration for over two centuries.

The Author

Born in Fife, Craig Russell served for several years as a police officer in Scotland, before becoming an advertising copywriter and later creative director. His Fabel novels were inspired by his long-standing interest in the language, culture and people of Germany. He has been translated into 23 languages, and his Lennox and Jan Fabel series have both been highly acclaimed. For more information see his website.

His Jan Fabel books (from Fantastic Fiction):


His  Lennox books

 

My Reading Challenges (although I didn’t read this book, or any book, specifically for any of the Reading Challenges I’m taking part in):

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I had little idea what to expect before I began reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant, except,  that is, that I had enjoyed the other three books by him that I’ve read. They are The Remains of the Day, a brilliant book, a beautiful portrait of both personality and  social class, set in an England that no longer exists,  a story of hopeless and repressed love; Never Let Me Go, a love story that both shocked and horrified me; and Nocturnes a book of five short stories in which Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time, with a touch of nostalgia and a sense of loss for what has gone or what could have been.

I knew that there have been mixed reviews of The Buried Giant and was keen to see for myself what it is like. I loved it. It is different from his other books, but still has some of the same themes I loved in them –   the themes of love and the sense of a time long gone. It is also about the passing of time, old age, the fallibility of memory and much more besides, in particular ethnic conflict and the devastating effect of vengeance and hatred. It is set in Britain after the death of the legendary King Arthur, after the Romans have left, and the wars between Saxons and Britons have ceased. But it is a cursed land swathed in a mist of forgetfulness.

Attempting to remember their lives together, an elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, leave their village setting out on a journey to visit their son, who they barely remember. They encounter many hazards, strange and other-worldly. They meet a boatman in a ruined Roman villa, who ferries people to an island. He is under a duty to question those who wish to cross and will only allow a couple to travel together if they can demonstrate their abiding love for each other. But Axl and Beatrice are haunted by a dread that because of their memory loss they would fail such a test, and be separated for ever. How can they prove their love for each other when they can’t remember the past they’ve shared?

There are ogres, deadly pixies,  evil monks who keep a dreadful beast underground, Saxons – Wistan, a warrior and a young boy, and Sir Gawain entrusted by King Arthur to slay Querig, a she-dragon roaming the land, who by her breath has spread the mist of forgetfulness.

It is also shocking, as it reveals the hatred that works within people to make them want to destroy others.  Wistan urges the young boy, Edwin to hate all Britons because it was Britons under Arthur who  had slaughtered the invading Saxons:

We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred within your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame holds again. (page 264)

It is this hatred that still drives people to commit atrocities, bringing out the worst in human nature. Whilst the past is forgotten, Wistan realises that the old wounds can’t heal whilst ‘maggots linger so richly‘, nor can ‘peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery‘.

It has elements of fantasy, myth and legend, of allegory and adventure and the perils of a quest. It is mysterious, beguiling and slippery, hard to pin down in parts and startlingly clear in others. From a somewhat slow start it gripped my imagination and made me think, trying to pin down just what was happening as the prose is clear and yet ambiguous, in the same way that the mist obscuring the past at times lifted and dispersed a little before returning. Beatrice and Axl are the dominant characters, and I found their confusion as they realise they have forgotten their past and their distress as they contemplate spending eternity apart deeply moving. It is extraordinary and mesmerising! I think it is a book I’ll have to re-read!

This may not be the usual book of ghostly, gothic or classic horror of the categories for the R.I.P. X challenge, but it is certainly a fantastic book full of peril, mystery and suspense.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘a literary family saga’ and ‘a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers  was first published in 1931, the seventh Lord Peter Wimsey murder mystery. Wimsey is on holiday in Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway, Scotland, in a fishing and painting community where he is known and where he is

… received on friendly and even affectionate terms. He could make a respectable cast, and he did not pretend to paint, and therefore, although English and an ‘incomer’, gave no cause of offence. The Southron is tolerated in Scotland on the understanding that he does not throw his weight about, and from this peculiarly English vice Lord Peter was laudably free. True, his accent was affected and his behaviour undignified to a degree, but he had been weighed in the balance over many seasons and pronounced harmless, and when he indulged in any startling eccentricity, the matter was dismissed with a shrug and a tolerant, ‘Christ, it’s only his lordship.’ (page 2)

When Campbell, a local landscape painter and fisherman is found dead in a burn near Newton Stewart, it seems he must have slipped whilst painting near to the edge of a ravine, a steep and treacherous granite slope. At first it looks as though it was an accident, but  Wimsey is convinced it was murder and an autopsy reveals that Campbell was dead before he fell into the burn. Campbell was not a popular man, described as ‘ a devil when he is drunk and a lout when he is sober.’ There are 6 possible suspects – all of whom had quarrelled with or been assaulted by Campbell, all of them artists.

What follows is an intricately plotted story as Wimsey and the police investigate the mystery. It is complicated by immense detail about train times, routes, bicycles, moving the body, alibis, and varying styles of painting – I gave up trying to understand it all and just read along enjoying the puzzle.

The five red herrings are, of course, the five innocent suspects, and Wimsey introduces another possibility that it might not be any of the six suspects, when having heard the case against each of them, he announces that all the theories are wrong, before he gives his verdict. And then he sets in motion a re-enactment of the crime from beginning to end to show how it was carried out, down to the most minute detail.

Sayers doesn’t play fair with the reader in not revealing a clue Wimsey noticed at the scene of the crime whilst he was searching through the contents of Campbell’s pockets and satchel and announced something was missing. In an added note Sayers explained that Wimsey

… told the Sergeant what he was look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page. (page 21)

I didn’t ‘readily supplied the details’  for myself but eventually I guessed what it was. But overall, that is just a minor complaint and I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery, the characters are striking and the setting is well grounded.

Five red herrings map 001

There is a map at the beginning of the book that helped me follow the action and in the Foreword Sayers explained that

All the places are real places and all the trains are real trains, and all the landscapes are correct, except that I have run up a few new houses here and there.

and goes to clarify that

… none of the people are in the least like real people, and that no Galloway artist would ever think of getting intoxicated or running away from his wife or bashing a fellow citizen over the head. All that is just for fun and to make it more exciting.

The Gateway of Fleet website has an interesting page on ‘Dorothy L Sayers in Galloway‘, which states that she and her husband Mac Fleming first visited  Galloway in 1928 when they stayed at the Anwoth Hotel (mentioned in Five Red Herrings) in Gatehouse of Fleet and from 1929 they rented a studio in The High Street, Kirkcudbright next door to the well-known artist Charles Oppenheimer. They got to know Galloway well, especially the artistic community in Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse, on which her detective novel Five Red Herrings is based.

I realised after I’d read Five Read Herrings that it fits into a couple of reading challenges – the Colour Coded Challenge (a book with ‘red’ in the title) and the Read Scotland Challenge (a book set in Scotland).

The Kill by Jane Casey: Book Notes

Yet again I’m reading faster than I’m reviewing, so this post is not a full review but a few thoughts on The Kill by Jane Casey. Unless I write about a book straight after I finish reading it gets pushed to the back of my mind and sadly that is what has happened in this case, which is a shame as it’s a brilliant book, the fifth in her DC Maeve Kerrigan series and I fully agree with the quotation from the Sunday Times that ‘Jane Casey’s police procedurals go from strength to strength.’

The book begins in Richmond Park in London at 00.43 where a couple are badger-watching but to their horror are witnesses, albeit at a distance, to a murder.

The victim is a police officer. But this is just the first murder and yet more police officers are killed. Maeve and her boss, DI Josh Derwent are part of the Met’s team assigned to investigate. They have no idea about the motive for the murders as the attacks seem to be random, from the first victim alone in his car (why was he there at that time anyway?), to the officers of the Territorial Support Unit killed as they patrolled the Maudling Estate – is it a reaction to the police killing a young and innocent black teenager? The MP, Geoff Armstrong thinks so.

This is a fast-paced novel, with an intriguing and complex plot and featuring characters that have appeared in the earlier books, developing their relationships. Some issues look as though they have been resolved, such as Superintendent Godley’s guilty secret, and others such as Maeve’s relationship with her boyfriend Rob, also a police officer come to a head, whereas Derwent and Maeve continue to have a confrontational working relationship and the interaction between them and DCI Una Burt gets even worse. I suppose it’s possible to read this as a standalone, but because of the back stories I think it is better to read them in order.

I found it absolutely compelling reading.

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

For once I’m reading a series in the order it was published -Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan books – which is just as well as each one reveals facts from the earlier books. it also means that I can follow the characters as they develop and their changing relationships instead of trying to work out what had happened before.

The Stranger You Know is the fourth Maeve Kerrigan book and it’s just as fast-paced and compelling reading as the earlier books – so tightly plotted that I just had to keep on reading to get to the end of the book.

Three women have been murdered in their own homes – strangled and mutilated. There were no signs of a break-in – the women had obviously known and trusted their killer. One of the officers investigating the case voices the unthinkable – there are no leads, no DNA, no CCTV, no parking tickets, ‘it’s like he’s one of us‘. Suspicion lands on Maeve’s boss, DI Josh Derwent, who it turns out had been accused of murder as a teenager. His girlfriend, Angela Poole had been murdered in much the same way as the current victims and he had been the prime suspect.

The focus is squarely on Derwent in this book and he is kept off the investigating team, leaving Maeve to work closely with Chief Superintendent Charles Godley and DCI Una Burt – who hates Derwent. But Maeve cannot believe he could be a killer and disobeys orders not to let him see the evidence. And as Maeve’s boyfriend, Rob is away in America, training with the FBI, the focus is also on the relationship between Josh and Maeve – her loyalty to him as she interviews the people involved in Angela’s murder – Josh’s friends and the police inspector in charge of the case.

It is such a complicated plot and I kept changing my mind about the killer – was it Josh (surely not), was it Angela’s brother or one of the other teenage friends, or were the current murders the result of a copy cat  killer?

I like Maeve, although I do wonder why she is still a DC as she is so good at her job, ferreting out information from the slenderest of clues.  I like Derwent, despite his difficult personality – the spiky relationship between the two of them provides such much needed comic relief in the book. There is a secret in his background that we, the readers, now know along with Maeve – and I’m wondering how long it will be until she tells him, although if he looks on Facebook as she did he’d soon find out. I hope he does – I’d love to see his reaction.

It all comes to a dramatic and thrilling climax as Maeve, once again, comes face to face with the killer – and I’d had a sneaking feeling quite early one who it was, but had dismissed the possibility.

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (Fiction) (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091948363
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091948368
  • Source: library book

I’m currently reading the next book, The Kill and the sixth book, After the Fire is due to be published on the 18 June.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

I first ‘met’ Vera Stanhope in the TV dramatisations of Ann Cleeves’ novels, which I enjoyed. But once I began reading Ann Cleeves’ books I discovered that they are even better than the TV versions! The latest one I’ve read is Harbour Street, the sixth book in the Vera series – it’s fantastic. If you’ve watched On Harbour Street, the TV adaptation broadcast last year, you’ll find that it didn’t strictly follow the book much at all – and you won’t know who the murderer is – it’s a different person in the book!

Harbour Street

This is what I wrote last year about The Glass Room, the fifth Vera book and my thoughts about Harbour Street are just the same:

It’s going to be a contender for my best book of the year, because I loved it. It has everything I like in a crime fiction novel – setting, characters and a cleverly constructed plot. I didn’t guess who the murderer was but realised afterwards that all the clues had been there, skilfully woven into the narrative, hidden among the dead-ends and red herrings, so that I’d read on without realising their significance.

It’s ten days before Christmas, the Newcastle Metro is packed with shoppers, babies screaming, office workers merry after pre-Christmas parties, teenagers kissing. But when the  train has to stop because of the snow they all pile off the train – except for one old lady, Margaret Krukowski, who was fatally stabbed. No one saw the murder take place even though, or maybe because the train was packed with people, including Detective Joe Ashworth travelling home with his daughter, Jessie, from carol singing in Newcastle Cathedral.

Margaret had lived in a guest house on Harbour Street in Mardle, a coastal town in South Northumberland and it is here that Vera concentrates their investigation with the occupants of the guest house, the Coble, the pub opposite and the Haven, a hostel for homeless women, where Margaret had been a volunteer. It soon becomes obvious that Margaret was a woman with many secrets in her past – stemming from 1970 when her Polish husband Pawel Krukowski had left her.  Then a second murder occurs and an earlier crime comes to light – but who is the killer?

Ann Cleeves is a superb storyteller. Her descriptions get right inside my brain; she has the skill to make the scenes materialise,  in front of my eyes, and not because I’ve seen the TV adaptation which was filmed at a different time of year and in a different place from the location of Mardle in the book. Her characters are fully formed with emotions and feelings, backgrounds and complicated relationships, just as in real life, with all the sights, sounds, sensations and smells. Her dialogue is authentic, never awkward and you are never left wondering who is talking. Her books are deceptively easy to read,  moving swiftly along as the tension rises. They are layered, cleverly plotted and above all convincing. As in her other books I had several suspects in mind but hadn’t realised just how much wool had been pulled over my eyes until Margaret’s killer was revealed.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (31 July 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1447202090
  • ISBN-13: 978-1447202097
  • Source: my local library

Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell

Prologue

It is a damp, chill Friday morning in November and I am feeling old, very old; so old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. I have lost two stone in weight, my face is the colour of aged parchment, and my hands are gnarled  like human claws.

I must have watched nearly all, if not all, of David Suchet’s performances as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. For me he was the perfect Poirot, so it was a given that I would read his autobiography, Poirot and Me, written with the help of his friend Geoffrey Wansell. And it really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).

When I started watching the TV dramas it had been years since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I wasn’t aware that the early shows were based on her short stories – actually I didn’t even know then that she had written any short stories at all. I’ve read nearly all of her full length novels, but only a few of her short stories so far.

I think Poirot and Me may not appeal to people who are not readers of Agatha Christie’s books as it consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. He began by compiling a list of Poirot’s characteristics, then considering his voice and his appearance. He made 92 ‘character points’ and his original list is reproduced in the book, along with photos of locations, the cast and crew.

He was most concerned that his portrayal of Poirot should be faithful to the character that Agatha Christie had created. He immersed himself so completely in the character that at times he didn’t know where Poirot ended and he began! Even so, some of the dramatisations are not strictly faithful to the original stories, for various reasons; additional characters are included and some of the plots are expanded versions, especially where the original short stories were slight. Or, for example, as in the case of the collection of short stories that make up The Twelve Labours of Hercules, the stories are so diverse that the screenwriter created an almost entirely new story, though using some of the characters.

At the end of each of the Poirot series, David Suchet didn’t know if any more were in the pipeline and he continued to play other parts in film,  on TV and on the stage. I found this just as interesting as the sections on his role as Poirot and it emphasises his qualities as an actor –  he is a ‘character’ actor, a Shakespearean actor and with the exception of Poirot his roles have been pretty dark and menacing parts. I particularly remember him in Blott on the Landscape, in which he played the malevolent gardener and in The Way We Live Now as the sinister financier Melmotte.

He thinks the charm of the Poirot stories is that

… they reveal a world where manners and morals are quite different from today. There are no overt or unnecessary sex scenes, no alcoholic, haunted detectives in Poirot’s world. He lives in a simpler, some would say more human, era; a lost England, seen through the admiring eyes of this foreigner, this little Belgian detective. For me, that makes the stories all the more appealing, for although the days he lives in seem far away, they are all the more enchanting because of it. (page 64 in the hardback edition)

I think so too – and I think the same charm and appeal can be found in the Miss Marple stories.

David Suchet wrote that when Hercule Poirot died on that late November afternoon in 2012 (as he filmed Curtain) a part of him died, but for me and doubtless for many others, Poirot lives on not just in Agatha Christie’s stories but also in David Suchet’s wonderful performances as his ‘cher ami‘, Hercule Poirot.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages (also available in paperback and on Kindle)
  • Publisher: Headline; 1st edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755364198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755364190
  • Source: my local library

Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson: Book Notes

I read Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks books set in the Yorkshire Dales, every now and then, so I’m reading them totally out of order. It doesn’t seem to matter. Dry Bones That Dream is the 7th book in the series and the cover of my copy shows  Stephen Tompkinson as Banks. I don’t remember seeing this one on ITV, but I probably did as I see from the list of episodes in Wikipedia that it was broadcast in 2012.

Dry Bones That Dream was first published in the UK in 1995 and in the US later in as Final Account.

Summary from Peter Robinson’s website:

One May evening, two masked gunmen tie up Alison Rothwell and her mother, take Keith Rothwell, a local accountant, to the garage of his isolated Yorkshire Dales farmhouse, and blow his head off with a shotgun. Why? This is the question Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks has to ask as he sifts through Rothwell’s life. Rothwell was generally known in the area as a mild-mannered, dull sort of person, but even a cursory investigation raises more questions than answers. When Banks’s old sparring partner, DS Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess, turns up from the Yard, the case takes yet another unexpected twist, and Banks finds himself racing against time as the killers seem to be dogging his footsteps. Only after he pits his job against his sense of justice does he discover the truth. And the truth leads him to one of the most difficult decisions of his career.

My Thoughts:

I read this quite quickly, even though it’s just over 350 pages, in between mammoth gardening sessions (more about that later maybe). It really centres around identity and unearthing the secrets the characters have kept hidden from their family and friends. There’s also money-laundering and international and political shenanigans involved.

Much of the book revolves around Banks and his relationships, with family, colleagues and the people he interviews in connection with Keith Rothwell. Banks seems to be at a pivotal moment in his personal life. As usual with the DCI Banks books  we are told what music Banks listens to which got a bit monotonous for me and the descriptions of what each character looked like and the clothes they were wearing didn’t add anything to the plot. I did have an inkling about the truth about Rothwell’s murder but thought I was being too fanciful and that it was an unlikely scenario – it wasn’t. But I did enjoy reading it anyway even with these drawbacks.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

I read Nothing To be Frightened Of over several weeks, reading short sections at a time. This book is described on the back cover by Penelope Lively as:

A maverick form of family memoir that is mainly an extended reflection on the fear of death and on that great consolation, religious belief … it is entertaining, intriguing, absorbing … an inventive and invigorating slant on what is nowadays called “life writing”.

It is a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God – in fact he begins his book with this statement: I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

Later, he writes, Missing God is rather like Being English, a feeling aroused mainly by attack. When my country is abused, a dormant, if not to say narcoleptic, patriotism stirs. And when it comes to God, I find myself more provoked by atheistic absolutism than by, say, the often bland, tentative hopefulness of the Church of England. (page 77)

His agnosticism doesn’t help him with his fear of dying, but then, again, he thinks that faith does not necessarily remove the fear of death anyway – there are those who fear death among those who have faith as well as among the irreligious.

But this is more than a book about dying because interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating,  but it’s his autobiographical passages that I found the most interesting, sharing details about his family’s beliefs and the deaths of his parents and grandparents, of the rivalry between him and his brother, his mother’s solipsism and manipulative behaviour, his father’s seemingly passive approach to life and the difficulties of really knowing a person.

He states that it is easier with fiction than with life – fictional characters are easier to see, whereas in real life ‘the better you know someone , the less well often you see them. … They may be so close as to be out of focus … Often when we talk about someone very familiar, we are referring back to the time when we first properly saw them, when they were held in the most useful -and flattering light – light at the correct focal distance.’ (page 157)

He and his brother have different memories of their parents and grandparents and of their own early relationship, which shows how unreliable memory can be. I suppose I agree more with his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who thinks that memories are often false and not to be trusted without external support, rather than Julian, who says he is more trusting, or self deluding, so shall continue as all my memories are true.

This is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic book.  It’s written in an informal tone, almost as though he is talking to the reader, and not being divided into chapters adds to that sense of being involved in a conversation. But is far from being a simple read – there is an awful lot packed into this book, an intensely personal book that reflects the complexity of our views of life and death. It gave me much to think about and even made me chuckle in parts.

And finally thinking about being remembered/forgotten after his death, Barnes considers who will be his last reader because with that reader he will finally be forgotten – and then he reflects that your last reader is, by definition, someone who didn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh? (page 226)

I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be his last reader!

Reading Challenge: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015. This is only the 5th non fiction book I’ve read so far this year!

Gently North West by Alan Hunter

I first came across Inspector George Gently through the TV drama with Martin Shaw as Gently. There are 46 books in Alan Hinter’s Gently series and I’ve  read the first two , Gently Does It and Gently by the Shore and now the 14th book, Gently North West (first published in 1967). The full list of the Gently books is on Fantastic Fiction.  In the TV version Gently is based in Northumberland, whereas the books are mainly set in Norfolk.

Summary (Amazon)

There’s blood in the heather and a murderer on the loose when Gently pays a quiet visit to the Highlands of Scotland. Had Brenda Merryn not been such a strong-willed woman and had she not been so much in love with George Gently, driving all the way to Scotland for a holiday with Gently’s sister and brother-in-law might have been a bit of a challenge. Spying on a heavily armed private army of nationalists, being held at gunpoint on the hillside, being held prisoner in a filthy outhouse and becoming involved in a murder would be unthinkable. For Gently, it’s all in a day’s work and his holiday is put on hold while he stalks a murderer in the mountains, with Brenda by his side.

My view:

Gently North West is set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. There is quite a lot of detailed descriptions not only of the Scottish Highlands but also of the route of Gently’s journey from London to Scotland. On their journey a man with a red beard nearly crashes into Gently’s car.

Then on their first evening in the Highlands, Gently and Brenda go for a walk and see the same man, standing high on a crag above the glen, peering at them through his binoculars.  The next morning, the body of Donnie Dunglass is found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather near where Gently had seen the man with the red beard. He feels it is his duty to inform the local constabulary about the man he saw and so becomes involved in the search for the killer.

In this book there are several references that set the book firmly in the late 1960s with reference to the Scottish Nationalists ‘ activities during that time and even to Mary Quant. But what particularly interested me about Gently North West is not the actual murder mystery which I think is rather far-fetched, but the fact that Gently is no longer an Inspector working in Norfolk but is living in London, a Chief Superintendent with Scotland Yard. Obviously since the events in the second book Gently had been promoted several times!

Now I’m wondering if I want to read all the books to find out more about Alan Hunter’s Gently.

Alan Hunter was born in Hoveton, Norfolk in 1922. He left school at the age of fourteen to work on his father’s farm, spending his spare time sailing on the Norfolk Broads and writing nature notes for the Eastern Evening News. He also wrote poetry, some of which was published while he was in the RAF during the Second World War. By 1950, he was running his own book shop in Norwich and in 1955, the first of what would become a series of forty-six George Gently novels was published.  He died in 2005, aged eighty-two.

He dedicated Gently North West to his mother, Isabella Hunter, nee Andrews, who was from Culsalmond in Aberdeenshire. In his own words she ‘contrived to possess her son with an indelible prejudice for the land of heroes and poets. Rest her well where she lies and greetings to my unknown Scottish cousins.

Reading Challenge: this is the fifth book I’ve read that qualifies for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Years ago, well before I began this blog, I read many of John Grisham’s books and loved them. Then, somehow, he went off my radar, but when I saw Gray Mountain on display in the library I remembered how much I used to enjoy his books and borrowed it.

Gray Mountain

I don’t think he has changed much – this book is just as much a campaign against injustice and the misuse of power, about the good little guys against the big bad guys as his earlier books are. In this case it’s the big coal companies that come under the microscope, companies that are  ruining the environment by strip-mining in the Appalachian mountains. I was amazed to read the details – clear-felling the forests, scalping the earth and then blasting away the mountain tops to get at the coal. All the trees, topsoil and rocks are then dumped into the valleys, wiping out the vegetation, wildlife and streams. Gray Mountain is one of the mountains destroyed in this way.

But this is running ahead in the book. It begins in 2008 when Samantha Kofer has lost her job as a highly paid third-year associate with New York’s largest law firm following the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers bank. One of the options open to her is to work for free for twelve months as an intern at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, run by Mattie Wyatt.  After that there is the possibility that she could get her old job back.

Up until then Samantha had only worked in corporate law and had never been in a courtroom, but she soon became immersed in a variety of  cases, including meths dealers and people suffering from black lung disease.

Gray Mountain is owned by Mattie’s nephew, Donovan Gray, also a lawyer, who is taking on cases against the Big Coal companies.  One of the cases involves the Tate family, two little boys who were killed when a boulder from the rock clearance crashed into the trailer where they were sleeping.  Although Samantha is horrified by the situation and wants to help Donovan and his brother Jeff in their search for justice, she feels reluctant to get involved as Donovan’s  methods are sometimes not strictly legal – and she doesn’t feel she belongs in Brady. And there is still the opportunity for her to work in New York, when a former colleague offers her a job.

But she gets emotionally involved with the people and their problems and begins to like litigation:

This was the rush, the high, the narcotic that pushed trial lawyers to the brink. This was the thrill that Donovan sought when he refused to settle for cash on the table. This was the overdose of testosterone that inspired men like her father to dash around the world chasing cases. (page 197)

She has to decide whether to stay with the Clinic or take the job in New York, and she loves the city life. It’s not an easy decision, and it is not revealed until right at the very end of the book.

Although Gray Mountain doesn’t quite match up to my memories of Grisham’s earlier books, I still enjoyed it. At first I thought he was introducing too much detail about the coal companies’ mining practices, but I soon realised how essential it is to understanding the issues. At times it’s like reading a series of short stories, but the main theme is well maintained. I liked the view of the small town community, the mountain scenery, the legal cases large and small and the tension created by the danger of opposing the big coal companies.

Reading Challenge: Color Coded Reading Challenge, with the word ‘Gray’ in the title and the cover being mainly grey in colour it qualifies for the category a book with “Black” or any shade of black in the title/on the cover.

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

My book this week is a library book that I’m thinking about reading soon. It’s The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.

It begins:

A trail of tiny crumbs led from the kitchen into the bedroom, as far as the spotless sheets where the old woman lay dead, her mouth open. Commissaire Adamsberg looked down at the crumbs in silence, pacing to and fro, wondering what kind of Tom Thumb – or what ogre in this case – might have dropped them there. He was in a small, dark, ground-floor apartment, with just three rooms, in the eighteenth arrondissement, in northern Paris.

Blurb:

‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters.

She refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grisly end following a visitation by the riders.

Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously vicious and cruel man disappears. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.

What do you think? Would you keep on reading?

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

Have His Carcase, first published in 1932, is another brilliant book – completely different from the last book I wrote about (see my previous post) but just as fascinating and absorbing. It’s crime fiction from the **Golden Age (see the note below), that is between the First and Second World Wars, and is the second of Dorothy L Sayer’s books featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction writer, and the seventh featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. They first met in Strong Poison, in which Harriet was on trial charged with the murder of her former lover.

In Have His Carcase Harriet is on a walking holiday when she comes across a dead man, his throat cut from ear to ear, lying on the top of a rock, called locally the Flat-Iron, on a deserted beach. Fortunately she has her camera with her and takes several photos, which come in very useful as by the time that she can alert the police the body has been washed out to sea. It appears that he committed suicide. Wimsey arrives soon after and he and Harriet they set out first of all to identify the body and then to prove that it was murder.

It is an example of the puzzle type of crime fiction – incredibly complicated and seemingly impossible to solve. It involves numerous characters who are not who they first appear, complete with alibis, disguises and false trails. Sayers, helpfully included a schedule of things that Harriet and Wimsey noted about the victim and the suspects, which I found useful as this is a long novel that took me several days to read; with so much information I just couldn’t remember it all as I read the book.

It all hinges on the timing of the discovery of the body and the movement of the tides. As in The Nine Tailors (and in fact in all the books by Dorothy L Sayers that I’ve read) there is a lot of detail, all of which is essential to the plot; detail about the body, how it was found, how the throat was cut , and what the blood was like when Harriet found the body. In the hands of another writer this could have been too graphic for me, but I had no difficulty reading such detail at all!

Also added into the mix are Bolsheviks, rumours of aristocratic connections, spies and a secret code to be deciphered. There are jealous lovers, itinerant hairdressers, a schoolteacher with Communist sympathies, taciturn locals, an antagonistic future son-in-law and  gigolos and dagos. (Written in the early 1930s this is not a politically correct novel.)

An underlying theme is the relationship between Harriet and Wimsey as he is constantly proposing marriage and she rejects him each time. Although at one point, as they walked along the beach together in search of clues, it did look briefly that her resolve was weakening:

She suddenly saw Wimsey in a new light. She knew him to be intelligent, clean, courteous, wealthy, well-read, amusing and enamoured, but he had not so far produced in her that crushing sense of utter inferiority which leads to prostration and hero-worship. But she now realised that there was, after all, something godlike about him. (pages 213-4)

and then she came to her senses and laughed. Earlier she had noted his physique as they inspected the Flat-Iron in the sea:

‘And he strips better than I should have expected,’ she admitted candidly to herself. ‘Better shoulders than I realised, and, thank Heaven, calves to his legs,’ (page 104)

Here are some more of my favourite quotations:

I question this first one!:

To be tried for murder is a fairly good advertisement for a writer of detective fiction. (page 1)

and on seeing what appears to be a man asleep Harriet says:

Now, if I had any luck, he’d be a corpse, and I should report him and get my name in the papers. That would be something like publicity. “Well-known Woman Detective-Writer Finds Mystery Corpse on Lonely Shore.” But these things never happy to authors. (page 7)

Well, she got her wish.

Next, here is Wimsey remarking on his use of quotations, which he does throughout the book:

I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking. (page 58)

and Wimsey to Harriet after she apologised for being ‘a rotten dancer’:

Darling if you danced like an elderly elephant with arthritis, I would dance the sun and moon into the sea with you. I have waited a thousand years to see you dance in that frock. (page 157)

I loved the complexity, the details, and the various solutions Wimsey and Harriet considered. It kept me guessing throughout the book right from the start – just who was the victim, even when he was identified there was more to it, who murdered him, why was he murdered and above all just how and when was he murdered. It’s brilliant!

**Note: I must get a copy of Martin Edwards’ new book The Golden Age of Murderinvestigating how Agatha Christie and colleagues in the Detection Club transformed crime fiction, writing books casting new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets.

It’s due to be published on 7 May.

Dorothy L Sayers: Strong Poison & Gaudy Night

I’m no longer attempting  to write about every book I read but I do want to record a few of my thoughts on two of Dorothy L Sayers’ books that I’ve read recently because they are both such good books. However, I doubt very much that I can do justice to either of these books.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was born at Christchurch Cathedral School, Oxford, where her father was the headmaster. She learned Latin and French at the age of seven, went to Somerville College, Oxford and in 1915 she graduated with a first class honours degree in modern languages. She is best known as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, but as well as writing crime fiction she also wrote poems, plays, essays, books on religion and was a translator – most notably of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The two of her books I’ve read recently are Strong Poison (first published in 1930) and Gaudy Night (first published in 1935), both featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction novelist, and her relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic amateur detective.

The two first meet in Strong Poison, when Harriet is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey, attending the trial, is convinced she is innocent and sets out to prove it … and falls in love with her.

From the back cover:

The Crown’s case is watertight. The police are adamant that the right person is on trial. The judge’s summing up is also clear. Harriet Vane is guilty of killing her lover and Harriet Vane must hang. But the jury disagrees.

Well, actually one member of the jury won’t agree that she is guilty – that is Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster, who just happens to run what Wimsey calls ‘My Cattery’, ostensibly a typing bureau, but actually an amateur detective/enquiry agency. Wimsey decides that Harriet is innocent, Boyes, who died poisoned by arsenic, either committed suicide or was murdered by someone else. It is Miss Climpson and her employees, mainly spinsters with small fixed incomes, or no incomes, widows without families, or women deserted by their husband, who do the investigations. This involves Miss Climpson posing as a medium and Miss Murchison learning how to pick a lock.

To sum up – this is a delightful book, full of strong characters, a mystery to solve, superbly written with humour as well as ingenuity.

And then there is Gaudy Night, which is even better than Strong Poison. I loved the setting in this book – Shrewsbury College, a fictional all female college, at Oxford University (based on Somerville College, Sayers’ own college). The action of the book takes place in 1935, five years after Harriet’s trial in Strong Poison. During those five years Harriet and Wimsey have had an ongoing ‘relationship’ in which he annually asks her to marry him and she refuses. They had also worked together on a murder at Wilvercombe, as told in Have His Carcase, a book I have yet to read.

Gaudy Night begins as Harriet decides to go back to Shrewsbury College to attend the Shrewsbury Gaudy (a college reunion involving a celebratory dinner), not sure she can face meeting her fellow students and the dons. It doesn’t go well – there are poison pen letters, nasty graffiti and vandalism causing mayhem and upset. Harriet is asked to investigate, under pretence of helping one of the dons to rewrite her manuscript that had been destroyed in one of the nightly attacks and researching the life and works of Sheridan Lefanu. Struggling to discover the culprit and afraid it will end in murder she asks Wimsey for help.

This is a complex novel, with many characters, some of whom I found difficult to visualise, whereas others were vividly depicted, their thoughts, actions and feelings clearly evident. I had no idea who the writer of the poison pen letters etc could be and I was completely absorbed in the mystery.

But what gives both books so much depth is the portrayal of life between the two world wars, the exploration of the role of women in society, particularly with regard to education and marriage and the importance of truth and honesty; not forgetting, the ongoing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey. Of the two books I preferred Gaudy Night, but both are excellent and a pleasure to read.

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

The Murder Room by P D James

The Murder Room by P D James is one of the last of the Adam Dalgleish books, first published in 2003 . Although I’ve not read many of the books I’ve watched most (if not all) of the TV adaptations, but I don’t remember watching this one.

The Murder Room itself is in the Dupayne Museum, displaying the most notorious murder cases of the 1920s and 30s, with contemporary newspaper reports of the crimes and trials, photographs and actual exhibits from the scenes of the murders. These were actual crimes and not fictional cases made up by P D James.

The novel  begins, as Commander Adam Dalgleish visits the Dupayne in the company of his friend Conrad Ackroyd who is writing a series of articles on murder as a symbol of its age. A week later the first body is discovered at the Museum and Adam and his colleagues in Scotland Yard’s Special Investigation Squad are called in to investigate the killing, which appears to be a copycat murder of one of the 1930s’ crimes.

The Murder Room is not a quick read. It begins slowly with a detailed description of the main characters and it is only after 150 or so pages that the first murder occurs, so by that time I had a good idea of who might be killed but not of the culprit as many of the characters could all have had the motive and opportunity. There are two more killings before Dalgleish reveals the culprit.

More used to fast paced murder mysteries initially I was impatient with this slow start but soon settled into P D James’ approach and appreciated the depth of the intricate plot. The setting is fascinating and the characters are convincing, so much so that I was hoping the second victim wouldn’t be one of my favourite characters.

The lease on the Museum is up for renewal and not everyone wants it to continue – as one of the characters says:

It’s the past … it’s about dead people and dead years … we’re too obsessed with our past, with hoarding and collecting for the sake of it.

There is the Dupayne family – Marcus and Caroline both actively involved in running the Museum, and their brother Nigel, who is a psychiatrist, and his daughter Sarah; the Museum staff – Muriel Godby in charge of the Museum’s day to day running, Tally Clutton the housekeeper, James Calder-Hale, the curator who used to work for MI5; Marie Strickland, a volunteer calligraphist; and Ryan Archer, the handyman and gardener.

I liked the interaction between Dalgleish and D I Kate Miskin, and between Dalgleish and Emma Lavenham who is finding their relationship increasingly frustrating. I enjoyed the book and found it absorbing and testing of both my powers of deduction and vocabulary.

Wycliffe in Paul’s Court by W J Burley

We had to spend nearly 4 hours yesterday in the Newcastle Emergency Eye Department as D has a corneal abrasion. As my Kindle needed charging I picked up a lightweight paperback to slip into my bag to while away the time – and I nearly finished it whilst we were there! It was Wycliffe in Paul’s Court by W J Burley.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Paul’s Court is a quiet corner in the heart of the city: an oasis of peace and safety – until the night when there are two violent deaths. Willy Goppel, an émigré from Germany, is found hanging from a beam in his home; and fifteen-year-old Yvette Cole, who may or may not have lived up to her wild reputation, is strangled and thrown half naked over the churchyard hedge.

Chief Superintendent Wycliffe has the aid of a shrewd local sergeant, Kersey, but they still find this a difficult case to crack. Did Willy assault the girl and then hang himself? Or was his death not suicide after all? As Wycliffe and Kersey dig deeper they gradually untangle a complex network of secrets in the quiet of Paul’s Court …

My thoughts

Although there are plenty of suspects, all from the five houses in Paul’s Court I could easily distinguish them, even with the distractions of a hospital waiting room from children crying that they wanted to go home and people talking loudly next to me. On the other hand, I wasn’t able to concentrate enough to follow all the clues and it was only just before the culprit was revealed that I had any idea who it was. But it was still an enjoyable read.

Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective who doesn’t let himself become desk-bound and gets very involved with the investigation. This is the first time he has worked with Kersey, who sized him up thus:

He saw a man with a clear view of right and wrong who was not a bigot; he recognised a close-grained moral toughness with a hint of old-fashioned puritan zeal, but no wish to burn heretics. A man of compassion but no sentimentalist, a reformer but not a do-gooder. (page 70)

Wycliffe and Kersey make a good team; Kersey knows not just the area very well but also the local people and is able to give Wycliffe ‘vivid thumb-nail sketches of the inhabitants of Paul’s Court’. They are ordinary people, living ordinary lives but who find themselves in the middle of a murder investigation. W J Burley was very good at creating believable people caught up in extraordinary situations. I’ve read just a few of his 22 Wycliffe books – plenty more to read yet!

W.J. Burley (1914 – 20020 was first an engineer, and later went to Balliol to read zoology as a mature student. On leaving Oxford he went into teaching and, until his retirement, was senior biology master in a large mixed grammar school in Newquay. He created Inspector Wycliffe in 1966 and the series has been televised with Jack Shepherd starring in the title role. Wycliffe in Paul’s Court was first published in 1980.

Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

Sisters of SinaiThe full title of this book is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. This is biography so well written that it almost reads like a novel. In fact, if this was a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discover one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac.

Janet Soskice has written a compelling account of two Scottish sisters – Agnes and Margaret Smith born in 1843 in Irvine, a town south-west of Glasgow. Their mother died two weeks after they were born and they were brought up by their father, John Smith. He was unusual in that he gave his daughters an unconventional education for that period. He approved of independence of mind and foreign travel. The girls had an aptitude for languages and mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian whilst they were still quite young – helped by visits to each country. Their taste for learning, travels and adventure was set for life with long hours of study and plenty of exercise. Add to this intensely-held Presbyterian beliefs and Bible study.

John Smith inherited a huge sum of money (today’s equivalent would be around £7 million) from a relative. He died when the twins were 23 leaving his fortune to them (which had built up considerably by then); they were very rich indeed. They decided to have a trip down the Nile. And that was just the beginning; their lives were transformed.

They learnt Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac and they returned to Egypt and Sinai many times, befriending the monks of St Catherine, despite their religious differences, and getting embroiled in disputes with Cambridge academics who were initially very reluctant to accept that these two middle-aged (by then) women with no university qualifications (women were not permitted to receive degrees from the university at that time), could possibly have found anything of value or interest to them.

What they discovered in a ‘dimly lit little room  below the prior’s quarters’ in the monastery was a dirty volume, its leaves nearly all stuck together, written in Syriac. It was a collection of lives of women saints, but written underneath that was something else that was clearly an earlier text – of the Gospels. This was a palimpsest – the earliest writing having been scraped off and overwritten at a later date, the old ink becoming visible at a later date through the effects of the atmosphere. This eventually proved that the Gospels had been written much earlier than had previously been thought, moving the date back to the late second century.

Not only is that remarkable in itself, but it is astonishing to me that these two middle-aged women travelled to Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and beyond at the latter half of the nineteenth century across the desert on camel or walking miles on foot. Their courage and resolve overcame all the difficulties they encountered, coping with physical discomfort and  dishonest dragomen abroad and the hostility and scepticism at home.

I would never have known of this enthralling book if it hadn’t been for Cath’s review of it on Read-Warbler. I was intrigued and looked for it in my library straight away and was delighted to find that there was a copy in another branch.  Biographies and historical books are probably my most favourite of non-fiction books and accounts of  the Bible and how it came to be compiled have long been of interest to me, but I hadn’t come across these two sisters before. Janet Soskine has throughly researched her subject and the book is complemented by a ‘select’ bibliography that runs to nearly 5 pages and an extensive index.

This is an excellent non-fiction book, just right for Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.