Category Archives: Books

Books I have been reading recently

Crum and Cram

Twin pillars of the English Reformation, though neither of them knew it at the time. Diarmaid McCulloch has written two magisterial biographies, first Thomas Cranmer and just lately Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell, A life was published last year and I was given it for Christmas. While I did need some light relief between sections, I found the whole book an astonishing glimpse into a world so distant, and yet still affecting life today.

What everyone knows about Thomas Cromwell is that he destroyed the monasteries, this of course, is wrong. That is to say, an oversimplification of his intentions and his actions. The initial move towards reducing the monastic life in England was Cardinal Wolsey’s, and Thomas Cromwell was his agent. The movement started by closing the houses that has fewer than 12 inhabitants; this seems reasonable enough. After Wolsey’s fall from grace, the process continued with what were called “visitations”. These were undertaken all over the country to assess the religious practices in each house.

But with the dramatic events in Germany, the new thinking of Martin Luther and others, there came a slow recognition that relics, idols and images were probably deviations from true religion. The net result was a mass confiscation of such things, and destruction of statues of veneration – probably the worst act of vandalism this country has ever seen, possibly not even dwarfed by the more recent activities of the Taliban and ISIS.

Diarmaid’s book fills in all the gaps left by Hilary Mantel, Tracy Borman and Michael Everett; these three have each approached Cromwell’s life from a different angle. Mantel notoriously and brilliantly making it a novel, so filling in the inevitable gaps and silences with imagination; Tracy Borman looked at the context of his life as a faithful servant of King Henry VIII and Michael Everett looked at his life through the lens of politics and power. What Thomas Cromwell, A life does is to look forensically at each year of Cromwell’s life more or less from the moment he joins the household of Cardinal Wolsey, from near disaster to a meteoric rise to power until he was closer to the king than anyone else in the land.

The most revealing moments are the times when his grasp slips, not once but several times Thomas is on the very brink of annihilation, but manages to slip away unhurt. Until finally…

We know the ending: short, brutal and profoundly sad. Such that even the mercurial Henry, only months afterwards was railing against the decision – as if he had nothing to do with it.

The equally enthralling book Thomas Cranmer, A life, fills up the remaining gaps in the story of the Anglican Church. This too, is filled with details that come to the surface in surprising jolts. These two Thomases, both from quite humble backgrounds, between them caused a seismic alteration in the destination of England and the English way of religion.

There are so many “what ifs” in these two volumes that it is hard to pick out one or two illustrative examples. But one stand out case is the direction of travel away from the pure Lutheran austerity towards a softer, but manifestly different catholicity which came from the influence of the Swiss theologians – Huldrych Zwingli and the Swiss/French theologian John Calvin.

Both Thomases ended their lives hideously and one cannot help wondering what would have happened if either one had lived a full life to its natural end. But they lived in turbulent times, and in many ways were directly responsible for the schisms, the brutal and bloody retributions that followed from the English Reformation and which carried on killing and torturing dissenters from the regal norm, long after their deaths.

These are very serious books but utterly readable, enthralling and enlightening for anyone wanting to know more about where we are now and how we got here.

Who knew, for example, that the voting divisions on acts of Parliament into the “ayes” and “nos” lobbies, which we have just seen profoundly shake the country, were an idea of Thomas Cromwell’s to wrest from the ducal landlords the power to make decisions and towards a more equitable contribution from all members.

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New Year, new post

I suspect that Kate Morton would do better to restrict the number of topics she wishes to include in one novel and to concentrate more on rounding out the many bewildering characters she has in each. Her latest The Clockmaker’s Daughter, covers a wide range of situations, from Victorian England – poverty, thievery, infant farms, artistic brotherhoods, photography, new science and new railways – through to present day concerns.

Contrary to the impression given by its title, it is the house that is the main character, the house and its haunting occupant. There are many books about houses, from Manderley, Thornfield and Wuthering Heights through to the modern day – The Glass Room (Simon Mawer) and The House by the Lake (Thomas Harding – non-fiction) and it is obvious in a country of old houses there will have been interesting, exciting and even tragic events occurring in and around the place.

But Birchwood Manor is exceptional in the many and varied people who have lived or worked there. Many, if not all, of whom have suffered loss through sudden and accidental death of a parent or sibling. It becomes apparent that the house was built in Elizabethan times, it has two priest-holes constructed by Nicholas Owen, now canonised. A house with no less than two known priest-holes, will probably have seen death in one way or another. But this catalogue of sudden death stretches the credibility

The range of characters is also baffling: the Magenta Group who were there in the 1800s, the school, the refugees from World War II bombing, and the researchers and the public, and then there is the ghost.

It is the ghost, of course, who strings it all together. She can move around at will inside the house and grounds, but beyond that she cannot go.

There is a moment, when Lucy, the young sister, staying there in the 1800s finds the priest-holes, and from then on it is simply a matter of waiting for the inevitable.

This is most definitely a holiday read. Though, in fact, I was using it as a light relief break from a much more dense, factual and riveting book which I am currently reading and can hardly wait to tell you about. Have patience – it is long, concentrated scholarship and will take me a while. The Clockmaker’s Daughter is just that: light relief

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The best laid plans…

Two books, very different but with strong similarities.

Dark Water, the second novel by Elizabeth Lowry (and I will definitely be looking for her first) is a quasi-Gothic tale with two principal characters, a young newly qualified doctor – Hiram Carver and a national hero, William Borden.

Their first encounters are at sea, both literally and metaphorically. Hiram hates the sea, hates the ship he is on, hates the hierarchy and the endless repetition of orders from the top brass, through the ranks and down to the hand that has to “lay aft to the braces”; the repetition of swabbing, polishing, cleaning, scrubbing; the tedium, the mood of stasis and torpor.

Meanwhile, William Borden seems above all this, untouched, untarnished, bronzed and almost godlike; the reason for this comes later in the tale.

The story and the telling lie just south of Moby Dick and possibly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but this is not to denigrate the novel which is a page-turner and turns the whole thing inside out to boot. So that once we leave the ocean, we think we may be following Hiram’s story.

The reason Hiram went to sea had to do with the society into which he had been born, demi-mondaine Bostoniana. As he found he could not impress his father, was jealous of his sister, Caro and found his mother distant, having trained as a doctor, he went to sea.

On his return, sick and sickened, he languishes for several months, until he finally gets to his feet again, only to find that his father has manoeuvered a job for him as Assistant Medical Officer in the local insane asylum.

So far, so good. Then a new patient is admitted and it is William Borden…

The second book, The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, is set in Poland and Hungary during the First World War. A young, barely qualified doctor, Lucius enlists, only to find himself on the front line of a very mobile and disjointed theatre of war.

He ends up in a makeshift military hospital in a church in an out of the way village, Lemnowice. There, having never wielded a scalpel on a living creature in his life, he has to do amputations, stitch up shrapnel wounds, treat gonorrhea and then the shell-shocked patients begin to arrive.

His inexperience is masked by Margarete, a wimpled but beautiful woman, professing to be a nun. She has been there a long time and has seen at least three other doctors pack up and leave, for various reasons. She sees immediately that Lucius is inexperienced, but she guides him through the processes which she has watched the other doctors perform time and time again.

But shell shock is a new phenomenon, and treating it is guesswork as much as anything.

It is here that the similarity between the two novels becomes most apparent, for the well meaning treatment of the mentally unstable patients, the ones in the Boston asylum and the ones off the battlefield, by the two inexperienced and untrained doctors leads both of them, through hubris or hopefulness to make a wrong decision which leads inexorably on to some dreadful climax, and scenes of an inhumane and distressing nature.

But reader beware, for leaning back in judgement upon these two young men, you may slip into an unwarranted complacency. Psychoanalysis was in its infancy in the second novel, but existed not at all in the 1830s, and in both cases it was a step into ‘dark water’ which is what the deepest psychosis seems to be to Hiram Carver, while Lucius has not read The Interpretation of Dreams, though he has clearly heard of it and of Sigmund Freud.

Both books contain actions and language which we would not countenance now. But both novels are illuminating and exciting to read and come highly recommended.

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A log jam of books

Several new novels have been piling up in the “having read waiting to post” pile. The new Barbara Kingsolver, the new Andrew Miller and the new Philip Teir.

 

These are each in their own way, brilliant. I regard Barbara Kingsolver as one of the best women writers from America in the last 25 years. She is, to my mind the Rachel Carson of the fiction world. Each of her many books has behind it a message for the planet. Whether it is the changing habits of Monarch butterflies (Flight Behaviour) or changing attitudes to evolution, there is behind each novel a scintilla of historical truth. But as with the butterflies, the changes are mirrored in the lives of the characters.

In Unsheltered, the reader is drawn into the nature of houses themselves, what does an old house tell us, if anything, about the people who lived in it before? In the present day, Willa is being given the horrific news that the house she and her family live in is no longer stable and should be pulled down.  Several rooms are already no longer inhabitable.

This leads back to the same block in the same town, but to a historic period when a teacher at the town school finds himself in difficulties with the strict Creationist beliefs of the founding patriarch of the new development, Vineland – Mr Charles Landis. Thatcher Greenwood, a biologist interested in the works of Charles Darwin, also lives in a house that is crumbling and he has not the means to pay for repairs, not least because the very building design – his father-in-law’s – was flawed from the start.

His neighbour, a botanist, is another “real-life” character in this novel. Mary Treat is a distinguished but mostly forgotten botanist who corresponded with such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Charles Riley and Asa Gray, and whose contribution to the understanding of environment to the life of plants such as the Venus fly-trap were singular and admired by these (unjustly) more famous men. Charles Landis is also a true character, as is one of the more startling events in the book. 1868 was a rather turbulent time in America, it seems.

There are many layered meanings in the title, not only the shelter of the roof over our heads but the discoveries and obfuscations that often follow any new idea, when the certainties of old belief system are uncovered by the discoveries of new science.

This is a marvellous blend of fact and fiction, a seamless combination of past and present as exemplified by the houses, slowly sinking back into their foundations. If someone famous lived there, can the house be saved? There is much to savour in this wonderful book.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also an historical novel, set at the time of the Peninsula War.  Captain John Lacroix arrives home from the setback at Corunna. It is a love story, a murder story and a study of the human will to survive against all the odds. In modern parlance, Lacroix is suffering from PTSD, once he is back on his feet physically, he is expected to return to his regiment and the war with France. Instead, he turns North.

But all is not absolutely as it seems, grief and remorse are deeply lodged in his heart, and while he is fleeing from these emotions, there are other men who are in deadly pursuit. Merciless to himself, Lacroix is being pursued by an enemy even more desperate and implacable towards him.

Miller gets into the mind of his characters in a combined skill of both observation and description, so that the landscape and the weather are principals in the drama, as much as the human characters themselves.

The ending…it is sublime.

The Summer House is translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunally, she also translated his debut novel The Winter War.

Several families have left the city for their summer houses, near water and the sea. For Erik and Julia, it begins as a perfectly normal family holiday in her parents’ summer house, they have with them their two children, Alice and Anton. In a neighbouring house there seems to be a single woman, Kati, she does not make contact and seems to shun society.

Further away, but in a house that Julia knows well from her childhood and which she has included in her first novel, is a disparate group of neo-environmentalists. Led by Chris, they are of the view that climate change and its eventual outcomes are now inevitable, therefore peddling hope that we may find a solution in time to stem the catastrophe is pointless, so we should aim to live to the best of our abilities in the knowledge that we can change nothing, but to live with despair in a pre-industrial wilderness as hunter-gatherers with internet connection.

Among this group, is her childhood friend Marika. Summer progresses and things will never be the same again, for any of them.

This is not a plot driven novel, it is more a meditation upon the secrets and lies that every family has, little lies and big secrets – Erik has lost his job and not told Julia; she is still trying to decide whether their relationship is still worth keeping; Marika and Chris have a whole different set of problems, most of which they are trying to keep secret. It is about the barriers we put up to protect our masks, and the little things or events that happen that may eventually reveal the truth.

 

 

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Another novel for the long commute

Three Things About Elsie is the latest offering from Joanna Cannon, her previous novel was the surprising debut The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

Elsie x3This novel is a sort of mystery, but also a reflection upon life as seen by an elderly woman, Florence who has fallen in her room shortly after 4pm. She cannot get up, nor can she reach her call button.

She slowly goes through the people who may come to find her, and so the story unfolds. Who they are and why they might come to her room, what they will say when they find her on the floor.

The hours pass, the plot thickens, and in the intersectional chapters in “now-time” Florence notices things lying under the bed or the bureau where the cleaners have missed them. Some of these items have a place in the story, some of them are just dust.

Her story, and the story of the friends and carers in the sheltered accommodation where she finds herself, unwind slowly with a hint of menace as she is constantly being threatened with removal to Greenbanks, which when we do “visit” it later seems to be the worst sort of institutional care home imaginable. And then there is the strange man, the new resident, calling himself Gabriel Price, how is it possible that he is there when he drowned?

And how did twenty five Battenburg Cakes turn up in her cupboard? The reader is left unsure whether this is indeed a calculated act on the part of the threatening stranger, or batty Florence slowly losing her faculties. We can choose between the views of the care home staff who think one way and Florence’s friends who believe her version.

In the end, it is also a case of five degrees of separation. We find, as the reader does in From a Low and Quiet Sea, that all these people also have a tenuous connection way back in the past.

Heaven help us all!

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More Shardlake, please

I have been hanging back on writing about the latest Shardlake novel from C J Sansom because some of my followers were also reading it and I didn’t want to crowd their pitch.

If you haven’t already discovered C J Sansom, or his novels about the barrister in law – Matthew Shardlake – then you have a treat in store. If you are already a passionate follower of the story, then you too have a wonderful treat in store because Tombland, the latest in the series of seven, is a truly remarkable and interesting book.

shardlakeMatthew Shardlake has to go to Norfolk on a small (and highly secret) business for Master Parry, the Comptroller of the Household for Lady Elizabeth (presently the bastardised daughter of Henry VIII). While there, the Kett rebellion begins and Shardlake is inadvertently caught up in is embroils.

The truly wondrous thing about these novels is that the telling draws the reader completely and absolutely into that period. The narrow streets, dirty and often smelly; the noisome and busy markets, where butchers bloody trays dripped gore and offal on to the open streets, beside bakers, candlestick makers and ladies selling lace; the noise of destruction as the dissolution of the cathedral buildings carried on apace and all that, with a busy, lively population of interesting characters.

This time Norwich, but we have also been there at the sinking of the Mary Rose, the royal pageant to the city of York, the horrible executions of Anne Boleyn and also of Thomas Cromwell; all these viscerally and vividly seen and heard and much more, as Matthew gets sent on one project or another by masters who have complete control of his body and soul (insofar as he allows it).

We are part of his domestic life also, his friend and servant Barak, his great friend and apothecary Guy, an ex-monk that he met in his first adventure in the Kent/Sussex marshes. And in this book we meet again his old housekeeper and her husband, who moved to other employment in Norfolk in a previous volume.

If you are just beginning this adventure and want to read the whole series, then most of them are in paperback; the early novels are also brilliantly told on audiobooks by Anton Lesser. If you simply want to read one book, then each one is also a stand-alone volume, there is no need to engage in the whole journey. But this is not a course that I would recommend. The slow absorption of the complete series is definitively more rewarding.

I am sure C J Sansom would not lay claim to have begun the great rush of historical ‘detective’ novels, but he is certainly a leader of the pack. I imagine Josephine Tey and Umberto Eco would say they had got there first, but whatever the different routes, the genre is the same. A wonderful story of investigation set in an historical and different time. Sheer genius.

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High Society murders

Actually, I am not sure how respectable it is to write crime genre fiction set in a real house among real people, all of whom are now dead, though other relatives still live today.

That said the Mitford novels of Jessica Fellowes are a rattlingly good yarn, suitable for beach or flight. Engaging, amusing and light. These are definitely more Agatha Christie than Scandi Noir.

Louisa Cannon gets a job as a nursey assistant at Astall Manor, she comes from a very difficult and poor background but is luckily helped into this post by having friends in high places.

In the first of these novels we get to see more of Louisa’s background and also how and where she met the policeman Guy Sullivan, who having ‘rescued’ her once ends up being involved in the two murders that are encompassed in these two books.

Jessica Fellowes is probably better known to readers of her compendium books about Downton Abbey, and these murder novels are set in the same period, the same milieu and among the same set, only this time the ‘set’ is the real family home of the Redesdale family and the famous Mitford sisters. In the 1920s, they were all still unmarried and living at home with Farve and Muv, Lord and Lady Redesdale; the sisters being Diana, Nancy, Pamela, Katherine, Unity and Deborah.

In the first of these books, Lady Mitford is pregnant with Deborah, one day in the distant future to become Duchess of Devonshire; Pamela and Nancy are reaching their teens, and are about to be launched on Society.

The real life Pamela is the least notorious of the sisters, she married a scientist, war hero, millionaire called Derek Jackson; Nancy is the novelist who famously mined her own family in her novels The Pursuit of Love and  Love in a Cold Climate (both very similar in tone to the Fellowes books without the bloodshed).

In these two novels, the other sisters feature as faces in the nursery and do not have much of a role in the stories that unfold, so far. The same goes for Tom, the only son who is away at Eton and was (in real life) killed in action during the Second World War while serving in Burma. Though I am fairly sure that Louisa Cannon and Guy Sullivan will make a team that solves another murder at some point. Whether they will centre around the same family remains to be guessed at.

 

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