Category Archives: Books

Books I have been reading recently

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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Lars Mytting

Last year, the must have book for English wood burners was called Norwegian Wood. This was quite simply an account of the way to stack, store and use wood in the home. The book was by Lars Mytting.

LarsThere is now a novel called The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, which is partly a mystery and partly an in-depth story about wood, its beauty and its value.

Edvard lives with his grandfather.  His parents have died, together, in an unexplained accident in France. Once his grandfather dies, Edvard is left with a lot of unexplained facts about his own life which he finds it imperative to uncover.

Who was his great uncle Einar, exactly?  And why was there such rabid dislike between Sverre (his grandfather) and Einar? The novel takes us on a splendid and amazing journey from its starting point in Norway, to the Shetlands and to France, along the way the reader picks up on the wonder of wood.

Einar was, in the end, a superb craftsman, who in the Shetlands was known for making coffins. He also had a workshop in Norway, near to Sverre’s potato farm; but although everything was beautifully organized, it was covered in dust, no one had been there for a long, long time.

Gradually, as he traces the journey that Einar made, Edvard discovers more and more about himself.

This is a moving and delicate story of self discovery, of love and sudden hate. And, not least, of wood.

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Reading between the screens/1

Obviously, as I wait for the next film to begin, sometimes a matter of minutes, sometimes hours, I will have with me one essential: a book.

Since the beginning of the Festival, I have read three rather extraordinary novels. Full of birds, as it happens – eyeless peacocks on the wallpaper in Bitter Orange; red spirit birds in the desert in Red Birds and birds of ill-omen, blue-eyed ravens in Melmoth.

Bitter OrangeBitter Orange is the third novel by Claire Fuller. Set in the English countryside of landscaped gardens and decaying houses, three people stumble together at the behest of an absent owner, to make an inventory of Lyntons, the house and garden.

The narrator is now elderly, mostly bedridden and incarcerated; she has a single visitor – the local vicar. Her confused rambling takes her back to 1969, a hot summer when she was engaged to document the gardens of this dilapidated house complete with box hedged beds, now overgrown, a lake with an interesting bridge (possibly) and with an orangery. Frances Jellico arrives, hot and nervous, and settles in the attic. There are two other people there, Peter and Cara, who are living downstairs and are listing the interiors.

The house has not been lived in fully since before the war, and was requisitioned and apparently damaged by the army during the conflict; or since then has been comprehensively vandalised. Fireplaces ripped out, bannisters smashed and virtually no furniture except iron bedsteads left by the army. And in one room, with wall paper of the sort that brings William Morris to mind, peacocks parade among the lush foliage – but each and every one has been blinded, the eye carefully cut out all the way up the walls, even to the ceiling.

Cara and Peter are friendly, but strange. Cara seems to want to become closer to Frances, in a slightly cloying confidential way, while Peter seems more reserved. There is a strange atmosphere in the house, things get moved and Frances has the feeling there is someone else upstairs. All very unnerving.

As well as all this going on, she has made a discovery which she has kept as a guilty secret. They all have secrets, from each other and eventually from the owner of the house.

This is a tense, heated and complicated novel. Gripping, unwieldy at times and ultimately shocking. Brilliantly conceived and delivered.

HanifI followed this novel with one by Mohammed Hanif, whose first novel A Case of Exploding Oranges was set in Pakistan at the time of the assassination of President Zia. This new novel, Red Birds, is very different. Set in a more or less unnamed country, beset by Middle Eastern problems caused by American bombing, followed by USAID, this is part fantasy, part tragedy and part comedy. How can a novel which has chapters narrated by poodle called Mutt, philosopher and ideologue, be anything but comic? Yet, it is not entirely without sadness.

Mutt’s family: Father Dear, Mother Dear, Bro Ali and Momo have been bombed out of their house, they are living in a camp under blue tarpaulin, with little to eat as the aid has stopped coming; along with the bombing. The American base, The Hangar seems deserted.

Out in the desert, a single downed pilot, Ellie, struggles to survive. He is on the point of no return when he finds Mutt. Mutt’s leg is broken and Ellie does what he can to calm down the animal, when out of the distance roars a Cherokee Jeep, driven by Momo who is out looking for his dog.

The whole story is based on misguided and misunderstood relationships: that between Momo and Mutt; between the parents Mother Dear and Father Dear; and between Ellie and one other character, Miss Flowerbody and then there is the Doctor, who isn’t a doctor at all but who assisted some of the time when the Americans were around, and is now the only person left with any claim to medical knowledge.

Bro Ali has disappeared along with the Americans. The red birds appear, seemingly only to Mutt and sometimes Ellie. It is all very mysterious but at the same time viscerally alarming, what is going on exactly, where are the Americans and why is there no salt?

This is a comical tragedy, with a furious and fantastical ending.

Following this with the gothic horror of Essex girl, Sarah Perry was something of a change of climate and I might not have done it had my choices been more about the size of the book rather than the content!

MelmothMelmoth is a synthesis of several colliding myths. Like the ogre in the fairy tale, the Golem in Jewish folklore and the 13th century myth of the Wandering Jew who taunted Jesus on his way to his crucifixion stories of threatening followers or witnesses abound in literature and memory. Something to keep the children quiet or something to explain the inexplicable. Melmoth is another Christ denier. The legends of Melmoth were that she was with Mary and her companions when they came to the Empty Tomb, but unlike them, Melmoth denied ever having seen the angels or Jesus, risen from the dead. For this, she was condemned to walk the earth as a witness to human wickedness. Whether this myth is entirely the creation of Sarah Perry, is unclear.

The novel is set in present day Prague.  Helen Franklin has left home and is working on translation of instruction manuals. She meets Karel Prazan in the library and they become friends, and with his partner Thea, an English barrister also living in Prague, they draw Helen into their lives. Such that eventually, she becomes embroiled in the manuscript that Karel has been given.

For reasons of his own, Karel hands the manuscript over to Helen and vanishes, by this time Thea is changed dramatically from a vibrant and witty person, into an invalid. But there is more to it than just abandoning a sick woman. Fear.

The manuscript contains, is varying order, tales told by people who have felt the influence of Melmoth in their lives. Something that they have done, has haunted them – Melmoth is their guilty conscience. Helen too, has a guilty secret which is weighing her down.

This is not a book to have on your bedside table. Disturbing, unsettling and yet much of it based in fact, the reader is drawn each time, into the painful confessions of different “sinners”. Josef Hoffman, who betrayed a Jewish family; Alice Benet who escaped burning at the stake by denying her faith; Nameless and Hassan who wrote the documents that led to the massacre of innocent Armenians. The times change but the betrayals are similar, and in each story there is the feeling that someone, Melmoth, is watching.

The dread is brilliantly evoked, a black wraithlike creature and the blue-eyed ravens who seem to be ever present, cawing and crying “why? why? how? why?” and then “who?”

All three of these books kept me company. Brilliant, different and absorbing.

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More journeys, but not mine

Two quite different and extraordinary books. The first a mixture of historical fact, myth and magic coupled with a searing currently relevant story of a family escaping from Syria. How might that work?

The contemporary heroine is a synaesthete (another – See Red Sparrow) and the book in partly set in Homs (See – Sea Prayer). Which considering this book was selected at random is slightly odd.

Salt and StarsIn The Map of Salt and Stars, the two stories are sectioned together in pairs. So in the historical-myth-magic section we follow the adventures of Rawiya, a young girl who leaves home to become apprentice (as a boy) to the twelfth century scholar and mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi engaged by Roger II of Palermo to make a map of the known world and in the contemporary section we follow the story of Nour.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has skillfully woven the historical strand with parts of the stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and also the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These myths or fairytales are combined in a wonderfully starry tapestry following the actual known progress of al-Idrisi and his companions around the lands bordering the Mediterranean.

Rawiya’s partner in the contemporary world is Nour. She has grown up in New York, but on the death of her father, her mother and two older sisters return to Homs, and a quasi-uncle Abu Sayeed. The situation changes in Syria and the family are forced to flee, with devastating consequences. Nour, bolstered by her father’s wonderful story telling (as described above) treads courageously through the journey, in her head following in the footsteps of Rawiya.

The salt of the title are the tears that are shed along the way; but in all circumstances good people look to the stars hopefully, for stories and for comfort. No one who looks at the stars can be truly bad. This is what Nour/Rawiya firmly believes and it is borne out in her adventures.

But this is not all sweetness and light. There are passages in both sections that are unbearably tragic, and losses in one section are inevitably mirrored in the other, in much the same way as the exhibitions of tremendous courage and survival.

FrazierVarina is a book of a very different complexion. Charles Frazier has returned to Cold Mountain country; this time following the flight of Varina Davis away from the Federal troops and bounty hunters with a gaggle of children, not all of them her own. Accompanied by two faithful coloured retainers.

Varina is the wife of Jefferson Davis, upon whose head there is a bounty, and a suspicion that they are complicit in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and therefore guilty of murder and treason.

They are far away to the south before this small party hears about this; Jefferson has still not joined them and better it were by far that he had not.

This is historical fiction of the highest quality. A beautifully constructed story built upon the few details know about Varina and about her husband. Reconstructed over a period of weeks when one of the children, now grown up seeks her out to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of himself, when he can only remember fragments of that terrible time.

So the sections switch from Saratoga Springs in 1906 to Varina’s youth in 1842, and the events of the American Civil War between about 1865 to 1879-93 as remembered by the two of them.

My knowledge of American history lags far behind that which it should, in spite of Gone with the Wind and other books. But Frazier brings it into focus in all its horror, messiness, mud and stink; the tragedy and betrayal of the African Americans; the brutality of the war itself and the unforgiving nature of the winners. It is all here and it is all pretty horrifying.

Read and learn.

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