The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor – review

The Ashes of London kicked off my love affair with this series, and it’s been going strong ever since. I thought book three, The King’s Evil, was the pinnacle – until I read this one, after which I could only doff my hat to Andrew Taylor for topping his previous installment once again. For those of you who haven’t come across them before, the books are set in Restoration London and feature the exploits of civil servant James Marwood, who finds himself drawn reluctantly into the machinations of Whitehall and the King’s court. Over the course of the series he develops an enigmatic relationship with Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, whose family history forms an ever-present cloud over her prospects and security. On the surface they are acquaintances who every now and then are useful to one another, yet we can see quite clearly there’s something more to their relationship than that: something unspoken and not entirely understood by either of them. They are not lovers, not even friends necessarily, but there’s no denying they each instinctively need what the other provides.

The Last Protector of the title is the name given to Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who has been in exile on the continent since the monarchy returned to power and has made no attempt to cause trouble for Charles II’s regime – until now. Intimately connected with the conspiracy theories, rumour and unrest filtering through London is the flamboyant but dangerous Duke of Buckingham, whose dandyish attire and theatrical manner belies his power and ruthlessness. With the King, Buckingham and the mysterious figure of the Protector forming three sides of a devious and manipulative triangle, James Marwood faces double dealing and betrayal on all sides as he tries to unmask the instigators of the political violence spreading through the capital.

This is a period of history I love and find absolutely fascinating, so there’s an immediate appeal to be found in the setting alone. However, sound historical research doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with enjoyable historical fiction – and this is where Andrew Taylor gets it so right. The recreation of mid seventeenth-century London feels authentic without being a vehicle for gratuitous fact-dropping, and the author manages to give his readers an understanding of the political climate of the time without using dialogue as clumsy exposition. Most important of all, the characters feel as relatable as if they were alive today, and having followed Marwood through four books now, I feel as attached to him as I did to Shardlake in C J Sansom’s magnificent series. The political setting means there are inevitably swathes of male characters, but the author seems to go out of his way to redress the balance by involving some terrific women in the story, taking care to draw them in as much detail as his male lead. There’s a surprising amount of historical fiction out there that’s pretty lazy with its female cast (the bawdy innkeeper’s wife! the homely peasant! the generic Tudor princess!), often relegating them to the role of sexual victim or plot accessory, but what this series gets right is the way in which it treats women as individuals whilst acknowledging the reality of their lives in a society that was more overtly patriarchal than the one we live in today.

The Last Protector is a compulsive page-turner, an intriguing thriller, an escape into the past and also a touching story of the cruel chasm that exists between the haves and have-nots. I have my fingers crossed for many more books to come – it’s clear that James Marwood’s story is very far from over.

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Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo – review

Kim Jiyoung is not a remarkable woman. She comes from a conventional family, went to school and college, got a job, found a partner, married and had a child. Everything about Kim Jiyoung is what everyone would expect – until the day when, aged 34, she sets off on a course that frightens her husband, alienates her in-laws and looks set to undo the stability and predictability that has been the defining feature of their lives. Jiyoung begins to speak as if another person were inhabiting her body. When she addresses her husband by talking about herself in the third person, he thinks it’s a slightly odd but understandable cry for attention and support. However, when she takes on the persona of a friend who died the year before, he starts to feel more and more unsettled. Finally, after an altercation at a family gathering where Jiyoung speaks some uncomfortable home truths about their behaviour – all the while as if she were commenting as another person – her husband, Daehyun, decides to book her an appointment with a psychiatrist. The story that follows is of Jiyoung’s life as recounted to the doctor during their sessions.

The style in which Cho Nam-Joo relates her protagonist’s tale is clever, unusual and extremely effective; Jiyoung, while not in any way a two-dimensional character, is nonetheless very obviously an everywoman, intended to represent the millions of women in South Korea (and in many other countries too) who come up against barrier after barrier when simply attempting to live their lives with the same freedoms and opportunities as their male counterparts. At times it reads almost like a work of fact rather than fiction, the author peppering the narrative with pertinent statistics relating to women’s earnings in the workplace, or the ratio of men to women in a society that favours male children to the point where abortions of female foetuses are a frighteningly common occurrence. And actually, this is a work of fact in the guise of a novel. Everything Cho Nam-Joo describes is a genuine reflection of women’s existence in a society that favours men from cradle to grave.

It’s not an easy read. Some of the discrimination – and danger – Kim Jiyoung suffers is very overt, such as the episode where man follows her onto a bus and sexually harasses her. Slightly more subtle, but just as frightening in its implications, is the bullying that she and her female classmates receive at the hands of male students – and most importantly, the teachers’ response or lack thereof. Even when one teacher, unusually, tries to dig into an incident in which Jiyoung’s shoe is stolen, she tells the girl that her tormentor’s behaviour is because “he likes you…..Boys are like that; they’re meaner to the girls they like.” This is a world in which boys literally have the upper hand from the day they’re born; the author describes how women from all generations of Kim Jiyoung’s family were commiserated when they gave birth to girls, and constantly endured friends and relations telling them how much better their lives would be once they’d had a boy and the pressure was off them to produce a male child. Once the patriarchal set-up has been established, it never lets up. All the way through school, college and finally the workplace, Jiyoung and her female friends find themselves second best and having to fight for the most basic of rights. Boys are served lunch first in the school canteen while the girls have to wait in a second queue. Business managers promote men over women who are more competent, and are quite candid about the fact they’ve done so. Female siblings are expected to use their salaries to contribute to the higher education of their brothers in order that they might have better employment opportunities. Some of it seems so absurdly discriminatory as to be almost unbelievable, but it’s all too true.

To say I enjoyed the book wouldn’t be a fair assessment, as it’s quite clearly not meant to be a comfortable or escapist read. As the injustices pile up, so does the rage of the reader, as we get a very vivid sense of the powerlessness of women in the face of such an entrenched patriarchy. That’s not to say that Cho Nam-Joo presents her female characters as completely helpless; throughout the book there are small glimmers of hope as Jiyoung and others speak out against the circumstances in which they find themselves. All too often, however, small victories are followed by backward steps as the established social order of men first, women second, reasserts itself. Centuries of inequality cannot be overturned overnight. It is a difficult read, but a hugely important one. Only by shining a light on unfairness, discrimination and abuse can anything ever begin to change.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry – review

“Even though it can only be legend – you almost think, don’t you, that one day you might look up and see her there?”

Melmoth. The woman in black who haunts both your waking hours and your fretful sleep. She is The Wanderer: the woman who denied the risen Christ and was henceforth damned for ever more, condemned to an endless life of isolation, trudging through the centuries on bloodied feet, looking for other despairing souls to share her infinite suffering. She is the footstep behind you in the street, the shadow on the wall, the figure seen but not seen from the corner of your eye….

Are you looking over your shoulder yet? If not then I promise you will be by the time you’ve finished this book! I picked it up on the back of finishing a collection of M R James’ Ghost Stories, wanting something to prolong the creepy atmosphere that I’d been relishing. The Essex Serpent has been an absolute favourite of mine since I read it a few years ago, so I already knew I loved Sarah Perry’s writing style; Melmoth is a similar mixture of unease, paranoia and an is-it-real-is-it-imagined quasi-supernatural entity at its core. Set in present-day Prague, it follows lonely, unassuming protagonist Helen Franklin, whose life is turned upside down when she is given a collection of documents by an academic friend, Karel. He is clearly greatly disturbed by the contents – and, judging by his haggard expression and anxious glances at the doorway, by something else as well. The testaments contained in these papers form the basis of a story that unfolds in ever increasing layers, taking the reader from Second World War Czechoslovakia, to England’s 16th century heresy trials, to late twentieth century Manilla and finally to Turkey in the 1920s. If this all sounds too scattered and fragmented to come together as a coherent novel, I can assure you I found the opposite to be true. The characters telling their stories all have one thing in common: they believe themselves to be stalked by Melmoth following a decision for which they feel an unassuageable guilt, even anguish.

It’s clear very early on that Helen too has experienced some kind of trauma in her past from which she hasn’t yet recovered. She denies herself all but the minimum amount of food she needs to survive, she scratches her wrists, refuses to indulge in anything that might give her any pleasure, such as music or colourful clothes, and she shuns anything that has the potential to become an affectionate relationship. In fact Karel appears to be about the only person in her life she could call a friend, and even then we sense a certain restraint on her part, a barrier that she is never prepared to let down completely. Whatever her story, the things she reads about the Melmoth legend affect her greatly. She sees the faces of the guilt-stricken storytellers appearing before her, along with another presence – something dark, shadowy and indistinct, which both frightens her and yet somehow attracts her to it. According to the myth, Melmoth’s ultimate aim is to entice the despairing into taking her hand and joining her on her endless journey; this novel is ultimately about who succumbs and who has the strength to resist. The big question is, what will Helen do?

The book is packed full of brilliant characters – not all likeable by any stretch of the imagination, but all compelling and very real. Helen is deliberately enigmatic to start with, but the author gradually reveals more and more about her character through incredibly subtle, skilful writing and in the end we feel we know her better than she knows herself, supressing as she does the parts of herself we suspect she loathes. Josef Hoffman, a boy who writes of his childhood in wartime Czechoslovakia, is both a sad and utterly repellent figure. The man known only as Nameless in his testimony is equally abhorrent, although frighteningly recognisable as an example of the thousands of people throughout history who have aided and abetted atrocities by hiding behind a desk and signing the papers that legitimise persecution in lieu of pulling the trigger themselves. It’s a real bugbear with me that I usually forget many of the finer details of books pretty much as soon as I’ve finished them, so I take it as a sign of how strong the characterisation is in Melmoth that every single actor Sarah Perry puts on her stage is still vivid and alive in my mind.

In any supernatural story it’s extremely hard to get the balance of fear just right, and Sarah Perry does an amazing job in this respect. At one end of the spectrum there’s the intangible but very real unease that sends a shiver down the spine, at times created by nothing more than a bird flying into a window or the ceiling mouldings of cherubs in a library that become grotesque figures “screaming, as if behind the vault their soft fat feet were being scorched with branding irons.” This eeriness runs through the very fabric of Prague itself; the bright, noisy trappings of modern life sit uneasily alongside the old city with its dark passageways and ominous statues, the crowded cafes and lively music failing to mask the malevolence stalking the streets just out of our sight. Then there’s Melmoth herself – how do you describe an entity like this without it becoming a cliched monster, in danger of being slightly laughable? Things are often at their most frightening when they’re unknown, and the author keeps Melmoth out of view for much of the book; she’s a shadow, a footstep or, when she does appear as a woman, her face is hidden. Only when her victims have reached the depths of despair does she reveal herself, and then her hideous appearance is put before us in all its glory.

But of course behind all this horror another idea is at play, namely that Melmoth is nothing more than the manifestation of our own guilty conscience and lack of hope that we can ever be forgiven for what we’ve done. We can only banish her when we come to terms with our past and allow ourselves to believe that we can atone for our sins by positive action. It’s an idea that’s quite common in a lot of supernatural stories – is the evil entity real or is it the protagonist going mad – but I think it works beautifully here, because the novel doesn’t really require a definitive answer. If you want to read it as an “imagine if this legendary creature was real” kind of story, or whether you prefer to interpret it as a psychological character study that explores what trauma, grief and guilt can do to a person, I think you’ll get just as much out of it either way. Equally, I think it’s possible to take it as some kind of mixture of the two. Ultimately though, it’s about revelling in the gothic atmosphere, feeling the chill of being observed by something unseen, and admiring the beautiful writing that makes the ordinary become sinister in unexpected ways.

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The Ghost Stories of M R James – review

I’m actually quite proud of myself for even allowing this story collection into my home! I don’t mind admitting I’m the world’s biggest coward when it comes to anything vaguely supernatural; there’s a frantic scramble to change the channel when even just the trailer for a spooky programme comes on TV, and quite frankly the thought of consuming any paranormal entertainment by design is pretty much unthinkable. So when my sister recommended this book to me, to say I was wary would be an understatement, and I was completely shocked when not only was I not overly terrified, but I actually enjoyed it.

If you’re of a fragile disposition like me, I think it definitely helps that most of the stories are framed by an objective narrator, who passes on the story second hand after talking to a friend, finding a documented account and so on. This keeps the ghostly action contained within the tales one step removed if you like, and it’s a comfort to come back to the safety of a (surviving!) narrator and a sense of reality after any creepiness is over and done with. Having said that, it’s very much a mixed bag of scariness, ranging from the mildly sinister to the fairly disturbing, and which ones linger in the mind most will probably vary very much from reader to reader: out of all the stories, I count myself fortunate that only one came back to bother me in the middle of the night! (If you have even a slight aversion to puppets, then avoid “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” – you have been warned).

The author definitely has some favourite themes, returning to them a number of times in the course of the collection. There are a lot of stories that take place in and around churches or cathedrals – unsurprising perhaps given the wealth of potentially spooky material attached to these places, but I didn’t mind the repetition of the setting as these tales in particular appealed to me. The notion of revenge or punishment is also a prevalent idea; many of the stories’ victims are hounded by supernatural entities precisely because they’ve committed some sort of sin, whether that’s consorting with evil spirits, or taking possession of a significant object that doesn’t belong to them. At the end of “The Haunted Doll’s House” there’s even an author’s note acknowledging the similarity to another of his stories, but hoping the reader will see enough of a difference to still enjoy it!

I can see why M R James is known as a master of the ghost story; what I found most intriguing – and extremely clever – was his ability to create an atmosphere of menace out of what would normally be the most benign of surroundings: a hilltop on a sunny day, a painting of a country house, the blackberry bushes at the side of a country lane. I also don’t know if I’ll be able to look through a pair of binoculars again for a while without a shiver down the spine. It was a superb mixture of the traditional and the unexpected, and it held my interest from first to last despite there being around 30 stories in all. Even if you think you’re not a fan of ghost stories, like I did, I’d honestly encourage you to give these a try and see what you think – I’m certainly glad I did. Just don’t read them after dark.

My favourite stories:

  • The Mezzotint
  • The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
  • A Neighbour’s Landmark
  • An Episode of Cathedral History
  • The Residence at Whitminster

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A Map of the Damage by Sophia Tobin – review

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It has to be said that Sophie Tobin writes really cracking stories.  I’ve read all her previous novels, and every single one is a proper stay up late, just-one-more-chapter kind of book; this one possibly even more so than any of the others.  In A Map of the Damage we get a double-whammy of excitement and intrigue with a dual narrative tale of love, loss and obsession, the two stories linked by the elegant yet imposing Mirrormakers’ Club in London, which we visit during its design and construction in the nineteenth century and again as it weathers the incendiary bombs of the Second World War.

In 1940, Livy makes her way to the club after she is caught up in a bomb blast.  Quite what draws her there she can’t say; the blast has left her with no memory of who she is or where she belongs, and the only thing she has to go on is a sense that this is somehow a place of safety.  Not long after, the Mirrormakers building also exerts its mysterious pull on two men for whom it holds a very different significance – for one, it may provide clues to the whereabouts of a missing family heirloom, and for the other, a glimmer of hope and the chance to reclaim something – or someone – long since lost.

In 1838, a freak accident leads to a chance encounter between an architect and the wife of the man overseeing his commission – to design and build the Mirrormakers’ Club.  It’s the start of an attraction that will lead both of them down an increasingly tortuous path towards the tantalising possibility of happiness and freedom; but are the obstacles too great to be overcome?

Both stories were perfectly balanced; I sometimes get the sense with multiple narratives that the author is more engaged in one than the other, or perhaps one of them doesn’t flow as naturally, but not here.  I was equally committed to both sets of characters and storylines, albeit for different reasons.  The wartime story I found surprisingly affecting (it brought a tear to my eye a couple of times!), in particular the idea of an amnesiac being oblivious to the past they shared with people who cared for them, and who are now forced into maintaining an emotional distance that’s heartbreaking to watch.  The nineteenth century storyline brought with it the almost unbearable tension of a passionate love story carried out almost entirely within the constraints of formal dinners and drawing room visits; the more you witness the way in which controlling husband Ashton Kinsburg manipulates how others perceive his wife by moulding her into an image of his own perfectionist ideals, the angrier you become and the more you’re willing her on to leaving her him for the lovestruck architect.  Of course, the times being what they are, that isn’t as simple as a reader might wish it to be.

Manipulation and exploitation of women for social or sexual gain rears its head in both eras, but I still felt that ultimately this book belongs to its women.  Charlotte Kinsburg, who falls in love with her husband’s architect, could be said to have the last laugh, even as her grasping descendants hunt high and low for the diamond that one belonged to her; she gazes down implacably from a painting in the Mirrormakers’ Club, almost daring anyone to try and pry her secrets from her.  Livy’s past may have been taken from her, but she attacks the future with a determination to make her own plans and regain control of the life she has left.  And watching over them all is the club itself, which, with its mirrors, domes and glass that play tricks on the eye and the mind, seems to be almost alive, organic and fluid.  It becomes as many different things as there are characters: a safe haven, a symbol of power and wealth, a love letter in stone.  I think I will remember the staircases, dim basement rooms and vast halls of the edifice almost more than I will the human faces that roam through it.

Thank you for reading as ever!  If you’ve read this or any other of Sophia Tobin’s books, do comment and let me know what you think.

Related posts:  The Silversmith’s Wife review                                                                                                              The Widow’s Confession review

 

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki – review

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If you’ve visited This Girl’s Book Room recently, you’ll definitely recognise this book as it’s been on my CR list for quite a while!  Well, I’m pleased to announced I’ve finally finished it, meaning I can stop tantalising you all with comments about how great it is and get stuck into a full review.

Or can I?!  I’ve had this sense of hesitation a few times now after finishing a book: more often than not I’m keen to dive straight into writing about something as soon as I’ve closed the last page, but occasionally I have a sense of needing to gather my thoughts and emotions for a while before committing anything to paper.  This was one of those times.  The ending left me with an unexpectedly blank feeling; not because the book was lacking in emotional depth – quite the opposite – but because there was just so much left to process.  Where were these characters’ journeys going to take them next?  How would some of them recover, if ever, from the traumatic events that had touched their lives?  What would the relationships, some strained and others strengthened throughout the course of the novel, look like as the subsequent years went by?  In The Makioka Sisters we are allowed to be part of the family for a limited period of time before being snatched cruelly away again, and left to imagine how the saga could continue.

It’s late 1930s Osaka where we meet the Makiokas.  The two eldest of the four sisters – Tsuruko and Sachiko – are settled with husbands and children, and the big issue facing the family is how to bring about a marriage for the third oldest sister, Yukiko.  Shy, reserved and serious, Yukiko doesn’t have the kind of sparkling personality that tends to win over a man on first meeting, and her sisters are smarting from previous failed attempts at making a match for her.  Japanese convention being what it is, moreover, the youngest sister, Taeko, cannot marry until her older sister has found a husband.  Taeko is everything her sisters are not – forward, unabashedly independent and already with a scandalous liaison behind her; what is more, the complications in her love life show no sign of going away, leaving the family in a state of anxiety lest any impropriety brings shame upon the Makioka name.

Yukiko’s marriage quest provides the backbone of the book.  The story covers a number of years (never precisely specified, but it starts in the run up to Japan’s entry into the Second World War and ends while the war is still going on), and other momentous events – a flood, a family illness, an affair – provide regular pulses of action and interest that keep things moving forward, but it’s the painful lack of a prospective husband for Yukiko that haunts both the family and the novel.  One of the things I enjoyed most was that it opened a window onto long-forgotten social conventions that seem completely alien to us now; at this time, for a relatively high-status family like the Makiokas, marriages are decided in large part by the rest of a woman’s family, in particular the male members – even those who are only part of the family through marriage.  Tatsuo and Teinosuke, as husbands of the two oldest sisters, are expected to have the final say on whether a suitor is appropriate to marry Yukiko. Throughout the novel, various well-meaning friends and acquaintances suggest potential husbands, and each time both parties “investigate” the other, sending mutual contacts to dig into the opposite number’s financial and romantic history, social standing and character traits.  It’s utterly fascinating to read, not least because something that on the surface seems underhand is simply accepted by everyone concerned as part of the marriage-brokering process, common practice as it was at this point in Japan’s history.

The synopsis so far may sound unappealing to anyone who can imagine themselves becoming angry and frustrated by the depiction of such a patriarchal society; I would have considered myself firmly in your camp too, but I’d urge you to read it nonetheless.  Yes, there are many instances when the extent to which men play an unfairly dominant role in the lives of their female relatives is teeth-clenching in its outdatedness; however, on closer reading the will and power wielded by the Makioka sisters is greater than it first appears.  Taeko, despite the consternation of her relatives, finds ways to lead the life she wants rather than the one others would prefer she had.  Yukiko has a calm and quiet determination to get her own way in the numerous marriage negotiations: when she says no, she means it, and her brother-in-laws’ desire to see her with a husband never crosses the line into trying to force her into a union with someone she is adamant she does not want to marry.  In fact, there are a few mentions in the novel of an incident prior to the story’s timeframe when she was so forthright in confronting Tatsuo, the head of the Makioka family, that he has been very wary of going against her wishes since.  As the novel progresses it becomes more and more clear that times are changing; Western culture is starting to exert its influence over some of the sisters and society at large, and the Makiokas, although still an important family, don’t have anywhere near the standing they had in previous generations.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Japan itself, which provides a vivid backdrop to the story.  The action moves between the tranquil gardens of suburbia, cherry blossom festivals and imposing mountains, and the bustle of a rapidly modernising Tokyo, which grates harshly against Sachiko in particular, who loves her more traditional hometown.  It’s been a while since a novel sucked me into its world so completely, and I’m going to miss it now I’ve had to take my leave.

Thank you for reading as always!  Do let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought.

Related posts: Japanese Journeys                                                                                                                                  A Day Out with Hokusai

 

 

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – review

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It’s been years since I read Erin Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I still remember how I fell head over heels in love with it.  She became one of those authors whose subsequent books you yearn for and then, when they finally appear, it feels like birthday, Christmas and new year rolled into one.  I was hugely disappointed, then, to have to admit that The Starless Sea just didn’t live up to its predecessor.

The premise sounded like it would be right up my street: a magical, underground world that acts as a kind of sanctuary for stories comes under threat and the main character, Zachary Rawlins, guided by a cast of enigmatic characters, must fight to protect this labyrinthine library and stop it from being destroyed forever.  And it should have been exactly up my street: I was captivated by this world that held the loves, losses, dreams and secrets of a million long-forgotten souls in the form of their stories, and I really took to the character of Zachary, the slightly geeky loner who doesn’t ever seem to quite belong.  The trouble was that, for at least half the book, I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in either’s company.

Zachary is set on his quest to find the Starless Sea and save the world of stories by the discovery of a mysterious book, which contains a number of weird and – to start with at least – unfathomable folk tales, fairy stories and legends.  What I found problematic was that for the first half of the novel, the chapters following Zachary’s journey are interspersed with stories from his newly-discovered book; some of these are fairly entertaining tales in their own right, others less so.  Every now and then yet more fragments of story pop up,  introducing (in the most oblique terms) other characters both from our own world and the subterranean story realm.  It’s pretty clear when you’re reading that these multiple narratives are somehow going to interconnect at some point, and I was prepared to go with it on the basis that all would soon be revealed, even though I found the constant hopping about quite frustrating.  Thankfully, once you get past the half way point the novel focusses in much more consistently on Zachary’s story, with far fewer diversions into another character’s story arc, and it’s at that point I felt it became a better book.

There were definitely some things here to like.  I loved Zachary’s companions Dorian and Mirabel; like Zachary, both were very finely drawn and their individual journeys turned out to be quite moving.  In fact, the book as a whole has a palpable sense of sadness flowing just under the surface, always there in a barely definable yet somehow unmissable way.  I actually think that creating and sustaining this atmosphere was the novel’s cleverest achievement, but I get the feeling you’re meant to come away feeling that the smartest part was tying all the different strands together.  Trouble was, by the time I got to the end I wasn’t entirely sure I’d found a place for all the pieces – the significance of many of the fairy tales and snippets of story that appear in the first half of the book becomes clear as the novel progresses, but there were still some I looked back on after I’d finished reading with a bit of a “but what was that bit all about?” feeling.  And it’s very magical; I tend to prefer magical realism with the emphasis on realism – but that’s a purely personal preference rather than a criticism.  In fact, I’ve talked to someone else who really enjoyed the fairy tales and digressions of the novel’s first half and was disappointed when the narrative became more straight forward!  Proof, if any were needed, that it’s all a matter of taste.

Would I recommend it?  If I’d read this one first I have to say I wouldn’t have gone on to read The Night Circus, but if you like full-on magic then it’s probably worth a try; and if like me you find it a bit tough going initially, it’s worth persevering for the excitement of the story in the second half.  Not my favourite book of recent times, but I’d be very interested to hear what you think if you’ve read it – perhaps you loved it?  Let me know!

Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – review

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I bought this book for two main reasons: I love medieval stuff and I love the cover.  What I didn’t expect was quite how much fun it was going to be.

Starting at the head and working down, the author gives us a colourful and exuberant guided tour of the medieval body, not simply addressing literal, medical approaches to human physiology but its more abstract significance too.  The body as a whole was a universally understood metaphor for the functioning of medieval society, with the monarch as the head, the peasants as the labouring feet and all other levels of life in between, everyone working within their God-given social sphere to keep the state functioning as it should.  The phrase “the body politic” is of course one we still use today.  Beyond that generality, however, it turns out there were a huge number of bodily parts that had their own philosophical significance; one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the connection it highlights between the spiritual meaning attached to the various body parts and the age’s prevailing scientific understanding of how they functioned.  The heart, for example, had for several centuries been regarded as the seat of the soul and, as opposed to the brain as we now know, the organ that governed actions and emotions – hence the plethora of art and literature depicting deep feeling, but in particular love, as being almost literally linked to a person’s heart.  In fact, for all culture vultures out there, this is a very satisfying book, including its fair share of analysis of art forms ranging from tapestry to music, sculpture to literature, all presented in the context of the medieval body.  A real bonus is that rather than the small section of colour plates often found in the centre of non-fiction paperbacks, this book has coloured illustrations throughout, which definitely adds to the reading enjoyment and appreciation.  What I really liked as well was the fact that this bodily exploration isn’t just confined to English medieval history, but also takes in Europe and the Middle East, the latter in particular providing a fascinating comparison and an opportunity to introduce many artworks with which most of us won’t be at all familiar.

In case you were getting worried, don’t fear – there’s also a lot of the inevitable gruesome fun to be had from the accounts of medieval medical procedures and pictures of surgical instruments and body parts.  Of course we regard it all as incredibly primitive stuff, but the author is keen to point out that we shouldn’t look down on the middle ages too harshly; he demonstrates that diagnoses and treatments weren’t plucked out of the air according to pure superstition, but rather followed their own definite logic to what was considered a reasonable conclusion, even if that isn’t the conclusion we would draw today.

Far from being dense or heavy-going, Jack Hartnell writes with a light, easy style and a definite sense of humour.  The only drawback I found was that because the subject is so vast, certain aspects of the body are abandoned just as you were getting interested.  I wouldn’t say it’s unsatisfying by any means, but it definitely leaves you wanting to find out more.  The flipside of that though is that it’s accessible to absolutely everyone, and as such I think there are loads of people out there who may not be particularly into medieval history that will still find this a really absorbing read.

The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox – review

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Being a bookseller certainly has its perks.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to go and help run the bookstall for one of Brian Cox’s lectures on his national tour; there were unfortunately a couple of complete fangirling moments when it’s fair to say I didn’t cover myself in glory (I could feel my IQ slipping away before my eyes in the presence of the Great Man), but his talk was absolutely mesmerising, and his ability to captivate an audience incredible.  This latest book ties in with the TV series on the planets that he presented not long ago.  Although he’s listed prominently on the cover (understandably), in fact he only wrote the introduction and one of the chapters, but I found it didn’t matter at all as the entire book is very engaging in style and completely readable for the space science layman such as myself.

Out of all Brian Cox’s TV series, I actually found The Planets my least favourite, I think because mind-blowing though the special effects were, I found they distracted me from the scientific content, and it seemed as though most of the emphasis was on the visual impact rather than how thoroughly the science was explained.  The book totally redresses that balance, giving as it does a detailed, but completely comprehensible, explanation to go alongside the images that are still, it has to be said, very vivid in my mind.  As someone with no science background beyond a very general interest, it’s always a bit disappointing to pick up a book on a subject you’re keen to find out more about, only to find it way beyond your capability or stuffed full of equations only comprehensible to someone with an advanced degree.  Happily, this book is extremely informative but also accessible to just about everybody, both describing the wondrous and utterly alien worlds that make up our solar system, and also doing a fantastic job of drilling down into why and how they have evolved over billions of years to be so different to our home planet.  As well as the physics and chemistry, it also covers many of the exploratory missions that have been launched over the decades to further our understanding of these mysterious worlds; the human ingenuity these represent is almost as fascinating as the planets themselves.

You can tell that both Cohen and Cox are supremely passionate about their area of interest, and their desire to share this enthusiasm really brings the science to life.  For anyone who has even a passing interest in space science, or found the TV series left them wanting to know more, then this great introduction to the subject comes highly recommended.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield review

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Although my return to blogging was meant to be a guided tour of the books I was reading during these weeks of lockdown, I have to confess that for my first review I’ve cheated a bit and gone back to a book I read a few months ago.  Since I waved goodbye to Girl, Reading and launched This Girl’s Book Room, I’ve come across some amazing books that have made their way onto my list of favourites, so it seemed to make sense to share them here by way of recommendation for anyone finding themselves at a loss as to what to read next!

“Once Upon a River” is the first of these.  I loved “The Thirteenth Tale” by the same author, and one look at the cover made me pretty confident I was going to fall in love with this one too.  If you enjoyed “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry or “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue, then this is in a similar vein in the sense that the main plot device is a mysterious event that may or may not be supernatural, and that it features a cast of characters whose opinion is divided as to whether the weird goings on can be explained by science, faith or superstition.  The story starts with the shocking appearance in a rural inn of a stranger carrying what appears to be the corpse of a girl found drowned in the nearby river.  None of the onlookers can be left in any doubt that the child is dead; however, after some hours have passed, the body miraculously stirs…

From that point onwards, the mystery piles on thick and fast.  The girl becomes the focus of a missing child case that sees different parties vying for her custody and claiming her as their own, and in the midst of it all, local nurse Rita is trying to uncover the truth of the strange evening that apparently saw a body rise from the dead.  Many of the locals are convinced that it’s all the doing of Quietly, the otherworldly ferryman, who appears to those in trouble on the river and chooses either to return them to the safety of dry land or carry them off to the next world.  Not everyone is convinced, Rita, included, but a more logical explanation seems just as elusive.

In this nineteenth century setting, society is at a something of a crossroads, with ancient superstitions still keeping a firm foothold in people’s minds even as the new sciences of biology and psychology are becoming ever more prevalent.  The result is a melting pot of ideas and beliefs old and new that rub up against each other and battle it out for supremacy, and it’s this mix of the magical and the rational that Diane Setterfield evokes so beautifully.  As readers we’re also asked to contemplate what it is that makes something true or untrue, and to reflect on the nature of storytelling itself.  As the events of the mysterious resurrection spread through the community and get repeated over time they take on a life of their own, and each newly moulded tale becomes the established truth every time it’s told.  Is any listener, then, ever in a position to judge with any certainty where reality lies?  For all the characters in this novel, their version of the truth is also dependent on their own pre-established beliefs:  Rita in science, Joe the innkeeper in the powerful myths of the river and its ghostly guardian.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; Rita is a likeable and engaging heroine, and the balance of a realistic setting with hints of the supernatural was perfect for me.  If you’ve visited my blog before, you’ll know I love historical fiction anyway, but the folklore element was what really made this novel stand out for me.  If you’ve read it let me know what you thought!