“The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry – review

It’s not at all unusual for me, on finishing a great book, to go around feverishly recommending it to as many people as will listen.  It is unusual for me to stick my neck out and declare that a book has become one of my all-time favourites.  The deliriously happy aftermath of “The Essex Serpent” has been one of those unusual times.  I finished it a few days ago and it’s still out on the coffee table; putting it away on the bookshelf right now would feel like severing a piece of the connection with this thing of absolute beauty.  I’ll do my best to give you a sense of just why this novel has captured my heart and my imagination so completely, but I already know my words are going to come up short.

So let’s start with the easy bit!  Following the death of her husband, Cora Seaborne decides to escape from London and heads to Essex with her companion Martha and son Francis.  This being 1893 there are certain mourning protocols a widow must observe – dress in black, appear suitably downcast – as Cora knows too well; but the truth is she feels almost no pain at the loss of her husband, who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive.  His death is in fact a blessing in many ways: Cora, an intelligent and self-sufficient woman, is at last free to discover what kind of new life she wants for herself.  On her arrival in the coastal village of Aldwinter she is delighted to hear tales of the mysterious Essex Serpent, an immense beast rumoured to live in the waters surrounding this otherwise peaceful community.  Cora is a huge fan of renowned fossil hunter Mary Anning, and immediately hopes that this quasi-mythical creature may actually be a living thing that resembles the enormous sea creatures of prehistoric times.  Few people, if any, share her enthusiasm; she walks into an atmosphere of fear and superstition fuelled by a series of unusual events that locals attribute to the presence of the monster.  A mutual friend introduces her to William Ransome, the parish vicar desperately trying to keep a lid on the rising hysteria and the two connect in an instant.  Both are on a personal quest to debunk the serpent myth – Will’s weapon is faith while Cora’s is science.  From there the story follows both the deepening mystery of the Essex Serpent and the developing relationship between these two characters that are coming at the world from polar opposite standpoints.

So now it gets a bit harder: how can I put my finger on exactly what it was that earned this book such a privileged place in my heart?  There’s no doubting the fact that the list of fabulous things about “The Essex Serpent” is a very long one.  Firstly, the characters: a rich and varied cross-section of humanity, not one of which strays into cliché or feels as if they’re there to make up the numbers.  Even the more peripheral inhabitants of Aldwinter who only make brief appearances are absolutely real, envisaged with the same care as the more prominent players.  Cora herself strides across the page, with her unconventional attire and resolutely non-conformist attitude to femininity, and yet she carries a vulnerability and uncertainty about her emotional place in the world that resonated deeply with me; how can you ever give yourself completely to another person when your greatest sense of security comes from within, and your default position is to want to be alone?  Cora’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, are complicated and their consistently blurred outlines leave them defying categorisation.  The candour and perspicacity with which the author probes the phenomenon of love is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.  Much as we would probably all feel more comfortable in a world where being in or out of love were two absolute and mutually exclusive states, one of the challenges of our existence is the realisation that feelings are so much less straightforward than that.  Populating the pages of this book are a man who steadfastly believes that he genuinely loves his wife whilst pursuing another woman, Cora herself who desires love even as she pushes others away, and friends whose love for each other may or may not include an element of sexual attraction.  And does sexual attraction ultimately matter when two like-minds and like-souls meet?  I loved the nuances with which Sarah Perry infused her story; we reach the end still unsure about the exact nature of the relationships between some of the characters, and I liked it that way.

So love is left hanging as an unfathomable mystery – but what of the Essex Serpent, the more obvious mystery that has managed to drag a whole village into a state of near-panic?  I think the author’s multi-layered, ambiguous exploration of the mythical (or is it?!) beast and the way it manifests itself in the hearts and minds of Aldwinter’s inhabitants is the stroke of genius here.  On the one hand there are some genuinely creepy passages that send a shiver of unease up the spine, as we see some unsettling phenomena occurring across the unforgiving waters of the estuary and among the increasingly frightened villagers.  Throughout the novel there are flashes of the gothic that Sarah Perry clearly relishes.  And yet there is much more to this than the quest to discover whether or not the monster is real; perhaps the more important question is, why do so many people believe in it?  By the end of the book what I took away more than anything else was that we all have a serpent lurking inside of us, one that is shaped by our own unique fears, insecurities and experiences.  For the residents of Aldwinter the monstrosity comes to reflect many states of mind, from the fear of being driven off life’s comfortable path by unexpected emotions, to the unrelenting weight of grief, the turmoil of adolescence and even simply the confused ramblings of a brain ravaged by disease.  Absolutely, I wanted to know the answer to the mystery in its most literal sense, but it’s the more metaphorical manifestations of the Essex Serpent that stay with you longest after the final page.

There is just so much packed into this book that it will utterly consume you, both while you’re reading it and afterwards.  I’m actually incredibly jealous of anyone who has yet to read this for the first time!  I hope more than anything that you’ll love it as much as I do; as always, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Happy reading!

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“The Little Red Chairs” by Edna O’Brien – review

When you start reading “The Little Red Chairs” you feel as if you’re embarking on a gentle tale of a small Irish community’s gradual enlightenment brought about by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger.  A mysterious man from the Balkans sets himself up as a spiritual healer specialising in sex therapy, and as with Joanne Harris’ “Chocolat”, the notion of an outsider subverting the traditions of an insular Catholic community causes consternation among some, and guilty curiosity among others.  Don’t be fooled.  Before Edna O’Brien is done with you, she’s going to drag you to some very dark places indeed, and the languid, almost wistful tone of the opening pages will seem a world away.

If you read the author’s brief but ominous introductory note before the story begins, you’ll get an idea of the territory this novel is going to cover.  She explains that the red chairs of the title were actually part of the 2012 twentieth anniversary commemoration of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.  Each chair, laid out along the city’s main street, represented the life of someone killed during the siege, 11541 in total.  It’s not giving too much away to say that the somewhat bizarre Eastern European gentleman who turns up in Cloonoila, Ireland, is going to open the inhabitants’ eyes to a part of history, and part of the world, that up until now seemed utterly remote and inconsequential – but the nature of his connection to the events that provoked the forlorn display of little red chairs I would never have guessed.  Before too long the past catches up with the present and life for many in Cloonoila will never be the same again; for one character in particular, Fidelma, the events that follow the stranger’s arrival will divert the course of her entire future.  When we first meet her, she is living out a hollow existence, in a marriage under strain from the age difference between herself and her much older husband, and longing for the child that has never come her way.  She’s a reserved and unassuming woman, and we pity her almost immediately as one of those sad figures whose life hasn’t turned out the way she hoped or probably deserved.  It’s all the more tragic, then, that her very vulnerability makes her the one who ends up getting involved more intimately than any other in the intrigue surrounding newcomer Vladimir.  It’s a scenario that doesn’t end well.  The story’s crisis point is an event so unbelievably horrific that I was forced to step away from the book for a while; it was truly one of the most disturbing passages I’ve ever read and it will prey on my mind for a long time to come.  However, it’s a credit to the author that she’s able to depict a scene as hideous as this and still bring the reader with her.  Horrified though I was, there was never any question in my mind as to whether I wanted to carry on.  If you do continue you will be rewarded, as for me the novel becomes richer and deeper the further it goes on.

The latter half of the book is both fascinating and exceptionally clever as it both narrows and broadens its focus at the same time.  One the one hand, the author chooses to leave many of the earlier characters behind and concentrate on Fidelma and the path her life takes as she attempts to come to terms with everything that’s happened.  On the other hand it’s at this point that the novel really embraces what turn out to be its key themes by moving the action out of the isolated town of Cloonoila to London, and thus to an infinitely wider world of people who are fighting their own battles in ways that Fidelma couldn’t have imagined.  The idea of how established communities view outsiders was hinted at in an almost whimsical way at the start of the novel, with gently comical scenes ensuing as the local priest delicately tries to address the Church’s concerns over “sex therapy” with the new arrival and a nun surreptitiously visits his massage room.  By the book’s later stages the notion of the outsider has taken on a much more serious tone, and the expanding cast of characters who flit in and out of the action open the reader’s – and Fidelma’s – eyes to what it really means to be on the fringes of society.  For some it’s about having acted in a way that contravenes society’s rules, for others it comes in the form of racial abuse, and for some it’s the isolation that comes from being thoroughly immersed in a grief and pain that no-one else can comprehend.  Most crucially, though, it’s about the people from all corners of the world who have come to London seeking a refuge from lives more terrible than most of us will ever experience.  The truth is that there are streets in every part of the globe that would more than warrant their own row of little red chairs.

I’m aware that this is starting to sound very much like an issue-led novel, and if your eyes are glazing over at the thought of an author on a soap-box for two hundred pages then let me assure you it doesn’t read that way at all.  Yes, it’s undoubtedly a very timely novel considering everything that’s been filling our news bulletins over the past several months, but it’s also an incredibly intimate examination of one woman’s trauma and her journey back to some kind of inner peace.  The author’s genius lies in this masterful balance of a broader message with minutely observed personal detail, and the quality and bravery of her writing have marked her out in my mind as a novelist I want to pursue further.  It’s not an easy read to be sure, but immensely rewarding and utterly deserving of all the plaudits it’s received.  Steel yourself – but read it.

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“Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” by Chris Packham – review

There’s a moment right at the end of this memoir when the author says to his counsellor, “I’m the enemy, my enemy.  And I’m chasing myself and when I finally catch me I’m going to kill me.”  He very nearly succeeded.  This is the story of a child who was not like other children, an adult who is not like most adults.  It’s a journey into the mind of someone at once isolated from others and yet connected to the natural world around him with an intensity that most of us will never experience.  “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” is not about producing a linear retelling of its author’s life story, but rather about him making the decision to open the door into his mind, and trying to convey what the sensation of being alive feels like to him.

I’ve always admired Chris Packham; as a presenter he comes across in a very genuine way, entirely without artifice.  The impression I was left with after finishing his book was that it too felt very truthful.  This is not a celebrity trying to maintain a particular image through their writing; in fact, as you’re reading you almost forget that the author is famous at all such is the book’s intimacy.  Most of it is about his childhood, through which we hop and skip in a series of unchronological chapters, each shining the spotlight on a moment of particular emotional significance.  There are also occasional mini-chapters in the third person in which we see the young Chris as others with whom he had fleeting encounters might have seen him: the man in the ice-cream van, the girl in the ticket office at the cinema, the farmer who allows the quirky child onto his land to watch the wildlife. It’s quite a moving device in a way, as it serves to highlight how far we all are from understanding what’s going on in others’ heads.  People see a slightly strange boy who doesn’t speak or behave like the other kids, and they may feel sorry for him, be puzzled by him or even find him irritating, but they are never going to be able to comprehend what life looks like through his eyes.  The chapters in which the author relives his experiences with other children are an especially gut-wrenching reminder of how cruel people can be to those they consider an outsider.  Teenage Chris has short-lived moments of trying to fit in – such as when he’s trying to attract the attention of a girl at school – but mostly he retreats into his own world, with each day a matter of survival until he can escape back to the only place he feels truly secure: outside immersed in nature.  Even his home is not a sanctuary, with parents who are at each other’s throats more often than not and with whom he has a fairly strained relationship.  The one creature that could be considered to be his saviour is his pet kestrel.  Its acquisition makes for somewhat uneasy reading – he is so desperate to own a bird of prey that with the help of his father he takes a young one from its nest – but there’s no denying that the bond between them surpassed any he’s ever managed to form with another human.  One of the most heart-breaking parts of the book for me was when the author, as an adult and in conversation with his therapist, looks back on the kestrel’s death all those years ago and acknowledges that he has in some ways never got over the loss.  This, he explains, is part of the problem when your only source of solace is the unquestioning, unconditional love you get from an animal: when that animal is gone you’re left with nothing.

There’s a marked difference in the language used to describe his interactions with people and those he employs during the chapters where he is alone with nature.  The world of humans is made to feel harsh, grimy and extremely corporeal.  When he is engaged with the natural world, however, the language really lets fly; metaphors come tumbling think and fast and the words almost take on a life of their own, creating a mélange of remarkable phraseology.  To be honest, there were times when the writing style became a little too elaborate for my taste, and I felt that somehow it had gone past the point of my being able to take it all in.  What is clear, though, is the pure joy the author experiences when the wilderness takes him out of himself; the vibrant, gleeful abandon of the writing is undoubtedly a reflection of a man’s spirit being freed.

There were a few parts of the book I found a bit difficult to read for other, more personal reasons.  The author may have loved his animals but there was a real biological curiosity there too.  As a result we see him removing birds’ eggs from their nests and blowing out the contents so he can keep the shells, pulling apart a dead bird so he can examine the wing structure and boiling his recently deceased pet snake because he wants to see inside.  I have to confess I’m a little squeamish about these things, but if you are too, don’t let it put you off.  Once I’d got over my initial revulsion and started to think about what I’d just read, I realised that all these episodes were about giving another insight into the author’s mind.  I may not choose to appreciate animals in this way, but for Chris as a child, watching wildlife wasn’t simply about admiring something’s beauty but trying to gain an intimate knowledge of who this creature actually was and how it lived its life.  In fact, there’s a chapter in which he sees two boys fishing tadpoles out of the water and systematically killing them, a scene that renders him so angry he can barely express it.  Even the most gruesome of Chris’ investigations are born of a thirst for knowledge; not once does he kill a creature in cold blood.

I have a renewed respect for the author after reading this poignant memoir.  To say that his life hasn’t been easy would be an understatement, but there’s no doubt that, however sad the reason for its origins, there is a lifelong passion here the like of which is incredibly rare.  I have a feeling that “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” is going to stick in my mind for a very long time.

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“Anatomy of Murder” by Imogen Robertson – review

It’s always exciting when you discover a new author that you love, possibly even more so when they’ve already written several books as it means you can follow up your new-found passion immediately.  I’ve literally only just finished reading “Anatomy of Murder” within the last ten minutes, and have started beavering away at a review already as I’m so keen to share the love for what looks like being one of my new favourite historical crime series.  I’ve mentioned S J Parris and C J Sansom on the blog many times, and if you enjoy books of that ilk then you’ll adore this I guarantee.  One of the best historical novels I read lately was “The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor (if you read my review you’ll know how highly I rated it) and this is most certainly on a par in terms of writing quality and a vivid sense of time and place.  I should point out though that “Anatomy of Murder” is in fact the second book in the series, something I didn’t realise when I bought it; it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way but there were very definite references to events of the previous book that obviously had a bearing on the current situation of the main characters, so if you want to give this author a try I would recommend reading book one, “Instruments of Darkness”, first.

The opening scenes take place aboard a Royal Navy ship as she engages with a French enemy vessel off the coast of Newfoundland.  The year is 1781, and there are frequent Anglo-French clashes out in the Atlantic following the French government’s recent treaty with the Americans.  In this instance, HMS Splendour is successful and her foe captured; events begin to unfold, however, which suggest this apparently ordinary French ship may be harbouring something particularly valuable.  Flash forward six months to London, and we meet Harriet Westerman and her friend Gabriel Crowther, who have been summoned by a local Justice to help investigate the murder of a man found tied up and dumped in the River Thames.  Harriet, it turns out, is the wife of the man who was Captain on HMS Splendour when it secured its much talked about victory all those months ago.  Sadly, however, his illustrious naval career has been cut short since then by an unfortunate accident on board that has left him with severe brain injuries.  Harriet, while not exactly a widow, has lost any meaningful relationship with her husband as he languishes in a residential home, subject to bouts of confusion and aggression.  It transpires, however, that the fight against the French has moved from the high seas to the drawing rooms of the capital, as the murdered man is suspected of being involved in international espionage; it is now Harriet’s turn to take up the patriotic cause where her husband left off.  Like many a good detective story, there’s also a second mystery running alongside the main plot strand.  This one features another tough and resourceful female investigator, Jocasta, who lives and works in the less desirable parts of the city, earning a very basic living by reading tarot cards.  Not someone to be easily spooked, she is unusually disturbed by the reading she gives to a frightened young woman who comes to her for guidance.  Plagued by the certainty that something terrible is going to befall the girl or her loved ones, she decides to take matters into her own hands and before long her worst fears are confirmed.

What I loved most about this novel, and what I think makes it so successful, is the totally authentic representation of life at both extremes of the social spectrum.  In quite a few of the historical novels I’ve read, the middle and upper class characters (often these are also the main characters) are nuanced and believable, but the lower classes – the servants, street urchins and the like – can come across as somewhat clichéd, as if the author hasn’t quite got a handle on their reality.  This author treats every single one of her creations with equal care: Jocasta and the occasionally questionable people who she gathers to help her have sentiments and motivations as complex as those caught up in the high-society espionage game.  As for that strand of the plot, the intrigue centres around one of London’s great opera houses, a fascinating setting that opens the door to a vibrant world of equally vibrant characters.  For a certain section of society, the European opera singers who came to England to perform were the celebrity stars of their day.  Much of the story hangs on the mass adoration and hysteria that these musical legends – and the composers who wrote for them – evoked throughout the city.  It was an area so well researched (and well-loved I suspect) by the author that you’re utterly transported, and that’s what you want almost more than anything else from a historical novel I think: to feel as if you’re actually there.

It’s engaging from the word go, but the books really picks up to an incredible pace by the final act, to the point where I happily abandoned everything else in order to gallop through the closing chapters and find out how the story would end.  Without giving too much away, the conclusion was such that it made me quite interested to see where she takes the lead characters in her next book.  Imogen Robertson is definitely now a valued addition to my bookshelves, and I’d highly recommend you give this series a whirl.

“This Must be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell – review

Nobody can write about being human like Maggie O’Farrell.  Nobody else I’ve read comes close to capturing the emotional essence of the tiny moments that coalesce to form our lives – the almost-brush of two hands, the sound of a long forgotten voice, the flash of memory from a photograph.  Nobody can put into words as she can the deepest and most unfathomable states of being such as grief and love.  When it comes to unravelling lives and knitting them together again into a gut-wrenching tapestry of humanity, she is in a class of her own.

If someone was to ask me what this book was about, hoping for a neat plot summary, then there wouldn’t be an easy way to tell them.  The linear story strand is really a thread from which to spin a multitude of narratives and ideas, each one digging deeper into the lives of the characters; it’s almost not so much about what happens as it is how and why.  The principal players are Daniel and Claudette, an apparently content married couple who live with their young children in a remote part of rural Ireland.  We join them just before something happens that tips their relationship into crisis and sets in motion a struggle between the forces that pull two people apart and those that keep them together.  The trigger for everything that unfolds is a seemingly insignificant event: a voice on the radio.  As soon as Daniel hears it he is jolted into remembering someone from his past who has lain dead and buried, literally and figuratively, for many years.  At this stage we know nothing about this mysterious woman, but she’s significant enough to send him on a quest that spans hundreds of miles – a journey he hopes will provide and answer to the question that’s been smouldering at the back of his mind for two decades or more.  It soon begins to look, however, as if by seeking out his past Daniel may be in danger of jeopardising his present happiness with Claudette; it transpires that she too has a history that has left her nursing an emotional fragility not apparent from her confident, no nonsense exterior.  Just as important as these current events, though, is the story of the lives that husband and wife have led up to this point, about which we find out through chapters told in flashback and narrated by different characters.  With this emphasis on backstory the author shows us how fundamental our pasts can be in shaping our present self, and how we can only truly understand her characters by seeing the loves, tragedies, transgressions and disappointments they’ve experienced and still carry with them.

Often when a novel is written using numerous voices and jumps between time periods I find it frustrating to read.  There is the potential confusion of where you are in the story’s timeline and also the pitfall of not engaging with some of the narrators as much as you do with others.  It takes an immensely talented writer I think to make all the voices resonate as authentically as each other, and the fact that Maggie O’Farrell has that ability is one of the things that makes the book work so well.  There are no filler characters or anyone whose point of view has been shoehorned in purely to provide some exposition: every single one makes a crucial contribution to the picture being painted of the two lead characters.  It’s almost as if by using such a complex, multi-person narrative the author is demonstrating that in a way each of us are as many different people as there are others to perceive us.  There’s even a chapter very near the end of the book told from the point of view of a completely new character who we’ve never met before and who has no bearing at all on the rest of the story.  At first I found that slightly bewildering but after some thought I realised it revealed another truth, namely that even people with whom we connect only fleetingly can have an insight into an aspect of our personality or situation that we ourselves haven’t seen.  Yes, it’s a novel about something that’s happening to people every day the world over – the forging and then the disintegration of a relationship – but the author is determined to go as deep as possible into the nuances of this commonplace yet absolutely fundamental element of human existence.

There are some perfectly captured moments here that will move you to tears; Daniel shouting for help in the hospital as he clings to his suffering child is the one that has stayed with me the most.  And you won’t be able to hear the words, “I’ve changed my mind” again for a while without your heart breaking ever so slightly.  Yet while nothing in the novel is smooth sailing – after all, when is life ever like that? – it’s still ultimately an optimistic book at heart.  If we love someone enough we will never stop fighting for them is the message here, and I can’t think of a more joyful message than that.

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“The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor – review

September 1666.  In the unnatural darkness and oppressive heat of a London ablaze, a young man watches awestruck as St. Paul’s Cathedral, icon of the city and hitherto believed to be protected by divine influence, succumbs to the flames.  All of a sudden, a boy breaks away from the crowd and runs frantically towards the burning edifice.  Yet even the rats have deserted it, so who, or what, is he so desperate to reach inside that he’ll risk almost certain death?  So begins a marvellous mystery that grows and grows in complexity even as the flames are dying.

Before long a body is discovered – and it won’t be the last.  The murder has been carried out in a very precise way, and in an enigmatic twist the thumbs have been tied together behind the victim’s back.  Clearly the killer intends to send a message to whoever finds the body; unfortunately, no-one has any idea what he or she is trying to convey.  This being the seventeenth century almost everyone is driven by religious or political passions, some of which are more dangerous to wear on your sleeve than others.  The restoration of the monarchy may have returned the nation to something resembling normality after Cromwell’s rule, but subversive religious ideologies and treasonous political movements have simply disappeared underground, and it soon becomes clear there’s much more at stake than just bringing a murderer to justice.

The man charged with unravelling the mystery is the young gentleman we met right at the start as he witnessed St. Paul’s last moments.  His name is James Marwood, an unassuming man with a very junior administrative job at Whitehall, and it’s with some reluctance that he’s drawn into his employers’ investigations.  James’ nervousness is compounded by the fact that his father – still alive but elderly and in a fragile state both physically and mentally – was an ardent supporter of the movement that culminated in the execution of Charles I; although many Parliamentarian sympathisers have been shown a degree of clemency by the new King, those most closely involved with the regicide are still being hunted down.  As a result, Marwood is constantly walking a precarious path: to hide information from his Whitehall masters would call his own loyalty into question, but to uncover too much could place his father and his former friends in jeopardy.

While James struggles with the task at hand, we meet another character who it turns out is on a mission of her own.  Cat’s father, like Marwood’s, also has a dark political past, but he’s long since vanished and his daughter is desperate to find him.  She’s also in a sticky situation herself, being under the guardianship of a callous uncle who’s determined to marry her off to an effeminate weasel of a man whom she finds utterly repellent.  Forced into an impossible situation by her ghastly relations Cat becomes a fugitive just as her father did – and who is hired to track her down but James Marwood himself.

I had a hunch I was going to love this book and I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s a period of history that I find fascinating anyway, but this novel made me want to go and find out more about the religious complexities of this post-Civil War era.  A setting such as this, when people were living in hiding or under assumed names in order to disguise their political sensibilities, is the perfect backdrop for a crime story – the fun isn’t just about unmasking a murderer, it’s about who is going to turn out to be on whose side.  When it comes to creating heroes and villains, the author is incredibly skilful.  There are a few heart-in-mouth moments when the particularly vile characters seem to be gaining the upper hand, and you’ll be rooting for some of the other characters with equal fervour.  Yet it never becomes a pantomime: the nuanced characterisation is far too clever for that.  In many respects this reminded me of C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, which is a huge compliment as I absolutely love those books.  The quality of the writing, the pitch-perfect balance between history and mystery and above all the well-rounded characters put “The Ashes of London” right up there with the best historical fiction.  There is a tiny hint at the end of the novel (I think, although it could be wishful thinking!) that James Marwood may well be called upon to solve more crimes in the future.  I’m hoping that this is Andrew Taylor’s promise of further books in the series; I can certainly see myself devouring more quite happily.  It’s a massive thumbs up from me for this one!

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“The Silversmith’s Wife” by Sophia Tobin – review

It’s fair to say that this book has rescued me from a real reading slump.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been dutifully working my way through a few books that aren’t at all bad, yet aren’t completely holding my attention either.  For me the sign of a really, REALLY good read is one that calls you back whenever you try to leave it; one that has you counting the hours until you’ll get a chance to immerse yourself in it once more.  “The Silversmith’s Wife” is exactly this kind of book and I knew from the outset that the two of us were going to get along very well indeed!

It’s set in late eighteenth century London and starts with the discovery of a dead body in the middle of Berkeley Square.   The unfortunate victim is Pierre Renard, a celebrated silversmith of the city – and there are very few people mourning his death.  The extracts from his diary, fed to us one tantalising snippet at a time at the beginning of each chapter, make it quite clear why: Pierre was a truly abhorrent human being.  For me, the portrayal of this particular character was one of the cleverest aspects of the book.  We never actually see the silversmith alive, but even dead he is utterly chilling.  The diary reveals a man whose calculated manipulation of and cruelty towards others bordered on the sociopathic, and his delusions of grandeur and ruthless promotion of his own self-interest were mirrored in a complete disregard for anyone he considered weak or beneath him.  Even when he talks of love it is in reality infatuation rather than any meaningful emotional connection.  It’s no wonder his widow, psychologically scarred from years of torment at the hands of this monster, still feels that he somehow has a hold on her even from beyond the grave.  All this makes for a very interesting reader response to the mystery at hand; normally we would be willing the murderer to be caught so that justice can prevail, but here we’re eager for them to be unmasked so we can in effect congratulate them on their actions.

The investigation unravels in an ingenious way.  As well as there being several people who are quite happy to see Pierre Renard dead and buried, there are also a number who have their own reasons for wanting to get to the truth of what happened, and as a result we get to see the web of the victim’s interactions from many illuminating angles.  I didn’t work out who the killer was; but then there’s so much of interest revealed as the story progresses that the secrets, lies and loves of the supporting characters become just as enthralling as the question of who ended Pierre’s life.  Most important of all, as the title suggests, is the silversmith’s wife Mary.  The losses and hardship that she’s endured throughout her life have left her almost broken, but there’s a spark of hope in the shape of a man who, many years before, missed out on winning her love when Pierre came on the scene.  This quiet, understated love story brings a small strand of light to a tale that is, at times, very shadowy indeed.  For me, one of the most disturbing elements is the abysmal treatment of women; historically accurate but hard to stomach.   It’s well known that at this time many women were married off into families that provided good financial prospects without love ever coming into the equation, but even after Mary escapes the clutches of her abusive husband through his death, control over her future merely passes to other influential men around her.  She cannot inherit the silver business as Pierre wished it to go to his (male) apprentice, and the executors of his will are even handed the right to approve or reject any future marriage that Mary might wish to make.  Yet despite the fact that the women depicted are unarguably powerless in many ways, the book is full of determined females who are fighting back against the constraints of a patriarchal society in the small ways they can.

This novel has so much to recommend it: a thrilling mystery, an incredibly well-drawn cast of characters that you will both love and hate, and a chilling sense of the dark depths to which humanity will sink, perfectly reflected by the physical darkness of the unlit winter nights and the foreboding houses of the square.  As I said at the start of today’s blog, it’s been a while since a book captured my interest in the way this one did, and for a novel to make you miss it when you’re not reading it is perhaps the best recommendation of all.

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“The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield – review

I’m quite an old-fashioned girl at heart.  Many wonders of the modern world, such as on-demand TV (I prefer to, as I still refer to it, “set the video”) and Apple-pay (I still have a cheque book in a drawer somewhere) are yet to become a part of my life.  I can’t even claim that I’m shunning technology and going retro because that’s what the trendy people are doing right now – I quite simply haven’t moved with the times.  All of which probably explains the sense of comfort I feel when reading novels such as “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”; set in the 1930s, it’s a period that doesn’t feel so far removed from the present day as to be considered “historical” as such, but is distant enough to evoke a real feeling of nostalgia.  One thing hasn’t changed though: the fact that many of us spend a fairly high proportion of our lives feeling wholly inadequate compared to those around us.

That feeling of inferiority, whether of appearance, intellect or financial circumstances, is the recurring theme of the Provincial Lady’s diaries.  Downbeat and self-absorbed, though, they are not.  Our hugely entertaining diarist may spend her days flying into a panic about not having an appropriate outfit to wear or the fact that her woeful attempt to grow indoor bulbs is being met with disdainful comments from her neighbours, but ultimately every setback is faced with endearing good humour.  What is more, she’s totally upfront in acknowledging that the very people she’s trying to impress are usually the ones whose attitudes and lifestyles she despises.  Among these surrounding characters are some brilliant comic creations: Lady Boxe, the supremely arrogant, self-appointed lynchpin of village life; Pamela Pringle, who works her way through inappropriate men at an astonishing rate, and “Mademoiselle”, French nanny to the Provincial Lady’s two children and who is prone to frequent bouts of mild hysteria.  I laughed out loud countless times; the author is so astute at nailing (mostly unflattering) observations of her fellow humans – all through the protagonist’s eyes of course – and the level of cringe-inducing awfulness on display is something to which we can all relate.  I’m sure at one time or another most of us have encountered the pretentious bore at a social gathering intent on making sure everyone knows how well-read they are, or the person who subtly slips into conversation the fact that their forthcoming holiday is more exotic or their dress more expensive than yours.  Most hilarious of all are the beleaguered diarist’s internal responses to all the odious people around her – perfect, pithy comments that of course she – like all of us – never voices out loud.

The book is actually made up of four stories – novellas I suppose you could call them.  The first, “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” centres around everyday village life; the subsequent three, “The Provincial Lady Goes Further”, “The Provincial Lady in America” and “The Provincial Lady in Wartime” follow our heroine to London and the United States.  I have to say that for me, none of these worked quite as well as the first story.  There is still a lot of fun to be had and the author’s skill at creating finely-drawn comic characters remains, but I found the mundanity of the day to day tribulations found close to home much more engaging than the pressures of the London or New York social scene.  The subtle observations of a WI meeting, a village fête or a family picnic are exquisite in their accuracy, and when the lead characters venture away from that cosy setting some of the sense of reality is lost.  It’s also about that feeling of nostalgia I mentioned earlier: the inherent cosiness of a long vanished rural way of life appeals to me much more than a metropolitan setting.

Despite these reservations this novel definitely still gets a recommendation from me.  If you’re feeling a bit low it will lift your spirits, and I think sometimes that’s what we all need from a book.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – review

The twittersphere has been set a-flutter over the last few weeks with excited chatter about this intriguingly titled debut, and the praise was effusive enough to make me want to try it for myself.  Reading it proved to be an immense pleasure; writing a review, on the other hand, is proving a bit trickier.  The clever construction that makes it so fulfilling to read is also what makes it a challenge to write about – how do you begin to describe and dissect a book when the author has given you so many ways in?  “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” is a magic eye picture in word form: look at it from slightly different angles and you come away with different impressions.

So what was my first impression?  In a word, nostalgia.  The action takes place for the most part on a single street in the mid-1970s, with flashbacks to the decade before.  It’s a time when life revolved around the local community: neighbours were forever in and out of one another’s houses, attended the same church, the same pub and the same local shops, and were involved in each other’s personal lives every single day.  The setting reminded me so much of my own early childhood on a tight-knit street that had a community spirit much like this fictional one.  I’ve never come across a place quite like it anywhere I’ve lived in my adult life – it’s easy to surmise that this kind of lifestyle simply doesn’t exist anymore – so reading this novel was like a journey back in time.  The vivid sense of time and place is something the author conveys particularly well, better than in any book I’ve read for a while.

Although an incredibly authentic representation of what it was like to grow up and live in that era, the novel takes the ideal of a close and loyal community and flips it over to reveal the potentially sinister implications of living in a social group of this nature.  It’s impossible not to see in the story a certain sense of affection for this much more open and companionable way of living, yet at the same time it serves almost as a warning: a group of people who are too insular and inward looking will readily turn on anyone perceived as an outsider.  The outside on The Avenue is Walter Bishop, suspected by his neighbours of committing an unspeakable and highly emotive crime back in the 60s.  He certainly comes across as an oddball with his lanky hair, dilapidated house and unusual manner – but is he the child-snatcher the rest of the street believes him to be?  The reader doesn’t know, but what we do know is that the ongoing campaign of persecution in an attempt to drive him away is frightening in itself.  What emerges as the story unfolds is that the residents of this apparently innocuous street are not simply trying to protect one another, but are also desperate to protect their own deepest secrets.  The question of how far you would go in hurting someone or allowing someone to be hurt in the name of self-preservation is an uncomfortable one, but one the author tackles head on.  And what happens when a lie you told years ago has got so out of hand that there’s no going back to the truth, however grim the current repercussions might be?  When the book began I wasn’t expecting to ask myself any of these questions, but that’s what makes the novel so deliciously clever; reading it is like unpacking a Russian doll, gradually uncovering more and more pieces that make the whole thing more complex than it ever appeared from the outside.

In addition, the whole book is sprinkled with ever-increasing religious allusions, putting yet another spin on this morality tale.  I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the story, but as the novel drew to a close a number of allegorical elements came to the surface that made me want to go back and read it again, but this time looking at it with this newly-planted idea in mind.  In fact, it’s one of those books that would inevitably be a very different experience the second time around, and I will probably read it again, because I’m curious to see how I react to various characters knowing what I know now.  The author does provide little teasers as to the reality of events all the way through, but is careful not to show her hand completely until the very last pages.

There are so many other things I could have talked about in this review: how the author uses the point of view of a child narrator to show how a naïve view of the world can also be the most effective way to see the truth, or how fantastic she is at capturing emotional experiences with some unique, elegant and surprising turns of phrase – but I would quickly run to thousands of words and lose my audience!  The fact that there’s just so much to say about this novel though is a compliment in itself.  I can’t wait for whatever Joanna Cannon writes next, and I sincerely hope there are many more books to come.

“Belonging” by Umi Sinha – review

If ever there was a time I’ve been glad I judged a book by its cover, this is it.  “Belonging” is even more exquisite on the inside than on the outside, a delicately spun tale with a rich emotional resonance that gets a grip on your heart and won’t let go.  It is the most apparently innocuous of items, an embroidered tablecloth, which precipitates the shocking event that sets this often tragic novel in motion; appropriate, because the book itself is reminiscent of a work of embroidery, with threads moving in, out and around each other, creating a sequence of vivid vignettes that eventually come together to produce one gloriously intricate yet cohesive picture.

The story follows three generations of the same family and revolves around the British presence in India during the days of the Victorian Empire.  Arthur is an officer in the British military and his son Henry a civil servant; but it’s the third and final generation we meet first in the shape of Lila, Henry’s daughter.  At the start of the novel, Lila’s involvement in the cataclysmic event I alluded to earlier results in her leaving India for England where she lives, initially at least, in a state of emotional shock, with a great aunt to whom she cannot and will not relate.  From then on, the book gradually reveals through letters and diaries how the family came to be at the terrible, shattered place it now is.

The idea of belonging can mean so many things, and one of the beauties of this novel is the subtle way it approaches its fundamental theme from so many different angles, from the broad view of colonialism and its implications to the microcosm of a romantic relationship.  It would be very easy to judge the colonial aspect through twenty-first century eyes and conclude that none of the British inhabitants could ever truly “belong” in India since, as we would probably all agree today, they were interlopers who had no right to be there.  Yet for the people who lived through those times it was so much more complicated than that, as the author shows us.  What about the thousands of children who were born in India into a British family and were expected to conduct themselves according to Western values, but who were effectively brought up by Indian nannies, looked after by Indian servants and spent their youth with Indian children among their companions?  Lila is one such child, and only really begins to understand the conflicting nature of her cultural identity once she is forced to spend her teenage years in England, a country whose nationality she holds but that she’s never seen.  In India she’s most certainly not a native and there’s no doubting her position as a white, British young lady; in Britain on the other hand she’s viewed with suspicion and sometimes derision as the “Indian” girl, whose upbringing sets her apart from others her own age.  In her own mind, Lila belongs to a homeland that now the rest of the world is telling her is not really her own.  A confused sense of belonging isn’t limited to the British expatriates: in the politically and socially complex world of empirical India the army is full of Indian nationals fighting, potentially their fellow countrymen, on behalf of their colonial overlords.  A succession of almost unbearably tense, anguished chapters depicting a mutiny and subsequent slaughter at Cawnpore show in bleak and brutal detail how feelings of loyalty and of belonging to a particular ethnic group were so delicately poised at this volatile time.

The act of being in love is another kind of belonging all together, and just as the novel is full of misplaced souls unable to belong to the place in which they find themselves, so it is full to the brim with the pain of unrequited or thwarted love.  The idea of belonging to someone else and the fulfilment to be found from that walks hand in hand with the emotional necessity of having a place to call home.  Lila loses her family, friends and security right at the beginning of the book, and later on looks set to lose someone else that she’s grown to love.  Only then does she realise that since leaving India there’s only been one person “with whom I felt I belonged” as she says.  Without that person to anchor her, she belongs nowhere.

It’s an incredibly sad book in many ways, as successive generations struggle to overcome the dreadful culmination of all the secrets, lies and misfortunes that have gone before them.  Bizarrely though, it doesn’t feel that way as you read – and you certainly don’t come away feeling completely downcast, despite all the horror that’s just unfolded.  Maybe it’s because the story progresses so gradually and you feel as if the author is exploring her characters’ emotions with real care; at every stage she gives the reader time to draw breath and ruminate on everything that’s going on.  For me, this novel exemplifies one of the great things about reading: a book that glides in completely under the radar and then blows your mind with its quality and artistry.  The skill with which the novel switches between eras and narrators and slowly but surely gathers all the threads together is extraordinary.  Often with stories told through multiple voices I find that I’m more interested in some strands than others, but not here.  Come for the cover just as I did by all means – but stay for the content, because it’s truly a work of art.