The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola – layers of atmosphere, stories and fear

This is a book with so many layers. A historical novel full of the atmosphere and truth of another age, yet offering a subtle commentary on the treatment of girls, of women. A mystery novel, but with far more than the solving of a death. The tale of a young woman in search of a better way than marriage or keeping silent about wrongdoing. A story of a group of people losing everything they value. The front of the book states “First the land was taken. Then the stories. Then the girls”. This is a novel of fear, of layers of confusion. A painful book, but a tribute to the human spirit, even when that is expressed in unconventional ways. This is a book of landscape, of a powerful understanding of life on the edge, of communities of fear. The power of the writing should be self evident; this book boarders on Gothic horror which has effectively terrified so many over generations. I was taken aback by much of this book, and I am grateful to be given the opportunity to read a copy for review on a blog tour.

The book opens as Audrey, a young woman, is sailing to the Isle of Skye. It is September 1857, and already the weather and the birds, are signalling the coming of winter. Audrey is running away, moving from her father’s home in London and the life of a relatively well off young woman, already tired of her stepmother’s attempts to marry her to a suitable man. As Audrey helps an obviously unwell girl, it begins to emerge that she cares deeply for such poor girls, quietly indignant at their treatment and the treatment they receive at the hands of more powerful men. She is going to seek employment and independence, having followed an advertisement for a folklorist, someone to assist in the collecting and ordering of tales of the people, the folk tales that have emerged and developed over generations. To some on the island these are nothing more than complex superstitions, growing as a result of the unique weather and natural life of the islands. As Audrey encounters the mysterious Miss Buchanan and the mysterious house to which she is confined, she realises that she must explore the island, meet its people on a level in which they feel confident to talk with her, and deal with those who want to rationalise the use of the land. She is shown and told of the suffering which the effective clearances are causing; displaced and desperate, they either scratch for survival or are exiled to countries from which they will never return. The chance discovery of a body means that the stakes are raised to an unbearable level, as the stories are not just to be collected, but feared, as the weather, birds and land all seems to wrench at ancient and more recent secrets.

It is difficult to capture the successful way in which Mazzola creates the sense of a world, both threatening and disappearing as Audrey strives to understand what is happening around her. The offstage threat of London, her own earliest memories, and the almost supernatural fear which pervades this book makes it a truly compelling read. An absorbing tale, I found this a gripping story which was subtly brutal, yet never needlessly violent. This is a book which works on so many levels, and I thoroughly recommend it as a fascinating novel.

So another blog post about a book which I believe turns paperback soon – it is certainly worth finding! Meanwhile I have a mini break from blog tours while I catch up with more books that are begging to be reviewed. I have been acquiring some lovely books in an independent bookshop today – hurray!

 

Evil Things by Katja Ivar – feminism in 1952 amid a Cold War

This can be seen as a deeply unsettling book, a book where everything – including the weather – is conspiring against the main character. This is a novel set in 1952, when the Cold War is happening, and countries such as Finland are on the front line. The place is Lapland, but not a place of fluffy snow and good nature, but a harsh climate which means that transport is closed down for a significant part of the year. People must survive, somehow, and it is into this unfriendly and unforgiving place that Hella Mauzer, a young woman with a mysterious past, feels compelled to go and investigate a possible crime. She is deeply unpopular, incredibly frustrated, and the first real woman police detective to work in the country in homicide. She has a powerful sense of grievance, of sadness, and yet finds the determination to try and solve the unsolvable. Said to be the first in a series, this is a tough read, yet maintains its intelligent humanity though out. A deeply satisfying book, I was glad to read a copy of this strongly written novel and contribute a review.

Hella is a young woman who notices things, feels deep emotions, and reacts strongly to people. The second trait has been seized on as an excuse to move her to a dead end job with a male boss who she silently distains and despairs of as a largely useless bureaucrat. This is 1952, when feminism was unheard of, and women could be, and were, dismissed as merely working until they married. As such, Hella’s stubborn refusal to make herself attractive and amicable is pointedly commented on. She realises much about herself; her lack of friends, her inability to form proper friendships let alone relationships, and her overthinking of the situations she has been challenged by in her recent past. When she hears that a missing old man has been reported, she insists on visiting a village cut off for months from the rest of the country. As she arrives she discovers much to upset her expectations, including a priest’s wife who is seemingly perfectly devoted, but who knows more than anyone knows. Food and home comforts are described even as Hella consciously tries to reject them, yet a boy who soon becomes central to the investigation seems to occupy more of her thoughts. A stunning discovery upsets all the theories, and it is left to Hella to use every skill, emotion and desperate effort to find the truth and act on it.

I can honest say that I learnt a lot from this novel, not previously having been a fan of “Scandi Noir” detective stories. There is an incredible atmosphere in this novel, as the weather sets in and the situation becomes more desperate. The village is on the edge of Soviet Russia, and the incipient danger that this faceless threat forms lives throughout the novel. Hella is her own worst enemy in many ways, yet the reader’s sympathy is with this woman who is by her own admission is “angular”. There are brutal elements to this book, and scenes which could shock, but it is all controlled. There is little gentleness in this book, but the concern for children does run throughout  and basic human decency is always present. I can recommend this book to anyone interested in crime beyond Britain and the current time, and fascinated by the beginning of positive feminism. It achieves a contemporary feel for today, and I will be keen to see what happens with Heela Mauzer in the future.

As well as this book, I have also had the experience of seeing the film “The Favourite”. It is such a powerful film, with incredible costumes, setting and acting. It is not an easy watch in some ways, but it is a powerful testament to the power of women at a time when they were perhaps not accorded much wit and intelligence. Olivia Coleman’s character is so much more significant than she first appears, and her physical acting is phenomenal. Well worth seeing, but perhaps not so easy to understand…

Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R Lorac – A complex Crime Classic from the British Library

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A murder after dark in a park. A complex investigation of some colourful characters. A bombing in London as part of the blitz. Witnesses with an interest in the case. There is so much to admire in this book, a classic murder mystery of the Golden Age of Detection. A murder seemingly carried out in seemingly impossible circumstances as this one is represents some clever planning, in execution as well as working out the plot. This is not only a murder mystery; its original publication date in 1945 means that is set squarely in the Second World War and there are moral questions which that conflict raises. The recent reprinting by British Library Crime Classics is an excellent opportunity to revisit the writing of this author with a lower profile than her contemporaries such as Sayers or Christie, but who had an excellent grasp of even minor characters and their role in a novel. Martin Edwards, in his excellent Introduction, calls it a “crisp story, concisely told” which he hopes will increase the number of her admirers, of which I am one. I was very pleased to receive a copy to review.

Bruce Mallaig is wandering in Regent’s Park in the dark, pondering how his female friend Pat, who has been unable to meet him, would be a good choice to marry. The wartime conditions are immediately introduced as the railings are gone, and the black out makes the darkness total. Another man arrives, lights a match and reveals for a brief second a horrid face behind him. Bruce starts forward when he sees an apparent attack, and tries to capture someone jumping over a bridge. When a body is found it seems that an impossible murder has been committed. As Chief Inspector Macdonald begins to investigate, one of the major problems of this case emerges; no one knows for certain who the victim really, partly as a result of the wartime confusion. While identity cards and other indications are found, it seems unlikely that they show the true identity of  the man killed so efficiently, and it proves difficult to identify a killer when any possible motive is therefore obscure. The victim frequented a house with many theatrical lodgers, all with their own stories, and all with their own views of the workshy man. When even the seemingly uninvolved appear to have a motive Macdonald is left somewhat bewildered, but continues his methodical yet inspired investigations. Supported by the sterling but determined efforts of other police officers, he tries to discover who is likely to be guilty against a background of bombs and destruction. I particularly enjoyed his conversations with the redoubtable Mrs.Maloney, housekeeper and philosopher as they rally round to life after revelations and danger.

Lorac is immensely capable as she manages to hold all the strands of this story together, and deals with all the characters who have a possible involvement. She obviously enjoys writing some of them, as a clever performer reveals much, an embattled London is described, and even the method of murder seems to become more obscure. The question of why a single murder in the face of so many civilian deaths warrants so much careful investigation is very reasonably raised, eliciting the answer that without justice for the dead there is no hope for civilization. This is a mature, complex and deeply satisfying murder mystery with so much more; a vivid picture of a city at war, and an examination of why one death matters.

 

Meanwhile life at the Vicarage following my essay crisis (spoiler – I handed it in on time – just) and leading a Study Day continues with me making a determined effort to hit my huge pile of books that need to be read for review. Some are for definite dates, others just as soon as possible, others I have found that I just want to read. As other distractions have lessened for a while, it’s full steam ahead….

The Secret by Katherine Johnson – a book of tangled betrayal and long term guilt

Historic secrets, lifelong loves, accidental betrayals; this is a book of many layers, historically and emotionally, as women and men find themselves swept up in huge events. The Italian setting is beautifully described as three generations wonder about the truth of love, guilt and death. The secrets which have defined a generation of life in a small town have become too difficult to keep, but will there be any good in revealing them as new life returns to buildings and a landscape scarred by war. A complex, moving and beautifully written story, this novel carries the reader along smoothly as old wounds and deep hurt threatens the fortunes of a new generation. I was so glad to receive a copy of this powerful book which will linger in my mind for some time.

This is a clever novel which covers a narrative from the 1940s, briefly 1992 and 2018. The story is also told from several points of view, including Sonia, Martina, Irena and some of the people, though the story is always told in the third person. A baby is found, though this small sign of hope is overlaid by the overwhelming sense of tragedy that pervades the village. A woman, now dead, has always been silently blamed for the loss of many villagers during the War at the hands of German soldiers. Her daughter suffers from a lifetime of accusation and blame, and even decades later there is still a mysterious distrust of the Villa Leonida which has seen several tragedies. It is only gradually that the reader learns the truth of what truly happened, the missed opportunities and the emotional battles fought. There are many coincidences here, but it is a small town and it is probable that the portrayal of secrets being kept is probably reasonably accurate.

This is a satisfying novel, with many twists and turns with some genuine surprises. The 2018 generation can see the opportunities in a recognisable way; a fashionable restaurant does seem possible in such a setting. The incipient threat which pervades the novel is well handled, but there are still one or two mysteries that I did not follow and were perhaps unnecessarily confusing. The romance element works on several levels, the immediately obvious youthful romance developing into real, consideration for others. There are parts of this book which are grim, but it also contains some light, some hope as revelations emerge between people. Johnson effectively conveys the sense of threat and sadness, betrayal and grief, but definitely keeps things moving. This is not a sad book, as there are times of some joy, and there are also some good memories and significant photographs. I liked the concept of the recording of memories which explains many secrets to some of the characters and the reader, which was effectively handled. Some loose ends remained at the end, and this novel must have taken a lot of plotting to keep all the storylines going so well. This is a competently handled narrative with a skilful use of writing techniques and specific storylines which blend well together. If anything there was a little too much going on, but the overall effect works well. A good, well written book which I found very readable.

Lots of good books are piling up for me to read and review, and I am looking forward to exploring them. So keep watching this space!

Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett – better known as Noel Streatfeild

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This is a lovely book of small village life, full of the varied fortunes of people who live closely together, interrupted by secrets, jealousies and love. Its network of characters are far from simple, and it is not until the last page that we are assured of a world that has wobbled under pressure from misunderstandings and unspoken emotion. Originally published in 1942, this is a book which would have offered solace and distraction in wartime, recalling a time of innocence and generosity when peaceful times were common and women and men were not parted. The countryside was never better described as a peaceful backdrop to emotional drama, and the children are sensitively realised. The rich and poor are contrasted as the characters learn that money is not always the answer, but that genuine relationships may be the way forward.

Three villages in the south of England, Upper Saltings, Saltings and Lower Saltings lie side by side geographically, but socially and economically are miles apart. Upper Saltings is prosperous, while Lower Saltings is very poor. Into this idyllic setting, in some respects, comes a young and still idealistic clergyman, Martin,  who has been denied the opportunity to minister in more challenging urban areas, and he soon assumes responsibility for Aunt Connie, a querulous elderly lady who has been left penniless. She becomes increasingly difficult, and a long running feud develops between her and the friendly and sensible housekeeper, Bertha. Lady Veronica, a young and very rich widow is supposedly interested in church affairs, using her money to take over events when she really has her eyes on Martin, who is blissfully unaware of her ambitions. Everything becomes more complicated when he effectively adopts his newly orphaned niece and nephew, Polly and Andrew. Being clueless how to deal with them he approaches his wise friend who dispatches the mysterious but extremely capable and attractive Judy as a nanny, governess and companion. Judy soon attracts the attention of Martin’s best friend, the suspicion of Aunt Connie and the powerful jealousy of Veronica. Judy is a lovely and kind young woman, but can she survive with her secret past which threatens to destroy her peace and happiness?

This is a novel of small things, petty jealousies and attractive characters. It is predictable, but that is precisely why it is comforting. It exposes some aspects of rural poverty, but is also very funny at times, especially as the lady of the manor tries to rule the village, the postmistress has a communication network and Bertha always copes. If you can track down this book, you will find it memorable for the characters, smile at the romance and enjoy the tension of secrets revealed. Streatfeild handles families beautifully, especially the women and girls, and the men are perhaps a little hapless as more sophisticated currents and motives swirl around them. A real treat to read at any time of year, this is a splendid  example of Streatfield’s velvet writing with a hard core of realism underneath, and makes this book a welcome experience for any reader with a fondness for mid twentieth century novels.

I was shocked to see how much a copy of this book cost on a certain website, but I am sure that it is out there a bit cheaper somewhere. I borrowed the Greyladies edition from a local library, where I was pleased and surprised to find it.  Libraries can still be useful…

I realised that I forgot to add a book of 2018 to my previous post, so here is one which was shortlisted for a prize. “Pieces of Me” by Natalie Hart is quite a brutal but tremendously effective book of war and peace, a woman in a war zone and today’s America. Here is my review https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/pieces-of-me-by-natalie-hart-a-moving-novel-of-people-and-place/

I have been a bit silent owing to an essay crisis – yes, I am not too old! Though possibly my recovery time from late night writing sessions is a little impared….

The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill – The story of a woman of her time with much to say today

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This is an amazing book. Originally published in 1924, and now reprinted, it is far from a book limited to the interwar period, as it features a woman far in advance of her time and a significant female role model for today. Ursula has significant experiences herself, and her progress over several years affects many people if only by contrast. Zangwill has cleverly created a memorable character in Ursula who is already living an irregular life when she comes into contact with suffragettes, and it is that element of the book which fascinated me. There is so much going on this book which gives an incredibly vivid picture of life for women in the early twentieth century, and I was extremely pleased to receive a copy from Persephone of this most recent edition of a fine book.

Ursula Winfield is a fortunate young woman. She is a comfortably off scientist who has gently resisted her mother’s attempts to bring her out into Edwardian society, preferring to devote her time to experiments in a special laboratory in her stepfather’s house. She is known to attend the Chemical Society’s meetings, though as a woman she cannot become a full member. It is there that she attracts the attention of Professor Vernon Smee, an influential scientist who is able and willing to offer facilities for Ursula to conduct more complex experiments. While she innocently takes up his offer, he becomes entranced by her youth, beauty and intelligence, especially as he has become dissatisfied by his wife. As her mother is a socially successful woman he is able to join the throng of admirers that she entertains, even though he admires the daughter rather than his hostess. There are several awkward incidents beautifully described by Zangwill as Ursula proceeds with her scientific experimentation and she finds romance when she is least expects it. She is involuntarily confronted by the significant difference in the lives of men and women and is becomes gradually involved with suffragettes, and it is her actions in this section of the book that I found the strongest. As war breaks out she is challenged in new ways, but is far from obvious how everything will turn out, as Zangwill keeps the tension going until the last page.

This book is written by a confident and able writer who chooses her material well, smoothly moving from disaster to triumph, challenge to success, but also from effort to failure and frustration. It has a vast compass, as a young woman becomes experienced in all that life can throw at her, but also demonstrates all she can offer. While this is a book of its time rather than a contemporary novel, I think it has much to say about women’s lives as the expectations of marriage are cleverly subverted and the strength of belief in a cause are clearly displayed as the main character suffers appalling treatment. Ursula is shown as a character who really thinks, dealing with challenges as best she can, human in her reactions to the treatment of herself and others. It is a big book and not well known, but it deserves much more attention offering as a valuable insight into the lives of women in the early twentieth century, and I recommend it as a read for anyone with an interest in relatively early feminist literature.

 

Today we marked Epiphany, and a start was made on taking down some cards and decorations, but it has ground to a halt in favour of preparing for this week; essays and study days, services and other swiftly advancing demands on time. I am still accumulating books, though this one is definitely one of the strongest I have read and I found it hugely enjoyable. The fact that I am wrestling with an essay on the film “Suffragette” is probably significant. Having seen this powerful 2015 film four times now perhaps means that I ought to consider doing film reviews here, but frankly I do not get round to watching enough!

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans – A Review Revived in honour of the paperback edition!

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There are some books which are so good that I struggle to find words to suggest how much I appreciate them, and this is one of them. A novel with a big agenda in some ways, yet carefully controlled as the story of a few women who are struggling in a world where part of their lives’ work has been achieved, yet in many ways not much has changed. It is essentially the tale of what happened to those brave women who took on the establishment when there was every danger of them being ignored, only to find their fight had perhaps not essentially changed attitudes and real oppression. It is the story of women who lost much in a war, but have been prevented from fighting and winning their own battles. Evans chooses to base her novel on one woman and those around her, but it is the story of a movement which had inspired her life, and left many women bereft of purpose in a world where their battle seems to be won, but much has not improved. It is undoubtedly a clever idea, to remember the damaging battle for the vote, the First World War, and the brave new post war world in which the women now find themselves, through the eyes of a strong but frustrated woman.

Mattie Simpson is first seen as the victim of a robbery. She is not upset at the loss of her bag as the loss of her weapon which symbolised the suffrage battles which still dominate her mind for so much of the time. She lives some of the time in her memories of when she and her friends, allies, made a difference, took real action to fight for what they believed in, even to the extent of ruining their health and the real fear of forcible feeding in prison (readers of a delicate disposition should look away). The camaraderie of common ideals has been reduced to fighting minor skirmishes with neighbours and others shocked by her lifestyle. Her faithful companion, Florrie or “The Flea” is a sort of health visitor, made angry by the suffering of the mothers and babies she sees. Significantly as she is without property herself she cannot use the vote hard won in the campaign she actually managed in the mundane tasks of administration. She has a secret sadness, but eventually cannot continue picking up the pieces of others’ lives. One of the former suffragettes has married and found her hope in a form of fascism; another war is approaching and some see their hope in values familiar to those familiar with the rise of the right. Another has become an alcoholic, trying to grasp reality but struggling to survive. Not that this is a miserable book in any sense; there are times it can be funny and the main protagonist is often wilfully awkward.  Evans uses her true ear for dialogue  to convey so many people here, the strong willed, the sad, the ambitious, the caring.

In some ways this is the story of an obsession, which causes grief. It is a novel about the loss of a sense of purpose, as well as sisters in a battle which did not improve the lives of most people. However, there is a sense of hope, of change, of improvement from which the next generation will benefit. This book is based in London, but the Heath becomes almost a character as it is the place of so much of the action. It is a book rooted in a place, yet with characters who go beyond the here and now. I truly enjoyed this novel, and am so glad to read a review copy in advance of publication. I think that it has done well in hardback – it deserves to do so well in paperback.

 

This review originally appeared on Shiny New Books when the book first appeared, but having seen the book in its paperback form I thought would revive my review. It certainly made my books of the year list, and I hope that if you have not found it yet, you soon will!