Restless – a really good book

I’m not sure why it’s been since a long gap since my last post- not managing to finish any books, courses, and sheer inertia. My not uncommon but annoying habit of trying to read about seven books at a time? Must try harder…

So what have I finished by way of books? The best has been a re read, inspired by a book group today, of Restless,  by William Boyd.

This is a very good, exciting and enjoyable book. If you are a hard core thriller fan, you may, in the words of one of the group, find it a bit insipid. Devotees of John le Carre may also find this a little lacking in detail, but given that Boyd is not writing from first hand experience I think that it is reasonable.

One of the best things about this book is that it is written about two women, mother and daughter. The third person account of Eva’s training as a spy in pre war Scotland is fascinating, especially as the shops described still exist. What is well researched is America’s attitude to entering the war before Pearl Harbour and the description of the misinformation fed to the newspapers by various news agencies.  The spy revelations are really interesting, and I would happily have read more. I found the whole account moving, fascinating and realistic. The multiple identity aspect of the novel is a bit confusing, but works within the context of what Eva must do.

The other story running throughout the book is of Ruth, the daughter unaware of her mother’s true history. She has a small son, a history of unsatisfactory relationships, and her own connections with German politics. The first person account of her teaching, her alcohol consumption and her attitudes alone would have made for a pretty flat novel, even if they are sometimes painfully accurate. The momentum of this book about the need for continual watchfulness is maintained, however, and when she joins forces with her mother it is interesting.

Perhaps the weakest point of the book is the ending, but others in the group felt that it fitted in well with the book overall. I read one review which pointed out that this was Boyd’s first book with Bloomsbury, and maybe it shows as it could well be a much longer novel with more detail and a tighter ending. While I read ( and posted about) Any Human Heart I must confess that I have made two unsuccessful attempts at Ordinary Thunderstorms.  I think Restless is a brilliant book, in many ways, and I really think it will appeal to many readers. Just be careful with the pencils, people!

Fancying a literary character? Murder Most Foul…

If we are honest, I think many of us have come across a character in a novel that we would really like to meet. Those of us who grew up in the twentieth century many have encountered Jo in “Little Women”, while younger people may well have obsessed about any of the Harry Potter characters. Admittedly, it may also have depended on if we saw a tv or film version with an actor in that really carried the character well; Alan Rickman in just about anything, David Tennant ditto, not forgetting Jason Isaacs introduction to the Kate Atkinson books, which seem on a quick glance better than the scripts that BBC 1 have filmed. Not that I saw the most recent episode, owing to a mouse incursion in front of the tv. Daughter + cat to the rescue…

The hardcore favourite in this house for all though is Lord Peter Wimsey. From a young age offspring were subjected to videos, audio books and the novels of Dorothy L Sayers, and the tv versions at least have remained well up in the Desert Island Discs of programmes to watch. I realise that Sayers has her critics; only the other day a friend was remarking how dated her style is. They are complex books, of the Golden Age with all that implies about class, money and coincidence. They do remain with the reader/ viewer for so long, and attack such meaty issues as the death penalty head on. They are far more complex in their plot and settings than Agatha’s, which may partly account for there being far fewer of them, and they are far more difficult to film. But who can forget Ian Carmichael and Edward Petherbridge carrying off the honours as Lord Peter in the tv versions…even though some of the other casting is pretty wince inducing…

Our favourite is Nine Tailors, which is set largely in the sort of fenland village well known to husband and self, where the highest point and therefore sanctuary in time of flood was the church. When we first moved “Up North” there were historic local floods and we wondered if we would have to copy the novel. Happily for us the book is accurate about medieval building design!

Having read and reread the Sayers canon, it was good to discover that Jill Paton Walsh was picking up the characters of Lord Peter, Bunter and Harriet Vane and continuing beyond Busman’s Honeymoon to bring new mysteries and stories of sleuthing into wartime and beyond. There was thought to be some overlap of writing in the first of the new Lord Peter novels, Thrones and Dominations and the subsequent novel, but The Attenbury Emeralds is pure Walsh, being set in 1951. Wartime rationing and realities, financial challenges and family developments are the background for this novel which makes for complex reading. The list of characters in the front comes in very handy!

I must admit to struggling with the first few chapters where Peter recounts the tale of a long ago mystery,but it is necessary to the novel as a whole. When the novel really hits its stride there are all sorts of details which are fascinating to anyone with a working knowledge of the history of the characters.The mystery and connected murders is very complex, but eventually mostly becomes clear.I am trying to imagine coming to this novel without background knowledge of the Sayers writing, and I would perhaps suggest reading a few of the sixteen Sayers stories first if you don’t know them. This new book is undoubtedly enjoyable for fans, and adds a great new story for all of us who wondered what happened next in the lives of the main characters.


An easy to read series of books

I like to mention books on this blog which are easy to get hold of for everyone. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy tracking down and reading obscure books as much as anyone…Sir Charles Grandison was eighteen months in the tracking down and a long time in the reading…

A set of books which has turned up (in part) on The Book People (who do some great fiction collections), second hand book shops and libraries is Jack Sheffield’s Teacher series.  They are variously entitled Teacher Teacher, Mister Teacher and Please Sir.


I believe that this is the first in the series of five, but frankly it’s not a disaster if you read them out of order, as I did ( starting with the last, typically). This one is set in 1977, and they go into the 8os, each book being devoted to one academic year in the life of Ragley village school.

Jack Sheffield writes about his time as headteacher from his appointment onwards, and having taught in schools in small communities I recognised many of the types and incidents that he depicts, even some years later. I liked his descriptions of the staff and pupils, even though I knew some of the puns that his pupils wrote in their books could be found in any school anywhere. The community of pub, shops and other local worthies was fascinating in the same way as the Village series by Rebecca Shaw can be. Daft events, remarkable coincidences and seemingly huge problems are happily resolved within the chapter. These are comfortable books, easy to pick up and become involved in, presenting a picture of Britain as it probably never actually was, but we would like to believe still is, somewhere. There are endless topical references to politics, and the Royal family, which we can now view with the benefit of hindsight. There is a lot here about the tv, the clothes, the food we used to eat, the obsessions in a simpler, pre internet age.

These are truly easy to read books, with only minor crisis to resolve, although the most recent paperback finishes in a cliffhanger that is a bit mean as the next book is still not available in any form (I think). They are the book form of British soap operas, but much more cheerful! ( I rarely watch the British soaps, but have been known to watch Neighbours as Pantomime – every day) These books are worth borrowing from the library or buying cheaply secondhand; a blissfully uncomplicated read when more literary fiction just seems too much like hard work…

Fingersmith – the book that the bookgroup liked!

When I first heard about the idea of World Book Night and being able to give away nearly fifty books, I was very chuffed. Even more so when I heard that the choices included Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. It is not the most obvious choice to make, but it was a book that I read years ago and remembered really well, for once not just because I had watched it on tv…

For those who have not read it, you have missed a treat. It opens with a Dickensian view of a thieves’ kitchen in London, describes a baby farmer by the name of Mrs Sucksby, and the reality of a public hanging, through the memory of Sue. Sue tells the story of her mother’s death as a criminal, the surprisingly warm and cosy life of thieves and forgers, and the arrival of Gentleman, who proves to be intent on working a con of life changing importance. It involves her becoming maid to the isolated and timid Maud, shut away with a fanatical uncle in a dark house in the country. Despite her initial fears, Sue grows to like and love Maud, almost reluctant to carry through the complex plan that will apparently see her becoming rich.

And there the plot description must end, because to reveal any more would spoil the tremendous twists and turns that this novel takes. Everyone is genuinely surprised by the developments in this book. Waters shows her talents as a plotter of stories so well here. She apparently intended to write a Victorian sensation novel from a modern perspective, which avoids pages of description (no Dickensian fog here), does allow certain coincidences, and includes strong characterisations. One review I read said that she does not miss a single telling detail, and this is a big book, but everything is to the point, without pages of descriptions which fill the pages if not the imagination. She will highlight a particular  behaviour, such as shining up jewels before fleeing the house, giving an image of the experience fence of stolen goods and the complete removal of all Maud’s possessions. The women are strong characters, damaged yet full of determination to survive. This book says much about the nature of womens’ lives and choices in the Victorian era, but not in a strident way, but a way that affects the reader, male or female.

I fairly flooded the village /town with copies of this book, and it would seem that on the whole people have enjoyed it. I must admit to being a little nervous how a book seen as challenging expectations would go down in a fairly conservative area, but the anecdotal evidence suggest that it has been an absorbing read for many people. I think that there is an unofficial competition to see how far a copy can go. So far I haven’t had to rehome any books; I hope that they won’t all turn up at the next charity bookstall.

The book group that discussed this book last week really appreciated this novel. I’m not sure what they were expecting, and they found it a big book to read, but they really enjoyed the plot, the characters and the story. They found the surprising twists very satisfying, and were intrigued by the characters, especially Sue and Maud. One lady pointed out that she knew something was going to go unexpectedly, as there was so much book left to read at a certain point. Some of the group had got hold of the dvd of the BBC version, which is true to the book as well as softly filmed. There was an emphasis on one or two elements which may have ensured viewers, and it is not fast moving drama, but I think beautifully acted. Well worth seeing, but read the book first or it really will spoil the surprise!

A bit of a gap between posts really, as I have been a little busy, but watch this space for some easy read series (which really will stretch your credibility, or mine) which I have been crashing through, as well as the brilliant (and readable) The Last Dance by Denys Blakeway – 1936, The Year Our Lives Changed. This is such a good book…

A Vein of Deceit – and leaving me speechless

Anyone who knows me will be surprised that I could be reduced to silence when on the subject of books; in fact on any subject. I was overcome with the inability to speak when I met the author of today’s book, Susanna Gregory. On one level  I don’t understand it, she is not a fearsome lady, and I believe her murderous ideas are confined to fiction.What silenced me is the fact that I have enjoyed her books so much for so long  that meeting her at a book signing a few years ago reduced me to silence, or at least a muttered “I so enjoy your books”

For this lady is responsible for many murders, in her books. The Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew, of which this book is the fifteenth, are all set in medieval Cambridge, among the hostels that eventually became the colleges which together make up the University. I started to read this series many years ago because of the Cambridge connection, as well as the similarity to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels which had come to an end with the author’s death. These Bartholomew books also feature a medical man within an ecclesiastical setting depending on brute force and herbal remedies, as well defending himself and his allies from near certain death at the hands of many baddies. This series is made up of bigger, more complex books in which there are more characters and probably more unexpected deaths. They are filled with “how will he get out of that?” moments which I always appreciate as Gregory certainly has a way with words and a great narrative drive. There are very few moments of idleness for the hapless Matthew and his friend Michael, the slightly overweight senior Proctor and Monk whose obsession with good food relieves many a tense situation. Yes, women are not leading characters here, which probably represents society at the time, but they are shown as variously evil, good, wise and cunning as any man. In fact, women are often the only ones who drive the story, the discoveries and the truth of what is going on while the male characters flail about helplessly.

The Fifteenth book in the series is A Vein of Deceit which went paperback last year.

(Another book has gone paperback within the last few days, The Killer of Pilgrims, but I haven’t tracked down a copy yet. Boo!)

This book like others begins in Cambridge but features a visit to another place, on this occasion, Suffolk. In fact I know the couple to whom this book is dedicated. The beginning is a bit graphic, as a woman dies as the result of taking the wrong herb while heavily pregnant. After that it becomes a novel of deceit, betrayal and uncertainly about who has done what, and to whom. It is a really good example of the series, as deaths, bodies and attempts on lives beset Matthew to the point of him not knowing who is left to trust. There are other books in this series which depict Cambridge as a small place closing in on the guilty and innocent alike. This book never dawdles and really doesn’t slow down between mystery and threat. The research is impeccable and never intrudes; I’ve rarely had to pause and wonder if it really could have happened like that in the period throughout all of the books. Gregory does not write in a dated theatrical language, however. It is easy to read speech and narration which do not require a working knowledge of medieval England to enjoy. There are landmarks and references to make the books solid such as the plague, which dominates some of the earlier books.

I would recommend these books to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries in an historical setting. They are unfailingly well written and enjoyable. Each one stands alone as a good book, as well as having some running themes. They don’t have to be read in strict order, although there is the danger that you may want to go back to read the earlier novels if you start later on. I have seen them reduced in some shops and websites, but they are definitely worth getting hold of and enjoying. Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner  series, but they have not grabbed my attention in quite the same way. But there is still time, if only to fill the gaps while I await the next Bartholomew novel…

The Champion – an unusual book

The Champion by Tim Binding.

I received this book as a sort of prize from The Dabbler website, and set to to read it in order to make a halfway intelligent effort at commenting. I think that overall, it’s an interesting, readable book with some memorable characters and events, but not as good as I had hoped.

It starts up as a sort of Rotters Club book, set in the eighties, schoolboys (and girls) together. Then it changes into more of an examination of the financial and social changes of the 80s and 90s. I think. The time sequence as the setting (Kent?) is pretty vague, with not much clarity or stage dressing as to when it is supposed to be. While I didn’t expect masses of references to tv programmes, royal events or even popular chocolate bars, this is a book which I think has the idea of commenting on a particular social setting in a particular era. Which it doesn’t really succeed in doing. In which case, why?

This novel takes a pretty vague view of women. While I know that I was damning of Lodge’s A Man of Parts for being a little condemning of Wells’ many conquests, in this novel the women do not really come alive, except through the eyes of a pretty unreliable narrator. Mothers, wives, girlfriends and just females generally are meant to be sympathetically drawn (I think), but are largely victims of what men do to them. There is not really a female character who stands up to the circumstances and men around them; the narrator holds many grudges and takes petty revenges, but the women are not really seen as even managing that much. Even when a woman chooses a man to be with, she rapidly becomes emotionally abused. Possibly that is what the author is trying to say;  that women could not choose with confidence and security and always stood in the shadow of their husbands, but I’m not confident that it was that thought through.

This is a novel that just misses, I feel. It is not a strong picture of a particular era, it is not a stunning condemnation of the get rich schemes of the 80s. But it is interesting, and I did want to read to the end. It is a flawed book, but I did finish it, and found it worthwhile. It is definitely worth a read.

Tomorrow night is the book group about which World Book night allowed me to saturate the place with, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. I’m still overwhelmed by the complexity, brilliant writing and historical reality of this novel. Does anyone else feel the same?

Two books, one story – beware of Laurie R King!

I have mentioned in passing a series of books by the American writer, Laurie R King. This series features Mary Russell, who ( wait for it) marries Sherlock Holmes. It does mean that the rather male dominated Holmes stories get taken over, with plots intricate enough for any murder mystery addict. The one that you must read first is The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

Though after that I can’t work out the intended order. Perhaps it will depend on what you can get hold of to read ( reasonably cheaply, or borrow). I read The Game next, which is set in Raj India, and is fascinating in describing the disguises adopted by the married pair, as well as the intricate plot.

Then I borrowed from the library The Language of Bees.

This is fascinating, with dashes across the country, new family responsibilities, and a terrifying flight to the Orkneys. This is an excellent yarn, and the character of Mary is really well developed. I read to the end, expecting resolution, explanation and retribution. But no! At the last, when I expected everything to be resolved, the dread words, continued in the next book, appeared. I was a bit disappointed, because the story was so good.

The God of the Hive, when I ordered it from the library, was equally got, if a tad body strewn. Several twists happen which kept the reader guessing, and I was genuinely surprised several times by the revelations of the story.

The best thing about this book is the introduction of the character Robert Goodman. He is many things, and his character is well introduced at a moment of drama. Mary is very taken with him, though he is the opposite of her husband, and he becomes increasingly important to the plot.

I think that if you intend to try to read The Language of Bees, make sure that you have access to The God of the Hive straight after, or it will be immensely frustrating.

King is an American, and this slows The Beekeeper’s Apprentice down a little. Otherwise these are generally really well written books with complicated and engaging plots, and a really feisty female lead. If you can cope with the basic idea of Sherlock being older and without Watson, these are long, but enjoyable reads.

Anyway, must finish as I have several books on the go, including my first review novel. Keep watching this space!

Clunky or Canny – a Northernreader’s view

Well, sometime last week I finally managed it – finished A Man of Parts by David Lodge. Have you ever felt that you’ve lived with a book for a long time, perhaps a mite too long?

I have read a few reviews of this book, and one labelled it ‘clunky’ and I can see what they meant. It is a big book, which takes a fair bit of commitment, but overall I think it is worth it. This is not a book for the academic study of H.G.Wells, his life and works. It is, however, based on a great deal of research, while remaining readable and drawing the reader along.

It begins as the aging and ill Wells is surviving the end of the Blitz in wartime London. It switches, clearly, between the view of his surviving children, one of whom is instantly identified as the son of Rebecca West, so that Wells’ somewhat relaxed attitude to relationships is soon revealed. Detailed interview questions soon appear, and resurface throughout the text at odd intervals.This gives the opportunity for a factual detour, as well breaking up the strict chronology. It also pursues some of the motives behind particular behaviour, without excusing the inconsistencies of Wells’ attitudes. For this book leaves you with the knowledge that his sexual appetites were overwhelming, seeming to override his political interests, his settled relationships with both of his long suffering wives, and almost his writing.

His book variously provided the necessary finances, gave him a platform to argue from, and almost allowed him to justify his relationships. He visited prostitutes from a young age, had passing relationships with his contemporaries, but most significantly formed long term relationships with very young women who declared their crushes on him, as a leading writer and probably a bit of a father figure, and were instantly taken up on their (to his mind at least) offers. Amber and Rebecca had children by him, both notable women in their own right, but both set up for at least a number of months or years. He seduced other women, prim in his knowledge and use of contraception but with little regard for how they would live afterwards. Some were seduced because he knew their family almost too well, others (such as Elizabeth von Arnem) happily gave as good as they got. He was an early advocate in his writing of free love, as long as there were two woman to every man if he required them and always claimed that his wife was content with his affairs provided he asked her, which did not always happen…

If you know nothing in detail of Wells’ writing and are expecting a lit crit of his works, you will be disappointed in this book. His novels, reviews, and political writing are mentioned in passing, but there are sparse details of their content unless, as in the case of some of his novels, they are written to excuse his latest arrangement with women.

I felt that this book does not seek to justify or condemn Wells, but to expose what he was really like. It is a writer’s biography of a writer, but the subtext is perhaps that he struggled to defend the indefensible. I finished this book not liking Wells much, but full of admiration for Lodge’s evident ability to catalogue and create an account of this man whose self belief meant his genuine ability to ignore the emotional damage he was doing to so many women. Despite its sheer size and, frankly, repetition of seductions, it is an engaging book which carries the reader along. I admit to not having come to terms with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as yet, but I suspect that this is also a picture of a monster who engaged as many people as he destroyed. This is such a well written book that I would hate to put anyone off embarking on it, but it is in no sense a quick read. Borrow or buy a copy and read it, soon.