Recent reads in brief

Best selling authors Lisa Jewell and Peter James both had new books out this year. Since I’m running way behind with my reviews and I don’t have a lot to say about either of these books, I’m just going for a short

Then She Was GoneThen She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

I’d never read anything by Lisa Jewell until this year. I know she has a large fan club but she never appealed to me. I read this only after significant badgering from a friend who is a devotee….

Then She Was Gone is set ten years after a teenage girl goes missing one day when she was on her way to the local library. Ellie’s disappearance led to a divorce and the break up of her family. Her mum Laurel is living a half life, never feeling she can move on while the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance is unresolved.

Then she meets a charming man who makes her feel there is hope. He has a nine year old girl who has a remarkable resemblance to her missing daughter. It proves to be the first in a sequence of coincidences. Questions come flooding back to Laurel. She has to know the truth no matter how painful this may be.

I’ve seen this book described as gripping and heart-breaking. I didn’t experience either of those emotions myself. I’m afraid I guessed the secret at the heart of the book a long way before its ending though it was interesting to observe how Lisa Jewell manipulated the plot to send her readers down several blind alleys. Then She Was Gone was a perfectly acceptable story and told cleverly through different narrators (the identity of one only becomes apparent a long way into the novel). It just wasn’t that special.

 

Dead if you don'tDead If You Don’t by Peter James 

This is the latest in a long running series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, based in the seaside town of  Brighton. I’ve not read all of them so I rely on my dad to fill in the blanks about Roy Grace’s personal life (his wife disappeared on the day of their wedding anniversary).

What always impresses me with these novels is the insight into police procedure that James provides. He does extensive research to ensure his story lines are feasible and the actions of Grace and his team are accurate.  Roy Grace himself is based on a real life former Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, David Gaylor, who works closely with James on his books. But James also does the rounds with police officers, attends conferences and has lunch with ex convicts.

In Dead if You Don’t I was fascinated to learn how emergency calls from the public are handled when they come into the operations centre. But the biggest eye opener was that patrol car teams on night shift duty like to play jokes on other drivers by deliberately driving below the speed limit and and seeing who is afraid to overtake.

As is always the case with Peter James, this book has a multi-stranded plot. There’s a suspect device planted at the local football ground during the home team’s biggest match of the season. Then the teenage son of a local big shot financial advisor is kidnapped; a drugs mule dies at Gatwick airport from an overdose and body parts are discovered at another location in Brighton.  Somehow they are all connected to a fight for control between the members of a large and powerful criminal network.

If you like high octane drama filled novels, this will definitely fit the bill.

Six Degrees from Christmas to Christmas

Christmas carolIt’s the last Six Degrees of the year hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and we begin with a book that for many readers is required reading at this time of the year: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience of Dickens, introduced to him via an abridged version that nevertheless included some lovely line drawings.

Now the obvious path from here would be a link to another Christmas related novel but I’m going to take a different direction. My thread picks up on the word carol. Or rather, the word Carol as in the girl’s name.

CarolCarol is the title of a 1952 novel about a lesbian relationship by Patricia Highsmith. Since you are all astute readers, you’ll see immediately that my sentence is wildly inaccurate.

Highsmith actually used a pseudonym of Claire Morgan because some of the characters and events in the story referred to her own life.  And the book was originally called The Price of Salt but underwent a change of title to Carol when it was re-printed in 1990. This is the title used for the recent film version issued in 2005 and starring Cate Blanchett.

Carol is not the first — and highly unlikely to be the last — novel with more than one title.  I’m almost spoiled for choice with my next book in this link. I’m settling for one that underwent an identity change as a result of a mix up between publishers.

northern lightsNorthern Lights  is an award-winning young adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman about an Arctic quest by Lyra Belacqua in search of her missing friend and her uncle who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as “Dust”. Pullman conceived this as the first part of a trilogy. During pre-publication the UK publishers used a working series title of The Golden Compasses — an allusion to God’s poetic delineation of the world. Across the Atlantic however, the US publishers Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular)  mistakenly thinking this related to a device featured on the front cover that looked like a navigational compass.

By the time Pullman decided his preferred name for the trilogy would be His Dark Materials (rather than The Golden Compasses), Knopf had become very attached to their own title., They insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass. This was adopted as the name for the 2007 film version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The Golden Compass/Northern Lights has been controversial ever since its publication in 1995, primarily because it was considered to promote atheism and attack Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. Consequently the book frequently appears on lists of books that are banned from a number of public libraries and schools in the United States.

Colour purpleAnother novel that has been fiercely denounced and also banned is Alice Walker’s epistolary novel about racism, sexism and poverty The Colour Purple.  Objectors cited its graphic sexual content and also “troubling ideas” about race relations and religion in arguing for its removal from schools.

While The Color Purple does contain a lot of controversial content, none of this is gratuitous. The attitudes and behaviours portrayed by Alice Walker are ugly but they are nevertheless real. Even more worrying is that in some parts of the world, prejudice continues to exist and is all too prevalent.


The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel The Mars Room is a reminder that prejudice takes several forms. In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she shows how the legal and penal system in America works against people from the poorest groups in society. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, they have to rely on state appointed legal representatives who are often too over-worked and too underpaid to do more than a superficial review of their client’s case. Consequently people like the protagonist Romy Hall never get to tell their full story in court including any mitigating circumstances.

I seem to have stepped onto a soap box which may not be what you want to read. This is after all, meant to be the time of year when we display charity,  forgiveness and goodwill to each and everyone (and yes that does include the  person who just barged into the back of your heels with a pushchair, and the one who biffed you in the ribs with their overlarge backpack.)

So in that spirit I shall make my final book somewhat more uplifting. I don’t do feel-good books (I find them generally too cloying) but I’m sure I can find a book that is a tad bit more cheerful.

little-womenYep, I have it – a good partner to A Christmas Carol in fact since this is book is also considered a classic. It’s another I read and enjoyed as a child though reading it as an adult a few years ago, was a vastly different experience.

I’m referring of course to Little Women by Louisa M Alcott which was published in 1863 and proved so popular it sold more than 13,000 copies within six weeks of its release.  Against her own preference, Alcott was persuaded to write the sequel Good Wives. Though I still love the tomboy character of Jo March ( I suspect I was not alone in wanting to be just like her), the overall story was too didactic for my tastes now.

But it couldn’t be more appropriate for this last chain of the year since it begins with a very seasonal reference.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And so we come full circle. We’ve come a long way on our journey, from the Arctic to the American deep south. Where has your chain taken you?

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny #bookreview

Kingdom of the BlindHow long can a series endure before it runs out of steam?

Louise Penny’s crime series set in Quebec has long been one of my favourite crime writers. Her central character, Armand Gamache, chief of police, is a superbly conceived character; he’s surrounded by some equally well-executed personalities among his friends and family and he lives in the delightful (fictional) village of Three Pines. Penny’s

When we reached book ten of this series however I did wonder how much further Penny could go with this set up. She settled all my doubts with book eleven A Great Reckoning (my review is here). 

But she’s just published book number 14  and it saddens me to say that my earlier  doubts have resurfaced. I so wish that wasn’t the case because the fact that Kingdom of the Blind was written at all is a testament to Penny’s resilience and courage.

Penny’s husband Michael, who was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, died in September 2016. In the introduction to Kingdom of the Blind, Louise  Penny says she didn’t feel she could write again after his death.  “How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed,” she said.

But one day she found herself at the dining table where she always did her writing. The first day she wrote just two words  — the name of her protagonist. The next day the word count trebled and kept on increasing day by day.

Kingdom of the Blind was begun. Not with sadness. Not because I had to but with joy. … Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I get to keep doing this.

The darkness she mentions relates to one of the two major plots in the novel.

A new ultra powerful, ultra dangerous, opioid drug is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The finger of blame is pointed at Gamache who allowed a large cache of the drug to escape seizure during a major drugs raid. As a result he’s been suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an internal investigation. Then one of his proteges at the police academy, the rebellious cadet Amelia Choquet, is discovered with drugs in her possession.

Against this background Gamache receives a letter summoning him to a dilapidated house in a small rural village. There he discovers he is one of three people named as executors in the will of a woman who called herself The Baroness. Gamache has never met her, has no idea why she should have entrusted her last wishes to him,  a retired psychologist (his friend Myrna Landers from Three Pines) and a young accident-prone  builder from Montreal.  It’s not long before a body is found and Gamache’s suspicions are aroused.

Penny hasn’t lost her gift for evoking the spirit of the Quebec countryside and its fierce winters. Early in the novel a winter storm descends upon Gamache and the village of Three Pines; a metaphor for the turmoil that threatens to engulf the police chief. But these villagers take the weather in their stride; it’s just an excuse to indulge in their favourite foods (a word of warning – reading this book will get you salivating for tarte tatin and cafe au lait) or to head to the village bistro for a gossip. All the usual people are in evidence in Kingdom of the Blind:  Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, his son-in-law and assistant Jean-Guy Beaulieu, the artist Clara Morrow, bistro owners Gabri Dubeau and the poet Ruth Zardo.

Gamache is more introspective in this novel than in all the previous titles. He’s always been conscious of his failings, following a code of conduct based on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He advises his junior officers to take on board four statements: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.

In Kingdom of the Blind he seems more vulnerable, more weighed down by ghosts from the past.

… he remembered  … all the raids, the assaults, the arrests. The investigations over the yers. The victims. All the sightless, staring eyes. Of men, women, children whose murder he’d investigated. Over the years. Whose murderers he’d hunted down. All the agents he’d sent, often led, into the gun smoke.

There’s a sense in Gamache’s mood — which is reflected in some scenes at the end of the book — that he is facing significant changes in his life and his career. Without giving the game away for people who have yet to read this book, the nature of those changes make me wonder how it’s going to be feasible for Penny to continue this series. The inheritance plot of Kingdom of the Blind wasn’t one of her best, another indication for me that the series is reaching a natural conclusion.  Even so it is still superior to many of the crime novels currently in circulation. 

I could be wrong. Louise Penny surprised me once before. She could do it again.

 

 

 

 

Non fiction November: temptations to buy

nonfiction-november-2018

We’re into the final week of Non Fiction November 2018.

Katie @ Doing Dewey has asked us to highlight books that we’ve seen mentioned by other contributors that have tempted us to add to our TBR/wishlist.

I haven’t rushed out and bought anything yet but have been making a lot of notes about books I’ve seen mentioned by other participants in the last few weeks. I could have listed a stack of other titles but the chances I will ever read them are very slim since I seem to manage only a handful of non fiction titles each year. Consequently I have limited myself to three.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. I’m curious about life in this country. It’s such a politically controlled society that we get only  smatterings of information. I’m wondering if this book digs a bit deeper. It was highlighted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction who described the book as a biography of loosely connected people from the North Korean port city of Chongjin. She added:

Demick painstakingly fleshes out the lives and memories of these successful defectors; the stories have stuck with me down to the minutest details.

I enjoy the odd spot of investigative journalism and true crime. There have been some excellent podcasts that have kept me enthralled this year but I haven’t read many books from the category. Fortunately Sarah at Sarah’sbookshelves.com had plenty of suggestions. 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara 

The one that most appealed was I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.  McNamara, previously a true crime writer and blogger at TrueCrimeDiary.com, investigated the unsolved crimes of a 1970’s-80’s serial rapist and murderer that she dubbed the Golden State Killer. She died before her book could be published and before she learned that the killer   was caught via DNA evidence.

The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones

This one comes via a suggestion by Helen at She Reads Novels . I’m familiar with the Tudors and Stuart periods of British history but my knowledge of the Wars of the Roses is somewhat confused. I’d be interested to read about the period but I don’t want a turgid academic work. Nor do I want something this is just superficial. Dan Jones’ book seems to fit the bill. He is a trained historian so I know the book will be based on accurate and detailed research but he is also a writer and broadcaster so knows how to convey information in a compelling and engaging manner.

These are books that will definitely feature in my letter to Santa this year (so if any members of my family are reading this, I hope they take the hint.)

 

Classic Club Spin: A vicar’s tale awaits me

roulette

Photo by Krissia Cruz on Unsplash

The wheel has spun in the 19th round of the Classic Club Spin.  It landed on number 1 which means I will be reading The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. Published in 1766, this is the oldest book remaining from my Classics Club list. 

This is in fact the second time this book has been selected in a Classics Club spin. It was the book I was meant to read in April 2015 but I never got around to it for reasons I can no longer remember.

It’s about a vicar (no surprises there) and his family of six children who live an idyllic life in a country parish until he loses all his money. They are forced to move to a new and more humble parish. What ensues is a series of set backs and calamities including fire, abduction and imprisonment before order is once more restored.

Narrated by Dr Charles Primrose (the vicar) in 32 chapters, the novel begins:

I was ever of the opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population. 

It’s on my list because it was one of the most popular and widely read of 18th-century novels in Britain.  Encyclopaedia Britannica says the novel’s idealization of rural life, sentimental moralizing, and melodramatic incidents are countered by a sharp but good-natured irony. I was relieved to discover that the tone was ironic because I feared it would be just  ‘comic’, a style which I don’t particularly enjoy.

Have any of you read this? If so, what was your impression? Am I in for an enjoyable read or a bit of a so-so experience?

Classic Club: Spin #19

classicsclub3

It’s time for another Classic Club Spin.  I wasn’t going to participate this time around because I already have a few books lined up to read in the next few weeks. But then I noticed today that we have an extra long period in which to read the selected book.

So here we go with a list of 20 books remaining from my Classics Club list.  I don’t actually have 20 titles remaining from my original list – I am down to the last 13 in fact – so have had to add in a few extras just to make up the numbers.

Here is my list. I’ve tried to go for a mixture across centuries and geographies. The bulk are  from the twentieth century but I’ve included a smattering from eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also. Geographically, it’s a mix of British, French, American and Australian. Just to be patriotic I included  two titles by authors from Wales.

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield  — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  2. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  3. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  4. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861
  5. The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
  6. Daniel Deronda  — George Eliot 1876
  7. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  8. My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin  1901
  9. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  10. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  11. Return of the Soldier  — Rebecca West 1917
  12. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  13. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  14. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  15. Frost in May Antonia White 1933
  16. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  17. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934
  18. The Grapes of Wrath   John Steinbeck 1939
  19. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  20. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955

 

Tomorrow we learn which of these titles I will be reading between now and the end of January 2019. I have a hankering for the Trollope, it seems just the right kind of book to be reading in front of a cosy fire. But otherwise I have no particular favourites.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman #book reviews

Fredrik Backman joined the list of Nordic writers to achieve best seller status  with his debut novel A Man Called Ove.  A few other novels later he produced another hit: Beartown

It’s been called a sports novel and also a crime novel. Neither descriptions do justice to this book. Yes it dwells a lot on ice hockey which is the all-consuming passion of the inhabitants of the small community of Beartown. And yes a crime does take place. But Backman’s focus is more on the effects of the crime on the people living in this community than on the crime itself.

Beartown has seen better days. Every year more jobs disappear. Every year the forest swallows up another abandoned house so the whole place looks as “nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space.”

But its local inhabitants believe a new future is just around the corner. All that needs to happen is for their talented junior ice hockey team to win the national championship. Success will be the catalyst for new investment in the town, starting with a new ice hockey stadium and academy to replace the rusting rink built forty years earlier.

All the hopes and dreams of this community now rest on the shoulders of a bunch of 15-year-old boys. And on the shoulders of one boy in particular; their star player Kevin.  But shortly before the team’s most critical match, Kevin is accused of rape by Maya, the teenage daughter of the hockey club’s much-admired general manager.

Backman traces what led up to this act;  the pressures faced by the players, the conflict between the team’s financiers and its coaching staff, the hormonal impulses experienced by teenagers. The inner life of this community is laid bare, revealing homophobia, sexism and class prejudice beneath a veneer of respectability. The people of Beartown coached their junior team to display the same values the first settlers held dear: work hard, keep your mouth shut and don’t complain.

But those values come under strain as the community begins to take sides. Even those who believe Maya’s accusations (and there are plenty who don’t) keep asking why the girl just couldn’t have kept silent. Or rather why couldn’t she just have waited until the game was over?

This is a novel that avoids the easy answers. It shows that people are complicated and inconsistent.

So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.”

Beartown is a thought-provoking novel that forces us as readers to evaluate our own values and whether what we consider loyalty is necessarily an admirable quality.

There are few words that are harder to explain than “loyalty.” It’s always regarded as a positive characteristic, because a lot of people would say that many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

Can this town recover? Reading it you hope that there are sufficient vestiges of courage and decency to make that possible. But then you remember the very first sentence in the novel:

Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

Beartown isn’t perfect. It took a bit too long for me to get into the meat of the story ( I was getting rather tired of all the hockey practice details) but once it did, it proved to be a riveting read. It’s full of some memorable characters, especially Maya who is determined not to be either a victim or the guilty party; and Amat, the boy who dreams of being accepted as part of the team even though he has none of their wealth and privileged upbringing. What he lacks in stature however, he more than makes up for with his speed, agility and dogged determination. The scenes where he takes to the ice taking a battering against bigger, more powerful players are especially moving. 

It’s a tribute to Backman’s skill that he made a novel containing so much sport, an entertaining read for someone who has little to zero in sport as a whole. 

Non Fiction November: Should non fiction read like fiction?

Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?

It’s week 4 of Non Fiction November 2018 and  Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction has set that thought-provoking question.

My first —  instinctive — answer was no.  If I want fiction, then I’ll read a novel; if I want something factual, I’ll pick up a non fiction book. But ne’er the twain shall meet.

But when I began thinking about it more I realised that there are some principles that apply regardless of whether its fiction or non fiction. Some aspects of novel writing I do in fact like to see in my non fiction reading.

First and foremost I expect any non fiction book to exhibit writing to a high quality standard. Non fiction authors, just as their fictional counterparts do, need to appreciate the value of the full stop. Too many academic writers stuff their text with so many multi clause sentences that the only way to discover the meaning is to pick each one apart. I don’t expect, or want, any book to be in text that is so simple a five year old would have no trouble reading it, but neither do I want to have to work super hard to understand what is in front of my eyes.

Even more critical: I don’t want to be bombarded with facts. No matter how knowledgeable the author, being confronted with paragraph after paragraph stuffed with dates, names and facts makes for very dry and tedious reading. I want my facts mixed with interpretation, analysis and perspective.

Fortunately, recent years have provided evidence that there are non fiction writers who have understood those requirements. Understood them so well in fact that their books have become best sellers rather than being confined to dusty academic libraries.

Here are some of my favourite examples.

Why We Sleep by  Matthew Walker

Why we sleep

I’m reading this at the moment. It’s an astonishing piece of work that explains clearly to a lay person the effects of insufficient sleep. I thought a bad night’s sleep just meant I felt washed out and unable to think clearly. It turns out that regular sleep deprivation makes me more susceptible to dementia, cancer and diabetes, more likely to have a car accident and less successful at keeping my weight under control. I’m hoping that it’s not too late for me to undo some of that damage.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald 

H is for Hawk

I rarely read anything about nature but this was a fascinating book about the author’s relationship with the goshawk she bought following her father’s death. The process of training Mabel, helps Helen Macdonald through the process of grieving for her father. This book became a best seller and won several awards including Costa Book of the Year in 2014

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Long walk

I had never read a political autobiography until Mandela’s book was published in 1994. It was astonishing. I knew I would learn about his political ideas and the cause for which he spent decades in prison. But I also learned that the man viewed as a saviour of his country,  had many faults. Mandela doesn’t shy away from showing how he was  naive and headstrong in his youth and how he neglected his wife and children. In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — by then President of his country — looked to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson 

Walk in the woods.jpg

Bryson’s books about the idiosyncrasies of Britain and the British are a delight. In A Walk in the Woods he returns to his homeland of America and describes his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. He and his walking companion  however  are decidedly
ill-prepared for such an endeavour; they’re carrying far too much equipment and food so the first leg of the journey is an ordeal. In between humorous episodes and some rather dangerous moments, Bryson reflects on the history of the trail, the ecology of the areas through which the trail passes – and on life in general.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples besides these of well written and compelling non fiction books. Do let me know what books you would put on your list.

 

 

#6 degrees from Vanity to Courage and Determination

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, begins with Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, a satirical novel published in 19 monthly instalments in the mid 1840s.

Thackeray’s novel follows the life of Rebecca Sharp (“Becky”), a strong-willed, cunning, moneyless, young woman who is determined to make her way in society. She comes to a sticky end, unlike the protagonist of another work which deals with the issue of upward mobility and what it means to be a lady.

In Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, (adapted for screen as My Fair Lady) the flower-seller Eliza Dolittle  is taught how to adopt the mannerisms and speech of a lady. She’s so successful she can pass herself off as a Duchess.

Someone who doesn’t need to be taught the right way to behave is Isabel Archer, the central character in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. This tale of a free-spirited young American woman who travels from New York to England to confront her destiny but finds it overwhelming. The novel has an ambiguous ending where we’re uncertain whether she returns to an unhappy marriage with her snobbish husband Osmond or opts for freedom.

Freedom is what Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, desires. Being a wife and a mother are not enough but in the Louisiana community where she lives, there are few other choices she can make. The path she takes is one which has stimulated much debate since the novella was published in 1899 – the first reviewers castigated Chopin but feminist critics since have celebrated The Awakening as a landmark in feminist literature.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah also revolves around a woman’s desire for freedom. Like many of Nigeria’s educated middle class young people, Ifemelu cannot wait to get away from the country and its stultifying atmosphere. But the brighter future she anticipates as a student in America proves problematic as she contends with racism and racial distinctions. She feels truly free only when she stops trying to hide behind an assumed American accent and refuses to artificially straighten her hair.

For strength of character, there is no finer example than Maya Angelou. I Know How the Caged Bird Sings, is the first part of an autobiography in which she describes the challenges of  her early years and the racial abuse and sexual abuse she experienced while growing up in the Southern States of America. She also shows how her love of literature helped her deal with her trauma and develop into a self possessed young woman capable of dealing with prejudice.

Sexual abuse figures large in my last book in this chain: Emma Donaghue’s The Room. This is a tale, told by five year old Jack whose entire life has been spent shut inside a 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. She is the victim of an abduction and Jack the product of her rape. Despite her confinement “Ma” proves to be a stellar mother but she knows that they can survive only by one supreme act of courage and determination.

And with that this chain comes to an end. I didn’t plan it this way but somehow ended up with a theme about courage and tenacity in many forms.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby #bookreview

South RidingIf I had relied entirely upon the back cover synopsis, I doubt I would have read Winifred Holby’s final novel.

The blurb gave me the impression the focus was on Sarah Burton, the idealistic new head of a girls’ school in a fictional Yorkshire seaside town and her clashes with conservative locals. It sounded rather tame.

Fortunately there are plenty of bloggers around whose opinions I have learned to trust more than a publisher’s synopsis.

South Riding is a novel that evokes the lives of people in a Yorkshire community that is trying to recover from the tumult of the First World War. Former soldiers, local politicians, religious leaders and the working men who struggle to make a living: all are conscious that their world is changing. They just have different ideas about what should change and how.

One of the chief advocates for change is the outsider Sarah Burton. She’s a spirited woman whose idealism is matched with an eminently practical nature.  Faced with a tumble down building and a school that doesn’t have the greatest of academic reputations, she decides her first battle ground will be the toilet arrangements.

I don’t really mind a hall the size of a cupboard, a pitch dark cellar-gymnasium and laboratories housed in a broken-down conservatory; but these beetle-hunted cloakrooms I will not have. They’re enough to constipate any child for months. I will have those altered.

Sanitary provisions are but a step towards her greater goal of a world from which disease, poverty and ignorance have been eradicated. In her opinion that will take government  intervention.

Opposing her is the book’s representative of the gentility; local squire Robert Carne. He’s conservative by nature, opposed in principle to the idea that local government should expand its sphere of influence. Carne is very much a man of the past not the future. He sticks to traditional methods of farming but despite his best efforts he cannot make his estate pay its way and his manor home is crumbling about his ears.

His conservatism also puts him at odds with  other members of the local county council, Alderman Snaith and Councillor Joe Astell, who connive to push ahead with their own plan for change. But their desire to replace a slum area with a new town, complete with new job opportunities, is not motivated entirely by altruistic principles.

The clash between the forces of tradition and progress is played out in the chamber of the county council. This is where decisions are made affecting the lives of everyone in South Riding:  whether roads will be built, slums cleared, a new maternity hospital established. But anyone expecting to hear lively debates about critical issues, quickly gets their ideas squashed. When young journalist Lovell Brown witnesses his first meeting of the county council, he discovers it is far from an exciting spectacle.

Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions.

It’s a testament to Holtby’s skills that she makes us care about what happens in this mundane world of local politics.

Politics aside, South Riding is a very human novel. Holtby isn’t afraid to show life as it really was in the 1930s and that there are no easy answers.  Sarah declares she wants her pupils “to know they can do anything,” but the case of one girl, Lydia Holly, shows the gulf between her desire and what is possible. Lydia is a bright and intelligent girl who lives in “the Shacks” – a set of disused railway carriages. She dreams of a scholarship and learning but her ambitions have to be set aside  when she is required to become a substitute mother for her many younger brothers and sisters.

All of human life is depicted in South Riding. Almost every character in this novel (there are some 160 of them) has a problem. Cancer for one, poverty for another, a loveless marriage for a third. We feel for all of them but Winifred Holtby shows that a happy ending is possible for only a few. Rather than the plot it’s the way Holtby brings these characters to life and shows them as distinctly human with their shortcomings as well as seams of goodness, that makes South Riding such an enjoyable read.

 

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