A Song of Thyme And Willow by Carole Strachan [book review]

A Song of Thyme and Willow by Carol Strachan

A Song of Thyme and Willow reminded me a little of A S Byatt’s Booker-prize winning novel Possession.

Byatt’s plot is based on a pair of young scholars who stumble upon a secret love affair between two fictional Victorian poets. The narrative alternates between the present day and the Victorian era, using ‘original’ material in the form of letters, journals, and poems.

There’s an artistic mystery at the heart of Carol Strachan’s novel too though this time the focus is on the world of the stage rather than the page.

Two musicians, both trying to cope with a crisis in their career, combine forces to solve the mystery of a leading opera singer who disappeared decades earlier. 

Steven Bennett’s career as a bassoon player came to an abrupt end when he was mugged as he made his way home from a concert. Singer Alice Wade began suffering serious vocal problems in the midst of yet another failed relationship. She fears she may never sing again.

Interposed with their narratives is that of the missing opera star Isabel Grey. She was once a regular at Covent Garden and much in demand on the international opera circuit. But she began struggling in a new production and when the reviews came out, they were less than flattering. One night she simply disappeared.

The plot works reasonably well although I thought Steven Bennett wasn’t all that essential to the narrative. In fact he disappeared for much of the central part of the book. I suspect he was there just to provide some romance interest. It did mean the book could end on a note of hope and optimism but I didn’t especially need that element – the revelation about Isabel Grey was strong enough the carry the book on its own.

The most convincing aspect of this novel however is the insight it gives into the world of operatic singers. It’s a world Carole Strachan knows intimately having worked at the prestigious Welsh College of Music and Drama for ten years. And it shows through the vocal strain experienced by Isabel Grey as she is called upon to undertake technically challenging roles in quick succession. The connection between the singer’s voice and their state of mind also comes through strongly.

As a specialist tells Alice:

Unlike an orchestral player, a singers instrument can’t be packed away when they’re done performing – real care has to be taken to keep it in peak performance and that demands emotional well-being as well as physical health,

At times I thought the novel overdid the information. I would have been happy with shorter libretto extracts but then I’m not an opera aficionado so I didn’t appreciate the context as much as a true fan would. This didn’t mar the overall enjoyment of the book however and I’ve gained some new insights and greater appreciation of a singer’s world.

A Song of Thyme and Willow by Carole Strachan: Endnotes

Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL;

A Song of Thyme and Willow was published by Cinnamon Press in 2019.

Carole Strachan was born in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. She is now Executive Director of a contemporary opera company. Her first published novel The Truth in Masquerade is also situated in the operatic world,

Homage To An Irish Childhood: Never No More by Maura Laverty

Never No More is a delightful tale that evokes the generosity of spirit at the heart of a small rural Irish community in the 1920s.

Maura Laverty spent her childhood in the vast peatlands known as the Bog of Allen in County Kildare. Through her fictional alter ego, Delia Scully, Laverty vividly recreates the natural beauty of this region, its colourful characters and the traditions that provide a rhythm to their lives.

Delia is nine years old when her recently widowed mother decides to move her large family to Kilkenny where she will open a new drapery business. Delia hates the idea but fortunately her beloved Grandmother, Mrs Lacy, comes to rescue – Delia can live with her in Derrymore House, Ballyderrig.

Gran sees potential in the girl where her mother sees nothing more than a dreamer. In the gentle nurturing bosom of the older woman. Delia flourishes, becoming a trusted helpmate in the kitchen, an aide in Gran’s many errands of mercy to her neighbours and skilful with her needle.

The one blot in this idyllic world is that Delia can’t make the progress she needs to fulfil her grandmother’s wish for her to become a teacher. The girl delights in reading poetry but cannot get on with French and maths. She also struggles with what she views as the petty rules and regulations in her convent school.

Never No More doesn’t have a plot as such, beyond tracing Delia through the years as she navigates the typical milestones in any young girl’s life. Her first days at school, the onset of puberty, the first dance, the first kiss are all made easier to manage when there is Gran to provide sound advice and the occasional shoulder upon which to cry.

The relationship between the young girl and the mature woman is the outstanding feature of this book. Mrs Lacy is loved and respected by everyone in her community, generous with her time, her knowledge and her food. A committed Catholic, she has no evident vices beyond the occasional tendency towards impatience.

She’s the person you want at your side if you’re a mother in labour or a young bride. When your home burns down and you’re left with not even a stick of furniture, it’s Mrs Lacy who offers you shelter and a home for however long you need it.

To the young Delia. she is much more than a substitute mother:

Did you ever know just how much you meant to me Gran? That to me you stood for understanding and sympathy and wisdom and for all the warm uncritical loving I needed? you were the purple bog and a ripe wheat-field and a crab-tree in May. You were good food, and songs in the firelight and the rosary at night. You were a welcome for my coming in and a prayer for my going out.

The love Delia feels towards this woman is equalled by the love she feels for the countryside around Ballyderrig:

The bog was never so beautiful as in May, when we cut the turf. A white road stretching straight and true as a taut ribbon ran gladly through that gentle spread of lovely colour. For a little distance, the full beauty of the bog was screened by the hedges that bordered the road – hedges of foaming May blossom and twisted mountain ash and swaying bog-willow. Later, the wild convolvulus would join each bush and tree with wildly-flung vines dripping with purple and white bells, and the honeysuckle and sweet briar would do their most fragrant best to kill your memories of the scent of departed hawthorn.

When the novel was published in 1942, people in that part of Ireland were apparently unhappy about the way they had been portrayed. I didn’t feel Maura Laverty was being unfair towards these individuals however. For sure there is a lot of humour involved in her anecdotes about the turf cutters, farmers and tinkers who make up the community. But she never makes them seem ridiculous. Nor does she sentimentalise this way of life; never shying away from the fact that people are poor and women die young in childbirth.

Never No More doesn’t just delight with description and anecdote, it also tantalises the taste buds.

The whole novel is punctuated by episodes in which Gran gets to work in the kitchen. Laverty can’t resist going into detailed description of each dish and exactly how its made. Some are more appealing than others!

“Buttery pancakes speckled with sultanas” I can relate to but I think I’ll pass on the stuffed eels and pigs brains “parboiled and coated in batter and fried”

Unsavoury dishes aside however, Never No More is an enjoyable read, a warm and heart-felt homage to a way of life I suspect exists only in fragments.

Never No More by Maura Laverty: Endnotes

Maura Laverty

Never No More: The Story Of A Lost Village is the debut novel by the Irish born Maura Laverty.

Published in 1942, it proved popular around the world. She followed it with another semi-autobiographical novel featuring Delia Sculle: No More than Human.

Though she wrote several novels, short story collections and two cookery books, she was better known for her work as scriptwriter for an Irish soap opera called Tolka Row that was broadcast on the RTE television station for four years in the 1960s.

Reading Horizons For Japanese Literature Challenge

Events like the Japanese Literature Challenge give me a great excuse to have a rummage through the shelves and stacks of my owned but unread books (otherwise known as the TBR).

I was surprised to find I own more books by Japanese authors than I expected. Some of these clearly crept into the house when I wasn’t looking.

Let’s look a little more closely at what I could be reading over the three months of this year’s challenge.

Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama is his sixth novel but the first to be translated into English. It became a publishing phenomenon in Japan, selling at the astounding rate of a million copies in six days. This is the only crime novel in my little collection, focusing on the disappearance of two young girls. This is a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.

Then we have two authors of enormous international repute.

Haruki Murakami is an author I’ve been unsure about reading for some years because so much of his work seems to involve fantasy/surrealism elements. The only one of his books I’ve read is Norwegian Wood which I loved but which I understand isn’t typical of his style. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is perhaps edging more towards the mysterious/strange atmospheric elements found in his best-known novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of one of my all time favourite Booker Prize winners with The Remains of the Day. Oddly however I’ve never read any of this other novels. As you can see I have two options: the very fat The Unconsoled and the considerably slimmer Nocturnes. I’m not entirely clear why I bought Nocturnes since it’s a collection of short stories and I don’t typically enjoy reading those. Maybe this will change my mind?

The last author in this little group is another that I’ve only dipped my toe into as it were. Yukio Mushima is regarded by many critics as the most important Japanese novelist of the 20th century. I was mesmerised by After The Banquet although I admit that I didn’t understand many elements of the book.

The Decay of the Angel that you can just see in the image is a book I bought in a charity shop but I couldn’t have been paying close attention because it’s the fourth title in  his famous  Sea of Fertility tetralogy I don’t have the first three parts so there isn’t much point in reading this yet.

Which brings me to the big question? Which of these am I going to read first?

I’m going with the Murakami.

It might be the only one I get to read for Japanese Literature Challenge this year. But as I explained in my post about my 2020 reading goals, I’m focusing this year on short events rather than long reading challenges. So if I get to read just one book per event, I’ll class that as success.

If you are familiar with any of the titles I’ve mentioned do let me know what you thought of them. Do you have any favourite Japanese authors I can add to my list for future years?? Do leave me a comment with your suggestions and recommendations.

Oozing With The Smell of Decay: Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller

When you read Pure by Andrew Miller, it might be wise to have a strongly scented candle by your side. For this is a book which evokes stench and decay so powerfully I was convinced I could smell it on my clothes every time I opened the book.

Pure is set in Paris in 1785. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, ambitious engineer, arrives at the palace of Versailles hoping to get a Ministerial commission that will help him make a mark on the world.

False Dreams of Utopia

He “dreams of building utopias where the church and its superstitions will be replaced by schools run by men like himself.” Instead, the task he is handed is not one of construction but of demolition.

In the  Rue de Saint Innocents stands the oldest cemetery in Paris. More than 50,000 victims of bubonic plague were reputedly buried here in one day. The  subterranean wall separating the living from the dead has collapsed and the bones and decaying flesh have released a miasma which fouls the air,  taints the food and even the breath of those who live within its shadow.

Living Hell

It takes a year for Barratte and his team of miners to open the graves and clear away the past. It’s a job which almost costs Baratte his life as the cemetery becomes a kind of hell of burning fires and walls of bones and skulls. Few of those involved in the enterprise emerge unscathed physically or mentally. When they began they imagined they were engaged in a noble cause, building the foundations of a better future in which their endeavours would be marked for posterity.

“They will name squares after us ……..the men who purified Paris,” declares the foreman of works. But as the graves are emptied and the cemetery’s wild flowers wither, so the vitality drains out of the workers. Tobacco, alcohol, weekly visits by prostitutes – nothing can distract the team of miners from the sense of loss. ‘I had some good in me once’ one observes bleakly.

Belief Destroyed

Baratte too undergoes a transformation. The naïve young man is easy prey when he first arrives in the city. It takes little to persuade him to exchange his sensible brown suit for one of pistachio green silk or to join a group of drunken vandals who move about the city under cover of night painting obscenities about Queen Marie Antoinette. But it is not long before he finds he cannot sleep without a sedative and his ideals and belief in the power of reason are destroyed.

The cleansing of the cemetery is an extended metaphor for the cleansing that we as readers know these citizens will experience shortly, although on a significantly bigger scale. Andrew Miller provides plenty of symbolic references to the French Revolution, including naming one of characters Dr Guillotin and including dialogue that can easily be read on two levels. Take this example, from Baratte’s first meeting with the Ministerial aide,  who gives him his commission:

It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.

Yes, my lord.

It is to be removed.

Removed?

Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.

“Flawless Historical Fiction”

Pure is Andrew Miller’s sixth novel and it won him the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. The judges praised it as a “structurally and stylistically flawless historical novel.”  I’m not going to argue with that assessment.

Miller avoids the mistake made by so many historical fiction authors who load up their narrative with too much info gleaned from research. What we get in Pure is plenty of detail about clothes, food and daily domestic life of the period but it’s seamlessly woven into the narrative. Pure is so magnificently atmospheric it reminded me at times of the early scenes in Patrick Sushkind’s Perfume,

But then we get the additional layering of the parallel between the hell of the graveyard and the hell that is to follow in the Revolution. Ultimately there is a sense of optimism at the end where flowers once more bloom again in the now empty cemetery and sunlight filters through the broken roof of the church to illuminate the darkness.

Pure By Andrew Miller: Footnotes

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller gained his MA in creative writing through the prestigious programme at the University of East Anglia. He went on to complete a PhD in critical and creative writing at Lancaster University.

He has written eight books, all published by Sceptre, the imprint of Hodder and Stoughton,  His first novel, Ingenious Pain, published in 1997 went on to win three awards – The James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy and The International Dublin Literary Award. Pure won the Costa Prize Novel of the Year. His most recent novel Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (see my review) won the Walter Scott Prize.

  • Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018, Sceptre)
  • The Crossing (2015, Sceptre)
  • Pure (2011, Sceptre)
  • One Morning Like a Bird (2008, Sceptre)
  • The Optimists (2005, Sceptre)
  • Oxygen (2001, Sceptre)
  • Casanova (1998, Sceptre)
  • Ingenious Pain (1997, Sceptre)

This review was posted originally in 2013. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.

2020: Why It's Time For New Directions

The year is barely a week old and I’m already feeling I’m in catch up mode. I meant to share my 2020 plans well before now but it’s taken me until today to work out what exactly I want to focus on this year.

I’ve spent the last few days soul searching as well as reflecting on my experience over the last few years when I set specific goals for reading and blogging. And I’ve come to a few conclusions which are going to influence what I do this year.

The End of Challenges

The biggest decision is to stop doing reading challenges that involve making lists of titles to read. I love the process of creating the list but as soon as that’s done, and it’s time to actually read those chosen books, my interest in them completely fades away. Having a list to work through takes away the element of freedom.

Instead of being able to choose a book at random from my ‘owned but unread’ shelves or delve into something that caught my eye in the library, I’m ‘having’ to read one of the titles on my list. Just so that I can make some inroads into that challenge.

It’s why I’ve never completed a #20booksofsummer project. Even reducing the number to 15 this year didn’t work (though I came close). It’s also why it’s taken me longer than the target 5 years to get through the Classics Challenge and why, unbelievably, my Booker Prize project is unfinished seven years after it began.

Away With Lists

Lists are clearly not my thing. Neither are challenges that require me to read specific categories of books or numbers of books within a specified time period. Some of those I’ve been undertaking in recent years, like the Booker Prize project have been entirely self imposed. So I have only myself to blame for that!

There’s nothing wrong with the challenges themselves. Plenty of other bloggers and readers find them enjoyable and rewarding and, amazingly, have the ability to cope with several at the same time. It’s not the challenge that’s the issue; it’s me.

2020 will therefore be a year without challenges. I’ll finish the ones I’ve already started – I’ve come so far with most of them that it would be silly to stop now – but I won’t go looking for anything new. I want a year of relaxed, stress-free reading.

I’ve Started So I’ll Finish

Booker Prize Project: One more title to go and then I’ll have read (or attempted to read) every winner from 1969 to 2015. That’s 50 winners in total. Once I’ve read How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman, I’ll be done. I don’t regret having spent time with the Booker Prize but my interest in it as a literary prize has seriously waned in the last few years so I won’t be committing myself to reading any of the post 2015 winners.

Classics Club challenge: I embarked on this in November 2012. According to the ‘rules’ I was supposed to have read 50 books from my list by November 2017. Well, it’s now more than 2 years later and I still have three titles yet to go. I’m using the latest Classics Club spin to give me a nudge towards the finishing line. I still have books on my original list that I haven’t read. I might get to them over time or I might not.

World of Literature Project: Another self-imposed challenge to read books by authors from 50 different countries within 5 years. I’m two years over the target date with 9 countries still to go. No reason why I shouldn’t find those remaining countries before the year is over. I’m not abandoning my interest in reading translated fiction and fiction from around the world – just taking away the pressure of specific goals.

New Directions

The one aspect of challenges I do enjoy is the camaraderie and feeling of connection to other bloggers. I don’t want to lose that – the social element of blogging is by far the thing that keeps me going. Without it, blogging would be just a form of vanity publishing.

Instead of year long or multi year challenges I’m going to switch my focus to small events; the kind that last just for a week or a few months.. There are countless numbers of these around so I’m going to have to be selective otherwise I’ll end up in the same rabbit hole I’ve been in before via challenges.

I’ll be joining events if and only if they take my fancy and I can do them without a reading list in sight.

Reading Events On the Horizon

There are already a few events that are calling to me.

Japan Literature Challenge, hosted by dolcebellezza is now in its 13th incarnation. It involves just reading books by Japanese authors between January and end of March. It’s a good opportunity to revisit some of the authors whose books I already own.

Paula at Book Jotter will be hosting the Wales Readathon throughout March. This will be the second year for the event and of course I have to support anything which promotes literature from my home country.

Unfortunately that readathon coincides with Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books so I might have to limit myself to just one book from Ireland. I’ll at least feel that I’ll have joined in the buzz. That’s what is so great about these short events – you can just dip in like this without any obligations to do much more.

Finally, in April, Simon and Karen will be hosting the 1920 reading club; a week long celebration of fiction, non-fiction, poetry published 100 years ago.

And that’s more than enough for me to be getting on with. What happens after April I’ll decide further down the road.

Will You Be Joining Me? Have you made any plans yet for 2020? Do they include challenges or do you prefer more free-form reading? Do post a comment below to let me know.

Three Hours Of Tense Drama In A School Under Siege [book review]

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

When you despatch your children through the school gates each morning, you trust they’re heading into a safe environment. That nothing beyond those gate will put them in danger. Rosamund Lupton‘s debut novel Three Hours turns that belief on its head.

It’s 9.15am one cold, snowy November morning at the Cliff Heights School in rural Somerset. The morning’s session has barely begun when shots are fired. Headmaster Matthew Marr lies in a pool of blood, powerless to protect his students from the armed gunman who paces the school’s corridors. Unknown to him, accomplices hide in the surrounding woods intent on causing further harm.

Disturbingly Plausible Scenario

The disturbing scenario of Three Hours is one that’s frighteningly familiar from TV news images of school shootings like those at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 and Columbine High School in 1999.

Rosamund Lupton takes us behind those headlines to examine the reactions of people caught up in a similar attack. Hour by hour we share the fears of the students and staff trapped at the Cliff Heights school; the anxiety of parents waiting for news and the frustrations of police officers tasked with ending the siege without further bloodshed.

In the midst of their fear lies bewilderment about the identity and the motivation of the gunmen. Are they terrorists or someone with a grudge against the school? Is the entire school the target or are the attackers after two pupils only: the brothers Rafi and Basi Bukhari, both Muslim refugees from Aleppo?

An Unlikely Target

Three Hours is set in a high performing, well-funded liberal school that prides itself on its philosophy of tolerance, inclusivity and openness. It’s the last place anyone would expect to be targetted by extremists. As the deputy head tells the police psychologist drafted in to help identify the attackers:

We have safe spaces for debate, democracy in action through the school council … tolerance is an integral part of the school. It’s why we don’t have a uniform and the students are free to practice whatever religion they choose, or none.

But even these principles provide no protection against dark forces that actively encourage and support radical racist messages and actions. One morning, without warning, those forces are unleashed on the school’s sprawling campus.

Three Hours illustrates how radicalisation can happen anywhere and how extremist groups prey on susceptible minds, using complex technology platforms to cloak their identities. By the time the attack is over, pupils, teachers and parents will have had their beliefs and trust put to the severest test.

Courage In Face of Danger

But Rosamund Lupton also shows how love and courage prevail in the midst of danger and uncertainty. Some of the people involved find skills and strengths they never realised they had. Others discover who they truly are, what they believe in and for what they are willing to die.

In the school’s isolated theatre, one group of students press on with their rehearsal of Macbeth, finding that Shakespeare’s portrayal of ambition and murderous intent helps them deal with their own unfolding drama. In the pottery building, a 60-year-old teacher converts tables into a pretend house. While her class of lively seven-year-olds are diverted into making miniature clay cups and bowls, she makes clay tiles to protect them from flying glass. And in the library, sixth-former Hannah Jacobs strips to her bra, using her t shirt to stem the blood flowing from her headmaster’s body.

Healing Power of Love

The real hero of the school, and the epitome of selfless love is Rafi; the pupil who finds an explosive device in the school grounds, raises the alarm and shows the way to evacuate one building. The person who, warned by police advice that he might be a target, puts his life in danger to go in search of his younger brother missing in the woods.

Rafi suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his flight from Syria. But through his friendship with Hannah he is finding a way to put his life back together:

He thinks that a long time ago he was like a glass … clear and transparent, made of invisible love and he was filled with liquid running life, right to the brim.

… then he’d been beaten and ashamed and frightened and he was a thousand pieces scattered on a snow-covered pavement in Aleppo, an Egyptian beach, the deck of a boat, a migrant camp

But then he met a girl, loves this girl and each of those thousand pieces know their way back to their place in the glass, the cracks in him kaleidoscopes of light.

There’s much to admire in Three Hours, from the setting to the characterisation ( I was drawn particularly to Rafi) to the tightly controlled timescale. Lupton shows great skill in entering the minds of both children and adults, showing both their vulnerability and their resilience.

It’s evident too that the novel is based on some really sound research. Part of my career was spent managing crisis response so can vouch for Lupton’s description of police command procedures and the details of the school’s emergency plan.

All these factors mean Three Hours is an intense, riveting yet unsettling read. I suspect few parents with offspring still in the school system will read it and not experience a wave of anxiety.

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton: End Notes

Rosamund Lupton became a screenwriter after leaving Cambridge University. Her debut novel Sister, was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.

Rosamund Lupton

Three Hours is her fourth novel. It’s published by Penguin Viking in hardback and e-book on January 9, 2019 . My thanks to the publisher for the free copy I received via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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