Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

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.

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.

Brilliant and beastly: the enigma of VS Naipaul

Reading Patrick French’s hefty biography of VS Naipaul brought back memories of my once playing Mahjong with incipient conjunctivitis; the game was challenging enough without the tile details going in and out of focus.

French’s writing style in general has little appeal for me – a little dry and academic and when he presents, as he often does in this tome, a lengthy, name-dropping paragraph, the hotchpotch of third-party comments and attributed quotes undermines clarity. Things become a little blurred – my response was often to skip ahead.

french bookPloughing through ‘The World Is What It Is’, I was also reminded of a lecturer long ago who recited his words of wisdom to us students while absently leafing through the pages of a newspaper. Like that academic, French is not, for me, a natural at engaging with his audience.

Published in 2008, this authorised biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author covers Naipaul’s life from his birth in1932 to his second marriage in 1996. The author, who won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘In a Free State’ (1971), died in 2018.

The biography’s title derives from the opening of Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River (1979):

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

The sentence, channeled through a fictional character, tells us much about the author’s view the world and his fellow travellers.

While French’s is not a hagiographical work, he is not overtly critical of his subject who was, it is clear from this book and other accounts, a difficult person to like.

Naipaul’s intelligent, unassuming wife Pat remained pitifully loyal to the author even though he treated her like a lowly servant.

You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station,’ he once cruelly barked at her. And then, in a moment of self-pitying regret, he wrote to her: ‘I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.’

His ‘occasional lapses’ included habitual visits to prostitutes, furious and violent domestic outbursts, a perpetual haughtiness and taking up a long-term intimate association with another woman who became, effectively, a second wife. This was how he treated  his nearest and supposedly dearest. Others, friends, associates, publishers who crossed him and so on found themselves subject to the notorious Naipaul ‘blank’. They simply became non-persons; he did not just cut them, he did not notice them.

A hatchet job on Naipaul’s disagreeable qualities could fill a book. French’s commendably objective approach brings balance but there is no getting away from unpleasantness of the person under scrutiny. To take our minds off personality issues, French dwells at length on rather fringe and uninteresting threads – largely irrelevant family background and affairs, political machinations in Naipaul’s birth country of Trinidad, the humdrum details of foreign trips and so on.

Academics and professional reviewers will argue that such detail is necessary and required in a thorough biographical work. But that doesn’t make them any the less dull for the ordinary reader.

There is much here, rightly, about Naipaul’s output. The author’s work divides opinion among readers but I fall into the fan camp having enjoyed both his fiction (particularly ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) and non-fiction (‘An Area of Darkness’).

french

Patrick French

But French’s accounts of the critical reception of each book is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. And this is where some of those confusing paragraphs tend to crop up. Like many biographers, French has laboured long on thorough research, having had complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa and spent many hours  conducting face-to-face unrestricted interviews with his subject. The word count demonstrates that French wants us to know how industrious he has been but the extraneous detail is overwhelming and of little interest to anyone not engaged in writing a dissertation on Naipaul.

Critics universally lauded ‘The World Is What It Is’ on its release in 2008 so my comments here are very much against the current. I admire French’s achievement in writing this comprehensive biography but I am left with little sense of really knowing or understanding the man who is its subject. Naipaul once remarked ‘whenever we are reading the biography of a writer … no amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there.’ 

Given Naipaul’s nature – elusive, mistrusting, narcissistic, aloof, judgemental – perhaps it is unavoidable that little of the real person comes across. Perhaps there was no real person. Perhaps the man was unknowable, even to himself. An enigma.

The Tangled Weave of Messy Lives: Entanglement by John Danenbarger

I know next to nothing about quantum theory beyond the fact that it’s complex, uncertain and relates to connections between different fields of science.

Entanglement by John K Danenbarger

The quantum concept takes on a human dimension in Entanglement – Quantum + Otherwise by John K Danenbarger. He takes a cast of eight deeply flawed characters and shows how their lives are inexplicably entwined; one person’s actions having unexpected consequences both for themselves and others.

It’s an ambitious novel, made more complex by the way the discontinuous structure of the narrative. We jump from one character to another, leap backwards and forwards in time (sometimes skipping a decade) and switch locations. Some characters disappear from the narrative for chapters only to re-appear. Others disappear entirely, the victims of a road accident or a shooting, the significance of which only becomes apparent several chapters later.

It begins with Beth Sturgess, a young drug addict found in a bad shape on a street in Bangor, Maine. Her rescuer is Joe Tink, a stripper in a local bar who has a passion for reading. Thinking he is doing her a favour, Joe gets her a job on a yacht heading for Bermuda. But she ends up in even bigger trouble and has to escape from a man with a track record for keeping sex slaves.

And then suddenly we lost Beth and the narrative is switched to the other main characters including a police officer, a physics professor and a mentally disturbed young man. Some of these people have been keeping secrets all their lives. Two of them commit murder. To say their lives are messy would be an understatement.

Entanglement is the kind of novel where you have to keep your wits about you. I found it utterly confusing to begin with, unable to see how all the scenes and episodes fitted together. Often I wasn’t even sure I knew which character was the focus of the chapter. I suspect the fact I was engaging with this book in audio format made things even more difficult despite the narrator’s skill at using different voices.

But the individual stories were enticing and I was more than a little curious how they would fit together. The more the novel developed, the more engrossing it became. It actually became great fun trying to assemble the pieces of information and find the connections. Admittedly it was a little hard to keep up with the story line at times because of its multiple twists and turns but perseverance was definitely rewarded.

Ultimately Entanglement is a book about mistakes and bad decisions, about the flaws in each of us and the sheer complexity about being human.

People who understand quantum theory would probably understand the metaphor upon which the book is based, far better than I could. But I never felt that my lack of knowledge was a hinderance. What you do need is some patience and a willingness to go with the flow, wherever that takes you.

Entanglement Quantum + Otherwise : End Notes

Entanglement was published by StormBlock Publishing in August 2019. The audio version went on release in October 2019. I received a copy from the publishers via MindbuckMedia in return for an honest review

Atlanta-born author John Danenbarger gained a degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Kansas.. With a backlist of short stories, Danenbarger established the Salem Massachusetts Writers’ Club. After living in Oslo, Norway, Stockholm, Sweden, and Massachusetts , Danenbarger achieved a merchant marine captain’s license, sailing for two years on the New England coast including two round-trips to Bermuda. He now spends much of his time writing in Italy.

The narrator of the audiobook, David de Vries is an award-winning narrator with more than 100 titles to his credit.

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