Category Archives: Book Reviews

Eye Opening Tale of Stitchers and Ringers

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

If you’ve ever taken up  painting, playing a musical instrument or cross stitch, then you’ll know how utterly absorbing these activities can be. 

In A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier shows how engrossing yourself in an interest can also be a form of salvation.

A Single ThreadIt’s embroidery that comes to the rescue for the protagonist, Violet Speedwell.  It rescues her from a life where her only choices are to stay at home with her over-bearing embittered mother or live hand-to-mouth in a draughty boarding house and drudge each day as a typist. 

Violet is what the newspapers of the 1930s labelled a “surplus woman”: unmarried and likely to remain so because vast numbers of eligible men died during World War 1.  The war was a double tragedy for Violet, both her fiancée and brother having fallen at Passchendale. She is still mourning their loss 16 years later.

Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of home, she moves to Winchester to take up a secretarial job. But still she feels she is living only half a life. 

I felt as if I were in a deep hole that took me so long to climb out of. It was as if I were sleepwalking, awake but unable to say anything or do anything to make my life come to to life again.

It isn’t until she visits the cathedral and discovers the broderers, a group of women creating intricate canvas embroidery for kneelers and cushions, that she finds fulfilment and friendship. 

Under the mentorship of the group’s founder Louisa Pesel, Violet flourishes.  Her nights at the boarding house are no longer an ordeal when she has her stitches to practice. She gains the confidence to negotiate higher wages from her employer and to handle her mother’s demands. Romance beckons in the shape of a bell ringer at the cathedral, though it’s a forbidden love since Arthur Knight is already married.

 

A Celebration of Stitches 

The story is reasonable though ideally I would have preferred more drama and greater variety in pace. The elements did exist. For example, there’s a stalker who accosts Violet in a field and again near the Cathedral one dark night (no prizes for guessing who comes to her rescue!).

There’s also tension within the borderers because of one member who’s very bossy. And we have a lesbian love affair that raises eyebrows in the ultra conservative cloistered world of Winchester.

Unfortunately they all seem to fizzle out too quickly.  

But I’ll forgive Tracy Chevalier because there were two aspects of this novel that were simply wonderful. 

This is a writer who can take an artist or a great work of art and pluck from her research a story of its creation that is rich in detail and historically accurate. A Girl In A Pearl Earring opened up the world of Vermeer and a later novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, delved into the world of tapestry weavers in sixteenth century Brussels.

In A Single Thread she turns her attention to the work of Broderers’ Guild  in Winchester. The members took inspiration from the Cathedral’s medieval tiles; using cross, tent and rice stitches to form intricate patters of medallions, Celtic knots, trees of life and flowers.  The kneelers, cushions and alms bags had a practical purpose – they were used everyday by the congregation and clergy – but they also wanted them to be beautiful, as befitting the grandeur of the Cathedral. 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier shows how this is a painstaking exercise, demanding precision and attention to detail but get it right and the canvas comes alive. As Violet discovers:

…once you were skilled enough, you could settle into it and empty your mind of all but the work in front of you. Life then boiled down to a row of blue stitches that became a long braid across the canvas, or a sunburst of red that became a flower. 

It’s hardly surprising that Violet finds stitching more satisfying than typing contracts. 

I’ve tried tapestry work myself and would have loved Louisa Pesel as a tutor. I doubt however that my work would be anywhere near the standard of those cathedral stitchers. But I’d have more of a chance at proficiency in embroidery than I would at bell ringing.

 Ringing the Changes

I’m rather like Violet when she has her first introduction to ringing:

She could not make out any pattern in these bells ≠ though each was clearly struck they seemed to clatter over each other in no particular order. Yet they were deliberate, not chaotic. It was like listening to people speaking German and sensing there was a grammar and structure, a rhythm and logic to it, even if you could not understand the meaning. 

Arthur tries to explain:

We start by ringing the five bells down the scale, one after the other. These are called rounds. Then we switch the order of two of the bells, so that each sequence of bells is different from the last. We call them changes. One of the rules of change-ringing is that no sequence is repeated.

It’s all to do with maths apparently and something called factorials. Don’t ask me to explain; I can only just cope with fractions and equations. I suppose the only way to really understand what’s going on is to climb up into a bell tower and watch the ringers in action. I wonder whether Tracy Chevalier did that as part of her research? Since I’m highly unlikely to summon up enough courage to climb so high I shall just learn to appreciate the magnificence of the sound that comes out of that tower.  

There’s no doubt that this is a highly readable book with some interesting characters (I loved the depiction of Violet’s mum) and fascinating historical detail. 

A Single Thread: Fast Facts

  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier will be published by The Borough Press in September 2019. My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a balanced review.
  • Louisa Pesel is a real person. She was the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920.
  • Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral,She has a modest gravestone whose inscription records her personal virtues and stoicism, but makes no mention of her writing.

 

 

Fear And Evil Lurk In Idyllic Village [book review]

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Take one idyllic village buried deep in the Québec countryside

Add a bunch of memorable characters who include a duck loving poet and a rather portly host of the village bistro.

Finally, mix in a police chief with a penchant for Marcus Aurelius and an instinctive understanding of human nature. 

This, in essence, is the recipe for the highly successful Armand Gamache series of crime fiction by Louise Penny.

There are 14 novels in the series to date – the 15th comes out in the next few weeks. I’ve read eight and there hasn’t been a dud among them. 

My latest venture into Armand’s world was via The Cruelest Month which is book number three in the series.

It takes its title from the most frequently quoted line in  T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. And it picks up Eliot’s theme of rebirth and new life.

Gamache took the bread to the long pine table, set for dinner, then returned to the living room. He reflected on T.S. Eliot and thought the poet had called April the cruelest month not because it killed flowers and buds on the trees, but because sometimes it didn’t. How difficult it was for those who didn’t bloom when all about was new life and hope.

The spirit of re-birth is alive in the tiny village of Three Pines. It’s Easter. Spring is on its way. And the villagers are celebrating the first signs of new life in the trees and in their gardens. 

But the fun and festivity of the annual Easter Egg hunt is overshadowed by an evil from the past. 

On a hill above the village stands the old Hadley House, the scene of some very nasty events in the previous novel A Fatal Grace. The atmosphere of malevolence has never completely gone away.

When a group of friends hold a seance in the house to rid the place of its past, one of them dies. Of fright? Or was she murdered? That’s the question Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must answer.

As they uncover long-held rivalries and secrets, Armand Gamache has to confront his own worst fears. Someone seems hell bent on damaging his reputation and destroying his career.

Just like the other books in the series, The Cruelest Month has a plot with enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages. But the plot isn’t the most important aspect of this novel.. It’s the setting of the picturesque Québec village of Three Pines and the character of Armand Gamache that give this book, and indeed the whole series, its edge.

Enticing Magical Village Setting

The Cruelest Month takes us once more to Three Pines; a place so tiny that it doesn’t even figure on a map. Yet it boasts a bistro that becomes a home from home for the detectives (food figures large in every book) and a bookshop presided over by Myrna Landers, a black psychologist. It’s residents include Ruth Zardo, a blunt-spoken award-winning poet with a pet duck and Clara Morrow, a respected painter.

It’s the kind of place in which I could happily take up residence. In fact I cherish the hope that one day one of those cottages will come up for sale….. Until then I have to see it through Gamache’s eyes.

The mountains rose graciously on the far side, folding into each other, their slopes covered with a fuzz of lime green buds. He could smell not just the pine now, but the very earth, and other aromas. The musky rich scent of dried autumn leaves, the wood smoke rising from the chimneys below, and something else. He lifted his head and inhaled again, softly this time. There, below the bolder aromas, sat a subtler scent. The first of the spring flowers.

That setting and its comfortable social structure is of course one of the hallmarks of a traditional murder mystery. But although Louise Penny uses this – and other traditional devices like a careful questioning of suspects and well reasoned deductions – she goes also one step further with a psychologically astute dimension.

Behind every crime Armand Gamache investigates lies a tale of raw emotion and human tragedy. In The Cruelest Month we’re talking of jealousy and how kindness can turn to murderous intent.

Astute Psychological Insight

What I love about this series is how Louise Penny introduces a new psychological concept in each novel. Gamache has a natural ability to see beyond the facts to the emotion that often his suspects are at pains to hide. But in The Cruelest Month, his resident psychologist suggests what he’s dealing with is “the near enemy.”

Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other; is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other ‘s sick, twisted. … Attachment masquerades as Love; Pity as as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.

While I love the settings and the characters of these novels, it’s the psychological dimension and the way they draw upon other influences that I enjoy the most. How often do you come across another crime novel which as seamlessly incorporates psychological theory as it does poetry, Marcus Aurelius and the Bible?

The Cruelest Month: Fast Facts

Louise Penny
  • The Cruelest Month is the third title in the series of novels by Louise Penny featuring her Canadian chief police inspector Armand Gamache.
  • The series began with Still Life in 2006. The latest episode , A Better Man, is due for publication end of August 2019
  • Each of the books in the series is meant to be a stand-alone tale although Louise Penny does recommend they are read in order. Her advice is based the progression of the characters from book to book.
  • Based on my experience with this series I think if you read out of sequence you’ll miss a lot of the drama of what happens to Gamache himself
  • Details of each book be found on Louise Penny’s website
  • If you like what you find there there is another site she calls her ‘virtual bistro’ where she reflects on each book and explains what inspired her thinking and readers can post questions/comments.

Powerful Tale Of A Slave’s Survival: The Long Song

Novelists who write about slavery seldom shy away from depicting the immense cruelty and inhumanity of this system.

They pull at the heartstrings with historically accurate scenes of brutality and deprivation and characters forced to experience  injustice and degradation. 

Few authors dare to introduce any element of comedy into their work. 

Few that is except for Andrea Levy in The Long Song

A Different Form of Slavery

This is the story of Miss July, a child conceived as a result of the rape of Kitty, a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation in the early 19th century. She is destined for a hard, and likely short life, toiling in the fields with her mother.

But the plantation owner’s sister, recently arrived from England to live at Amity, spots the child. On a whim she decides this cute child will become her maid. So at the age of eight, July is separated from her mother and moved to the great house.

It’s an improvement on working in the fields. But she’s still a slave and not even allowed to keep her own name. She’s set to work sewing and waiting hand and foot upon this fat and temperamental woman.

The Long Song

The Long Song is set in the turbulent years before the abolition of slavery in Jamaica.

July experiences the violent retribution enacted by white settlers upon their slave populations in the  aftermath of uprisings in 1831. She lives through years when rumours of freedom run through the plantations. But when freedom does happen in 1838, it doesn’t bring an end to hostile relationships between the slaves and their former masters.

Not much scope for levity you’d think.

But surprisingly, without ever trivialising her subject, Andrea Levy manages to inject a fair degree of humour into this narrative. She clearly has a gift for finding the comedy in the most unlikely of situations.

Light Amid The Darkness

July is a mischievous figure, happy in the midst of chaos. One scene has her ruin her mistress’s Christmas lunch by using an old bed sheet instead of an Irish linen table cloth. Another sees her hiding under her master’s bed, desperately trying to control her bladder while he paces the room.

Switching between third-person past and first-person present, Andrea Levy mixes the earthy Jamaican patois of the young girl with the more sophisticated and reflective voice of the older woman.

The Long Song is told in the form of July’s memoirs. Her son Thomas, a wealthy printer, intends to publish the book in an attractively bound edition with sugarcane on the cover.

But he and his octogenarian mother comically don’t see eye to eye on how this book should be written. Thomas remonstrates with his mother when he thinks she is misleading readers or leaving out significant episodes. But to Miss July, its all “fuss-fuss.

July is, as she has always been, a shrewd, independent-minded woman. This is her story and no-one is going to tell her how is should be told, not even her son.

She will not, she tells us, dawdle over descriptions of trees and grass. Nor will she fill her memoir with the “puff and twaddle ” found in books to satisfy “some white lady’s mind”.

… your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink.  Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire

A Reliable Witness?

Can we rely upon her as a narrator? Only in part….

She describes one milestone event – the symbolic funeral that marked the end of slavery on 31 July 1838 – only to later admit she was in the house with her mistress at the time.

July cheekily challenges any reader who disputes her version of events, to do their own research. She, herself, will not be weighed down by any burden of proof. But she warns these readers: if you find yourself in agreement with the views expressed in one publication Conflict and change. A view from the great house of slaves, slavery and the British Empire, “then away with you – for I no longer wish you as my reader.”

July is a fantastic character; vulnerable yet proud. “Me be a mulatto, not a negro,” she insists when trying to get admission into a Friday night dance. She’s more successful at gaining entry into the bed of her mistress’s new husband, Robert Goodwin, a pretty-faced, naïve new overseer. But his belief in abolition is thrown out of the window – and July out of his bed – when the newly freed slaves refuse to obey his commands to work. They’d rather be tending to their own crops than bringing in his harvest.

Andrea Levy shows the reality of plantation life: the extreme physical hardship and the brutality meted out casually to the slaves. Women are raped, slaves are flogged and hanged or locked into a rat infested prison. But she never descends into crude sensationalism or allows the narrative to be weighed down by obvious messages. The novel is all the better for that.

The Long Song: Fast Facts

  • The Long Song was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year.
  • It was the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction in 2011.
  • Andrea Levy was born in London to Jamaican parents in 1956. Levy began her career as a costume assistant, working part-time in the costume departments of the BBC and the Royal Opera House. She began writing in her mid-30s after her father died.
  • She struggled to gain acceptance initially but achieved critical success with her fourth novel, Small Island , which deals with the immediate outcomes of World War II and migration on the Windrush generation. It was subsequently adapted for television and stage.
  • A three-part adaptation of The Long Song was broadcast by the BBC in December 2016.
  • Andrea Levy died in February 2019. The Long Song was her final novel.
Books of Summer

Enter The Magical World Of Stories with Once Upon A River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Do you remember the first time you heard those words: “Once upon a time…” ?

They were magical words.

Words that transported you into new worlds of good fairies and naughty imps; of brave warriors, damsels in distress and knights in shining armour. 

As you grew older, fairies and goblin stories lost their appeal. In their place came family stories heard around the dinner table or the camp fire. Stories perhaps of war and adventure, or mysterious events and comic mishaps. 

The characters changed and the stories changed. But what never altered was your love of a good yarn. 

Fireside Stories

The characters in Diane Setterfield’s magnificently atmospheric and mysterious novel, Once Upon a River, are lovers of stories too. When the gravel-diggers and bargemen gather around the fire of an ancient inn at Radcot on the Thames, they love to share stories.

Bridge over the Thames at Radcot

Stories keep them entertained on dark and dreary nights. It matters not that they’ve heard them all before: they’ve found new ways to enliven the tales, with ever more outlandish new versions.

None of them, however, came up with a tale as outlandish as the one that began one one winter solstice night.

The regulars at The Swan are indulging in another telling of their favourite story about the battle of Radcot, when the door to the inn bursts open. In staggers a man, soaked through and with his head bashed in. In his arms is what looks like “a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair.”

Except it’s not a puppet. It’s a young girl. And everyone in the pub agrees she is dead. Imagine their astonishment when hours later the girl revives.

Miracle and Mystery

For weeks afterwards the regulars of the Swan can talk about nothing other than this miracle.  

Who is the mysterious girl? The girl herself doesn’t provide any answers since she doesn’t speak. Nor can the injured man help solve the puzzle. He can say only that he found her in floating in the river.

Once Upon a River by Diane Settlefield

Theories are proposed. Gnawed over. Found wanting.

In the absence of any natural explanation, the villagers begin to wonder if other forces are responsible. Could this be the work of Quietly, a ghostly ferryman who features in many of their fireside stories? When someone gets into trouble on the river, Quietly appears

… manipulating his pole so masterfully that his punt seemed to glide as if powered by an otherworldly force. He never spoke a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day.

He’s there to get you safely home. But to whose home does this mysterious child actually belong?

Three people claim she is theirs.

A local couple whose marriage faded when their daughter was kidnapped.

A prosperous mixed race farmer who believes she’s the illegitimate
off- spring of his ne’er do well son.

A simple housekeeper who believes her long dead young sister has returned.

Sorrow Amid the Menace

Diane Setterfield takes her time to unravel the answer to this mystery. Just like the river her story “does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination. Instead “it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions.” 

That doesn’t mean Once Upon a River is a laborious read however. It’s simply that a leisurely pace works best for a tale that, for all its Gothic elements of mystery and menace, is ultimately about grief.

Sorrow that never fades is experienced acutely by all three families who believe the child is theirs. But is encapsulated best by the father of the kidnapped girl

He saw her not here, in this room and not now in this hour, but in the infinity of memory. She was lost to life, but in his memory she existed, was present, and he looked at her and her eyes met his and she smiled.

Setterfield situates every aspect of the narrative in relation to The Thames.

It’s too simplistic to say that the river is as much of a character as the regulars at The Swan or the families who vie for the child. But The Thames is certainly a powerful presence, reigning god-like over the villagers of Radcot.

The river finds its way into their wells and is “drawn up to launder petticoats and to be boiled for tea” and ‘from teapot and soup dish, it passes into mouths’. The Thames provides them with transport and an occupation. It nourishes the crops needed to sustain their lives. But it also takes life away.

Mastering The Art Of Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A River is a beautifully crafted novel showing the thin border between the real and the unreal worlds. And how sometimes rational explanations do exist for strange and mysterious events.

For me the greatest pleasure lay in how Diane Setterfield uses the novel to celebrate the traditions of storytelling but also remind us that it’s an artifice.

Faced with a dearth of fact about a boy who died at the Radcot battle, the storytellers turn to invention.

At each retelling the drinkers raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it….

Some, like the landlord of The Swan, realise that storytelling is as much about the performance as it is about the narrative.

With a bit of practice he found he could turn his hand to any kind of tale; whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation relief, doubt and any other feeling as well as any actor.

But as we see through the character of the landlord’s son, not everyone can be a storyteller.

He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed squirmed with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

This is a novel that shows what great storytelling is all about. And why we never tire of hearing a good tale.

Once Upon A River: Fast Facts

  •  Once Upon A River was published in January 2019 by Transworld Publishers, part of the Penguin Random House Group
  • Diane Setterfield was born in Berkshire, England. She embarked on an academic career but gave that up to concentrate on writing full time in the late 1990s
  • My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a fair review
  • Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) was an international bestseller

Complex World of Party Animal Holly Golightly [Review]

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Today she’d be classed as a ‘celeb “ or a socialite. The kind of girl whose party-loving, free-wheeling lifestyle fills newspapers and magazines with gossip and sparkle.

Holly Golightly was not the original “IT” girl but she is the character forever synonymous with a dazzling, sophisticated, glamorous way of life. It’s an image cemented into the public consciousness by Audrey Hepburn in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s Holly is chic, carefree and charismatic. 

Holly Golightly

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly

However, Truman Capote’s novella provides us with a far more complex figure. His Holly Golightly is rather a lonely figure, a girl whose carefree persona is a front, and one she protects fiercely. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is set in New York, mainly around a brownstone building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The un-named narrator, an aspiring writer, gets his first glimpse of Holly when she arrives home late at night, and tries to rouse another tenant because – once again – she’s lost her apartment key.

… she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness…  A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.

Holly, he learns, has no job. She lives by socialising with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants and give her money and expensive presents. She hopes to marry one of them.

Is Holly Golightly a prostitute?

This was a question Capote tried to address in a 1968 interview with Playboy. Holly Golightly, he said, was a modern day version of a Geisha girl.

Holly Golightly was not precisely a callgirl. She had no job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obligated to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check … if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. So these girls are the authentic American geishas, and they’re much more prevalent now than in 1943 or 1944, which was Holly’s era.

Holly, with her curious lifestyle and outspoken views, fascinates the narrator. Over the course of a year, they become close friends. 

Who is the real Holly Lightly?

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

The narrator only gets a glimpse of her past through the fragments she occasionally reveals. She talks about her childhood as “an almost voluptuous account of swimming and summer, Christmas trees, pretty cousins and parties: in short, happy in a way that she was not”.

We never know if Holly is making this up or if she’s describing her actual childhood, but the narrator doesn’t think it squares up with the girl he has come to know.

But when he asks any direct questions, she clams up again.

She has, it turns out,  one obvious reason to be secretive.

Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae. And she’s not a single girl but a child bride who ran away to New York to escape her hillbilly husband and her step-children.

Capote’s narrative presents us with a subtler reason, one that gives us more more reason to sympathise with this girl. 

Orphaned as a young child, she’d been sent with her brother to live with relatives who treated them badly.

Well, you never saw a more pitiful something. Ribs sticking out everywhere, legs so puny they can’t hardly stand, teeth wobbling so bad they can’t chew mush. … She had good cause to run off from that house.

Secrecy as a form of protection

Too damaged to have a deep emotional connection with anyone but her brother, she has fabricated a new identity as a form of protection. If she can isolate herself emotionally from other people, then she can always be in control.

She won’t even allow herself to become attached to the cat she found by the river one day. ” We don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent and, so am I”, she says at one point. And later on, when she is about to leave the country; she defends her decision to let the cat loose.

We just met by the river one day: that’s all. Independents, both of us. We never made each other any promises. We never – ” she said, and her voiced collapsed … 

Holly tries to convince herself that she’s happy being alone. But is she?   I’d like to imagine her enjoying her new life in Argentina but reading between the lines, I suspect not. 

Though I’ve enjoyed the film version, I prefer the novella’s more complex portrayal of Holly Golightly. Capote gives us plenty of reasons not to like this girl. She steal’s another girl’s fiancée, shows little concern for who she inconveniences as long as she gets what she wants and acts as a messenger for an imprisoned gangster.  

But Capote has also made Holly Golightly a sympathetic character; one that embraces the good things in life as a way of hiding from its darker side. By the end, we wish her well.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Fast Facts

  •  Breakfast at Tiffany’s was bought by Harper’s Bazaar. A change of editor resulted in requests to change some of the language which was considered too ‘tart’ and unsuitable. Capote was incensed and sold his work instead to Esquire magazine who published it in 1958.
  • Holly was originally named Connie Gustafson. Truman Capote later changed her name to Holiday Golightly and then Holly. He apparently based the character of on several different women, all friends or close acquaintances.
  • The novella was loosely adapted into the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s directed by Blake Edwards. The movie was transposed to 1960 rather than the 1940s, and had the narrator and Holly fall in love.
  • I read this as part of my #15booksofsummer reading project and my Classics Club project.

3 Dangerous Books To Read If You’re Hungry

Forget about glowing author testimonials and ‘award-winning’ stickers. 

What some novels really need is a health warning on their cover. A warning that reading this book will not just stimulate your mind, it will stimulate your appetite. 

Why? 

Because these are novels that contain fulsome descriptions of ingredients purchased, dishes cooked and meals ordered.  Characters in films seem only to sit at a table and play with their cutlery. You hardly ever see them take a sip of wine or a mouthful of food. Meanwhile their book counterparts are tucking in heartily. 

Reading these novels is a dangerous activity. Certainly not one to be embarked upon if you’re trying to restrict your calorie intake or you didn’t get a chance to eat yet. 

Dangerous because just reading about food is guaranteed to:

  • sharpen your appetite;
  • send you running to the biscuit tin or
  • get you foraging in the fridge/freezer

Here’s a shortlist of novels that really shouldn’t be read on an empty stomach. 

The Cruelest Month 

The Cruelest Month

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamach series is guaranteed to have you salivating.

Much of the action takes place in Olivier and Gabri’s bistro  in the picture-postcard Canadian village of Three Pines. It’s a home from home for the Chief Inspector; a place where he and his deputy, Inspector Beauvoir, can reflect on the progress of their latest investigation. Policemen clearly need their sustenance. 

Gamache’s coq au vin filled the table with a rich, earthy aroma and an unexpected hint of maple. Delicate young beans and glazed baby carrots sat in their own white dish. A massive charbroiled steak smothered in pan fried onions was placed in front of Beauvoir. A mound of frites sat in his serving dish. 

Beauvoir could have died happily right there and then but he’d have missed the crème brülée for dessert. 

Stay the night in the bistro’s B&B and you can be sure that breakfast will be a step up from packets of cereal and thin orange juice.

Yummy, yummy, said Gabri, placing the platters in front of his guests.Each held two eggs on a thick slice of Canadian back bacon which in turn rested on a golden toasted English muffin. Hollandaise sauce was drizzled over the eggs and fruit salad garnished the edges each plate. 

I’ll skip the fruit salad (fruit and eggs absolutely no not belong together) but otherwise yes, yummy, yummy indeed. 

If your tastes run to something more adventurous, perhaps my next book will be more to your taste. 

The Gourmet

The Gourmet

How does “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit” sound?

This is the kind of dish favoured by Pierre Athens, the greatest food critic in the world. He is dying after ” decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, rich sauces, and oil…” 

In his final hours, his mind returns to some of the most sublime flavours he has ever experienced. They were not always the most complex of dishes.

The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. . . . a tomato, an adventure.

I wish I could discover where he buys these tomatoes because it’s years since I experienced any that had any flavour. 

How about something a little more indulgent than tomatoes? Pierre, it turns out, holds sugary treats in high esteem.

Pastries . . . can only be appreciated to the full extent of their subtlety when they are not eaten to assuage our hunger, when the orgy of their sugary sweetness is not destined to full some primary need but to coat our palate with all the benevolence of the world.

Next time you experience pangs of guilt for picking up an éclair, just remember that you’ll be bringing joy to the world when you eat it.

Chocolat 

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

For unsurpassed joy however, it’s not a pastry you want, but chocolate. the plot and characters in Joanne Harris’ novel may be rather twee but for a chocoholic, it represents absolute bliss. Almost every page oozes with the stuff. 

Not everyone who lives in the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is delighted when the young widow Vianne Rocher decides to open a chocolatier in a disused bakery.

Her timing is unfortunate. It’s the build up to Lent and the villagers have pledged to forgo sweet delights. But all it takes is one whiff of the aroma from the shop and their resistance melts away. 

The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the white powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisù, a smoky, burned flavour that enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. 

Vianne’s mouthwatering bonbons, steaming mugs of liqueur-laced cocoa and flaky cream-filled patisserie become the battle ground between her and the village priest. 

I know whose side I’d be on in this battle. How about you??

Astonishing Guide Breathes New Life Into Welsh Literature

The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton

Guide to Welsh Literature

The statistics alone make the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking:

  • 825 pages (including a bibliography 63 pages long);
  • 34 contributors by leading academics from Wales, England, North America, Canada and Australia and
  • essays spanning 15 centuries of Welsh literature.

This is the first truly comprehensive guide to the literary traditions and heritage of Wales. The last attempt at such a book was in 1955 but it focussed exclusively on people writing in the medium of the Welsh language. It also went only as far as the end of the 19th century.

The editors of the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature took a more holistic view; seeing English/Welsh bilingualism as the ‘norm’ and the two languages existing in harmony not conflict.

They argue that much of contemporary Welsh literature is the product of that bilingual culture. Dylan Thomas – the author best known within and without of Wales – is a product of that culture, they assert. His exposure to both languages from his childhood years, made him the poet that people love.  “The languages are not in opposition to each other,: said Geraint Evans, “one could not exist without the other.”

From battlefields to industrial sites

The two editors eschew a chronological approach in favour of a thematic series of essays that show how Welsh literature was – and continues to be – influenced by significant political and cultural changes.

Some essays examine the  tradition of poetry and prose writing that begins in post-Roman times, with poetry like Y Gododdin, supposedly an eye witness account of men slaughtered in battle. Other chapters look at the Welsh love of myth and legend, reflected in the tales of The Mabinogion, and the birth of the Eisteddfod as a celebration of music, poetry and prose in the Welsh language. A key chapter considers how the discovery of rich coal seams in South Wales, which transformed a previously agricultural country into a powerhouse of industry, influenced authors like Gwyn Thomas.  

Coming up to the present day, much of the later section of the book considers the impact that devolution and self-governance in 1999 had on the attitudes and pre-occupations of contemporary writers.

What the essays show is that many of the earlier authors writing in Wales shared a love of the land  and the country But today’s authors see themselves more in the context of the city, not the countryside.

Welsh literature on the world stage

Is there a need for a book of this nature?

The two authors – as you’d expect – are in no doubt.  “We felt there was a huge gap,” said Professor Helen Fulton.

People know about The Mabinogion and Dylan Thomas but generally there is a lack of knowledge about what is one of the oldest continual literary traditions in Europe. We want our guide to show how Welsh literature is a rich and genuinely international literature.

Cambridge guide_Welsh literature

Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton at the launch of their definitive guide to Welsh literature

She has a point. Ask a room of even well-read people to name a Welsh author and there’s a high likelihood they won’t get further than Dylan Thomas. They’re highly unlikely to name some of the authors and titles I’ve listed on my page 86 novels from Wales. As talented as these authors are, they’re not in the same league as their Irish or Scottish authors, a fact highlighted  by one of the audience members at a launch event in Swansea. There is no Welsh equivalent of Colm Toibin, or Oscar Wilde, or James Joyce, he pointed out.

The signs are however promising that interest in Welsh literature is increasing. The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature has sold well in the United States where it fits well with study programmes on comparative literature.  There is active discussion also within Wales about changing the schools curriculum to ensure it contains some texts from Wales. 

Perhaps this is the case of the right book at the right time?

The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature: Quick Facts

The guide is published by Cambridge University Press as a companion publication in their long-established series which includes guides to literature in English, children’s literature, Shakespeare and women’s writing. The Guide to Welsh Literature was published in June 2019.

Professor Helen Fulton  trained as a Celticist at the University of Oxford and has since specialised in medieval Welsh literature and its connections with other Celtic literatures and with the literatures of medieval England. She is currently Chair of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol’s Department of English

Geraint Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Swansea University.  His research interests include literary modernism, Welsh writing in English and the history of the book in Britain.

Dazzling return of Atkinson’s gruff private eye in Big Sky [Review]

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson 

I’ve fallen in love again.

My admiration for Kate Atkinson collapsed in the last few years when she began to experiment with time-shifting novels like Life after Life. Her latest novel, Transcription, was  also a huge disappointment.

Where was the energetic prose, the intricate plots and witty characterisations that had made reading her work such a pleasure in the past? I feared she’d gone completely off the boil.

But my fears were unfounded.

For “my” beloved Kate Atkinson is back. And with a vengeance.

Big Sky _ Kate AtkinsonBig Sky is the first novel in nine years to feature her gruff-but-loveable private investigator Jackson Brodie. It’s a triumphant return.

Brodie is older (of course) and still rather world-weary. But he hasn’t lost his natural inclination to help or rescue other people. If he can prevent them suffering, as he did in his own life, he will, even if that means diving into the sea or jumping off a cliff. 

Big Sky sees him living in Yorkshire in the occasional company of an ageing Labrador and a taciturn teenage son (both on loan from his ex-partner Julia.

Evil lurks in seaside towns

It’s a picturesque location but one that has a sinister side.

The seaside towns of Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington were once the hunting grounds for a paedophile ring. Though the organisers were jailed, two young female detectives have started to investigate other suspected participants, including high profile members of the establishment.

What police don’t realise is that the area’s sordid past lives on through three men who’ve made a lucrative business from human trafficking. 

There were only so many washing-machines you could sell, but there was no limit on the trade in girls.

Their prey are young women from Eastern Europe who are duped into believing hotel jobs and a better life await them in England. Instead they become sex slaves. 

Tightly woven web of plot lines

Past and present come together in an artfully constructed plot with multiple strands that initially appear unconnected. Slowly the threads are drawn together with the help of a few coincidences and red herrings. By the end, everything is explained clearly for those readers who had a hard time keeping up. 

Big Sky is a novel that begins slowly. Atkinson is clearly in Kate Atkinson _ Big Skyplayful mode,  introducing one set of characters only to abandon them for many pages while she brings another cast to the stage. We get to know three golfing buddies; their wives; a pair of super-organised, keen as mustard female detectives, and – fleetingly– some of the trafficked girls. Figures from previous novels flit in and out like Tatiana, the Russian girl Brodie knew from  “another lifetime  when she had been a dominatrix and he had been fancy-free.” 

Having set all the balls in motion, Atkinson cranks up the pace in the final quarter with chapters chock full of kidnapped children, suspicious vehicles, rescued girls and shootings.  

Blue Sky is a fabulously entertaining book that is a significantly superior beast to most crime novels. 

Humour amid the darkness

That’s because of its beautifully drawn characters and a waspishly witty element of humour.  Just take a look at  Vince, a “middle-aged, middle-of-the-road, middle-class man” who’s been kicked out of his job and his marital bed.

He was grinding towards fifty and for the last three months had been living in a one-bedroom flat behind a fish-and-chip shop, ever since Wendy turned to him one morning over his breakfast muesli – he’d been on a short-lived health kick – and said, ‘Enough’s enough, don’t you think, Vince?’ leaving him slack-mouthed with astonishment over his Tesco Finest Berry and Cherry.

It’s that detail of the Tesco brand cereal that makes all the difference in this sentence. There are plenty of other examples that demonstrate Kate Atkinson’s knack of nailing a character in just a phrase or a few sentences.

One wife gets put down like this:

She shopped from the Boden catalogue and was proud of having grown a horrible stunted little tree.

Ouch!

Another woman (one of the most complex in the book) is every inch the trophy wife:

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was  a construction made from artificial materials – the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached-blonde hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

Expectations overturned

But having framed her as the archetypal arm candy blond, ex model, and manicurist; Atkinson then proceeds to confound our expectations. Crystal turns out to be a shrewd and determined woman who refuses to allow the evils of her past get in her way.  Women, in this novel, do ultimately get their revenge on those who treat them as disposable goods.

Do you need to have read all previous Jackson Brodie novels to enjoy this one?

I’d never want to dissuade someone from reading all of this series but you don’t have to in order to appreciate Big Sky. Atkinson provides enough of the back story about Brodie and his tangled love life that you can read this as a stand alone novel. 

I’m certain once you’ve read this one however, you’ll be ultra keen to start right at the beginning of the series. Yes, Big Sky really is that good.

Footnotes 

  • Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh.
  • Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museumwon the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
  • She won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 with Life after Life (see my review here) and again in 2015 with A God in Ruins.
  • Her first novel to feature Jackson Brodie was Case Histories, published in 2005. Stephen King called it “The best mystery of the decade.”
  • Big Sky was published in June 2019 by Doubleday

Want to know more?

The Penguin website has an extract from Big Sky which is taken from the first scene involving Jackson Brodie.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Kate Atkinson talks about the impetus to write Big Sky.

Alert: An Oddball In The Office [review]

The Room by Jonas Karlsson 

There’s one in every office isn’t there?

The worker who’s something of a misfit.  Who few people want to engage in conversation or join at the coffee machine. The weirdo who has all the social skills of a mosquito. 

In The Room by Jonas Karlsson, Björn is one such misfit. 

The Room by Jonas KarlssonHe’s a new employer at “the Authority.” Exactly what the Authority does is never made clear. All we learn is that it’s a faceless, dull, bureaucratic Government organisation that processes claims. The more complex the claim the bigger its file number becomes and the higher up the building it gets handled. 

Illusions of Grandeur

Björn arrives believing he is special, a cut above everyone else. “ He’d left his last job because “it was way below by abilities.”  (reading between the lines he was ‘persuaded’ to move on). Now it’s time for him to fulfil his true potential. On his first day “The words ‘man of the future’ ran through my head.”

He plans his day and workload meticulously:

I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five-minute break. Including toilet breaks. I avoided any unnecessary socialising along the way.

He doesn’t endear himself to his colleagues.

But then Björn doesn’t rate them highly either. His nearest colleague has the irritating habit of allowing his paperwork to spill over onto Björn’s desk. Another colleague doesn’t return pencils he’s ‘borrowed’. He receives sloppily written departmental emails. 

It’s all getting too much for Bjorn

Salvation arrives when he discovers “the room”. A small, perfectly equipped and furnished space that becomes his refuge. He finds he can think more clearly, work more quickly, more productively when he’s in the room. He even feels better physically.

There was a full length mirror in the room. I caught sight of myself in it and fancied, to my surprise, that I looked really good. My grey suit fitted better than I thought, and there was something about the way the fabric hung that made me think that the body beneath it was – how can I put it? – virile.

There’s just one problem with this room: Björn is the only person in the Authority who can see it.

It’s not on any layout plans.

There is no door along that wall in the corridor.

His colleagues complain that Björn is acting bizarrely, standing around in a corridor facing a wall. Doing nothing. Just standing.

As Håkan [a colleague] reluctantly explained, for the second time, what he could see in front of him, and stubbornly denied the existence of the room, I realised that I was going to have to be more obvious. I reached out my arm and pointed, so the tip of my forefinger was touching the door. “Door,” I said. He looked at me again with that foolish smile and glazed expression. “Wall,” he said. “Door,” I said. “Wall,” he said.

If you want to know how this all pans out, you’ll have to read The Room for yourself. It will spoil the enjoyment if I gave any more detail of what happens to Björn.

A Multi-Layered Novel

In part Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is a novel that can be read as a comment on today’s work culture reliant so much on protocols and procedures that individuality counts for nothing. Is this a culture where workers feel the need to find a space where they can be themselves?

Karlsson portrays the meaningless rituals and pointless activities that anyone who has worked in an office environment, will enjoy recognising.  This is a world of stand-offs over personal working space,  joke-cluttered noticeboards, untidy desks and frustrations because no-one replaced the photocopier paper tray or the light bulb.

However, on another level, The Room is a humorous tale of an outsider with more than a few strange behavioural traits.  Bjorn’s social ineptitude is hugely funny, more so because the whole tale is told through his myopic view of the world. 

Disturbing Portrait of Disintegration 

And yet there is a deeply unsettling side to this novel. 

Clearly Bjorn is suffering a form of delusional mental illness. When his colleagues take their concerns to the department boss, Bjorn accuses them of mounting a systematic campaign to get rid of him because they feel unsettled.

There’s nothing strange about that, creative people have always encountered resistance. It’s perfectly natural for more straightforward individuals to feel alarmed by someone of talent. ….  one or more individuals have taken it upon themselves to play some sort of psychological trick on me. Instead of coming straight out and having a normal discussion.

The reaction of Bjorn’s colleagues could be viewed as a fairly typical one experienced by people who are individuals, who dare to be different. They think he’s getting preferential treatment by not being made to wear ‘slippers’ in the office instead of his outdoor shoes, or taking frequent work breaks.

They especially don’t like it when he begins to outshine them at work, producing reports (claim assessments) that are exactly the calibre the higher-up big shots want.

But as the novel progresses Bjorn’s erratic behaviour becomes more erratic and serious.  He damages the office ceiling and pulls down the Christmas lights. There’s an implication he forced himself on a female receptionist. He begins acting as if he was the boss.

Reading The Room felt uncomfortable at times. In the middle of a humorous scene you suddenly realise that what you’re seeing is the disintegration of a human being.

It’s a bizarre but fascinating novel.

Footnotes

 Jonas KarlssonJonas Karlsson is a prominent screen and stage actor in his native Sweden. He has published three novels and three short story collections. The Room is the first of his novels to be translated into English. My copy was published by Hogarth, part of the Random House Group, in 2015. Translation is by Neil Smith.

I have no idea how I came by this book. It’s in hardback which is unusual for me so I’m guessing I found it in a second hand shop at a low cost and was intrigued by the synopsis.

It’s on my 15booksofsummer reading list for 2019

Want to know more

  • Foyles has an interview with Jonas Karlsson in which he talks about his reaction to being compared with Frank Kafka and Raymond Carver.
  • Kirkus also has a video interview with the author
  • Eric who blogs at Lonesome Reader has written an excellent review of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room here 

Scandalous secrets of how hospital doctors are treated

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay: book review

If you’ve ever required treatment at a National Health Service hospital, you’ll know how frustrating that can be:

  • Lengthy waits to see a specialist/consultant.
  • Clinic appointments  running hours behind schedule
  • Surgery dates postponed or cancelled.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy to feel after those experiences, that the much-lauded public health service in the UK has reached a breaking point. That it’s on the point of collapse.

Adam Kay’s memoirs make it evident it’s the selfless efforts of junior doctors that prevent it from collapsing.

Equally clear however is that their dedication comes at a huge personal cost.

This is Going to Hurt is a painfully honest memoir from one junior doctor  on the frontline of the NHS.  Adam Kay worked in hospitals for six years. He hung up his stethoscope in 2010 after a traumatic experience with a mother and baby in his surgery.

I’ve read enough newspaper reports to know that junior hospital doctors (those below consultant level) are poorly paid and over-worked. In 2016, in a bitter dispute over employment contracts, they staged the first strike in the history of the NHS. The dispute was settled only this week.

Undermined by bureaucracy

What I hadn’t realised until reading Adam Kay’s book was how much these professionals are undervalued and their expertise undermined.

Junior doctors give up their personal time and put marriages and friendships at risk rather than walk away from patients whose lives are in danger.

Yet scandalously ….

….they get charged for parking their car at the hospital.  And fined when they over-stay ( even when their delay was caused by an emergency patient);

… doctors have to find their own cover when they inconveniently fall ill and

… they are not allowed to sleep on a  spare patient bed after an 18 hour shift. They have to make do with a chair.

I was astounded to discover just how relentlessly gruelling are the lives of junior doctors.  The system makes it virtually impossible for them to have any kind of life outside their work.

It was not unusual for Kay to work a 100 hour week.

He describes times when he fell asleep in his car, in the hospital grounds, or at the traffic lights. Once he nodded off while sitting on an operating theatre stool waiting for his patient to be wheeled in.

On one occasion he was recalled from a long overdue holiday in Mauritius because the doctor meant to be covering his shift was ill. The  hospital refused to pay for a locum. He lost count of the number of  anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and theatre performances he missed “because of work.”

What kept him going was the positive feeling he would get after a shift in which he delivered multiple babies or aided infertile couples to become parents.

Comedy amid the tragedy

Although Kay doesn’t hold back from describing tense situations, when the life of his patient hung on a thread, he balances the darkness with flippancy and witty repartee.

When the doctors and nurses are not attending to patients, they’re busy swapping jokes and anecdotes about the bizarre conditions presented by some of their patients. I suspect this is the kind of black humour often used by police officers and firemen.  It’s a kind of release valve for people working in the emergency services.

Adam Kay has plenty of stories.

There’s the one about the drunken woman who climbed over a fence to get away from policemen. She slipped and ended up in emergency with a metal pole thrust through her vagina. After removal she calmly asked if she could take the pole home as a souvenir.

Or the tale of another woman who secreted a Kinder egg containing an engagement ring, intending to give her boyfriend the surprise of his life. It worked, though maybe not the way she intended, when the egg got stuck…

As a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology he encountered a surprisingly large number of people who arrived at hospital with foreign objects in their rectums. The staff are so familiar with the problem they’ve even found a name for it: “Eiffel syndrome” (to understand the joke you need to say the following words aloud – “I fell, doctor! I fell!”).

Not all encounters generate humour. Medical staff are often confronted by aggressive patients and family members, or patients who make unreasonable demands. There’s a particularly yucky case he mentions in which an expectant mother wants to eat her placenta. He gets his revenge by ‘accidentally’ revealing the gender of the baby to the most aggressive of the expectant parents.

Lack of investment

This Is Going to Hurt swings between flippancy and  frustration. Some of Adam Kay’s criticism is  directed at hospital administrators for their propensity to introduce ever more new rules. But he lays the greatest blame on the shoulders of politicians who had failed to invest in the NHS over several years, leading to staff demoralisation.

My over-riding impression however is that Adam Kay loved the NHS and preferred to work in the public sector even when private practice would have been more financially rewarding.

Asked to represent the medical profession at a school’s careers event he decides honesty is the best approach:

So I told them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re under-appreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.

This was a fabulously engaging book that was a good companion to Do No Harm by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year.

Funny, informative and poignant it ends on a note of frustration, particularly when Kay describes the agonising event that prompted his resignation. It let to the death of both baby and mother following a caesarian operation. Although Kay had followed all the correct procedures, he still blamed himself. He suffered a period of depression but was not given any therapy by the hospital or allowed time off to recover. After a few months he handed in his resignation.


This Is Going to Hurt: footnotes 

This is Going to Hurt was published in 2017 by Picador.

It’s written in the form of diary entries that were maintained by Kay during his medical training and his time as a hospital doctor.  The diaries were intended as a  “reflective practice” in which he could log any interesting clinical experiences he experienced. He used the material, suitably anonymised to write his book.

He has since embarked on a career as a comedian and scriptwriter. His new book Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, is published in October 2019.

Read an interview with him in The Guardian newspaper.

%d bloggers like this: