Category Archives: Book Reviews

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: masterful deception [book review]

I picked up Gillespie and I by Jane Harris in an airport bookshop, hoping it would keep me so engrossed I wouldn’t notice the length of the flight.  I thought ticked two of the right boxes: nineteenth-century setting and a sense of mystery

The story reminded me of Willkie Collins’ sensation and mystery stories and is told at a similar fast pace. It’s narrated by Harriet Baxter, a spinster approaching her 80th birthday, who recalls a chance encounter 45 years previously with Ned Gillespie. He is a talented artist who, we are soon informed, died before his fame was fully recognised. Harriet meets him again during a visit to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888 – and quickly becomes close friends with the Gillespie family.

Dark shadows hover over their somewhat Bohemian home as one of the daughters begins to behave in an alarmingly malicious way towards her sibling and other members of the household. And then Harriet finds herself propelled into a family tragedy and a notorious court case.

The period atmosphere was convincing. Harriet’s recollections of the past come with lots of detail about  houses, dresses, domestic routines as well as the atmosphere of the exhibition ground.  Unlike many other novels with historical settings, Harris’ manages to avoid dialogue that feels flat and clunky with anachronisms.

The key to this novel however lies not in what we are told but more in what we are not told. First person narrators in novels are frequently unreliable witnesses or interpreters. Harriet Baxter isn’t simply unreliable, she is a master of deception.

She portrays herself as a generous-hearted person yet is prone to make waspish comments about the other women in the Gillespie household. She believes herself to be uniquely positioned to  tell the truth about the unrecognised genius of Ned Gillespie.

It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale? Ned Gillespie: artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate.

She also claims to have privileged insight into the man’s character and his artistic prowess.

I learned to understand Ned – not simply through what he said – but also through his merest glance. So profound was our rapport that I was, on occasion, the first to behold his completed paintings, sometimes before his wife Annie had cast her gaze upon them.

But the reader comes to question her intention to “set the record straight” about the artist and the events in which she was enmeshed as a young. Harriet is however a tease of a narrator, often just giving hints rather than full explanations. One of her frequent tricks is to make dark allusions to tragedies yet to be revealed.  “If only we had known then what the future held in store,” she says early on.

Harriet Baxter is so skilled in the art of hints and suggestions that the only way the reader does in fact get to know what really occurred is by following the breadcrumb trail of those clues and by reading between the lines. By the end, you almost feel that you have to read it again for everything to fall into place.

If I had a gripe with the novel it lay in the ending. It didn’t so much end as just seem to peter out as if it had run out of steam. I didn’t feel cheated because the novel had done exactly what I needed it to do – keep me engaged so I didn’t notice the cramped and confined conditions of my journey. But I did expect it to come to some form of a resolution.

Now, with the benefit of a few months gap, I can see that instead of this being a weakness of the novel, it was in fact one of its strengths. Joanne Harris, like her narrator, is an arch manipulator, leading me through the labyrinth of her novel and making me believe that all would be revealed. But like Harriet Baxter, she left me to work out the truth.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: Endnotes

About the Book: Gillespie and I was published by Faber and Faber in 2011 and was well received by reviewers. The Times’ critic described it as “a compelling, suspenseful and highly enjoyable novel.” It was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now reincarnated as The Women’s Prize For Fiction) the following year. It lost out to The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

About the Author: Jane Harris was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and spent her early childhood there before her parents moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 1965. After university she tried a variety of careers, working abroad variously as a dishwasher, a waitress, a chambermaid and an English language teacher. She started to write short stories during this period while confined to bed in Portugal with a bout of flu. She went on to undertake an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia then completed a PhD at the same university. The Observations was her first published novel. Gillespie and I was her second. She published her third novel Sugar Money in 2017.

This review was posted originally in 2012. This is an updated version which incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover . Paragraphs of text have been shortened to improve readability.

At Home With Edith Wharton

Back in the mid 1980s when I was driving through Massachusetts on a holiday, I had no idea I was within striking distance of Edith Wharton’s old home near Lennox.

Edith Wharton and her husband escaped there from Rhode Island in 1901 when they bought a 113 acre site overlooking a lake. They set about transforming it into The Mount, an estate heavily influenced by European design traditions, but adapted for the American landscape. Edith designed the grounds herself and specified the external and internal design of the house.

Edith Wharton the gardener and architect? That was a surprise to me but apparently she’d built quite a reputation for herself in the field of design, long before she gained success as an author.

The first book she wrote (actually co-authored) was The Decoration of Houses, a non fictional work that aimed to advise the newly wealthy families of New England how to build and decorate houses with nobility, grace, and timelessness.

At The Mount, she put her philosophy about design and architecture into practice, taking inspiration from European traditions but adapting them to suit the American landscape. She strove for order, scale, and harmony in the house design and its surrounding gardens. She told her lover, Morton Fullerton, that she was amazed by her success with the project.

Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth…

The Whartons lived at The Mount for ten years. They welcomed the cream of American literary society to their home, including novelist Henry James, who described the estate as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”

During that time she wrote two of her most renowned books: The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911). Her professional triumph was however marred by personal turmoil when her husband’s depression became a more acute condition. When the marriage disintegrated under the strain of his condition, they sold The Mount and Edith Wharton moved permanently to France.

The Mount was owned by a succession of families until 1942 when it became part of a school for girls. The school ceased operating in 1976 and the property, became the base for the theatre company Shakespeare & Company.

It was subsequently bought by Edith Wharton Restoration, which began a substantial restoration project in 1997. Today, The Mount operates as a museum and a literary hub, hosting readings, book launches and panel discussions.

It sounds a delightful place to wander around. The main house has a striking facade of white stucco and dark green shutters, capped with a roof top balustrade and cupola. It’s surrounded by gardens that Wharton envisaged a series of harmonious outdoor “rooms”.

But of course, my main interest would be the library. It’s the place where she did her writing. The books on the shelves are from Wharton’s own personal collection, representing every period of her life, reflecting her wide variety of interests. And there are some copies of her own works, complete with her pencil corrections.

Sounds magical doesn’t it? Sadly I can’t see a return visit to Massachusetts on the cards for me any time soon.

Curates and Quiches with Agatha Raisin: Deliciously Entertaining

When a little free library opened a few weeks ago in my village I absolutely had to take a gander.  With shops and libraries closed, this was the only way I could indulge in my favourite hobby of book browsing. 

I thought I would come away empty handed but then, tucked away behind the multiple copies of James Patterson and John Grisham novels, I found two slim volumes by M C Beaton. 

I’ve never read any of her Agatha Raisin series and probably wouldn’t have been tempted except it just so happened I was in the mood for something not too demanding. 

Wit And Humour

And that’s exactly what I got. Book 1, Agatha Raisin And The Quiche of Death, and Book 13, Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate are both delightful escapist novels. I thought I would be mildly entertained but I wasn’t expecting to encounter books that were full of such sharp wit or to feature such an enjoyable non-PC character. 

It’s the character of Agatha Raisin, a retired PR queen turned amateur sleuth. that makes the difference in this series. She’s absolutely the star of the show. Without her we’d just have pretty cottages, slightly amusing mysteries (nothing too gory or nasty) and quaint village traditions. 

Agatha is definitely not in the Miss Marple mode. Instead of a neatly dressed, quietly spoken amateur sleuth with an acute understanding of human nature we get a brash and prickly career woman.

As the series opens, Agatha has decided to sell up her public relations company and move to a picturesque cottage in the Cotswolds. Accustomed to the buzz of parties and launches, she finds rural life is harder than she imagines. The locals in the village of Carsley are not hostile but don’t go out of their way to welcome her or include her in their social circle. Without friends and work, she quickly becomes bored. 

No one asked her for tea. No one showed any curiosity about her whatsoever. The vicar did not even call/ In an Agatha Christie book the vicar would have called, not to mention some retired colonel and his wife. All conversation seemed limited to ‘Mawnin’, ‘Afternoon’, or talk about the weather. For the first time in her life, she knew loneliness, and it frightened her. 

To stamp her mark on the village she decides to ingratiate herself with the locals to enter the annual ‘Great Quiche Competition’ . Never having baked anything in her life, she resorts to cheating, buying her ‘entry’ from an expensive London delicatessen. Unfortunately the competition judge dies after tasting her quiche. Agatha’s duplicity is revealed. Shame turns to anger when she is blamed for his death. It spurs her to turn detective and find the murderer herself.

Her methods are unorthodox and she finds herself in more than one scrape before the crime is solved. It’s great fun watching this woman’s inept attempts at detection and all the false trails she follows.

When I caught up with her again in Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate, it was to find that she’d become a fixture in the village. In the intervening years she’d married (twice). Husband number two has just dumped her; the launch she took on as a freelance project turned out to be dull and even her beloved London had lost its sparkle. So it’s back to the Cotswolds and those microwave meals for one.

Bumbling Detective In High Heels

The arrival of a new curate in Carsley is just the tonic she needs. Even though “she swore she would never be interested in a man again” Tristan Delon is a golden-haired, blue-eyed dish. He has all the ladies in Caswell swooning over him. After an intimate dinner for two in his flat, Agatha falls for his charms. she begins to dream of an exciting new adventure with a toy boy. Her dream doesn’t last long – the very next day the curate is found dead.

When the eye of suspicion turns on the Vicar, the husband of her best friend, Agatha sets off once more on the trail of a murderer. What follows is often hilarious as Agatha bumbles around following up on clues, worming information out of people and annoying the local police force.

Just like The Quiche of Death, in The Case Of The Curious Curate, MC Beaton delivers some deliciously funny scenes. Agatha has a penchant for causing mayhem as she lurches from one theory to another. Though she is so often rude and forceful, by the end of each novel, I did find myself warming to her. I loved the image of this champion of justice fretting about her weight before bunging another high calorie meal into the microwave before heading off in high heels and tight skirt, to do battle with the villain behind net curtains.

Would I read another book in the series? I might do if I were ever feeling a bit down in the dumps and in need of a pure entertainment. I have a feeling they would work really well as audiobooks so I’ll have to look out for them via my library’s digital service.

Rather To Be Pitied by Jan Newton: Crime In Rural Setting [Book Review]

Book cover of Rather To Be Pitied by Jan Newton

Reading Rather To Be Pitied brought on a wave of nostalgia for a delightful weekend I once spent amid the hills, dams and isolated farmhouses of mid Wales.

This is book two in a crime fiction series by Jan Newton which is set in the area near the market town of Rhyadar. It’s a tranquil region much loved by walkers and cyclists for its trails around six enormous dams that supply water to Birmingham. As impressive as they are, I was there for the birds – it’s one of the few places in Wales you can spot red kites that were on the verge of extinction not so many years ago.

In Rather To Be Pitied, the tranquility of this farming community is disturbed by the discovery of a woman’s body near a walking trail used by Benedictine monks in centuries past. It proves to be a complicated case for the newest member of the local police force, Detective Sergeant Julie Kite..

Though the woman is identified fairly quickly, there’s no sign of her young son. He’s not the only missing person. The dead woman’s former neighbour has left her home and husband. The landlady at the B&B where the murdered woman spent her last night, hasn’t seen her husband in quite a while either. Are the two disappearances connected? And what does all this have to do with some ex soldiers who are working at a local farm?

There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to navigate before the answers are revealed.

The police procedural aspect is well handled though maybe edged a bit too close to the obvious. What I enjoyed most was the chance to see this part of Wales through the eyes of a newcomer.

Manchester cop adjusts to rural life

Julie Kite was a copper in Manchester but found herself transplanted to an unfamiliar territory when her husband found a new teaching job in mid Wales. Life in her new home proceeds at a much slower pace than the high octane world of Lancashire policing. When you’re used to a battalion of emergency vehicles arriving on scene within minutes of your call, it’s agonising to wait for Welsh ambulances to negotiate slow country roads.

The challenges of rural life are compounded by the suspicion she encounters from one member of the police team. Then there are her own suspicions about her marriage. Is her husband’s former colleague stalking him with unwanted text messages or is there more to this relationship than he is letting on?

And then there are the complexities of the Welsh language. I enjoyed the running joke Jan Newton introduces based on the tongue-twisting nature of Welsh place names which seem impossible to pronounce:

She negotiated winding roads down into Newtown and on towards Welshpool where there were signs of life around the livestock market. Marchnad Da Byw y Trallwng. Where would you start with that? Which bit was Welshpool? She really ought to get around to learning Welsh …

But DS Kite finds there are some compensation as she tells her boss:

I love the way everybody knows everyone else and the fact that it’s completely silent at night. I love the views and the rivers and the way that people calculate journeys in minutes rather than miles.

I suspect that we’ll find that burgeoning appreciation for rural life will deepen as the series progresses. In a sense it has to in order for us to witness a maturing of the central character.

Voice of Authenticity

This was enjoyable read. Jan Newton describes the landscape and the local communities with the authenticity that comes from having driven those roads and met the inhabitants. It makes such a refreshing change to read a police procedural with a rural setting.

I also admired the dynamics of the police team. We get a jealous PC who resents the keen as mustard newcomer Kite and an energetic but kindly DI whose idea of investigation involves copious scones and cups of tea. The set up is complete with a fantastic forensic pathologist character in the form of a super smart and spiky woman who likes a tipple or two. As a Yorkshire lass, she knows how Kite feels to be an outsider.

Jan Newton planted two hints that the series could progress along a slightly different tack in future – one involving a hinted-at medical condition for Kite’s boss and another about her fascination for forensic pathology. It will be interesting to see if any of my predictions prove accurate.

Rather To Be Pitied: EndNotes

The Book: Rather To Be Pitied by Jan Newton was published by Honno Press in 2019. They also published Jan’s debut novel (the first DS Kite mystery) in 2017.

The Author: Jan Newton grew up in Manchester and Derbyshire and spent almost twenty years in the Chilterns before moving to mid Wales in 2005. She has worked as a bilingual secretary in a German chemical company, as an accountant in a BMW garage and a GP practice and as a Teaching Assistant in the Welsh stream of a primary school, but now she has finally been able to return to her first love, writing.

Portrait in colour of Jan Newton, author of Rather To Be Pitied

She graduated from Swansea University with a Masters degree in Creative Writing in 2015 and has won the Allen Raine Short Story Competition, the WI’s Lady Denman Cup competition, the Lancashire and North West Magazine’s prize for humorous short stories and the Oriel Davies Gallery’s prize for nature writing.

Why Did I Read This Book?: I was in the mood for some crime fiction and saw this mentioned on the Honno website. It’s counting towards the “Wales” category in my #20booksofsummer 2020 project.

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Emma Kavanagh’s training as a psychologist is very much in evidence in her most recently published novel: To Catch a Killer. This is a taut thriller which features Detective Sergeant Alice Parr, newly returned to duty after a traumatic incident in which she almost lost her life in when her apartment caught fire. Seven months […]

A Dream Of A Book: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls is the only fictional book I’ve ever bought purely because I was interested in the illustrations.

I first heard about the book in a Sunday newspaper supplement in which illustrator Jim Kay described the process of creating an imaginary monster for a new children’s novel by Patrick Ness. I was so intrigued by Kay’s explanations of using ink splats, splodges and rubbings from bits of wood to produce textures and patterns, that I just had to see the results for myself.

The finished illustrations are gobsmackingly brilliant. Patrick Ness imagined his monster emerging from a yew tree as a huge, gnarled, creaking, spiky thing. In Kay’s stark black and grey drawings, you get not only a sense of the monster’s scale, but its earthy origins. Hands fashioned from twigs and bark like legs topped with a crown of thorns.

Some scenes are rendered on a single page, others spread across several pages with motifs repeated as smaller drawings elsewhere in the book.

You turn a page on which you’ve just read about the creature that comes knocking on a young boy’s bedroom window, and suddenly you see this huge shape yourself. As a young reader I think I have been petrified. But here’s the really clever part: although the illustrations are detailed, they still leave huge scope for the imagination. There’s plenty of ambiguity for the reader to interpret the scene for themselves.

Harmonious Creation

I’m conscious I haven’t really talked about the narrative but don’t think that’s because I felt the text was somehow inferior to the illustrations. A Monster Calls is in fact a book where the illustrations and text are in perfect harmony. That’s an astonishing achievement considering that Patrick Ness and Jim Kay never met until after the book was completed. They communicated entirely through a third party – the art director at Walker Books, Kay told The Guardian newspaper in a 2012 interview.

A Monster Calls is a fantasy novel aimed at young teen readers. It follows 13-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives alone with his ailing mum. Dad isn’t much on the scene because he’s living in America with his a new family. Conor’s grandmother occasionally makes an appearance, but she’s not the “crinkley and smiley with white hair” kind of grandma who giggles at Christmas after a glass of sherry. That’s how grandmas are supposed to look and act, in Connor’s view but his

… wore tailored trouser suits, dyed her hair to keep out the grey, and said things that made no sense at all, like ‘Sixty is the new fifty’ or ‘Classic cars need the most expensive polish.’ What did that even mean? She emailed birthday cards, argued with waiters and still had a job.

Which leaves the boy isolated and alone, unable to express his fears about his mother who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. There’s no-one he can tell either that he is being bullied at school.

A Monster Comes Calling

For months Connor’s sleeo is disturbed by the same nightmare, “the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming”. One night at precisely 12:07, he hears a voice outside his bedroom window, calling him. Peering out he encounters a towering mass of branches and leaves in human shape, a monster who insists Connor has summoned him.

The monster continues to meet Connor to tell him stories that all touch on the complexity of human emotions and decisions. As the novel progresses, his mother’s condition worsens and Connor’s encounters with the monster unleash an aggressive reaction in the boy.

Why does the monster keep re-appearing? We don’t discover this, or the exact nature of Connor’s nightmare, until the very end of the book. Unlike many books written for children, this one doesn’t have a happy-ever- after kind of ending. Patrick Ness never shrinks from showing a child’s fear of loss and their frustration with their inability to control the future. I thought this was a sad but profound novel that treats a difficult topic of terminal illness with great sensitivity.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: Endnotes

The novel was written based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, She was terminally ill with cancer herself when she had the idea for the story but died before she could complete it. Walker Books commissioned Patrick Ness to write the book although as Ness says in an afterword to my edition, he he used the preliminary idea but gave it a completely different spin.

Patrick Ness and Jim Kay won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration in 2012, making A Monster Calls the only novel to have won both children’s literary awards in 50 years.

You’ll find samples of Jim Kay’s illustrations for the book on his website. His other work, including the illustrations for the Harry Potter books, is just as impressive.

Normal People by Sally Rooney: A Classic For The Future?

Normal People was one of the most talked-about books of 2018. It was touted as a potential Booker Prize winner (though didn’t get further than longlist); won the Costa Prize and has now been longlisted for the Women’s Prize.

Given all the award nominations, the euphoric reviews and the number of times Normal People appeared in end of year “best books” lists, I was expecting a lot more from the book.

It’s a tale about an on-off romance between two Millenials from completely different backgrounds. Connell and Marianne attend the same school in small town Carricklea in County Mayo, Ireland. Both are high achievers but there the similarity ends. He”s very popular, the star of the school football ; she has no friends; sits alone at lunch breaks reading Proust and is viewed as a bit of a misfit who “wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face.”. He lives with his single parent mother who is a cleaner. She comes from a rich family.

They begin a clandestine relationship in school (secret because he’s afraid of what his friends would think). Marianne persuades Connell to follow her to Trinity College in Dublin. There their lives are reversed; she becomes part of the in-crowd; he feels out of place.

They spend four years alternately pursuing and withdrawing from each other. They can’t commit to each other but neither can they survive apart. Whenever they try to pull apart, to find other partners, one of them will come back, seeking the other’s support and help.

As Connell reflects at one stage, he and Marianne are like figure skaters

…improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.”

A Novel To Suit All Generations?

I suspect the book was aimed at a different age group than my own – my 20-something year old niece loved it. But I don’t think my lack of rapport was entirely attributable to a generational gap.

Problem number one was that the first half of the book was slow and had far too many scenes that were stuffed with mundane details. Here’s one example, taken from a chapter where at the end of a holiday travelling around Europe, Connor ends up at the Greek villa where Marianne and her friends have made their holiday home.

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

None of this adds to our understanding of character or the dynamics between the characters. It could omitted without materially affecting he narrative in any way.

Familiar Perspective On Love

Second problem: too much of the plot relied upon miscommunication and gaps between what was said and was was felt. David Nicholls used a similar device in One Day but he made it feel fresh and natural; in Rooney’s novel. it felt contrived.

Normal People didn’t seem to be saying anything that hasn’t already been said in other novels about young love and love across a class divide. Actually for a large part of the book I wasn’t even clear what it was trying to say.

In essence I suppose it aims to show how a relationship helps two people who feel alone, adrift and misunderstood, to learn how to be like “normal people.” To reach that understanding they have to endure physical pain (Marianne) and emotional pain (Connell). Exactly what the normality to which they strive consists of, is unclear since there are no “normal people” who act as role models – with the one notable exception of Connell’s mother.

Uninspired By Characters

This brings me to my third issue with Normal People: the characters of the two principals are examined in minute detail but everyone else around them are sketchily rendered.

In Dublin, Marianne is surrounded by people who have few qualities beyond their willing participation in her desire to be hurt. Connell, when he’s not spending every minute with Marianne, strikes up relationships with nice but dull women.

I get the fact that this is a novel about a relationship so all-consuming it robs everything, and everyone else around them, of colour and vitality. But the result is that the other cast members are flattened to the point where they often feel irrelevant. If I’d been deeply invested in Marianne and Connell’s characters , that wouldn’t have been an issue. But I found the repetitive nature of their relationship irritating and annoying.

I’ve seen reviews which describe Normal People as a “future classic”, a novel that shows what it is to be young and in love in the twenty-first century. It’s a novel that has clearly resonated with many readers. I did grow to appreciate it more when it took on a darker tone in the final third. But to put this on a pedestal as a work of classic literature is stretching things too far.

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