Category Archives: British authors

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.

Something to Answer For By P.H. Newby: Confusing First Winner Of The Booker Prize

Front cover of Something To Answer For by P H Newby

By the time I’d struggled to the last page of Something to Answer For  by P H Newby, there was little I felt sure about any longer. 

All I could be certain of was that Newby’s novel is set in Port Said and concerns a character called Townrow. He arrives in the city, which is then in the throes of the Suez Crisis, to see the widow of a recently deceased friend. The widow thinks her husband was murdered and wants Townrow’s help to find the truth.

But his journey to Port Said is a convoluted one. He stops over in Rome where he gets into an argument about Hitler’s Final Solution, then lands in Cairo where he makes a stupid remark that sees him interrogated and held in a police cell. When he does finally make it to Port Said, he gets so drunk in a bar he passes out, is attacked and ends up with a head and eye injury.

Truth or Dreams?

But who exactly is Townrow? Somewhere in the narrative there is a clue that he has been embezzling from a fund he is meant to be managing. Is he Irish? Is he married? He recalls both “facts” at different points in the narrative. But he doesn’t seem absolutely sure if either is true or if he’s merely dreaming.

From the point at which he is hit on the head, nothing he says can be relied upon. He operates in a a dream-like state where he recalls events (like his friend’s funeral) that have yet to happen.   The borders between truth and reality become ever more distinct as the novel progresses.

This is a confusing narrative that borders on comedy yet also deals with issues of responsibility, national identity and the sunset of the British Empire. For the reader it’s a baffling experience.

Baffling, but not rewarding.

One critic who reviewed the book at the time of its publication, described it as beautifully written and a tour de force of comic writing. There were certainly some passages that gave me a glimmer of hope that the book would improve. But they were simply transitory experiences before I was propelled into yet another labyrinth. By the end I suspected P H Newby had experienced more fun writing his book than I did in reading it.

Something To Answer For by P H Newby: Endnotes

Portrait photograph of P H Newby, author of Something To Answer For

About the Book

Something to Answer For is a 1968 novel which would have entirely disappeared from our awareness if it hadn’t been the winner of the inaugural  Booker Prize in 1969. The book was reissued by Faber & Faber in 2008 in the “Faber Finds” line and again in 2018.

About The Author

Given his low profile, I was surprised to find that P H Newby had written 13 books by the time of his Booker Prize success. After service in World War 2 (in France and Egypt) he taught English Literature at Fouad 1st University, Cairo.

He returned to England and joined the BBC in 1949, beginning as a radio producer and going on to become Director of Programmes and finally Managing Director for BBC Radio. He was awarded  a CBE for his work in that capacity.

Despite what most people would have considered a demanding job, he was a prolific writer, at one time producing a new book every year. His rate of output apparently was one of the reasons why other writers dismissed him as a second rate artist. Literature was meant to be crafted slowly and painstakingly in the mode of Flaubert, not rattled out like a production factory, they sniffed. Little wonder that Graham Greene called Newby  A fine writer who has never had the full recognition he deserves. ” 

It was left to Newby’s friend, Anthony Thwaite to redress the balance.  In an obituary he called P H Newby “One of the best English novelists of the second half of the century.”

Why I Read This Book

I had never heard of P H Newby or Something To Answer For until I embarked on my Booker Prize Project and discovered this was the first winner of the prize. I’ve rated it as one of the least interesting winners in the history of the prize.

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.

What I’m Reading: Episode 27, May 2020

Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

Given I have zero tolerance for heights, you might be surprised to learn that I’m reading a book about climbing. It won’t be my first either – many years ago I was fascinated by Regions of the Heart, an autobiography of the British climber, Alison Jane Hargreaves.  She reached the summit of Everest alone, without oxygen or Sherpas in May 1995. Later that year she died in a storm while descending K2.

I suspect what interests me in this kind of book is that they reveal levels of endurance and courage I don’t have myself.

My current read takes place closer to home; among the slate quarries of North Wales. Many of them were abandoned when the industry declined leaving behind enormous craters; just the kind of terrain to attract climbers.

In  Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene, Peter Goulding talks about his love affair with slate and the motley gang who join him in scaling the heights of oddly named landmarks like Orangutan Overhang. I’m on the blog tour for this book which is published by New Welsh Rarebyte on June 4.

I’m also making my way through Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope, number four in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. It took a time to get going but the drama has now kicked up a gear with the bailiffs about to come knocking on the door of a vicar caught up in the financial schemes of a so-called friend. Some of the well known and well-loved characters from previous books make an appearance including the quite awful bishop’s wife Mrs Proudie.  

What I just finished reading

I managed to get to the library the day before all branches in our county were closed indefinitely because of Covid-19. By good fortune it meant I could pick up Actress by Anne Enright. What a delight that turned out to be; a book so good that I didn’t want it to end.

It’s a character study in which a daughter tells the story of her actress mother Katherine O’Dell in an attempt to answer the question she is most often asked “What was she like?” There is another question in the narrative: why did Katherine go mad?

The book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 but strangely never made the shortlist. Maybe she will be more successful with the Booker Prize when that longlist is announced in July – Actress is definitely on a par with The Gathering, the novel that won her the prize in 2007.

What I’ll read next

I’ve resisted the temptation to join in 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746books.com again this year. I love the event even though I have never managed to complete my list but at the beginning of the year I made a decision to avoid any challenges which involve reading from a list. That won’t stop me feeling envious when I see all the other participants blogging about their reading plans

I do have a few books lined up already, the result of getting carried away with review copies. Plus I’ve been trying to support independent bookshops and publishers during these extraordinary times so my book buying has gone through the roof.

First for me to read will be The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith. It’s a debut novel taking place amid a health crisis in the world – a theme we have become all too familiar with in recent month. Smith’s novel is about one woman’s hunt for her birth mother at a point in the future when an antibiotic crisis has decimated the population. The ebook came out in April with the paperback version published by Orenda out on July 9.

There are some new books coming out I have my eye on. One is by the Welsh author Alis Hawkins. Those Who Know is the third in her Teifi Valley Coroner series. It’s out in ebook format but publication of the paperback (the format I’d prefer to read) is postponed until September. I’m waiting for my order of her novel set during the time of the Black Death – The Black and the White  – to arrive through my letterbox.

And I’ve just taken delivery of Nia by another Welsh author, Robert Minhinnick, published by Seren Books. It’s about a new mother who joins forces with two friends to explore an unmapped cave system. As events unfold, the strands of her life come into focus – her dysfunctional parents, the daughter she must raise differently, the friends with whom she shared childhood.


Those are my plans. I’ve only now realised that a number of the books I’ve mentioned have a Welsh connection. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Souls Lost Through Books In The Binding By Bridget Collins [Review]

Words Book Review with image of front cover of The Binding by Bridget Collins

The Binding is based on a markedly original idea about memories and books.

Bridget Collins imagines a world in which you engage the services of a book binder and whatever was causing you distress or pain can be erased from your memory. Your most traumatic memories are bound between the covers of a book and wiped clean away. 

It sounds like the perfect cure but Bridget Collins shows us there are two problems with binding.

The first is that the people whose memories are erased are not made whole again by their binding. It’s so complete a cleansing process that it leaves the participants as mere shells of their former selves. It takes away not just their memories but the essence of their character. They are no longer themselves.  

For the young apprentice binder Emmett Farmer the moment of binding wrenches out the deepest part of a person, leaving a hole in its place.

Which was worse? To feel nothing, or to grieve for something you no longer remembered? Surely when you forgot, you’d forget to be sad, or what was the point? And yet that numbness would take part of your self away, it would be like pins and needles in your soul…

What he comes to learn troubles him even more deeply. Memories, he discovers, can be stolen, treated as a commodity just like sugar or soap and sold for amusement and profit by manipulative, powerful figures.

Bridget Collins reveals a world of exploitation in which members of the aristocracy use bindings to hide their abuse of female servants.

… when they leave they’re sucked dry, bound for the last time so they don’t remember anything, they’ll deny he ever touched them, they’ll tell everyone he’s a lovely man, delightful, and if every anyone tries to do something to stop him … He laughs, because he’s safe.

Beauty And Evil Of Books

Within the world of The Binding, books are things of beauty, covered in black velvet inlaid with pearls or bound in silk and shimmering like silver. But what they contain is powerful and evil, the people reading them dangerous.

This is a book about books both as objects of desire and as objects of abomination because they are written by people “who enjoy imagining misery … people who have no scruples about dishonesty.” .

It was this idea that kept me reading The Binding. It more than compensated for the rather uninspired romance between Emmett and a gentleman’s son that formed the bulk of the novel’s second and third sections.

The book starts strongly with Emmett, the teenage son of a farmer, apprenticed to Seredith, an old binder who lives on the edge of a marsh. Just as he is settling into his new life and learning his trade, he makes a discovery – one of the books in her bindery vault bears his name.

It’s just one of the many things in his life he doesn’t understand: why did his family feel he had brought disgrace to their home? Why was he so ill before he moved to the bindery? And why does he feel hatred towards Lucian Darnay, a boy his own age who arrives at Seredith’s home one day.

The answers are provided in the second section which winds back to a time when Emmett and his sister develop a strong friendship with Lucian Darnay. After the atmospheric and intriguing first section, part two was a big disappointment.

It was essentially a retelling of a well-known theme of initial aversion that becomes affection and eventually turns into love. I wasn’t surprised to discover later that Bridget Collins had previously focused on young adult fiction and The Binding is her first foray into adult fiction. I would happily have traded this romance in for more time in the company of Seredith, serene amid the russet and ochre- tiled workshop smelling of saffron and glue.

Fortunately the book perks back up with the final section which takes the story of Emmett and Lucian’s relationship into the future and in which we learn the truth about bindings.

This is a strong debut novel, written with pace and memorable imagery. With a few tweaks (to more fully realise Emmett’s sister for example) it would have been a knock out.

The Binding by Bridget Collins: EndNotes

Bridget Collins has written seven books for young adults and has had two plays produced, one at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

She was inspired to write her first adult novel, The Binding because of her work as a volunteer with The Samaritans. Faced with stories of pain and heartache she began to wonder what would happen if she could take the memory of the painful experiences away from them, leaving them to begin again. 

In parallel she took a course in bookbinding. In an interview published on the Foyles blog, she said she was immediately seduced by the process:

… by the processes, the materials – the coloured papers, gold, leather, beeswax, silk – and the tools, which are made of wood and bone and metal. It was all wonderfully tactile, with a sort of subtle glamour that made me imagine another, older, world..

The Binding was published in Jan 2019 by Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins,

With thanks to the Borough Press and NetGalley for a review copy. 

What I’m Reading: Episode 26, March 2020

Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

For the first time ever I purchased a book in advance of publication. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so much, I just had to have the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I wasn’t expecting The Mirror & The Light to be so big. Huge in fact and because it’s in hardback, it’s heavy. Which makes it very difficult to read in bed….

Hilary Mantel

But that’s only part of the reason why my progress through this book is at glacial speed. The main factor is that this is a book which takes a good amount of concentration. Mantel’s narration is slippery. You have to keep on your toes to be certain who is speaking. Plus there are a lot of characters (the list at the front of the book is five pages long).

But I’m not complaining. This is a book of sheer brilliance. It is absolutely meant to be savoured. I suspect I’m still going to be reading it when it’s time to do my April edition of “What I’m Reading”.  

What I just finished reading

WalesReadingMonth (otherwise known as Dewithon 2020) has been running throughout March. As you’d expect I’ve been participating in the event hosted by Paula at Book Jotter by reading a few books by Welsh authors that were on my TBR shelves.

I posted my review of one of these – Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans – a few days ago. It wasn’t great. Far more to my taste was One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard. It was written in the Welsh language in 1961 as a portrayal of life in a small slate quarrying town in North Wales. The narrator recalls his childhood in this community, a life in which joy, sadness and tragedy are seldom apart.

Caradog Pritchard

Pritchard’s novel is written in a poetic style but also uses the local dialect. Once you’ve tuned into this, and got accustomed to the oddities of character names (Will Starch Collar is my favourite), the book is tremendous. I’ll post a more considered response in the next few days.

Incidentally the photo was taken on what turned out to be my very last trip to a coffee shop for some considerable time. No prizes for guessing why coffee shops are no go areas right now.

I also just finished The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, a debut novel which comes out in April. It has an interesting twist on the theme of relationships because it focuses on a married couple who have not spoken to each other for six months. I’m on the blog tour for this mid April so will share my thoughts in a few weeks.

Abbie Greaves

What I’ll read next

I said at the beginning of the year that I was pulling back from reading challenges that involved making lists of books to read or goals for the number of books to read. But I am joining in short reading events where I can and where I have a suitable book/s on my TBR.

There are two coming up fairly soon. One is ZolaAddictionMonth hosted by Fanda and the other is the 1920club hosted by Karen and Simon.

I have one book lined up for each.

For Zola Addiction month I have His Excellency Eugene Rougon/Son Excellence Eugène Rougon which is book number two in Zola’s Rougon-Macquet cycle. I’ve been reading them out of order but am now trying to fill in the gaps.

For the 1920 reading club I have Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. This will be the final book on my Classics Club project (woo hoo….)

I turned to Twitter to help me decide which to read first. But it didn’t help. Because it was a draw… So I shall have to rely on my instinct instead.

In the meantime there is the (not so small) matter of the Mantel to finish, and The Binding which is the next book club choice. And a library loan of Actress by Anne Enright (not that it needs to be finished soon because libraries have gone the way of coffee shops). And more than 200 other books on my shelves.

I shall be busy.


Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

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.

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