Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Treachery by S J Parris

The good thing about historical novels, especially period mysteries like this one, is that you learn a bit of history while you're immersed in a rip-roaring yarn. The bad thing is that a quick dip into Wikipedia, or something more erudite if you prefer, will remind you that your historical hero or heroine can't keep all this sleuthing up for ever as there are well-documented events in the pipeline that can't be ignored. And I know all to well what happens to Giordano Bruno and his pal Sir Philip Sidney, and this makes my enjoyment of S J Parris's superb series all the more bitter-sweet.
    In Treachery, Bruno and Sir Philip are sent to Plymouth to reconnoitre with Sir Francis Drake (and we know all about him too!) to collect a Portuguese ally of Queen Elizabeth's - Dom Antonio, who has been on the run from Philip of Spain. Drake is all set to launch a fleet against the Spanish who have been capturing British ships and Sidney hopes to join in the fun and collect a fortune in prize money. He has brought Bruno along as Drake has requested help with a matter requiring scholarly input.
    But all these enterprises are put on hold when a murder takes place on Drake's ship, the Elizabeth Bonaventure. Made to look like a suicide, the death of Robert Dunne - a gentleman who has joined the fleet to recover losses sustained at the card tables - soon throws up a number of suspects, and a load of red herrings. Was one of Dunne's creditors driven to murder him? There is also evidence he could have been involved in blackmail, while his widow scarcely sheds a tear - could she have paid for an assassin?
   Jenkes, a book dealer and enemy Bruno first encountered in Oxford, appears on the scene and it's no coincidence that Drake has in his possession a Coptic text that could be a lost gospel, the very text he wants Bruno to decipher. There are enemies out to get Drake too, some eager for revenge and others for the generous reward on offer from Philip of Spain for Drake's death. All this is complicated by the arrival of Drake's young wife and her widowed cousin who Sir Philip is sent to entertain in his courtly way, while Drake deals with more serious matters. There are more characters than you can shake a stick at and some less than salubrious settings, including the House of Vesta, a brothel with a name for providing discretion and very young girls.
    Of course there is danger at every turn for Bruno who has a talent for breaking and entering and narrow escapes. Thank goodness he can handle a knife. While it is Sir Philip who dreams of action, it is always Bruno who turns up with broken ribs, cuts and bruises. He's a lot more than a gallant hero though and his knack with memory and solving problems are balanced by a philosophical turn of mind which seeks to understand the motives of his opponents while showing empathy for their victims.
    Treachery is one of those books that has you sitting up into the small hours or longing for the odd spare moment when you can pick it up again. The plotting is first class, as is the writing which is immediate yet descriptive enough to plunge you into Elizabethan England. This is another credit to an author who has made a brilliant character from a fascinating historical figure and I truly hope this isn't the last we'll see of Bruno.

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Hollow by Agatha Christie

This is one of my favourite Poirot mysteries. It has a lot of the things that Christie does so well: a surprise ending that sneaks up on you; some spectacularly snooty and humorous characters, in this case the stand-out is the vague and offhand socialite, Lucy Angkatell; and a heart-warming but not too intrusive bit of romance.
    The Hollow is the name of the manor house where Lucy and Sir Henry like to entertain, inviting their friends and relations for weekends. This weekend Lucy is in a bit of a dither having invited too many problematic guests - the distant cousin, David, just down from Oxford who has socialist leanings, the excessively charming Dr John Chistow and his mousy wife Gerda who gets flummoxed by the Angkatell's idea of fun.
    Unfortunately, Henrietta, another cousin also invited, happens to be John's mistress, while yet another guest is cousin Edward, who has always loved Henrietta. It is just as well Henrietta is so lovely with Gerda and manages to smooth over any awkwardnesses. Then there's Midge, the 'poor cousin' of this cast of relatives who, God forbid, has to work in a dress shop where she is treated like a dogsbody just to earn a living.
   Over an evening at the bridge tables all these potential issues are beginning to simmer when in through the French windows - Christie is a whizz at entrances - appears a glamorous actress in evening dress, asking for matches. She's none other than Veronica Cray, an old flame of John Christow's and the only woman he ever truly loved. He escorts her back to her weekend cottage and returns rather later than expected. Oh, dear.
    Of course the final guest is Hercule Poirot, invited for lunch the next day, and he arrives just in time to see a tableau that at first he thinks with immense irritation has been assembled just for his benefit - a dying man (John Christow) lying at the edge of the pool, his wife standing looking dazed and holding a pistol, while other members of the party appear from all directions.
    The scene is set for a wonderful whodunnit: loads of motives, red herrings and an oversupply of guns. It doesn't have the tension of say The ABC Murders, with more people being bumped off continually though the book. Instead are some comical scenes starring Lucy Angkatell, a supreme snob, though she tries to be kindly, and some insight into the predicament of nicely brought up young ladies with limited means who must therefore marry or work to support themselves.
    Henrietta does this most successfully as a sculptor, while Midge has to encourage snooty matrons to buy expensive clothes they don't really need. This is post-war Britain after all and the times they are a-changing.
    The men don't necessarily have such a nice time of it either - there's the irony of David being all set to inherit The Hollow, when he would really like to set a torch to it, while Edward has been unmanned by being wealthy. He has never had to make a career for himself so thinks he's no good at anything. John Christow puts them all in the shade - he's a brilliant doctor, charming and charismatic, but oh so tired, and not long into the book, he's oh so dead.
    All in all, this is just another murder mystery, with Poirot getting his little grey cells into gear, but it still manages to be a very satisfying read, with plenty of wit and the effect of watching an engaging if slightly old fashioned play. Things crank up towards the end with the possibility of another murder but Poirot steps in just in time to nip it in the bud. Just as it should be.


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Coming Home by Sue Gee

I'd forgotten about Sue Gee, and I could kick myself, because years ago I had read a book of hers called Thin Air, which I enjoyed enormously. Yet for some reason I hadn't read any more of Gee's novels - perhaps it was those awards for romantic fiction that put me off. Until now.
    Coming Home has several aspects that are similar to Thin Air, as far as I can remember: fragile but engagingly quirky characters, country houses that lack creature comforts, particularly heating, and dare I say it, happy-ish endings.
    The new book concerns the Sutherland family and at the start, they are only just a family. Felicity (Flo) has only been married a short time and is pregnant with her first child, waiting for husband Will to fetch her for their journey back to England. It is India, 1947, on the brink of independence and the end of Will's career as a sugar cane planter.
    Flo is desperate to be rescued - she's been a bit spoilt by wealthy parents, hasn't managed to make a career for herself and now with the war over and in her thirties she could be on the shelf. She's a pretty, ditzy thing really, and we can only hope she will find fulfilment in marriage and raising children. Which she does for a bit.
    Will decides to become a farmer and with two young children, Bea and Freddie, the Sutherlands set up home in Dorset in a draughty farmhouse, where Flo finds things challenging to say the least. Her struggles with domesticity are a recurring theme, but she finds consolation in jotting down her reminiscences about India and the romance of meeting Will.
    Heart troubles begin to dog Will and so the family leave their farm and move to town, where Will makes the most of his hearty, out-going personality in a new job with the Rural Landowners Society. The rest of the book follows Will's struggle to understand Flo's moods, her passion for writing, her loathing for meal preparation. He also fails to understand the effects of sending sensitive Freddie away to his old boarding school at the age of eight.
    Bea is a happy, friendly child who can talk to anybody, a bit like her dad, but starts to have black-outs, which no one takes at all seriously. The childhood and growing up of Bea and Freddie are delightfully and sensitively portrayed as the novel tracks the family's ups and downs, from the post war years, and what seems to be interminable rationing, through the fifties and sixties. It brilliantly captures the people of the day - especially Will and Flo, forever trying to put on a brave face and do the done thing. There is never a question over their love for each other, but there are huge chasms in their ability to discuss important issues together.
    Fringe characters reflect the problems of post war relationships including infidelity, a lack of fulfilment and mental illness. Will seems incredibly callous over family pets, and at one point Flo tells him, 'You can be so brutal.' His reply, 'Perhaps it's the army. Perhaps it was the war. I've had to be bloody tough in my time. But deep down...' It's a very telling remark, and a reminder of what his generation had to go through.
   Sue Gee is a great writer, the voices she creates for her characters so authentic it really is like being inside their heads. I will certainly not leave it so long next time to read another by this author.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Harvest by Jim Crace

Jim Crace won a Man Booker nomination for Harvest,  a beautifully crafted novel which is unlike anything else I've read in a long time. (I would have said it was unlike anything else I've ever read before, if it hadn't reminded me a little of Barry Unsworth's  novel, Morality Play.)
    What Crace does so well is create a world long past, in particular a small village, some centuries ago, when people lived simply off the land, under the benevolent eye of their squire. In this case the squire is Master Kent, who has a manor house and land thanks to his marriage. But since the previous spring when his wife died in childbirth, he is set to lose that entitlement, which falls to his wife's cousin.
    As a result the estate is soon to be enclosed as pasture for sheep, and many of the villagers will have to find a living elsewhere. All this is told through the eyes of widower Walter Thirsk, once a servant of Master Kent, but since his own marriage, has chosen to become part of the village and work the land as a farmer.
    The story is set over a week when one ominous event follows another, beginning with a fire in Master Kent's barn. This is a time of cruel punishments for misdemeanours, and under a less kindly lord, you could be hanged for a crime like this. Everyone knows this, but Kent is a gentle master and unwilling to take a firm hand.
    Suddenly it seems easier to blame the three strangers that have set up a shelter on the village fringes. Their defensive reaction earns the two men of the group a week in the pillory, while their female relative, with her unsettling, catlike face, is shorn and abandoned.
    The reader begins to get a sense of impending doom, particularly after the arrival of Kent's cousin by marriage, Master Jordan, who is intent on making changes and putting his authority into play. He is happy to use whatever means he can to gain the upper hand, and Kent is unable to protect his people.
    Thirsk, having shared his boyhood with Kent, has a little education and a facility of expression that makes him a wonderful narrator. Crace seems to do the impossible here - he gives Thirsk an authentic voice for his time that is both elegant and expressive, but avoids sounding contrived.
    And you can't help but feel sorry for Thirsk. He doesn't quite fit in, no longer Kent's man, but not quite a villager either. He's lost his beloved Cecily to the sweating sickness not long before and he's lonely, like Kent is. On the other hand he has come to appreciate the bounty of the land and the life of a farmer who finds everything he needs in the soil and the seasons. His descriptive turn of phrase makes all this very real for the reader, but not in such a way that makes you want to skip chunks of text, looking for dialogue and action.
   Thirsk's viewpoint makes the village way of life seem precious, and its loss becomes the tragedy of the novel. Crace has described the unpleasant side-affects of progress and monetary greed.  Harvest is both an elegant pastoral idyll and a tense story that you can't tear yourself away from.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

I had quite a Jane Austen obsession there for a bit, and while Sense and Sensibility was never one of my absolute favourites, I was fairly interested when Joanna Trollope, another author I have regularly enjoyed, announced she was doing a modern version of the Austen novel as part of 'The Austen Project'. And who better! You know you are in safe hands with Trollope when it comes to character, relationships and lively dialogue.
    In this update, you've got the Dashwood family, three gorgeous young women and their more creative than practical mother, thrown out on their ear by mercenary relations who have inherited the family pile. This is due to a lack of foresight on the part of the girls' late father. Trollope replaces primo-geniture as the reason behind the girls losing their beloved Norland with their being illegitimate. Other updates include the power of social media, and the more superficially snobbish characters are more concerned with money than having a title.
    But the heart of the story is the contrast of the two sisters, each  experiencing problems along the path to true love - the older Elinor being the drearily sensible one, while her sister Marianne, is astonishingly impulsive and passionate. It was always a very contrived idea, and it is fortunate that Elinor has beneath her quiet and pragmatic veneer, a warm heart, and that Marianne learns eventually to consider other people's feelings and develops some strength of character.
    However I found the cast of ridiculous and often unpleasant characters very tiresome. I couldn't quite believe that so many of them - the scheming Lucy who won't give up Edward without a fight, the ditzy, insensitive Charlotte and her gushy sister Mary, wife of the tiresomely jolly Sir John, to say nothing of the odious Nancy - could have so few redeeming features. Edward was always a wimp, but this is explained away by his repressive mother, yet another nasty.
    The characters are all just a bit too extreme and verging on the cardboard cut-out. Then again they were probably like this in Austen as well, only the modern reader has the luxury of putting this down to the Regency period while being able to enjoy Austen's elegant and witty prose. Sadly there isn't a lot of wit here - the characters are all too dumb or lovelorn for that, although the dialogue is snappy and the prose reasonably elegant - which is what we would expect from Trollope. This makes the novel a quick and easy read, but somehow Austen was always rather more satisfying.
    Will I be returning for more in The Austen Project? Not just yet, I imagine, but then again I am curious about how Persuasion might turn out and who would have picked Val McDermid for Northanger Abbey!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Poets' Wives by David Park

David Park's new novel concerns the lives of three poet's wives, two of which are real and one fictitious. But all three share a few similarities, the most obvious of all is that their lives have been to some extent subordinated to the work of their husbands' genius.
    The first story is that of Catherine Blake, wife of the early Romantic and visionary poet and artist, William Blake, whose talent like many of his kind, was not recognised in his lifetime. Catherine is from humble origins, in fact she is illiterate when she marries William, but theirs is such a close relationship that she becomes his invaluable assistant, helping with the colouring of his dreamlike illustrations.
    The relationship is marked by tragedy when their daughter is stillborn, there are financial difficulties, and society regards Blake as mad, but through all this Catherine is loyal. Ahead of his time, Blake dabbled in new ideas which weren't always Catherine's cup of tea, such as free love, nudism and pacifism.
    Next we read about Nadezhda Mandelstam at the time her well-regarded poet husband, Osip, has been incarcerated by Stalin for a defamatory poem against the dictator. She speaks not only as the wife of a poet, but also as one of many whose loved-ones are victims of Stalin's purges, and her story paints a grim picture of the fear these people endured decade after decade, waiting for a hammering at the door in the night. It is this terror that meant neighbour could not trust neighbour, and where children were encouraged to inform agains their parents.
    After Osip dies, Nadezhda becomes a living custodian of his poetry, too afraid to keep written copies hidden or with friends. Instead she learns the poems by heart, waiting for twenty odd years before Osip's name is cleared and it becomes safe to reveal them.
    Oddly enough, in a truth is stranger than fiction kind of way, it is the third story that seems more ordinary, though still powerful. In Northern Belfast, Lydia is preparing for the scattering of her husband Don's ashes into the sea near the cottage where he wrote his poetry. Her daughters visit to help her, and the three women remember the countless ways in which Don had let them down.
    In the background is the tragedy of Lydia's son, who died following an accident in Morocco, a death she has never really come to terms with. Somehow, Don's poetry always seems to have come first in their lives - even when it came to grieving for her son.
    These are all very moving stories and each one is told through the eyes of the three wives using very different voices. The author brilliantly crafts characters in an intensely personal way that makes them believable and enormously sympathetic.
    Park couldn't have imagined more extraordinary lives to write about than those of Catherine Blake and Nadezhda Mandelstam, but he also has captured the poetic thinking of their husbands in a way that makes these stories very lyrical and at times hauntingly beautiful. The story of Lydia is easier to relate to, with its modern day setting, and yet the themes are so similar, and as such this story helps you better understand the earlier stories. It all adds up to a very thought-provoking and enriching reading experience.