I spotted this the other day and it reminded me how much I love the paintings of the great James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). This is called Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, and very lovely it is.
Despite having had some fallow periods when I couldn't seem to read anything but unmemorable crime novels, I have read some great books this year. Soon it will be time to make some kind of list, and though it may not be a very long one, I can tell you for a fact that this novel will definitely be on it.
I have been an admirer of Stef Penney since her brilliant debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, a thrilling adventure story set in the trackless snowy wastes of Canada. I also loved her second, The Invisible Ones, a fascinating story of the history and present day lives of gypsies. Now she's back in the snow with this, her third novel, much of which takes place in Greenland and is about as snowbound as you could hope to get.
The novel starts with a prologue set in 1948. Flora Mackie, a Scottish woman in her seventies, is rather dubiously participating in a publicity expedition to the Arctic Circle, the scene of her early years when she was known to the press as the Snow Queen. As the main part of the novel proceeds we learn of her childhood, during which she many times accompanied her father, a whaleboat captain, on his trips to the far north, and fell in love with the bleak, empty landscapes and with its people, the Inuit. Her feeling of belonging there leads her to study meteorology and, eventually, to lead an exploratory expedition.
Meanwhile, in New York, a young man named Jakob de Beyn is studying mineralogy, with a view to participating in explorations of the Arctic. The two of them finally meet in Greenland, when Jakob has joined the group led by the ambitious and fame-hungry Lester Armitage and Flora's team is camped not far away. Flora has achieved her position as leader by means of some hard work and some luck. She has married a syphilitic Irishman who has raised the capital and intends to lead the expedition, but an accident confines him to bed and Flora takes it on alone. Her early familiarity with the landscape and the people is invaluable, but there are tremendous dangers and hardships to be faced - at various times the explorers suffer from frostbite and starvation, and there are several fatal accidents. Penney evokes the extremes of cold and isolation wonderfully well - the noise of a glacier is 'insensate and violent: cloth ripping, artillery fire, a grand piano falling from a second-storey window' and iceberg is described as 'scored with clefts that glowed deep blue above and at its water-worn foot, a pale, silky green. A ruined masterpiece from a vanished civilisation'.
There is so much to enjoy and marvel at in this terrific novel, but at the centre of it is the relationship between Flora and Jakob. This begins with a powerful coming together in London during which several days are spent mostly in bed and in a state of euphoric happiness. But things don't run smoothly after they are forced go their separate ways, and Flora gets cold feet when her husband becomes ill and needs her care. Luckily for them, and for the reader, they do come together again at last and spend a blissful period in an Edenic valley in the far north before they are forced to part again. There is, indeed, a lot of sex in this book, but it is done with great honesty and lack of prudery.
So yes, the love story is enthralling, but so too is all the wonderfully researched background to the novel. Flora's London life is fascinating - her home life and friendships are beautifully developed but she is also a strong, intelligent woman at the turn of the century, and able to educate herself and to lead polar expeditions, though her position as leader is questioned and mocked by the male polar explorers. There's also some wonderful detail of Jakob's young years in New York City, and his struggles to get educated and to make something of himself. Then there's the question of the Inuit peoples, and the way they are viewed by the white settlers. Both Flora and Jakob make good friends among the local people, but Armitage and others view them as little more than slaves - they are happy to sleep with the accommodating women, but Armitage is delighted to transport a small group of them back to New York to display like exhibits in a museum, with dire consequences. The framing device - Flora in her seventies, being interviewed by a young reporter in the Arctic - is threaded through the novel, and makes it possible for us to learn, or at least the guess at, the eventual fate of both Jakob and Armitage, though the true facts remain a mystery.
I listened to this on Audible, and very well read it was by its pair of narrators. Listen to it or read, it, but don't miss out. Superb, and highly recommended.
This is called Forbidden Reading, by Désiré Honoré Bérard (born 1845). The artist. obviously French, does not appear on Wikipedia, but I did find out that this painting, dated 1884, sold at Christies a few years ago for 3000 euros. They actually titled it Forbidden Lecture, which is obviously an incorrect translation of the French title (lecture=reading).
I assume she is the maid, and wants to read one of her master's books - or is she a family member dipping into some naughty reading matter? I think the costume and the rather pert pose suggests a member of the lower orders. There are quite a few paintings of maids reading - I've shown a couple on here fairly recently - probably an essay could be written on it as sub-genre, but not by me.
Amazingly enough I have read three of the four books shortlisted for this year's Costa novel award, and loved them all. The review of one of them, Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, will appear in Shiny New Books in a few weeks, but here are the reviews of the other three. All are from Shiny, but The Essex Serpent was reviewed by one of our team of ace reviewers, Helen Parry. Links will take you to the full reviews, from which the quotations are taken.
Here's a taster fro my review of Day's Without End:
This novel is many things, among them a wonderfully conceived portrait of America at an important period of its development, a serious look at war, a thoughtful approach to the problem of the relations of the Indians with their conquerers and oppressors. But it’s also, importantly, a love story.
Tremain has pulled off something which most lesser novelists would not be able to do: she has made a novel of tremendous emotional power and humanity out of what may seem on the surface to be the most unpromising of materials.
this stunning novel ... gave me hours and hours of huge pleasure. It’s O’Farrell’s seventh novel, and I think I’ve read all the others, with varying degrees of enjoyment, but I believe it’s her best yet.
I discovered Doug Johnstone a couple of years ago when his 2014 novel The Dead Beat arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox. I absolutely loved it, and last year read The Jump, which was completely different but equally good, and the brilliant but disturbing Gone Again. And now we have his latest, Crash Land. It's a slimmer volume than the others - 265 pages, with very large margins! But it packs quite a punch.
The novel is set in Orkney, on the large island known to the inhabitants as Mainland, and begins in the airport at Kirkwall. Finn, aged 21, is waiting for a flight that will take him back to Scotland. He's been visiting his beloved grandmother, who raised him on the island when both his parents died. The flight is delayed by fog and Finn falls into an increasingly drunken conversation with beautiful, rather mysterious Maddie, a woman in her thirties. They are watched rather sullenly by four oil-rig workers, on their way home for Christmas, one of whom has tried unsuccessfully to chat up Maddie. When the flight finally takes off, Finn and Maddie sit together, obviously drawn together. But when Finn comes back from the toilet,
Oil Guy was sitting in Finn's seat. He was leaning into Maddie, his hand on her arm, speaking under his breath. Maddie tried to pull away, her body squeezed against the window. He stroked her cheek and she squirmed.
Finn starts to try to persuade the man to leave her alone, but he's aggressive, and before they know it a fight develops, which is broken up by the flight attendant. The pilot decides to return to the airport for security reasons, but before they can land the plane gets into difficulties and a horrific crash ensues, in which all but a handful of the crew and passengers are killed. Finn survives, and so does Maddie, but in the chaos following the crash she disappears. Finn, confused and traumatised, and under investigation by the police, returns to his grandmother's house. Then he gets a text from Maddie -- she's in hiding and needs him to help her escape.
Well - I said this was quite a short novel but my goodness does it pack a lot into its relatively small number of pages. Maddie uses every bit of her considerable sexuality to seduce and manipulate Finn, but fails to fully explain her reasons for wanting to get off the island. Then her husband is found to have been murdered, and Maddie is the obvious suspect, though she absolutely denies responsibility. Finn finds a hiding place for her in an empty house that his gran is keeping an eye on for the absent owners, supplies her with food, and tries to find out the truth of what happened. He also needs to get someone to vouch for him in relation to what happened on the plane, as he's getting the blame for starting the fight.
The plot is almost unbearably tense and exciting, but the real heart of the matter of this novel is the way in which a perfectly normal, rather boring life can spiral completely out of control through almost no fault of one's own. What's more, a number of things are left unresolved at the end - will there be a sequel? Could I bear to read it?
Doug Johnstone is a superbly skilful writer, and this is highly recommended.
This powerful and perhaps slightly disturbing portrait is by the Swiss-French artist Felix Vallaton (1865-1925). For reasons I have not been able to discover, it's called 'La Retour de la Mer' (the Return of the Sea). If anyone can explain the title, or even suggest a plausible guess, I'd be happy for any suggestions.
This is 'Portrait of the Artist's Children, the twins John and Sylvia' by the distinguished Canadian painter Edmund Wyly Grier (1862-1957), painted around 1909. I spotted it on a blog I visit, Cosy Books. He made his name with portraits of 'politicians, corporate leaders and other notable contemporaries', but I think we prefer to see him here at his most charming and domestic. I must confess I thought it was two girls till I read the title - a reminder that little boys were very girlishly dressed at this period.
I've been an admirer of Kathy Reichs since I read her very first novel, Déjà Dead, almost twenty years ago. Her novels, especially the earlier ones, have given me hours of reading pleasure, and even though the most recent ones have perhaps slightly fallen below that early brilliance, I believe I've read all, or almost all of them. So I was pleased to be invited to join in this current book tour of her latest publication, a collection of four stories featuring, needless to say, Dr Temperence Brennan.
I can't believe you don't already know everything about Kathy Reichs and her novels, but what I find so fascinating about them is that, in addition to being exciting, witty and informative, they are almost always based on Reichs' own experiences as a forensic anthropologist. For Reichs has an impressive career quite apart from novel writing and, like her heroine, divides her working life between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Montreal, Quebec. It's rare to find a writer whose fiction is based so closely on their working life, and it seems remarkably fortunate that she's able to use her work, and her strongly held beliefs, in this way without ever appearing didactic or preachy. In fact I imagine it must be enjoyable to find ways of weaving the fact into the fiction (or is it vice versa?) and I think Kathy Reichs must be a fun person to know, at least if she resembles her wonderful central character.
The thing that first drew me to The Bones Collection is that one of the stories (the final one, in fact) goes back to the very beginnings of Tempe's career in forensic anthropology. Here we see her as a young researcher, working towards her bio-archeology PhD on the examination and assessment of prehistoric bones. She's annoyed to be interrupted by a couple of cops looking for her supervisor, who is far away on sabbatical. But they overcome her unwillingness and persuade her to examine some remains found in a burnt out trailer - it's assumed they must be those of the trailer's owner, but as often happens Tempe's expertise shows that this is a misidentification.Naturally enough she gets hooked by the excitement of working on a police investigation, and the rest is history. It's interesting to meet the young Tempe, who is still married to Pete, her ex in the later stories, and still drinking (quite a lot of red wine), which, as regular readers will know, she doesn't do any more in later life.
Identification is obviously an important aspect of forensic anthropology, and plays an important part in the other three stories in this volume. The first is set in a peculiar artists' colony (that's a peculiar colony, not a colony for peculiar artists) on the shores of a lake in North Carolina, and proves to deal with a shocking case of illegal puppy-farming. In the second, Tempe goes to Florida for a holiday and gets caught up in the analysis of bones that have been recovered from the inside of a Burmese python in the Everglades, and in the third, it's the frozen body of a girl climber which has been recovered from the slopes of Mount Everest.
Each story in the book has an afterword, something Reichs has started to do in her novels too, setting the fiction in the the context of the actual case at its basis, and allowing her to make explicit the sometimes shocking facts that lie behind the story. In 'Bones in her Pocket' she draws attention to the estimated ten thousand 'puppy mills' that exist in the United States, and the fact that many people unknowingly buy their puppies from inhumane breeders. In 'Swamp Bones' it's the growing problem of increasing numbers of pythons breeding in the Everglades, and in 'Bones on Ice' we learn of the extraordinary fact that the slopes of Mount Everest are literally peppered with dead bodies, too frozen to be moved, which the climbers have to navigate past on their trek to the summit. All this is disturbing but important information I certainly didn't have before, and makes what would otherwise be a set of entertaining stories into something rather more serious.
I'm well aware that forensic anthropology, about which you also learn a great deal from Reichs' books, is not everybody's cup of tea. Many people I know would probably be appalled by the detailed descriptions of cutting up dead bodies and subjecting them to various tests to determine their identity and cause of death. Strangely enough, though I'm terribly squeamish in real life, I find I'm fascinated by the scientific detail of the process, especially given the knowledge that it's absolutely accurate in every way.
So, if you're a fan of Reichs you won't need urging to read this latest volume. If you haven't tried her yet, why not dip a toe in the water? I defy you not to fall in love with Tempe, with her great skill, her habit of rushing in to investigate when she's been specifically warned not to, and her wonderfully witty one-liners (she narrates all the stories herself). Great stuff.
Generally speaking I'm not an admirer of big, best-selling American crime novels. I've tried a few in my day and been irritated by bad writing and predictable plots. But I stumbled across Linwood Barclay some years ago and realised he's something of a treasure - he writes well and his stories are human and appealing. A Canadian ex-journalist, he's published eleven full-length crime novels since 2007, all of them based in the fictional town of Promise Falls in northern New York State. This recurring setting is peculiarly satisfying, as we get to meet characters we've encountered in earlier novels and see how their lives have developed. This is particularly true of the three most recent ones, Broken Promise (2015), Far From True (2016) and the recently published The Twenty-Three, which together make up what's been called the Promise Falls Trilogy.
Writing a crime trilogy must be quite challenging. Of course there have to be numbers of loose ends left hanging at the end of the novel, but you've got to solve some crimes too, otherwise your readers will be simply irritated. Barclay managed this well in the last two books in the series, as you will see if you read my reviews of them (follow the links above). But a couple of major issues have been left unsolved, though whether they are connected or not is unclear to the investigators. A couple of young women have been brutally murdered in a way that makes it clear the perpetrator is the same in both cases, and a series of odd and increasingly threatening events have taken place, all linked the the appearance of the number 23. Some have been simply bizarre (a line of twenty-three dead squirrels hanging on a fence) and some downright unpleasant (the screen of a drive-in cinema exploding, causing several deaths).
Now, in this latest novel, the already grave situation has becomes deadly serious. Someone has put poison in the town's water supply, resulting in a large number of deaths - the final total is around two hundred. And if this were not enough, another young woman has been murdered in exactly the same way as the other two earlier ones. The mass poisoning takes place on a date that clearly links it to the other '23' cases, and Detective Barry Duckworth thinks he's worked out what the significance of the number is and how it is linked to the first murder. But that doesn't bring him and his team any closer to finding out who is doing these terrible things.
In common with the other two novels, this one has multiple viewpoints, switching between them chapter by short chapter and thereby enabling a succession of cliffhangers. All the characters we've come to know through the earlier novels - and most have also appeared in books that came out prior to the trilogy - have their own stories going on throughout this latest disaster, though happily almost all the major characters survive the poisoning. But of course each is impacted by the appalling events taking place in the town. The ex-mayor loses his already sick wife, little autistic Crystal loses her mother. David Harwood's new lover disappears with her son and he can't raise her on her cell phone. Feelings get out of hand and a couple of Muslims are targeted, as these disasters are viewed by many as terrorist acts. Red herrings pop up all over the place as false suspects are pursued and turn out not to be guilty.
Finally, of course, Duckworth gets it all figured out. Or at least he thinks he has. I was quite surprised when the supposed identity of the 23 perpetrator was revealed some way before the end of the novel, though it was obvious that he had a motive and the evidence seemed pretty watertight. But there's a twist at the end that I certainly didn't see coming...
So this is the end of the trilogy, and pretty powerful stuff it is. Poison in the water supply is not something we normally think of as a possible threat, but of course it's something that could happen anywhere at any time. But is this the last we've heard of Promise Falls? I don't think so, This particular story line is finished, but there were several loose ends that didn't get tied up, so I'm willing to bet that the town will reappear in a new novel before too long so that we get to hear what happens to those characters we've come to know and love.
I listened to this on Audible thanks to some free credits and enjoyed it a lot, as you can tell. It was read by Jeff Harding and I must admit I found his narration a bit brash and grating at first, but I soon got used to it and I suppose it was appropriate for the setting and subject matter. Good stuff.
NOTE: I wrote this last May and for some reason it never got posted. I'm about to put up a review of another of Barclay's novels but thought I'd better make this live first.
You've probably seen Linwood Barclay's name on the covers of novels in the airport bookshop, or spotted one in a charity shop. Maybe you've dismissed him as one of those popular American crime writers who are not really up your street. If so, I suggest you think again. These novels are well worth picking up. I've reviewed a couple of them on this blog -- here and here -- and was delighted when I saw that this one has just been released.
A new Barclay is always a cause of rejoicing for me, as I really enjoy his gentle irony and the way he focuses very much on the domestic (so-called 'suburban fiction')-- his novels are generally set in Promise Falls, a fictional small town in upstate New York, almost on the Canadian border (Barclay himself is Canadian by the way). But I was particularly pleased about this one, as it is the second in what he calls the Promise Falls trilogy, and thus picks up where the previous one, Broken Promise, leaves off (see this interview for his explanation of the way this works).
In fact the whole of Barclay's relatively small output seems to interweave new stories and people with revisits to ones we've already met. But what he's doing in the trilogy is quite skilful. In both the novels that have come out so far, there are crimes that get solved in the course of the book, but running through both, and so far completely mystifying, are the increasingly bizarre and terrifying activities of the man who has come to be known as Mr 23. In the previous novel, 23 dead squirrels are strung up in public place, a disused fairground ride is used to display three mannequins with 'You'll be sorry' written on their bodies and the number 23 scrawled on the carriage, and the number was displayed on the hoodie of a college student who was committing a crime.
Here the pattern continues. The novel starts with a horrific event, as the screen of a drive-in movie theatre collapses -- killing four people whose cars are parked at the front -- following an explosion timed to take place at exactly 23.23 pm, and a local bus, its interior ablaze, careers down the high street and crashes into a flower shop, the number 23 in large letters on the back. Who on earth can be doing this, and why? We shall have to wait for next year's offering to find out.
Meanwhile ex-cop turned private investigator Cal Weaver is called in by the daughter of one of the victims of the screen explosion to look into her father's life. Cal uncovers some extremely dodgy goings on involving what the participants refer to as 'lifestyle' activities -- basically what used to be called wife-swapping, ramped up to a horrifying degree. Not very pleasant to read about but Barclay excels at showing the effects it has had on some of the participants, who begin to crack under the strain of concealment. There are plenty of twists and surprises, and several loose ends left tantalisingly hanging till the next time round.
All in all I enjoyed this a lot. I listened to it courtesy of Audible, and the two narrators read it very well. Not great literature, but it passed many happy hours for me.