I may have been silent on here for a while, but I've been doing a heck of a lot of reading. Some of it has been brilliant. I've just finished Sarah Waters amazing, disturbing Paying Guests, and before that a terrific reprint of LP Hartley's dark, witty satire, Facial Justice. Both of these are destined for Shiny New Books 3, so you'll be able to read my reviews on 6 October.
But I've had other books on the go too, books that could have ended up in SNB but will not do so because they simply didn't set me alight enough to want to review them. One was Kathy Reichs Bones of the Lost, which is just out in paperback. I've been a fan of Kathy Reichs' Temperence Brennan series from the beginning -- smart, witty, entertaining, exciting novels with an added frisson of love interest with the gorgeous Andrew Ryan. Well, yes, all those adjectives would certainly apply to the earlier offerings, but this is number sixteen and I'm afraid they no longer quite make it for me. This was a perfectly readable book, and in some ways quite interesting, since a chunk of it concerned Tempe being sent to Afghanistan to work her Forensic Anthropological magic on the case of a soldier accused of murdering a couple of villagers. As the author follows the same profession as her character, the novel is no doubt based on a real life experience, and I read it with a fair amount of enjoyment, but that's about all I can say about it.
Then I've just finished Alafair Burke's Dead Connection. This is actually the first of her Ellie Hatcher series, first published several years ago,though it's coming out in paperback in the UK for the first time at the beginning of next month. Ellie Hatcher is an attractive young cop, and here we find her on the track of a serial killer, and being rather painfully and unwillingly reminded of a case her late father was involved in before his death. This is a perfectly acceptable police procedural, but I just wasn't that grabbed by it.
So I'm asking myself why these two popular authors left me somewhat cold. Were the plots just not exciting enough? I'm sure many people would find them thrilling. I can't help thinking the quality of the writing has a lot to do with my response to what I read. But that's a pretty nebulous thing to put your finger on. I thought of a quotation from Shelley's amazing 1818 essay, 'The Defence of Poetry', where he says: " It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words". I don't know whether he'd have been able to be more specific, but I do know what he means. I suppose it's asking too much to expect electric life in every popular crime novel, but it was certainly there in Waters and Hartley, so I'm glad I got a chance to read them too.
I love pictures that tell a story, don't you? Sometimes it's hard to tell what that story is, but the title of this one, painted in 1887 by Sir William Quiller Orchardson (1832-1910), is The First Cloud. They're newly-weds then, obviously, and this is their first quarrel. But could we guess what it's about?
The table where I work is close to the French doors, and on the wall outside is my mailbox, so I'm perfectly placed to see the postman driving up in his yellow van (this is France, remember). When he's got parcels, he usually waves them at me instead of putting them in the box. This doesn't happen every day, thank goodness, as I'm trying to cut down on my reviewing a bit, but today was a bit of a bonus, with two novels I've been very much looking forward to.
The Monogram Murders is a real double whammy -- two of my favourite authors in one. For this is Sophie Hannah's new Poirot novel, and I've been dying to see what she made of Christie. Today is the publication date, and I daresay reviews are being written here there and everywhere, but I'm going to try not to read them until I make up my own mind.
The other novel is Irene Nemirovsky's Fire of Autumn, said to be the prequel to her wonderful Suite Francaise. That's not out till November, so I'll have to hold off if I can.
Nice treats, anyway, and thanks to Harper Collins and Chatto &Windus for sending these.
Actually 'Young Woman Reading' (1875). The painter is Lucius Rossi (Italian, 1846-1913), who doesn't seem to have a Wikipedia entry. I like this -- I like the way he's included so much of the lovely room, even a bit more of it reflected in the mirror, but also managed to keep the girl as the focus. I love her relaxed pose, and the way the carpet is rucked up, which she obviously isn't aware of or doesn't care about as she's too absorbed in what she's reading. And what is it? A letter?
"Medieval England -- a Hideous Murder -- Enter the first female anatomist", proclaims the cover. I must admit that when my daughter gave this to me to read, I didn't fancy it at all. Although a great reader of crime novels, I prefer them to be set in the present day, or at least the twentieth century, though I occasionally stretch a point for a cod-Victorian. But being assured that it was really good, I thought I might as well give it a try. And what a pleasant surprise it was.
This novel is actually set in 1171, so hardly more than a hundred years after 1066. The country (and most of France too) is ruled by Henry II, a surprisingly open-minded and cosmopolitan sort of man who seems to rule the country wisely, and allows the Jews to live freely in the cities. But, as the novel begins, his protection for these much mistrusted people is being strained hard, as a series of dreadful child murders have taken place in Cambridge and the Jews are being persecuted as the most obvious suspects. Determined to vindicate them, Henry has sent for a team of people from Italy: the Jewish lawyer Simon of Naples, the Saracen Mansur, and a doctor of physic, who specialises in analysing the bodies of the dead. The only problem is, that doctor is a woman, trained in Salerno, where women are allowed to practice as physicians, something completely unheard of in England. Adelia Aguilar is highly skilled, and proves it by performing a delicate operation on Prior Geoffrey almost as soon as she has arrived in Cambridge, but she must hide her abilities from the world for fear of being accused of witchcraft, so Mansur must appear to be the doctor and Adelia as his assistant.
Though not generally a huge fan of the medieval period, I was completely won over by this novel, which manages to be as convincingly in period as anyone could wish for while never being offensively archaic. Everyone talks like normal human beings -- no "thees" and "thous" and "forsooths" here -- and while Cambridge is populated by monks, nuns, crusaders, and many humble townsfolk, they think and behave in ways that seem as recognisable today as they would have done in the 12th century. There are real historical figures here, including, of course, the King himself, but Adelia is a completely imaginary creation and a great one at that. Think Kay Scarpetta or Temperence Brennan transported back in time and you wouldn't be far wrong.
It wasn't till I'd finished reading the novel that I discovered that Ariana Franklin was in fact the late Diana Norman, wife of the celebrated journalist and film critic Barry Norman. She was indeed a historian, and a brilliant novelist into the bargain. I've got another of this series waiting to be read, and more to come -- and have just got a copy of her final novel, Winter Seige (finished after her death by her daughter) to review for Shiny New Books. So glad to have discovered her!
Years ago -- in 2007 to be exact -- I read and reviewed Peter Carey's Booker-winning Oscar and Lucinda. I absolutely loved it, and have been meaning ever since to read another of Carey's many novels. I did try his other Booker-winning True History of the Kelly Gang, but couldn't get past the dialect (or "dazzling act of ventriloquism" as the blurb calls it). Anyway, I finally made it, listening to this as an audiobook, which took a very very long time. This was partly due to the fact that it is a very long book, but also partly because it took me a while to get engaged with it.
Parrot and Olivier in America is a book in two halves, or rather it is narrated alternately by the two protagonists. They are Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a French aristocrat born in 1805, and John Larrit, nicknamed Parrot, a sometime engraver and son of a printer, who is 24 years older. These two could not be more different in every possible way, from their social status to their life experiences, and yet, by a series of complicated coincidences, they end up travelling together to America, with Parrot acting as secretary to Olivier, though actually paid to spy on him by his mother's lover.
It's hardly surprising that initially, and for quite a long time, the two men dislike each other intensely. Olivier, a sickly, cossetted child, has grown into an effete, snobbish young man whose knowledge of the real world is more or less zero. Parrot, on the other hand, could scarcely have had a fuller life. It was the descriptions of his early childhood that really drew me into the novel -- roaming the English countryside with his loving, free-thinking father, living and working at a firm of printers who turned out to be secret forgers, being saved from almost certain death by the one-armed counter-revolutionary Marquis de Tilbot, ending up on a convict ship headed for Australia, and much more besides. But both men are changed by their experiences in the new world, and by the end they have come to respect, perhaps even love, each other.
But that's really to over-simplify. Of the two it is Olivier who has the most learning to do, and he does it partly by means of the job he has been sent over to carry out -- to write an account of the prison system in America. This brings him into contact with many of the top men in the country -- brash, uncouth, very different from anyone Olivier has ever met before, but men who he comes in some ways to appreciate for what they are. Chief among these is Mr Godefroy, who takes Olivier under his wing and shows him round the country, and with whose daughter, the beautiful, liberated Amelia, Olivier falls desperately in love. But Parrot, too, after many a challenging adventure, really comes to his own in the end, forging a life and a career for himself that would have been impossible anywhere else in the world.
The novel is full of historical references, the most obvious of which is that Olivier is based quite closely on Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nobleman who did travel to America and did write a book about it. But there's also an allusion to the great engraver Audubon, whose famous book of American Birds is here engraved and published by Parrot's friend and employer, the ex-forger Mr Watkins, and probably lots more that I missed. I didn't find out about de Tocqueville till very late in the day, and frankly when I did it didn't matter to me in the least. Similarly, I've seen the accounts of Parrot's history being described as Dickensian. Well, who cares if they are. The book is a wonderful mish-mash of many disparate elements, and where they originated is not important. What has emerged is the product of Carey's wonderfully vivid and wide-ranging imagination, and it is not only enormous in its size but also enormous in its ability to give all kinds of pleasure, or I found it so, anyway. It's often very funny, especially when, as often, we see the same events described by both protagonists, who see things in very different ways. It's touching to see these two men gradually coming to a better understanding of each other, and very entertaining to get a glimpse of early 19th-century New York, where pigs run wild and cause havoc on Broadway, Times Square is essentially a sea of mud, and Harlem, where Parrot and his beautiful painter wife end up living, a small country village. The writing is wonderfully colourful and full of great descriptions -- a bunch of old ladies sitting in a dark parlour, "wetting their hairy chins with stout", sailors clinging to the rigging of a ship "like soft fruit in a storm". It's thought-provoking, and informative. What more could you want?
I'm not in a position to say where, on a scale of Carey's books, this one would fall. But as you can tell, I loved it and will read certainly be reading Carey again soon. Any suggestions?
I've been a huge admirer of Ruth Rendell for literally decades, so I was really pleased to be sent a review copy of this, her latest novel. And oh how I wish I could say I loved it. It's not, of course, a bad novel -- how could it be? Rendell writes so beautifully -- I'd be fascinated to hear a real linguist analyse her prose, which manages to be wonderfully simple and clear while simultaneously conveying an extraordinary sense of impending doom. And indeed there is much to admire here.
The central image is unforgettable -- a pair of severed hands enclosed in a biscuit tin and buried in some underground tunnels during WW2. The hands belong to a pair of illicit lovers -- we know this from the start, as we also know the identity of the killer, a particularly unpleasant person, as many of Rendell's villains are. But the action soon shifts to the present day, when we meet the central characters, all now in their late seventies, who we discover to be the very same children who played in those tunnels in the 1940s. This remains the main time-frame of the novel, though it sometimes shifts backwards.
Essentially, though a crime has been committed, and though, once the hands are rediscovered, the police are seeking the perpetrator, this is not really a crime novel. It's much more a novel about the lives of these elderly people, their memories, their past relationships, and the ways in which they interact with each other. And we soon discover that people in their late seventies think and feel pretty much exactly the same as people who are a good deal younger. They feel unsure of themselves. They form new friendships or discover old ones. They fall in love, passionately and physically. Is this a surprise? Not to me, though perhaps it might be to some people. But of course they are also intensely aware of their own mortality, and several of them actually die in the course of the novel.
But what of the girl next door of the title? This is the beautiful Daphne -- still beautiful in her old age -- who was a bit of an outsider to the group of wartime kids, but proves to be central to the mystery in some ultimately very disturbing ways. I can't say more, but there are revelations at the end of the novel which many readers will probably find upsetting.
So this is a bold novel, dealing with issues that are not much talked about. Why, then, am I not more enthusiastic? Well, for reasons that are purely subjective, I'm afraid. I simply could not warm to any of the characters, for a start. I know novels don't have to be full of delightful, admirable people, but it's nice to have at least one person about whom you really care, and I just didn't find one here. Also, I found it terribly depressing to read about these folks messing their lives up in old age just as they had when they were young. But hey, that might just be me.
I imagine The Girl Next Door will be getting some very mixed reviews, though I haven't seen any yet, and I hope, and presume, that Rendell won't be at all bothered by the less positive ones. I also imagine it will sell well to everyone who loves her writing. In fact I don't want to put anyone off, and I'd be delighted to hear from anyone else who has read it and disagrees with me.