I've just been reviewing Elly Griffiths' latest Ruth Galloway novel -- I really loved it. But you'll have to wait till next month to read the review, as it's destined for our in-between catch-up issue, Shiny Extra. Meanwhile, here's a taster of the plot:
The Ghost Fields starts in a summer heatwave. As the novel begins, a construction crew has just unearthed a macabre find – a WW2 plane, buried in the middle of a field, with the body of the pilot still inside. The field has been recently sold to a developer by the Blackstock family, and after Ruth has sent the bones off for DNA testing, the dead man is identified as Fred Blackstock, who had been reported as killed at sea during the war. The investigation brings both Ruth and Nelson and his team into close contact with the remaining Blackstocks, who live in a once grand, now crumbling home – dotty grandfather Old George, his rather feeble son Young George, whose wife Sally has plans to turn Blackstock Hall into a B&B, young Chaz, a pig farmer, and beautiful Cassie, an actress.
When I tell you that more bones soon turn up, fresh ones this time, most of the body having been eaten by Chaz's pigs, you may be intrigued. Great stuff.
No apologies for yet another painting by Thomas Dewing, for the third week running. This is called Lady in White (No. 1) and may be, or may not be, the same lady in the same dress as in this one. No matter. Just feast your eyes and enjoy.
I just realised I haven't yet pointed you in the direction of some of the excellent non-fiction in the new issue of Shiny New Books. Very remiss of me, since I am the non-fiction editor. So here goes.
In fact I only reviewed one non-fiction book myself this time round -- I had another couple on the TBR but wasn't very excited by either of them. The one I did review is the one in the picture, The Nuns of Sant' Ambrogio. Sub-titled 'The story of a convent scandal', this is an extraordinary and fascinating read. As I said in my review,
Written by a celebrated German papal historian, it manages to combine highly academic ecclesiastical history with true crime and more than a smattering of frank sexual revelations.
There are lots more, and I'd like to read several of them, so here are some links to whet your appetites:
Well, I know it's only April, but I can confidently tell you that this is going to be one of my favourite books of the year. And, like Wolf Winter, which I was telling you about recently, it was an almost random pick to use my reviewers credits on Audible. I started listening to it with little or no knowledge of what was awaiting me, though I've since read Victoria's review in Shiny 5, and her interview with the author in the BookBuzz section.
There's so much to talk about and so much to admire in this debut novel. Yes, it's about teenage bullying in small-town America, but it's what Sarah Bannan makes of this theme that sets the book apart. Briefly, the novel is set in the (fictional) town of Adamsville, Alabama, more or less in the present day. The action takes place in and around the local High School, and is narrated -- in what may be a first -- in the first person plural ('We') by a group of three girl pupils. More on this later. As the story begins, the girls are sitting in the baking summer sun, watching the cheerleaders perform, and commenting on everyone's appearance, clothes, weight and hairstyle. Then they spot someone they've never seen before -- a new girl.
It's important to remember how weird this was -- a new girl coming to our town -- how unused to it we all were. And not just us: our parents, the teachers, the coaches -- them too. Adamsville wasn't a place that people came to. It was a place you were from, where you were born, where you were raised, where you stayed.
Carolyn Lesser is not only new, she is beautiful, clever, and friendly. And at first, everyone tries to be friendly with her, to help her to fit in -- and, of course, to find out as much about her as possible. Facebook is a great help here, and everyone shares all the information they can acquire by text, including the photos the girls take of her bathroom when they are invited to her house. But things begin to go wrong when Carolyn starts dating the gorgeous Shane Duggan, up to now the property of lovely (though now slightly overweight) cheerleader Brooke Moore. Soon the tide of opinion has started to turn against Carolyn, ugly gossip begins circulating, and the final tragedy seems almost inevitable.
So what's going on here? We might start by thinking about the title. Weight is certainly a theme that runs through the novel. All the characters are obsessed with it, and girls are admired for their thinness. Brooke has gained pounds in the summer vacation and has started a regime involving bulimia. Carolyn, whose slender body is a source of great envy and admiration, proves to have a daily chart pinned up by the weighing machine in her bathroom. But there's another element to weightlessness too. Every year there's a balloon festival in Adamsville, and the girls get to go up in one and look down at the people below -- we see this happen twice, once near the beginning and once in the epilogue. The first time, they take pleasure in being able to observe the goings on -- they see Carolyn, holding hands with Shane, a piece of useful information to add to the list. A year later, they are wiser, more self aware:
This was as it had always been, us together, ready to rise into the air, weightless....
We looked down at the ground and saw it all change in front of us, people blurred into colours, the ground blurred into shapes. From where we were, the ground started to make sense, appear complete, under control. We were at a distance from it and could only see what we needed to see. From here, we thought, if a car crashed, you wouldn't hear it, and even if you did, it would look like a toy, it wouldn't be real. From here, we couldn't distinguish the adults from the children, the new buildings from the old, the pools from the ponds. We liked it up here, we knew this, to be at a remove from things, to be out of touch, out of control.
I hardly need to tell you that this has a relationship to the position the girls have taken throughout the novel -- they 'could only see what we needed to see'. They have deliberately distanced themselves from the events they have seen passing before their eyes, refusing to get involved, not allowing themselves to make connections or to pass on information which could, perhaps, have prevented the tragic developments.
I've seen people compare the 'We' narrators to a Greek chorus, but they are more than that -- they could almost be said to be what the story is really about. Bullying happens, and not just in small town Alabama, and people often know what's going on but don't want to get involved. So, although these girls do not have distinct separate personalities (or probably because of this) they stand as a terrible representation of what happens if you choose to keep yourself 'at a remove from things'.
So Weightless is really a novel of social commentary, and the picture it presents is a worrying one. When the girls say 'we couldn't distinguish the adults from the children', I think this resonates throughout the novel. The adults seem very immature themselves and are completely blind to the needs of their children -- and yes, these are children, fifteen and sixteen year olds, whose parents insist on churchgoing and preach morality, but have no idea what really goes on in their lives. The internet bears a lot of responsibility too -- impossible images of skinny women, the desirability of the latest fashion items, sexualised social media, the ability to find out about people's lives and to communicate that knowledge with a few flicks of the fingers -- all these things have added to the mounting pressure on Carolyn and her classmates. Perhaps this makes it sound as if it might be preachy and moralistic, but believe me it is a fantastic read (or in my case listen) -- unputdownable and highly recommended.
I simply cannot get enough of Thomas Dewing. This is the third painting in a row of his I've put up here and I love them all. This one is called A Reading, painted in 1897. That's all I know. What I have noticed, and so will you if you google Thomas Dewing paintings, is that he is very fond of this kind of greenish blueish colouring, which permeates a number of his pictures. I expect some art critic somewhere has written a whole thesis about this, but all I can say is that it seems to increase the atmosphere of dreamy strangeness which is really why I love him so much.
I do so love a reprint! Why that should be I can't really say, but it's a fact. So, though Simon is the Shiny reprints editor, I always manage to worm my way in there with reviews by, or commissioned by, me.
As always, I've read and reviewed some great books in Shiny 5, but if you asked me which was my favourite, it would probably be Cecilia Ekbäck's brilliant debut novel Wolf Winter -- you can read my review here.
As you can well imagine, us eds spend a lot of time choosing titles for review -- as soon as one edition is out, we're already planning the next one. Our wonderful contributors are a great help, and we all trawl through the catalogues and keep our eyes on the news, and of course the publishers offer us, or send us, lots of books too. But Wolf Winter came to me in a slightly unusual way. I'm a great fan of audiobooks and recently a kind publicist has been sending me credits for books to listen to and review on Audible. I picked Wolf Winter from there almost at random, attracted I suppose by snow and wolves and the word Nordic in the blurb. And what a great listen it was. It was crying out for a review in Shiny 5, and it got one -- plus Cecilia was kind enough to answer my questions for our BookBuzz section. Serendipity or what?
Yes, a whole year has gone by since four blogging friends stuck their collective toes in the water of internet magazine publishing with the first edition of Shiny New Books. And today we present you with issue 5, with its usual exciting compendium of reviews of newly published Fiction,Non-fiction and Reprints. There's also an absolute bumper of a BookBuzz section, with interviews (including two Shiny New Authors), Author Articles, Spotlight on Publishing, Reading and Watching, and two x Five Fascinating Facts. And there's a new Book Club to join. We've loved putting it together, and of course are grateful to our wonderful reviewers, to the publishers who generously send us books, and most of all to you lot out there who've kept coming back, reading and commenting. I'll be tempting you with links to reviews over the coming days, but meanwhile, plunge in and enjoy!