What I read in my Lockdown – or, yet another roundup…

*Sigh* Once again I find myself with lots of finished books and no reviews. If I’m reading an e-book I move them into a folder marked ‘reviews’: the folder currently has nineteen items in it. I’m not sure if they will all get onto the blog but let’s see if I can at least chip away and tell you about a few of them. Because some of them were so good I think they will move onto a favourites list of some sort (either for 2021, lockdown or, maybe, even all-time….).

The Galaxy and the Ground Within – Becky Chambers

9781473647664This series of books (The Wayfarers) is definitely on my list of all-time favourites – thoughtful science fiction, more concerned with the people involved than with technology or space battles and full of ideas about tolerance and diversity without ramming their ‘wokeness’ down your throat. We have followed various characters through the universe which Chambers has created and seen them on spaceships, on vast artificial ship-based worlds and on small planets and it is on the latter that this book is set. Not much of a planet – Gora has no air or water, plants or creatures – but one very conveniently situated at a sort of intergalactic crossroads of the wormholes used to travel to the more habitable and cosmopolitan worlds. To avoid messy accidents travel through these wormholes has to be controlled so Gora has become a sort of motorway services where ships and their crews await their turn to move on. 

The book tells the story of one group of travellers, and their various spacecraft, who are stranded for an extended period during a freak technical crisis which knocks out most communications. The owner of the self-contained dome they are in and her adolescent child do everything they can to keep their guests happy and safe and the novel follows the backstories of the hosts, the three visitors, their interactions and, in the end, their potential futures. This is another of Chambers’ character-led tales where, through the lives of various alien races, we can explore questions which affect us as humans. 

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles

9781529335446A new author for me but a familiar theme – a Parisian romance with a book-filled setting. The story is partly set during World War II, where Odile gets her dream job in the American Library, and partly in a small Montana town, where a young girl called Lily is learning to cope with major changes in her life. The two stories intertwine, since Odile, having left France after the war, is Lily’s elderly and rather reclusive neighbour.

I loved Odile’s thread of the book – her joy at getting a job in the prestigious American Library and the friendships she forms there. Once war breaks out she sees how books can help in troubled times as they arrange to send reading materials out to the allied forces so far from home. When Paris is occupied by the German army this activity halts and, despite the fact that her father is a high ranking police officer, working alongside the invaders, Odile becomes part of the team providing books to those banned from using the library itself – mostly Jews. She hero worships Dorothy Reeder, the library’s director, and one of her colleagues falls in love with Odile’s beloved brother – both of these women help her to cope when her brother Remy joins the army – but she feels her life is complete when she finally falls in love with one of the many, many young police officers her father invites home to dinner. 

We learn of Odile’s story through her own words in the 1940s and also through Lily. Partly as Odile reveals details in conversations which she hopes will help the girl with her own problems but also through some rather shocking letters which the girl finds in the older woman’s house.  A reminder that historical fiction as always also about now, as well as then.

The Mystery of Henri Pick – David Foenkinos

9781782275824Like The Paris Library this is a mixture of two of my favourite things – a book about books and a quirky French love story. This is a much lighter story though, replacing a tragedy set in occupied Paris with a library in a small Breton town which contains a collection of manuscripts rejected by publishers. A young woman, making a name for herself at a Parisian publishing house, visits the library while on holiday with her author boyfriend, and discovers a manuscript which she is sure will be a bestseller. This book was written, it appears, by Henri Pick, a local pizza chef who is now dead and becomes a literary sensation. Although there is doubt, even from Pick’s widow and daughter, that he could have written such a book everyone who reads it is touched, and sees something of their own life reflected in its pages.

This was a pretty perfect lockdown read: a romance with no sugar-coating, a mystery with no murders, and a disreputable journalist searching for the truth. Very satisfying. 

Madame Burova – Ruth Hogan

Ruth Hogan is another favourite author – I think I’ve read all her books so far and thoroughly enjoyed them – so I was delighted to see she had another coming out. Her particular brand of fiction – involving a mix of sorrow and joy, a little romance, quite a few faithful dogs and a hint of the unexpected – is one that always seems to appeal to me. When you’ve always felt that enjoyment you do always get a twinge of fear when you start a new book: will this be the one that I just don’t like, quite as much? Luckily the answer, once again, is no. Still just my cup of tea.

9781529373318Madame Burova (Imelda to her friends and family) is a Tarot reader (also palms read and general clairvoyance) and has been since she took over her mother’s Brighton booth in the 1970s. Her job involves knowing a lot of other people’s secrets, and she has always kept them before, but this time she has been charged with revealing information which is going to change a young woman’s life forever. In the early 70s Imelda Burova joined the ranks of ‘entertainment’ at a local holiday camp and the story follows this motley crew – singers, pianists, a wall of death rider, a middle-aged contortionist and a trio of glamorous mermaids – and their romances, spats and jealousies. One of which leads to to the birth of a baby girl, abandoned on Imelda’s doorstep, who returns decades later to try and discover how she came to be. 

Nick – Michael Farris Smith 

9780857304544The Great Gatsby seems to be a lot of people’s favourite book. I didn’t read it at school and only got round to it a few years ago so maybe I wasn’t the right age to fall in love with it. It was good but was never going to replace the books which transformed my late teens (One Hundred Years of Solitude, maybe, or the Gormenghast trilogy). I was, however, interested to read Nick – a novel giving Nick Carraway the backstory which Fitzgerald never shared with us.

This story takes us from the mud, death and horrors of the Great War to the heat and passions of New Orleans on the brink of prohibition via a fleeting but doomed love affair while on leave in Paris. Carraway’s character in the Great Gatsby seems to be that of a practical, intelligent man of some integrity and we do have that confirmed to a large extent but he is also revealed to be so much more.  We see the details of his stifling Midwest upbringing, the tragedy of his Parisian love affair and the staggering brutality of war – these things all lead to the Fitzgerald Nick but it is the events in New Orleans which really fleshed him out for me. Heat, passion, booze all leading to pain, loss and, eventually, a future on Long Island…

Next post: I try to carry on the catching-up with some children’s books….



Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

Some authors write novels which follow a pattern – no bad thing. I like to think I’d always recognise Terry Pratchett’s style of novel but that doesn’t mean they aren’t something I love to read (ditto Georgette Heyer). I like an author who I know where I am with them but, just as much, I like to find writers who can branch out in unexpected directions. Claire Fuller is one such author – the first book of hers I read was a deeply disturbing tale of a child, living deep in the woods with her survivalist father, believing that they are the last people left alive and the second a love triangle set in the late 1960s. This, her latest, is a contemporary novel, set in rural England about a brother and sister left adrift by the death of their mother. The connection between the three? Great writing, characters you can believe in and a slight, but inescapable, sense of dread…

53341634._SX98_Julius and Jeannie have always lived in their rather dilapidated old cottage, on the edge of a farm. They lived with both parents until their father’s sudden death when they were barely in their teens and then with their mother. When she, too, dies the fifty-one year old twins have to work out how to cope with the world on their own. Jeannie still has her market garden and Julius does various odd jobs (but only within cycling range as he has near terminal travel sickness in any sort of motor vehicle) but neither has any qualifications and they have no money or bank account. They make plans – which all fall apart as they, and Jeannie in particular, discover the harsh realities of the modern world. They lose their home, their possessions and their livelihoods but, again, Jeannie is relentless in her efforts to find a way to carry on and find a way to continue you life they have always known. Julius is more eager to spread his wings, explore new relationships and new opportunities – including exploiting the siblings’ expertise as performers of traditional folk songs – but Jeannie is, after almost a whole lifetime being held back by health fears, the more practical and effective. 

This was a gripping story which touched on many issues – rural poverty, those who slip through safety nets in modern society and the lies told, with love, to keep families together. Jeannie is a wonderful character – full of life, humour, strength and hope – and I spent the whole book willing her on in the hope that she can find a way to survive her losses. The writing is wonderful but Jeannie goes beyond being ‘written’, she feels real…



The Crow Folk – Mark Stay

This was a fun book in a World War Two, witchcraft and demonic possession kind of way. I mean, why wouldn’t that be fun?

54203707._SY475_Faye Bright lives with her father, in a pub, in a small village called Woodville during the Second World War. Their position, in Kent, means that bombing is a constant threat and Faye does her bit by helping out as an air raid warden but she is devastated when she finds that her hobby of bell-ringing is to be suspended for the duration of the war.  Faye’s mother died when she was a very young girl and neither she or her father have really recovered from her loss – so Faye is angry and upset that the long peal the ringers were due to ring in honour of her mother will not now happen. It is with this sense of anger that she finds an old notebook of her mother’s which seems to suggest that she was a witch. And here is where the adventures begin. Armed only with her mother’s book (including its interesting sounding recipe for jam roly-poly as well as spells and arcane drawings) Faye finds herself pitted against walking scarecrows, a sinister pumpkin-headed man and every busy-body in the village. Luckily, two of latter turn out to be witches too and they begin to work together to save Woodville from something just as dangerous as the Luftwaffe. 

I absolutely adored this book – and am delighted to see it subtitled ‘Witches of Woodville #1. It made me think of Pratchett (NEVER a bad thing) but also of all kinds of other things. There’s a hint of St Mary Mead about the village, or maybe the villages of Midsomer, and the scarecrows and Pumpkinhead are an unsettling Oz/Doctor Who mash-up, Faye herself is a great character – funny, unhappy, feisty and brave – and I’m looking forward to seeing her develop. In fact, given the blend of some of my favourite things – folklore, a hint of the magical, a good coming of age story and a sense of place and history – I’m eagerly pacing the floor for the next in the series generally. I’d happily recommend this to readers of fantasy, horror and folktales from 12 upwards. 


Mrs Death Misses Death – Salena Godden

Apparently it was Benjamin Franklin who said ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’ but I have very rarely read an interesting book about taxes. I mean, I realise that taxation can be fascinating for some, but not for me (although Lionel Shriver wrote a great book about the effects of a financial apocalypse so I’m not totally against books about money). I am, however, in a non-gloomy way quite into books about death. I adored Sophie Anderson’s House With Chicken Legs, which shows the Baba Yaga helping the dead to move on from their lives, and Death (and Mort and Susan Sto Helit) are among my favourite Pratchett characters. Death is a fact of life (I’m not a big fan of euphemisms like ‘passed’ or ‘lost’ – don’t get me started on the ‘rainbow bridge’) so novels which help us to think about death can also help us to learn how to live. 

52568660._SX98_In Godden’s book Death is someone who, for the whole of time, has basically facilitated humanity’s transition from life into death. These deaths are often sudden and unexpected so Death needs to be unobtrusive, unthreatening and someone who could be found just about anywhere – which certainly rules out the skeletal figure with robes and a scythe. Here Death is Mrs Death, a Black woman who, while she does shift her appearance, always seems to look like the kind of working-class woman who is sweeping, cleaning, or waiting somewhere in the background. We meet her through a young writer, Wolf Willeford, who has had brushes with Mrs Death’s work over the years – they survived a fire which is, at the very least, based on the Grenfell fire and they are obviously troubled – their experiences almost guarantee this. The purchase of a beautiful, if expensive, desk leads to Wolf writing Mrs Death’s memoirs, looking at the individual and more everyday deaths she has been present at as well as grimmer ones – murders, deaths in police custody, high profile serial killers, violence. Mrs Death is tired – listening to the final words, stories and regrets of countless people is physically and mentally exhausting – yet her conversations with Wolf help them to recall the reasons why life is worth living.

This book is often quite bleak – many of the dead are kind, loving people killed brutally – and frequently told in blunt and offensive language but is oddly uplifting. Maybe it is Wolf’s example – that someone with so much pain, loss and hardship in their life can express themselves so eloquently and find so much hope in the future is a powerful message. Wolf is a character who has suffered so much loss and copes with being bipolar (the impulsive desk purchase with money that should have been rent is classic….) yet exhibits so much life and energy. The author, Godden, is a poet and it shows in the way language is used – even a stream of C-words has a kind of angry music to it – so, as often happens, it is art which helps us to cope with both death and the fear of death. 


The Shape of Darkness – Laura Purcell

Back to one of my favourite genres – historical fiction – but with, it seems, a supernatural twist. Which I love because a) belief in the uncanny has been far more common through history than it is now and b) spookiness isn’t just for Halloween!

53814737._SX98_This novel is set in Bath, as so many good historical novels are, but it is set slightly later than most. Instead of its Regency heyday this is a slightly run-down Bath in the early years of the Victorian era – which is great, I love seeing things in a slightly new context – and the story centres around Agnes Darken, whose skills as a silhouette artists is being replaced by the spangly new Victorian art of photography. Agnes lives with her aged mother and nephew and tries to earn money through her increasingly unfashionable art-form but suffers with both ill-health and the loss of her sweetheart. When her few clients start to become murder victims Agnes starts to worry that she is being targeted but it is the death of an unknown naval officer which drives her to seek help from a medium – she needs to know if this officer is her missing sweetheart. This medium, a young girl called Pearl, and her forthright sister are what really crank up the level of mystery – the descriptions of the seances are quite thrilling (and give away quite a few trade secrets too).

This is a dark and disturbing tale with many, many twists. Agnes is a character full of mysteries and she is, in many ways, haunted by her own dead sister. Pearl, the eleven year old albino medium, is heart-breaking – her fears, her physical disabilities which prevent her from even looking out of the window in daylight, her love for her father who is slowly dying from the effects of phosphorus poisoning and her battles against her single-minded sister – and will haunt me for a long time. Honestly, this is so good and so spooky that you really should not wait until 31st October to dive into this one!





Two Crime Novels

It used to be that I would describe myself as ‘not really a crime reader’ – I watched all the crime series avidly but had never even read an Agatha Christie.  Mum had got me reading Dorothy L Sayers (and I had a huge crush on Peter Wimsey) but somehow I never read any other fiction featuring detectives, sleuths or other kinds of investigators. I’m not sure what got me started on reading this genre properly but it is now one of my favourites – in fact, in a week or so I’m going to be starting an online course on Classic Detective Fiction through Futurelearn. I’m really looking forward to it – who knows I may even end up finding some kind of liking for some of the sub-genres I’m still not keen on (like ‘courtroom drama’ – if the denouement happens in a courtroom I’m currently not interested).

The Survivors – Jane Harper

53305127._SX98_As in all Harper’s previous books the weather and the land play a big part in the story. The land, this time, is a small community in Tasmania and the weather was a huge storm, twelve years earlier, which led to two tragedies. Kieran Elliott and his girlfriend, Mia, have returned to their childhood hometown to help Kieran’s parents pack up to move – a move necessitated by his father’s descent into dementia – but, on their first night, they realise that Kieran’s role in the events that led to the death of two popular young men (one Kieran’s own brother) has not been forgotten, or forgiven, by some. When a young girl’s body is found on the beach the next morning, a waitress who they had seen and spoken to the previous evening  accusations and bad feeling starts to spread around the town – and memories of the other tragedy, the disappearance of a teenaged girl (Mia’s best friend), resurface too.

The investigations, led by an incomer from the big city since the local policeman (who had been part of the  earlier events) is about to close down the local station, dig deep into old memories and rekindle old accusations. Kieran and Mia also try to look, through adult eyes, at things which happened in their teens and are aided by a long-term visitor to the area – an author who had been running a writing course when the storm struck. Part of the joy of reading this book is to unravel the events which have brought sorrow and pain to a community for over a decade – the rest is from the development of the characters. I particularly enjoyed seeing Kieran work through his feeling of guilt at the death of his adored older brother, drowned trying to rescue the boy from the storm. I was also interested in the author character – I spent a long time trying to decide if he was a viable suspect or a potential lead for a new series….

The Night Hawks – Elly Griffiths

Griffiths is another author I have come to late but am enjoying enormously. I’m still hoping to find the time to catch up on the first eleven Ruth Galloway mysteries but, well, new books keep happening. I am adding her to the retirement reading plan (RRP) though.

51830272._SX98_For this outing Ruth has moved back to Norfolk, with her daughter, and has traded her position at Cambridge to be head of archaeology at a less prestigious local university. She is trying not to have too much to do with Nelson, her one-time lover and father of her child, but is called in when a group of metal detectorists find a modern-day body as well as what turns out to be a bronze-age burial on a local beach. Some of the same detectorists – who call themselves the Night Hawks since they mostly work at night – seem to be caught up in the discovery of an apparent murder-suicide at a remote farmhouse and soon Ruth and Nelson are working together to discover if these deaths are somehow linked. The bodies start to pile up and everything seems to centre on Black Dog Farm – are the deaths connected and is the legend of the Black Shuck (whose presence foretells a death in local folklore) true? As the two dig into the mysteries of both the past and the present they find themselves in danger themselves (and not just from officious colleagues and the threat of enforced retirement). As ever, a wonderfully convoluted plot and great characters. Cathbad the druid is already a favourite (even after only two books in the series), his wife Judy (Nelson’s sergeant) is a reliable back-up and Ruth new colleague, the incredibly annoying David Brown, keeps things lively. Another great mix of detection, archaeology and East Anglian folklore – and I’m living proof that this is a series good enough to dive into without starting from the beginning.


Alexa, what is there to know about love? – Brian Bilston

I quite like poetry, Mum and I used to read quite a lot of it when I was young, but I rarely sit and read a whole book of poems. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve spent a lot of time with the older, more traditional verse – understandable but obviously ‘proper’ poems, written in ‘proper’ poetical language. I know that any words can become a poem – I was brought up during the heyday of the wonderful Pam Ayres – but, possibly, time spent studying English Literature at University distracted me. I’ve kept a lot of my Uni texts – I still enjoy dipping into them -but it has, as I say, been a while since I read a whole volume. But I had thoroughly enjoyed Bilston’s recent novel (about a slightly hapless poet) so I plunged right in.

56273634._SX98_These poems are as easy to read as Ms Ayres (in ‘Five Clerihews for Doomed Lovers’ it doesn’t matter if you actually know what a clerihew is) but are frequently clever, subversive and rather sad. Some reference classical works (but again, you only need a vague idea of who Plato or Cleopatra are) or popular culture (the title poem, for example) and others, such as ‘Penguins’ or ’57 Varieties’, are takes on current political issues. Many, as so many poems are, are about writing itself (and how difficult it is). I have favourites, of course, including ‘ee cummings attempts online banking’, ‘Serenity Prayer’ and ‘Three Postcards’ – I can heartily recommend you dip in and find yours too.


Luckenbooth – Jenni Fagan

Edinburgh is a city I have visited – on a few occasions – but it isn’t one I could say I know hugely well. Let’s say I’ve been to the tourist spots, visited the Christmas markets and done the whole New Year’s Eve thing (where we spent as long waiting for a taxi to get us back to our friends’ home in Dunfermline as we did kissing total strangers after midnight: a very good night). Everything I have seen I have enjoyed (although I may decide I’m too old to bother with NYE again) and, fingers crossed, we will get back to the city soon. At the very least there are plans for the Edinburgh Marathon Festival – Rob might even get to run the whole distance but I certainly won’t – so I decided that reading a few books set there might help.

41826984._SY475_Luckenbooth is not only set almost entirely in Edinburgh it also travels through quite a long time period. The book opens with Jessie travelling to a tall house on Luckenbooth Close, on the face of things to work as a maid for an important man but, in fact, to bear a child for him and his barren wife. So far, so typical a story of Edwardian social mores, but then it transpires that Jessie claims to be the devil’s daughter, travels from the Scottish coast to the port of Leith in a floating coffin and must take care to hide her horns from the world. What happens to her, her daughter and her master’s wife leads to a sort of curse falling on the building itself – a curse we explore through the lives of the men and women who live on the nine floors of this tenement over the next ninety years. The mix of social history, people with lives full of joy and pain and downright strangeness is quite heady – if you like any of those thing individually you may enjoy this. If, like me, you like all of them you’ll probably love it!


Four great follow-ups and one of a kind.

When you have read a book which you really enjoyed is can sometimes be a little daunting to pick up a second one by the same author. Can they do it again? Can they transport you to the world they created for their characters (if they are writing a series of some sort)? Will you connect as strongly with their new hero/heroine as you did with the last? It seems to be a huge test of both the author and me – sometimes I think I enjoy novelty too much and there are lots of series I have read the first of and never continued – but I will continue to make the attempt. After all, I have the easier job – creating these worlds and people must be much harder than just reading about them! Here are a few books I read at the end of last year that certainly made the grade (including at least one that has me pacing in anticipation of book three).

The Betrayals – Bridget Collins

I absolutely love Collins’ first book – it was beautiful inside and out, appropriately – so was looking forward to seeing what she would follow up with. This story has some similarities (even down to the glorious cover design, which might seem shallow but, let’s face it, we do judge actual books by their actual covers) but is certainly not just more of the same.

Set, again, in a world which bears some similarities to our own but which is just slightly different (let’s call it about 15 degrees off normality) this novel is largely centred on Montverre, an institution, high up in the mountains of what feels like central Europe. There young men are trained in the Grand Jeu – a mix of maths, dance, philosophy and tradition – which is a central part of the elite in the society they live in. The main character, Léo Martin, was part of that elite – a Montverre graduate with a glittering political career and a very expensive mistress – until he falls from grace by questioning some of his political superiors’ more unpleasant policies. He is sent back to Montverre in disgrace, ostensibly to study, but soon begins to clash with the Magister Ludi, the head of the institution, who is – against all existing tradition – a woman. Old tragedies are uncovered and alliances questioned and, in the end, lives are changed for ever.

Call of the Boneships – R.J. Barker

This time I went for a straight sequel – the second book in a series where I was very much taken with the general background of pirates and sea-monsters. Here, of course, the dangers of just serving up more of the same are even greater but Barker doesn’t fall into this particular heffalump trap. Having met the man (and seen the Twitter feed full of cats, antlers and gothic goodness) I wasn’t expecting him to, to be honest.

The first novel ended with Shipwife Meas, Joron Twiner and the crew saving what they believe to be the last of the great sea dragons whose bones are used to make the great warships of warring island nations. This crew of rebels hope, with the cooperation of some of their erstwhile enemies, to end the cycle of warfare and destruction, of inequality and hate, but first they need to discover what has happened to the inhabitants of their secret community. The threats of betrayal, slavery and failure are only increased when it turns out that there are more of the sea dragons to come. Cue a suitably swashbuckling adventure but with lots of thoughtful episodes where our heroes need to question how they live, who their enemies really are and how they treat those they work with. If you like your epic fantasy with a side order of principles then give this series a try…

Tales From the Hinterland – Melissa Albert

This is a slightly more unusual offering. I read her debut, The Hazel Wood, and was blown away by the blend of fairy tale and Young Adult. What I really wanted, however, was to experience for myself the dark fairy stories, set in the Hinterland, which this novel hinted at. It seems that, in true fairy godmother form, Albert has heard my wish since this, newest, book is a collection of these tales.

These are stories of brides, daughters and sisters (on the whole) which are written with very expressive but simple language – as all the best folk-tales are – but which hint at darkness, death and decay at every turn. They are chillingly good and make me understand the mysterious power they hold within the world of the Hazel Wood. (Although I seem to have missed the fact that there is a second volume to the main Hazel Wood series – I’m pretty certain that this is a series I’m going to need to complete…)

Diabolical Bones – Bella Ellis

This is the series that I absolutely know I will be eagerly following. I mean, the Brontë siblings investigating mysteries? Why would anyone not want to follow their adventures (and see how they give clues and hints of the great novels to come)?

The sisters are patiently (well, sort of) waiting to hear the fate of the poetry collection they have sent to a publisher so, in the meantime, they hope to find employment for their fledgling business investigating mysteries. When they hear of bones found, bricked up, in an isolated local  farmhouse their urge to investigate is tempered by their instinctive horror at what they see as the impiety of the Bradshaw family’s reaction to the discovery. They are the children of a clergyman, after all, and religion played such a large role in the life of the mid-1800s.

It seems really hard to describe why these books are so good – but also very simple. The plots are good – complex but internally consistent – and the characters are realistic.  The three sisters each have clearly defined personalities and the benefit of hindsight gives an added poignancy to Branwell: smaller characters, like the Reverend Brontë, Tabby, or the Bradshaw family from Top Withins Hall are equally well-drawn. The plot doesn’t shy away from issues like poverty, working conditions and prejudice (against the Irish mostly) and the joy of spotting details, both large and small, which will later turn up in the sisters’ novels is immense.  As I say – I am already metaphorically pacing the floor and waiting for the next instalment…

Parting Words – Benjamin Ferencz

Finally, the last book I read in 2020. Let’s face it, it probably hasn’t been anybody’s favourite year – far too full of, well, everything so it was good to leave it reading these, the words of the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremburg Trials. It also seems right to be reviewing this in the week of Captain Tom Moore’s death – a century of a life lived well in both cases has led to a certain wisdom. We do well to listen to it.

In the case of Benjamin Ferencz this long life has been eventful. Born to a poor family in the Great Depression he managed to get a scholarship to Harvard Law School and then witnessed both the D-Day landings and the liberation of concentration camps. It seems appropriate then, that he went on to feature in the prosecution of Nazi and other war criminals.  His particular brand of wisdom is something we can all learn from, with ideas on choosing to be good, on love, on the importance of never giving up on learning and on speaking the truth (even if others don’t always want to hear it). Listening to these lessons is important – we should learn from men like Ferencz while we still have them and continue to learn even when they are no longer with us.


More little reviewettes

Maybe one of the things putting me off writing reviews is having to relearn WordPress every few months. I’d really got used to the old format – hardly ever swore when adding images – and then they changed it. Little tinkerers. Cue a certain amount of bad language and a certain reluctance to log in. So I was really pleased to discover the ‘classic’ block that I’m able to use on the new-look page – the ‘insert media’ button is back, the ‘special characters’ button too (so handy if you write about the Brontës or cafés with any regularity) and, my greatest joy, although the ‘spellcheck’ button isn’t back, is that it does underline anything it thinks is spelled wrong automatically. Happy days (even if it doesn’t seem to have heard of the Brontës: philistines…..).

Anyway, on with the reviews. Short ones in the hope of catching up – I think we’re up to November reading/publication – I may even be doing longer, current reviews before the lockdown lifts. Maybe.

A World Beneath The Sands – Toby Wilkinson

9781509858705I read this during November – I was only doing two days a week of Click & Collect during the month-long lockdown so had time to indulge in reading history – but I’m still thinking about the information in it now. Which has to be a good sign. I’ve had an interest in ancient Egypt for a long time (yes, I’m old enough to remember the 1972 London exhibition – we didn’t go but I saw it on Newsround or Blue Peter) but this filled in lots of little gaps in my knowledge. I was particularly interested in the way that Egyptology became a matter of national pride, with Britain and France facing off over ankhs and scarabs for centuries – seeing off Germany and even the USA in the end – before finally allowing Egypt the rights to their own artefacts and history. I do particularly enjoy history which covers more than just the obvious and this book touches on colonialism, the Napoleonic Wars, academic rivalries and Middle-Eastern politics. All in all, a fascinating read.

Jeeves and the Leap of Faith – Ben Schott

9781786331939This is Schott’s second outing with Bertie and his ineffable man Jeeves (try eff-ing Jeeves, you just can’t do it) and he continues to emulate Wodehouse’s style beautifully. There is a delightfully complicated plot – involving pending financial disaster for the Drones Club (to be solved by a tortuous accumulator), Spode seething and plotting and Gussie Fink-Nottle’s romantic travails – which leads Bertie to end up impersonating a clergyman at Cambridge University (and climbing the odd wall and roof in the process). The writing and dialogue are witty and clever and, although Bertie is slightly smarter than you remember from the original novels, Jeeves is still inscrutably all-knowing. The little details are all there (the conflict between master and manservant in this story is over wallpaper with a foxhunting theme) but the attitude to Spode’s fascism, for example, has been firmed up to reflect modern mores. Aunts, of course, remain aunts and want to marry Bertie off to young ladies they approve of: the young gentleman, however, has other ideas. But now, his ideas are moving towards choosing his own bride rather than continuing his single life…

When The Music Stops – Joe Heap

A common occurrence for booksellers is chatting to authors about the book they have written and why we should sell them. Slightly less common is having that same conversation with the author’s mum but, since Joe Heap left his home town for That London, his mother does keep me up to speed with his latest work. Which is a good thing because I thoroughly enjoyed his debut and was looking forward to his second. A shame that events meant we couldn’t invite him up north to promote the book but I would still recommend you look out for it anyway.

9780008293208While Rules of Seeing was an original slant on a psychological thriller this book is far more of a mystical experience. It is, at heart, the story of two people who meet, part, love and, above all, make music but it is framed by one woman’s experiences on a yacht, floundering in a storm near Greece. As her aging body and mind begin to fail her she relives episodes from her past. These range from her childhood in Glasgow, to a career as a professional musician and involve key people from her life. As each episode passes the woman, Ella, finds that she is now accompanied by the person involved. This makes the story strange and magical, while still being rooted in the reality of Ella’s experiences both past and present.

The Illustrated Child – Polly Crosby

When I was young there was a bit of a craze for highly illustrated books which posed the reader a puzzle. The first was Masquerade, by Kit Williams, and it launched a series of imitators. I loved the book – although I had no idea where the treasure could be – and would love to own a copy now but it seems that it did cause the author some problems as people tried to lie and trick their way into winning (as well as causing quite a lot of damage to public property as they dug in all sorts of places searching for the hidden golden hare). This is the book in the back of my mind as I read Polly Crosby’s debut novel.

9780008358402The story centres on a young girl, Romilly, whose father writes and illustrates a book full of puzzles and secrets and which features both her and her pet cat, Monty. The book is a huge success, which means they finally have decent food on the table, but they also start to be bothered by fans of the book who are convinced the detailed drawings give clues to the location of a rich prize. As her father writes further books Romilly’s life becomes stranger – she leaves school to be home-schooled by her dad (he doesn’t really bother), she has no friends (apart from one, Stacey, who seems to run as wild as Romilly but isn’t always around) and, eventually, begins to notice that although she has grown up the child in the stories is still nine years old. As time goes by her father become ill and forgetful so Romilly sets about discovering the secrets of the books for herself. Which leads to finding out the mystery of her own past…

That is another four books covered. At this rate I will be onto my 2021 reading before Valentines. Maybe?