I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for odd place names. Our personal favourite, in the Jane and Rob household, is the magnificently odd (but slightly naughty) Broadwoodwidger in Devon. Closer to home we enjoy going through Thurgoland and a trip back home to Essex isn’t complete without giggling at Vange. Essentially we are very peurile. I particularly like the kind of odd town names you get in the U.S.A. – small town America does the best place names with classics like Yeehaw Junction, Paint Lick, Bitter End or Hop Bottom. They lend themselves to book titles too – Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery knew this – so I was interested in what kind of place Broken River would be…
It turns out Broken River is a fairly broken sort of small town. It has a closed down cinema and a few stores: the only part that is really thriving is the local prison. Its main claim to fame is the brutal murder, many years previously of a couple living in an isolated house on the edge of town. The story follows the family who move into the house – a writer, her unfaithful sculptor husband and their precocious 12 year-old daughter – the men responsible for the original shooting and, slightly oddly, an entity referred to as the Observer. This means the book is a blend of thriller, a contemporary family saga and something a bit stranger but it does it very well. The Observer character could have been a distraction but it actually tied together the various groups of characters pretty well as well as allowing us to shift our focus between groups.
This is an interesting book and it is certainly a change from the run of psychological thrillers. In fact, since many of the characters follow the same website which delves into unsolved crimes, it is possibly more interested in the psychology of those who are fascinated by murder.
If I knew how to do those meme things there would be a picture here of a world-weary chap and the text saying ‘I don’t always act like a completist…but when I do it will involve Alice in Wonderland’. Feel free to do the technical stuff for me – or just imagine the image like I do – but be assured the words would be approximately 99.9% true. I do have a pretty extensive ‘Alice’ collection: different editions of the books (I’m especially interested in how illustrators interpret the story), biographies, critical works, foreign language editions and books written in an ‘Alice’ style. So far I’ve found lots of sci-fi versions, racy short stories and even an explanation of quantum physics – politics was only a matter of time…
Alice in Brexitland is a really good pastiche of Lewis Carroll’s writing style – both in the humour, the political commentary (check out Martin Gardiner’s Annotated Alice if you don’t think Carroll did politics) and in its poetry. Most of today’s best known (if not loved) political figures are featured and the Brexit plot is slotted ingeniously into the original. There are slightly more bottom-based gags than Carroll used but, to be fair, he didn’t have a politician with a name for passing wind to contend with… I’m not usually a fan of topical humour books – I like my funnies to have some staying power – but this one tickled me and has earned its place on my bookshelves for more than just its Alice credentials.
Talking of Alice credentials the beautiful new edition of Alice in Penguin’s new V&A Collector’s Edition is almost perfect. The cover design is based on a William Morris print and has a rather fetching White Rabbit (and Dormouse) illustration by Liz Catchpole. I stroked it for quite a while (humming happily) too, because the cloth cover feels great too, before opening it up to have little read. And that was my only problem – the illustrations available to Penguin are not from the original plates (many of which are still owned by Macmillan, Carroll’s original publisher) so they are a little less crisp and detailed. This is a lovely little book but to make it even better maybe Penguin could let Liz Catchpole do all the illustrations in the text as well as on the cover?
It always seemed unlikely that anyone would write a book which combined two of my specific reading interests – fiction set in the early modern history period (think Tudors to Regency) and steampunk. Those pre-industrial eras just don’t lend themselves to the genre as well as the Victorian and Edwardian periods but they are an age which lends itself to the magical and mysterious. Which is why, I suspect, that Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird reads, for me, like a steampunk novel with Elizabethan overtones – specifically like one featuring John Dee. Let me clarify….
Rotherweird is a very unusual town. Back towards the end of the reign of Queen Mary a group of children came to light – brilliant but somehow potentially dangerous – and they are sent into isolation in the small town of Rotherweird. There they are placed in the care of Sir Henry Grassal who educates them, against the wishes of the Queen, so that they develop their prodigious abilities in maths, philosophy and sciences. Scroll forward to the modern day and Rotherweird is still cut off in many ways from the modern world. No cars (bar one), no computers, no connection to the politics or government of the real world – governed by their own laws: the comprehensive regulations. There are some familiar things – pilates for example – and the community funds itself by selling the products of its brilliant scientific minds. For Jonah Oblong the new history teacher at the town’s school, however,modern history is the only permitted subject. In fact the laws of the town mean that no-one can study its history or anything at all from before 1800. This is a town which history is meant to have forgotten but history has a habit of asserting itself.
This book has a huge cast of characters – mostly with strange names which I would find far too Dickensian in a Dickens novel – and a fascinating plot involving an isolated community, an unsettling parallel world and strange and powerful forces. It has humour, action, adventure and just a hint of romance. Some of the mysteries are resolved but many more remain. There are still more of Rotherweird’s secrets to be revealed in future so I’m pleased to hear a sequel is in the pipeline.
I’ve always been a bookworm. I had to be chased out into the playground when all I really wanted to do was read (I was sometimes found hiding under the tables…) when I was at primary school. I absolutely love the fact that I am fortunate enough to be offered the chance to read lots of new books but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish the pace of publishing would slow down a bit. I miss the days when I could take the time to re-read some of my old favourites – Lord of the Rings, Enchanted April or, the ones I used to read about every other year on average, the novels of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen is one of those authors whose works are familiar to a large proportion of the population. They come up on many an English Literature curriculum, are widely read for pleasure and, interestingly, are often adapted for film and tv. I’ve even managed to get Rob to watch some of these adaptations (although he does refer to Sense and Sensibility as ‘the one where she sobs into her harpsichord…’) which is a bit of an achievement. These adaptations are the focus of the latter part of Paula Byrne’s book (itself an expanded reissue of an earlier, 2003, book on Austen and theatre) and I was reminded of both books and the films themselves. Not just the BBC series or the Hollywood films but also the homages – to be honest it has been a few years since I read Emma but I reckon I watched Clueless sometime in the last six months…
The main part of the book looks at Austen’s relationship with the theatre – one I’d sum up as both knowledgable and warm. Because I have never had to study any of the books (not since my English ‘O’ level in 1981) I wasn’t aware of a school of critical thought which assumed that Austen disapproved of theatre – I was actually surprised to hear this since, like Byrne, my reading of the books themselves always suggested that she enjoyed this form of entertainment. The additional research done by Byrne, an Austen scholar, backs up her opinion – letters are full of mention of trips to theatres in London, Bath and other towns. I avoided reading critical works when possible at University – if they’d all been this readable and convincing I would probably have read more!
There are some times in life when you suddenly find yourself doing something that, not so long ago, you would never have believed possible. For example, I recently joined a running club. Yes. An actual running club – I even actually go out most weeks and run with them. The me from a few years ago who used to get out of breath running for a bus is absolutely gobsmacked so it is perfectly okay for you to express astonishment. To be fair, I’m mostly surprised that I’ve given up a couple of hours of reading time each week (not to mention a lie-in on any Saturday I’m off work) but, so far, it has been worth it. Slightly achy legs, the occasional soaking and only one major set of bruises is a fair return for all the fresh air, country views and second breakfasts eaten after a parkrun. It is probably not immediately obvious how this preamble about running fits in with Alison Weir’s second volume in the series of six historical novels about the wives of Henry VIII but bear with me…
The first volume – on Katherine of Aragon – looked at the role of women in general and Queens in particular. Henry’s first queen is sure that she must live up to those roles but Anne Boleyn, his second, is, we have always been told, a rebel who wants to overthrow this system. This novel gives us Anne’s view of the world: her childhood, her family relationships and her girlhood in the courts of Renaissance Europe. Here she is enthralled by female monarchs who think in a new way, who feel that women have greater roles to play than just wives and mothers, who value women’s independence, intelligence and opinions. Most importantly she is told, by the women she respects at court that, above all, a woman’s most important quality is her virginity.
This is not the story of Anne Boleyn which I expected. Cleverly, Weir doesn’t give us the obvious – Anne as seductress or Anne as pawn in parental plan – but a highly original view of a much written-about woman. Once again, her knowledge of her subject and meticulous research has led her to a highly original, if fictional, version of events. There is overlap with Katherine’s story, of course, and what has been particularly interesting for me has been the fluctuating character of Henry himself. The courtly lover, the tyrannical husband, the statesman and the would-be head of a dynasty are all there but, at the heart of it all is a man afraid that he will never have a son to inherit the kingdom he rules. Like me with running Anne, according to Weir, didn’t set out to become a queen – but when she did accept this as her role (had queen-ness thrust upon her as it were) she tried to do the best she could. I feel the same way about running (but hope that it all ends better in my case). I am also now looking forward to the Jane Seymour novel – I think Weir may even make her interesting for me…
Next to books I guess I like food best. There are a lot of foodstuffs I’m not keen on – tripe isn’t going to happen and I don’t see the point of sweetcorn – but on the whole I enjoy my food. As a younger woman I seemed to be able to eat and drink as I pleased without making much difference to my weight or size but time (and probably hormones) have put paid to that. These days I try to eat more healthily (and sustainably), with lots of fruit and veg and take more exercise – let’s face it, I need to live as long as I can because authors just keep on writing books I need to read. So, when I was at an Orion publishing do earlier this year – meeting authors, eating canapes of possible healthiness and sipping the odd glass of mineral water* – I did grab quite eagerly at the new book by James Wong.
This isn’t a book about faddy diets, self-denial or shaming anyone’s food choices. What it is about is making the healthiest choices on everyday ingredients, making little improvements and being better informed on the facts about health. Some of it I was aware of – we’ve been on brown rice and wholemeal pasta for quite a while now thanks to Weight-Watchers Pro-points – but other bits were new information. Who’d have guessed that there was so much nutritional difference between a Golden Delicious and a Braeburn apple? Or that I’d unconsciously always been drawn to the healthier variety? There are plenty of interesting looking recipes – so you know what to actually do with that ultra-healthy purple-fleshed sweet potato – and beverages are not neglected. While not encouraging too much indulgence at least Wong mentions some health benefits of some wines and beers (when used in moderation of course). Again I’m slightly smug that my favoured wines (Syrah, Merlot, Pinotage…) are on the better end of the scale.
The science behind Wong’s claims is clearly explained – the man is a Kew-trained botanist so knows what he’s talking about here – and I never felt like I was being preached to. If a food is healthiest frozen or microwaved then Wong lets us know. Processed foods are not the enemy and organic isn’t necessarily healthier (or affordable for many). This is a book which is practical and realistic in trying to improve health through diet – choosing smaller mushrooms and redder peppers isn’t going to make me live forever but it can help me be just a little bit healthier, with little effort, and may even save me a few pennies. Win win I think!
*Okay, I lied about the mineral water but I’m sure they were serving a nice, polyphenol-charged, Merlot…
Families are…complicated. The hardest bit seems to be that no sooner have you worked out what all your relationships are with your parents, siblings and other family members as a child when, suddenly, you are an adult yourself. All those relationships change, subtly, as you gradually become older, get responsible jobs, vote, marry, leave home, become parents. You become responsible for others – work colleagues and clients, partners and offspring – and one day you may end up becoming the person who has to look after a parent. Yep, families are complicated and getting older can be scary. But, now I have read Stuart Heritage’s account of his childhood, family and forays into adulthood, I realise they can also be blooming hilarious.
Heritage tells the story of how he moves back to his hometown, Ashford, in Kent when he and his wife have their first child. They consider lots of places (because, let’s face it, almost anywhere is better value for money than living in London…) but finally have to admit that Ashford is their best option. We meet Heritage’s parents (in dramatic circumstances, when their house catches fire), his wife and son and, most importantly, his younger brother – the foul-mouthed, grumpy and almost unhealthily single-minded Pete. Stu is, in his own words, the perfect son: Pete is quite possible the worst son in the history of offspring. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that and, as the book progresses you realise that Pete has a lot of good qualities (although it would take a brave man – or a brother – to go on a stag night with him). By the end you feel that both brothers have moved on and become proper adults. Assuming proper adults love wrestling, competing in Iron Man races and shouting ‘tiddies’ with no warning of course…
This book is utterly hilarious and as full of profanities as a football terrace full of white-van drivers. It turns out that Stu isn’t the perfect son he reckons he is and Pete is a better one than you’d think but they are brothers and, even when they can’t agree on anything, they love each other.
P.S. In our house we have one rule. DBAD. Or Don’t Be A Dick. This book is so funny that I am going to forgive both brothers for breaking the rule…