May round-up

I don’t usually do a monthly round-up. They are popular with book bloggers, as are posts showing planned reading for the month, book hauls etc, but I would prefer to be posting a bit more regularly. I suppose other bloggers also do author interviews, Q&As, blog themes and the like but I enjoy reading and telling you what I’ve read. To quote a famous Russian, ‘simples’… However, sometimes life gets in the way. Over the last month I have had a holiday (which may get mentioned in a bit…), changed my hours at work (dropping my hours – which should mean more blogging time but I have been trying to get back into my running and gardening) and been doing lots of other non-reading stuff. Also I discovered Microsoft Jigsaw. If you want to be productive at all, in any way, don’t evenĀ thinkĀ about Microsoft Jigsaw…Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been reading in May.

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

whistledark.jpgI managed to miss Healey’s first book, Costa-winner Elizabeth is Missing, but I heard such good things about it that I was keen to read this. The story is told by Jen and describes the aftermath of what must be one of any parent’s worst nightmares. Lana, Jen and her husband Hugh’s teenaged daughter, went missing for four days while on a painting holiday in the Peak District. The holiday itself and the four days of parental panic are skimmed over a little: what we are really exploring in this book is the relationship between mother and daughter and Jen’s reactions to both the disappearance and Lana’s refusal (or inability) to say what happened.

It is understandable why Jen is worried – Lana has had episodes of depression in the recent past, culminating in an overdose attempt which led Jen to visits to all local pharmacies with a request not to sell painkillers to her daughter – but it seemed to me that Jen is experiencing mental health issues of her own. She obsesses over what could have happened – fearing all the usual worsts since Lana had befriended a teenaged boy on the holiday and was eventually discovered by a man on an isolated farm – becoming anxious, suspicious and a bit paranoid. The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that the media follows the story closely and that one of the other people on the painting holiday is a slightly strange man whose religious beliefs include the possibility that some children can travel to hell and back. Jen almost stalks her own daughter to try to find answers – listening in on phone calls, searching bedrooms and following her to school – but doesn’t find them until she returns to the Peak.

Not quite a psychological thriller this is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman driven to extremes by the fear of what could have happened to her daughter. The characters are realistically drawn, both Jen and Lana but also Hugh and the older daughter, Meg, and the situation is plausibly dealt with. The final answers (which I won’t give away) are perhaps a little more far-fetched but possible all the same. I’m not a parent but the pain and worry of learning to deal with the fact that a beloved child is both growing apart from you and potentially putting themselves in danger seems very well described.

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

39988957I’m an atheist but I would never deny others the right to follow any religion – although I would really prefer their religion to promote tolerance, peace and fairness. I have friends who are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and, since I live and work in Bradford, many who are Muslim. I am always interested in learning about what other people believe in and also how their faith is reflected in their everyday life so I was keen to read Ed Husain’s House of Islam. I read his earlier book, The Islamist, an account of his youthful brush with the world of more politicised, radical Islam and how he moved away from it: this book promised to be a more rounded and mature look at a major world religion.

Firstly we get a pretty comprehensive history of Islam – its origins, its early schisms and spread around the world. The rise of various sects is covered and some of them are fairly roundly criticised. What is important to Husain – whose particular brand of Islam is based on Sufism, a very spiritual form of the faith – is the essence of the religion, the feelings it should create, rather than strict obedience to man-made laws. As a person who doesn’t follow the directions of any religion this is a good distinction – I like the idea of a world filled with good people rather than Christians/Jews/Muslims/Jedi who follow a set of rules which can cause difficulties, or even suffering, to those who are not following in the same way. Specific areas are considered – sharia law (which almost certainly doesn’t mean what you think it does…), the role of women, education and sex, the relationship between Islam and Judaism and attitudes to death – and some suggestions are made. These mostly seem to be a plea for a greater understandingĀ  of the full range of possibilities for Islam. Although there are many Muslims in the West the view of them held by many non-Muslims is that of one particular aspect of the faith. Often this is that of more extreme versions of what is, at heart, a peaceful faith.

I realise that Husain is giving his opinion here. He doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even for all moderate Muslims. But he does speak very passionately and persuasively about something he seems to believe in wholeheartedly. Solving the problems of extremism (in all religions) can never be easy but a deeper understanding of other faiths would be a good place to start. I feel I have gained some of that understanding by reading this book.

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People – Julia Boyd

34594504Okay. So this doesn’t, on the face of it, sound like fun holiday reading but it was actually fascinating. It looks at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany between the two world wars from the first hand reports of non-Germans visiting or living in the country. The reports – diaries, journalism, letters and memoirs – are from a wide range of people. Diplomats, tourists, socialites, opera-buffs and school children are all represented and British, American and New Zealand voices are heard. Some are serious reports and some are more jokey in tone but, as we are repeatedly reminded, none of these people have the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of the travellers in this book (school-children excepted) are of an age to remember the Great War. This means that many of them are willing to accept many things in order to prevent another conflict. It seems shocking that so many were convinced, even after the persecution of the Jews began, that Hitler was the best hope for peace in Europe but, again, we have history to inform us and they did not. One of the points repeatedly made is that anti-Semitism was widespread and generally accepted in this era (although there is no suggestion that the methods ultimately used by the Nazis to deal with the issue would have been accepted in the same way). These reactions and reasonings are given without criticism – after all, we have no way of knowing what future generations will think of the way we are dealing with the global issues we face today. The main lesson I would like to draw from this gripping book is that we must not fall for smooth-talking political leaders who try to persuade us against our personal morality. Whatever religion (or none) we draw that morality from.

Jane

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Stories of Mary and Jane (or how to become a Queen in two difficult lessons)

I have a sister called Mary. When we were children we would come home from school and go to our granddad’s until Mum finished work. Quite often we would drop into a shop or two on the way – the cake shop if we’d managed to talk Mum out of some pocket-money (I think our record was to negotiate about two months payment in advance) but almost always the pet shop. We were fascinated by all the animals, obviously, but particularly the fish. There were cold water fish, like plain old goldfish, but also plenty of more exotic specimens – we looked at the guppies, the Siamese Fighting fish and the catfish – but mostly we liked to point out the dead ones to the pet shop man. The only thing we didn’t like about the pet shop was the fact that the owner could never get our names right. I have always been taller than Mary (she is truly my ‘little’ sister), she was blond where I had dark hair, she has the Skudder nose and I, well, don’t, but he always got confused and called us both Mary-Jane. As a child this was very confusing – as an adult I get it – but even now I love anything with both names in. Could this have been the start of my love of the history of Tudor women? In the last week or so I managed to read books about queens called both Mary and Jane…

Lady Mary – Lucy Worsley

9781408869444The Mary in question here is Mary Tudor but not as a queen but as a Princess. This book is written for younger readers so Mary’s age reflects this – at the beginning she is nine years old and knew herself to be beloved by both her parents. We then see the efforts of Henry VIII to end his marriage to Mary’s mother, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the religious changes and deadly politics of the period from the point of view of a young girl. This is shown well – Mary is frequently afraid and feels abandoned by both her parents at some point, she has an understanding of the politics of power (she has been taught by the example of both Henry and Katherine) but not of the more adult passions. I did sometimes feel that she was shown as being younger than her age – she is, after all, over 20 when Anne Boleyn dies – but her whole girlhood is extremely sheltered. It is also increasing harsh as her father and step-mother gradually take away all those privileges she enjoyed as a Princess. Even, as the title of the book suggests, the name of Princess.

The book is a way to tell younger readers about the life of a famous woman from history. I’m not entirely sure what age group I would aim this at – there is no graphic content which would make it totally unsuitable for a child of nine who had an interest in the subject (I’m so thinking of me at that age…) but the emotional toll on Mary is not negligible. Like many books which span the 9-12 to teen ranges it is more about the emotional maturity of a child rather than their reading ability – and, of course, because Lucy Worsley is a historian the facts are sound (and the speculation, because there are always huge gaps in the historical record, is justified in the afterword). Of course, if you are reading it as an adult who can’t get enough well-written historical fiction then the latter stages of the book – looking at Mary’s relationship with her second step-mother, Jane Seymour – lead you inexorably on to the next book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series…

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen – Alison Weir

9781472227676I’ve been loving this series about the overlapping lives of the women who were Henry VIII’s queens. It is the overlaps which have been most fascinating – you see Katherine’s view of Anne Boleyn and vice versa – because you can then develop a more rounded impression of their personalities. Katherine was so much more fierce than I can recall her appearing in other histories, even Anne’s view of her is as a formidable enemy, and Anne so much more vulnerable – these books have made these women so much more real for me. I was hopeful, therefore, that Weir would be able to convince me that Jane Seymour was far more interesting than I had previously believed. To be honest, I just thought she was a bit wet…

Jane Seymour does become a much more interesting character than I had previously found her to be. In many ways she is fighting against a lot – Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of royalty herself, a strong figure, and Anne Boleyn is almost a pantomime villain, even the later queens have more of a hook to hang their lives on – and this has made her appear a little pale. Interestingly Weir doesn’t try to deny this paleness – it is the view of her that most of the court has – but does give us a glimpse of the woman which has a little more colour. She portrays a girl with firm religious beliefs, reinforced during her time as a maid-of-honour to Katherine of Aragon, and a strong sense of duty to her family. It is this family, and her ambitious brothers in particular, who encourage her not to reject the King’s advances. She also shows her to be a passionate woman who is eager to marry and have a family and who genuinely loves Henry. She also works hard to promote the interests of Mary Tudor and, in her heart, always thinks of Katherine as the true queen (which doesn’t make her popular when she is part of Anne Boleyn’s court…). These are, I think, factors which come from first-hand reports of her conduct – the things which Weir adds are additional, failed, pregnancies other than the one which led to the birth of the long-awaited son, including one which suggested she didn’t even wait for her betrothal before giving in to the King and, towards the end of the book, the fact that she felt haunted by guilt at the fate of Queen Anne. This was the least successful part for me – it appeared so late in the book that it felt a little forced – but wasn’t totally off-putting. I guess, like me, Weir thought that ‘the slightly wet Queen’ was a poor subtitle to use in this otherwise excellent series.

Jane

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

Some people like books to sit quietly in their genre. If it is a spy thriller it should be thrillery, but not contain elements of fantasy; historical novels shouldn’t be set in space; hard-boiled crime should not contain chapters with descriptions of cute kittens (unless, of course, they are the ones being hard-boiled….). I don’t mind a bit of a mash-up – post-apocalyptic love stories? historical thrillers? Bring it on….As Tom Stoppard assures us, all stories have a little bit of romance, death and eloquence. I’m particularly fond of a bit of quirkiness drifting into my reading – although strictly speaking I should call it by its Sunday name, Magical Realism…

bedlamIn The Bedlam Stacks Natasha Pulley brings us to a world which is undoubtedly real – the East India Company has become the India Office, malaria is still hampering Britain’s ambitions in the East and Peru has banned the export of the seeds or saplings of the trees whose bark supplies life-saving quinine. The main character, Merrick Tremayne, is a gardener/botanist who has worked as an opium smuggler for the East India Company during the Opium Wars with China is the perfect person to send in to try and succeed where others have failed. Tremayne, however, was seriously injured during his last mission and is living on his family’s dilapidated Cornish estate. He is on the point of taking a job as a curate when he is called to travel to Peru, accompanied by his good friend Clem and his wife Minna. There they find themselves in a world which is ruled by cartels controlling the sale of cinchona (the tree from which quinine is derived) but also superstition, religion and the mysterious geography of the region. This, of course, is where the magical part of the story happens. Living statues, exploding trees, a mysterious community built up from children with disabilities left there by the inhabitants of other villages deep in the forbidden forests, not to mention a key character, Raphael, the village priest who seems to suffer from a strange condition.

I’ve often enjoyed books which feature magic realism (or quirkiness, as I insist on calling it – it sounds so much less daunting and lit-crit-like) and I enjoy good historical fiction. This, I think, is one of the first times I’ve been able to enjoy them together – I have to say it is a combination I will try again in future. In fact, I think I may have to go back to Pulley’s previous book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which seems to involve at least one character from Bedlam Stacks…(my to-read pile is never going to get any smaller, is it?)

Jane