The Six Loves of Billy Binns – Richard Lumsden

We don’t live in the world of Logan’s Run – we, generally, don’t know how long we get to live for. We can affect our lifespan in many ways – by trying to live a healthy life, by avoiding life-threatening situations and so on – but in many ways it is out of our hands. It seems that life expectancy is increasing and more and more of us will live for over a hundred years but what will that be like? Will we value those who reach such an advanced age, and how will they be cared for when they can no longer cope on their own? We don’t know but we can read the Six Loves of Billy Binns and find out about the life, and loves, of one man…

9781472256683Billy Binns is 117. He was, as he reminds us through the book, the same age as the century, born just after midnight on New Year’s Eve just as 1900 began. He is living in a small care facility in West London and is fully aware that he is coming to the end of his, admittedly, long life: so he decides to think back over his life, focussing on the really important parts. He focusses on those he has loved. From the older woman who taught him about sex, to the woman he asks to marry him, and from his son, via a co-worker with her own tragedies to a woman who, in his later life, introduces him to the truly swinging Sixties. Five loves. Not a lot for such a long life but some have endured right through to Billy’s extreme old age although, of course, to have loved and then lived on so long means that Billy has also experienced many losses. His life wasn’t all about love though – like many lads of his time Billy lied about his age to sign up to fight in the Great War and his experiences there are horrific. He experiences great passion but also injustices and terrible sorrow: he has had experiences which seem both unbelievable and quite, quite possible given that he has lived through two world wars and great social change.

Of course, as well as Billy’s memories of his past life and loves we also see his present – his day-to-day life in The Cedars, a small privately run nursing home. Like the past the present isn’t shown idealistically – we see what life is like for the residents in a home run with an absolute minimum of staff. Billy is fond of the two female carers, who are obviously very fond of their charges but overstretched, and has built up some friendships with other residents but the descriptions of the home – to those of us who have only ever known such places as visitors or staff – is slightly grim and depressing: over-heated, slightly shabby, with a hint of a stale smell and the television on far too loud. Although Billy’s early and middle-aged years are obviously a work of fiction his present is very plausibly real. Which proves to me that we need to hear the stories which older people have to tell before the lives which they led become nothing more than fiction to us.





The Story Keeper – Anna Mazzola

Rob and I had a lovely holiday, back at the end of May, in Scotland. We had a few days in the Outer Hebrides (where I failed to read any Peter May but Rob finished a book by Janina Ramirez) and then a couple of days on Skye. We love Scotland but always have to visit in the spring or the autumn as I’m a bit of a midge-magnet which means I wasn’t scheduled to read Anna Mazzola’s Skye-based novel, The Story Keepers, until very recently. Still, at least the trip was recent enough that the places, buildings and landscape were still fresh in my mind – and the island itself is, in many parts, so untouched that I can imagine them being the same back in the 1850s when the novel is set.

9781472234780Audrey Hart has left her home in London to work on Skye as a collector of folk stories. Her background is, from the outside, comfortable and middle-class which is not such a bad thing to be in Victorian England but it not what Audrey wants. Her mother died when she was young and her father and his second wife wish for Audrey to marry, settle down and be normal – she, however, feels a strong connection to her mother’s past in Scotland. She is also running from work she was doing in London, helping young orphan girls, and from the discovery she made there that one of the orphanage trustees was abusing the girls in his care. She throws herself into her work, collecting folk tales, for Miss Buchanan – the sister of a local landowner – but finds that the locals are reluctant to speak out. Girls have gone missing and they fear that speaking of the faery folk will lead to more disappearances. As Audrey delves deeper into these mysteries she faces resistance, danger and the secrets of her own past. And it seems that it is not just in London that young women are seen as fair game to men who should be their protectors. The reality of their lives is the darkest fairy tale of all…




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.


The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

I like to think that I am, in general, an optomistic person. I think I try to see the positives when I can and like to give people the benefit of the doubt when I can. But, somehow, I am really, really attracted to post-apocalyptic fiction. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is a world which is scarily possible and yet not real? Or the chill you get when you realise that it is a reality which is only one or two facts away from actually existing? In the case of this debut novel I suspect it is the latter…

The Feed is, basically, the logical extension of our current obsession with social media. In fact all knowledge and communication for those connected to the Feed goes directly to the brain thanks to a bio-implant. There are a few who are not part of the Feed for political or ethical reason but the majority of humanity can have information fed directly to them without having to learn and are party to every nuance of emotion of those they communicate with. Knowing what we do about how easy it is to get obsessed with checking Facebook and Twitter it should come as no surprise to find that society shudders to a halt when the Feed itself suddenly cuts out. People die from the shock of disconnection. They literally can’t even…

34326012The story follows Tom and Kate, and their daughter Bea, born after the Feed disappeared. They live with a small group of survivors who are trying to cope with a lack of food, huge gaps in their memories and language and, more chillingly, the possibility that, in their sleep, they will somehow be changed and their essential being lost. Everyone must be watched while they sleep in case they are ‘Taken’, their mind replaced with a mysterious, alien mind: if the watcher sees you being taken they kill you rather than let your body live on with the wrong mind. For Kate and Tom this is their worst fear – until Bea is physically abducted shortly after she turns six years old.

This book shows a bleak and chilling possible future – and one which we bring on ourselves – but there is also hope. And maybe it is that air of hope, in the face of nameless terror, which I most enjoy about post-apocalyptic fiction…


Yesterday – Felicia Yap

How do you like your crime? Hard-boiled, cosy, police procedural? The list seems fairly endless and, after a while, one cosy crime novel or psychological thriller can seem pretty much like another. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good books out there but, well, after a hard week’s bookselling I start to get my franchises a bit mixed up. And this means I’m always glad to see a book which has something a bit more distinctive than usual about it. Ariana Franklin’s medieval female atheist pathologist perhaps, or A.A. Dhand’s Bradford-based Harry Virdee; or a distinctive setting like Bryant & May’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. But how about a crime novel where even the killer may not be aware that they committed a crime?

9781472242211The world in which Yesterday is set is our world. There are tabloid newspapers, reality tv, general elections and iPhones. All people, however, are one of two types – Monos, who can only remember the previous 24 hours, and Duos, whose memories span a whole 48 hours. Each night people fill in their diary (by law a private document, except in the case of serious crimes like murder) and each morning they learn the ‘facts’ of the day before. Society is split – Monos are barred from many careers and Duos are treated as a superior group – but academics are satisfied that, if people could remember everything they would divide themselves some other way. By nationality, skin colour or religion, perhaps… Against this setting Mark, a best-selling Duo novelist with a promising new career in politics looming, and his Mono wife are an unusual couple. They are being seen as the poster boy and girl for the government’s new policy of encouraging mixed marriages until the body of a woman, who turns out to be Mark’s mistress, is found and the police have only a short time to find the killer.

This was an interesting psychological thriller with a novel twist. Everyone has secrets – Mark, his wife Clare, his dead lover and the detective in charge of the case – and they are revealed as each of the four takes it in turns to tell their side of the story. But when facts are what you memorise from the words you write in your diary each day how do you find the truth?


The Plague Charmer – Karen Maitland

In an odd way I’m quite fond of stories about plague. The historical period (mid 1300s) is one I’m interested in (and have been known to do a bit of peasanting in that general era) and I did go through a phase of reading up on the history of diseases (books like Guns, Germs and Steel fascinated me). And, of course, one of my favourite books of all time has a delightfully bubonic setting.  It’s not weird to be so interested in disease, is it? Oh well, even if it is I am drawn to books which explore how people cope with deadly illnesses beyond their control (or, indeed, understanding). Maybe it is the result of my impressively cast-iron immune system…?

plagueKaren Maitland’s latest, the Plague Charmer, is set firmly in the middle of an outbreak in 1361. The people of Porlock Weir in Devon are just recovering from the last wave of the disease thirteen years previously but we soon see how society has been weakened by repeated bouts of sickness – fear, superstition and the need to find out who has brought the plague down on them (through sin, probably) run right the way through the novel. As the story opens a mysterious woman in pulled, more dead than alive, from the sea. She lives but informs the villagers that the plague is coming: not only that, but she can save them from harm if one person will willingly give up their life. They refuse and, almost immediately, the bodies of two children are washed up in the harbour – too late the villagers realise that the children are victims of plague rather than drowning and then the true horror begins. Neighbours turn on each other, with some truly gruesome scenes where families with infected members are sealed into their houses to survive as best they can. Some turn to religion (although the nearest priest is more keen to hide away than to face the suffering in Porlock Weir), others to what seems like madness but a few decide to seek out the mystery woman and to offer up a life in the hope of turning back the tide of death.

There is an impressive range of characters in this book – a malicious busybody with strange religious leanings, a woman made desperate by the loss of her husband and sons, a young girl who must hide a secret from her husband’s family, a group led by a charismatic figure which could be seen as a sort of cult and Will, who was made rather than born as a dwarf. Their stories entwine with each other’s and also with that of Janiveer, the plague charmer herself, until the threads combine to create a dramatic ending. You could read this as a fantasy novel – there are certainly fantastical elements in there – but I prefer to see it as historical fiction: after all, the facts of history can be every bit as unusual as the most complex of fantasies.