A lot has happened since the last Bookworm post back in February this year. Plans that were at best embryonic at that stage have moved on significantly; we’re now living in beautiful rural surroundings, close to the sea and awaiting completion of purchase on our next home. One of our first tasks here was to join the local library. It’s smaller than we’re used to, but still fairly comprehensive for a small seaside town, and it boasts access to the catalogue of all other libraries in in the county for book reservations. As is customary these days, loans, returns and renewals are handled on a computerised basis which works fairly well and leaves library staff free to deal with non run-of-the-mill issues. There’s only one drawback, and it’s a feature which was evident, but much less so, in our former library. And that’s noise.
Our former library used to host occasional small, but inevitably noisy school groups for various activities, and from time to time they would hold a book-reading in one corner of the library for the kiddies. The organizer, clearly an am-dram enthusiast would take her responsibilities very seriously. And carry them out loudly.
Our new library boasts possibly the most extroverted librarian I have ever encountered. Every interaction is conducted at full volume, punctuated with almost tourettian outbursts of jocularity, and every thought process and activity is fully narrated… ‘now where did I put the red pens, there must be some around here, somewhere… I’ll just go and have a look over here, ah yes there they are…” etc. Clearly some borrowers don’t seem to mind this, in fact I’d hazard a guess many almost enjoy the ‘inclusivity’, not to mention the experience of being chivvied, teased and jokingly scolded at full volume. Sadly I don’t, and, judging by some of the exasperated glances of those browsing on the four or five computers located in the library or endeavouring to read the newspapers provided, I’m not alone, though probably still in a minority. Clearly she is a helpful, friendly, efficient and eminently likeable lady, but whatever happened to the old-fashioned librarian, the lady who quietly carried out her duties, responding in hushed tones to an enquiry, and for whom the maintenance of a quiet environment was paramount, an environment that made the borrowers forget all sense of time and place as they immersed themselves in books before making their choice? A relic of the past, it seems.
So, in my haste to complete my browsing and return to the comparative peace of the seafront, I’ve made one or two hasty and ill-considered selections in the last few months. Some, but not all, are included below.
The Trouble With Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon *****
I can’t remember when I enjoyed a book so much. This is a cross between a murder-mystery and a ‘coming of age’ novel. Engagingly narrated by a young girl, the book is set during the long hot British summer of 1976, on a street where clearly something has taken place, someone is missing, someone has commited a dreadful act, someone is being persecuted and secrets are outing themselves. Two 10 year old girls, Grace and Tilly, with little in common other than the fact that they are both unpopular and both being bullied at school, are inspired, in response to the vicar’s assertion that ‘God is everywhere’, to find him. Their search takes them from door to door, inadvertently gathering secrets from the adult occupants as they go. The naively perceptive conclusions that the girls draw from these activities and the answers that they get from the occupants are both funny and tragic, as is the book itself. There is one part of the book, when Grace instinctively betrays her little friend Tilly, and where her subsequent remorse, and the censure from her circle of adults, is almost unbearable to read. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t think I shall ever rid my mind of the spectacle of the street’s inhabitants spending days sitting around a drainpipe guarding the vision of Jesus that can be seen in a stain on the pavement. Anyone who remembers Britain in the seventies, will find much to enjoy in the peripheral details here – Angel Delight, Kay’s Catalogues, Jackie magazine… Wonderful!
Much has been written about the earlier wives that Henry VIII matched and despatched, but it’s almost seemed as though the history of the later wives paled into insignificance beneath the splendor of their predecessors. Kateryn Parr is the last of Henry’s wives, a young widow, deeply in love with Thomas Seymour, who is selected by the King to be his wife. Given the fates of her predecessors, not to mention her own religious convictions, Kateryn is aware she must put her love for Seymour to one side, and she dedicates herself to the role that has been forced upon her as Queen, welcoming Henry’s bewildered children (by other wives) into court and cultivating a family unit. She is an intelligent woman who quickly immerses herself in the study and translation of many religious texts so that religion can be available to the proletariat. But Henry perversely switches his views on the role and nature of religion, and Kateryn’s activities soon begin to assume a dangerous undertone as he is persuaded by his various advisers to adopt a return to the old religion. Gregory demonstrates the precariousness of Kateryn’s existence with skill, and the plot to discredit the queen and remove Henry from her influence is nicely paced. An interesting detail which I’d not realized, was that Henry continued to mourn Jane Seymour long after her death, and believed her to have been his one true love. His devotion was not powerful enough to persuade him to respond to her heart-breaking summons as she lay dying in childbirth, but there you have Henry in a nutshell. His cruelty, vanity and stubbornness have always been well-documented, but the last months of his life are vividly and unsympathetically portrayed by Gregory. The reader can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when he finally succumbs to his fate.
I’ve gone through a cycle with Jodi Picoult, from loving her books and searching high and low for them, to where I am now, which is bordering on the cautiously indifferent. There can be no doubt that she writes well, and that she makes her characters convincing and develops her plots nicely. But whereas I once used to commend her on the research she puts into her books, I now wonder whether she gets the balance completely right, for me at least. I tend now to study what the book is about before I decide to read it, because I know that the subject will have been meticulously researched and that research will be equally meticulously shared, at length, throughout the story. About a third of the way through this book I had, frankly, learned enough about elephant behavior to last me a lifetime. Don’t misunderstand me, I love elephants, I think they’re noble, intelligent, emotional and … the list is endless. But I didn’t need to be told over and over again about how they handle loss and in the end I began to skip pages that were narrated from the point of view of the missing mother – a specialist in elephant behavior. Briefly, Jenna is searching for her mother who, together with her father ran an elephant rescue centre in New England, and who went missing the same night that an elephant killed a carer at the centre. Jenna enlists the help of a discredited celebrity psychic and a private investigator in order to find her, and we follow the story from each of their points of view, plus that of the mother. This story unfolds well, has a twist at the end which I didn’t see coming and, for the unexpectedness of which, I’ve given it four star rating. I love a good twist.
The Cellar – Minette Walters *
I’m glad I didn’t pay for this novella. I’ve always been a Minette Walters fan, but had this been the first I’d read by her, then it might very well have been the last. I can’t think of any redeeming feature in the book, which is a story of a girl who has been brought into England as a slave by the wife of the householder and has been kept in a cellar where she is regularly abused by the husband of the house, and the eldest of his two sons. When the youngest goes missing, she is brought up from the cellar and paraded as the daughter who speaks no English. The plot from thereon is quite incredible – police who don’t pick up on facts, social workers who don’t investigate, unbelievable neighbours. I decided, whilst reading, that this must have been one of her very early books but it appears to have been published quite recently. As it’s one of the Hammer novella series, I can only suspect that Hammer have been approaching established authors, asking them if they’ve got any old stuff they want to let them have for this series. (See later review). A big disappointment, Walters is so much better than this both in the field of plot development and characterization. For me the characters never left the page.
This is a truly fascinating concept. Kepler, the narrator, has the ability to jump into people’s bodies simply by touching them. The memory and personality of the subject are thus submerged, and Kepler can act in any way he wishes, go where he pleases, and do what he wants. Once Kepler moves on to another body, the person who has been occupied may suddenly come to his senses in another city, another country, in completely different circumstances. They will have a sense of having suffered from some kind of amnesia, recalling nothing. There’s a fairly entertaining description of Kepler inhabiting the body of some particularly obnoxious wealthy celebrity and standing up in front of the world’s media, to philanthropically donate his money to the needy, thus leaving the victim with some serious problems once in control of himself again. The trick, of course, is to avoid being in the body of someone who gets killed, because at that stage the ‘ghost’ will die too. Since Keppler has been alive for centuries, he’s clearly worked out the knack of surrounding himself with other hosts at dangerous times. There’s plenty of humour in the book, but this is essentially a crime story and a savage one at that. Someone is aware of Kepler and the legions of other ‘ghosts’ who indulge in similar activities and an organization has been set up to destroy them. One of Kepler’s close female friends (and hosts) is killed in this pursuit, which is why Kepler is intent on unmasking the perpetrator. It’s a rather difficult book to follow, as Kepler can, in a difficult situation, jump from one person to the next in seconds, simply to get himself out of danger, but it’s a highly entertaining read.
A Trick I learned from Dead Men – Kitty Aldridge ***
A fairly short book which moves at a slow pace and at the end there’s a kind of “and so?” feeling about it. Lee, the elder brother of a Ned, a deaf and socially disadvantaged lad, is apprenticed to an undertaking business. The story explores his past – his father left home, his mother died, and his step-father is a disabled, unemployed soap addict – and focuses on his attempts to make a future for himself. Lee looks after his brother, stifling his frustrations, throwing himself into his duties (very graphically described – this book is well-researched) and entertaining mild fantasies about a local florist with whom he engages at a business level on a fairly regular basis. It was something of a relief that the dead were treated not only with respect by Lee, but by something closely approaching reverence. It’s a book that will make you smile at times (but not laugh) and will make you sad (but not cry), and at the end I hoped for a better life for Lee. So I suppose you could say that the author managed to make the reader engage with the main character. But although I believe it’s had good reviews, it wasn’t particularly memorable for me.
My overall reaction to this story was that it was a bit on the thin side. Frankie Rowley, a forty year old woman returns from her long term assignment as an aid worker in Africa, to stay with her parents, Sylvia and Alfie. Immediately upon her return, an arsonist starts a campaign of terror in the New England town where the story takes place. The story is a mixture of a ‘who-dunnit’, (the arsonist) a study of developing Alzheimers (Alfie, the father), an incapacity to form relationships (both Frankie and her mother) and the issue of resentment by townsfolk towards holiday home owners. There’s a wealth of personal history in it, none of which served much purpose I thought, and altogether it was a bit of a relief when I finished it.
The Faithful Couple – A D Miller ***
This book provides an intriguing insight into the issue of male friendship. Two young men of very different backgrounds become friends in their teens on a back-packing holiday in the Yosemite region. It’s not immediately clear what each gets out of the relationship, but a bond is formed which will exist for the remainder of their lives. An incident during that trip, involving a girl who turns out to be only fifteen, and the guilt surrounding that incident, is an essential part of the glue that seems to stick them together. They develop in different ways, and, given their backgrounds, in unexpected directions. The less socially skilled man goes on to considerable business success, whilst the more assured individual is portrayed as a serial under-achiever. I’ve not read many books which put the male bond under such close scrutiny. The story of their relationship catalogues many of the characteristics you might expect to find in female relationships, jealousies, possessiveness, competitiveness, with the notable exception, eventually, of forgiveness. Interesting, but not compulsively so.
From Silt and Ashes – Rochelle Wisoff-Fields ****
This is the second book in this trilogy by my friend and writing colleague, the talented Rochelle Wisoff Fields. This sequel takes up where Please Say Kaddish For Me left off, with Havah, Abel and a few surviving family members taking up their new life in America. The story recounts the menacing events taking place in in their homeland Russia, even as they discover that life in their new country of residence is not without the shadows of bigotry and discrimination. The lives of the characters located in different cultures, different parts of the world are skillfully interwoven as the reader is taken on a journey involving hope, reunion, and tragedy. This is a well-plotted read, rich in characters and emotions and it will draw you in, whilst keeping you on the edge of your seat as events draw towards a climax that any reader who is familiar with the history of the Russian pogroms will have anticipated with dread and horror. Besides her talents as an author, Rochelle is no mean artist too, designing her own book covers and character portraits. Rochelle skillfully mixes shades of light and dark in this compelling and informative story as this rich family saga continues. This generation, now more than ever, needs to absorb and remember those dark times, and Rochelle Wisoff-Fields is instrumental in ensuring that we do. The third part in this series, As One Can One Must, will be released towards the end of the summer.
The Orphan Choir – Sophie Hannah *
I’m a big fan of Sophie Hannah, and was delighted to find one of hers that I hadn’t read. After the first forty or fifty pages I had to check that (a) it was indeed by Sophie Hannah, and (b) that it wasn’t one of her earliest works. That investigation threw up that it was once again, one of the Hammer range of novellas mentioned above. The story begins where a family in an old Victorian terraced house in Cambridge are suffering noise nuisance from the young man in the adjacent property. The main character, Lou, is the ditzy, scatty character more likely to be found in chick-lit, and is totally unbelievable. We are asked to believe that against her wishes, she has allowed her totally likeable and unbelievably patient husband to send their seven year old boy to a local Cambridge music school as a boarder so that he can be in the choir. Lou enlists the help of the local Noise Abatement society to curb the volume of music being played by their hostile young neighbour, whereupon the music changes from rock-pop to choir music. Lou decides they will buy a house in the country (as you do if your house in Cambridge is being inconveniently sandblasted) but on moving out there finds the ghostly choir has followed her. The story defies belief, though in its defence I’d say that for the last 70 pages or so the relentless chick-lit nature of the story does change into a horror story, affording at least some relief.
I know Sophie Hannah is better than this, and I hope that no more of my favourite respected authors will succumb to an offer that can’t be refused from Hammer. I’d also say that my review is a lot kinder than some of those I subsequently read after finishing the book.
Rupture – Simon Lelic ****
This was a compulsive book – some chapters being written in the form of a rather conversational witness statement. The story revolves around a school where there has been a mass shooting. Three or four people are dead, and I’m not spoiling the story if I reveal, as does the book within the first few pages, that the perpetrator is a misfit schoolteacher. The main theme of the story though is bullying, not simply boy-on-boy or girl-on-girl bullying, but boy-on-teacher, headmaster-on-teacher, detective-on-detective and boss-on-detective bullying. The only reason I didn’t give it five stars is that I found it hard to believe (not to mention extremely irritating) that the female detective doggedly pursuing the person whom she believes to be the responsible culprit (in the face of all-round opposition), doesn’t have the balls to confront her bullying colleagues. You don’t rise from the ranks of constable to CID if you’re a vapid punch-bag. Not where I come from.
These are just a few of the books I’ve read during this hectic period. Some I’ve held over for the next review, by which time I hope we’ll be settled in our new house, and will have access to the books we’ve held in storage for several months. Happy rest of the summer!