Books

The Betrayals – Bridget Collins

The front cover of the book

Anne got this book out of the library as we’d both read another one by her, The Binding, and loved it.

This book follows a similar pattern in that she creates an environment that is familiar yet not quite. Like a parallel universe.

The main setting is a university or academy, called Montverre, built in a remote mountainous area, somewhere in Europe, maybe France. It feels like a medieval, monastic enclave because of its location and because only men can be students or, generally, tutors here.  But the world around it seems to be a version of Europe of the 1930s.

We first meet the Rat, a feral child living within the shadows of Montverre, only venturing out at night, stealing necessities sparingly, observing from the edges.

Then there is Léo Martin, a fallen politician, sent back to his alma mater to give credence to the official line: that he wasn’t pushed, but resigned. He had been a high-flying young acolyte for this newly established government until he started to question their directives. A party that had swept into power on the promise of cleaning up the streets, but whose ambitions for ‘purity’ lay wider.

Finally we have the Magister Ludi, the main teacher at the school, and the master of the ‘grand jeu’. A game where the rules are never explained but the raison d’etre of the whole institution. The students learn Maths, Science, History, the Arts and Philosophy, all so they can play the game. The ultimate distillation of ideas. This magister is a woman, Claire Dryden. An aberration, a mistake. Tolerated, because of her brilliance, but only just.

The story unfolds from the perspectives of these three, although there is also a fourth voice, Léo’s diaries from when he was a student.

For anybody who has read Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, the idea of such a school will feel very familiar. Collins takes an apt quote from it at the beginning and acknowledges her debt to it at the end. Yet it’s not necessary to know that book to read this one. Anne hadn’t, and that did not detract from her enjoyment of it.

There are some places where my suspension of disbelief is really tested, but generally it kept me with it and I enjoyed it too, all in all. It is quite lyrical at times and moves at a slow pace, yet there is an undercurrent of emotion and menacing portent that runs through it. There are twists to keep you guessing, and revelations.  With Léo, Collins has created a character who comes across as obnoxious and arrogant but still intriguing and vulnerable, and that is a skill indeed.

It wasn’t as fresh an idea as The Binding, the totalitarian tropes are recognisable, but it comes at it from an interesting angle and the story as a whole was a very absorbing read.

Books, Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

The book, scribbled notes and all

I’ve just finished reading, or should I say re-reading, this book.

Because my writing course will focus on creative non-fiction, I’m trying to pick up a few more of that kind of book to learn how the professionals do it. Normally Murakami writes novels and I’ve enjoyed many of them, but this book title naturally drew me in.

Even though I’ve read it before, I was still thrown by the start of chapter eight. I had completely forgotten what he does, but then that is often what I do with books. Read them, sometimes enjoy them and then promptly forget most of them. I’ve been known to get well over halfway through a book before I realise that I’ve read it before! Nothing major happens here, and normal people might wonder what am I even going on about with this particular chapter, but the start of it got to me.

My course is making me look more closely at the craft of construction, so this time around I’ve made scribbled notes on scraps of paper and slotted them in at the pertaining pages. Not sure how useful they might be when I read them back again, but I feel as if I’m paying a bit more attention by doing this.

The book is set out in the form of mini essays, with a date and location at the top of each section. That makes it sound like a diary but it has so much more fluidity of time and space than a regular diary does. It is a memoir of sorts and there really is a large amount of talking about running (just in case you thought the title was just a metaphor). And even though his running is at a seriously more advanced level than mine, I could relate to it a lot.

In amongst the descriptions of his running methods and progress, he weaves in key moments of his life in a way that feels very natural, and still relating to the point. You get to learn about him as a person, and how he is shaped, metaphorically, and physically, but you don’t get the usual yawn about where he was born or what school he went to etc.

The biggest take I got, is that Murakami is a singularly focused man, to the point, sometimes, of obsession. But this focus propels him in his running/triathlon efforts in the same way that it does his writing. He can sit, every morning, for three or four hours and carve away at his writing, without any deviation. I came away in awe of that focus, a little afraid of not being able to gain it myself. And then again, if I did, wondering what kind of a person I would then become.

I have used a quote from this book which I love, on my home page, as although I’m never going to be that good a runner, I love getting out there. And if I do get more serious about this writing lark, it looks like I’m going to need that running even more.

Books

The Halloween Tree – Ray Bradbury

The front cover of The Halloween Tree

I have just finished a book that was recommended to me by a friend and fellow blogger, Kat. It’s a small book and could be finished off in just a half day if you have that to spare, but it took me three smaller sessions.

To me, Ray Bradbury is a sci-fi writer for adults, creating dystopian nightmares. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man and loved them both for that aspect. This, on the other hand, is a children’s story.

A children’s story that demands to be read aloud, with a very poetic musicality. There is alliteration and rhymes in lines, and a sing-song galloping rhythm. The whole style reflects the energy and zeal of the group of boys dressed in makeshift Halloween costumes ready for trick or treating high japes.

In one vast swerve, one doglike trot and ramble, they circled round and down the middle of the cobble-brick street, blown like leaves before a storm.

It was published in 1972 but feels older. The boys have an innocence similar to Kay Harker in The Box of Delights, or the children in Swallows and Amazons, even though they’re at the beginning of their teens. That doesn’t detract from it but I wonder if today’s readers need to be a couple of years younger in order to get into the spirit of the book.

This is the story of Halloween and some of its origin stories. The boys swoop across time and space with the help of a strange creature called ‘Mr Moundshroud’. In my head, he is a cross between Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and ‘The Gentlemen’ from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you might need to look them up!).

They are ostensibly going in search of Pipkin, their dear friend and the best of them. But the idea of an incredible adventure is a big pull too. Their search takes them from Illinois to Egypt and countries farther still. It takes them to the depths of history, when the Sphinx was brand new and Romans hadn’t yet marched in England. The ceremonies to mark the dead and the beginnings of Winter are witnessed up close and fleetingly as this rollercoaster must end before midnight.

And before Halloween ends they must also make a Faustian deal to finally save their friend…

I really enjoyed the book, and without a suitably aged child to read it aloud to, I had to be content with the child in me. And that will have to do.

Books

War Lord – Bernard Cornwell

front cover of book

We were given this book by a friend because of where we live.

The Wirral is a little nub of land that sticks out of the country on the west and lies between two rivers, the Dee and the Mersey, which merge into the Irish Sea. It’s a tiny strip in the scheme of things, but there is a strong possibility that this was the site that created England.

Historians know that the Battle of Brunanburh took place, and they agree that it was the clincher that would either allow the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan to unite all of England or lose virtually everything to the Vikings and their allies. Some serious high stakes poker game.

What has been disputed, was where the battle actually occurred. There are multiple possible locations but the two top contenders are, somewhere near the Humber Estuary in the east, or, the Wirral, in the west. Namely around Bebington and Bromborough.

Surprisingly, having a name that is really, really similar to the original battle name doesn’t automatically win you the prize. There requires, apparently, in the absence of contemporary sources fully in accord, archaeological proof which is still to be conclusively produced.

But proof doesn’t need to stop works of historical fiction from putting their theories forward and this book does just that.

War Lord is the 13th and final book in ‘The Last Kingdom’ series. I hadn’t read any of the previous ones but I don’t think that is necessary. The author provides the context where necessary for events or relationships that have occurred in the past but there is no huge exposition and we crack on with the main story from the off.

It’s not the usual type of book that I would read but it turned out to be quite an interesting page turner. There are battles, political machinations, and familial discord which are described engagingly. I read the book in conjunction with Wikipedia because although the main character Uhtred is fictional here, most of the others are real and there is a good historical skeleton on which the drama hangs.

This book doesn’t have the same depth and brilliance of that other historical fiction series, the Wolf Hall trilogy but not many books are that good. It did keep me fairly entertained, however, and I zipped through it quite quickly. I don’t think the other books call to me but we have started watching the Netflix serialisation which is less effort than reading and rather good fun.

The ending, of course, which was the reason the book came our way, is pure speculation, but is set out quite reasonably. The battle of battles takes place on our Wirral peninsula and quite possibly, but maybe not, very close to where we live!

Books

The Mirror And The Light – Hilary Mantel

Book front cover of hardback.

Last night I finally finished the great tome that is The Mirror And The Light. It’s taken me ages. Not because it’s rubbish, far from it, but because of life getting in the way. But now, with relief and a little sadness, the trilogy is done.

Hilary Mantel herself says that ‘It was the hardest to write and it’s probably the most demanding for the reader’. That is definitely true. This last book has been more poetic and the viewpoint often leaves Cromwell’s head and swoops up to survey the wider geo-political landscape

It also dives back into his past more often, introspectively recollecting his earlier lives, in Putney, in Italy, in Antwerp, etc., drawing together a more solid shape of a man who previously seemed to have come out of nowhere. A blacksmith’s son from the backwaters of the Thames now the second most powerful man in the country.

The narrative commences where Bring Up The Bodies left off: the moment after Queen Anne’s execution, in the same way that one flowed from Wolf Hall. The books seem like nominal dividers at first, but all three end with an important beheading. Firstly Thomas More, then Anne Boleyn and finally in this one, the man himself.

That is not a spoiler, or maybe it is if you’re not up on your Tudor history? I’m a terrible one for looking up the main protagonists on t’internet, just to see how much their histories match up to the book. As with her previous two, Mantel makes sure the facts are all in the right places. They’re the skeleton around which she has built her hypotheses.

There is no record of the boy scholar Thomas More being harangued by the boy servant Thomas Cromwell, but it’s a sweet idea. And one that encapsulates the two men’s stark differences. Not only in their birth and paths through life, but it shows up More’s intransigence and Cromwell’s adaptiveness.

However, his remarkable abilities, to adapt and always to be one step ahead of his rivals, fail him in the end and he doesn’t foresee that his enemy’s enemies have become comrades for the purpose of his downfall.

He begins his incarceration in the Tower, initially in the same rooms as Anne Boleyn when she was about to be coronated and when she was about to be beheaded. It was Cromwell who, seven years before had had them rebuilt in time for Anne. It was Cromwell, who had had the eyes of the goddesses changed from brown to blue when Jane stayed here before her wedding to the King. A quote comes back to haunt us from the second book, where Anne warns Cromwell that ‘Those who are made can be unmade’.

The ghosts, that have occasionally accompanied him, have multiplied, especially when he is then moved to the Bell Tower, still a grand room, but more spartan, and used for high-ranking prisoners. George Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and others, all flit around for his last few days on Earth.

I’ve always been fascinated by history, much more so than current affairs, as for me, with history, the chaos has passed and can be explored less emotionally. But this trilogy has brought alive a period of time to such a degree where my emotions were engaged and I was rapt by the characters and the chaos and the machinations and the politics even though I knew how it would all play out.

The ending, though macabre, is poetry, and resurrects the words spoken by Walter, his father at the beginning of Wolf Hall. There is some evidence that Cromwell’s beheading was botched and took several blows, and Mantel uses this possibility to extend his voice for a few painful seconds more until he breathes his last and I closed the book for a final time.

Books

The Widows of Malabar Hill – Sujata Massey

The front cover of the paperback
The front cover of the paperback

Having said I’m not into the Crime novel genre, I appear to have read two of them back to back!

But you see, when the main protagonist has the surname of Mistry (as my surname is) I felt a personal obligation.

As an aside, this isn’t always the case. After reading one book by Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) I was left so traumatised that I can’t, just at the moment anyway, read anything else by him. It was extremely good, but the subject matter and the arc of the story just left me in bits.

Incidentally, the main characters in this book are Zoroastrian, as was one of the main characters in A Fine Balance. I asked my dad about the surname. And he thought it meant carpenter, or craftsman. He said it was frequently used by many types of Gujarati people (Gujarat is a state in India where my folks are originally from), be they Hindu, Muslim or Parsi (the Indian term for Zoroastrians).

But enough about history and back to the story at hand. It’s set, errr, back in history, in the early part of the 20th Century, mainly in Bombay (now Mumbai). Perveen Mistry is the first female solicitor to practise in Bombay. Her story is fictional but was inspired by a real woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji, who’s mini biog at the end of the book is a fascinating read.

It is 1921 and Perveen has been working for a short time at her father’s practice after studying law at Oxford. A case comes up to sort out the estate of a deceased man who has left three wives, children and a business. What starts off as a routine administrative task becomes complicated by suspicion of duplicity, a murder and the fact that these wives follow a custom of purdahnashin – living in seclusion and completely away from the male gaze.

The story flits back and forth between this case and Perveen’s life a few years before. As well an intriguing ‘Who Done It’, it weaves an interesting tapestry of the lives of people in Bombay at that time. The fairly tolerant juxtaposition of different religious practices and conventions, the casual corruption, and the background tensions of the British presence.

The narrative has an interesting style. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on why but it sounded different somehow. Then it occurred to me that it was like an Indian person speaking English. Excellent English, but more precise and with less colloquialisms than a native speaker might use. Once I got that, it seemed to draw me in more to the time and place of the book. I’m assuming it’s deliberate, as the author was born in England, so it’s really quite clever.

I love a book that is able to keep my interest in the story and able to teach me something new, about different cultures, places and times. This did all that and came with a satisfying conclusion. And luckily for me, it is the first in a series.

Books

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

I have to say straight off that I’m not normally one for reading Crime Thrillers as a genre. But this was a well-publicised book by Richard Osman, who is quite famous in the UK for other things and, well, it was in the house.

The front cover of the book
Was it really that ‘Gripping’?

Anne read this before me, as always, and she is a bit of a Crime novel afficionado. She found it sweet and quite funny in parts. However, she reckoned that, if it had not been Richard Osman, it may not have been published. It’s all about who you know, and, I guess, how much you’re known.

Apparently the manuscript was the subject of a 10-way publishing war, so you’d think he could have chosen one with a better layout editor. The huge number of end-of-line word-breaks in the hardback was incredibly annoying for me because I’m pedantic like that. Perhaps if it had been a wonderfully written book I wouldn’t have noticed them much, but I did, so.

That said, I did start warming to the main characters as the book progressed. The titular ‘Club’ consists of four members of a very posh (as in you can’t quite imagine all of them keeling over with Covid) retirement village: Elizabeth, the main honcho, who used to be, well it’s never quite specified what she used to be, but by the favours she can very handily call on, it was high level and hush hush; Ibrahim, the psychiatrist, with a penchant for healthy living and technology; Ron, the old trade union boss who was asked to be patient by Arthur Scargill; and finally Joyce, the innocuous looking new recruit, who, like a modern day Miss Marple, could observe without being noticed.

It is Joyce’s diary entries, interspersed within the main narrative whose direct thoughts we are privy to. Why these are included, I’m not quite sure. It’s not as if they are showing us a perspective that the main narrative can’t reach. But it’s fine. Maybe in the next book in the series, and I suspect there will be one, he’ll draw on the diary of one of the others.

Alongside the sleuthing, the character interactions and developments are sometimes interesting. Elizabeth’s continuing with her dear friend Penny, now in the care home next door and unable to show any sign of engagement with the world, is poignant and drawn well.

The ending did feel a bit more convoluted than the rest, and it felt like the author was rapidly running out of space and needed to tie up loose ends very quickly. But at least he does tie them up as I’m not a fan of leaving things hanging. 

I think I’ve been quite negative so far about this book but it was a very quick, enjoyable read all in all. I would recommend it if you find yourself seeing it on the bookshelf, but I wouldn’t recommend paying loads of money for it.

Books

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

The front cover of the book
A hefty hardback but a light and enjoyable read.

This book had been sitting on a book shelf in our house for quite a while. Anne had read it, of course, many moons ago. She is a much more prolific reader than me.  However she couldn’t remember much about it other than she had enjoyed it, and so I had to go through it myself.

The title certainly grabbed me as I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the fantastical and the prosaic. It sounded like there could be a little magic realism which I often like if it’s done well.

It is set in late eighteenth century London, just after the United States has been born and just before the French revolution. The timing feels important because there is so much about identities in this book: ancient and newly created, and this is a time when the upward mobility of the mercantile class is really starting to happen. With British ships sailing the world over, and trade and slavery bringing new wealth into the pockets of businessmen as well as the nobility.

Mr Hancock is one of these such men but he begins, in the book, as a bit sad and lonely, haunted by the death of his wife in childbirth and his still born son several years back. Fretfully waiting for his ship to literally come in, and living in Deptford, an honest working town in the unfashionable south of the river.

The Mrs Hancock in question is anything but prosaic and for two thirds of the book she is also not Mrs Hancock but a high class, if somewhat frivolous, prostitute called Angelica Neal. She has just returned to society after her previous benefactor died and left her with nothing. Her old pimp Bet Chappell wants her to return to the ‘nunnery’.

How these two unlikely companions come together is the core of this book but there is so much more. Mermaids for a start, and possibly more than one, or possibly none, such is the slippery nature of the beast. In an age when these ships are bringing so many new things from abroad for the delight of the chattering classes and the coffee drinking men of means, mermaids remain a very high possibility.

It is written in the present tense and takes on the viewpoint of various characters allowing the reader to see an interesting cross-section of life. The language is delightfully vivacious and earthy. I have a bad habit of skipping past descriptive sections but I found myself enjoying the writer’s turn of phrase so much that I lapped these parts up as much as the action.

Jane Austen, writing in the same period that this is set may have kept away from some of the more ribald aspects. But she would have recognised the proscriptive place of women. From Mr Hancock’s older sister who inherits nothing of their father’s business to Polly, a child of a slave, picked up and polished to be a sexual curio for wealthy men. From Sukie, Mr Hancock’s niece, pulled out of school for being too clever, to Angelica, supposedly free of society’s repressive constraints but completely at the mercy of a man’s credit.

The book dips into the fantastic, occasionally a little clumsily, but where it stays with reality it paints a very engaging picture of eighteenth century life. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was very pleased to have found it on our bookshelves.

Books

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Front cover of The Midnight Library

In a nutshell, this is a cross between Quantum Leap and Sliding Doors, with an added sprinkling of It’s a Wonderful Life. And as I enjoyed watching all of these, I really enjoyed reading this book.

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal that Nora Seed attempts to die. That is explained in the very first sentence. But this book is not a depressing read. It moves along at a decent clip with down to earth, matter of fact language, so when the occasional moments of poetic introspection come along, they stand out more vividly.

The Midnight Library is the place in between. Between life and death; between time; between one’s ‘root’ existence and an infinite amount of others. And when Nora Seed tries to kill herself, she is, instead, blessed with trying on a few of these other existences. She gets to work out whether all her regrets in life are merited. The two catches: she can only pick a path once, and she can only join the action from this moment on instead of when she diverged. And if it’s not the life for her, she will return to the Library.

This second catch causes a number of logistical problems, à la ‘Quantum Leap’. But it also, conveniently for the art of story-telling, speeds up the process of multi-life living, when a book of regrets as heavily weighed down as Nora’s is, needs to be explored. Less sardonically, it makes the point that even though she is stepping into her own life, it is a life that has been lived by a subtly or completely different Nora up to this point , and does she really want to skip those parts?

For example, she walks into her marriage with Dan (who, in her root life, was the fiancé she left just a couple of days before the wedding) many years after making a different decision. Where his dream of owning a pub in a bucolic setting has been realised. Sounds like a nice ready-made life to pick up doesn’t it?

The book lays out the difference between dreams and perceptions and reality. The lives that Nora explores slowly reveal what the most important things are to her, through example and a good dosing of philosophy (it’s made me want to read a bit more about Henry David Thoreau, that’s for sure).

Matt Haig gets the core idea from physics, the many worlds theory. But although he doesn’t bog you down with the science he does throw a few puns in along the way for fun. There is also the amusement of making the connections between disparate parts flung far and wide amongst the pages. Californian fires and blond boys are peripheral but give a demonstration of the interconnectedness in Nora’s many lives.

Initially I thought that Nora was an excessively high achiever: Olympic potential, offered a record contract, academically bright. And I assumed that maybe Haig created her to show that if a person like she can hit rock bottom, then anybody can. But then I realised that he was also suggesting that anybody has ‘potential’. And that was my favourite message in a book that has many really interesting things to reflect upon. Even if most of us don’t follow life’s extreme trajectories, we have the potential to matter, to be significant, to knock against the lives of others and maybe help them on a new direction.

In the words of the great Keanu Reeves, ‘It’s Quantum Baby’!

Books

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Front cover of the paperback version of Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

I thought I would start reviewing the books that I read. Partly so that I read them with a little more thought, and partly so that I read them. Because for some reason, although I love books, I don’t sit down with one very much at all.

So we kick off with the middle book in a trilogy, which is a little arse about tit I grant you, but it is the latest book I’ve read and not everything can be planned so neatly.

Bring up the Bodies begins in the middle of Anne Boleyn’s brief time as Queen. Thomas Cromwell has risen up from being a Michael Cohen style fixer and is now fully established as Henry VIII’s right hand man and so far Anne has produced just one more daughter for the Crown. It carries Cromwell’s story on from Mantel’s first book in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, which leaves us with Henry and Anne’s marriage and Thomas More’s execution.

We know how it ends of course, for Anne, but there is a genius in taking a piece of history well trod and documented, and bringing it to life in a whole new way. Mantel keeps the narrative in the present tense, so pushing that idea of ‘History’ back, and makes the language modern enough for our ears. On top of that, the narrator always sits just behind and occasionally inside, Cromwell’s head, so you have access to only one perspective. But that perspective happens to have an increasing reach and knowledge over the dominions of England, especially the lands and lives of the nobility. So, for the reader, this vantage point reveals a lot.

Now it is highly probable that Mantel has taken artistic licence to make this Cromwell more sympathetic than he really was. A reader will be more willingly pulled along if they’re invested in the main protagonist. There are moments, like when he looks at the first queen, Katherine, in her ‘prison’. They’re roughly the same age but he notes that ‘life is harsher for women’, especially if they ‘have been blessed with many children and seen them die’. This level of empathy may occasionally tip the suspension of disbelief a little for some but it didn’t bother me and reminded me that even Himmler loved his family.

Wolf Hall was lambasted by some historians for painting More in a detestable manner and Cromwell so positively1. But, these books from Cromwell’s point of view and they are novels after all and not a history.2 Even bona fide histories will create a ‘narrative’ and make suppositions where there are blank spaces in the facts.

Mantel’s Cromwell comes across as phlegmatic and Machiavellian – at one point it says he’s read The Prince, which in his estimation could be improved upon! He is (in his eyes necessarily) ruthless but not bloodthirsty, highly intelligent, generous and knows when to take his revenge. This book brings his character to the peak of his powers and the height of his wealth with the dissolution of the monasteries filling the coffers of the Crown.

Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein
Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, late 16th century (1533-1534) – ‘When he saw the portrait finished he had said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?’

I do like history. My A-level English History covered the Tudors and I wish I’d had these books around then. I know this is a fiction but the level of research that Mantel has done to keep on top of who’s who and what their relationships are and who they’ve slept with etc. is excellent. It brings it alive in a way that would have made me want to explore the real stories more.

If history is not your bag, you may find it a little unwieldy. There are a lot of characters. Mantel does give a helpful list at the beginning but it can still get confusing sometimes. However, I wouldn’t let the details bog you down. Just sit back and let it carry you along.


1 In defence of Thomas More https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/jan/29/wolf-hall-wrong-thomas-more-was-funny-feminist

2 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/31/students-take-hilary-mantels-tudor-novels-as-fact-hay-festival