Book review – “The Royal Secret” by Andrew Taylor

One of my happiest literary discoveries of the last couple of years has been Andrew Taylor. I have posted reviews of several of his books on here. He is pretty prolific, having written a staggering forty-one novels between 1982 and 2014. He came to real prominence in 2016, however, when he published The Ashes of London a historical murder mystery set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Since then, he has published a further four novels in the series, set in the same period with the same cast of characters – the court of King Charles II and the various acolytes. The main characters in each of the novels are James Marwood a bachelor clerk who has made a name for himself at court as a bit of a fixer, and Cat Hakesby (nee Lovett), widow of an architect (whom she married in book two, The Fire Court) and daughter of a convicted regicide. Cat is a ‘friend’ of Marwood’s, their paths having first crossed in the first book when Marwood was investigating a crime in which she had been implicated wrongly, though they are often at loggerheads – there is an interesting tension between them that is always on the point of boiling over. They infuriate one another, but at the same time always find that their affairs intersect and that they are in need of each other. The burden they both share is in having fathers who opposed the reign of Charles the First and supported Cromwell.

The Royal Secret Andrew Taylor

The Royal Secret is the fifth book in the series and was published in April last year. I have been eager to get hold of it and have the time to enjoy it ever since. And as with all the other books in the series I listened to it on audio. The same actor has been employed for all of the books so far, Leighton Pugh, and he is superb, able to deploy the most amazing range of voices. What is fascinating also is the consistency he brings to the characters across the whole series by the voice he uses and his interpretation of the text and dialogue. This is audio at its very best.

As always, the plot of The Royal Secret is complex and involved (this author’s imagination is quite incredible). And as always, elements of the problems set up in previous books are brought into play here. As with the other books, the story begins with a murder. This time the victim is a fellow clerk, known to Marwood at court. Marwood is asked to investigate, which brings him into close contact with the seedy underbelly of London society, including a sinister Dutchman, purporting to be a trader, and brother to the dead clerk’s widow. The Dutchman courts Cat and she falls a little in love with him, or at least with his attentions, but tragedy strikes when Marwood’s page, Stephen, the young black boy he rescued in The King’s Evil, is also killed in suspicious circumstances. Marwood suspects the Dutchman, who has gone to ground.

In a parallel plot, Cat, whose building designs have gained her some courtly attention, receives a commission from the King to design a poultry house for his beloved sister, who is unhappily married in France. Cat is sent to France with her design and a model of the building and is pursued by the mysterious Dutchman. The journey is not without consequence and it is not long before the two seemingly unconnected strands of the plot collide.

There is an interesting development in the relationship between Marwood at Cat, which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say much is left open for future novels!

This book is yet another romp through Restoration London. As well as providing breathtaking action, great characterisation and brilliant writing the author’s attention to detail and pursuit of authenticity ensures these books provide a pretty sold history lesson too! I have never learned so much about this particular period of my national history as I have in following up nuggets of information in these books with wider research.

I am a definite Andrew Taylor fan and I can’t wait for the next book!

Highly recommended.

Book review – “Fear of Flying” by Erica Jong

I chose this book for the penultimate month of my 2021 reading challenge, the theme of which was an erotic novel. It is a genre that has a lot of trash, for sure, and most serious readers probably don’t delve into it that much, not for their reading pleasure anyway! But it is a legitimate literary genre and some undoubtedly heavyweight books and authors would be included on any list: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of course, probably comes to mind first, but then there are also The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Fanny Hill by John Cleland, The Story of O by Pauline Reage, and Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Some of these I’ve read, others not.

For me ‘erotic fiction’ is more than just ‘a book with lots of sex’; from more recent times I’d say, for example that Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel (probably, since I haven’t read that either!) whereas others have fairly graphic sex in them, but it’s just part of the characters’ lives rather than being the main subject of the novel. Books I’ve reviewed here which I would put in this category include Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Beautiful World Where Are You?, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Call Me By Your Name, and Luster, to name but a few. Some of these are about sexual awakening, and there are others where sex involves a degree of abuse or exploitation. All of the above books appeared in various lists I consulted when I was considering which title to read, but I think there is nuance that is missing: many of these are good books where the sex scenes are well-written and won’t make you cringe, while in others the whole purpose of the story is an exploration of sex and sexuality, meant to in some way stimulate the reader’s own feelings on the subject – the depths and darknesses, fantasy, the timelessness of it, the human condition, the reproductive drive and animal pleasure.

So, that’s my mini-essay on what constitutes an erotic novel! The question is does Fear of Flying fall into that category? For me, no it doesn’t, though many compilers of lists of erotic fiction disagree with me (I wonder how many of them have read the books they are recommending!) What’s the book about? Well, the narrator and main character is Isadora Wing, a Jewish New Yorker, writer and daughter of a bohemian mother who had ambitions to be become an artist but ended up having children instead. This is the central tension in the novel: can a woman be an artist while also being a mother (for me this is the greater question, not the sexual freedom). Remember it was written in the early 1970s when the act of sex was still, in the minds of many, inextricably linked to reproduction rather than pleasure (at least for women), and for many more, confined to marriage. So, it was probably more erotic in its time than it feels today.

The novel opens with Isadora and her psychiatrist husband Bennett on a plane to Vienna (along with many other psychoanalysts of various types) where she will accompany him at a conference (it is no accident that the city is the birthplace of Sigmund Freud). Whilst there she meets English academic Adrian to whom she is deeply sexually attracted. Adrian has a partner and children in London but seems to have a fairly open relationship (though it becomes clear later that he is more committed to the mother of his children than Isadora originally believes). Adrian and Isadora have a passionate affair; the sex scenes are graphic, but perhaps more shocking to a 1970s reader would have been how much Isadora wants and enjoys the sex. And so the expression “the zipless fuck”, for which this book is so well-known, is coined. The problem is that Isadora also loves her husband and he has many qualities Adrian does not: he brings her calm and stability and we learn later on that Bennett came to her rescue when she was in a very difficult place, her first husband, a brilliant musician, having been committed to an asylum. Isadora leaves Bennett for a time and sets out on an adventure touring around Europe with Adrian living out a carefree life of sex and fun.

I have to admit that I found this book quite boring at times! As with many books that have a lot of sex in them, you become a bit immune to it after a while. This book did not fit my definition of exploring sex and sexuality. Rather, it struck me as a fictionalisation of the same sorts of issues raised by Nancy Friday in My Mother My Self. It seems to me to be more about feminism and about breaking free of a patriarchy which says that women are only entitled to a limited experience of sex, a view that no longer holds in developed societies. *(Largely anyway. In secular ones. With some notable exceptions.) It is also a book about the struggle of an artistic personality to reconcile her creativity with her femininity and what this means for her reproductive status. Again, an issue that I think most developed societies have moved on from (the same caveats * as above apply).

This book was more interesting and meaningful to me as a student of feminist writing than as a reader of erotic fiction although it probably does deserve its place in the erotic pantheon too. I have just started reading Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, following a recommendation. This book explores sexual pleasure from a much broader perspective (brown identifies as a pan-sexual woman of colour) and although it is a work of non-fiction it will be interesting to explore how or if the debate has shifted. A topic I will return to!

So, as for Fear of Flying, would I recommend? Well, yes, if you’re interested in the topic, but not necessarily for “pleasure”!

If you have read this book, I would be interested in your views.

Reading challenge book review – “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

An aunt of mine, who moved with her husband to Australia in the 1970s, said that one of the things she missed from home was the British seasons. Australia moved from scorching summer to a milder greyer period between April and August (not very different to the typical British summertime!), seldom very cold or wet. I have always been fascinated by the changes in the light, the temperature, and nature more generally as the year progresses, so I cannot imagine what it must be like when the months pass with so little to distinguish them.

The snow that fell here in the north during the very cold snap at the end of November gave rise to some beautiful scenes with the most incredible light

Like many, I find the winter months challenging – it can be hard to maintain energy levels and motivation, particularly post-Christmas when one is facing into a long stretch of cold, wet and dark. But I appreciate and am grateful for this time of the year, for this marking of time. It is period which provides a uniquely reflective opportunity as our bodies want us to be less active, cultivate rest and, of course, read more! A Christmas Carol, the Dickens novella that I chose for the final month of my 2021 reading challenge, was the perfect book to sink into winter with.

I started it on Boxing Day, after the hurly-burly of Christmas preparation was finally over, after the meal was long-cooked and someone was taking over the reins in the kitchen. As a child, I always found Boxing Day such an anti-climax, of course, but now as a mother, I love it – the chance to put my feet up at last! When I sat down to read the book I felt deeply immersed in the season – the darkness, the warmth and protection of the interior domestic scenes, (the Cratchits and Scrooge’s nephew, that is, not the cold, lonely home of Scrooge). I read in the late afternoons as I sat down with a glass of something, or a hot cup of tea, as the dusk was falling and my neighbours’ lights were coming on, and I felt in the middle of a northern winter! I cannot imagine reading this book at Christmas time in Australia!

The visitations of the spirits of course, turn Scrooge from a miserable, lonely miser to a benevolent embracer of life and all the good things it has to offer. But in reading it for the first time in what must be many years I felt a deep and powerful sense of the importance not so much of the Christian religious themes but of more universal ideas around family, the importance of community, or caring for the less fortunate, and of rituals around food – the scene in the Cratchit’s household, particularly with the Christmas pudding is marvellous! This has a particular resonance for me as each year I gift a few of my neighbours a home-made Christmas pudding, so at the end of November, my kitchen resembles a Turkish bath thanks to all the steaming!

A Christmas Carol is a brilliant book – simple themes conveyed with imagination and economy. Like so many people, December was a very busy month of preparation and my reading suffered. This was the perfect reintroduction and I thoroughly enjoyed opening a Dickens again. It has made me want to go back and re-read all his other novels that I love so much. The size of my TBR pile is so great that that might be too much – next year’s reading challenge perhaps!

What is your ‘go to’ book at Christmas?

Audiobook review – “Home Stretch” by Graham Norton

I am a huge admirer of Graham Norton. There does not seem to be much that this funny, likeable man cannot turn his hand to. I was sceptical when I saw that he had written his first novel; I get a little cross and cynical when celebrities decide to write books. The sense of entitlement annoys me and I tend to think they take the place of better writers both in bookshops and on shelves at home. When I read Norton’s first book, however, Holding, I was a convert. I loved it. I have also read his memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil, but I think his fiction is better.

Home Stretch is Norton’s third novel and is equally accomplished. Set in County Cork, in the south-west of Ireland, close to where Norton grew up, it carries the charm and gentleness of that part of the world, while also exploring some challenging themes.

The novel opens in 1987 with a car crash and the deaths of three young people late at night, the day before two of them were due to be married. There are three survivors, Linda O’Connell, the sister of the dead bride-to-be, who is seriously injured, Martin Coulter, the local doctor’s son, and Connor Hayes, the 17 year-old son of local publicans. Whilst he is not considered directly at fault, Connor admits to being the driver and must therefore pay in some way. Connor is convicted of, we do not quite know what, but presumably dangerous driving, and given a two year suspended sentence. But the shame of being in some way responsible for so many deaths in the small town community is a far greater punishment that not only Connor, but his parents and sister Ellen will have to bear for much longer. It is decided that Connor should disappear for a while and he is sent to England to the employ of a distant cousin on a building site in Liverpool. The work does not suit Connor at all; living in a large scruffy house with the other lads on the building site he is bullied and beaten. A chance encounter in a pub leads Connor to abandoning his job and moving to London. It quickly becomes apparent that Connor is gay and he immerses himself in the scene in the capital.

Meanwhile, back in Cork, Connor’s sister Ellen is wooed and won by the smooth and, at this point, affable Martin Coulter. The couple eventually marry and it seems as if the family has finally been redeemed. Connor has gradually lost touch with his parents and although this is heartbreaking for them, it does, in a way, enable everyone to move on.

From here onwards, the novel flits back and forth in time, from 1987, the time of the accident, to the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s as the plot is pieced together. We learn that Connor goes to live in a New York where we find him in a long-term relationship with a partner. In Cork, Martin Coulter has taken over as the local GP and he and Ellen, now with two children, have a difficult marriage. Connor’s parents have settled lives, but have never got over ‘losing’ their son. Linda, the third survivor of the crash, is paralysed and lives a fairly empty existence being cared for by her mother and a series of paid nurses.

It is clear that there was more to the 1987 car crash than there initially seemed and the truth of the terrible night unravels as the novel progresses. Norton’s plotting is sound although it is not difficult for the reader to work out what happened, there are enough clues. Norton’s real skill though is in the characterisation and he brings acute observation to all of his characters, even the minor ones. As with Holding, I listened to this book on audio, narrated by the author, so you get even more insight into his characters through the way he reads them. There is a deep affection for this part of Ireland and the people who dwell there and although Connor is exiled from his native land from quite a young age, seemingly cast out, there is a growth and acceptance on all sides by the end which indicates Norton’s own pride in his homeland.

Thoroughly enjoyable, recommended.

Booker book review #6 – “A Passage North” by Anuk Arudpragasam and my prediction for the winner

My final review from this year’s Booker shortlist, and just getting in under the wire, since the winner is to be announced at 7.15 this evening in a live broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre. You can listen on Radio 4’s Front Row programme, This is the first time, in the four or five years that I have been setting myself this challenge, that I have managed to read all six books in the six or so weeks between the publication of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. I have really only managed it by being able to listen to some of the books (four of them) on audio while I was out walking or running and, in recent days, while cooking, shopping or drying my hair!

I hope that my appreciation of the last couple of books I read has not been compromised by my having read them quickly. I particularly regret this in relation to this last book that I tackled A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. It is by far the most meandering, langorous and philosophical of the six books and I would rather have read it at just such a pace than at speed. The author is a young Sri Lankan Tamil who recently completed his PhD in philosophy at Columbia University in the US. This is his second novel. His first, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was published in 2016 and widely acclaimed. Both novels draw heavily on Arudpragasam’s background and his home country’s troubles during and after its three decades-long civil war.

Sri Lankan Tamil author Anuk Ardpragasam’s has a philosophy PhD and A Passage North is his second novel

A Passage North takes place some time after the end of the civil war, which concluded in 2009 when government forces finally defeated the insurgents (known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’) who had fought to establish an independent Tamil state in the north of the country. The UN estimated that as many as 100,000 deaths may be attributable to the war, including about 40,000 civilians, and the Sri Lankan Government has often been accused of war crimes. The civil war pervades every aspect of this novel.

The central character of the novel is Krishan, a young man who works for a non-governmental organisation in Colombo, the nation’s capital. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom are widowed. His father was killed in an explosion during the war. The novel opens with the death of Rani, his grandmother Appamma’s private carer. She was engaged by the family when Appamma’s health deteriorated, and Krishan and his mother needed help with caring duties due to their work commitments. It is Rani’s daughter who comes to the house to inform them of Rani’s death; she had been discovered in a well, her neck broken, and it is assumed that a tragic accident has occurred and that she fell in. We soon learn, however, that Rani a refugee from the north, had lost both her sons in the war and suffers from depression and anxiety.

This is a novel about relationships conducted in the context of the aftermath of a civil war. Krishan has known nothing but war in his life and yet, as a resident of Colombo, he has not been as directly affected as others. Life, its meaning, the impact on society and on individual citizens of protracted conflict and wartime atrocities are explored by young Krishan. He is on various journeys in this novel, whether it is an evening walk through the city or a train journey to the north to attend Rani’s cremation and during these travels he contemplates his relationships. All are considered in the context of whether the person is more or less affected by the war. For example, he considers at length, his relationship with his girlfriend Anjum, a young Indian woman who works as a political activist. But her distance from the Sri Lankan civil war makes him feel distant from her. When he considers what Rani has gone through, he seems to feel that he can never fully connect with Anjum because they lack an essential experience in common. There is so much suffering, whether it is Rani’s or his grandmother’s whose health is declining rapidly, that he cannot take seriously what he sees as Anjum’s more trivial preoccupations.

This is a powerful novel that deserves a slower and more considered reading than I have given it. It has been described as ‘Proustian’, with its long meandering passages. It is beautifully written and the audiobook was wonderfully read by Neil Shah.

So, who is going to win the Booker?

Last year, I read four of the six novels on the shortlist before the winner was announced. Of those, the standout book for me was Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, so I was delighted when it won. Having read all six books on the shortlist this year, the one that I have most enjoyed has been Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead and I also think this is the standout work. Its scale, its scope, its concept, characters and the quality of the writing are superb. It simply has everything you want from a book, including a cracking story. This was also the case with Shuggie Bain, which is why I wonder whether the Booker judges will, for the second year running, award the prize to such a novel. A case could be made for all the nominees actually, but I will stick my neck out and say that if it’s not Great Circle I think it will be The Promise. Like A Passage North it explores the impact of national trauma through the lens of individual crises. I loved all the books this year, any one of them would be a worthy winner.

Booker book review #5 – “The Fortune Men”

This is my penultimate review of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, just one more to go before the winner is announced tomorrow night. Nadifa Mohamed is a Somali-British novelist and The Fortune Men is her third novel. She lectures in creative writing at Royal Holloway College, University of London (my very own alma mater!) and attended the University of Oxford. She was born in Hargeisa in what was then Somaliland, but moved to the UK with her parents when she was a child. She is the only British author on the shortlist.

The rest of this review contains spoilers.

The Fortune Men is a fictionalised account of a true story about the last man to be hanged in Cardiff in 1952. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali merchant seaman who came to Britain to escape poverty in his homeland and settled in Tiger Bay, Cardiff. There was already a significant immigrant population in the area, including other Somalis, but they still faced discrimination and racial abuse. For Mattan this was made worse by the fact that he married a local woman, Laura Williams, and they had three sons.

Lily Volpert was a middle-aged shopkeeper in the town. She and her sister were themselves immigrants, Jews who escaped the growing Nazi threat in mainland Europe, and they too experienced discrimination and abuse. The picture painted in this book is of a town divided, disparate communities existing alongside one another, but with violence and antipathy always beneath the surface, and often above it.

When Lily is murdered one March evening in her shop, her throat brutally slashed while her sister and niece prepared dinner in the adjoining apartment, the police immediately start looking for a black man; Lily’s young niece reported seeing a dark man in the shop doorway around the same time. The evidence upon which Mahmood is arrested and charged is flimsy and entirely circumstantial, so much so that he assumes it will be only a matter of time before he is released. To him, the arrest seems ridiculous and he is both affronted and angry. Mahmood’s pride does not help him; it seems only to further raise the heckles of the local detectives whose only interest is in securing a speedy conviction.

We learn a lot about Mahmood’s background in Somaliland, his family, his faith and his upbringing. We also learn a lot about Lily, the murder victim, and her family. Both are victims of a racist society and a corrupted justice system. The novel makes it clear that neither the victim, the accused or the community are served by the police or the courts in this case. The chapter covering the trial is interesting. It is written as if from court records and the plain reported proceedings expose the sham nature of trial. These scenes are heartbreaking and made me feel ashamed.

A newspaper cutting from the time of the events of the novel

Mahmood and Laura were living apart at the time of the events in the novel; Mahmood lived a shady life as a gambler and petty thief and there were clearly tensions in their relationship. But the love between them and for their children comes across clearly, particularly when Mahmood is being held in prison. Ultimately, Mahmood’s defence could have been strengthened by an alibi had he not chosen to protect Laura from an uncomfortable truth. In real life, Laura fought for decades to clear her husband’s name and his conviction was finally quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998 in the first case to be referred to it by the newly-formed Criminal Review Cases Commission.

This is a story that needed to be told, and Nadifa Mohamed has done the job powerfully and sensitively in The Fortune Men. I listened to this one on audio and it was beautifully read by Hugh Quarshie.

Highly recommended.

Booker book review #3 – “Bewilderment” by Richard Powers

This is my third Booker review of this year. The winner will be announced this coming Wednesday. At this point I have completed four novels, almost finished the fifth and have yet to start my final one, although, at this point, I am pretty hopeful that I will succeed in my goal of completing and reviewing all six before the winner is announced. That will be a first and I am particularly pleased with that since my house in in chaos, due to a long-awaited kitchen refurbishment, my day job has been super-busy and there has been a lot of family stuff going on these last few weeks.

I was really looking forward to reading Bewilderment; Powers’s 2018 novel The Overstory, which was also shortlisted for the Booker that year, remains one of the most powerful books I have ever read and is particularly apt for our times as the Cop26 negotiations get underway in Glasgow today. The Overstory did not win in 2018, Anna Burns’s Milkman did. That was also a brilliant book, although for me Powers had the slight edge. I don’t envy the Booker judges!

The stunning cover of Bewilderment

The reviews of Bewilderment have not been quite as strong. It is indeed a very different book, but it bears the author’s characteristic attention to detail, and a quite breathtaking amount of research.

Theo Byrne is an astro-physicist whose life’s work is to try and uncover the secrets of the universe. His research has furthered knowledge on the stars and planets with whom we share this universe and he is pursuing the biggest question of all – is there other life out there? And yet, he struggles to understand his nine year-old son Robin. Theo’s partner Alyssa, Robin’s mother and an activist advocating for the rights of animals, is killed in a car accident and their lives are thrown into turmoil. Robin, neuro-divergent, it is intimated, struggles at school, both with the constraints of the routine and getting on with other kids. After he fractures another child’s nose when the boy repeats a disparaging remark about his dead mother, Robin is threatened with exclusion from school. Theo comes under significant pressure to medicate his son, which he refuses to do. Instead he takes the decision to home-school him, but this presents numerous other challenges, not least with managing his own work.

Before they had Robin, Theo and Alyssa were involved in some highly experimental research by an esteemed neuro-scientist and former lover of Alyssa’s, Marty Currier. He is trying to map the brain patterns associated with certain emotional responses in the hope that in the future, others might be able to learn to manage their behaviour through a treatment which would involve their brain ‘learning’ from the better response patterns of others. Theo and Alyssa agree to be early guinea pigs. When Theo approaches Marty for help with his son, Marty suggests putting Robin through the treatment where his brain will learn how to mimic his mother’s responses to events. Although she is dead, Alyssa is a powerful presence throughout the book. Theo places her on a pedestal and is constantly reaching for her as he grapples with what to do about Robin, believing she was the only one who could truly understand him and was therefore able to support him.

They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.

“Bewilderment”, by Richard Powers

Theo finds his own ways of parenting his son and the relationship the two of them develop in the absence of Alyssa, the new way of being that they must find for themselves, is delicately and beautifully handled by Powers. Theo is able to share his fascination with the universe with his son, but also learns from his attention to detail, his fascination with the minutiae of nature, that Robin has inherited from his mother. The degree of knowledge and understanding of these disciplines (astrophysics and natural history) that Powers brings to the story is astonishing, as it was in The Overstory.

Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for The Overstory. Can Bewilderment bag him the Booker?

This is a powerful story with two highly contrasting themes – the devastating human impact on the natural world, and the struggle to parent in the face of tragedy and adversity, especially in a world that seems so hostile to anything outside the norm. It has a huge canvas (the universe), but also intimate detail (a father-son relationship).

I did not find the book as gripping The Overstory, but frankly, it would be unjust to compare anything to that book, in my view. Some parts of it I struggled with, the long passages on the universe, for example, I found the least engaging. But the characters are well-drawn and I felt close to both Theo and Robin, pulled into their small world.

Highly recommended, but a tough read at times.

The river of forms is long. And among the billions of solutions it has so far unfolded, humans and cows are close cousins. It wasn’t surprising that something on the fringe of life – a strand of RNA that codes for only twelve proteins – was happy, after one small tweak, to give another host a try.

A devastating disease amongst livestock threatens to jump the species barrier in “Bewilderment”.

Booker book review #2 – “Great Circle” by Maggie Shipstead

When I set out a few weeks ago out on my annual quest to read the Booker shortlist ahead of the announcement of the winner early next month, I decided I’d need a strategy. I have never actually managed to get through all six books in the six weeks or so between the shortlist being publicised and the award ceremony, but this year I am determined. Looking at the relative heft of each book, I decided that Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead would have to be ‘read’ as an audiobook. It is by some distance the longest on the shortlist – 608 pages, which amounts to 25 hours listening time. Between twice or thrice weekly runs, a bit of driving for work and a bit of solitary walking, I decided I could probably get through it in the month. My book club also decided to read it, though with some trepidation, as its longer than most books we select.

Well, here we are, just over halfway through the month and I have finished it – I COULD NOT STOP LISTENING! This is an extraordinary book, a huge achievement. Fascinating, clever, brilliantly conceived, exhaustively researched, intricately plotted and beautifully written. Whilst wishing to take nothing away from the author, I suspect there was a brilliant and meticulous editor involved with this book too.

The novel’s heroine is Marian Graves, an early 20th century aviator, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. The novel begins with an account of the circumstances preceding her birth. She and her twin brother Jamie (who will later become an artist) are the only children of Addison Graves, a ship’s captain, and a 19-year-old socialite who falls pregnant on their first, casual, liaison. Their mother Annabel is emotionally disconnected from her babies, appearing to suffer from postnatal depression. When the ship that Addison Graves captains, the Josephina Eterna, sinks following an explosion in the hold, he chooses to rescue himself and the baby twins rather than remain on board until the last passenger leaves, as is his duty. His young wife is never found and when Addison is sent to prison he leaves the twins in the care of his brother Wallace, an artist and a drinker, who lives in Missoula, Montana.

The children have a wilderness childhood, thriving on neglect. They develop a close friendship with local mixed race boy Caleb, whose mother is also an alcoholic, and who spends most of his time at their home. When she is about fourteen, Marian watches an acrobatic air show held locally by two amateur pilots. She is mesmerised and decides thereafter that her only ambition is to become a pilot. Her life’s mission from then on is to accumulate enough money to take flying lessons. Marian has little formal education but she is an avid reader and works her way through the small library that her father left in the care of his brother. Having taught herself to drive and to mend cars she gets work as a delivery driver, distributing baked goods and, at the bottom of the baskets, bootleg liquor (this is the era of prohibition). She makes a delivery to the local brothel where she runs into local gangster Barclay McQueen. He is a big-time liquor distributor, importing from Canada and with an operation that spans the country. He is mesmerised by the young Marian and after slowly and gently building a relationship with her, he pays for flying lessons and will eventually buy her a plane. But he is no benevolent benefactor; he wants Marian and will eventually marry her. She finds herself drawn to him too, and there is a powerful chemistry between them, but it is also a dangerous and destructive passion.

Jacqueline Cochran, the real-life founder of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots appears in the novel. https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/flying-homefront-women-airforce-service-pilots-wasp

As we move slowly through the events of Marian’s life we follow her flying career, which goes from strength to strength, despite the times, as her natural brilliance, her driving ambition and ingenuity, combine with the many and varied flying challenges she undertakes. The greater the risk, the more expertise she gains. She catches the attention of another high-profile lady pilot who sets up a special air service in England during the second world war, where women pilots are used as aircraft couriers, flying planes to different locations where they are needed.

A present-day story is being told in this book too. In Los Angeles in 2014-15, young actress Hadley Baxter finds her life is a mess. Made famous as a child actor in a highly successful television show, she finds further fortune with a franchise called Archangel (think Twilight), but then fame turns to infamy when having broken up with the co-star, with whom she had been in a long-term relationship, she is spotted in the arms of a bad-boy rockstar, and then in a clinch with a married producer. Hadley is offered the role of Marian Graves in an arthouse biopic which is focussing specifically on Marian’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe via the north and south poles – the great circle. It was during this attempt in 1950 that Marian and her co-pilot, Eddie Bloom, and their plane disappeared. A journal Marian kept was found by chance in Antarctica years later and published. A novel was also written by a woman distantly related to Marian by marriage. These two documents will form the basis of the new film.

There are parallels between Marian’s and Hadley’s stories; Hadley was also brought up by a neglectful and drunken uncle after her parents died when their light aircraft plunged into a lake, their bodies never found. At first the novel moves back and forth between the two. It’s mostly Marian’s story, but the Hadley episodes are laugh-out loud funny, utilising every possible Hollywood caricature and absurdity. In the last third of the novel they gradually begin to intersect, however, when at a film dinner party Hadley meets the artist Adelaide Scott, who is related to Marian. The producers suggest Hadley meets Adelaide, almost as a way of getting inside Marian, in preparation for the role, an idea which is mostly ridiculous since Adelaide met her only once when she was just five years old. By this time, Hadley has developed an interest in Marian which goes beyond the role and, through Adelaide, she gradually uncovers truths about Marian, about the expedition and about what eventually happened to her, which help her to reach a place of peace with the events of her own life.

There is much more to this novel than I have been able to convey in the above paragraphs which just goes some way to indicating how rich the story is. I have barely touched on Marian’s twin brother Jamie, whose story is also powerful, and Marian’s relationship with Caleb, the childhood friend who is also the love of her life. There are many ‘great circles’ in this novel, not just the circumnavigation of the globe. It is a book about the links between beginnings and endings, how we all end up back where we started somehow and about the connections between us and how these may cross, years, decades, even lifetimes.

For me this was ‘unputdownable’. An extraordinary book, it would be a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

Booker book review #1 – “No One is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood

And thus begins my annual attempt to read my way through the Booker Prize shortlist before the winner is announced. Customarily, the shortlist is announced in mid-September and the winner announced at the beginning of November, giving about six weeks to read six novels. I have never yet managed all six. I think the closest I have come is about four. I am optimistic this year as I have a strategy – a mixture of audiobook, e-reader and actual book – and a plan. So far I have completed one (the shortest), am part-way through another (the longest) and I am the proud owner of a signed copy of a third. With just over four weeks to go I am, if not optimistic, then at least hopeful. I expect kitchen renovations at the end of the month to disrupt all my plans!

The first book I am ticking off the list is Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which has become one of the most talked about books of the year since it was first published in February. This is Lockwood’s first novel; she is better known as a poet and published a memoir in 2017 entitled Priestdaddy which was highly acclaimed. No One Is Talking About This has been compared variously to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I count all three of those among my all-time favourite reads so I should have loved this book.

It is a really difficult book to describe (for me, that’s where the comparison with Ulysses ends). I should also add, by way of a caveat, that I listened to this on audio and may well have been affected by the slightly manic reading of it. It is narrated in the first person by an unnamed character who has an unnamed family but who lives, we can assume, in New York City. The first half of the book is pure stream of consciousness, a portrayal of the wildness of modern life, particularly those parts conducted through ‘the portal’, which is pretty much everything. We see the ridiculousness of life lived out online, where only appearances matter, where substance and empathy and humanity appear to have vanished. Where photographing and documenting your food is more important than eating it. Where how your relationships look is more important than the relationships themselves. I think most of us can recognise this as the way we might all actually be heading if we are not careful. If indeed, we are not already there.

The second half of the book, described by the author herself as ‘autofictional’ centres around a devastating family event. The narrator’s sister becomes pregnant and the journey is duly recorded on the portal, until a scan reveals an irregularity in the baby’s head measurement. The pregnancy and the baby are no longer as photogenic or fit for the portal, but the event will have a seismic impact on the family and on our narrator in particular. She is completely unprepared for the immense love she feels for the severely disabled baby girl her sister delivers, a child whose life expectancy is limited and whose quality of life would usually be described as poor. And yet, the baby, with her rudimentary abilities, her dependency on her loved ones and her complete helplessness, draws out the humanity in those around her, that, because of the evils of the portal, they had forgotten they had.

This second half of the book is based on an event in Lockwood’s own family – her sister gave birth to a child with Proteus syndrome – and knowing there is truth in it, makes it a powerful read indeed. For me, it is not Ulysses, and Lockwood is not yet Woolf or Faulkner. I wasn’t awed or stunned by the book, but it is innovative. Her instincts as a poet serve her well. It reminded me a little of the 2018-shortlisted book Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, which I have recently finished. I have to say I found that book better, but Lockwood has a good chance of winning with this novel.

So, recommended. I’m looking forward to what the rest of the shortlist has to offer.

Book review – “Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a work trip to London. I’d bought a copy of the very newly minted Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You which had been published earlier that week amid great excitement (there were queues and bookshops were opened at midnight to enable the keenest readers to get their hands on a copy). Whilst in London I also happened to stumble on a ‘pop-up’ in Shoreditch selling not only the novel, but other books to which there are references in the novel, and some merchandise echoing the design of the book’s cover. This book has surely been the most anticipated of the year, and who can blame the publishers, but it has definitely become a ‘product’. As has the author I suspect. I hope she is okay.

I sort of hoped I might devour the novel on the return train trip to London, but I didn’t and in fact it took me a further week or so to finish it. Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, was a sensation, not least because of the success of the television series, one suspects, which was brilliantly put together with brilliant performances from the two wonderful new young Irish actors playing the lead parts. It was all a moment of pure serendipity and it was a joy that something so good got the attention it deserved.

Rooney’s follow-up novel therefore was always going to be a challenge and I admire her for just getting the thing out under what must have been intense pressure. It is unmistakeably Rooney – the beautiful prose, the masterful dialogue, the introspective characters, Dublin, the palpable tensions between the characters and the things unsaid. There are four characters: Alice, a successful, famous and thus fairly wealthy author (hmm) who has recently had a nervous breakdown and whom we meet when she is renting a seaside house in the country. Felix, her lover, whom she meets on Tinder, a warehouse worker and cash-strapped under-achiever. Eileen, who lives in Dublin and is Alice’s best friend from childhood. Eileen works for a publishing company in a junior role which pays poorly. She is intellectually and emotionally unfulfilled, and bitter at the hand life has dealt her. Simon is Alice and Eileen’s friend, also from their youth, but a little older, a political researcher he lives in Dublin too. He is single, but seems to have a series of much younger girlfriends, handsome, gentle and compassionate, with a strong Catholic faith.

Much of the novel is an exchange of long and detailed communications between Alice and Eileen. They are more like letters, the kind that middle class people of previous centuries might have exchanged, full of lengthy discourse on the meaning of life, love, sex, career, fame and mental health, cleverly punctuated with much more prosaic gossipy tidbits on their love lives. These of course are emails, though, not letters. In between the letters chapters we follow the various events of the characters’ lives, primarily Eileen’s gradual descent into personal crisis and her relationship with Simon, and Alice’s recovery and unlikely relationship with Felix.

It is some way into the book before the characters collide, when Simon travels with Eileen to visit Alice at her rural retreat. The weekend is a kind of catharsis for them all. Everything must break before it can be reassembled in a meaningful way.

If you are expecting a re-run of Normal People you will get some of the same things – a good deal of sex, middle-class angst and working-class insecurity, and a grown-up exploration of Irish identity in the 21st century. But it is a very different book. There are surely some autobiographical elements. It has a lot less pace and it seems a long time before anything significant happens. This novel is a much slower burn. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I did not care as much about any of the characters as I did about Marianne and Connell. I think it is the book Sally Rooney needed to write though, good enough to follow Normal People but perhaps not quite as good, so that, one hopes, some of the hype around her dissipates and she can get on with being a brilliant author and not have to worry about being a celebrity.

I think it will always be worth reading what Sally Rooney writes, so I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

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