Kids book review – “Splinters of Scarlet” by Emily Bain Murphy

I chose this novel for my Facebook Reading Challenge in April, the theme of which was a children’s book. I was delighted to have this as a theme; regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post reviews of books for young readers. It has unfortunately been some time since I read a children’s book, however, so I was keen to get started on this one. Splinters of Scarlet is Emily Bain Murphy’s second novel. Her first, The Disappearances, was a huge success, both critically and commercially, and so her follow-up was hugely anticipated. I read The Disappearances as part of this very reading challenge in January 2018 and absolutely loved it. My elder daughter who I insisted read the book, rates it as one of her favourite novels of all time and has re-read it several times. Every music fan will be familiar with the concept of the ‘difficult second album’, and the same may be said of books, except that books are produced and marketed somewhat differently, and first-time authors rarely achieve huge first-time success in the same way that certain pop performers do. I fear, however, that Emily Bain Murphy has not quite pulled off the ‘difficult second novel’. Don’t get me wrong, it is good, but my expectations were perhaps a bit too high.

The novel is set in Copenhagen in 1866-67, initially in an orphanage and then in the home of a wealthy mining widow Helene Verstergaard. The central character is Marit Olsen, an orphan seamstress. Her closest friend is Eve, a younger fellow orphan with a precocious talent for ballet, who is about to be adopted by the famed former ballerina Mrs Vertergaard. Marit adores Eve, loves her friend like a sister, even as a mother might, and has mixed feelings about the likely adoption. She is happy that her friend is happy, but it will be a poignant outcome for her since her father was killed in a Vestergaard mine and she remains bitter at the callous way she and her sister were treated; Helene Vestergaard’s late husband was the owner of the family mining dynasty and Marit blames him for her father’s death. When her father died, Marit’s older sister suddenly became responsible for the two of them, and Marit believes this burden, in turn, killed her.

What we also learn in the opening chapters is that certain people in the country have magical powers. Marit does for example and uses these in her job as a seamstress, and especially in the costumes she makes for Eve. Marit’s sister did too and ‘over-used’ her magic in trying to provide for the family. The over-use of magic is dangerous for its owner as it can lead to that person’s death if they are overtaken by ‘the firn’.

Eve is adopted and Helene Vestergaard decides that in addition to a daughter she would like a talented seamstress and so decides to take Marit from the orphanage too. Despite her mixed feelings Marit agrees so that she can be with Eve. Her lifestyle will be very different to her friend’s, however, for she will be a servant and live among the staff.

Marit becomes close to a number of the servants, most of whom it seems possess magical powers – Marit realises this is no accident; Helene has chosen her household carefully. A foreboding presence in the Vestergaard household is Helene’s brother-in-law Philip. Marit quickly begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the Vestergaard mines and that Philip is linked to it. She also begins to suspect a link with her father’s death and her quest for the truth drives risk-taking investigations.  

Marit shares her suspicions with the servants she has become close to and they agree to help her. Thus they set about various surveillance operations to try and find out what is going on in the mines and what exactly Philip Vestergaard has to do with it. The remainder of the book concerns Marit’s activities, for which she uses her magical powers extensively, as well as her increasing concerns about ‘the firn’ and whether she will fall victim to it. Philip Vestergaard senses Marit’s interest and begins to see that she and some of the others are a threat. He sets about silencing them, even killing one of the servants. The scene is set for the denouement – a showdown between the two opposing forces in the novel – truth and lies.

This novel has quite a complex plot and wide cast of characters, some of whom I found it hard to distinguish. The Disappearances also has a complex plot and a wide cast of characters and yet the author, in my view, handles it more deftly in that book and with greater imagination and coherence. For me, this novel is sometimes confused, and there are some non-credible twists which seem to be made to serve the plot. It is perhaps unfair to compare this novel to the earlier book, which was so good. If Splinters of Scarlet had been the first novel I would possibly be looking upon it more favourably. As it is, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much. I suspect this book would suit a younger reader, perhaps 11-13 year olds, whereas The Disappearances is more suitable for 12-14 year olds. However, I think it is less good than other books in this age group.

Competent and her fans will love it, but for me it was not as engaging or brilliant as this author’s first novel.

Book review – “Frenchman’s Creek” by Daphne du Maurier

You will recall that I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca a few weeks ago. I devoured it, could hardly put it down, loved the film too. Once I had written my review I went to put the book away and, being  a strictly alphabetical storer of books, discovered I had another du Maurier tucked away on the shelf that I had completely forgotten about. It looks like I bought it in 1989 (I used adhesive book plates in those days) so I was still at university and must have picked it up in a secondhand bookshop. It’s a 1965 Penguin edition, which means it has a very small typeface and is only a little over 230 pages long. I was very excited about this find and could not wait to get stuck in.

My vintage, pre-decimalisation copy!

I assumed that as the book appeared to be so short it would not take me too long to read. It took me the best part of three weeks! I kept falling asleep reading it, which may have been due to the fact that my life has been a bit topsy-turvy this last month or so and I have been tired, or the fact that 1960s typeface is actually impossible to read and a tremendous strain on the eyes. Or perhaps it is just that I was so decidedly underwhelmed. I think that is the kindest thing I can say about it. It was the first novel published after Rebecca, (the latter published in 1938, while Frenchman’s Creek came out in 1941) and yet it reads like it could have been her first, practice or unfinished novel, discovered posthumously. I was so disappointed.

The plot is a simple one – set in Restoration England, wealthy Dona St Columb, bored with the frivolousness of London life (and also bored with her husband), decides to take herself, her two young children and the nanny to the family’s estate in Cornwall, Navron House. The house has been locked up, unoccupied for some time, looked after solely by a single mysterious servant William. There is much gossip around the town in Cornwall about a French pirate, terrorising the locals, and jeopardising the noblemen whose fortunes are made through maritime activity. Dona is intrigued by the stories. At the same time, Dona begins to notice some strange things in her house: a jar of tobacco and a volume of French poetry in her private bedroom, and the feeling that there is more to the servant William than meets the eye.

When Dona confronts William she learns that he is in fact an associate of the infamous Breton pirate of the La Mouette, Jean-Benoit Aubery, who, between raids, lays his ship at anchor in the hidden creek below Navron. Dona is clearly immediately attracted to the idea of the mysterious pirate, and when she does finally meet him, he does not disappoint. They begin a fairly passionate (by the standards of the time!) love affair, and…well, I won’t give you any more spoilers. Suffice it to say, that Dona finds herself torn when her fellow Cornish nobles decide that they want to capture the Frenchman and hang him for his crimes. She will have to use all her feminine wiles to help her lover evade capture. This event is slightly comic (due largely to the ineptitude of most of the men invovled), but the threat grows somewhat darker when Dona’s husband Harry decides he will join her in the country and brings his friend, the rather sinister Lord Rockingham, who is not so gullible as Harry. Not only does he suspect that Dona is hiding something but is clearly intent upon using his suspicion to get what he wants out of her.

I feel like I have just outlined the plot of a Mills & Boon and I’m afraid that’s how I felt reading it. The novel is set in the Restoration era, presumably because that is when pirates were around terrorising coastal communities, but there is very little sense of either time or place in this novel, something that du Maurier does so brilliantly in Rebecca. The love affair between Dona and her pirate is so extremely implausible as is the interaction with the servant William, as are the key events of the novel. None of the characters are fully developed and our Breton pirate (himself a nobleman in his part of the world, but who, like Dona, is a restless soul who likes a bit of high-seas adventure) speaks impeccable English!

I read that du Maurier was often dismissed as a “romantic novelist”, but that she resisted this pigeonhole. Certainly, Rebecca, is so much more than a romance; perhaps not even a romance. But Frenchman’s Creek, in my view, is a poor follow-up to that novel, a throwaway romance that has little of real substance. I’d be interested to know what du Maurier fans think of it and how it is perceived critically. I’m going to try more du Maurier and hope that this novel is an aberration.

Read this book if you love Rebecca and are as intrigued as me by the contrasting quality!

Facebook Reading Challenge – May’s title

The twists and turns of life are unexpected and as I sit down to write this blog, having not opened WordPress for about two weeks, I was presented with my last post and the photo of our lovely cat who, I’m afraid, has not returned. Seeing him there set me off again. We have no idea what has happened to him and, since it is now almost three weeks since he went missing, we are pretty resigned to his disappearance. The worst thing is the not knowing.

Kazuo Ishiguro was interviewed about his new novel, Klara and the Sun, by Jackie Kay for the Manchester Literature Festival

Alas, it happens and we must move on. It is already May 5th and not only have I still not completed last month’s book (Emily Bain Murphy’s Splinters of Scarlet), which is fairly par for the course, I haven’t even posted May’s choice! Just as well it’s a thirty-one day month. I must admit that Splinters of Scarlet is not grabbing me as much as I’d hoped. I’m only about halfway through and my daughter assures me it gets better, so I will post a review next week, by when, I hope, I will have finished it. I need to because I’ve got so many books to read at the moment – I need to get my book club book finished and read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun by the 17th – I bought a ticket to the online talk between him and Jackie Kay, which was part of the virtual Manchester Literature Festival. I was unable to watch it on the night it took place, but I can still access the recording, but only for another twelve days! I prefer to read a book before attending a talk about it, don’t you?

Anyway, back to my Facebook Reading Challenge – what was I thinking when I chose May’s theme?! ‘Something with ‘may’ in the title?!’ I thought there would be loads of books to choose from, but, guess what, there aren’t! There are a few though and there is one I have stumbled across which could actually be really fascinating. So, I have chosen Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo, and I’m pretty sure this would not have crossed my radar had it not been for my rather randomly selected theme, but isn’t that what reading challenges are all about?

Seven Days in May is a fictionalised re-telling of the story of the luxury cruise ship the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, just a few miles short of her destination following a transatlantic crossing from America. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew were killed. I have of course heard of the Lusitania, but I could not have told you anything about it, so I have learned a lot just by reading the blurb. This is author Kim Izzo’s third book, and her first (The Jane Austen Marriage Manual) was a bestseller.

So, having initially despaired that I would find anything decent to fit my theme, I now feel quite excited and I would love for you to join me.

Happy reading!

PS There is another book of the same name, a political thriller written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II in 1962, which was made into a film.

Earth Day 2021 and a lost cat

It’s Earth Day today and I am relieved at last to see the United States taking a global leadership role once again in pushing urgent climate matters forward, setting new and ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions. Let us hope all nations follow-through (and in fact go further than) the promises that have been outlined today.

The global coronavirus pandemic has, I think, caused many of us to reflect on the way we live our lives and to ask ‘How did we get here?’ What bits of the present world order have led to this desperate situation? I think our cavalier attitude to the environment is right up at the top there among the possible answers. Over this last year of curtailed movements many of us have got to know our local areas much better and I have become well-acquainted with many of the beautiful and interesting trees in my neighbourhood that I see on regular walks. It’s not that I didn’t know they were there before but I definitely paid less attention. Even the most pedestrian trees are quite spectacular when you get close to them. Here are a few in my locale:

Two trees side by side that have become one!
The exposed roots on this tree, which is growing on a slope, look other-worldly!
I wonder what caused this midriff bulge!

I started to see trees and their importance in a different way after I read The Overstory, the 2018 Booker-shortlisted novel by Richard Powers. It is an extraordinary book that I still consider one of the best I have ever read. Another book I read more recently, Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, was a rather more frightening foreshadowing of where we might end up if we, as the nations of the world, continue in the present direction of travel. Both books are sobering reads for World Earth Day.

Another thing that has made me very reflective this week, and, indeed, got me out and about in my neighbourhood, is that our lovely family cat Ziggy went missing seven days ago. We have had him almost eleven years and we think he is about twelve (he came from a cat rescue centre so we are not really sure), but he is the friendliest cat I have ever shared my space with and we all miss him terribly.

Our handsome boy

He never goes very far so we have hunted high and low for him in the neighbourhood. I have put up posters and leafleted all the houses in the vicinity of our house, but so far to no avail. I have had so many calls from different people wishing me luck in the search as well as possible sightings (all false alarms sadly, as a neighbour of ours has a very similar-looking cat). It is heartwarming to think that people take notice and want to help.

We continue to look and to hope.

It is that spirit and human kindness that has got us through a pandemic and will, I hope, get us through the challenges we face in the future.

Haven’t picked up a book at all this week – too distracted.

Happy reading everyone.

Book review: “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

This was the March choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. Some members of the Facebook group had already read it and it’s fair to say that there were some mixed feelings. It was described as “triggering” since it concerns a woman suffering from severe depression, some loved it, while another found it predictable. The central character is Nora Seed, a thirty-five year old woman from Bedford whose life seems to be in a deep rut. The book opens with a neighbour delivering her dead cat, Volts, who he has found in the road. Nora assumes the cat has been hit by a car. This would be upsetting enough on its own, but there follows a cascade of bad news: she loses her job at a music shop, she learns that her brother, from whom she is estranged, came into the shop on her day off (to avoid her she assumes), she loses her only private piano pupil, she has an argument in a shop with an old friend, with whom she was in a band with her brother. To make matters worse, everyone else’s life seems to have moved on to bigger and better things – all her social media contacts seem to be leading great lives and her best friend Izzy is in Australia. When her elderly neighbour, Mr Bannerjee, whose medication she collects regularly, tells her that he no longer needs her to do this for him because the pharmacy will deliver, it is the final straw. Nora feels her life is pointless and she decides that she will end it.

This is the triggering part, the first twenty or so pages. But if you can get beyond this section, the book changes quite dramatically. On the stroke of midnight, Nora finds herself transported to ‘the midnight library’ where the librarian is a person from her past, the school librarian Mrs Elms, who had had a strong an influence on her. When she was younger, Nora had had a lot of potential; she was bright, something that Mrs Elms had recognised and encouraged, and went on to do a philosophy degree. She was also a gifted swimmer, encouraged by her father, and had she not quit, might have had significant sporting success. Nora also had musical talent, both as a performer and songwriter, and had been in a band, The Labyrinths, with her brother Joe and another friend, Ravi (with whom she has the confrontation in the shop). All of this potential came to nought, however. Her mother’s early death affected her badly, she quit swimming, disappointing her father, she quit the band (too anxious), leading to the falling-out with her brother and her partner left her two days before their wedding.

Nora is full of regrets. Her life seems to be one long series of ‘might have beens’. When she reaches the midnight library she is given the chance to experience what might have happened in some of these lives, had she pursued them. She meets herself as an Olympic swimmer giving a speech at a conference, as an international pop superstar, living in Australia with Izzy (another chance she turned down) and married to Dan her former lover. Of course, Nora learns, that life is always complex and nothing is ever completely good or completely bad, that even in these other lives, about which she fantasises, there are downs as well as ups.

The book is an interesting one, a really original idea. I like Matt Haig’s work, both his fiction and non-fiction. I found this an enjoyable read, but I don’t think it is his most creative or interesting book – I prefer How To Stop Time. I did find it a bit predictable and after the third of fourth ‘life’ which Nora gets to try out, you work out where it is all going. It is quite simplistic in some ways, but it also lays out some simple truths very powerfully, and that is its main strength. Matt Haig is regularly scathing about the effects of social media and he has plenty of digs in this book too about its damaging effect on the mental health of so many people:

“Nora went through her social media. No messages, no comments, no new followers, no friend requests. She was antimatter, with added self-pity. She went on Instagram and saw everyone had worked out how to live, except her.”

Nora has been sucked into the fallacy that life is only real if it is lived on social media. If it’s not on Facebook it didn’t really happen. There is a lesson in here for all of us, regardless of our mental health status.

I would recommend this book, although some people might find the beginning quite challenging.

Facebook Reading Challenge – April choice

I’m a bit late posting my April choice for the reading challenge this month, which is ironic given that I finished the March book ages ago! I hope your Easter weekend was a good one. Mine was strangely very busy and had been preceded by a very busy, I would even go so far as to say an intense week, so that is my excuse for my tardiness and I am sticking to it.

This month’s theme is a children’s book (always a joy!) and I am delighted to be returning to an author whose first book was the very first January choice for my very first reading challenge in 2018! Emily Bain Murphy’s wonderful debut novel The Disappearances was a resounding success and almost everyone who joined me on the reading challenge that first month loved it. My elder daughter, who is now almost seventeen read it at the time and considers it one of her favourite ever books. She has re-read it at least twice since! Emily Bain Murphy’s new novel is called Splinters of Scarlet and it was published in July of last year by Pushkin children’s books. My daughter devoured it within days of getting it, and it comes highly recommended from her. She says it is a slower burn, not quite as compelling as The Disappearances to begin with, but it gets much better.

Look out for my review of last month’s book in the coming days – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. I did enjoyed this book very much, but, as many others have pointed out, it was a hard read to begin with.

I would love for you to join me on the reading challenge this month or to hear your thoughts if you have already read this book.

Happy reading!

Book review – “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid

This was my book club’s choice for last month. When I first read the blurb it was not what I expected from the title – I thought it would be about teenagers, which tells you a bit about where my head is at right now! But no, the blurb tells us that a young black woman in Philadelphia, twenty-five year old Emira Tucker, is out at a grocery store late one evening with the small girl she looks after when a fellow shopper raises her concerns with the in-store security guard. What is a young black woman, dressed as if she has just come from a party (which in fact she has), doing out at that hour with a fair-skinned white-haired toddler? She must be up to no good, the fellow shopper concludes, and the security guard concurs. The guard challenges her, rudely, and when she resists his challenge, he over-reacts and threatens to call the police. The whole incident is caught on mobile camera by another fellow shopper, thirty-something white male Kelley.

What none of the spectators or the other participants know is the background: Emira is the child’s babysitter (not ‘nanny’ because that would make her employment more formal than the child’s parents have so far allowed) and they have called her for help at this late hour because someone has thrown a brick through their window. The police have been called and Peter and Alix Chamberlain do not want their little girl, three year old Briar, to see the police officers in the house. So they have asked Emira to take Briar out. And the reason that a brick has been thrown through the Chamberlain’s window is that Peter, a television presenter, made a racist comment during a live broadcast. So, you can see where the story is going – layer upon layer of casual racism, the kind where people say “I’m not racist, but…”

The incident I have outlined above is what opens the novel. It ends fairly anti-climactically, actually, whereas from the blurb I half expected our heroine to be thrown into jail for a made-up crime she did not commit (a plot along the lines of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage). Instead, Emira calls Briar’s father, Peter, he of the on-screen racist remark, who arrives at the store promptly, claims Emira and the child, and the security guard calms down and everyone goes home. The woman who originally alerted the guard apologises, expecting, of course, absolution for her own racist preconceptions. How could she have known? Wasn’t she just being a conscientious good citizen? Kelley, the young man who filmed the whole scene, encourages Emira to alert the networks and sell her story. She doesn’t want to, however, she seems resigned to this level of everyday racism, and prefers a quieter life, claiming that she is quite cool with it all. Kelley emails her the video, just in case she changes her mind, deletes it from his own phone and they part company.

That is the incident over, on one level at least, except that it sets off a chain of events which will lead Emira through a series of dark and challenging times. She bumps into Kelley again, a few weeks later, on a train and the two start dating. Encouraged by Kelley, Emira begins to take a long hard look at her life, comparing herself to her friends, who all seem to be developing their careers, while she barely makes ends meet as an informal babysitter and part-time typist. A major preoccupation is that when she turns twenty-six, she will no longer be eligible for healthcare under her parents’ insurance policy, so she needs to find a way of earning enough money to afford her own cover.

Meanwhile, Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, has decided that Emira is essential to her; Briar adores her and Emira seems to fill in some of the gaps in her own parenting. Plus, having Emira on hand means that she can pursue her own career as a lifestyle blogger and consultant. Alix determines to befriend Emira, to make her a part of their family, using the incentive of a more formal employment contract as the carrot. There is the unmistakeable suggestion that Alix wishes to ‘own’ Emira, and that her own success is on the back of her babysitter. Alix grows increasingly paranoid about losing Emira and takes ever more desperate steps to retain her.

One key aspect of the story is slightly far-fetched (I won’t reveal it) but the whole plot turns on it really, so you have to just suspend disbelief. Doing so is worth it because the author explores deftly and cleverly, a whole series of issues and themes, not just around race, but also the nature of privilege more generally, and autonomy. Who has the power to make the decisions? Which of us really has choice? This could have been a really straightforward novel about racism, but the author makes it about much more than that.

I and my fellow readers in my book club thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend it highly.

The end is nigh!

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I was all set last week to post a couple of blogs, including a book review of Kiley Reid’s international bestseller Such A Fun Age, a super book which I devoured in a few days. There was no devouring of anything last week, however, as ‘life got in the way’ somewhat. I expect life will get a bit more ‘in the way’ in the coming weeks as Coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. It doesn’t look as if we’ll be packing for holidays any time soon but I can already feel a return to my pre-pandemic busy-ness.

Yesterday, the first anniversary of the start of lockdown in the UK, felt like a sombre and reflective moment for the whole country and there was much radio and television time devoted to thinking about what we have lost in these last twelve months. Interestingly, there was also a lot of space given to people talking about what we have gained – a new sense of perspective and appreciation of others, a re-calibration of wants and needs, a desire to live our lives in a different way. My daughter said at the dinner table the other day that she “misses” the lockdown from last spring, when, for her, the pressure of school was taken away, when we started doing more together as a family, and there was time to walk and appreciate nature more. Plus the weather was lovely, which helped! I know what she means. For me, the days have not been ‘lazy’ by any means, but I will miss all that white space in my diary.

I had my Covid vaccination last week, for which I feel enormous gratitude to scientific endeavour. The ease and smoothness of the process from booking to queuing, to the actual procedure was very humbling and the one bright spot in what has been an otherwise very bleak Covid picture in the UK. I was also deeply aware of my white, western privilege in getting the vaccination and only wish it was being rolled out in other parts of the world that need it just as much as we do. The vaccination left me feeling completely wiped out for a couple of days and my arm is still very sore but it was a small price to pay.

So, that’s my excuse for not posting for over a week. The good thing about being a blogger is that you don’t HAVE to do it (unless it’s also your main income source, of course). I don’t need another thing is my life that I HAVE to do frankly! But I do miss it when I don’t post. The last year has been patchy for me in terms of frequency of posting and I set out at the beginning of this year to be much more disciplined, particularly around my social media (which is a Disaster!), so I am disappointed to have let a week slip by.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

I love writing, and I particularly love writing my book reviews; the very act of it, especially when I’m sharing my passion about something I’ve read, is a cathartic and joyful exercise and a little corner of creativity in the midst of life’s more prosaic activity.

So, hello again fellow bloggers and readers, I missed you last week! Let me ask, how do you keep up with the demands of regular blogging? Some of you write fantastically in-depth and thoroughly researched pieces and I am in awe!

Book review – “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier

Last week I posted my review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the February book in my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was something that had been adapted for screen and I had been torn between that book and Rebecca. This was famously adapted by Hitchcock, of course, in 1940 (starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine) and now there is a new production on Netflix, starring Lily James, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I watched the film (the 2011 version, not the television series) first. With Rebecca, however, I did it the other way around and I am so glad to have done so. It is such an extraordinary novel and the impact of the plot and the narrative are thrilling – I would have so missed out on so much if I had known the ending.

Rebecca opens with the well-known words “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” A short chapter, where our main female protagonist (whom we only ever know as Mrs De Winter) is recounting a dream she had of her first time visiting her husband’s family estate. She recalls, in particular, the long drive through the park, the plants and trees, which seem hostile, almost monstrous, and the setting of the house itself, in an imposing position high above the rocky Cornwall coast. It is described less in terms of realism and more in terms of how it made her feel. But our protagonist’s dream is very much past tense. We know that she is no longer there.

The second chapter goes back a number of years to the Hotel Cote D’Azur in Monte Carlo where Mrs De Winter (at this point a young spinster, though we never know her name, she is without her own identity) is serving as a ‘ladies companion’ to wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper, a vulgar, bully who shows complete contempt for her young employee.

Mrs Van Hopper hears that English aristocrat Maxim De Winter is in residence and is eager to renew her acquaintance with him. De Winter is recently widowed and Mrs Van Hopper explains that he has never got over his wife’s death. Mrs Van Hopper is suddenly taken ill which means that her companion finds herself with some spare time alone. Mr De Winter notices her one day and invites her to lunch. They embark on a whirlwind affair while Mrs Van Hopper convalesces, which ends with Maxim proposing marriage when it appears that his lover will be whisked off to New York with her employer. They marry, quickly and quietly while Mrs Van Hopper is nothing short of appalled at the match and promises her young friend that she will live to regret the decision.

The new Mrs De Winter returns to Cornwall with her husband, to his ancestral home, Manderley.  She is introduced into a household where the influence, of her predecessor, Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter is everywhere. Her memory is kept alive by the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, a cool and sinister figure, whom we come to learn was devoted to her mistress, having served her since she was a child. The new Mrs De Winter finds Rebecca’s presence everywhere, from her clothing in the boot room, to her notepaper in the morning room, and the expectations of the staff at Manderley who expect the new Mrs De Winter to simply pick up things as they were left, whether that be menus, social events or flowers in the house.

Although it is painful to her, Mrs De Winter becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out more about Rebecca, whilst also loathing how she continues to dominate the domestic sphere, the society, even her marriage. It is as if she is picking at a scab. We learn that Rebecca, an experienced sailor, drowned in her small boat. Mrs De Winter comes upon Rebecca’s small cottage on the beach, still filled with all her things and her discoveries and questions cause tension in her relationship with her husband. She comes to the conclusion that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca, that Mrs Danvers is scheming somehow to get rid of her and that she can never match her predecessor for beauty, accomplishment, charm or status. The myth of Rebecca takes over her completely.

I cannot say any more without giving away too much. Each new revelation and plot twist in the novel is delivered with jaw-dropping skill. This book had me reading far too much, far too late at night because I couldn’t put it down. It is also an emotional roller-coaster as the reader is forced to confront and re-confront assumptions, prejudices, expectations and moral values. It is a book that will leave you questioning what is right and wrong, who you are rooting for and who is the baddie. It’s an extremely complex and challenging novel that is far more than just its story, but what a story! British author Clare Mackintosh is quoted on the book jacket saying “It’s the book every writer wishes they’d written” and I could not agree more.

Highly recommended. And now for the film!

Book review – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John Le Carré

Oh my goodness, Rebecca is taking some very strange and unexpected turns – I wish I could write about them here but that would be unkind to anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film. I’m not sure how I feel about the plot twists, at this point, but I’m like a junkie in my reading of it, just dying to get the next ‘fix’! But back to something much more sober – Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, a book that has been described as Le Carré’s “masterpiece”, and which you will recall was my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for February. A Cold War novel for a cold month!

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the first in Le Carré’s so-called Karla trilogy in which he pits our hero, retired senior Secret Service operator and later chief, George Smiley, against his Russian opposite number and great nemesis, codenamed Karla. The novel opens at a minor public boys school to which former spy Jim Prideaux has been retired following a botched operation in Czechoslovakia where he was shot, captured and tortured by the Soviets.

The head of the Secret Service in London, known as Control, long suspected there was a mole in the outfit and shared some of his suspicions with Prideaux – the fateful mission to Czechoslovakia was partly intended to try and flush out the mole; Control has whittled down the candidates to a handful of the key operators in the Service whom he names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and so on.

Control dies of a heart attack, but more senior officials have learned of his suspicions and call in George Smiley from his rather bleak life of retirement to investigate secretly. Smiley has his own troubles; his wife has left him and it turns out she was having an affair with one of Smiley’s former colleagues (the inference is that she was lively and vivacious while George has become plump, tired and dull). Smiley is given support from an insider, a trusted current employee, Peter Guillam, to help him pursue the investigation that Control was never able to finish and they set up an undercover base operating out of a small hotel.

What ensues is a cat and mouse chase where Smiley gradually explores the motives and capacities of each of the suspects – Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhaze, George Haydon and Roy Bland. The investigation has to be conducted covertly to ensure none of the individuals learns of the suspicion surrounding the work of the Service. For Smiley, the investigation involves not only figuring out methods to get the information he needs and to reach the people who may be able to shed light on the murky inner workings of the organisation, but a sometimes painful reliving of past events which have brought him to his present state of lonely and purposeless existence.

The investigation also, of course, has the potential to breathe new life into Smiley and restore him to a position of status and importance. If he succeeds.

The plot of this novel is sometimes complex and difficult to follow – you really have to pay attention! I found it slow to start with, but then I got very sucked in and found it extremely compelling. The theme of last month’s reading challenge was something that has been adapted for screen and I had watched the film before reading the book. This was the wrong way around! As I was reading, the characters in my mind were the actors from the film and when these actors are Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Burke, to name but a few, it is hard to forget them. The characters in the film did not quite match up with the way they were portrayed in the book, which was frustrating. Also, some elements of the plot were changed for the film (including the ending, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexuality!), presumably to make it a bit easier to squeeze into two hours, so that was confusing for me.

However, all in all, a very good read. In a previous life I worked for the Civil Service in Whitehall (nothing as exciting as diplomacy or intelligence, I’m afraid), and the book caused me to reminisce about those days a little. The atmosphere created in the book was one I recognised even though it was set over twenty years before my time (things don’t change very fast).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first in a trilogy, and there are many other Le Carré novels that feature George Smiley and many more screen adaptations to explore. Having previously not felt too interested in Le Carré I have to say that this book has whetted my appetite!

Recommended.