Audiobook review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of audiobooks. Having said that, it doesn’t work every time for me; the narrator is vital and I struggled listening to 1984 as I could not get beyond the fact that the reader was Andrew Winnicot…or Adam Macy from the The Archers, which I listen to avidly! Recently, I have enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale on audio, I listened to all of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, with the sublime Hilary Huber, and I am currently listening to Gone Girl, the January book in my Facebook Reading Challenge, (which I am finding totally gripping, by the way).

Ashes of London imgA book I listened to at the end of last year was Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. I borrowed it from the library when it was first published in 2017 but did not manage to get through it before I had to return it for someone else. It is a historical thriller set at the time of the Great Fire of London in September 1666 and is the first in Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett detective series. I have not yet read (or listened to) the second and third books in the series, both of which were published last year, but they sound intriguing.

James Marwood works as a junior reporter on a newssheet, situated at the centre of courtly London life. Marwood lives with his elderly and increasingly senile father, a former printer and ‘Fifth Monarchist’ (a Protestant sect which believed the monarchy would fall and Christ would return to earth to rule), whose followers were considered criminals after the triumph of the Monarchists in the English Civil Wars. Marwood is asked to report on the aftermath of the Great Fire in various parts of the city and the rebuilding projects, but he soon becomes embroiled in the case of a missing person, the niece of a gentleman, Cat Lovett.

Cat Lovett, is a young woman sent to live with her uncle and step-aunt in Holborn, after her father, a convicted regicide (plotter against the monarch), became a fugitive. She is due to be married to an odious dandy, and much older man, but then her step-aunt’s son rapes her. She fights back, mortally wounding him, and, realising the danger she is now in, decides to escape and take her chances on the streets of London, hoping eventually to track down her father. An elderly servant, who had known Cat from childhood, is presumed guilty of the attack on the son and is flogged to death.

When James Marwood and Cat Lovett’s paths cross, inadvertently and fleetingly, he finds he is drawn by personal curiosity into the search for her. He realises early on that all is perhaps not what it seems in the household with the uncle and step-aunt. He suspects foul play and when he is then sent to investigate the cases of two bodies dumped in the Thames, he comes to believe that all these events are linked.

What follows is a complex thriller with a multi-layered plot, strong characters and the weaving-in of comprehensive historical knowledge of the period. I learnt a lot! It all leads to a thrilling denouement – not ideal when you’re listening whilst driving! – in the half-built St Paul’s Cathedral. I absolutely loved this book and recommend it highly. I’m delighted to inform you that it is also available for free on Kindle Unlimited!

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I’m looking forward to reading or listening to the next two books in the series, The Fire Court and The King’s Evil.

PS The narrator on this one was great!

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Book review – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark

150120Last week I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge and promised I would post this week, my thoughts on the final book of 2019 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The theme for December was a novella – I wanted something short as I know it is a busy time of year and I never get as much reading done as I think I’m going to! In some ways, though, this does not do full justice to what is a highly complex, multi-layered and thematically dense piece of work. You simply have to read every word on its 127 pages and read them at the measured pace of how you imagine Miss Brodie might speak.

Dame Muriel Spark is considered one of the finest writers in English and one of Scotland’s finest writers. She won many glittering international literary awards in her life, and was made a Dame in 1993. She was married briefly, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time she gave birth to a son, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. In the 1960s she lived in New York and in Rome, where she met her long-term female partner. The couple settled in Italy, where Dame Muriel died in 2006 at the age of 88. Quite a life!

Muriel Spark
Dame Muriel Spark

I think the author’s background makes this novella all the more interesting because it is such an ‘Edinburgh’ book – I say this as a non-Scot, so please forgive me if you disagree! – or at least, an Edinburgh of a certain time (pre-war). Spark left Scotland quite early in her adult life and her father was a Lithuanian Jew. Perhaps this makes her acute observation of Miss Brodie and her other characters even more profound.

 

You will probably know the basic plot of the book; the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith is widely considered a classic. There was also a television series made in the late ‘70s starring Geraldine McEwan, which I vaguely recall having seen, though I was very young at the time – I definitely would not have ‘got’ it; although the book is set in a girls’ school, Malory Towers it most definitely is not! Miss Brodie initially cuts a dominant and impressive figure – determined to influence a selected group of pre-pubescent girls about the broader aspects of life which she feels the school curriculum neglects, such as genuine appreciation of art, social and cultural awareness and matters of the heart (or, more accurately, matters of sex). The strictures of the girls’ school, with its emphasis on knowledge, facts required to pass the exam for the secondary level, and the protestant ethos are seen by Miss Brodie (so she tells us) as narrow and not a true preparation for life. She tells the girls:

“I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.”

maggie smith
Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film

At first, we may see these girls as lucky to have such a dynamic, interesting and strong female personality in their young lives who, for example, is prepared to take them to the theatre off her own bat. What we gradually learn, however, is that the girls are merely Miss Brodie’s ‘project’, that it is not altruism and genuine care that drive her, rather it is her ego. She manipulates the girls, in some cases to their tragic detriment, and they become a vicarious extension of her own ambitions and disappointments, particularly in the matter of sex. Here, she acts as little more than a ‘pimp’, though I am aware this may be a 21st century reading of what may have been regarded at the time as less shocking (a sexual relationship between one of the girls and the married one-armed art master with whom Miss Brodie is herself in love).

In the end we can only see Miss Brodie as disappointed, disappointing, manipulative and manipulated, a deceiver and ultimately deluded. She becomes increasingly troublesome morally, as she expresses her admiration for Mussolini and fascism, and the various fates of the girls she once sought to educate are laid out before us.

This is such a clever book which I would encourage anyone to read. And read again once you’ve got to the ending!

Recommended.

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Book review – “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week and the theme for January was one of the biggest books of the last decade. The book I chose was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a huge bestseller published in 2014, but Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, published just a few months ago, could easily go down as one of the books of the decade too. Being at the ‘literary’ rather than the ‘popular’ end of the market means it will not likely match the 20 million sales worldwide that Flynn’s novel enjoyed, but it was the most anticipated book I can remember in a very long while, its publication the most advertised, was immediately serialised on the BBC in the UK, won the Booker Prize (jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) and will definitely be dramatized at some point.

The Testaments imgIt is truly a groundbreaking novel, but curiously, in my view, less in its own right than as an extension, a continuation of, the work started with the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. What is also partly so extraordinary about The Testaments is how relevant its story remains over thirty years on from The Handmaid’s Tale. In spite of equality legislation, human rights legislation, more women in positions of power and authority, we still have world leaders able to express their misogyny openly and with impunity, and violence against women and girls seems as rife as ever. Atwood is Canadian, but her novel is a dystopian vision set in the United States, where, in the last year, we have seen the erosion of women’s reproductive and therefore health rights in some states and the substantial threat of more to come. This novel seems so urgent and necessary.

The Testaments is written from the perspectives of three women and is presented as an account of their experiences in what appears to be a declining Gilead. Atwood’s brilliant authorial technique of presenting the work as part of research seminars at the Symposium of Gileadian Studies (as she did with The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred’s story was gleaned from a series of tape recordings discovered in an old property) means that we have separate accounts from three individuals. The opening ‘testament’ is from Aunt Lydia, the monstrous matriarchal figure in charge of the handmaids, whom we know well from the earlier book. Her power is at its peak and we learn that she know has a statue at Ardua Hall, the training centre for Gilead’s aunts. We learn more about her early career as a judge and how she came to be recruited to the army of aunts and rose to the top.

The second ‘witness’ is Agnes, the ‘child’ of one of the leading Commanders in Gilead and his first wife, Tabitha. Agnes, of course, is not their full biological child; as we know from the earlier novel, the role of the handmaids was simply as a gestational vehicle to produce offspring for the higher orders in Gilead. Nevertheless, Agnes was loved by her adoptive mother Tabitha, until the latter died of cancer. Commander Kyle’s new wife is unhappy with the presence of her step-daughter and quickly arranges for her to be married off. Unhappy with the choices offered, however, Agnes asks to be admitted to Ardua Hall to train as an aunt. She goes there along with some of her schoolfriends.

The final witness is Daisy, a feisty sixteen year-old living in Canada. Her parents, Neil and Melanie, run a charity shop and they are all well aware of events in nearby Gilead, not least because they are taught at school about their near-neighbour, about refugees from that state, about the talismanic significance of ‘Baby Nicole’, the child smuggled out of Gilead many years earlier by a handmaid and whom the authorities desperately want to find, and they see daily the so-called ‘Pearl Girls’, Gileadian missionary women whose role is to recruit young women to their cause. When Daisy’s parents are brutally killed by a car-bomb, Gileadian terrorism is suspected and Daisy is taken into hiding. Daisy is told that she is in fact the missing Baby Nicole and is asked to enter Gilead undercover, as a prospective recruit, to connect with an outsider there and help undermine the state.

Thus the scene is set for a gripping tale. At first, I thought it could not possibly be as jaw-dropping, or the execution of literary intent as magnificent, as The Handmaid’s Tale, which I re-read in anticipation of the publication of The Testaments, but I’m happy to say it is, but in a very different way. If anything, I would say the plot is stronger.

Margaret Atwood
Photo from http://www.CurtisBrown.co.uk

Margaret Atwood is now 80 years old. After The Handmaid’s Tale in the 1980s, she has published classics in every decade – Alias Grace in 1996, The Blind Assassin in 2000 (my personal favourite), Oryx and Crake in 2003, Hag-Seed in 2016, to name but a few – will this woman ever peak?! I hope not.

Highly recommended, perhaps essential reading.

Happy New Reading Challenge!

The Christmas period never really ends for me until twelfth night – I’m a bit attached to this concept and I’m not sure why. From a Christian perspective I believe it is when the Magi are said to have arrived in Bethlehem, but personally, I feel more in tune with pre-Christian rituals, to do with celebrations of the solstice and the importance of honouring the human instinct for quiet and a slower pace at this time of year, so I am very protective of the ‘downtime’ that follows the hectic Christmas preparations. For me it means time for reflection and, since I am fortunate to have a family, time together to relax and have fun.

So, I make no apology for launching my 2020 Reading Challenge one week into the new year, and here it is!

2020 reading challenge

This is my fourth reading challenge and it has been hard to come up with new genres, so if my themes this year seem rather random, it’s because I was having to think outside the usual boxes.

Gone Girl img

I’m starting the year, the new decade, with a look back at the 2010s and have chosen what was one of the biggest selling books of the decade, and which became an international phenomenon – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was also critically acclaimed, although being at the more ‘popular’ end of the market, it wasn’t nominated for the usual high-profile literary awards. Published in 2014, I’m afraid I never read it; I confess I got it mixed up with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train so for years I thought I had in fact read it! I’ve decided to do this one on an audiobook as it’s quite long and I have some car journeys coming up this month.

 

 

The book that closed off the 2019 Reading Challenge (a novella), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, was very short so I don’t feel too guilty about setting a long one for this month. Look out for my review of that book in the coming days.

I hope you will join me at some point on the Reading Challenge this year – why not start this month and pick up a copy of Gone Girl. I am sure there will be plenty of copies knocking around in charity shops – it sold 20 million after all! If you’d like to join us, why not hop over to the Facebook Reading Challenge Group now.

Enjoy your reading year – there are some exciting titles due to be published this year. More of that in another blog!

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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Facebook reading challenge – catching up and November’s book

Recent events in my life, which I have posted about here, have played havoc with my reading – if I haven’t been driving up, down and across the country I’ve been dealing with my mother’s funeral and handling all the necessary administration (it has been enormously time-consuming even though my mother had a fairly straightforward situation. It has made me realise I need to get my own affairs well and truly in order!)

I’ve listened to a couple of audiobooks (historical thriller The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as I wanted to refresh my memory before reading her Booker Prize-winning follow-up The Testaments), but sit-down reading has suffered. As some of you will know, I have been running a Facebook Reading Challenge for a couple of years now, choosing a book with a different theme each month. September’s theme was a memoir and I selected Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals inspired by my summer holiday in Jersey and visit to the Durrell Zoo there. October’s theme was a science fiction novel, a genre I have only dabbled in, and I selected Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I have only just finished both books (the Le Guin at 11pm last night!) but enjoyed both. My thoughts on My Family and Other Animals follow and look out for my review of Le Guin soon.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgSo now it is time top get back on track and announce the book for November. Our theme is a children’s book; we are winding down towards the end of the year, but I am not going to make it too easy, because this book is a challenging one – John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped PyjamasI have been meaning to read this ever since it was published to great acclaim in 2006. My elder daughter read it recently and has been nagging me to follow suit. She found it very moving so I am looking forward to it.

Why not join the conversation by hopping over to the Facebook group.

 

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Durrell zoo
The secondhand bookshop at the Durrell Zoo, Jersey

Our visit to the Durrell Conservation Trust (better known as Jersey Zoo) this summer was  wonderful and inspiring. 2019 is also the 60th anniversary of the founding of the zoo so it was a fortuitous time to be there. I have always been ambivalent about zoos (although reading The Life of Pi altered my perspective somewhat) but there aren’t actually that many animals at the Durrell Zoo (considering its size) and mostly the focus there is on protecting vulnerable species, and involvement in breeding programmes, particularly for some lesser-known and perhaps less glamorous creatures, such as the endangered Livingstone’s fruit bat and the Sumatran orangutan. I was fully won-over when I discovered that the Zoo has an on-site secondhand bookshop! All contributions to the Trust.

So, when the memoir theme came up for September in the reading challenge My Family and Other Animals seemed an obvious choice. It is one of those books that I was sure I had read, but once I got into it, I realised I probably hadn’t, but it seemed to be part of my consciousness. I did watch, and enjoy, the television series The Durrells when it came out a couple of years ago. The TV series followed the book very closely – perhaps that is because it is hard to improve on. It’s not particularly challenging and tells the story of how young Gerald and his family (widowed mother, and three older siblings) move from England to Corfu at the behest of Gerald’s eldest brother, by then in his twenties, the writer Lawrence Durrell. This is the first volume of Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy, and tells of how young Gerald’s love of nature was inspired and nurtured on the Greek island. The book is an entertaining mix of family mishaps (the characters are all brilliantly drawn and leap off the page), a child’s-eye observation about life and culture on the island, plus accounts of the friends the family makes, the animals in the menagerie that Gerald creates and the various adventures they all have, which invariably end in slapstick catastrophe.

There were times when I felt the book was of its time and of its ‘class’ and I was uncomfortable with the slightly patronising portrayal of some of the locals, who were overly caricatured for a 21st century taste. But I can excuse the book these minor faults because it was light, it was entertaining and it lifted my slightly gloomy spirits.

So, recommended, especially as we find the nights drawing in and the temperatures dropping.

Would you like to join us this month for the Facebook Reading Challenge?

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Booker shortlist book review – “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” by Elif Shafak

I posted last week about the events of my life over the last couple of months, the dominant event being the death of my mother in mid- September. So much has happened in that time and yet I have felt rather out of the loop, my attention having been on other things. It feels strange to be posting here again, to be writing my first book review in what feels like months – can you believe I have a few butterflies?!

Booker Prize 2019The Booker prize winner(s) were announced last week and for the first time in years, and against the explicit rules of the contest, the judges awarded the prize jointly to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. I have not read either book yet, though I am currently listening to The Testaments on the excellent BBC Sounds and enjoying it enormously, though it is extremely dark. There has been so much publicity around Atwood and The Testaments that I was wondering how on earth the Booker prize judges were going to be able to not award it to her! So, I think the judges probably made the right decision. By now, I would probably have worked my way through at least two thirds of the shortlist (I’ve never managed all six in the period between shortlist and winner), but, for obvious reasons, I have not read that much so far this year.

10 minutes, 38 seconds imgIt is somewhat and sadly ironic that I was reading Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World at the time of my mother’s death, a novel about a woman, Leila, an Istanbul prostitute known as Tequila Leila, who is brutally murdered in a back alley by street thugs. Rather than death being an instant occurrence, however, the author explores the idea of it as a transition from the world of the living to the ‘other’ (with a duration, for Leila, of ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds) during which time her whole life flashes before her. Leila’s life story is told through a series of recollections about her five closest friends, how and when she met them and what impact they have had on her life. We learn that Leila came from a relatively affluent family. Her father was anxious for heirs, but when his wife proved incapable of having any he took a second wife, Binnaz, a much younger woman from a lowly family, who gave birth to Leila. Binnaz was forced to give up the child to the first wife to bring up as if she were her own, whilst Binnaz, who never recovered mentally from the trauma of that event, was thereafter known to Leila as ‘Auntie’.

Leila was sexually abused by her uncle as a child, ran away to Istanbul at the age of sixteen and, somewhat inevitably, was lured into a world of prostitution where she suffered many abuses, including being disfigured by a lunatic client who threw acid at her. She eventually found love in her life, with D’Ali, but he was killed soon after they were married and she found herself back on the streets again, just to survive.

We learn about the five friends in her life, people who crossed her path and whom she helped in different ways, and who became her family after her parents disowned her. Through these stories we learn about Leila’s humanity and warmth, her openness and kindness. After Leila’s death, with no living relatives willing to claim her body, the city consigns her to the ‘Cemetery of the Companionless’. Her friends have no rights to bury her so they set about stealing her body from the graveyard. The second half of the book is an account of how and why they do this and how eventually they give Leila the resting place they feel she deserves.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish national presently exiled from her country where she feels that with her liberal politics and as a free speech and human rights activist she would be in danger from the ultra-conservative government. It is clear, however, that she feels the present ruling party does not reflect the true culture of Turks, and in particular the ancient and multi-cultural city of Istanbul. The book is peppered with political messages and layered with historical references, particularly the Armenian genocide of 1915, a passion of Shafak’s, and the main topic of her novel The Bastard of Istanbul.

I have been an admirer of Elif Shafak since I saw her speak at the Hay Festival last year; she is a woman of huge intellect and achievement, a true polymath. However, I struggled with The Bastard of Istanbul as I have also with this book – I just did not like either of them as much as I wanted to. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds… is a really novel and interesting concept but I just felt like it did not deliver on its promise.

When my mother was admitted to hospital and was clearly close to death, I wondered whether to abandon this book; I thought I might find it too upsetting a read in the circumstances. But I’m afraid the book just did not move me. The second half even felt slightly slapstick.

I will keep admiring Shafak and keep trying with her books. Maybe I’ll find something I love!

What has been your favourite read from this year’s Booker shortlist?

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