Marching Forward

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70February was not really a great reading month, I’m afraid. With the exception of a couple of very good crime novels, Claire McGowan’s A Savage Hunger, which I reviewed in the previous post, and Alafair Burke’s The Ex, the review for which will be in the next edition of Shiny New Books, I wasn’t really knocked out by anything else that I read. Mind you, as a month it had a lot to live up to given that my January reading included Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and Eva Dolan’s After You Die and, even though it had an extra day, February is still a short month so I won’t complain too much but just look forward to March and hope for better things.

My book group reading consists of two re-reads balanced by not only a book but an author that is new to me. The Monday Group asked for some crime fiction and as that is a group set up to look at novels shortlisted for book awards I decided to go for Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist which won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2004.  I’m not certain how well this is going to go down, but I enjoy the way in which Paretsky explores the links between crime, politics and big business interests and makes it clear that while you may catch the people at the bottom, or even those in the middle, at the moment bringing down those at the top is still proving more than difficult. If nothing else it will introduce almost everyone in that group to an author they haven’t read before.

The other re-read is Huxley’s Brave New World.  I did this with a different group a couple of years ago and it works really well in discussion not only in respect of its literary merits but also in terms of asking just how prophetic the author’s vision was.  I have to say that I’m not certain myself that Huxley intended it to be prophetic but it’s a good point for debate, nevertheless.  My only qualm about that one is that we have one member in the group who always wants happy books, suitable for (and I quote!) ladies of a certain age. I’m not sure quite what she’s going to make of this.

The author new to me is Adam Foulds and the book that has been chosen is his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times.  Other than that I’ve had quite a job getting a copy from the library I know nothing about this at all, so if any of you have read it and have any comments before I start on it next week I shall be interested to read them.

As far as other reading goes the month is going to primarily taken up with tackling all those books that I said I was going to read over my long weekend off.  I hadn’t realised just how tired I was and in the end I found myself doing more re-reading simply because I hadn’t the energy to tackle anything new. I did read one of the review copies I had on hand and I began Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, but, for personal reasons, I’ve found it a particularly difficult read and I’m having to take it just in small sections.  I’ll talk more about that when I review it.  That does mean, however, that I still have Slade House and The Noise of Time waiting to be read as well as a couple of crime novels to review for NetGalley.  Given all that I don’t think I should be looking any further ahead right now. I can add to the list if I find I’m running out of material.  At the moment, that seems unlikely.

A Savage Hunger ~ Claire McGowan

img_5978When Alice goes down the rabbit hole she finds herself in a world so different from her own that she has to learn how to read it completely afresh.  When English readers come to a new novel in Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series they have to remember that as far as they are concerned Northern Ireland is also a very different world and that they cannot assume they will automatically appreciate the memories that shape either the land or the people who live in it.   A Savage Hunger, the fourth Maguire novel, begins with a memory of Belfast in 1981, a memory of the hunger strikes that saw ten men die in a protest designed to re-establish their status as political prisoners.  If I dredge my memory I can just about recall those deaths.  I might even be able to bring to mind the name of Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament while he was on hunger strike.  But I am English and I live in the English Midlands.  If I lived in Northern Ireland I would certainly recall far more: that each death sparked further riots and further casualties, and although this new book is set in 2013 the memory and the casualties are never far from the consciousness of those who still live in what, we should not forget, is a British province.

However, as McGowan reminds us, hunger was a potent force in Ireland as a whole long before even the earlier hunger strikes of 1917.  It was the hunger caused by the potato famine of the 1840s and 50s that caused mass migration from the land.  And, even today, it is a scourge of many younger folk who develop an eating disorder and find themselves wasting away, very often, although they may not realise it, as a protest of their own against being robbed of control over other aspects of their lives.  One such young woman is Alice Morgan, daughter of Lord Morgan and his less than caring wife, Rebecca, student at a very suspect university and previously an inmate of a rehab centre where she had been force fed as a treatment for anorexia.  Alice has gone missing and for all that the PSNI can find out she might just as well have gone down her very own rabbit hole.

The missing persons unit to which Paula was attached as forensic psychologist has been disbanded and its personnel reallocated.  Paula finds herself working with the PSNI in her home town of Ballyterrin and is assigned to look into Alice’s disappearance from a local church, along with a much venerated holy relic, the finger bone of Saint Blannard.  Alice is not the only young woman to have vanished from this location.  On the same day, over thirty years earlier, while the hunger strikers continued their protest, Yvonne O’Neill also went missing and no trace of her has never been found. Given that the chief suspect in that case still lives locally and that his behaviour is highly suspicious, it is natural that the focus of the case should centre at first on him.

Anderson Garrett, now in his sixties, is far more concerned about the disappearance of the relic than he is about Alice, whose plight is clearly of little importance to him when compared with the loss of prestige that his local church might suffer.  In this he is just one of several instances of both individuals and institutions who put their own reputations and convenience above the needs of the young people who are entrusted to their care.  Both the rehab clinic that Alice has attended and the private university at which she is now a student are prime examples of establishments that are in business simply to make money and Rebecca, Alice’s mother, nails her self-centred colours to the mast in a press conference that will long live in the memory.  When we are reminded that it is thought the hunger strikers went on long after terms had been discussed because those organising the protest kept that information from them in order to get greater international coverage, it is clear that one of the main concerns in the novel is the way in which individuals are seen as expendable by those who hold power over them.  And, while that may be an Irish story, it is also one with which readers from any national background can identify.

As in any crime series, running alongside the main plot line is the more personal one of the main character.  Two years have passed since we were last in Ballyterrin and Paula’s daughter, Maggie, is now a lively presence, showing far more enthusiasm for the preparations for ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’s’ wedding than Paula could ever muster.  There still lingers a doubt, however, about the little girl’s parentage and the questions that Paula has about her own mother’s disappearance also refuse to be put to rest.  Neither issue is completely resolved in this novel although there are indications towards the end as to what the next chapter in both narrative arcs might be.

I have to admit that I am fascinated by Claire McGowan’s books because of the way in which she is attempting to make sense of what it means to be living in Northern Ireland in the wake of the peace process.  However, I would read her work anyway because she is a writer who is growing in strength with each novel and if you haven’t yet encountered this series you have a treat in store.

(With thanks to Headline who made this available for review.)

Time Off

DSC_0803Somehow I have managed to carve out five days at the end of this week when I have to answer to no one but myself.  From Thursday through to Monday I can, if I so desire, close the door, build up the fire and simply sit and read.  The anticipation is almost as blissful as I hope the experience will be.

In truth I probably won’t just read.  I expect I shall vary my activities by doing things like frequenting bookshops or taking a trip to the library.  And I shall probably vary the places in which I read as well, by visiting numerous tea shops and buying large pots of tea and plates of sticky cakes to accompany whatever happens to be the book of the moment.

And that, of course, is the other source of anticipatory delight.  What am I going to read?  I have three recent publications sitting on the shelf just crying out for my attention.  I shall start with Helen Dunmore’s Exposure and then toss a coin to see which is to come next, David Mitchell’s Slade House or the new Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time.  I’ve also got Graham Swift’s most recent offering, Mothering Sunday on reserve, but it may not turn up from the library in time. Oh well, I shall need something tasty to condole me for having to turn some of my attention back to the real world.  And, just in case all that should be too literary for me, I have a couple of new crime novels from NetGalley on my e-reader to relax with.  Those for the evenings, perhaps, when my brain is not functioning quite as well as it was during the daytime hours.

If I feel so inclined then I might stop by here and make a few notes along the way, but otherwise see you the other side of the weekend.

‘Bond’ing

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3I aware that I haven’t been around very much over the past fortnight and I am also aware why.  The play that I am studying with my two Shakespeare groups this term is The Merchant of Venice and after wrestling with it for the past month or so it is my decided opinion that it is by far and away the most complex of Shakespeare’s plays that we have yet tackled – and yes, we have tackled Hamlet.  It’s not that there are problems with the text, none of this business of half a dozen different Quartos with variations as to where the great speeches go or if they are even there at all.  (Did you know that there is a contemporary edition of Henry V without the Choruses?)  Nor is there much debate about the date or the sources used – although there are considerably more than the usual number of possible sources.  No, it is just that there are so many ideas running around inside those twenty scenes that finding a way to bring some sort of order to a discussion has been proving very difficult indeed.

Of course, the problem isn’t helped by the fact that while the play is known as The Merchant of Venice very often a production is dominated by the figure of Shylock, and the old actor managers, who liked to play Shylock themselves, often brought the curtain down at the moment of his final exit from the stage, regardless of the fact that this truncated the play that Shakespeare actually wrote by more than two full scenes.

As it happens the first written reference we have, the entry in the Stationers Register of July 1598, names the play as

a book of the Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Jewe of Venyce

So, even within a year of its composition there seems to have been some debate as to who the focal character actually was.  But, you can’t deny the existence of those final scenes that have to do with Portia and Nerissa’s rings and if you’re teaching the play you have to be able to account for them.

So, there I was struggling along with this until quite suddenly, yesterday morning, I had what my friend Lorna calls a light bulb moment.

“Bond,” I shouted.

“Bond?” queried The Bears.  “James Bond?”

“No,” I said.  “The Bond – the concept that allows you to untangle all the multitude of ideas that the play deals with.”

“Oh,” they said and went back to eating their marmalade sandwiches and reading about the adventures of Paddington Bear.

Well, they might have been indifferent to my brainwave, but I now have a nice neat list of all the different categories of bonds that can be found within the play:

  • emotional bonds;
  • legal bonds;
  • the bonds between the state and the people;
  • the bonds (or covenants) between God and the peoples of the Old and New Testaments.

I even have sub-categories of the categories, but I won’t bore you with those.

More importantly I have a way into discussing the play which will allow me to bring all its disparate elements together and I can write my lecture notes. And, writing those is no problem at all once I know what is going in them, so I can also return to concentrating on the more important things like reading novels and writing about them here.  Thank goodness for that.

The Benefits of Re-Reading (For Me)

ImageDon’t worry, this is not going to be another post asking you to come down on one side or other of the re-reading divide.  I have taken part in far too many discussions on the subject not to have realised by now that readers either do enjoy re-reading or they don’t and that you are certainly never going to persuade those that don’t of any merit in the practice.  No, this is a memo to myself about what I am beginning to see as the benefits for this one particular reader of being put in a position where re-reading is necessary.  If you have anything to add, then that would be great, but don’t worry if the whole concept of picking up a book for a second time is an anathema to you; just click onto another post.

I am a re-reader so I quite often find myself re-reading books that are one of a series out of choice.  There are, I think, two main reasons for this.  Firstly, with a year or two or, more crucially, a hundred books or two, between a new novel and the last, I often feel the need to remind myself of where the previous episode in the story left off.  This is true not only of three volume fantasy epics but also much longer police procedural series where in theory each book should stand alone.  Often in the case of the latter, while the main plot line is separate in each book, there is an on-going subplot that runs throughout the series and before I embark on any new adventure I need to recall just where I left all the characters at the end of the last.

The second reason I find myself re-reading these novels is also to do with the characters.  I like them; I enjoy spending time with them; I wouldn’t go back for another in the series if I didn’t.  And, when I’m tired or unwell or simply having one of those days, picking up a book which features a much loved friend is overwhelmingly comforting.  Of course, the same can be said of those that people one-off stories, but almost inevitably when I want a book that is going to do the equivalent of wrapping me up in a cosy blanket with a large pot of tea and persuading me that all is well with the world really then it is a previously read series book to which I return.

However, having admitted to being, at times, a re-reader by choice, it is also true to say that I have been known to complain about the number of occasions when I find myself being put into the position of having to re-read a book simply because it has been selected by one or other of my book groups.  Once or twice a year wouldn’t be so bad, but very often it is as frequently as once a month.  In January two of the three choices fell into that category.  The first February selection was another such.  I read Anne Enright’s The Green Road when it was published last year and although I thought it an extremely good book it wasn’t top of my list of novels that I wanted to revisit.  However, having had the opportunity to explore it a second time, knowing what was going to happen and therefore able to pay more attention to other aspects of the work, I am forced to admit that re-reading can very often pay real dividends when it comes to appreciating the nuances of a writer’s intentions.

In respect of The Green Road what I found myself doing was making sense of the book not simply as the story of one particular Irish family but rather as the ongoing narrative of the Irish nation as a whole.  What triggered this was the fact that this time round I picked up on the repetition of the song O My Dark Rosaleen.  During the nineteenth century, when expressions of nationalism were forbidden in Ireland, this was used as a means of making a covert patriotic statement and it is still the case that the Rosaleen of the lyric is seen as referring to the country as a whole every bit as much as it is thought to be about a single individual.  I knew this when I read the book the first time, but I was so busy trying to keep the characters and the action straight in my mind that I simply didn’t pick up on it.  At a second time of asking, however, I had more attention to spare for the detail and suddenly the whole book opened up for me with Enright’s mother figure, Rosaleen, becoming not only the prism through which the behaviour of the Madigan family is understood, but also a symbolic representation of the country itself and the equivocal relationship maintained between the land and its people.

If I’m honest I have to admit that it isn’t the first time that something like this has happened.  Maybe I should train myself to read more carefully the first time round, but being a Bear of Very Little Brain I’m afraid that I can only take in so much information at one go.  So, I must settle for recognising that, however much I complain about the fact, sometimes being asked to read a book a second time around is going to pay substantial dividends.

Reading to Alleviate Stress

DSC_0803Only a short post today because I am still recovering from a stomach bug that I wouldn’t have wished on my worst enemy.  Being confined to the house for several days has, however, meant that I have had plenty of time to complete the first week of an online course that I think many of you would enjoy.  On the FutureLearn platform, the University of Warwick are offering a module entitled Literature and Mental Health.  The idea is to explore the way in which literature can be used to understand and help alleviate times of emotional stress and mental illness.  During the past week we have looked at poems such as Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree, Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop and Arnold’s Dover Beach. The highlight, however, was a half hour discussion between Jonathan Bate and Stephen Fry about the way in which poetry works and how that is important in respect of stress relief.  It was far more informative than many a university lecture I’ve sat through.

The course is going on to consider heartbreak, bereavement, trauma, depression and bipolar disorder, and ageing and dementia.  Although it has already started you are usually able to join late and the material is there online for you to catch up in your own time. This is something that I think a lot of my blogging friends would really enjoy and it would be worth people’s while to check it out even if you didn’t go through with it as it costs nothing to sign up to.  My only reservation is that there isn’t a section on poetry to alleviate stomach bugs.  My own thought on the subject is that whatever else they need to be short!

The Woman in Blue ~ Elly Griffiths

cover79291-mediumAs far as I am concerned there are few pleasures greater than a new novel from Elly Griffiths in her series featuring forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson.  When the publishers are kind enough to send me a review copy and I get the chance to read it over Christmas, then my cup runneth over.  And, a religious metaphor is more than apt in the case of the Griffiths’ latest offering, The Woman in Blue, which opens with Cathbad, cat-sitting in Walsingham, convinced that he has had a vision of the Virgin Mary walking through the local graveyard.

Now, I am well aware that if you haven’t read any of these novels you are going to find that statement puzzling.  If I add that Cathbad is a druid you might begin to wonder even more.  The back story to this series isn’t one that you can sum up in a few sentences.  All I can suggest is that for the moment you just ride with it and then, when you’ve read this review, give yourself the inestimable pleasure of starting at the beginning and reading all eight books straight through.  You won’t regret it.

In fact, it isn’t the Virgin Mary that Cathbad has seen but a flesh and blood young woman who will be found dead the following morning, setting off a hunt for the murderer that will continue throughout the period of Lent and culminate in the Passion Play celebrations on Good Friday.  Chloe Jenkins, a young model, is a resident at The Sanctuary,  a private hospital specialising in drug rehabilitation, and suspicion for what appears to be her motiveless murder falls initially on another of the hospital patients.  However, the evidence is not entirely convincing and Nelson’s instincts tell him that he probably hasn’t got the right man.  Furthermore, there is also the question of who it is that is writing threatening letters to a friend of Ruth’s, Hilary Smithson, once also an archaeologist but now a priest attending a course in Walsingham on preparing for Episcopacy.  The letter writer has a problem with women becoming priests, let alone bishops.  Is it possible that they and the murderer are one and the same?  When a second body is found and it turns out to be one of the other women priests on the course, the probability seems more likely.

Well, it may not have been the Virgin Mary that Cathbad saw but the question of motherhood and of who has a claim on a mother figure is central to the novel.  It is not only at the heart of the murder investigation but is also influential in respect of the motive behind the threatening letters, whose writer sees women as having a prescribed role in the Christian life, one that centres primarily on the vocation of motherhood.  Griffiths has previously used Ruth’s position as a professional, working, single mother to tackle issues of gender equality.  Here she takes that further and explores the question of what happens when a woman asserts a right to a vocation that has previously been the sole patrimony of men and, in so doing, threatens what they have seen as their right to power.

However, being Griffiths, she addresses what could be controversial subjects with a wit that undercuts any sense of real animosity.  One of the most notable features of this series is the wry humour of the third person narrator, who, reporting events in a crisp present tense, sees all, knows all and casts an ironic eye over all proceedings: a narrator who has a greater claim to omniscience than even Nelson’s Catholic mother.  And as Nelson’s conscience knows, that is saying something.  I could fill pages with examples of the way in which this narrator captures a character or a situation with only a few telling words but to give you a taste I’ll offer just a couple of examples.

Here is Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, a character whose basic goodness we have steadily learnt to appreciate but who, truth to tell, still has his moments, bemoaning the absence of his co-worker, Judy.

‘She’ll probably bring the baby with her and insist on breastfeeding all over the office.’

That’s the thing about Clough, thinks Ruth, as she says goodbye and follows the signs to the Anglican shrine.  Just when he’s being human, he says something that reminds you what a Neanderthal he can be.  Except that Neanderthals probably had a more enlightened attitude towards breastfeeding.

Bless him, he tries, he really does try.

And then, just to be evenhanded on the gender front, here is Nelson handing out assignments to a rather over zealous young female detective.

He turns to Tanya, who sits up even straighter.  ‘Chloe was doing an online course.  Something to do with angels.  Can you follow it up?  Find out a bit more about it?’

‘Yes, boss.’  Tanya sounds less than enthusiastic to be given the angel brief. Nelson decides to cheer her up.  ‘But first you can go to Walsingham and co-ordinate the scene-of-the-crime search.  They’re concentrating on the area where Chloe’s body was found’.

Tanya brightens immediately.  Co-ordinating is almost as good as being in charge.

Tanya is another one who means well, but who really does have to learn to take herself less seriously.

As a crime writer, Griffiths sits in a sort of middle ground between the cozy and the streetwise.  There is nothing cosy about the murders that Nelson investigates, but this sense of irony that pervades the novels consistently serves to undercut the worst of the horrors.  However, like any good writer of detective fiction she always has something to say about the complexity of the human condition and this very enjoyable novel is no exception.

(With thanks to Quercus who made this available for review.)