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.

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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.)

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.)

The Promise ~ Alison Bruce

The-PromiseOn a number of occasions over the course of Alison Bruce’s Cambridge based police procedural series DI Marks has commented on just how totally impossible it would be to run a team that consisted of half a dozen DC Goodhew clones. Personally, I have always wondered how he manages with just one. Not that I dislike Bruce’s lead character, Gary Goodhew. It would be hard to dislike a young man who is so clearly devoted to bringing justice to those who have suffered at the hands of some seriously vicious murderers.  However, following the leaps of understanding that his mind makes and the consequent byways he explores, often directly against orders, demands a certain amount of mental dexterity on the part of the reader and a lot of tolerance on the part of DI Marks.  I have worked in hierarchical situations where Goodhew wouldn’t have lasted a week.  I suppose the clear-up rate which he has been responsible for over the course of the last six novels has helped and in this latest instalment, The Promise, the fact that this includes not just the immediate murder but also unsolved crimes from the past has to be a factor in his favour as well.

The current murder, and the one which brings Gary back to work before he is officially considered fully recovered from the fall that made him question his place in the police service for himself, is that of Ratty, a homeless man who has, in the past, offered information that Goodhew has been able to use in his pursuit of justice.  Gary is concerned that his immediate superior, DS Kincaide, will not investigate the crime with the resolve that he thinks it deserves simply because of Ratty’s standing (or lack thereof) in the community.  He is, of course, right to be so concerned.  If a team made up of Gary Goodhews is a scary prospect, one composed entirely of the Kincaides of this world is downright depressing.  Good at cutting corners, not beyond tampering with the evidence and a menace to any woman he happens to take a fancy to, DS Kincaide makes you despair for the police service.  Thank goodness then for Goodhew and the ever developing PC Sue Gully who recognise not only that Ratty deserves as much consideration as the next victim but also that the horrific facial mutilation he has suffered suggests that he is unlikely to have been the killer’s first target.  Their search for the motive behind the killings and the significance of the mutilations takes them through the back streets of Cambridge and into the murky world of the lock-up garage. Just how many are there?  And what do they contain?

Alongside the main investigation Bruce runs the continuing story of Goodhew’s background.  Over the course of the preceding novels we have gradually learnt more of why he has been brought up in the main by his formidable grandmother and in this novel we start to uncover the enigma behind his grandfather’s death and the role that DI Marks played in the subsequent investigation.  The book concludes with Gary finally managing to recall what his part in those events was and, knowing his determination to get to the bottom of any mystery, I would imagine that the next in the series will see him following his own instincts to discover what actually happened to Goodhew Senior.  Whether or not he will do that from within the police service is, of course, another matter.  DI Marks has taken retirement and the possibility of finding another superior officer willing to give Goodhew the licence he has so far enjoyed seems to me to push the boundaries of credibility just a wee bit too far.  Nevertheless, I shall be there to find out and hope that we don’t have to wait quite as long for the next novel as we had to for this.

(With thanks to Little Brown Book Group who made this available for review.)

Looking Ahead

ImageI am always envious of those readers who seem to be able to look forward to the coming year and make reading plans which they confidently forecast they are going to be able to carry out successfully.  For me this has always seemed to be the surest route to failure.  It’s a bit like the Great Expectations experience writ large.  As the year goes by so I am repeatedly faced with my inability to live up to the predictions I made with such confidence back at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, I still continue to try and beat the fates by outlining my intentions even if it is only in the broadest possible way.  So here goes for 2016.

At the top of the list go three dozen or so books many of which I don’t yet know the titles of.  These are the books that I’ll need to read for my three book groups and the August Summer School.  January’s selections are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread,  Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The first two will be re-reads but the Mitchell is new and I’m excited about that as I really loved The Bone Clocks and have wanted a reason to fit more of his work into the schedule ever since.

Another inescapable list will be books to do with the Shakespeare plays I shall be teaching during the year.  The groups focus on one play a term and this year we are going to be studying The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra.  Lots of blood and violence there then.  Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my A level texts and it will be interesting to come back to them from a very different point of view.  We don’t focus on close readings but rather on how the plays fit into the era in which they were written, their publishing history and the ways in which they have been produced on the stage from Shakespeare’s time to the present.  This year, for at least one of the plays (The Merchant of Venice) there will be an updated novel version available as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is due to be published in February.  I have been very sceptical about this enterprise, but having heard Jacobson talk about the book last summer I probably will read it.  Tracy Chevalier is tackling the Othello re-write, but there is no publication date as yet.

The other reading to which I am already committed is that for my course on Dorothy L Sayers.  I still have more than half a dozen of the Peter Wimsey novels to finish as well as all the short stories.  I am not a short story reader and I suspect I shall only tackle those if it becomes obvious that I can’t complete the module without doing so.  The course finishes at Easter but I’m hoping that it will jump start another project I’ve had in mind for some time. I read an inordinate amount of crime fiction but without any real direction or purpose.  What I would like to do is use the essays in The Companion to Crime Fictioas an organising tool to undertake a more deliberate exploration of the genre, be that through a chronological approach or according to sub-genre. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which plots are organised and how they are signalled to the reader.  Has that changed over time?  Are there specific features associated with specific sub-genres or perhaps specific countries of origin?  What I would really like to do is set up another book group to facilitate discussion but whether I would have the time to run a fourth is doubtful.

Over and above these, as it were, social reading commitments there is, of course, my little list.  I’ve already marked down any of my ‘must read’ authors who have books due between now and the middle of the year and as soon as I can I shall put in library reservations for them.  In any one twelve month period the number of novels I get through in this category probably runs to about thirty so, when you add that to what I’ve already outlined, you’re coming very close to the hundred odd books that I get through in a year.  Perhaps then I had better stop at this point or there will be no room for any serendipitous reads that I discover as 2016 goes on.  Will I, I wonder, have the courage to come back in twelve months time and see how well I’ve managed to stick to my forecast?  That, I suspect will depend on how successful I’ve been.

The Silent Dead ~ Claire McGowan

12006153_827972290652296_5719311842996074277_nOne feature that almost all good crime novels share is an ability to dissect the social climate out of which they have been created. This is certainly the case with Claire McGowan’s series featuring forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire and set on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Those of us who are obsessive readers of crime fiction have long been used to immersing ourselves in the social complexities of life in Scotland.  However, over the past decade there has been a growing stream of novels dealing with the issues facing the relatively new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) which replaced the politically sensitive RUC in 2001.  And, if you set a crime novel in Northern Ireland you have not only to explore the social climate but also political and religious sensitivities.  You can’t have one without the other two.

The Silent Dead is the third novel in the series and opens with Paula, seven months pregnant and about to become a single mother, trying to convince her colleagues that she is still well enough to hold her place in the PSNI Missing Persons Unit.  Bringing home those who are lost is important to Paula because seventeen years earlier she returned from school to find that her mother had vanished, and an ongoing theme in the series is her search to understand the reasons behind her disappearance.  In Northern Ireland in the 1990s when a family member went missing your first thought was not that they had gone of their own volition.

The case that the Unit is currently involved in touches many raw nerves.  Five years previously a bomb ripped through the heart of a small local community killing or maiming dozens of innocent individuals and destroying the lives of countless others.  Five people have been brought to trial but because of problems with custody of the evidence they have not been convicted.  Now those five have themselves gone missing and the question is, who is behind their abduction.

In an afterward McGowan notes:

This book is not intended to represent any specific events during the Troubles, but sadly there are parallels with real life atrocities, most notably the Enniskillen and Omagh bombs

and anyone who had any connection at all with such terrible events cannot fail to draw those parallels.  I was in Birmingham city centre on the night of the 21st of November 1974 when 21 people were killed and 182 injured in two co-ordinated pub bombings, so I know something of the fear engendered by such incidents.  Then, more than two decades later, one of my students was injured in Omagh.  Her best friend died beside her. Over the next three years I watched as piece by piece she tried to rebuild her life.  In both cases people have been brought to trial but in neither instance has any real sense of justice been achieved.

And that is what this novel is really concerned with, namely the nature of justice and who decides exactly what counts as justice.  When justice as recognised by the law appears to let you down do you have the right to take matters into your own hands, cast yourself as judge and jury and mete out your own punishment?  As suspicion begins to fall on the survivors of the bombing and their families whatever sympathy the police may feel for them they have to acknowledge that the line between justice and revenge is all too often crossed when retributive action becomes personal.  Recent history in Northern Ireland is bedevilled by instances of personal ‘justice’ and the resulting tit-for-tat retaliation.  In this novel McGowan asks how can this be stopped, if indeed there is any hope that it ever can be brought to an end.  Her conclusions are not entirely positive but they do ring true.

~

On a lighter note:  You know that you are reading too many crime novels when your first thought on learning of Paula’s difficulties dealing with being pregnant in a work climate where no one knows the identity of the father is that someone really ought to put her in touch with Ruth Galloway (Elly Griffith’s character) for a little mutual support.  Note to self:  They aren’t real people, Alex!

Sunday Round-Up

e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fWell, I have to say that I am feeling rather better about myself this weekend than last having had a successful first week on my Dickens course and not too bad a week in the book world otherwise either.

Dickens

The Dickens course got off to a flying start with a week looking at representations of the city in literature of the period up to the early nineteenth century.  I got myself worked up into a lather over the constant depiction of the city as a place of sin, mainly because I wanted to know who decided what constituted a sin and I’m afraid I rather lowered the tone of the discussion board by quoting the opening lines of Michael Hurd’s canata for children Jonah Man Jazz.  Do you know it?  The opening goes:

Nineveh city was a city of sin,

The jazzing and the jiving made a terrible din,

Beat groups playing rock and roll,

And the Lord when he heard it said, “Bless my soul”.

I wanted to know whether or not it would have been a different matter if they had been singing Bach cantatas.  It seems to me that in a lot of the cases that were coming up for discussion the question wasn’t one of sin but of the maintenance of the current power balance: People A saying to People B, “Your behaviour threatens our hold on power, therefore your behaviour is sinful. Yippee!  That means we can legitimately wipe you out”.

We haven’t got far enough for me to argue the specific case yet, but I don’t think Dickens thought of the city as sinful per se.  Rather it was the institutions that were embedded in it that concerned him and that is certainly an issue to do with power.

Reading

I haven’t got through quite as much reading as I’d hoped, but at least it is underway.  I’m halfway through Oliver Twist and find myself thinking yet again about the disservice that adaptations can do to a book.  OK, I love the musical, Oliver,  but really it doesn’t do much more than pay lip service to the original.  I think there was a rather more recent television dramatisation.  I must try and get hold of a copy of that.  The prescribed editions of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend arrived on Friday.  They weigh in at around 800 pages apiece!  I am going to have to put some serious reading time to one side.  The required edition of Oliver Twist is out of print. Naughty!!!

Otherwise, I have finished Sarah Hall’s latest novel Wolf Border,  which I thought was a very good read but didn’t actually deserve quite the level of praise I’ve heard for it.  Certainly, I don’t understand why there were calls for it to be on the Booker list.  Nevertheless, I shall go back and read her earlier work and I’ve added her to my list of authors to explore when I want something that isn’t going to be particularly taxing.

Having taken that back to the library my late evening reading has been the most recent Rennie Airth crime novel, The Reckoning.  I wonder if you’ve come across Airth.  He publishes only infrequently, but I think this series, centred around John Madden, once of the Metropolitan Police and now a farmer who still gets caught up in police affairs, is excellent and that Airth certainly deserves to be better known.   The earlier novels are set in the interwar period and during WWII, but this one takes us just beyond, into 1947. Compared with most police procedurals they are quite books, but full of psychological insight.  If you like Laura Wilson’s Stratton series then you will enjoy these.

Prologues and Epilogues

Completely coincidentally, given what I posted about on Wednesday,  I was at a seminar session this week led by Tiffany Stern concerning the beginnings and endings of Early Modern plays.  She was asking which items should be included when she prepares a new edition of a play.  Prologues and epilogues yes, but what about things like trumpet calls?  And which dances are part of the end of the play and which are a completely separate entity?  It is a difficult question.  I can explain what is happening linguistically, but knowing that it’s a question of what is a separate particle and what is part of a shared wave doesn’t help the desperate editor.  She did, however, offer another example of an epilogue appearing at the beginning of a play, although in this instance it never pretends to be anything other than the epilogue.  In the printed edition of John Mason’s play The Turke, the epilogue is on the left hand side of the page as the frontispiece is on the right.  Just to make sure that the reader knows that this isn’t a case of the printer not knowing what an epilogue is the hard pressed workman has included the note,

This epilogue should have been printed at the end of the book but there was no spare place for it.

Apparently, Mason got it to the publisher so late that all the other pages had already been set and the only possible place to put it was on what is normally a blank page right at the very front.

These writers!  You can’t rely on them for anything!