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Thank you.

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What did I read pre-blog?

I’ve been doing some maintenance on my master spreadsheet. It contains a record of every book I’ve read since 2007 and some from earlier. I used to write capsule reviews on it – I was able to refer back to my one on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle just the other day during Shirley Jackson Reading Week so they do come in useful!  Once I started my blog in September 2008 I stopped recording notes in this way – but I thought it would be nice to revisit my archives and share a few of these mini-reviews with you now and then, so here are a pair from earlier in 2008 …

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

Feast of SnakesThe annual rattlesnake round-up in Mystic, Georgia bears no relation to ‘whacking day’ in The Simpsons at all. When the thousands turn-up to take part and watch, by the day of the actual hunt, you know it’ll have all gone horribly wrong. Throw a handful of good ‘ol boys and their women, moonshine and whisky, fighting dogs, diamondbacks and the return of the prodigal cheerleader queen into the mix and you have a heady brew that will burst its bottle in a flash. At the centre of this is Joe Lon Mackey, a former footballer who didn’t get the grades to go to further. Stuck in a trailer with his fading wife, two babies, and with nothing to do except mind his father’s liquor store, he misses his former girl – Berenice the cheerleader and finds himself taking it out on everyone …

It’s tragedy in the making, and the writing is brutal, visceral, yet not without a wicked sense of humour in the caricature of the characters. No words are wasted in this cinematic novel of murder and mayhem, and the tension builds and builds until it finally explodes in an stunning ending that shakes you to the core.

9/10  (July 2008)

NOW: I do so love a bit of Southern Gothic. I shall have to re-read this one!

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The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

end of mr yThis ambitious novel is hard to pin down – a sort of post-modern psychodrama with Gothic overtones involving philosophy, quantum physics, mind-melding and time-travel. It’s an attractively produced book with striking covers and brilliant black page edges – does it live up to the design? Well partially – mainly because at 502 pages in the edition I read it is rather sprawling…

The main plot about a lost book, which contains the recipe for mind & time travel, and is said to curse all who read, it is top notch. Ariel, the heroine, is a sparky and independent post-doc student, yet is needy and always broke. The bad guys are suitable threatening, and Ariel gets the help she needs in the right times and places to resolve matters.

Yet interspersed with the action are myriad philosophical discussions about deconstruction (c.f. Derrida) and quantum mechanics, which while very interesting, do slow things down significantly. Their purpose as I see it is to posit a deconstructivist framework in which mind/time travel ‘could work’ using the wave-particle duality – in that everything exists as waves until you look for something and then it is pinned down in time/place. (I’m glad I have a basic grounding in the subject so wasn’t put off by it).

A novel that requires serious concentration – it took me a week to read, which is slow for me, but is no less enjoyable for that!

8.5/10 (June 2008)

NOW: Derrida? I don’t remember this part of the book at all and I’m not really up on dead French philosophers. I’d also never write a phrase like ‘posit a deconstructivist framework’ now – would I?!   I am, however, looking forward to reading Thomas’s new novel The Seed Collectors very much indeed.

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, pub 1998, Scribner. Paperback 188 pages.
The End Of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, pub 2007, Canongate. Paperback, 512 pages.

Fiction Uncovered

fiction uncovered logoTwo trips into London in one week (see here for the other), is going out a lot for me! I wouldn’t have missed last nights Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize at the Jerwood Space in Southwark for the world. Many thanks to the enterprising Simon Savidge, (I’m calling him that as he loves projects) who was not only one of this year’s judges, but was able to invite a group of fellow bloggers. So I caught up with Kim and David, but finally got to meet Simon’s OH ‘The Beard’, Eric, Rob and KateNaomi and Nina. Rob & Kate, Naomi and David have all been guest columnists on the Fiction Uncovered blog too – it was great company.

But the evening was really about the books and their authors. The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize is five years old this year, and is the only prize to solely award British writers, celebrating great British fiction. There were 15 novels longlisted and the prize-money was spread between eight of them, each receiving £5k plus a handbound edition of their book thanks to the generosity of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, and the winners were:

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L-R: Bethan Roberts, Carys Davies, Jo Mazelis, Grace McCleen, Lavie Tidhar, Susan Barker, Emma Jane Unsworth, David Whitehouse. Photo: A Gaskell

  • The Incarnations – Susan Barker (Transworld)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies (Salt)
  • The Offering – Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Significance – Jo Mazelis (Seren Books)
  • Mother Island – Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate Books)
  • Mobile Library – David Whitehouse (Picador)
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Bethan Roberts with the judges L-R: India Knight, Matthew Bates, Bethan, Cathy Galvin and Simon. Photo: A Gaskell

A special mention from me must go to Bethan Roberts, who comes from Abingdon where I live and has many a fan in the local literary community. I reviewed Mother Island for Shiny New Books and interviewed her about it here. I was so delighted for her to be ‘Jerwooded’.

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View east down Union St, Southwark. Photo: A Gaskell

It was also lovely to meet Emma Jane Unsworth and her wonderful mum!  I’m so looking forward to reading Animals now.

What a fabulous evening – and a glorious sunset was just beginning to envelop the Shard as I left just after 8.30pm to go home.

 

Reading habits: Male vs Female Authors

Elle wrote a thought-provoking post a few days ago titled Am I a Sexist Reviewer? about how she actually reads a fairly even split of female:male authors, but doesn’t blog about all the novels by men, as she finds more to talk about in general in novels by women.

It got me thinking about the balance between the sexes in my own reading. That was easy to check thanks to my huge spreadsheet – time for a quick chart…

Authors

Note: 2012 was skewed by having hosted Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week.

*NB, before I go on to ramble about the subject, I want to apologise for any sweeping generalisations I may make below!*

I like to think that I choose the books I read in a gender-neutral way – choosing mainly by perceived content. Even if I consciously opt to pick a particular author, I don’t select them because they are male or female, I strongly believe that the author’s sex doesn’t come into it.Yet, I usually read more books by men than women, and often considerably more by men in a year. Am I subconsciously favouring male authors?

As a teenager, I read as voraciously as I still do now. I devoured fiction including a lot of novels by Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy et al, but what I enjoyed most were thrillers; Alastair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley in particular, how I loved these manly adventures with token women. At the same time at school, I discovered SF through Brave New World, Day of the Triffids, 1984 and their ilk.  In fact the only book I can recall by a female author that we read in class was To Kill a Mockingbird.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m nothing more than a reading enthusiast. I have no literary qualifications beyond English Language O-level. My senior school at the time (1970s) had a progressive attitude towards English Literature. We still read lots of it, mostly classics, modern classics and plenty of Shakespeare, but didn’t over-analyse it in that way that off-puts many teenagers – we didn’t do the English Lit O-level, freeing us to find what we each liked reading the best. I chose Maths and Sciences for A-Level so never went further studying English, bar a journalism option in 6th form general studies.

I went on to study an applied science at a university college with twelve male students to each female one at the time. I was the only girl engineer in the factory in my first job and was the first female scientist on the team in my second, so I’ve always been happy operating in a male-dominated world – seeing myself not as a token woman, but rather as helping to break the mould (although I have exhibited some ladette tendencies on occasion, *ahem*). It’s more unnatural for me now working in a school with more women than men on the staff!

Am I set in my ways?

I still tend to pick a novel promising a good adventure; lots of intrigue; a black comedy; or something techy over domestic dramas. Give me dystopian societies, spies, quests, science (but not necessarily SF) and literary thrillers etc. These are all types of plot-driven novels that have tended to be dominated by male authors (although that is changing, as is the balance of male over female protagonists?), and these form a large part of my reading.

Conversely, when I do take a punt on a domestic drama or novel of family life, I often find myself picking an older one from my TBR and I admit it does make a refreshing change, although I won’t deny that they can be harder for me to write about. Although I can live without reading any more Anita Brookner novels – I was entranced by the Barbara Pym I read a couple of years ago, I want to read more Edna O’Brien and Penelope Fitzgerald too, and still have quite a few ‘Beryls‘ yet to be read, to name but a few. There are still acres of female crime and suspense authors to explore – types of books I do really enjoy too.

Where do I go from here?

As I skewed the figures towards equality in 2012 by reading loads of Beryl Bainbridge, so my male:female reading ratio will likely be strongly male this year due to my (nearly) monthly dose of Anthony Powell, and multiple reads like the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer; I’m about to start my third Simenon in a week too.

Having subjected my reading habits to some navel-gazing regarding gender bias, I still believe that I don’t consciously choose male authors over female ones. Instead it’s the world I’ve grown up in and as a resolutely non-girly girl I feel comfortable there. I don’t plan to make any big changes in how I pick the books I read, but I do have good intention to select more great books that challenge my preconceptions now and then, which should include choosing some more women authors.

Annabel’s Shelves: B is for …

Ballard, J.G. – The Drowned World

ballard drowned worldHaving just read one book set in a dystopian near-future London, when I finally came to choose my ‘B’ book for my Annabel’s Shelves project, I picked another. There was one author and particular title that just leapt out at me. It had to be Ballard – and it had to be The Drowned World – especially as my edition’s cover shows another view of the London skyline. The Drowned World was Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962 – the same year as Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book about the effect of pesticides The Silent Spring. Ballard had been training as a doctor, but had given up a career path in medicine to become a writer. He had some success in publishing short stories in the late 1950s, before his first novel which was written while he was editor of a science journal.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a scientific survey team working on exploring the flora and fauna of the last cities of a mostly submerged world. The ice-caps have melted and the temperature is soaring driving those that survive ever-poleward as it keeps increasing.

As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses. Huge flies spin by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

Kerans lives alone in the air-conditioned luxury of a penthouse in the Ritz hotel. But Colonel Riggs has come to tell him that they’ll be moving out, heading north, in a few days time. Kerans and his colleague Dr Bodkin, need to pack up – and Riggs needs his help to persuade the reclusive Beatrice to come with them. Beatrice is the other last remaining Londoner in this lagoon.

The foetid jungle keeps encroaching, only the insects and reptiles can survive successfully in this world that is de-evolving back towards the Triassic. The coming of the iguanas to London combined with the super-equatorial climate brings insomnia and strange dreams. Riggs’s deputy Hardman goes mad under the pressure, running off southwards into the swamp on a raft – they search but don’t find him.

The question ‘how do you sleep?’ begins to assume a big significance, but Kerans and Bodkin feel strangely at home with this altered state, although Bodkin becomes rather obsessed by his childhood memories of pre-submerged London.

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them – and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.

When it comes to it, they opt to remain with Beatrice, engineering to be left behind – but not for long. Soon Riggs and his crew are replaced by the white-suited Strangman – a latter-day pirate in a hydroplane with a bask (I looked it up) of crocodiles snapping at his heels. Strangman’s ship follows his arrival, it’s full of raided antiquities. Like a Bond-villain, he has Machavellian plans, and Kerans and Bodkin will have to work with him to work against him to survive.

The Drowned World is certainly a visionary novel. Stylistically, it is a real hybrid – reading like Graham Greene meets Conrad via Ian Fleming with the philosophical realisation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man as Kerans accepts his fate. Kerans is a leading man typical of any Graham Greene novel – clever but burned out at forty, yet fit enough to take action. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness, but it seems to me that Kerans could be Conrad’s Marlow and Strangman a pre-illness Kurtz, together with his henchmen? Never mind all the influences, it is an effective literary eco-thriller that manages to explore the human condition at the same time, and I loved it.

The extras in this edition of the novel include an interview and an article by Ballard about the ‘landscapes of childhood’ in his writing – he remembered crocodiles from Shanghai which also used to flood each spring and co-mingled those memories with his present at the time living in London.  Both features are very well-worth reading and it is interesting in the interview that Ballard describes his work as ‘speculative fantasy’ rather than science fiction.  Although Ballard describes the science behind his version of global warming plausibly, he never attributes it with any man-made origins, this was the early 1960s after all.  Ballard’s next novel, The Burning World, revised as The Drought in 1965, takes an opposite stance with water becoming precious due to industrial pollution.

The Drowned World was certainly my kind of ‘speculative fantasy’- I loved it. (9/10)

I must read more Ballard – I’ve only read a couple, (High Rise and Cocaine Nights) so I have plenty more to go – I know I’ll enjoy them.  I note that a movie of High-Rise is due out this summer starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons – that’ll be interesting!

Now to my ‘C’ choice – as before I’ve photographed my shelves so those with eagle eyes can help me pick – or just suggest an author (or title) beginning with ‘C’ for me to explore. Thank you to everyone who has been suggesting so far, please know that even if I pick something else, I have thought about your ideas – I do intend to keep going through the alphabet with my TBR, so maybe next time around!

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From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

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‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

Weekend Miscellany

It’s been a busy week – but now I have half term – although nothing planned, as my daughter is revising and has her Duke Of Edinburgh Bronze expedition next weekend. I ought to start work on the summer edition of the school magazine, but it’s also a time for catching up with blogging. So here’s a miscellany of my bookish week:

Firstly, a huge thanks to Vintage Books (and Will Rycroft) for picking my name out of the hat to win their latest newsletter competition. It was all about writers who have worked for the New Yorker and their links to another author who was editor of the magazine for a long while. My prize was a set of Vintage classics by that editor – William (Keepers) Maxwell.

Maxwell

I must admit I’ve never read Maxwell, and before I looked him up to enter the competition I had never heard of him! He had a long life, being born in 1908, dying in 2000, and appears to have had an equally long writing career. Will tells me I’m in for a treat, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in… But which to read first?

  • They Came Like Swallows (1937) is a family drama
  • All the Days and Nights (1965) is an anthology of short stories
  • The Folded Leaf (1945) is a coming of age tale set in 1920s Chicago
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) is about jealous farmers in rural Illinois
  • Time Will Darken It (1948) turn of the century Illinois
  • The Chateau (1961) An American couple holiday in France.

I’m drawn to The Chateau or The Folded Leaf, but do tell me if you’d particularly recommend any of the others.

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Secondly, it’s time for a little non-fiction Shiny Linkiness…

All I Know Now by Carrie Hope Fletcher

All I Know NowThis book is part memoir, part advice guide from the young star of Les Miserables who is also a Youtube vlogger and younger sister of Tom from McFly.

Aimed squarely at the teenaged girl market, I snaffled a proof copy to write a ‘Mum’s-eye review’ of it for Shiny New Books – it’s stuffed full of relentlessly cheerful good advice from an obviously lovely girl who wants to be your ‘honorary big sister’. Unlike Zoella and co, Carrie has only herself to plug, and she makes it clear that hard work is required, but tells it with a lot of good humour whilst trying to be a comfort too. If you have a younger teenaged daughter, buy it for her and get in her good books!

Click here to read my full review.

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn

naked at the albert hall Tracey Thorn is back with another book which allows her to explore in detail one area which didn’t fit in the first book, specifically the art of singing.

She serves us up an enticing mixture which includes snatches of memoir, interviews with other singers, singers in literature, the mechanics of singing, ruminations on what it means and its power. She also talks frankly about her stage fright, which has prevented her singing live now for many years.

As with her brilliant memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, this volume is shot through with wit and wonder; she writes beautifully and I really enjoyed reading in her company again.

Click here to read my full review.

Shiny New Books now has an affiliate link to The Book Depository, so if you want to find out more you can click through at the bottom of my full reviews. SNBks remains totally independent though, the affiliate account is just to help pay for the webhosting.

* * * * *

mostly_booksThirdly, I was shocked to find out this week that the owners of my favourite bookshop – the amazing Mostly Books in Abingdon – have put the business on the market, so they can concentrate on their kids and other things. The good news is that they’re not in a particular hurry and are hoping to sell to the right kind of person.  Could I?….

Despite having no experience of proper retail or bookselling, I do have ideas, and have always had a dream of owning a bookshop. I can’t afford to buy it outright without downsizing my house, which I wasn’t planning to do until my daughter goes to university. But, if I had a business partner, that would give half the financial risk, double the ideas, the ability to have holidays and not necessarily work six or seven days a week. Anyone interested?

Book Group Report – The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturist You know how it is with book group choices – sometimes you can’t find a lot to talk about? Well, The Miniaturist ISN’T one of those books! While it’s fair to say that no-one in our group absolutely loved it, we all thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel set in 17th century Amsterdam and it gave us a lot to talk about. For those few of you who haven’t read it yet, here’s an introduction:

Teenaged bride to be Nella arrives in Amsterdam from the countryside to wed wealthy middle-aged merchant Johannes Brandt, only to discover that he’s out. She is met by his sister, Marin, who is sharp of tongue and outwardly rather Puritan in nature. Later, Johannes arrives with a wedding gift for Nella – a cabinet house.

The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed. The nine rooms, from the working kitchen, the salon, up to the loft where the peat and firewood are stored away from the damp, are perfect replicas. ‘It’s got a hidden cellar too,’ Johannes says, lifting the floor up between the working and best kitchens, to reveal a concealed empty space. The ceiling in the best kitchen has even been painted with an identical trick of the eye. Nella remembers her conversation with Otto. Things will spill over, he’d said, pointing his finger to that unreal dome. …

‘I thought it would be a good surprise,’ Johannes says.
‘But, Seigneur,’ says Nella. ‘What must I do with it?’
Johannes looks at her, slightly blank. He rubs the velvet curtains between forefinger and thumb before drawing them shut. ‘You’ll think of something.’

Nella, although not sure if, at the age of eighteen, a doll’s house is appropriate for her, engages the services of a miniaturist whom she finds in the list of local traders to furnish and populate it. She never actually meets the miniaturist, yet the pieces provided are strangely accurate, as if the artisan knows the house and its inhabitants … Meanwhile, as she gets to know the household she begins to uncover secrets, dangerous ones that could be the downfall of them all.

Where to start – well, we jumped in with Marin, who was the most intriguing character – she was rather like Mrs Danvers at first, fiercely protective of her brother, and in the early stages we wondered whether there was incest between them. As we got to know the five members of the household, Johannes, Marin, Nella, maid Cornelia and manservant Otto, it became clear that all had secrets and because of them were outsiders. Otto who was rescued from slavery in Dahomey (now Benin) and Cornelia were intriguing because although servants, they had considerably more freedom than one would normally expect; yet Otto, as a black man was all too visible outside. Johannes is rarely there, and when he is, he closets himself in his study with his beloved dogs. Nella doesn’t know what to do – this marriage is not turning out to be what she expects.

When things really start to happen, it is a warehouse full of sugar cones from Surinam that sets it all off. They belong to the Meermans – inherited by Agnes, and Johannes has been asked to be their merchant. Agnes and Frans Meermans represent all that is bad about the business world in Amsterdam (think of Poldark’s Warleggans!). They are hypocrits, and like all the others are happy to turn a blind eye to all kinds of goings on as long as their own interests are protected. Once they break silence causing dire trouble for Johannes, poor Nella is left to take charge for poor Marin has her own cross to bear. I can’t say any more about plot elements.

A couple of weeks ago Victoria wrote an excellent post about historical accuracy in novels, in terms of imposing 21st century values on their fictional characters, in particular feisty feminist heroines who go adventuring unchaperoned. We had a good discussion about this for Marin does a lot of Johannes’ paperwork – but all in the house. Nella, who comes from a formerly well-to-do family in the countryside outside the city, is used to more freedom, and finds it hard to stay in.

As to the role of the miniaturist, who appears to have a kind of seventh sense, on the one hand we’d have loved to know more – but on the other, it didn’t matter, although the slight magical realism implied was rather a distraction for me. Was the miniaturist controlling all the action by the prescience in the figures produced? At first you may think that Nella is just a doll herself, but once she takes charge she proves herself worthy of the trust put in her.

We also wondered if there was scope for a sequel in what Nella did next, a prequel about the mysterious miniaturist, or even Johannes and Otto – (we agreed that there wasn’t enough Otto); but we decided it was best left open. The Miniaturist is an impressive debut novel, with plenty of intrigue and a level of suspense that kept us all gripped.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador, 2014). Paperback, 400 pages.

 

When the third part of a trilogy falls a little flat …

Something Nasty in the Woodshed by Kyril Bonfiglioli

mortdecai 3You may remember my enthusiasm for the reprints of the first two wickedly funny and totally non-PC Charlie Mortdecai books by Kyril Bonfiglioli last year; if you don’t, see my write-ups:

I loved them both; the second follows on directly from the first. Originally published in the 1970s, they sent everything up in a Raffles meets James Bond with a Jeeves and Wooster setting, through the adventures of aristo-art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, his manservant ‘thug’ Jock and Bond-girl type wife Johanna.

It’s such a shame then when the third volume in the original trilogy falls flat. (Bonfiglioli did leave another volume unfinished, now completed by Craig Brown, plus a novel of Charlie’s son’s adventures). That’s not to say that the third book wasn’t enjoyable – there were plenty of good jokes in it, but the action took two-thirds of the book to really get going – and in a 168 page novel, when it did happen, it was all quite rushed.  I’ll set the scene a little.

Charlie Mortdecai is sojourning on the island of Jersey, out of the way of those authorities on the British mainland that would otherwise be taking an interest in his affairs. He has rented a house and made friends with his two neighbours and their wives:

George’s Wife
is called Sonia, although her women-friends say that the name on her birth-certificate was probably Ruby… She is a slut and a bitch, every woman can tell this at a glance, so can most homosexuals. … Under a shellac-layer of cultivation and coffee-table books her manners and morals are those of a skilled whore who has succeeded in retiring early and now dedicates her craft to personal pleasure alone. She is very good at it indeed. I dare say.

Charlie, who as always narrates, takes the twenty pages of the first chapter to tell us about Jersey, his new friends, their wives, and the quaint system of policing on the island then. It is chapter two before anything happens, and when it does, it is rather nasty. Sonia is raped by a ‘beast’. The morning after, Charlie seems to be the last to know, Johanna tells him:

‘Course you know you won’t catch him, don’t you?’
I gaped.
‘Catch whom?’
‘The bloke who rogered Mrs Breakspear, of course. Silly bugger, he only had to say please, didn’t he?’

Oh dear… Soon Violet, wife of his other neighbour Sam, is similarly raped. Whereas Sonia takes it in her stride, so to speak, Violet is completely traumatised by the experience and is hospitalized. There are intimations of a satanic connection. Fearing that Johanna will be next – although Charlie knows she can look after herself – the three men and Jock set out to investigate and patrol the parish at night. They liaise with the local Centennier (volunteer Parish policeman) to find out about the local sex-maniacs. Charlie is telling Johanna about them:

‘And in St John’s,’ I ended, ‘there’s a well-respected man who does it with calves: what do you say to that?’
She rolled over onto all fours, her delightful bottom coquettishly raised.
‘Mooo?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Oh, very well.’

La Hougue Bie – Ancient passage grave under a mound which has a chapel built on top. As you can see, it was covered in scaffolding when I visited in 2013!

It then all gets very Bergerac meets Dennis Wheatley, and involves breaking into La Hougue Bie (right) and carrying out a Satanic mass in the de-consecrated half of the (still working) chapel on top which doesn’t end well. Afterwards, Charlie mopes around the house:

Nothing else of any note happened that day except the exquisite curry, throughout which I played records of Wagner: he goes beautifully with curry, the only use I’ve ever found for him.

Everything is eventually resolved, but it did leave a slightly nasty taste in the mouth this time. Lacking the cat and mouse antics of Charlie vs Inspector Martland of the first books, and with the violence being directed at seemingly unconnected people, it certainly wasn’t as much fun despite the jokes and that was a shame.

Those amongst you familiar with Stella Gibbons will recognise that the title comes from the pronouncements of the aged Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm.  This volume of the Mortdecai books was definitely the nastiest so far, but having all five on the shelves I am hoping that the comedy will pick up again in the fourth.   (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t Point That Thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1)
After you with the pistol: The Second Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 2)
Something Nasty in the Woodshed: The Third Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 3)
All by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks – around 200 pages.