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.

 

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A tale of two Richards …

Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright

lion heart

Richard I was a king I know very little about. The sum total of my knowledge comprises little more than knowing that he went on the crusades to the Holy Land, his mother was Eleanor of Acquitaine, and the minstrel Blondel was supposedly involved in his release from imprisonment in an Austrian castle after the third Crusade, and that Tim Rice co-wrote a musical about him – the troubadour that is.

So I was looking forward to reading Justin Cartwright’s new novel.  Although I’d not read any of his other books, Cartwright has a good pedigree having previously been Booker shortlisted, and friends have recommended his previous book Other People’s Money to me.

Lion Heart is the tale of two Richards. First, the historical one – recounting Richard the Lionheart’s later days and his attempts to get the relic of ‘The True Cross’ to safety from the Holy Land. The second is set in the present, the story of Richard Cathar who is researching the former.

Cathar’s late father Alaric had been obsessed with Richard I and in particular his supposed meeting with Robin Hood, but he was never able to prove it.  His son saw him as a hippy who didn’t take it seriously enough.  There was little love lost between father and son, particularly when young Richard is packed off to boarding school – a nautical college …

At the end of my first term, my father asked me, with that old roué’s pointless smile on his threaded face, his fair flapping winningly over his brow and coursing in two wavelets back over his ears, how school had been. I said, ‘Oh, fucking marvellous, I have learned how to wash the inside of a lavatory with my head. Thank you, Pater. I’m sure it will come in handy when I join the Navy.’
He laughed: life is after all really just one cosmic joke.
‘That’s cool, man.’
I hit him, knocking him off his chair. From the floor he appraised me for a moment. I was only fourteen but had been doing a lot of rowing on the Thames, the college’s one and only area of excellence. He was against violence. He stood up, blood streaming from an eyebrow, and walked towards the door. He stopped.
‘I will write to the Commodore and tell him that all shore leave should be cancelled indefinitely. I won’t see you again until you write me an apology.’
‘I had shit in my mouth and hair.  Can you imagine what that was like? And then they rubbed my balls with Cherry Blossom shoe polish.’ (It was oxblood brown.) ‘You should be writing me an apology.’
I was sobbing, but my father was already on his way upstairs to rummage in his bathroom, whistling – I seem to remember – ‘Light my Fire’. He was probably stoned. …

Yet Richard ends up equally obsessed with Dick I – is it a compulsion to prove his father wrong?  Or, might he end up understanding him?

A discovery of some papers gets Richard to follow the paper trail to Jerusalem, a city he starts to fall in love with …

What the adhan speaks of in this mad, beautiful, violent, restless city is the human longing for certainty. And why wouldn’t you want certainty if you lived here? This is a place where horrors, all of them in the name of a higher authority, have been committed for thousands of years a place where countless people have died for their religion, where the walls have been built and destroyed and rebuilt constantly, where Armenian, Syrian and Orthodox priests sail blandly about – Quinqueremes of Nineveh – where observant Jews with side-locks wear their painful blank devotion on their pale faces, where creased Bedouin women in embroidered dresses and triangular jewellery sit patiently outside the Jaffa Gate to sell vegetables, where young Arab men, in strangely faded jeans and knock-off trainers, push trolleys of food stuffs, where in countless cafés men contemplate what might have been, their hair failing, there faces turning to yellowed ochre, as though the tea they drink endlessly is staining them from the inside. Or perhaps it’s the water-cooled smoke from their hookahs that is doing it, smoking them from the outside.

Richard meets Noor – an Arab-Canadian journalist, and they fall madly in love. But just a few weeks later, Noor is kidnapped in Cairo when on assignment and Richard’s life is thrown into turmoil. All is not what it seems with Noor, and Richard ends up having to throw himself into his work whilst waiting for her situation to resolve – just being her boyfriend means he is very low down in the chain of communications.

The author alternates sections of pure history telling Richard I’s story as told by Richard, or is it Alaric?, with the present day one. I found these historical sections rather dry, long and over-factual – but then, they are presented as extracts from a history book. Thus, I did learn a bit about Richard’s great foe Saladin, and all the French castles they besieged on the way home, but this wasn’t the fashion I’d have naturally chosen to read about Richard Coeur de Lion.

By contrast, the present day narrative veered back and forth from Richard’s quest, via his romance, to a spy thriller. I love spy thrillers, but this wasn’t enough of one.  I also enjoy dual narrative novels with historical strands, but the historical part here was too boring, and the present day part was too bitty because of the spy business, although the relationship drama between Richard and Noor was quite gripping.

The result was that it didn’t feel as if it were clear which audience it was aiming at, and it didn’t grab me enough. This is a real shame as Cartwright’s writing is rather good – as in the Jerusalem quotation above. I ended up feeling that the author had tried too hard to distance his quest novel from Dan Brown territory (something he has Richard acknowledge in the text), and ended up by marginalising it.

Lion Heart for me was a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent quest novel with a medieval theme, or it could have been a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent spy novel, both with added romance. I would try reading Cartwright again though, as I’m sure this is quite different to his previous novels.  (6/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

blondelLion Heart by Justin Cartwright, pub by Bloomsbury. Sept 12 2013. Hardback, 352 pages.

Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright (2011)

Blondel Original Cast Album

“Lymond is back.”

These are the first words of the first book, The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett’s in her series, The Lymond Chronicles.  I’ve not read any of Dunnett’s novels, and back at the end of August I mused on whether I should get stuck into her books.  The response was tremendous and very encouraging – thank you.

So today, which happens to be International Dorothy Dunnett Day (IDDD), organised by the Dorothy Dunnett Society – I shall embark upon reading the saga.

I previously asked for your advice on whether I should dive in and immerse myself in the books, or take it at a more leisurely readalong pace. There was plenty of interest in reading along, but many of you recommended plunging into the books.  I would usually take the plunge route, not being good at restraining myself, so I’ve come up with a middle path which allows for some concentrated reading, but also comes up for breath …

The first book has four parts of roughly 190, 90, 90 and 200 pages (in my edition), so I propose to simply split it in half and read the first 2 parts this month, and report back on around December 10th, then to read the latter parts over Christmas and report back on around January 10th, so we have two hearty chunks of just under 300 pages each.

My friend Claire (@clairemccauley) has lent me a copy of the first Dorothy Dunnett Companion, so I shall be dipping into that too as needed for reference, and may report back on it in a separate post. I also intend to tweet my thoughts as I read along – see @gaskella.

My fingers are crossed that I’ll love it and will want to carry on with Queen’s Play and the rest of the series at a similar rate of pages to read each month. Please feel free to readalong with me (and Claire).  I’m really looking forward to it, and what better way to celebrate my 750th post than starting a readalong.

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I inherited/borrowed my copies of the books. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings: The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett – Print on demand, s/hand copies available.
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion
by Elspeth Morrison – O/P but s/hand copies available.

A plague survivor’s tale

All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls

Sally Nicholls is one of the best new writers of books for older children and teens. I loved and was moved by her debut: Ways To Live Forever, (review here), the diaries of an eleven year old boy dying from Leukaemia which won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and marked her out as one to watch.

In All Fall Down, her third novel, a lot more children die – but from the Black Death of 1349. The story of how the plague affects a village outside York is told by thirteen year old Isabel, the eldest daughter in a farming family in thrall to the local landowner. Isabel is nearing the cusp of womanhood, and she hopes she will go on to marry Robin, her childhood sweetheart.

As the plague nears, life changes and soon people begin to die. Some flee, but Isabel’s family stay – for where would they go? Soon most families in the village are affected, and when the disease takes her parents, she and Robin have to act as parents to her younger siblings. There being no-one left to order them to work, they take the opportunity to go to York with a merchant who has lost his own family. Isabel finds it hard to adapt to city ways and yearns to return to her village and farm again – now a free woman.

There is a lot of well-researched history in this novel, I learned lots about the period and the Black Death itself from it. Isabel’s family life seemed hard work but idyllic, a picture of happy villeins farming their strips of land. Maybe it didn’t seem quite hard and muddy enough – although once people started falling ill, the overpowering stench of death was ever present, which contrasted completely.

Isabel herself is at times a bit contrary – a caring girl but she scarcely shows it, except when she was worried about her beloved brother Geoffrey at the monastery. She’s quite a modern heroine too, being rather a feminist in the male-dominated times of the novel. She’s also intelligent enough to see that prayer isn’t enough to prevent getting ill, and that the cures being peddled are useless.

The rest of the characters come across as a little bland, although Isabel’s stepmother, Alice, always brightens the page when she appears. We have to remember though, that this story is told through Isabel’s eyes, she’s only just a teenager – but she is a born survivor.

I enjoyed this book very much; as an adult, I wish it had been even darker, but that might be too off-putting for its intended younger readership. (8.5/10)

See also Lovely Treez Reads for another review.

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I received this book to review through the Amazon Vine programme.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls, pub March 2012 by Marion Lloyd Books, Paperback 256 pages.
Ways To Live Foreverby Sally Nicholls

Should I do Dunnett?

One author I have yet to read is Dorothy Dunnett.  I own the first few volumes of the Lymond chronicles thanks to my late Mum. She enjoyed them very much and was re-reading them back then. They are renowned for not being an easy read though, requiring perseverance and frequent referring back or to a guide to remind yourself of who’s who and what’s what.

For anyone who’s not heard of the Lymond Chronicles, they are set during the middle of the 16th century, and tell the story of Francis Crawford of Lymond, a Scottish nobleman. They feature a lot of real historical characters too, and the action ranges from Scotland across Europe and the Mediterranean. There are six volumes in the series – each of around 500 pages.

She has a heavyweight cadre of fans too. Before she died in 2001, she set up the Dorothy Dunnett Society; they now host an ‘International Dorothy Dunnett Day’ or IDDD which will be on November 10th this year.

Before I read up a little about her and discovered the existence of the above society, I toyed with the idea of inviting you lot to join me in reading the first in the sequence, The Game of Kings. It has four parts of roughly 190, 90, 90 and 200 pages – the last can be split again into two.  Then if we liked it, we could do the second volume Queens’ Play.  We could take it in leisurely fashion, starting on IDDD (Nov 10th) and regrouping in the New Year to review the first and largest chunk, then the smaller chunks over the next four months to the end of April …

… then I read DGR’s post from 2007 and saw the problems Lynne and her co-readers had with ‘Dunnettmania’.  It all sounds more than a little daunting. Added to that, all the books are out of print in the UK, (although it is in e-book format), and secondhand copies are available – at a price…

So dare I?  Dare we?  Have you done Dunnett?

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings
Queens’ Play
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion

Art, Love and War

Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, trans from the Spanish by Adriana V Lopez

This novel is a fictionalised account of the true story of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two of the foremost photojournalists who reported on the Spanish Civil War.

The story begins in Paris though, when young Jewish German refugee Gerta meets handsome Hungarian photographer André. There is an instant strong bond between them, he starts to teach Gerta photography, and she becomes his assistant and manager, but it will take some time for them to become lovers.  Gerta takes everything very seriously…

The way you look at things is also how you think about and confront life. More than anything, she wanted to learn and to change. It was the perfect opportunity to do so, the moment when everything was about to happen, in which life’s course could still alter itself. Many months later, just before daybreak in another country, beneath the rattling of machine guns in minus-five-degree weather, she would remember that initial moment when happiness was going out to hunt and not killing the bird.

Their circle in Paris was full of big names including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Man Ray and Matisse. It was difficult to get work amongst all this competition. One day Gerda had an inspiration – she invented a new persona for André and the elusive American photographer Robert Capa was born.  Gerta also changed her name, to make it sound less Jewish and she became Gerda Taro.

Capa began to get photo-journalism assignments, and when the Spanish Civil War came, they both went out to Barcelona in 1936 and got stuck in. Gerda was just 26.  Capa gained international fame for his photo The Falling Soldier, capturing that moment as a man gets hit in the head.  They lived for adventure and were sometimes reckless in getting the shot, Gerda’s photos also being credited to the bogus Robert Capa.

Their relationship was no less intense. Once they fell in love, it was total and they didn’t need anyone else. Gerda refused Robert’s proposal though, needing space and to find her own way. She discussed this with her friend Ruth, back in Paris …

“The reality is I’ve never been able to choose. I didn’t choose what happened in Leipzig, I didn’t choose to come to Paris, I didn’t choose to abandon my family, my brothers, I didn’t choose to fall in love. Nor did I choose to become a photographer. I chose nothing. Whatever came my way, I dealt with it as I could.” She got up and began playing with an amber bead, tossing it between her hands. “My script was always written by others.”

Gerda struck out on her own, but she still loved Robert, and in the style of true star-crossed lovers their relationship ends tragically.

This is very much a novel of two contrasting halves, or rather locations.  Gerta & André /Gerda & Robert in Paris as part of the intellectual left-leaning café society, and then Gerda & Robert in Spain at the sharp end. I loved both – the burgeoning love story and the obsession with work in a field that once experienced, would never make normal life seem the same again.

Gerta and André are an irrestistible couple.  She, the blonde, cool and detached German, he, the passionate and dark Gypsy.  I’d heard of the name Robert Capa, possibly in connection with the Magnum Agency, which he co-founded with Cartier-Bresson and others, but knew nothing about the man – the couple, and shockingly little about the Spanish Civil War other than that Hemingway and George Orwell had gone out there.

Fortes writes beguilingly about the Paris salons and the growing romance, and yes,   I was relieved when they finally got it together. Their love scenes, although passionate are handled with some delicacy. This contrasts with the harder edge given to the war scenes in which the author manages to portray the horrors and the confusion clearly.

The Author’s Note at the end makes clear where fiction begins and ends – all the war scenes are documented.  The inspiration was a photo published in 2008, after three boxes of unedited photos were discovered.  The photo is of Gerda in bed wearing Capa’s pyjamas and captured Fortes’s imagination, and she resolved to tell their story.

Recently, I read another wartime historical ‘novel’ – HHhH by Laurent Binet, which was a totally frustrating read.  Waiting for Robert Capa is a conventional narrative, but has an immediacy and a freshness that the other lacked for me.  Although I did need to read a little background on the Spanish Civil War to make sense of the factions involved, you cannot read this story without being inspired to look at some of Capa’s wonderful photos.  Guess which I preferred?!   (9/10)

Spanish Lit Month is being hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad

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My copy was sent by the publisher, thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, Harper pbk, 201 pages.

Medieval Iceland – a place of cod wars even then…

On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, trans Alda Sigmundsdottir

At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

His intensity frightened her. It also enraptured her.
“Promise that you will never betray me, Ragna,” said Thorkell one night at the beginning of the month of Goa, in early spring, when they met in the small back room. For a full week they had not been alone together, as he had been away on business with John Craxton. Before she knew it, he had brandished a knife and cut his palm, his bloodied hand reaching out for hers. Hesitantly she extended her right hand, and he used the knife again. Her blood swelled from the wound, and she merged her blood with his, promising him loyalty unto death in this ancient manner. A few drops fell on the floor between them.
“Now you are mine in the pagan manner,” he said and smiled, the priest, with fire in his eyes that made her burn, inside and out.

So, that’s the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions – the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time.  Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn’t submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King.  These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides – her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest.  All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won’t-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout.

If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you’ll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).  (8/10)

It is the first book I’ve read from Amazon Crossing – Amazon.com’s latest publishing venture of books in translation from around the world.

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My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine for review. To explore further on Amazon.co.uk, please click below:
On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, pub Amazon Crossing, Mar 2012, paperback 207pp.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

A Farm Girl’s Tale …

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.
and each leaf has veins which run down it.
and the bark of each tree has cracks.
i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk.
my name is mary and I have learned to spell it, m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.
i want to tell you what it is that happened but i must be ware not to rush at it like the heifers at the gate for if I do that I will get ahead of my self so quick that I will trip and fall and anyway you will want me to start where a person ought to.
and that is at the beginning.

Mary’s tale is a story simply told by the girl herself. The youngest of four sisters in a farming family that needed sons, she works from dawn to dusk as hard as her crippled leg allows.  However her father tells her one day that she will go to live and work for the vicar helping to take care of his ill wife.  Mary has never left the environs of the farm, except to go to church, and even though the vicarage is only the other end of the village, she cannot expect to see her family often, if at all.

It takes her a good while to adjust to the different work and Mary really misses her old grandfather, and her favourite cow.  Mary is a very forthright girl, and despite her sharp-tongue, Mrs Graham takes to her, but it is not to last.  Mary is surprised to be kept on after she dies, and when Mr Graham offers to teach her to read and write, she can’t wait, but there is a price to pay …

This beautifully crafted short novel was a total delight, easily readable in one sitting, (it held well too, being a petite-sized edition).  Mary was instantly likeable, and her lack of skill in writing didn’t hamper her story at all.  It brought the plight of women from poor families at this time to life vividly. All the characters were well-rounded, from Mary’s violent father and subservient mother, to the kindly yet ‘needy’ vicar and his predatory son. There was a lot of story in this little volume, and comparisons with Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles come to mind, but with the story being told by Mary herself, there was a real freshness to it. I thought I knew what was going to happen, as certain elements are predictable, but the climax was  a surprise in the end, and I loved this little book. (9/10)

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My ARC was kindly supplied by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon. Pub by Fig Tree on 31st May 2012. Small hardback, 170 pp.

The Baroness takes on Austen

Death Comes to Pemberleyby P D James

Novels that take on the classics have a chequered history, and will always be subjected to increased scrutiny to see if they live up to the premise.  Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Gone with the wind, for instance, have all had prequels, sequels and adapations written with varying degrees of success. Published this week is Anthony Horowitz’s new Sherlock Holmes mystery too, House of Silk, which sounds irresistible. 

Austen is of course another author ripe for the treatment, and over the years Pride & Prejudice has had more than its fair share of homages. P&P & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, which spawned a tide of monster mash-ups, was actually rather fun (my review here); another trend-setter inspired by P&P was Bridget Jones Diary

Published today comes a new sequel to Pride & Prejudice, Death comes to Pemberley,  written by the one and only Baroness P D James, and it’s a crime novel.  James is a fan of Austen, and in a recent Guardian article, she apologises for appropriating Austen’s characters into a murder investigation, but said, “It has been a joy to revisit Pride and Prejudice and to discover, as one always does, new delights and fresh insights.”

If anyone could fuse P&P with a murder mystery, the Baroness, now in her 90s, is the woman to do it, and to paraphrase Sir Bruce, ‘Doddery, she is not’!

A clever prologue summarises the story of the original novel and reminds us of the main characters. Then the action shifts from the Bennet’s home at Longbourn to Pemberley six years after P&P closes. Elizabeth and Darcy now have an heir and a spare in the nursery, Elizabeth has happily settled as mistress of the manor and Darcy is a local magistrate. The Bingleys have set up home close by, so Lizzie’s beloved sister Jane is always at hand.

It’s the night before the annual Pemberley ball held in honour of Darcy’s late mother, Lady Anne. The Darcys and Bingleys are having a quiet family dinner. Uppermost on Elizabeth’s mind is Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana; she appears to be falling for the Bingley’s young house guest, Henry Alveston, a young lawyer from London. Darcy’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, is also there, and he is hoping that Georgiana might look his way.  Elizabeth muses…

It still surprised her that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour: the time when she and the Gardiners were visiting Pemberley and he unexpectedly returned and they walked together in the gardens, and the following day when he rode over to the Lambton inn where she was staying to discover her in tears, holding Jane’s letter with news of Lydia’s elopement. He had quickly left and she had thought never to see him again. …

… And would she herself have married Darcy had he been a penniless curate or a struggling attorney? It was difficult to envisage Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley as either, but honesty compelled an answer, Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.

We all knew Lizzie was a material girl at heart.  Then a commotion occurs to stop the dinner party in its tracks. It’s a chaise, rattling out of the woods (the back entrance to Pemberley). The driver reins the horses to a halt, and out of the coach spills Lydia, saying that her husband Wickham is dead!

Whilst none of us would be sad to see the last of the dastardly Wickham, or indeed to suffer much of Lydia’s histrionics, to have him killed off in the opening chapter would be to miss endless opportunities for more arrogance and bad behaviour on his part. Darcy, together with Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Henry Alveston, form a search party, and they do find a body, but it’s not that of Wickham. Indeed, initially, he appears to have been the perpetrator and although in a real state is taken into custody.

I’m not going to tell you more about who died. But it is entirely fitting to the setting for Wickham to be involved up to his armpits in the intrigue surrounding the events that happened that night. One of Darcy’s colleagues on the local bench is called in to take charge of proceedings, and of course the ball has to be cancelled. Darcy, as Wickham’s ‘brother’ through Lydia’s marriage, is reluctantly, but dutifully, drawn in to support Wickham through his imprisonment and impending trial. As owner of the land on which the murder was committed, Darcy is also involved at every step of the investigation. There were other people abroad that night though too, and we become intrigued to find out what they were doing in those hours of darkness.

The main story really belongs to Darcy, and through her intimate knowledge of the source material, PD James, is able to flesh out a lot of the back story between him and Wickham. Darcy plays a sort of Dr Watson to the succession of investigators, but having a foot in both camps, as he finds out answers, more and more layers get peeled away from Wickham’s shell, and we gradually get a real feel for Wickham the man. Meanwhile, Elizabeth in her roles as wife, mother, and mistress of Pemberley, ministers to all her charges, including the staff who are all very fond of her. She has the knack of finding out little confidences, which help everything to add up in the end and provide the complementary side to Darcy’s more robust stance.

All that remains is to decide whether James has cracked it. I believe she has. She knows her Austen, and the characters have authentic voices. Darcy and Elizabeth feel totally familiar. The only character missing is Mrs Bennet, and I at first I couldn’t decide whether that was a blessing or an opportunity missed to enliven the process, but after further thought she wasn’t missed much. We also get a good picture of the Regency judicial process and as to whodunnit – I didn’t work it out, having fallen for one of the red herrings.

Crafted with consummate skill, Death Comes to Pemberley works both as a crime novel and Austen sequel. I loved it, and hope you will too. (9/10)

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Death Comes to Pemberley by P D James, pub 3 Nov by Faber, Hardback 320 pages.
Pride and Prejudice (Oxford World’s Classics) by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith
Bridget Jones’s Diary: A Novel by Helen Fielding
The House of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones…

Pure by Andrew Miller
Initially I approached this book with some caution.  The only other Andrew Miller novel I’d read many years before was Ingenious Pain, and although I could see that it was a great novel, I did find it hard going at the time.  The premise of his latest though was so attractive, and by the second chapter I was hooked on this rather original historical novel.

Pure is set in 1785, shortly before the French Revolution.  Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Norman engineer, hired by the King’s offices to oversee the cleansing of an overfilled Parisian cemetery, that is poisoning the earth and air all around it. The Minister, safely esconced at Versailles, outlines the job …

‘It stinks.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Some days I believe I can smell it from here.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers, but the king himself. The king and his ministers.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is to be removed.’
‘Removed?’
‘Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Decent, habitable. Pure.’ ‘Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.’
‘And the … occupants, my lord?’
‘What occupants?’
‘The dead.’
‘Disposed of. Every last bone. It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness. …’

Nice job eh?  Jean-Baptiste heads off into Paris, where lodgings have been set up with a local family overlooking the cemetery. He soon makes friends with Armand, the church organist, and finds that everything smells better after a brandy or two. He contacts his colleague from his last job at the mines at Valenciennes – Lecoeur will bring a team of miners to Paris to dig out the cemetery.  Jeanne, the teenaged grand-daughter of the sexton will look after the men – indeed most of them grow to love her as their own daughter.

All is set and the excavation is underway.  Some doctors arrive, including one Dr Guillotin – yes!  He is there to examine the bones, but his presence will prove necessary on many occasions over the following months – injury, illness, attempted murder, rape, suicide – everything will happen to those involved on this job. But it’s not all bad, for Jean-Baptiste will also find love in an unexpected place.

The story is entirely that of Jean Baptiste – he is present on every page.  He’s conscientious, and good to his men, but can be persuaded to let his hair down occasionally.  The young engineer is a very likeable hero and an interesting young man. In between the gruelling work to reclaim the ground from the cemetery, we do get glimpses of the bustling markets and streets around the Les Halles area of Paris where the novel is set, and even radical murmurings. The historical detail is both rich and absolutely spot on.

The major business of the novel is the job in hand though.  In this respect, (with my tongue in my cheek slightly), it is the opposite of Ken Follett’s enjoyable blockbuster novel The Pillars of the Earth, in which a cathedral is built over generations rather, than removed in a year.  In both, however, the work is the star – and it was actually fascinating to read. 

I will have to re-read Ingenious Pain and catch up on others of Miller’s backlist – I do have most of them in the TBR, as I enjoyed Pure very much indeed.  This was a brilliant historical novel with literary nous, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it as a Booker longlist contender. (9/10)

For another view, see what Jackie at Farm Lane Books thought of it.

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My copy was provided by Amazon Vine.  
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Pureby Andrew Miller. Pub Sceptre, June 2011, Hardback 352 pages.
Ingenious Painby Andrew Miller
The Pillars of the Earthby Ken Follett