What I’ve Been Reading

Last week I had to empty all my (many) bookcases in order to paint the dining room/library/sewing room, and needless to say I got very distracted going through all the hundreds of books. I came across so many that I want to read again and I’m embarrassed to say loads that I haven’t read yet. So I made a list. And I thought of promising myself that I wouldn’t buy any more books until I’d read my way through the list but then I remembered just in time that books are like bags and shoes – you can never have too many, right?

I did own a paperback copy of The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon, but it got lost somewhere along the way, so I bought another (as you do) for my Kindle. I think this is at least a second read for me, if not a third, but I enjoyed it every bit as much this time around.

The book is set around the Crimean War (1853-56), which most people remember only for Florence Nightingale and The Charge of the Light Brigade (you can read my review of The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham Smith’s account of this debacle here.) You don’t need to know anything at all about the war to enjoy this book, which isn’t actually about the war so much as the impact it had on women in a time of radical social change – a common theme in all of McMahon’s books.

At first, you have very little sympathy for the malleable Mariella, who seems to lack any personality or any desire other than to sew her way complacently through life. I wanted to give her a good shake. Her cousin Rosa by comparison is vibrant and instantly likeable. And yet very slowly and subtly your empathies switch. Rosa is selfish, overbearing, while Mariella is repressed. You want to know what she would do if she’d just loosen her tightly-laced corsets a little. And that’s what circumstances force her do.

I loved this. The ending was not at all clear cut and those who like all their T’s crossed and I’s dotted will find fault with it, but the imagery of the last scene was so stark and vivid I didn’t think you needed any more. The atmosphere in the Crimea itself is horrific and vividly drawn. The pointlessness of the war, the tragedy of the needless suffering made me angry and at the same time enthralled. And the exploding of the myths around Nightingale, Cardigan and the Charge of the Light Brigade were so subtly done that you had no cause to question them. I would highly recommend this, and I’m very surprised it hasn’t been turned into a film, it would make an excellent movie.

I’ve reviewed some of Katherine McMahon’s other books here too: The Woman in the Picture; The Crimson Rooms; The Alchemist’s Daughter.

The BBC have made the first two books in Tana French’s Dublin Murders series into a drama, which is currently showing (and which I’ve not watched yet). It’s one of those series that you don’t actually have to read in order, and I actually enjoyed two of the later books, Faithful Place and The Secret Place more than the first two.

The Likeness is the second in the series (so don’t read this if you’re watching the TV series at the moment). I had very mixed views on this one, not least because it was written in the first person and I’m not convinced that was the best narrative form for the story. Cassie is a detective who’s lost her way following a traumatic case (In the Woods) which split her up from her perfect police partner, Rob. She’s languishing in Domestic Violence and missing The Murder Squad but she’s still not really fit for that kind of duty, for reasons I never did quite get to the bottom of, to be honest – I couldn’t work out if it was Rob she missed or whether she’d been mentally de-stabilised by the case itself. She was seen as a bit of a loose cannon by her colleagues, though she herself was in denial about that.

Then a woman is murdered and she’s a dead ringer for Cassie and her closest friends are the prime suspects. So here’s a bit of a mad idea, The Murder Squad think, why don’t we tell the friends that their friend is still alive and send in Cassie to pretend to be her and see if she can work undercover to reveal the murderer? When you put the premise down like that it sounds totally unbelievable, but in fact when you are reading it, you’re drawn in so much to the story that you don’t notice (or I didn’t) until much further on that you’ve left credibility behind almost from the start. So Cassie goes in and she takes on the character of the murdered woman and the friends are sort of convinced but not, and the story kicks in, with a side plot in Cassie’s new relationship with the bloke who is in charge of the investigation!

I like Tana French. She writes really well, her characters are complex and believable (mostly) and her murder stories are not those horribly complicated ones that leave you thinking what happened there. They make sense. I was intrigued by the idea of an undercover policewoman, partly because of the press they’ve been getting in real life – what kind of person does this work, how does it affect them? But…

The four friends in this story, who may or may not be complicit in murder, while they started out interesting, began to seem more and more unbelievable as I read on. Three puppets and a puppet master, essentially – I didn’t buy it. And I didn’t buy Cassie’s decisions to keep so much of her findings back – why did she do that? She kept vital evidence to herself, she covered up key conversations, she didn’t share her thoughts and insights – again, why? There seemed to be some implication that it was to do with her damaged psyche, a leftover from the previous case – but as I said, the link eluded me.

On the whole I was disappointed with this, and finished it feeling slightly cheated and also wondering if I’d missed something fundamental. But I have really enjoyed other books in this series, so I will definitely be going back for more.

Which leads me to another Tana French, The Wych Elm. This was a bit of a departure for her, much more of a psychological study which follows in the footsteps of The Likeness, but without the edginess of that story. We have Toby, a spoiled, happy chappy who has never had a worry in his life, has always had girls and mates and breezes through life. Then one night, he disturbs two intruders in his flat, and his life changes forever. Toby is recovering at his uncle’s house, cocooned by family and lovely girlfriend and mates, when a body is found in the tree in the garden.

This story is told in the first person by Toby, which led me several times to think, unreliable narrator. I kind of wish he had been. The story meandered like Toby’s PTSD-d mind, around and around in circles asking questions, pointing suspicion at first one and then another of the main characters, leaving very few out. In the process, Toby’s uncle dies, and at the back of Toby’s mind, there is the constant questioning of a link between the historic murder and his own near death.

This is, as I said, a psychological study of PTSD. I get that. It’s claustrophobic inside Toby’s mind, and a bit tedious, and he’s sometimes on the verge of madness. He becomes obsessed with silly things. He’s afraid of silly things. He screws up big time with his obsessions. He hurts people, though he doesn’t understand why, and he sees the world through a thick pane of glass. I get all of that. But the problem is, it simply went on too long. For me, in fact, it meandered so much that the narrative got lost in Toby’s wandering mind.

And then there was the ending. I’ll say nothing save that I didn’t see the denouement coming and I wish it hadn’t. Personally, I thought it was preposterous. And then it didn’t end. It went on some more, and though all the questions were finally answered, I’d stopped wanting answers by then.

I am pretty certain this is one of those books that the author simply had to write, even though she must have known it was a risk, if not a mistake. I will definitely go back for more from Tana French, because she’s an excellent writer, but this one didn’t work for me.

And so onto more crime, and a new series recommended by a reader that I really enjoyed. The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry is my first Monk book and definitely not my last.

I loved the premise, of a Bow Street Runner detective having lost his memory, and I loved the notion of giving the Bow Street Runners their true occupation as detectives, rather than have them the butt of jokes. Monk is a great character, introspective, reserved and yet slightly arrogant. As he uncovers his own personality through others, he’s kind of appalled at himself but at the same time, seems to be rather reluctant to change. He takes a lot for granted – his sister’s goodwill and love, for example – but he knows he’s doing it, he’s just not sure how to change things, and I really liked this vulnerable side of him. In fact, I’m really looking forward to learning a lot more about Monk.

But this is also a murder mystery, and that aspect of the book is also very well done. Out in society investigating, there’s tons of room for Monk to be shown his place – and for him to refuse to be put down. The class lines are beautifully drawn in this book, with the Bow Street Runners sitting between the upper and working classes, neither respected nor valued by either. And as to the crime itself – I loved it.

No need to say any more. A great start to a series I’ll definitely be picking up on, stuffed with character and history and an excellent whodunnit. What’s not to love!

If you’ve never come across Augusten Burroughs’ biographies, Running with Scissors and Dry then you are missing a very darkly comic treat (that wasn’t nearly replicated in the film, despite the excellent cast). Possible Side Effects is a collection of short biographical pieces and musings, and I raced through it. Burroughs writes with no filters. His confessions are raw, moving, funny and sometimes almost painful to read. If you’ve never read any of his stuff before, it’s a brilliant introduction to his writing, though I’d recommend you read the two bios first because then you’d get a lot more out of it. From his impressive and scary alcohol consumption and his ongoing obsession with his hair, we move from old favourite subjects to new including dogs and his grandmothers. Did I say I loved this?

I am planning on moving into the Victorian age with my own writing, so my research reading now and in the next few months will be heavily focused on this era. Unmentionable, The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners by Therese ONeil is a bit of fun (though it is all true!), one of those books you can pick up and dip into without having to read cover to cover – though that’s what I did. This is the kind of book I would be delighted to find in someone’s loo – and I mean that in a nice and definitely not insulting way. It is weighted towards the American experience of the Victorian era, which is unusual and not exactly what I wanted for my own writing, but fascinating nevertheless.

Unmentionable is full of excellent facts, the sort you can throw into a conversation. For example, did you know that corn husks were used as loo roll in the US while over in the UK we were using shirt tails (or rich men were) and squares of newspaper? Do you want to know the many uses that arsenic was put to in the cosmetic world? Are you aware that a lady shouldn’t cross the road to greet a friend on the other side, that she should hold a conversation only while walking and definitely not stand still in the pavement? And then there’s the whole issue of Mr Kellog (yes, he of the cornflakes).

Fun, silly and in places shocking, though I have to confess I found the ‘dear reader’ approach in the end just a bit irritating. I enjoyed this, and it made me want to follow the author on Twitter. Which I have.

Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes takes a very different approach to looking at the Victorians, and I loved it. History through body image, what a clever idea. The tragic story of Flora Hastings, the lady in waiting who Queen Victoria condemned for being pregnant when she had cancer (probably of the womb) is a salutary lesson in perception being the only reality. The tale of George Eliot and her big right hand another salutary tale, this time of stardom and legend. But for me, the most intriguing story was of beards, and in particular Charles Darwin’s beard.

Hughes puts forward intriguing and convincing arguments for the growth of beards (literally) as a rebellion against the emasculation of men in middle-class Victorian society. Men were expected to be home bodies by mid-Victorian times, the paternalist partner to the female Angel of the House, not wild carousers who liked a bit on the side (even though they did). They worked in offices, they were ‘tamed’. So, Hughes argues, they grew beards. Of course it wasn’t only that. There’s the Crimean War too. With the soldiers of that blood bath returning to the UK returning bearded, men saw facial hair as evidence of heroism. And then there’s photography. And in particular, the photographs of Julia Cameron, which created an image for the eminent men of the age such as Darwin. So beards became symbolic of greatness and intelligence. I found this utterly fascinating, and it’s left me thinking hard about the parallels with our own newly-bearded men – why? It’s easy to say fashion, but surely it’s not quite so simple?

Though I found the tale of Sweet Fanny Adams interesting, I have to say I did wonder at it being included in this book, and I wasn’t convinced it added much to the overall theory. But this was a brilliant bit of history really well told nonetheless. Highly recommended.

These are just a few selected highlights of the fiction I’ve been reading. You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads. And if you’ve already read any or all of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. I probably have more unread books than read ones in my house, LOL. I’m a collector, but it’s also a matter of too many books, too little time =) I never give up hope of eventually scaling Mount TBR, though!

    I *hated* Unmentionable – I found the tone incredibly insulting and barely made it 100 pages in before I gave up. There are other, better resources that don’t treat their intended audience like idiots.

    I’ve only read one book by Anne Perry, a tiresome morality play set during the holiday season. Then I found out who she was and decided I didn’t care to support her, so I moved on. I’ve been on a big classic crime noir kick of late, so its been nice to get back to my reading roots with romances.

    1. How lovely to see you here! Your remark about Anne Perry has worried me, I’m going to have to check her out now, and risk being put off. I know what you mean about Unmentionable, the tone was irritating at times. I was reading it purely from a research point of view, which I think colours what I take from a book – if it had been simply for pleaure I would have probably awarded it less stars. I don’t feel so back about the unread books in my house now, or about the falling apart copies of my favourite fiction, which go way back to my student days. I will never read them again, I’ll buy digital version, but I simply can’t bring myself to part with them.

      1. Whatever book I read of Perry’s, when I went to leave my thoughts on GR, her background was quite prominent. Its no secret. It made me feel deeply weird because I’d just seen a TV program about her crime when I made the connection. I generally don’t have a problem when it comes to separating the work from the creator, but that was a line I wasn’t willing to cross (and the novella I read wasn’t very good, anyway).

        Haha, I am always here to make other people feel better about their stacks of books! I use LibraryThing to catalog all of my media, but even I was surprised when I realized that I own 1500+ books, only ~150 of which are e-books. Now that I can support my Harlequin habit, things have only gotten worse, LOL. I snap them up because I feel like they only do one print run, and if you miss it, you can forget it. (Though I have had some luck with secondhand shops and Paperback Swap.) I am old school, I like holding a book in my hands, and I’ve collected books since I was a kid. It’s very comforting to have books I love nearby, and to be able tor each for them easily.

        If I ever move again, most of my books are coming with me. I love them too much to give them up for something as arbitrary as that! =)

        1. OMG I looked her up. I had absolutely no idea. Yes, I completely see where you are coming from on that one, and I agree.

          Books are far too personal to give away, of course they have to move with you. The only ones I managed to bag up for charity were ones I didn’t enjoy and some old study texts, and to be honest, I did it just to make room. Even as we speak, I’m looking at a space under the window in the living room and thinking, that would look better with a set of shelves under it.

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