Lockdown continues to affect my fiction reading choices. I find it very difficult to concentrate and so anything too epic, with too big a cast or requiring too much intellectual effort from me is almost certainly going to fail to engage. I think inevitably too, what I consider important (or not!) has changed radically and that has definitely coloured my reading habits. That said, like so many people, I’m finding the fictional world has more appeal than ever, and despite my heavy writing workload, I’ve managed to consume a lot of books.
My mum and sisters are all avid readers, and we have a WhatsApp group where we share new discoveries. Close as we are though, our tastes don’t always overlap. All three of my sisters enjoyed Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, while I found myself flicking through to the end in a cursory manner.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr on the other hand, recommended by Baby Sis, was an absolute belter. The story is very simply told, with the narrative (mostly) alternating between two protagonists. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl with a developing interest in molluscs, whose father is a locksmith in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Werner Pfennig is an orphan, raised in the Rhur valley with a passion for radios.
When war breaks out, Paris is occupied, and Werner is whisked away from the orphanage to an elite Nazi training camp. Jumping forward, we see Werner trapped in a cellar in St Malo, and Marie-Laure trapped in an attic in her uncle’s house. I am not going to say any more about the plot, save that there is also a mysterious, cursed and priceless diamond involved.
The reader knows from the beginning that Werner and Marie-Laure’s fates are intertwined, though not precisely how. Both are endearing characters, to a degree victims of history, but also masters of their own fates. Light, the kind that Marie-Laure will never see and the kind that radio expert Werner is fascinated by, is obviously a recurring theme, but it’s not the only one. The sheer waste of lives, the destruction of beauty and of hope, by war, is another. The tragedy of what may have been, as opposed to the more obvious loss of innocence, is another. There is a great tenderness in the narrative that makes the increasing foreboding as you turn every page even more difficult to bear – and that in turn makes you read faster and faster. You are desperate to know the fate of the characters, and yet you dread it – and this in itself seems to me the best metaphor for the war in the book. Hope springs eternal, yet you know for some (or most) it is futile.
You can’t help but draw parallels with any situation in these Covid times, and there are many to be drawn in this book if you look for them. The triumph of the human spirit is the obvious and perhaps the most trite, but then cliches become cliches because they are true. The book doesn’t hide from the harsh reality of war, but the author does a brilliant job of showing us just enough to appal and horrify without repelling. The fate of Jutta, Werner’s sister, in Berlin when the Russians arrive is just one instance of this. There’s a line from that scene, uttered by the matriarch of the orphanage which I’m not going to quote but which haunts me still.
We are not living through a war, but we are living through a situation which none of us in the so-called developed world have any actual frame of reference for. We are feeling our way every day in how we deal with it, and learning so much about ourselves – mostly good, but some of it is awful. So too are Werner and Marie-Laure and the inhabitants of St Malo and everyone else in this wonderful book. I zipped through it, enthralled and captivated. I am sure I missed a great deal, and plan to re-read it relatively soon. For me, the ending was perfect though I’m sure when I read other reviews (now I’ve written my own) there will be people who felt cheated. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
I have had a run of crime reading, which, when it is not too graphic, is one of my comfort genres. Richard Osman’s debut novel The Thursday Murder Club is a fast-paced, witty and extremely well-written cosy crime, a birthday present that I absolutely hoovered.
I loved the premise, of a collection of people too old to care about consequences, and I thought their situation was handled sympathetically, without glossing over the horrible things about age, while at the same time, not making it at the forefront – though of course, the Thursday Murder Club are in some ways a very privileged bunch. There was a fabulous and colourful collection of secondary characters, just enough sly digs at today’s politics to make me happy, and all in all, a thoroughly enjoyable read and exactly what I needed. Yes, it was a bit twee, but in a tongue in cheek way that I didn’t mind.
My one criticism would be that there were far too many twists and turns towards the end, and I slightly lost track of who had done what – and who hadn’t. This may be because I galloped towards the end of course, but I did feel that a few less twists or even better, some more pages, would have made it a more satisfying ending – and would have shifted it from four to five stars for me.
The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. We first met Antoinette, the narrator of this one, in a previous book. Now she and rookie Steve are on the Murder Squad, serving their apprenticeship by dealing with the dross from the case load. When a ‘real’ murder is handed to them, they can’t believe their luck, but the case quickly turns into something that could ruin the nascent careers of both.
I have enjoyed all of this series to varying degrees, and love the different perspectives you get of the squad. This book was much more a study of the dynamics of the squad and the mind of a detective than a murder, and that suited me fine. Antoinette is seriously screwed up, but how much of it is in her own head? A lot, basically, and it is very well told. Tana French doesn’t pull her punches with her characters, and she gives us a woman who is clever, smart, ambitious, but so obsessed with being persecuted and stamped on that she can’t differentiate any more between what is real and what is in her head. She lashes out, she is brutal, she makes very poor judgements, she trusts no-one. Most of it is entirely understandable. Some of it is her own fault. I love how we see her evolve, how we see the wheels of her mind turning, and how she is unable, no matter what, to back down and apologise.
French is true to her character right to the end. There is no soft, fresh-washed Antoinette at the conclusion of the story, but there is a new, brighter, harder and incredibly strong woman. I’m not sure I’d be her friend – I doubt she’d like me – but she’s a person I’d love to know.
There is a rather good murder mystery going on with this book too of course! Naturally, this being Tana French, not all the ends are neatly tied up – something which I really like but which I know others can’t stand. Aside from the first two in the series which you have to read in order, you can mix and match this series. And if you haven’t read any, I’d recommend it.
Silence for the Dead by Simone St James was recommended to me by my friend Alison, and was such a successful page-turner that I abandoned my historical research reading time in the morning to finish it. It ticked all my boxes: the aftermath of WWI; shell shock; a big house in a remote area; a mystery to resolve; a heroine with a dark past; and a touch of Gothic and ghosts too.
This book was pacey, brilliantly evocative and heart-breaking when it came to the descriptions of the men, who were seen by their families and by society as cowards. We glimpse just enough of their horrors to understand why they were rejected by their nearest and dearest, and the author makes no attempt to disguise both the impact it’s had on them – violence, taking solace in alcohol – and the atrocities which are at the heart of their illness – but again with a light touch, when she could have laid it on with a trowel and spoilt it. She leads you into the darkness of their world, and walks a fine line for much of the book, making it difficult to decide whether the paranormal element really exists or whether it’s the product of some sort of mass hysteria – very clever.
It was the paranormal element however, that I least enjoyed. For me, the ending played too much on it, and made it too definitive. I’d have liked the author to leave what actually happened open to question and not so cut and dried. On saying that, it was executed really well, to the extent of giving me goose bumps reading it.
A Goodreads friend set me off on the path of re-reading classic whodunnits, and I am very grateful to her. I first read Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series as a teenager, and it contributed significantly to my obsession with the 1920s. Who wouldn’t want to be Harriet Vane! (She doesn’t appear until well into this series, but I’m anal about reading books in order, so I have postponed my becoming re-acquainted with her.)
The first in the series is Whose Body? Let’s get the issues out of the way first. It is very dated, and very much a novel of its time. There is a great deal of anti-Semitism in it, some casual racism, and a lot of patronising of the ‘lower’ classes. But it was written almost a hundred years ago, and so while it made my toes curl in places, I managed on the whole not to judge with a 21st Century eye. However, if you can’t do that, then I’d suggest you steer clear.
This is the first in a series, obviously, and our introduction to Lord Peter and his two sidekicks his butler/photographer and Parker, his contact in the Met. It is (deliberately, I think) a set up that forces you to compare Jeeves and Wooster, and to dismiss Lord Peter as a bumbling buffoon, but of course this is exactly what Sayers and Lord Peter want you to do. As the book progresses, our sleuth is established as a much more three-dimensional character and a rather interesting man. He’s ‘artistic’ in a family of tally-ho values. He was a highly successful intelligence officer during the war, and suffers from shell-shock. He’s the kind of man who hides behind his preposterous monocle and his equally preposterous accents, and quietly observes everything.
The story focuses more on Lord Peter & Co than the murder. It’s short, and it bucks convention in that we get in on whodunnit well before the end. But it’s a great introduction to Lord Peter’s world, it’s an easy read, there’s no blood and guts, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was, a great comfort read that leaves you satisfied.
The same friend who pointed me at Lord Peter Wimsey warned me off the second book, Clouds of Witness, but I simply can’t bear to skip books in a series, so I read it anyway. In this one, Peter is recovering from a bout of shellshock in Corsica when he learns his brother, the duke, has been accused of murder. Off he comes, galloping home like a Labrador puppy to help out. Being Peter, he’s much more interested in the truth that getting his brother out of jail – though he claims it is the other way around, I didn’t buy that. And being Peter, he’s never happy until he gets all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted even when they show poor bro Gerry in a bad light.
This is not vintage Sayers, my friend was right about that. As with the previous book, there’s a lot of ‘of the time’ racism – this time it’s the French who get it – and elitism, but if you’re going to read this kind of fiction you have to find a way to put yourself in the mindset of that time. What I didn’t like was the endless narrative. There was an awful lot of exposition and sleuthing done by Peter and Parker off page, and too many words devoted to their explaining their conclusions and findings to each other. We didn’t get much into the mindset of the various witnesses, and on the whole it unfolded in a fairly pedestrian fashion.
Lady Mary (Peter’s sister and obviously destined to become Parker’s wife) and Gerry the duke (or the duck of death, as I can’t help think of him, borrowing from Unforgiven) come over as unlikeable, selfish, inane and much too one-dimensional, and I’d be okay with this if some of the other characters were better drawn. But they weren’t. It made me wonder if Sayers, having unwittingly written a best-seller in the first book, was unprepared for the demand for the second, and leapt in without giving herself enough time. That said, it’s a nice cosy romp and the kind of book you can safely pick up in the middle of the night to get you off to sleep – I don’t mean boring, I mean easy reading. Of course I’ll be reading the next one.
Next on my voyage back in time, was Crooked House. I used to devour Agatha Christie books, but I haven’t read one in decades. I chose this one because I didn’t remember it, because it was apparently one of Christie’s favourites, and also because it was a stand alone read, without either the annoying Poirot or the twee Miss Marple.
I got exactly what I wanted. A dysfunctional family, a nice murder that was so well-written you suspected everyone and anyone, and a nice satisfying ending (which I did guess, but only quite close to the end). It was well-written, pacey and full of classic Christie glamour. Having read it I now appreciate even more the Christie-esque Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
It wasn’t perfect. It had dated, there’s no getting away from that, and the inverted snobbery of the time in particular really grated on me. I would have preferred it to have been written in the third person too. I loathed the pompous first person narrator, and was from the first on the alert for him being not at all what he seemed – I will now give something away and say that unfortunately he was exactly what he seemed!
As you will know from my last fiction blog, I’ve also been re-reading Georgette Heyer – thanks again to Alison for encouraging me in this! An Unknown Ajax is one of the gentler romances, in the sense that there’s not really any romantic suspense and actually very little romantic action – one un-returned kiss and a couple of hugs. That Hugo and Anthea are made for each other is obvious from the start, and really very little gets in the way. The conclusion, without even an accepted proposal, was for me one of the let-downs of the book. I got the distinct impression that Heyer felt, oh for goodness sake, it’s clear that they’re going to live happily ever after, so I don’t have to write it. Which is a shame, because they deserved better.
But romance (or lack of) aside, this was still a great read. The story is chock full of plot and secondary characters that are so well-drawn you mostly forget that not too much is given over to the plight of Anthea and Hugo. As ever, the best (for me at least) are the formidable matriarchs, this time in the form of stern Aurelia, mother of Claude and Vincent. Of Grandpapa Darracot the less said the better to be honest, he’s rather too much of a stereotype and I loathed him so much I couldn’t feel any pity for him in the end. Vincent was more subtly drawn, as was Claude, but Richmond was too much of a cypher for the plot.
My biggest issue in this book was with the servants. I know, I know, I’ve just said it myself, you have to put yourself in time and place regarding the author, but really Heyer’s patronising (if funny) drawing of the two valets, Polyphant and Crimplesham was toe-curling and the main thing that spoiled my enjoyment of this one. Every time I lost myself in the story, which went along at a cracking pace, I was drawn up short by one or other of them coming on stage. There were a host of other (male) servants including a footman and another valet, which had the same effect. Indeed, they served well to draw attention to the chasm between the Darracots and the servant’s hall, but it was the patronising tone, the snootiness of the humour that Heyer used that made me feel that these were her own attitudes shining though, making the jokes barbed and painful to read. I didn’t like that, not a bit.
However, this is Heyer, and my first true love in the genre where I now make my living. I forgive her. I love her. So I launched straight into Regency Buck, which had always been one of my favourites. Alas, I was doomed to be disappointed.
I have two gripes. I’ll start with the smaller one, which was the sheer amount of research that Heyer spouted. There was a LOT of unnecessary historical detail, but just one example will do: I give you snuff! There were also a lot of extra historical characters thrown in for little reason, save that she had read of them and wanted to parade them on her page. However, we’ve all been there and done that, which is why this is my small gripe.
Now onto my bigger issue, and that was the hero. Lord Worth, the Regency Buck of the title, got my back up right at the beginning of the book when he basically molests Judith, the heroine, snogs the face off her, and then carts her off in his curricle, even though she has told him she doesn’t want to go. I was fuming at the arrogance of him while I read, and I confess I was astonished I hadn’t noticed before. After that, I’m afraid Worth was worthless as a hero for me, and could do little right. Throughout the book he manages Judith and Perry in the most high-handed way. He arranges and he orders, and it doesn’t matter that he is usually in the right of it, I just couldn’t bear it. Right down to the very convoluted plot ploy involving Peregrine at the end – and why he didn’t do something more obvious and straightforward, and inform both Perry and Judith of what was going on, I don’t know.
But once again Heyer gets a bye, for being Heyer. I have enjoyed this book so often in the past, maybe I will enjoy it again in the future. And you know, even though I didn’t like Worth, I loved the romance of the last few pages, and ended up, despite all my reservations, with a happy sigh.
Have you read any of these books? How has your reading changed in these dark times? Have you been rediscovering old favourites, turning to new genres, or not reading at all? I’d love to hear how your experience compares to mine – and of course I’d love to know if you still read romance!
These are just some of my reviews. You can read them all, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.