Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Bone Garden by Kate Ellis

DATE PUBLISHED: 2001 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: Wesley Peterson is an Afro-Caribbean police detective who also has a first class degree in archaeology – a great combination! He based in Devon and becomes involved in the murder of a young unidentified man in a caravan park. A local solicitor gets in touch with Peterson to say he has something to tell him – but is found dead before the meeting takes place. At the same time excavations are going on in the garden of a nearby manor house. When skeletons are unearthed there the coroner has to be informed and the mystery deepens. A team of archaeologists is based there including Peterson’s old friend Neil and they share information about the history of Earlsacre Hall gardens. All the plotting is well worked out and there are some really interesting parallels between the late 17th century/early 18th century events and the present day crimes. All in all a fun read.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: This is a wonderful book that in lyrical prose unfolds the story of Roseanne who has been incarcerated in a mental hospital for most of her life. When the book begins she is an old lady of nearly a hundred looking back on her past in a quizzical way as she secretly writes down her memories. At the same time her psychiatrist Dr Grene is making notes of his assessment of her as he tries to decide where she should go when the institution closes. He is intrigued by her calm demeanour and by her apparent lack of interest in communicating with him. Many of her records have disappeared and he is increasingly drawn into trying to find out who she really is and how she came to be in the hospital. Through Rose’s testimony we learn how her own mother was insane, that she adored her father and was later rejected by the family she married into. Her family’s Presbyterianism in a Catholic society is a constant source of trouble. But Rose is never strident or outraged by what has happened to her – all her troubles are seen with a half sad, half amused view. (Her way of speaking reminded me very much of the unfortunate Grace in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace) Rose is very much a commentator and spectator of the world around her. When Dr Grene confronts her with some recorded facts about her past she rejects them – Rose’s writings have become her own truth. Dr Grene is a kindly though far from being faultless. He is slow to respond to obvious abuses and problems within the hospital and is also infuriatingly slow in getting to grips with Rose’s history. But he has no illusions about his own capabilities: “It would be a very good thing if occasionally I thought I knew what I was doing.” A lovely book, well deserving all the critical acclaim. Barry writes of bitterness, memory and loss in an Ireland of sectarianism, hatred and betrayal. But in spite of everything the spirit of Rose survives. My only real problem with The Secret Scripture was the rather clumsy and coincidental plot device at the end – this was a pity and spoiled the end for me. The Secret Scripture is a book that draws you in and you want to race through it to find out what happens. But now I feel I need to go back and read it again in order to savour the wonderful language.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: This is my third “Londoncentric” novel in as many months – the others being William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms and Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. Hearts and Minds actually has a similar structure to the Faulks book – a group of disparate characters from different social strata whose lives collide and overlap. The story begins with a murder when a girl’s body is found in the water on Hampstead Heath and from the beginning the reader (well, this one) is hooked. We are soon deep into the contrasting worlds of human traffickers, illegal immigrants, struggling professionals, disappointed lovers and the chattering classes of North London. The plotting is brilliant. I can imagine the writer beginning with a large wall-chart and lots of Post-It notes! As the story unfolds some very pertinent social comments are made – such as Polly suddenly realising how little she actually knew about the young woman who lived in her home and looked after her children. The lives of people living precariously in our society were dealt with poignantly and sympathetically. I have one slight criticism inasmuch as I found some of the characters a bit unsubtle. Job was a bit too angelic and Anna a bit too innocent. But, hey, we can’t have everything. I have been recommending Hearts and Minds to all my friends – a really good read.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: As a thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has it all. There is an intricate plot based on nefarious financial deals, a big industrial family with secrets to hide, a left-wing magazine with sharks circling around it and sexual politics of power and exploitation. Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative writer, is asked by the head of the Vanger family to try to find out what happened to his grand-daughter some forty years earlier when she disappeared without trace. There follows a long complex and exacting search. In his work he is aided by the eccentric and socially inept Lisbeth Salander, the girl of the title. Lisbeth’s skills in research and computer hacking are a key to the solving of the case but Lisbeth herself remains largely a mystery. We are given only fleeting glimpses of her background and of damage done to her. But the narrative makes quite clear that she is not a girl to be messed with – and punishment will be meted out by her if and when she deems this necessary. It is all brilliantly plotted – especially the way in which the two main characters come to be working together. Yes, it all gets a bit far-fetched in places but it is an exciting and intriguing read from beginning to end. A cracking read. Can’t wait to read more about Lisbeth Salander in the next two of the trilogy.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Testimony by Anita Shreve

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: Anita Shreve is a consummate story –teller and, once again, she comes up trumps with Testimony. It is a fairly straightforward story of a sex scandal in a private school in Vermont. It is told mainly from the points of view of numerous characters in the process of offering information to a university researcher some time after the event. Needless to say the reader is left uncertain as to which of the testimonies tell the whole truth and who chooses to embellish the facts to make themselves look better. She gets the tone of the differing statements just right. There are no amazing revelations but what we are left with is the disaster caused to so many lives by young people who were foolish rather than wicked. All very believable. A very quick and enjoyable read.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Millennium by Tom Holland

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2009 NOTES: This is a scholarly look at the so-called Dark Ages around the 10th century. As he was covering the known Christian world (from Britain to Palestine) he had quite a task as so many differing events were taking place. But he manages to bring clarity to a complex subject. He gives us a great sweep of history which includes Christians, Vikings, Saxons, Normans, Franks, Jews and Saracens and they manoeuvre for land, money and power. One of the enduring features of the time was the vying for supremacy between Rome and Constantinople and the continual battle between lay rulers and the Pope. He points out the somewhat ignoble beginnings of the concept of knighthood and later how pilgrimages turned into crusades. The rise of the Cluny monastic order is also well covered. Nor does he neglect to mention the very lowliest of society and the woeful lives of the peasant class even though little has been recorded of their lives – “for the silence of the poor is almost total”. Holland has a deft touch with language. In recounting how William Longsword, a Norseman converted to Christianity, had gone to parley with the Count of Flanders “he had done so unarmed, as befitted a Christian lord meeting with a fellow prince; and the Count of Flanders, as befitted a Christian lord meeting with a dangerous pirate, had ordered him hacked to death.” But suffused through these tumultuous times is the widespread belief that the world was about to end and that the Antichrist would arrive and the effect this has on the actions of many. (Spoiler alert – the world doesn’t end!”)