Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: An extremely readable approach to medieval life. Ian Mortimer points out that “Medieval England” covers a very long time span and so rightly chooses to concentrate on one century – the fourteenth. It is written in guide book style and gives us insights into what life was like for people (or travellers) of that time. He describes the landscape, homes, food, clothes, health and transport. There is a fascinating chapter were on Health and Hygiene – if you do get ill you are best to avoid the ministrations of doctors! It was also best to try to keep to the right side of the law but even this might not keep you out of trouble. The short, sharp shock was very much in vogue at the time. But as Mortimer points out the law is designed to find somebody guilty – it does not necessarily follow that that somebody is the person responsible for the crime in question.

This is a really fascinating and insightful book into an England of long ago. It is obviously meticulously researched but wears its scholarship lightly as it is a very entertaining read. It is helped by the selection of superb colour illustrations.

An essential for any potential Time Traveller…….

Friday, 22 April 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: Another great (if somewhat confusing!) read from Kate Atkinson. A complex story set in two different time scales and from the point of view of lots of characters. The plot cannot be encapsulated easily. In 1975 a prostitute is found murdered in her flat. One of the officers attending is Tracy Waterhouse. We then move on to the present day when Tracy, now a retired police inspector, buys a child from a know drug-user. On the same day Jackson Brodie takes possession of an abused dog. A doddery ageing actress, Tilly, loses her purse in the shopping mall. Jackson is trying to help Hope (who lives in New Zealand) to find her real family but some people seem to be deliberately blocking his way. More confusion abounds when another detective appears – also called Jackson.

We have an incredible mix of lost parents, lost children and sad memories. There are murdered relatives, aborted babies, lost loves, road deaths, police corruption and a dramatic funeral. But the whole is infused with Atkinson’s joyful language and energetic pace. Some of the best bits are when Tracy tries to be a parent to Courtney – very much an unknown territory for her. Tracy was surprised that more kids weren’t killed on so-called play equipment. People (parents) seemed blithely oblivious to the peril of small bodies arcing high into the sky on swings they weren’t strapped into, or of the same small bodies launching themselves from the top of a slide when they were knee-high to a gnat. Courtney was astonishingly reckless, a kid without a reck was a dangerous thing.

I enjoyed it very much although I wasn’t always sure if I was keeping up with the plot. There were a few loose ends (or was it me?) And I did wonder about the brilliant abilities of the ex-gangster Harry Reynolds. No request seemed too much for him and he deserves a book of his own!

(The Yorkshire Ripper has worked his way into the social and cultural fabric of the 1970s and 80s. The references here are not at all gratuitous but does Sutcliffe know – and does it give him pleasure?)

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Perfect Murder by H R F Keating


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: I was first introduced to the Inspector Ghote books over thirty years ago. I overheard a conversation on the London Tube as a passenger praised the books written by an Englishman about an Indian policeman. He said that the author had never visited India and had used a street map of Bombay to help with his plotting. I was intrigued and on returning home I got a couple of Keating’s books from the library. I remember enjoying them at the time but never bothered to seek out any more.

Now some of this series is being re-issued so I was happy to have another look into the life and work of Inspector Ghote. The Perfect Murder has a lot of charm – and Ghote is a great creation. He cares about doing a good job; he wants to be a person of high morals but is all too aware of corruption all around him. The story itself is well plotted and coherent which makes it a very easy read.

The atmosphere of 1960s Bombay “feels” right. But does that mean it is right? As (like most readers) I have not lived any length of time in India but have nonetheless built up a picture of how the country works, how people relate to one another and how they use the English language. But what are the sources of this picture of India? E M Forster? Paul Scott? Kipling? – or Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Ruth Prawer Jhabvali and Rohinton Mistry. Do any Indians really talk like Arun Varde with his rhyming words (“corruption poppuption” and “doorstep poorstep”)? I would like to hear how and Indian born and bred in India responds to these books.

Or perhaps I am taking the whole thing too seriously……

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Heresy by S J Parris


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: Giordano Bruno is an Italian ex-communicated monk who escaped from the Inquisition to France and then on to England in 1583. He has rejected much traditional religious thinking and his heretic philosophy goes beyond Copernicus. With his friend Philip Sidney he travels to Oxford – ostensibly to debate with their senior don but also to seek out a lost book of Hermetic writings. As a further complication Sir Francis Walsingham has inveigled him into looking out for anti-Elizabeth sentiments among the Oxford academics. While in Oxford some murders occur and Bruno finds himself in the role of investigator.

Heresy is a well-written atmospheric historical fiction. The scenes of London, the Thames and Oxford are all well done. The tensions caused by religion and politics in Elizabethan England are clearly described. Although there were many who clung desperately to their chosen religion and were prepared to be martyred others just wanted to get on with their lives. “You must excuse Doctor Bernard some of his harshness,” he said, apologetically. “He has had to change his religion three times under four different sovereigns.”

The Tudor period has given rise to many other novels so any writer approaching this period needs to show considerable originality. Although Heresy has many positive attributes it is far from original. There are echoes of The Name of the Rose – especially with the reference to the secret book. The Shardlake books have already encompassed the role of Tudor detective so S J Parris had her work cut out to compete.

One of my problems with this book was the characters – none were especially prepossessing. Among the Oxford academics there was little differentiation and they all become merged in my mind. However the pace picked up towards the end and the final denouement was exciting if not credible. Why do the villains admit and explain what they have done? They don’t do this in real life but it happens again and again in books and films.