Category Archives: reading

Smoke and Whispers, Mick Herron

It’s the Jackson Lamb books that are getting displays in bookstores at the moment, as Spook Street has just come out in paperback. And it is a great series, doing something different with the spy genre, undercutting any notions of James Bond or even Le Carre. The only character who can see round the corners and through the corkscrew twists of the latest internal machinations is Jackson Lamb himself. The rest of his spooks, flawed and failing, stumble through the action with such good intent and lack of understanding that it sometimes gets them killed. Slough House isn’t kind to its denizens.

And Mick Herron isn’t kind to Zoë Boehm either. She is the heroine, or anti-heroine, of her own series of books, of which Smoke and Whispers is the last. It starts with a body, that could be Zoë’s, floating down the Tyne. The body has Zoë’s belongings and Zoë’s clothes, and it’s a testament to the strength of the preceding books that the reader can both fully believe that yes, Zoë could have ended up face down in a river, and yet not want that to be the case. It would be an unsurprising end, but not a fitting one.

Zoë Boehm is an independent detective, based in Oxford. You’d think that Morse had Oxford covered, but Zoë’s city is not one in which a Jaguar could stay safely parked. Over the several books, her own car gets stolen and torched by an ex-policeman, she gets beaten up in Jericho and nearly drowned in the canal (and now I’m wondering if that was foreshadowing). Her Oxford is one in which the nice jeweller’s is fencing stolen goods, and the nice hotel is the starting location of a clever woman’s campaign to present herself as an abused wife before knifing her husband in the heart. No quadrangles here.

Unusually for me, I read the first book in the series and then I’ve listened to the rest. I’m listening to Smoke and Whispers at the moment and I’ve been trying to work out what makes Mick Herron such a good writer. So far, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fact that every sentence is crafted. There’s no makeweight in a Mick Herron sentence, each word lands with direct authorial intent. One paragraph can contain more observation than lesser writers display in entire novels.

And he’s great at writing female characters. Zoë is a detective first and foremost. She doesn’t get home at the end of the day and start maundering about the size of her thighs or the fact that she hasn’t got a boyfriend, in order to signal to the reader that she’s also a real, relatable woman. She is not primarily defined by her physical characteristics or what she wears: Zoë just puts her jeans on, they don’t cling enticingly to long, elegant legs that are tanned and toned from her early morning runs. Her black jeans, red top and black leather jacket may be identifiably hers but about all they say is she doesn’t pay enough attention to bother dressing to impress. She also doesn’t have a phone full of specifically skilled, male mates who can help her out when a case gets difficult. It is, frankly, a relief to read a female character who is allowed to get on with her job without also having to perform being a woman at the same time.

So far, most of the investigating in Smoke and Mirrors is being done by Sarah Tucker, someone whose life Zoë saved in the first book in the series (Down Cemetery Road) and who is now her only friend. Sarah has identified the body found in the Tyne as Zoë, but that’s based more on the conclusive leather jacket than on recognition. Something isn’t stacking up for Sarah. Maybe at first it was just unwillingness to believe that her friend is dead, but she’s now beginning to think that an old case caught up with Zoë and might be reaching out to entangle Sarah herself as well…

In Down Cemetery Road, Zoë didn’t get introduced until the endgame. I’m hoping that’s what happens here too, and maybe Sarah saves her. Then again, maybe Mick Herron isn’t going to be kind to his readers, either.

 

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The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, Enid Blyton

Really, I was looking to wrap up reading about the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, but Blackwells didn’t have the next volume. But I’d been thinking about the Cherry Tree Farm and Willow Farm books, although I now know I was mixing them up in my head with another book/series that I can’t remember the name of.

Anyway. Who knows how long ago I first read these, but it just goes to show how formative and influential one’s early reading can be. I was brought up on Enid Blyton, from The Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree, to Mr Galliano’s Circus, finishing up with The Famous Five, Malory Towers or the aforementioned St Clare’s. I read them again and again and again, probably long after I was technically too old for them. I always read a lot and I never had enough new books, so I got very familiar indeed with the old favourites.

I desperately wanted to go on an adventure with the Famous Five and I also desperately wanted to board at Malory Towers. Enid Blyton introduced me to the solid, middle class, mid 20th century life that I definitely wasn’t living. There were lovely Mummies and jolly Daddies, bustling cooks, scary but essentially kind teachers. Her books are easily challenged these days on the grounds of reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, being xenophobic, racist and privileged, and I’d be hard pushed to defend them. Then again, a fairly wide swathe of literature from the 30s onwards shares some similar traits, so are we supposed to stop reading all of it?

From Enid Blyton, I did learn about some good, solid values. Anyone who wasn’t quite the thing learned the error of their ways, whether they simply wouldn’t try at games or were too boastful, or stole sixpence from the mantelpiece. The important thing to do was to own up and take responsibility for your actions, whether you’d left the farm gate open or almost burnt the whole place down. I also learned about the countryside, a place that up until my 30s I thought was somewhere that you occasionally visited rather than lived. So the countryside was exotic, exciting, a little bit intimidating. I wasn’t quite the city child who had never seen a cow, because when I was 9, I was lucky enough to participate in the Farms for City Children programme and spend a week at Nethercott House. But most of what I knew was gleaned from books like the Cherry Tree Farm series, my first experience of nature writing.

They are very straightforward, plunging straight in with liberating four London born children from their unhealthy city existence into the robust healthfulness of the country. The children’s parents have to go to America (children’s books of this time always seem to pack the parents off to America – see also The Children Who Lived in a Barn) and so Rory, Sheila, Benjy and Penny are sent to stay with their aunt and uncle at Cherry Tree Farm.

They have to learn to help out on the farm at a point when farming was still only beginning to get mechanised, and at least in the Blytonsphere, was still profitable. So they feed chickens, bottle feed lambs, milk cows by hand, churn butter by hand (so that’s how you make butter!) All of this was completely alien to my own experience, of course, but when you’re  young there is so much that’s new that you can take a lot more of it in your stride.

This still leaves the children plenty of time to become friends with the ‘wild man’, Tammylan. Despite living in a cave in winter and a tree house in summer, Tammylan is locally respected for his skill with and knowledge of animals, so the children are given the all clear to spend time with him. Ah, more innocent times.

It’s Tammylan who gives the children the important first lesson of not littering the countryside, when they allow their sandwich wrappers to blow away after a picnic. Subsequently, over the course of the books, he introduces them to a hare, rabbits, a red squirrel that Benjy gets as a pet, and a fox. He shows them a weasel, teaches them to distinguish between a grass snake, an adder and a slow worm and is very clear that bats do not get into people’s hair. It’s down to Tammylan that I found out that hares live in a form; that stags grow their antlers every year and that the covering their new antlers first have is known as velvet. Without having ever seen either, I know how to tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel:

‘The stoat is easily told from the weasel/ By the simple fact that his tail is blacked/ And his figure is slightly the bigger’.

It’s probably down to Tammlyan that I’m anti fox-hunting, because, in one book, a tired, old fox takes refuge from the chase in his cave.

Of course, now I re-read the books I can spot the thin plot lines, lack of exposition, recycled characters and the bits where Blyton is just running out of steam. Even the familiarity is distant, grasped at, a memory of a memory. But there was a little girl, 30-40 years ago, who didn’t hear anyone calling her name because she was reading.

The Crimes of Winter, Philippe Georget

This is the third Inspector Gilles Sebag mystery, and I have to say, I was worried. (Here be spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out if his wife was cheating on him.)

I was worried because I’m tired of the usual middle-aged, miserable, hard drinking, loner detective thing. Which is not to say that I’m not still partial to a bit of Rebus, but even Rebus has a dog and a girlfriend these days. Sebag has seemed to buck the trend and go happily home at the end of the day. But alas, in book 2 (Autumn, All the Cats Return) he suspects Claire has had an affair, and at the beginning of this book, that’s confirmed by a text message that Sebag intercepts.

So Sebag goes off the rails a bit, keeping  cheap whiskey in his desk drawer, sleeping in the office, racked with jealousy. His partner guesses but, in a rare and expected display of tact, Molina doesn’t say anything. It’s terrible timing that the cases Sebag has to deal with are all concerned with infidelity, reflecting his own situation back at him. A mysterious ill-wisher is contacting cuckolded husbands with photos of their wives with other men. In one case, this provokes a murder, when the jealous husband shoots his wife; in another, a suicide as the betrayed husband kills himself. A third incident is avoided, when Sebag manages to talk the man down from setting fire to his wife, his house and the neighbourhood.

With all this going on, what’s mostly occupying Sebag’s mind is the future of his own marriage. Oddly, or perhaps, Frenchly, there’s not a whole lot of moralistic debate going on. The novel avoids the banal simplicity of whether infidelity is right or wrong by acknowledging that marriages are not that straightforward. The more interesting question is what happens afterwards. The book presents various alternatives, from the violent to the accepting and by the end, Gilles too has found a way forward that he can live with. And caught the bad guy, of course.

So I’m relieved, because I hope for more Gilles Sebag novels and he’s more interesting as a happy family man than a bitter sot.

 

Slightly later than mid-year reading roundup

After  a rocky start to the year when I thought I’d try not buying any new books for a bit and promptly read nothing, this reading year hasn’t gone too badly. I’ve read/listened to 59 books so far and there’s been some good stuff in there. So, in no particular order…

Best re-read/listen

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. I mixed this up so I could read a volume, then listen to a volume, which worked really well. For fans of Audible who also have long drives, this sequence is a great listen. Although I’ve just looked up who some of the characters are based on, and I’m somewhat distressed to find that St John Clarke is based on John Galsworthy, because I really like The Forsyte Chronicles. I hadn’t realised, either, that X Trapnel is based on Julian MacLaren-Ross. Anyway, I don’t care who Widmerpool is based on, he’s too monstrous.

Best new translated fiction

Summertime, All the Cats are Bored and Autumn, All the Cats Return, Philippe Georget. These are French police procedurals, set in Perpignan and starring Inspector Gilles Sebag and his sidekick, Molina. Sebag is a good detective who is madly in love with his beautiful wife, Claire, but begins to suspect that she is having an affair. His personal concerns then run alongside his investigations. He’s mildly tortured by his doubts about his marriage, but beyond that he’s a good cop so not another hard-drinking, rebellious outsider. They are not about cats.

Best Australian novel

The Dry, Jane Harper. I listened to this but I’d be tempted to read it as well because it was proper gripping and astonishingly accomplished for a debut novel. The brutal murder/suicide of the Hadler family in the small town of Kiewarra draws Aaron Falk  back there. Luke Hadler’s family want him to investigate, because they don’t believe their son murdered his wife and children, then shot himself. Luke was Aaron’s boyhood best friend, but Aaron himself was run out of town 20 years ago for a supposed murder and has hardly seen Luke since. As Aaron gets drawn back in and starts to investigate, all the old secrets and tensions start cropping up again.

Best book about the madness of WWII

A Good Clean Fight, Derek Robinson. I’ve previously read A Piece of Cake, which introduces Hornet Squadron, but I hadn’t immediately realised this was a sequel of sorts. The squadron is now in North Africa, being sent out on ridiculous missions to try to lure the German airforce out by strafing low level targets in Libya. The tactic doesn’t work and the squadron gets shot to hell, but their batshit commander, Barton, keeps sending them out.

Meanwhile, Lampard of the SAS is leading near suicidal missions across the desert, behind German lines, to blow up aircraft while still on the field. There’s an horrific scene where the Germans, attempting to follow suit, set out in motorised vehicles across the desert but are so totally unused to its ways that vehicle after vehicle launches itself from the top of a sand dune and crashes on the other side.

What’s always so startling and depressing about military novels, and in fact military history, is how character driven it is. Which is fine when those characters are sane, sensible types and not so fine when they’re megalomaniac nutters who absolutely don’t care about the men whose lives they hold in the balance. A Good Clean Fight is heavy on the megalomaniac nutters, as I suspect WWII was in real life.

Best action hero

I am so firmly on the Jack Reacher bandwagon that I am glued to my seat. I’ve read Die Trying and Tripwire so far this year and I doubt that’ll be the end of it. Reacher has only been out of the army for a while, he’s travelling around, living off his savings and whatever work he can find, but trouble keeps finding him. He doesn’t talk much, he’s built like a brick shithouse, handy in a fight and a sharpshooter to boot. You’d think trouble would know better. Fortunately for my reading future, criminals and low lifes are dumb-asses, so there’s plenty more Reacher ahead of me.

Best novel that everyone else is recommending as well

I’ve written separately about The Power, so I’ll go with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman. This was a real journey as I got to know Eleanor. It’s written from her perspective and she’s weird. Not defiantly weird, but she lives a life of such solitariness that she simply doesn’t understand normal human interactions. She is incredibly lonely, although this is something she has to realise for herself as the novel progresses and her realisation and reaction to that is utterly compelling. At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor has no reason to comply with social norms because she’s simply not aware of them, or of any acts of transgression. But this means that her responses are often very funny, particularly because she’s intelligent and articulate. She is gradually revealed as a joy of a character.

In which I’m reading nostalgically

Back when I was a romantic slip of a thing, so roughly the dawn of time, I discovered that Jilly Cooper had written a whole series of books with girls’ names as titles. They’re all short romances and I galloped through the lot of them. They are literary Fondant Fancies – pretty, sweet but too many at once and you feel sick. Still, they seem to have been republished since last time I looked, and so I gave in and bought Harriet.

The eponymous Harriet is almost too naive to be true, but for the fact that I wasn’t far short of being precisely that sort of idiot when I was her age and first at university. In short order, Harriet gets seduced and then knocked up by a generic university golden boy bastard. He then promptly kicks her out and dumps her when his real, glamorous girlfriend comes back, and Harriet goes to pieces. Of course, she’s pregnant.

Golden boy bastard writes a cheque and pops her off to the doctor where he sends all his pregnant women. You get the impression that one more stamp on his loyalty card and the next woman will get a freebie. Harriet decides to cash the cheque and keep the baby.

Cue the hero, a grumpy writer whose vile-but-beautiful actress wife has just left him and their children. He needs a nanny, Harriet needs a job and a home. Of course, in the end the grumpy writer realises that Harriet is really the woman for him and, presumably, they all live happily ever after.

Obviously this is total nonsense, but Jilly Cooper’s style is perfect for it and she does have some nice touches. She was also one of the first writers I read who really dealt with some of young women’s reality: washing your tights in the sink, washing your hair with washing up liquid when you’re broke, scrabbling through a wardrobe of misfit items desperately trying to put something together that will reveal you as the elegant sophisticate you want to be as long as no one notices that you cut your leg when shaving with a dodgy old razor. In this one, when grumpy writer is being extra grumpy one morning, Harriet turns the waste disposal on so she can’t hear him. I do like novels in which people behave like people.

So hurrah for Jilly Cooper.

I also re-read Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurtz. It’s the first of a fantasy trilogy set on the world of Midkemia, which featured previously in Feist’s Magician trilogy.

So, Mara is the young daughter of a noble house, about to enter a religious order.  At the last minute, messengers arrive to announce her father and brother have both died in battle, and she’s now head of the house.

Midkemian politics, the ‘Great Game’ is of the intricate, bloody sort that makes Tory party backstabbing look like spring lambs gambolling in a field. Mara is immediately vulnerable, as a near miss assassination attempt makes clear, so she has no option but to become a skilled player very quickly. And that’s basically what she does in this book, surviving a brutal marriage, and a couple more attacks on her life to end up triumphant.

What strikes me this time round is how fast things move and how sketched in it all is. No wonder Game of Thrones was such a sensation, with its cast of thousands, protracted timescales and plot lines that are impossible to predict. I really hope GRRRR Thompson finishes the set because I haven’t watched the TV series and have no clue how he’s going to bring it all together.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Daughter of the Empire. I read it almost overnight, and I remembered more than I’d expected to. It was like watching a rerun of an old movie that you know isn’t that great but have residual fondness for anyway.

In which I fail the TBR dare. And buy books. And then read them.

So. Two blog posts ago, I excitedly signed up to the TBR dare and dug out the books that have been kicking around for a while unread.

In January, I re-read three books, faffed around online, paced the house and felt generally restless and ill at ease. The unread books remained steadfastly unread, and instead loomed at me accusingly from the window ledge.

Turns out that there’s a reason why they’re unread. It’s not that I never want to read them, it’s just that I especially don’t want to read them when they’re my only choice. But not reading anything makes me stressed and miserable and aimless.

So I did the only sensible thing and hit Blackwell’s, waving my account card triumphantly and to hell with the bill. (Which won’t turn up for a couple of months anyway because one of the endearing quirks of the account card is it runs so far in arrears and the statements are so impenetrable that I  basically never have a clue how much I’ve spent or when the amount will leave my bank account. As a result of which, I don’t bother checking.)

Anyway. I bought a lovely stack of books and I have read:

Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan. This is the fourth in the Zigic and Ferreira series and deals with the murder of a transgender woman. I like the concept of the Hate Crimes Unit, it’s a nice device for Dolan to explore less ordinary murders. This one explores the trans community a bit, sympathetically overall and without reduction to stereotypes. The perspective on the murdered woman, Corinne, shifts around as well. Of course she’s a victim, but as more information comes to light and the witness interviews mount up, it becomes clear that she could be very unpleasant.

Since the last book, Zigic’s wife has had another baby, and Ferreira has moved into what appears to be a grotty flat and is having an affair with a superior. But by the end of the novel, the Hate Crimes Unit is closing  – is this the end of Zigic & Ferreira?

Real Tigers by Mick Herron. In which someone has kidnapped Catherine Standish to try to get the Slow Horses to steal some files from MI5 in return for her release. As ever with the internal machinations of MI5, there are wheels within wheels and the double-crosses come thick and fast.  In this one, the body count went up a bit as well, with a splendid shoot out. On balance, I think you’d want Jackson Lamb on your side. Just not close enough to be able to smell him or let him steal your food. He does get all the best lines, though: ‘Mind like a razor. Disposable’.

Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth. This got onto my list after a glowing review in The Sunday Times, so I was very pleased to find it. I really hope it’s the start of a series, because it felt like a story that had further to go and I found it absolutely engrossing. The premise isn’t that unusual – local lord goes away leaving untried daughter to rule for him – but the setting is pre-Norman England so the historical elements are really interesting.

And some others.

Finally, as I said to Mr W, I’ve struck audiobook gold with A Dance to the Music of Time, narrated by Simon Vance. It’s been years since I read the quartet, but I’m finding it pleasantly familiar. I may swap back and forth between print and audio for the rest, although it’s a great accompaniment to the business miles and means no risk of accidentally hearing any news on the radio. I find Simon Vance’s dry tone is perfect for Nick Jenkins. But ugh. Widmerpool.

In which I’m still employed

And that’s about all I want to say about it. The company is in the early stages of the consultation process, and a horrible thing it is too. I’m getting off lightly compared to colleagues whose jobs really are on the line. It has been stressful, and continues to be difficult.

I totally failed to do anything productive for a couple of weeks, other than obsessively check LinkedIn for jobs. I’m still waiting to hear back on a couple, but I’m not particularly hopeful. I think I’m at an awkward stage, because I jumped careers and now my experience doesn’t look as though it stacks up for the roles I’m going for. So I’m not minded to stop looking just yet – a backup plan ain’t a backup plan unless you know it’s going to work, and if I’m not getting interviews then something’s not right.

On the plus side, I’ve just clawed my concentration back and managed to read novels. After almost dry January, I started drinking wine again (it was the ‘Hey! You might be losing your job, but we’ll tell you in two weeks, ok?’ message that did it) but I think I’m about ready to stop again for a while longer. The next step is some exercise. I don’t know how I’m going to pick that back up this time round, especially as I swore I wouldn’t do another 10k. But without some kind of goal, it’s too easy to walk right past the gym and come home.

Life doesn’t get any easier, does it? But, hey. The immediate pressure is off. It’s almost spring. I have vacation booked for March. I made a banana cake and some coconut macaroons yesterday. My boyfriend starts his new job tomorrow, and that’s pretty exciting for him. The cats are healthy, I’m healthy and my sister just bought me this mug as a gift. Life may not get any easier, but at least it keeps flowing along and you can’t cross the same river twice.

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