Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville

★★★½

This jolly novel is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, devoted to resurrecting overlooked treasures from the golden age of British mystery writing. While not an avid fan of crime novels, I have read one book from the series before – Death on the Cherwell – so it’s really the subject that appeals rather than the genre. In Weekend at Thrackley, first published in 1934, a rather feckless young man is surprised by an invitation to a country house weekend in Surrey. But further surprises are to come. Stuffed with dastardly villains, jewel thieves, mysterious pasts and a good dose of pluck, not to mention lashings of humour, this is just the ticket for cosy escapism.

Continue reading

La Belle Sauvage: Philip Pullman

★★★★

The Book of Dust: Book I

This review is overdue because I read this book back in January, but the delay doesn’t point to anything rather than my own inefficiency. I’d asked for it for Christmas, eager to return to the otherworldly Oxford that I knew so well from His Dark Materials. After so many years, I did wonder whether Pullman would be able to carry off the same magical mixture that he achieved in the original: part children’s story, part moral fable, part religious allegory, which by the end had a truly epic sweep. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t. For me, La Belle Sauvage didn’t quite have the same wild, transporting alchemy as Northern Lights, but Pullman’s writing remains entirely reliable. To read it is to give yourself up into the hands of a master storyteller.

Continue reading

Hereward: James Wilde

★★★

Hereward: Book I

It’s been a while since I spent some quality time with a murderous early medieval Englishman. Unfortunately I don’t have any more Uhtred books lying around just at the moment, so I’ve had to transfer my allegiance to an equally bloodthirsty kinsman of his: Hereward. In this first volume of a series, James Wilde tells the story of the legendary Saxon warrior who became the figurehead of rebellions against the Normans after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s pretty sound sword-and-shield stuff, with bloody battles, an odd-couple pairing at its heart and a maverick hero. It doesn’t ever transcend that, but it’s an engaging way to encounter this rather dark period of English history.

Continue reading

The Final Solution: Michael Chabon

★★★½

Close on the heels of Gentleman of the Road, J has supplied me with another of Michael Chabon’s books, in a not-so-discreet but much appreciated effort to nudge me through the rest of his oeuvre. At little more than 120 pages, this is more novella than full-length and, despite a haunting underlying subject, it has the feel of an amuse-bouche: a casual skirmish with one of the great characters of English literature. It’s the tale of an elderly man who was once famous for his extraordinary deductive powers across the length and breadth of the British Empire. But times have changed: the pea-soupers of London have given way to a peaceful retirement in the Sussex countryside, and the chaos of the human city to the quietly organised hives of honeybees. Little can tempt the old man from his self-imposed isolation; until, in the summer of 1944, he encounters a curious duo: a young boy with a splendid African grey parrot on his shoulder.

Continue reading

The Absolutist: John Boyne

★★★★

It is 1919 and Tristan Sadler arrives in Norwich to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of his friend and comrade Will Bancroft. Tristan has come to return the letters Marian wrote to her brother, which he has kept ever since Will’s death. And yet he hasn’t made this journey solely for the sake of restoring a piece of her family history. There are things Tristan needs to say; amends he needs to make. Will Bancroft didn’t die in action, but was shot by a firing squad of his own peers, hauled up on charges of cowardice after proclaiming himself an ‘absolutist’ – the firmest kind of conscientious objector. Tristan needs to tell Marian that her brother wasn’t a coward; but he also hopes, in meeting her, to find some closure for his own traumatic experiences on the Western Front.

Continue reading

A Morbid Taste for Bones: Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book I

In 1977, forty years ago, Edith Pargeter published the first book in her Cadfael series, which combined her talents as historical novelist (under her real name) and mystery writer (under the nom de plume Ellis Peters). Set in her native Shropshire, the story features the eponymous worldly-wise monk, whose adventurous youth has given way to a comfortable middle age at Shrewsbury Abbey. Here he finds himself solving a series of crimes in and around his foundation. Those who grew up in the 1990s, like me, will remember the cuddly Sunday-night ITV adaptation with Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. Cadfael was almost certainly my introduction to murder mysteries and I know that I read some of the books as a teenager, though I don’t remember them now. I was delighted to find the first seven novels in the series during a recent tip to the Book Barn, and decided it was time to refamiliarise myself with them.

Continue reading

Friendly Fire: Patrick Gale

★★★★

After reading Facing the Tank, I was keen to try some of Patrick Gale’s other novels. By chance, I stumbled across Friendly Fire, which is set in the same town and focuses on the grand old boarding school, Tatham’s, at its heart. Gale admits in his author’s note that the school is a thinly-disguised version of his own alma mater at Winchester, and perhaps that’s why the story shimmers with a kind of nostalgia. Like an adolescent version of The Lessons crossed with The Secret History, it follows the formidably bright Sophie and her friendship with the fascinating, flamboyant Lucas across the course of three tempestuous years. It’s a tribute to intense adolescent friendship, a tale of trying to find one’s place in a confusing world, and – perhaps above all – a love-letter to what happens when a thirsty mind meets a classical education.

Continue reading

Vixen: Rosie Garland

★★★

This was on my library wishlist even before I read Rosie Garland’s Night Brother, and without knowing a thing about it. I was just intrigued by the title and tantalised by the cover: I thought it might be a bit like Emma Geen’s Many Selves of Katherine North, but of course I was thinking too literally. Set in the Devon village of Braunton in the plague year of 1349, it in fact tells the story of Thomas, the village priest; Anne, his housekeeper and would-be wife; and the strange, mute girl who is discovered half-drowned in a bog after a terrible storm. As Death draws its wings close around Braunton, these three find themselves at the heart of a struggle between small-mindedness and broad vision, played out in microcosm in the kitchen and barn of Thomas’s meagre home.

Continue reading

Daughter of the Wolf: Victoria Whitworth

★★★½

This is the most recent novel by Victoria or V.M. Whitworth, also author of the Wulgar novels. I wasn’t entirely blown away by The Bone Thief, but I found much more to enjoy in this story set in what’s becoming a rather familiar world: Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It is 859 AD, two centuries after the days of Edwin and Oswald, and while King Osberht maintains an uneasy peace from York, his noblemen quietly test their strength and the sea-wolves harry the eastern coast. In Donmouth, where a hall and minster both fall under the authority of the lord’s family, Radmer and his feckless younger brother Ingeld divide worldly and heavenly power between them. And Radmer’s daughter Elfrun, struggling to make the transition from girl-child to woman, is about to find herself elevated to a terrifying level of responsibility.

Continue reading

The Buried Giant: Kazuo Ishiguro

★★★½

Gosh, what a strange novel. Part historical fiction, part fable, this book feels wilfully enigmatic, its meaning hovering just beyond reach, like a shattered reflection in water. This is only the second of Ishiguro’s novels that I’ve read (the first, some years ago, was Never Let Me Go) and so I’m not sure which elements are typical of his writing and which merely adopted for this book. One thing which the two books have in common, though, is that an apparently simple story turns out to have a much deeper significance. I have a sneaking suspicion that The Buried Giant has several layers, so this post is primarily an attempt to tease out meaning from this dreamlike tale of an ancient British past.

Continue reading