Reviews: Books Read this Past Month

One of the great virtues of being out of the office and, more significantly, not writing is that one is free to pick up a book. Or, since I have now been gifted a Kindle, hoover it down from Amazon. It’s scary how easy it is to do that. I rarely review books on this site, mostly because I know too many novelists 🙂 but I’m going to make an exception just this once.

The books reviewed are:

Hunting Shadows by Sheila Bugler

HHhH by Laurent Binet

The Things We Know Now by Catherine Dunne

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Sheila Bugler – Hunting Shadows

New from the Brandon imprint of the O’Brien Press. A crime novel introducing hardened London-Irish detective Ellen Kelly, who is haunted by the loss of her husband in violent circumstances and her own hard childhood. And who has to solve a case involving a missing child.

I liked this one, but what particularly struck me wasn’t so much the main story, though it moves along nicely, so much as the delicacy in which Bugler paints the pen-portraits of the minor characters. One particular passage about two broken men where one remembers how they played football as boys – well my heart broke reading it. Looking forward to hearing more of Ellen Kelly’s adventures.

Laurent Binet – HHhH

It took me a few days to finish this one, but this is no reflection on the novel, which is both the story of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination by two Czech partisans and a meditation on the process of writing historical fiction. I smiled wryly at Binet’s agonies over whether Heydrich’s Opel was green or black and what liberties he felt comfortable taking or not taking – a topic which is especially sensitive when it comes to anything to do with the Nazis or the Holocaust.

Surprisingly for such a grim topic – and Binet doesn’t shy away from such topics as the Babi Yar assassination – the pace never lets up, though the closer we get to the central event, the more he cunningly slows down with various historical tangents, until I’m yelling at the page, “Just shoot the b*stard already!” The thing is, we know what he’s doing, we know that his angst is manufactured and he admits that himself. And yet, the tangents are interesting too and even though I want them to go get the Nazi, I also want to read these side stories (though perhaps less so about Binet’s angsting over his girlfriend.) This is a very clever work and manages to be riveting, yet treats the whole historical period with the gravity, and anger, it deserves.

Catherine Dunne – The Things We Know Now

The first thing to say about this recent work by the accomplished and prolific Irish novelist Catherine Dunne is that it probably should carry some warnings. It engages with the sensitive and difficult subject of bullying and suicidal ideation. It also deals with family conflict. Patrick Grant is a second-time-around father with his much younger wife Ella, formerly his therapist, and Rebecca, his eldest daughter by his deceased first wife, is more than a little put out by the fact. There has been a growing estrangement between both Rebecca and her sisters and between her and her father, which dates from a row between her parents which Rebecca witnessed at the age of four. Though it is presented to the reader that this event fashioned such a long falling-out, a premise I find rather difficult to credit, the character herself is believable.

Then we move on to the youngest sibling, Patrick and Ella’s son Daniel. To be honest, I found him a bit too good to be true: talented, sensitive, artistic, a prodigy on the violin and an accomplished artist before his teens. I began to wish he’d go on the rampage after several cans of cider, trash the house and call his mother a beeyotch, just for a bit of variety. But Dunne has built up this portrait quite deliberately so we can see what it is that Patrick and Ella lose after Daniel commits suicide (not a spoiler – this is the first event in the book) and the portrait of their grief which she paints is devastating. The chapters in the aftermath of Daniel’s suicide are very moving and distressing. I should say at this stage, I was utterly gripped by the book and finished it at one session – apart from the Daniel bits.

My problems with it are that structurally, I don’t really see how the Rebecca story and the Daniel story integrate. It’s like two different novels being stuck together. The bit in the middle where we were being told how wonderful Daniel was was frankly tedious (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Let the reader infer.) The story got hella more interesting after Daniel exited stage left and I think Dunne could have expanded on the quest of his parents to find out the truth. One of the main antagonists turns out to be a relative of a man from Ella’s past, but we never get to find out why the connection is significant or what difference it makes to the story – it’s just dropped in and forgotten about again.

So – I was hooked and it was well written, but as a reader I do have some questions.

William Trevor – Love and Summer

Oh Mr Trevor. You are one of my favourite authors and the Irish writer I most revere. I love the delicacy and power of your short stories, your sad characters with their wasted lives, their dreams, their confinements. I love the way you say everything by leaving things unsaid. I try every day to be a little like you. And maybe fail, but keep trying.

But this novel – no, it just won’t do.  Set in the fifties, it describes an affair between a convent girl married to an old man and the scion of the nearest Big House. This is just an easy reversion to your past work. Now I know you’ve been writing for a very long time, but your stories are current. This novel seems like a throwback. It feels like you’re not trying very hard.

This scion, the improbably named Florian Kilderry, woos the aforementioned convent girl turned farmer’s wife Ellie Dillahan, but the problem is that he isn’t interesting enough for us to care what he feels or does. Although his background is elaborately described, he doesn’t feel quite real. And the tendency to blur the moment when intimacy occurs between the couple is not tasteful – it’s just confusing. When the whole point of a novel is that two people come together, we need some detail, perhaps even just the point where they hold hands. Blurring about this sort of thing is, to me, irritating rather than enlightening and Trevor can do better. (I have a whole rant about erotic cowardice in literature but that can do for another day I think.)

Verdict – if you like Trevor, as I do very much, stick with his short stories or other novels.

And finally –

Longbourn by Jo Baker

I really enjoyed this book, which is Pride and Prejudice re-imagined from the servants’ point of view at the Bennetts’ house, Longbourn. The research is comprehensive, the period detail perfectly imagined. The servants’ story, as told by Baker, only rarely intersects with the one above stairs. Illusions about the gentry are rapidly stripped; the book starts on washday, when the maids Sarah and Polly have to wash the laundry incurred by a house of synchronising females. But Sarah is absorbed by the arrival of a new manservant, James Smith, who may or may not have some previous connection to the Longbourn home. She is also getting acquainted with a footman from the Bingley household, a freed slave called Ptolemy, who might well offer a ticket out of servitude for both of them.

I did find the novel just that bit long, probably trying to pack in rather a lot, but apart from that was drawn into the story. I like that the portrayal of Collins was at least partially sympathetic and that little or no attention was given to Darcy. It was interesting to see Elizabeth re-imagined from the servants’ point of view, and the time where she is confused about James Smith’s identity because Sarah keeps referring to him as “Mr Smith”, when in Elizabeth’s worldview servants do not carry honorifics. Quite a poignant passage, and reminded me of this blistering story by Dr Bernestine Singley of the real feelings of black servants in the Deep South towards the children of their white employers.

I think the entire Napoleonic War section could have been dropped with no loss of tension, though.

Verdict – Recommended, though that section is probably redundant.

So that’s it. Turned out to be very long! Probably says more about me as a reader than it does about the books, but there you go 🙂

7 thoughts on “Reviews: Books Read this Past Month

  1. I enjoyed that! I hit my lifetime Jane Austen quota in the mid-Nineties – but I like the sound of Jo Baker’s book. I’m juggling The Year Of The Flood, Troubles and The Raj Quartet (no mean feat – The Raj Quartet is particularly unwieldy) but I must put Longbourn on the list. Thank you!

    1. Dr Singley, you are most welcome and thank you for dropping in.

      If there is anything I have learned from writing historical fiction it is in the power of names. And how they can be used as a tool of power all by themselves. I often read about how in the Deep South during that period, black people talking to each other would always address each other by their proper titles in order to take back the power removed from them when whites disrespectfully addressed them by their first name.

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