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Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Widowland - Book review


C.J. Carey’s debut novel Widowland joins the lengthy ranks of alternate history books, in this case re-imagining where Britain signed an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1940. The story takes place in 1953, in the weeks running up to the coronation of Edward VIII and his queen Wallis. Since the Alliance, in effect all power actually resides in Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s Protector.

In this new world, women are allocated specific castes. ‘When all the boxes were ticked, the women were assigned the classification… This label would determine every aspect of their life, from where they should live, to what clothes they would wear, what entertainment they could enjoy and how many calories they could consume.’ (p20)

The elite women were popularly called Gelis; Klaras were fertile women who had produced four or more children; Lenis were professional women, such as office workers. Paulas were carers, teachers and nurses; Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees, while Gretls did domestic work. Tight at the bottom came Friedas – essentially cemetery women – ‘widows and spinsters over fifty who had no children,  no reproductive purpose and who did not serve a man.’ (p20)

Rose Ransom is among the elite, a Geli, working at the Ministry of Culture, rewriting classics of English literature to correct the views expressed in these old novels. ‘They had an office for everything and there was no reason why literature should no be processed and cultivated and bureaucratized as much as steel or cardboard or coal.’ (p141)

Inevitably, reading the forbidden texts in order to prune them has its effect: ‘she found she could not get the writers’ voices out of her head.’ (p206) – which is why despots always desire to control writing in their world.

As she’s an expert in these old tomes, she is called upon to investigate outbreaks of insurgency: graffiti has been daubed on public buildings in the form of extracts from forbidden works, notably words by female novelists. Suspicion has fallen on Widowland, the run-down slum in Oxford where childless women over fifty have been banished. Rose is tasked with rooting out the source of this rebellion before the Leader, Hitler, arrives in England for the Coronation.

Some quotations are from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, others from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even Jane Austen.

Carey has captured the flavour of the early 1950s as well as the machinations of the Third Reich with many telling details. She also imbues the story with wit and humour as well as menace and suspense. She has an easy but often haunting style, too: ‘A hawthorn in full bloom had scattered its blossom like blown snow across her path and its musty odour evoked a sudden evanescent transport of memory…’ (p158)

‘Short of being German, Helena had been gifted with all the blessings the gods could bestow, chief among them a sense of the ridiculous – a vital attribute in Government service.’ (p16)

‘Alfred Rosenberg was sixty, but looked a decade more. With his sickly complexion, perpetual scowl and deep-set dark eyes, the Protector was more mortician than politician.’ (p34)

Hymns were still sung in community centres, though the words had been changed: ‘The Magda in her kitchen/ The Gretl at the grate/The Leader made them lowly/And ordered their estate.’ (p154)

A German policeman Bruno Schumacher is wonderfully described: ‘… he had a five o’clock shadow that looked like it had no regard for punctuality.’ (p171)

To compound Rose’s situation, she is conducting an illicit affair with Martin, a powerful Nazi commander, which adds suspense to the brew.

In many ways this novel offers a few chilling insights into the ongoing culture wars and the cancellation mentality, among them digs at the purveyors of the Woke religion: ‘Don’t presume to speculate on other cultures. “Cultural Misappropriation” it was called…’ (p195)  In addition it seems likely that the repercussions of Covid-19 and subsequent Lockdowns and Government rulings inspired aspects of the novel: ‘Self-censorship was always more effective than any other kind. Why police people when you can scare them into policing themselves?’ (p315)

The subjugation of women depicted here has faint echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale (Attwood, 1985), but without the religious overtones. Some other alternate history books are Bring the Jubilee (Moore, 1955), The Man in the High Castle (Dick, 1962), Pavane (Roberts, 1968), Dominion (Sansom, 2012), A Piece of Resistance (Egleton, 1970), Collaborator (Davies, 2003), Fatherland (Harris, 1992), When the Kissing had to Stop (Fitzgibbon, 1960), SSGB (Deighton, 1978), The Leader (Walters, 2003) and Romanitas (McDougall, 2005). Widowland is a welcome addition to an impressive list.

C.J. Carey is the pen-name of novelist Jane Thynne; she is the widow of author Philip Kerr. This is her first novel using this pseudonym.

***

Editorial comment:

I thought the cover was garish; however, the author liked it immensely, so who am I to judge?

‘If that’s not nerve-wracking enough’. (p17) Wrack is seaweed. It should be ‘nerve-racking’. Nerves on the rack, in effect.

Friday, 9 July 2021

The Alienist - book review

Caleb Carr’s debut thriller The Alienist was published in 1994; it has only recently been released as a series on Netflix.

The title derives from the fact that before 1900 people suffering from mental illness were believed to be ‘alienated’ from society and even their true nature. Experts who studied these individuals were known as alienists.

The tale takes place in 1896 in New York. John Schuyler Moore is the narrator. He’s a journalist. He’s also a good friend of Dr Laszlo Kreizler, an eminent physician and alienist. One night they are both called out by the Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt: there has been a gruesome murder of a boy prostitute, which is not the first, apparently. As Roosevelt is at his wits’ end he reluctantly calls upon Kreizler and Moore to undertake a private investigation. They recruit the formidable Sara, Roosevelt’s secretary, to assist.

At over 500 pages, this is not a page-turning thriller. But it is nevertheless engrossing, not least because Carr has inhabited not only the persona of Moore and the time-period but also the great city itself. To reinforce credibility, he has populated the story with real people as well as fictional. Religious, political and criminal characters leap from the page – and can be found in the prizewinning tome Gotham – A History of New York City to 1898 by Burrows and Wallace (pub.1999).

As they attempt to formulate the psychological profile of the serial killer who persists in murdering boy’s and depriving their corpses of their eyes, the investigative team are repeatedly baulked by criminal elements and even the city’s Protestant and Catholic archbishops.

The gradual unravelling of the culprit’s past is compelling and fascinating.

As the brief outline above attests, the book is not for the squeamish. Sadly, whatever atrocity a fiction writer might write about, in the annals of crime the truth is often by far worse.

An accomplished first novel. Others have followed.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

A Foreign Country - Book review

Charles Cumming’s sixth espionage novel A Foreign Country was published in 2012. It’s the first of his I’ve read but it probably won’t be the last. Apparently he had a brief career in MI6 in the mid-1990s. It shows.


The story begins in Tunisia in 1978. Amelia Weldon had been hired to look after Jean-Marc Daumal’s children. She was also having a clandestine affair with him, under the nose of his wife Celine. And then one day she simply vanished.

That was the past.

(The book’s title is taken from L.P. Hartley’s first lines of The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ It’s such a great observation, and has been utilised by many authors over the years. As an aside, it’s a pity that those today who wish to rewrite or expunge history don’t understand what Hartley meant.)

Then we come to the present. An elderly French couple are the victims of a brutal robbery and murder at Sharm-el-Sheikh. Seemingly unconnected, elsewhere, a kidnapping occurs. Oblivious to these happenings, Thomas Kell is at a loose end. He was a British agent who’d been ‘let go’ as a result of a failed mission. Yet he is now in demand again; he is asked to locate the prospective new head of MI6, Amelia Weldon who has inexplicably gone missing.

Jaded but competent, Kell sets about trying to track her down; no easy task. Here, now, we learn some of the tricks of the trade, and meet several duplicitous individuals who will help or hinder him. It is a tense, page-turning ride, with a few twists and turns to keep the interest heightened. The past tends have a tendency to bite back, and this narrative is no exception.

The final pages are a fitting book-end for the tale.

A Foreign Country was the winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller of the year. 

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

More Than Human - book review

 


Theodore Sturgeon’s classic science fiction novel More Than Human was published in 1953 and won the International Fantasy and Science Fiction Award (1954). It comprises three connected stories – ‘The Fabulous Idiot’, ‘Baby is Three’ and ‘Morality’; the middle story was previously published as a standalone in Galaxy magazine in 1952; the book-end tales were written for the so-called fix-up novel.

The book concerns five beings – two little black girls with a speech impediment yet with the ability to teleport, an introspective girl whose mother was of easy virtue, one seemingly mentally impaired baby who can absorb and transmit thoughts, and a so-called idiot who is anything but and adopts the name Lone.

With intense psychological understanding, Sturgeon weaves the lives of these apparent ‘freaks’ and shows how over time they evolve into a single entity, a gestalt. The new human, perhaps? And he poses the question: would they be feared or embraced. We know the answer, of course. So this gestalt is secret, hidden from ordinary humans.

I don’t know but I can imagine Stephen King, among others, read this book and was influenced by its concepts and characters. There are definite similarities: the telepathic child, the dysfunctional characters, the underlying mystery and threat. And there are inchoate elements of the X-Men here too.

Sturgeon’s writing is colourful, imaginative and mindful of the human condition, and at times can pack a powerful punch.

More Than Human is still thought-provoking, even after all these years.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Hannah Robson - book review

Brenda McBryde’s novel was published in 1991.


Set in the 1680s in Northumberland, Hannah Robson evokes the period well from the traumatic beginning where twelve-year-old Hannah witnesses the painful and bloody birth of her baby brother, to the satisfying end several years later.

Witnessing that birthing event, Hannah swore she would never marry or have children. She was a hard worker on the family’s bleak hill farm and suffered more than her fair share of lashings from her father’s belt. She is protective of her younger sister Joan who was born with a deformity: ‘It was unfair of God to disable thee when the rest of us are all well-made,’ Hannah says. Apparently, hers was a difficult birth and the father would not spare the fee of a midwife. ‘It is not God I blame,’ says Joan (p71).  Hannah has an older brother, Tom who leaves home to be apprenticed to a local potter. Her mother Mary offers little comfort or kindness, more noticeable when Hannah briefly stays with the potter’s family where the matriarch Emma is warm and sensitive: ‘It was a cold welcome back. No smile. No embrace. Not the smallest hint of affection. That part of Hannah which had flowered in the warmth of Emma’s kindness curled up close like a bud caught by the frost.’ (p69)

Hannah is bright and was a good student and learned to read and write; so she is taken on by the local lord’s wife to work in the laundry. In no time at all she progresses from that drudgery to assist in the kitchen and thence as a lady’s maid to Ursula, the lord’s daughter. The unlikely pair are soon firm friends, and it seems Hannah’s on her way up in society. Then tragedy strikes and Hannah is cast out and decides she will not be a servant again so instead takes on the role of a fisher-woman. Yet Hannah is indomitable and will rise above all setbacks, of which there are plenty: the affairs of the heart press strongly but she resists; and there is danger and attempted rape.

Throughout, resilient Hannah is true to herself. The privations of the period are leavened with poignant moments and the generosity of spirit of many characters, both male and female.

The Geordie vernacular is used on occasion but is almost always comprehensible; there’s also a glossary on p351.

The author wrote a sequel, Hannah’s Daughter, but I have not read that yet. Her writing style is excellent and she has a deft way with describing nature as well as individuals.

Interestingly, the author hailed from Whitley Bay, my home town in Northumberland (now Tyne & Wear). That fact drew me, as did the title character, Hannah, which happens to be the name of our daughter; additionally, the character’s surname belongs to a lifelong friend: Robson is quite common in the region. There is mention of many places familiar to me – Beamish, Druridge Bay, Newcastle, and Tynemouth.

 If you enjoy stories with strong female characters, then this is right for you. Recommended.

Saturday, 22 May 2021

The Crocodile Bird - Book review

Five years before Ruth Rendell’s tour-de-force A Sight for Sore Eyes (reviewed here on 29 March), she tackled a similar theme in The Crocodile Bird: here, young Liza is being protected from the modern world, being home-schooled and not seeing any television; in Eyes, it was Francine who was overly protected because of a traumatic event in her early childhood, when she witnessed her mother’s murder. In both cases, Rendell examines how the isolation of the young women affects them, yet that’s where the similarity ends. Both works are highly original and powerfully related.

 

Liza’s mother Eve tells her she must leave their remote country gatehouse, because the police will be coming next day to arrest Eve. For Eve’s protection, Liza must not be found here. It’s a worrying situation, for in all of her seventeen years of life Liza has never been on a bus or a train, had never played with another child her own age, and had never left the extensive grounds of the Shrove mansion; the mansion’s gatehouse was their home. Liza had almost no knowledge of the outside world.

There is one glimmer of light for Liza. She is not entirely alone. Without her mother’s knowledge, she had begun a love affair with Sean, a young man who worked on the Shrove estate.

So begins three months of life with Sean in his caravan, while she learns about the real world. And as they cohabit she pieces together segments of the past involving her mother, her mother’s lovers and the violent death she had witnessed. And finally she learns why her mother wanted to protect her from the outside world…

As ever, Rendell imbues the story with extensive detail to create a sense of realism. The unravelling of the past is cleverly done, subtly building a sense of dread as the ending approaches.

And what of the intriguing title?  During one of her lessons Liza’s mother refers to a Trochilus, a kind of humming bird. Its ‘other name was the Crocodile Bird, so-called because it is the only creature that can enter with impunity the mouth of a crocodile and pick its teeth. It also cries out to warn the crocodile of an impending foe.’ (p190).  And while Eve might have killed a man or three, Liza realised she was never at risk: ‘I was like the bird that lived inside the crocodile’s mouth, I was safe whoever else wasn’t.’ (p243).

Recommended.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Azincourt - Book review

Bernard Cornwell’s historical novel was published in 2008 and uses the French spelling for the famous battle as it avoids any confusion with the many non-fiction books on the same subject.


The book concerns Nicholas Hook, a young man of nineteen, a forester tasked with providing venison for the local lord by using his trusty longbow. While the book is ultimately about the conflict at Agincourt, it is also about family conflict. For two generations the Hook family had been feuding with the Perrills. An altercation with the Perrills makes Hook an outlaw, so he flees to France as part of the English contingent hired by the Duke of Burgundy. Stationed in the town of Soissons, he is comfortable – until the French attack. The town is betrayed and Hook has to fight for his life, using his skill with the bow to evade capture. While he is escaping, he saves the virtue and life of a nun about to be ravaged. The nun is called Melisande and stays with him. Before they get away they witness the outrageous slaughter of the English bowmen and others.

They make it back to England via Calais, but it is not long before Hook is recruited to join the troops of Henry V as he leads an invasion force against France. They land without incident and lay siege to Harfleur. But the siege seems to go on too long, and the English become debilitated by disease…

At considerable cost to men, Harfleur is taken. Against all advice, Henry V plans to move through France towards Calais, expecting, hoping for a battle.

And of course he gets one.

The sack of Soissons, the siege of Harfleur, the trek to Agincourt and that battle are all described in riveting detail, unsparingly gory.  There is no glory in war. War is hell, and it is depicted as such here. Yet there is humour, too:

Sir John ordered them to stick to their positions before the battle. Even if their bowels were loose. ‘You’re to shit where you stand. Shit and die! And go to hell with fouled breeches.’ A moment later, Sir John scowled at Hook. ‘Jesus, man, can’t you do that upwind of me?’ (p360)

Sir John is a larger-than-life character, as is the priest who travels with Hook, Father Christopher. Melisande is the bastard daughter of a French nobleman, which complicates matters for Hook. The Perrills are also in the fighting force and pose a serious threat, notwithstanding the thousands of French men-at-arms ahead of them.

Cornwell has the splendid knack of bringing alive the battle scenes while simultaneously ratcheting up concern for the main protagonists, for Melisande is among the camp-followers.

In addition, there are additional layers of superstition, unquestioning belief in God, who is according to Henry V on their side, and unbridled lust and hatred.

I’m just sorry it has taken me so long to get round to reading this superb novel.

There are appropriate maps, and a ‘Behind the Battle’ section which includes a historical note, a brief treatise on the longbow, and an interview with Cornwell.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 23 April 2021

THE AERODROME - Book review

 


This is one of the 99 Novels that Anthony Burgess recommended in 1984 (Ninety-Nine Novels, Allison & Busby); this edition, 1982, also includes an introduction by Burgess comparing favourably it to Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four which was published eight years after The Aerodrome (1941).

Burgess considers the village represents fallen man, reflecting ‘the wretched or joyful human condition’. While outside the village is the ‘great aerodrome dedicated to cleanliness and efficiency. It is a self-sufficient totalitarian state with its eyes on the air not on the earth.’

Rex Warner explains that he does not aim at realism and considers both worlds (the village and the aerodrome) repulsive.

At the heart of the story is the narrator, Roy, who has attained his eighteenth birthday only to learn that the Rector, the man he considered his father was not, after all. A few subsidiary characters have names but not much description – Tom, George and Mac, for example. Yet we’re not made aware of the names of the remainder, the more significant characters: the Rector, the Rector’s wife, the Squire, the Squire’s daughter, the Flight-Lieutenant, the Air Vice-Marshal and the Landlord. However, the Landlord’s daughter is blessed with a name: Bess. Roy is drawn to her. And the sub-title of the book tells us why: it’s ‘a love story.’

Disillusioned, parentless, Roy seeks solace in the arms of Bess. Yet a further betrayal is not very far away, involving the Flight-Lieutenant.

There are several mysteries to be resolved: the Rector’s confession of murder; Roy’s true parents; Bess’s birth-right; the Flight-Lieutenant’s past… There are some twists towards the end, too. Interwoven are farcical scenes, the Flight-Lieutenant riding the bull Slazenger and the drunken revelries, and also some poignant moments too.

The Air Vice-Marshal is an unbending martinet who demands obedience from his men. He has plans for the village and even the country. He has a very low opinion of most of the population: ‘We shall destroy what we cannot change!’ (p223)

As for Roy, initially he was besotted with the Air Force and its charismatic leader, the Air Vice-Marshal; so much so that he is willingly recruited. He excels in his training and is ideal material for promotion. Yet, in time, the scales fall from his eyes: ‘It was as though there had been something in me like snow and ice which were now melting  and gradually revealing a landscape whose outlines I had not seen for some time and barely remembered.’ (p245)

This is an unusual imaginative study of power and human nature.