The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

A new book from Kate Summerscale is reason for excitement. I don’t willingly read a lot of non-fiction (always preferred working on it as an editor to reading it for pleasure) and yet when I see that this particular author has published a new title my insides do a little dance in anticipation and said title doesn’t linger on my kindle for long.

The reason for this is that the author is dynamite at combining thorough research with wonderful storytelling. When I read her books I am not only entertained but educated in that best of ways – the way where you’re having such a good time that you don’t even notice. And I don’t just mean I learn facts and history – though I do. I mean that I find myself pondering all kinds of things about people, society and even myself, so that by the end of a book I have cogitated and discovered more about, well, life.

The Wicked Boy was no different. Like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, it was intriguing, meticulously researched, written with great empathy and in a narrative style that takes the reader through the chapters as if they were reading – and trying to figure out – a mystery, rather than the details of a 120-year-old crime and the life of the sentenced thereafter.

In 1895 Robert Coombes and his brother Nattie are tried for the murder of their mother. They are aged 13 and 12. The boys seem neither upset nor ashamed of the crime, and though they try to cover it up (badly) they are keen to admit it when accused. The account of their behaviour, the crime and the public’s reaction to it at the time is fascinating, created by Summerscale with clever layering of source material. One of things I love about this author’s style is that you never feel as if she is telling you what to think, nor does she try to fill gaps where gaps cannot be filled. It means that you the reader are sifting through the information – that comes from a range of perspectives, it is never one-sided – and forming your own view of the situations being described. So while you are reading, you are also considering everything for yourself: Do I believe these boys committed matricide? Why do I think they did? Surely there must be a good reason or are they just insane? And while you are reading and pondering you are steered through the story with grace and a subtle confidence that only comes from a truly accomplished writer.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the trial concludes with Robert deemed insane and to have influenced his brother to help murder their mother, and is sent to an asylum where he lives a full if very quiet existence as an inmate. It is the best kind of that type of institution, a place where people are treated with care and respect, where they are given occupation and peace, and some, like Robert are moulded to return to the everyday world. When Robert is released he ends up serving with honour as a stretcher bearer in the First World War, and emigrates to Australia where he lives an unremarkable and quiet life in a small rural community. He is a tailor, a talented musician, a small-hold farmer. He is well-liked, intelligent and respected. He keeps in touch with his brother who, like him, also went to war, works hard and lives an unremarkable life.

An unremarkable almost hermit-like life, perhaps, but I was so interested in Robert Coombes and his decisions, and he is described with such empathy, that I was gripped to each page, wanting to find out another small detail, wanting to add to my picture of this child-murderer grown up who I was beginning to like and wanted to see happy in some way. Of course, the somewhat frustrating thing with non-fiction is that we rarely have neat, rounded, happy endings; we only have what the author can discover, what the documents can tell us. At the very least, in this case, what the author discovers about Robert Coombes is satisfying for the reader.

In the end, when reading The Wicked Boy we are reading a book of two stories: an account of a sensational murder trial in Victorian England, and the tale of one man’s search for redemption. Both stories are equally mesmerising, though the latter certainly affected me more; it is still sitting beneath my ribs, forcing the occasional deep and contemplative breath. I didn’t expect this when I first started the book. I thought I would be witnessing the retelling of a captivating trial and a shocking crime. I wanted to gawk and be thrilled. And I did, and I was. But I was also taken on the journey of a quiet man’s life, on his personal travels towards atonement. And I was fascinated, interested and, ultimately, touched. This is a fantastic book from Kate Summerscale that I would heartily recommend. It is skilfully written, a pleasure to read, and a work of great scholarship and compassion. I will not forget it in a hurry.

Upon which I discover Les Miserables is actually very good

I have recently been addicted to a dramatised version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables that has been playing on BBC Radio 4. Turns out this classic story, which frequently appears in ‘the best novels ever’ lists, is actually pretty bloody good. Marvellous, in fact. A portrayal of humanity and love most other works would struggle to equal. Who knew?

I have downloaded the behemoth (1200-odd pages!!) French tale onto my e-reader and only need a holiday curled up on a sofa with a bottle of brandy and no disturbances (ha!) to make my way through it. It will happen. I just don’t want to say when.

It also turns out that thirty-odd years of witnessing theatrical posters and TV commercials for cast recordings of the musical production were not enough on which to base my knowledge of the great book. I always presumed it took place during the French revolution, what with all the poor, grubby people and flag waving. Lucky I never pretended I had read it. Though the story begins only a decade or so after this time, it would still have been odd if I had started talking about guillotines and letting people eat cake. Now that would have been embarrassing…

Random honourable mention: Euphoria by Lily King

I read Euphoria two years ago among the flurry and haze of caring for baby twins. It is one of the few things I haven’t already forgotten about that period and I still find myself recommending it to anyone silly enough to ask me if I have read anything good lately (well of course I have). It is quite simply one of the most excellent novels I have had the pleasure of reading. Skilfully told and written, it is a fictional account of the relationship between three anthropologists in isolated Sepik River communities in New Guinea in the 1930s, though inspired by the life and works of Margaret Mead.

One can hardly imagine the research entailed in a creation that reads so authentically, and yet at no time is the research conspicuous. It is an enthralling story involving fascinating characters in an almost unimaginable situation, and though for most of the book we are among people who say so little to each other (whether due to secrets, emotional reserve, mistrust, language barriers or complete cultural incomprehension), you feel as if you learn quite a lot about these people, and you quickly become invested in Andrew and Nell and their futures, not to mention standing beside them in this rare world that was alien then and, to the vast majority of us, still is now.

Euphoria is a novel with a beating pulse that will capture your mind and spirit. Wonderfully written, enthralling, emotional, tense, heartfelt, intelligent. It is a book with its own soul and completely unforgettable. And that is why, when you ask me for a book recommendation this is still one of the titles that immediately comes to mind. Simply brilliant.

Random honourable mention: The Poet’s Wife by Rebecca Stonehill

Without further ado, explanation or a long list of excuses for a lack of general posting, here is the first in a series of short posts of books once read, but yet to be mentioned, that I want to share.

The Poet’s Wife by Rebecca Stonehill

A sweeping family tale set during last century’s Spanish Civil War, The Poet’s Wife, is a truly enthralling story, populated with memorable characters and infused with emotion and drama. The strong female characters particularly appealed to me, as did the Spanish setting – most of the narrative takes place in Granada – as I have a special place in my heart for Spain and the Spanish culture. Well-researched and well-written, I was intrigued, entertained, thrilled and put to both despair and joy at different stages of the novel. It was also a book that after reading I felt as if I knew a little more about the world, and that is always a good thing in my view. I would thoroughly recommend this novel to historical fiction readers and those who enjoy a sweeping tale.

 

 

 

Towers, Stacks and Piles of Books

Dear Reader,

I feel it would be remiss of me to not make mention of this article by Susan Harlan read on Literary Hub last week, being pro-pile as it is. No matter that in reality I have as many digital towers as physical. A pile, is a tower, is a stack, is a pile.

http://lithub.com/in-praise-of-the-book-tower/

Sincerely,

Lauren, Pile o’ Books

Sound all the trumpets! Jasper Jones film release

I’m so excited about the film release of Jasper Jones – based on the most wonderful of novels by Craig Silvey, and one of Australia’s favourite books. I have high hopes for the production and can’t wait to see it. Once I work out how I can see it over here in the UK… I foresee much googling for local releases come March after the Australian premiere. If you haven’t come across this tremendous novel I can only suggest you treat yourself and add it to your reading pile.

Where Falcons Fall by CS Harris

Each year I buy myself books as a birthday present. My financial situation at the time dictates whether I stroll out of the bookshop with a couple of novels nestled in my handbag or if I traverse carefully, knees bent, back braced, trying not to topple over under the weight of soon-to-be dusty volumes. In recent years it has been the former, but however many stories I manage to gift myself there is always a certain series included. For my birthday I always buy myself the latest Sebastian St Cyr novel.

falcons-fall-225-shadowThis blog is not devoid of Sebastian reviews. The series is one of my very favourite things to read – a thoroughly enjoyable experience I look forward to with giddy excitement. The books also rank in my mum’s favourites and even though we currently live very far apart (England and Australia) I still pop each finished ‘Sebastian’ in a bag and mail it across the seas for her to read. I know it would probably cost about the same to order her a copy, but the act of specially posting it is one that makes us feel connected; somehow the reading experience is more shared.

In Where Falcons Fall, Sebastian and Hero are outside London for once, and it gives the story a refreshing air. While staying in a small Shropshire village to try to discover more information about the man Sebastian believes could be his half-brother, and thus perhaps learn who is their shared mother, the Viscount and his wife become entangled in a rare local, and also particularly mysterious, murder. What at first appeared to be a quiet, harmless hamlet soon reveals itself to be a place hiding dark deeds and people with dark agendas.

I will have said it before, but I can’t recommend the Sebastian St Cyr series enough. They are well-written, well-plotted, romantic and exciting –  the perfect novels to give yourself for your birthday. Or  for Christmas. Or just because.