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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Burned, Pierced and Scarred – the Henning Juul series by Thomas Enger

My crime novel collection is varied in style and geography. I have American Jeffery Deaver for thrillers, Australiaburnedns Peter Corris for PI procedural and Kerry Greenwood for the most fabulous 1920s lady detective ever, Andrea Camilleri for Sicilian detection brilliance, CS Harris for Regency romance and murder, Elmore Leonard for noir, and many more. What had been missing from my shelves for some time was a regular Scandinavian crime writer, but now I have found one—Thomas Enger.

It may seem odd that it has taken me so long to commit to a Scandi crime novelist. It does to me. What with the explosion over the last decade or so of excellent Scandi crime and thrillers hitting the English-language world. I had intentions. Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Anne Holt… I think perhaps I was sated by the television: Unit One, The Eagle, The Killing etc. It doesn’t really matter, does it? I finally got there.

Henning Juul is a journalist with a knack for working out those things others don’t. A loner with a personal tragic mystery to solve—who set the fire to his home that killed his son, and why? In book one—Burned—we meet Henning as he returns to the workforce after he has recovered (physically) from the tragic fire. He is quiet, wearing scars and carrying a heavy heart. Each night he obsessively changes the batteries in his smoke detectors, and most of his thoughts are focussed on his son and his loss.

He starts work at an online newspaper in Oslo and covers the police rounds. He is an experienced journo—professional, eagle-eyed, able to get people to tell him things even if they didn’t want to.  Before long he is re-establishing contacts with the police, including a former school mate. And then there is the anonymous police source who contacts him piercedonline—who gives tips and helpful advice, and also seems to be able to assist in Henning’s quest to discover the truth surrounding his son’s death.

Meanwhile in Oslo, a young woman’s body is found on a frozen expanse. She has been stoned to death, whipped, and one of her hand’s is noticeably absent. Henning is sent to cover the story, and even though an arrest is made early on, something doesn’t add up for our protagonist and he finds himself continuing to investigate the crime.

In book two, Pierced, a former enforcer turned real-estate magnate has been found guilty of a murder he says he didn’t commit. He contacts our hero and promises information on the fire that killed Henning’s son if Henning helps clear his name. Henning understandably agrees, determined to get further in his personal quest, as long as he can avoid getting into deadly trouble himself.

In the latest book, Scarred, Henning is assigned to cover the murder of an elderly woman in a nursing home. At the same time his estranged sister Trine, the Minister for Justice, is accused of sexual misconduct and has the media at her door. Though the siblings rarely speak, for reasons of which even Henning is not clear, he believes his sister has been set up and seeks to discover the saboteur. As the two cases collide, we learn more of Henning and his childhood than we have before, and in some ways so does he. There is a family secret that is still not scarredperfectly clear but there is a sense our hero may be investigating his own background, along with discovering more about the deadly fire in his home, sometime soon.

I was recommended these books by their English translator, Charlotte Barslund. We sat next to each other at a dinner a couple of years ago and I asked her what were some of her favourite books to work on. She nominated Thomas Enger’s series and despite the generous wine pouring during the night I remembered them. And I’m very glad I did. They are some of the first novels I’ve turned to for holidays, a crime fix or when needing something different in tone after a great big sweeping novel.

Henning, despite his quiet intensity and personal distractions, is the kind of character who gets under others’ skin. In the books, this is partly due to his journalistic training, but for the reader it’s because he is a good man; a good, intelligent and sensible man who has lost a lot of himself due to his life’s tragedy but is capable of rebuilding over time, if he can get a few breaks, if he can find out who killed his son and learn to move on. He himself is a mystery we are keen to unravel, and at the same time we are happy and intrigued to join him as he unravels other crimes.

Thomas Enger’s novels are everything you need from your Northern crime stories—dark and mysterious, thoughtful and wry, with a protagonist we want to meet again and again, watching him solve crimes, avenge tragedy and grow as a person.

 

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part two)

I missed book group last week. It makes me sad for all the missed joys mentioned in the first part of this post series and also because when I can’t get around to reading the book-group book I feel it means I am not using my potential reading time as I should. It means I am letting work-reading start to take over again. It means I am checking emails while commuting when I could be reading my books. It means I am watching too many TV shows where an expert comes in to fix a bankrupt country house/failing hotel/failing restaurant or where amateur cooks try to make me feel un-gourmet by pretending they are proper chefs, and maybe we should all get over our fascination with goat’s cheese and pop-up restaurants. Not that we should blame the goat’s cheese.

So, yes, I wasn’t reading as much last month and I missed my previous book group meeting. Well, I opted out. But before that moment of truancy I had read a lot of book-group books. And if you didn’t catch the link to part one of this series above, I’m giving you another chance to click on it here.

Sometimes outsiders fear book groups are full of self-proclaimed intellectuals full of high talk about this literary theory and that rather brilliant but unfathomable novelist. Telling them you discussed Kafka the other month doesn’t help this fear. Mind you, if they’d been at the pub where we hold our meetings and overheard our conversation, they may not have felt so intellectually threatened. It went a little bit like this:

‘Oh my god, I just couldn’t finish it.’

‘I finished it but I didn’t really get it.’

‘I think I get what he’s on about but I don’t think I really care.’

‘Although, I am kind of glad that I can now legitimately use the term Kafkaesque.’

I was glad of that too, well not about using the term so much, but having now read a novel by Franz Kafka I will no longer feel as deceitful about the odd reference to him or his writing that I may have occasionally made in the past without having ever read any of his work.

So The Trial was not a resounding success, but not everyone hated it. The person who chose the novel, for example, adores it. He chose it for book group because it is one of his favourite books and he wanted to see what other people thought about it. He held up well, I must say. And he continues to attend our meetings so mustn’t think we’re entirely stupid. Plus the university student who sold me my copy at the bookstore raved on about dear old Franz for some time. And as once mentioned in a post a few years back, author and playwright Alan Bennett often wrote of Kafka in his journals.

So what did I think? I found The Trial a challenging reading experience. It took a lot of brain power to get through and as a reader who prefers a steady plot and reasonably clear character motivations my reading of this novel was slow. It was also tentative. I kept waiting for a penny to drop, for a revealing, for a proactive change in the character and/or his situation, I  kept waiting to feel as though I understood exactly what the point of the book was and therefore could allow myself to feel smart. I kept waiting. I also had a gap of a week or more between readings, which was not a good idea. It was difficult to get back into the tale even to the small degree that I had been ‘in it’ previously. I was on holiday and who wants to be reading Kafka while on safari? Well, maybe Alan Bennett and that girl from the book store. Maybe a lot of people, for all I know. But not me. It felt like homework. I was lying under a tree in the Namibian bush and I did not want to be doing homework.

Like my book group cohort who was glad they could now use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ without shame, I am still pleased that I have read The Trial, though perhaps not for the reasons I should. It is always better to be able to say that you didn’t really like a novel having read it, than pretend you know all about it when you haven’t. Plus sometimes it is good to challenge yourself, to exercise your mind and see how far it will stretch,  to be able to discuss how a book made you feel instead of avoid writings you are frightened you might not understand. In the end you may not enjoy the book, it might even make you feel a little bit thick, but going through the process and then discussing it with others can still be one of the joys of book group.