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.

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.

 

Three shelves up

I moved house recently. Again. For someone with a steady career history and mostly sensible decision-making twinkling in my past I seem to have relocated with a pace akin to someone in the witness protection system. I am not in the witness protection system. But I am a renter, and I live in an expensive city, oh and I have 17-month-old twins and until a month ago the husband, kids and I were still living in a (lovely) one bedroom flat. Ever wondered how long you could share a bedroom with your two offspring before seeing the hall cupboard as a legitimate alternative boudoir? The answer is 16 months.

So we have moved. Again. And with us have come all the books. Between us, the husband and I have many, many books. And it’s not really all the books as 90 per cent of my  books are back in Australia, and a good percentage of his books are on the other side of England in his mum’s basement. And yet there are still many books. And as a four-person family in a (lovely) small flat trying to squeeze in all the things a young family has… Well. Book-space is at a premium. And yet we have hung on to the books. We have relocated a sofa, sacrificed a dresser, shoved DVDs under the bed, sold off unnecessary baby-related items, and perform contortions to sit around the dining table. But the books and their wooden houses are in place and the shelves they do groan.

Except for the bottom two shelves of any bookcase that are accessible to two small, over-curious children.

Because inquisitive 17-month-olds who love books, and love the sound and feel of paper, and love exploring, really, really, really love to pull books off shelves and “read” them. By which I mean  erratically flick through the pages, fling them about by their covers until said cover detaches from the rest of the book, stand on them to attempt to make one taller to reach yet more books, maybe have a little nibble on them for some daily roughage. And it drives the husband crazy.

Because to the husband, every book is precious. Every supermarket paperback, every airport buy, every 3 books for the price of 2 when you can never choose a third book but it seems like poor value to not take up the deal. Every. Single. One. He values an action novel written by three authors because the original author died a decade ago but there was a franchise to maintain, as much as a first edition. And he buys first editions. And signed editions. And he tucks them in next to grey-tinged paperbacks that cost £1 with a cup of motorway-services coffee. And when his (lovely) children start mangling them with affection he near hyperventilates. Because the husband values the physical copy of every book as much as he values the reading experience. To him, they are interlinked and both maintain the other.

I don’t tend to be quite so bound (ahem) to my actual books. I get rid of books I didn’t enjoy, I consider whether each is worth keeping. Sure, there are special copies of certain titles that I wouldn’t want the demolition duo to use to explore their aching hunger for literature and recycled tree products, but I am much more at ease with the idea that the value is in the story, rather than the pages. Much more at ease.

Well, perhaps not as completely as I thought I was. Because when  we tried to make a pile of lesser paperbacks that could go on a bottom shelf as a biblio-sacrifice to our voracious pint-sized overlords, the pile was very small and when the husband added to it with a couple of my bargain-basement, only-bought-it-because-everyone-was-talking-about-it paperback possessions I too wanted to protest and hide them away on the higher shelves that are currently out of the reach of tiny hands.

I am the person in our household who tidies and categorizes, who fills charity bags with unwanted clothes, who sorts through the filing cabinet for unnecessary papers that can be recycled, who almost passed out in pride when the husband started filling in the family planner. But it turns out I’m not entirely ruthless, and that even I am still an old softie when it comes to our books. All of our books – the high and the low, the good and the bad, the cheap and the overpriced. We don’t want to look at each book and decide if it sparks joy (sorry, Marie Kondo) – it is our collection of books that give us joy and make our bookish souls sparkle. Even if we can barely squeeze ourselves around the dining table for a family meal, and even if the collection of books starts on the third shelf up of every bookcase. It is joyful to know that our toddlers are so interested in books already, but it doesn’t mean we want them touching all of ours just yet.

A little post on a little free library

When I was growing up, visits to our local libraries were weekly occurrences. There was a children’s library along my route between home and school and I would stop in often to switch one pile of books for another. I recall calico library bags groaning with treasures. I ended up working at that children’s library and at the main municipal library when I was in high school and found it hard not to check out for myself every book I was checking back in. Since finishing two stints at university in my twenties, I stopped frequenting libraries and I don’t really know why. Time, I suppose, that thing we claim never to have. No time to go, not enough time to read before needing to return your borrowings.

I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but they sure have been closing a lot of libraries in the UK over the last 12 months. It makes me angry, but I also feel guilty that I, like a lot of people, no longer frequent them, despite thinking them very important, for the community as a whole, as well as for accessing books. Maybe if more of us ex-library-goers still visited occasionally, local councils wouldn’t think they could get rid of them.

Not a ‘little library’ but a great one nevertheless. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

One of my blogging-friends this week presented her attempt to build community spirit, promote literacy and foster a love of reading. It’s called the ‘little free library’ and it’s a movement gaining popularity in the States. Participants build a small cupboard of some kind, fill it with books and leave it on their lawn or driveway for anyone and everyone to access. It was the perfect thing for Jeanne, a retired librarian, to do and you can read about, and see, her efforts here. And you should read Jeanne and Curt’s blog—Another Stir of the Spoon—anyway, especially if you like food, books or birds (and who doesn’t?!).

You can find out more about the little library people here. There’s only one in the UK so far, and also one in Australia… one day when I have my own lawn or driveway, I’ll have to add to those numbers.

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

A few weeks back I hit the one-year mark of living in London. It’s hard to believe, but some thirteen months ago all the talk of ‘Oh I’m just going  to the UK to see what happens’ became a reality. It’s been an interesting year; magical in some ways (I met my wonderful boyfriend and have visited lovely places), uneventful in others (one still has to work for a living, you know), ridiculously simple on occasion (you mean I just hop on this train and two hours later I’m in Paris?) and, at times, terribly difficult. The main difficulties come from being without family and social networks mixed in with a little British bureaucracy and the fact that even though Australian and British cultures have much in common, there are enough differences to sometimes make everyday conversations and errands somewhat… puzzling… and more difficult than you know they should be.

But the good times outweigh the tough times. Most of the time. The longer I’ve been here the more friends and contacts I’ve made and the more I seem to be able to function in society without having to use charades or repeat myself. Yes, this happens even when you’re both speaking English.

One of the best things I did last year was join a book group. They’re an excellent bunch of people, and I look forward to our monthly meetings. The chance of a group of strangers thrown together because they all ‘like reading’ getting on really well and even being able to talk about other things than the books they like (or don’t like), must be slim. Think of all those author events you’ve been to where everyone who asks a question seems to be a bore or raving lunatic… they all really like reading too.

So joining a book group worked out for me. For all the reasons I have mentioned in previous posts and now I also always gain a snippet of information about London life or a recommendation for a new thing to see, do or visit. Most of all, I like that it is my thing. My new book group is a little piece of my London life.

And so to the books. Selected for general interest, discussion potential, reputation, size (a shorter book has more chance of being read by all), enjoyment and intellectual growth, we have read six books in the last six months that I have yet to share with you. I am tired of focusing on the infrequency of my blogging (one of the not-good things that has occurred over the last thirteen months), so let’s just get on with it.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A slim volume where the reader is put in the position of one of the characters. A not-particularly-interesting character but the person to whom the is-he-just-friendly or is-he-simply-dangerous narrator addresses himself throughout the novel. It’s rare as a reader to be being told by the narrator about what ‘you’ are doing. It puts you in an intriguing position. Do I feel uncomfortable because the story is setting me up to feel this way? Or do I just feel uncomfortable? And do I want to be continually addressed as a middle-aged American businessman? I am very different to those kinds of people. Aren’t I?

Our narrator, Changez, tells his story in a cafe in Pakistan to a man who he may or may not have run into on purpose. His story is of his development from an optimistic, ambitious Princeton student who socialised with the wealthy and aimed to have a New York business career, to a young man disillusioned with America and all it represents, so much so that he finds himself returning to Pakistan and ‘siding’ with Islamic fundamentalism.

The writing is technically strong, and the narrator slippery and clever. This has its annoyances for a reader. I read the whole novel with a sense of mistrust and a slight sinister feeling. I constantly wondered if I was being misdirected. I recall finding it difficult to relate to any of the characters, though I felt sorry for Changez at times. Could he really be a terrorist? Maybe he’s just a friendly man. Why do I assume he is dangerous? Is it because he claims to be sympathetic to the jihadists’ cause? Or is it just because of his clothes, his beard, his language? There is allegory and symbolism at play—perhaps a little too much. And I say this having not caught it all as I was reading the novel. When the extent of it was relayed to me by—more insightful—others, I do admit to some eye rolling on my part.

I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist an interesting read and it dealt with themes I wouldn’t usually choose to deal with in my novel-choices. Many in my group liked it and had enjoyed the author’s previous work. It was a good novel to talk about and, as we all know, for a book to work at book group it has to be able to be talked about.

With that premise in mind, the next selection definitely fit the bill. Ever wanted to use the term ‘Kafka-esque’ in context? Well, soon you will be able to. (Mind you, my readers being such a smart bunch you probably already do!) Our next selection was The Trial and I will post on it and other book-club selections sooner than you—or even I—could possibly imagine.

To be continued…

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Fifty-eight years ago, William Golding decided to write a book that would depict boys as boys truly were. (I know this not because I am a Golding scholar, but because I read the novel’s introduction). A response, no doubt, to the child-detective, boys’-own, let’s-save-the-day-and-then-have-lemonade style books in fashion at the time. He called it Lord of the Flies, crashed his boys’ plane and stuck them on a deserted island sometime during ‘the war’. He then spun a tale of survival, discovery, alliances, tribal power, danger and murder that has resonated with readers ever since it was published.

This would usually be when I give a brief precis of the story, but I’m not going to on this occasion as after many a survey it seems everyone in the entire world—apart from those who were in the exact same classes as me—studied this book at high school. And if by some strange chance they missed it that time, they—again, apart from me—studied the book at university. This is all well and good and, hey, at least they weren’t analysing episodes of Gossip Girl to attain their leaving certificates, but it does mean that I have found no-one to discuss this novel with who read it either recently nor as an adult. It is one of the two things that led a truly significant reading experience to be less fulfilling than it should have been. This had nothing to do with Golding’s story or writing and rather a lot more to do with me (perhaps a too-common theme of this blog) and how the novel made me feel. Now. As an adult.

You see, because although I’m sure there are crossover points between what an adolescent ‘gets out’ of Lord of the Flies, and what an older person does, I also think there may be differences, especially when the older person is not straightjacketed by curriculum and a 20-year-old Cliff Notes copy. I think those who have a bit of a gap between their ‘younger years’ and their current age might consider the messages of childhood and human nature differently than if they were 15 years old; I think it might make them feel differently.

I’m wondering if other adults have read this novel and despaired as I did. At the horrible situation; at those poor lost, ignorant children; at the characters’ complete inability to truly understand their motivations for their decisions and to rarely be able to express them; at the portrayal of the sickening way children (and adults) can treat each other; at the terribly insulting and officious way the grown-up world casts children; at the ways some of us gain power and others are shunned. I despaired and I think I got angry—I must stress again not at the novel itself but at the ideas it was discussing. Perhaps Mr Golding’s entire point. And the fact that he could do all this and tell an adventure story that still both appeals and affects people of all ages points to his triumph.

It took a while for these ideas, thoughts and feelings to stop spinning around in the back of my brain and become vaguely coherent. Instead I was a little like the boy-characters, knowing something was going on but not being able to express what it was.

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EXAMPLE ONE

Boyfriend (opening front door in the evening): Hi, honey.

Me (grimacing with novel in hand): I hate Jack.

Boyfriend (who, like everyone else, read novel at school): Yeah, Jack’s not very nice.

Me: I hate him. I hate his guts.

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EXAMPLE TWO

Boyfriend (different evening): Hi, honey.

Me: They freaking killed him. It was horrible. I cried on the train.

Boyfriend: I thought you knew that would happen.

Me: Well, sure, but it’s still horrible. Those awful, murderous, ignorant, hateful boys. You know how I said I wanted to have children? Well, I’ve changed my mind.

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And that was the second thing. Not only did I crave an adult-reader to talk to about Lord of the Flies but just as I had finally come to peace with the notion that it might be very nice to start a family in a year or two, I made the mistake of reading a book that shows us how capable of menace and cruelty and all those things we like to put on adults, children can be. As someone who has never been too definite on the idea of motherhood, this was another mark in the ‘con’ column. Perhaps it’s a biological thing. It only occurred to me while watching (the very good) The Hunger Games film that really, what that story had to deal with so carefully was the fact that its main plot points revolved around children killing children.

Of course, Golding wasn’t trying to say that children were cruel (nor that they were power-hungry maniacal murderers). He was telling a story about children stranded on an island, a story everyone had read before, but this time the characters and their actions were portrayed realistically, and the realistic possibility was that it would not all end with lemonade.

I’m so very glad I read Lord of the Flies. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it and I’m glad it lived up to its ‘classic’ status. It’s still sitting with me now; somewhere in the back of my brain. Ralph, Jack, Piggy and Simon. The beast. The conch. The rock pool. The shelters. The fire. All the ideas William Golding wanted us to ponder. Or perhaps we just end up pondering. If you’re like me and didn’t have to read this novel at school, I urge you to give it a try. And if you’re one of the millions who did … read it again, even just so you can talk to me about it and how it made you feel.

Classics diversion

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens and London is awash with celebrations, exhibitions, publications and tenuously linked products connected to the great writer.

Regular readers know that I am partial to a classic novel (both modern and your more classic classics) and Dickens is one of my favourites, so the Charles-o-rama is okay with me, for the time being anyway. It’s not often a writer has such public focus for an entire year, so although I assume one will get a little tired of hearing of his brilliance and listening to lectures proposing what Dickens would think of Twitter and the crisis in the Eurozone were he alive now, overall I see it as a positive and inspiring thing. (A colleague of mine has been so inspired he is planning on having a year of Dickens to kick through some of the novels he never got around to reading. Fabulous idea, if you ask me.) It’s also had me thinking about classics in general and when my writing muscles are back in shape I have a couple of recently read titles to post on — including a Dickens’ novel. Until then, here is the always firm-thinking and eloquent Richard Flanagan on our relationship with classic literature.

http://www.randomhouse.com.au/blog/richard-flanagan-on-classics-1435.aspx