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.

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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.

The Brave by Nicholas Evans

Back in 1995 Nicholas Evans’ novel, The Horse Whisperer, was a mega-bestseller. In 1998 Robert Redford made a film based on the book and the world went horse-whispering crazy. All of a sudden—in Australia at least—morning television chat shows and weekend current affairs flagships were running stories about moustachioed silent-types in checked shirts who could make a pony dance to their bidding (which anyone who grew up in Sydney and longed for weekend visits to El Caballo Blanco can attest, is a mighty fine thing). More important than this equine-talking fad, Nicholas Evans became a successful author and went on to write some very good novels, in particular The Loop, but also The Smoke Jumper, The Divide and most recently, The Brave.

Mr Evans is a fine writer and his narratives are well-honed. I would describe them as ‘quietly told’ but I always find myself helplessly wrapped up in them and eager to continue paddling along. He is very good at communicating the private sides of his characters, and can write of slightly ‘damaged’ individuals and their soul-searching without resorting to clichés.

His stories tend to be set in natural environs, perhaps because he knows he has strong skills in describing landscapes, or perhaps because he just prefers writing about them. In any case his tales are mostly set in mountains, on farms, in small towns, on the plains. (And in America, although he is an Englishman who lives in England.) Because of these settings, sometimes his narratives include an animal-theme, for example in The Loop we learnt a lot about wolves.  But sometimes, they don’t. This doesn’t bother me, but it seemed to bother some of his publishers. Well, they at least sometimes appeared to ignore this fact, and continued to attempt to shove an animal onto any of his covers that they justifiably could. After all, this is the man who wrote The Horse Whisperer, the reading public might not be smart enough to work that out if they didn’t see a furry creature staring back at them.

All I can say is thank god Mr Evans went back to the horsies so that novel, publisher, cover and reader were aligned again. Not that The Brave is really about horses, but there are storylines involving hollywood westerns, cowboys and indians, horse handlers and mountain riding. I certainly won’t quibble with the equine-flavoured cover, which is, in my opinion, quiet stunning. What the novel mostly discusses, though, is courage and what it means; when it is false, when it is true and when it falters.

Tom Bedford is our protagonist and we hear his tale from two ends: 1959 when he is a quiet English boy obsessed with westerns, who is thrust into Tinseltown when his sister marries a TV-star cowboy; and 2007 where he is an academic and writer living with a secret from his childhood that is brought to the fore when his soldier son is charged with murder.

When I was reading The Brave, I struggled somewhat to succinctly explain to others what the plot was because, like Mr Evans’ previous novels, there was a complexity to it that warranted more than a one or two lines from the likes of me. When I call the novel ‘complex’ I don’t mean that it is difficult or convoluted; I mean that it is layered, involved and considered. The experience of reading The Brave is a quiet one; but it is an intense quiet, full of emotion and raw introspection, cleverly constructed by a talented author who deftly leads you through his tale. Layered, involved, complex, and there are key plot points you don’t want to reveal to others for fear they will ‘ruin’ the story, plus a general sense that this is not a book to summarise for others; more one to suggest that they should read and experience for themselves, and hopefully enjoy.

I may not have been able to quickly outline the plot of The Brave for you while I was reading it, but I could have told you that I was absolutely taken with it. I could have told you that I felt as if I carried some of the emotions of the characters around with me during this time, and that I used any spare moment to pick up the book and read a few pages more. I could have told you that the parts of the story set in 2007 were very good, but the parts set in 1959 were excellent. I could have told you that I had always been a fan of Nicholas Evans’ books and that I was just so pleased that he’d had another book published and that it was, plain and simple, a very good book.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I am not a trendsetter. I don’t own an i-phone, I don’t live in a funky suburb, I’m not sure what the hip kids are up to these days, and wearing cartoon-character T-shirts to the gym seems to be something only I find pleasing. And yet in the last few months I have had a taste of what it might be like to be one of those cool cats who live on the cutting edge of the in-the-know zeitgeist. And all because everyone in the known universe has wanted to borrow my copies of the ‘Hunger Games’ series.*

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and it’s fab. Yep. Why bother with 600 words of  thoughtful consideration before sharing my (always subjective and entirely  personal) views on the novel. Plus it’s been three weeks since a post, it’s time to get moving. So. It’s great. Top-shelf action and adventure for the young adult in your life, and all the adults who like reading young adult books.

This novel fits in neither the Here nor There categories I decided to straitjacket myself with earlier in the year. Unless of course it fits the latter in a ‘never want to have to go There’ fashion. Panem is not a country you want to live in. It’s not even a country you want that Lexus-driver who cut you off this morning to live in. It’s certainly not where you want the characters you give such a damn about to have to exist, even if they have won the Hunger Games and have an easier life than they had before. And that’s all a ruse, anyway. We wouldn’t be launching ourselves into book 2 if we thought all we were going to be reading about was a couple of teenagers living in nice houses trying to make the poor folk around them have a slightly-nicer-than-down-right-horrible existence. Something sinister is afoot and it’s got that evil bastard President Snow’s fingerprints all over it.

In the first bookour heroes Katniss and Peeta fool the Capitol into making them both the victors in the annual Hunger Games—a (traditionally) winner-takes-all fight to the death for conscripted teenagers from the downtrodden districts of Panem. In this second book the Capitol seeks it revenge, throwing Peeta and Katniss back into the arena with a group of previous games victors, for the ultimate-mega-champion fight to the death. Once again the vicious reality of kill or be killed faces our heroes and their fellow competitors. Who is aligning with whom? Who can truly be trusted? Will Katniss save Peeta again? Or will he foil her plan as he tries to keep the girl he loves alive? And back in the districts there are whispers of rebellion; a bubbling undercurrent of anger fuelled by generations of wrong; and a growing sense that the girl who beat the Capitol once, can lead them all to do it again.

Suzanne Collins has written a heart-stopper of a novel; suspenseful, action-packed, stirring. Yes, there is violence. And gore, misery and destruction. Senseless death and ruthless greed. But there are wonderful characters (especially Peeta, oh how I love Peeta), endearing relationships, bravery, selflessness, humour and inspirational acts, with only the occasional tinge of sentimentality wafting in. All together they meld into a well-plotted and executed story that when I wasn’t reading it had me permanently distracted from any other task I was meant to be focusing on. Who wants to work/shop/exercise/socialise/eat when they could be reading Catching Fire?

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* And they’re not even my copies but were lent to me by my friend Kate, who is one of those lovely, generous, kindhearted people who doesn’t mind that I dish out her  books to all and sundry like some kind of short-order cook.

L is for Lycanthrope

Blame Teen Wolf and too many episodes of Scooby Doo if you want (OK, and Scott Speedman in the Underworld movies), but I like werewolves. ‘Lycanthrope’ is one of my favourite words. It’s right up there with ‘quokka’ on my list of words I like just because of how they sound. (Plus have you ever seen a quokka? Cute!) I also like certain words because of what they mean, others because their use makes me sound smart, and even more because of the way I can bastardise their pronunciation to amuse myself.

Nerdy word types also like collective nouns—mostly for the reasons I listed above. The collective noun for werewolves is a ‘lunacy’. In Toby Barlow’s book Sharp Teeth this is what you will find: a magnificent story, weaved in free verse, around a lunacy of werewolves.

Those posh-brained of you who are about to click away due to the mention of ‘werewolves’ and ‘free verse’, do not. Sharp Teeth is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and this is not due to some weird monster-crush I may or may not have on our supernatural canine brethren. It’s simply because this is an amazingly well-told tale—rapid, concise, emotive, thrilling, mysterious and inventive. And don’t let the structure of ‘free verse’ put you off, either. Lord knows I usually run from any notion of poetry, so if this novel took only three pages to draw me in, it will you too. (A new friend and fellow-blogger is attempting to win me over to poetry and I do intend on embracing it whole-heartedly once I get over my unwarranted adolescent fear of it. Stay tuned.)

So why did I like Sharp Teeth so much? It was a ride. And I’m not sure I’ve been on a reading-ride like this for a while. At times I felt like I was reading the equivalent of a Scorcese film—if good ol’ Marto ever directed an LA gang movie where the main characters have tails to wag. Action-packed, plot-detailed, strong characters, vulnerable characters, sympathetic characters; a love story, a revenge story, a crime story; and card-playing dogs—oh yes! It is tense, gory and dark. It is pacy, rhythmic and focussed. When going out with friends the other night there was one too many of us to fit in the car and I eagerly volunteered to catch the train because I wanted to read my book. And then I waved it about at all of them, in my enthusiasm probably only just missing clocking them over the head. When I start waving books about, you know I’m in deep.

Anthony begins work at the city pound. Lark has some shady business deals to take care of and a grand plan for his pack. Anthony falls in love with the pack’s girl. People from the pound start disappearing or being killed. A cop receives strange and muffled phone calls about dogs and gangs and killings. There is another pack—or are there two? There are drugs, there is violence, there is a statewide bridge competition. How is it all connected? Do they all know about each other? Who is doing what to whom? What happened in South America? And what’s with all these darn dogs wandering the city?

The way Barlow tells his tale is impressive. Not just because it is so engrossing, but because he does it in such a succinct way. Every word, comma, dash and line space in Sharp Teeth pulls above and beyond its weight. As a reader you almost  feel like you shouldn’t understand the characters as much as you do, that what’s going on should need further clarification, that the imagery—the movie running through your head, if you will—should not be so clear and fleshed out. How, indeed, could so few words stir one up as much as they do? How could they tell a ‘proper’ story? How could they lead their reader to almost maim her friends in her emphatic praise of the book?

It all works because a talented writer has put his time and skill into telling a well-conceived story in a concentrated manner. Like some of Toby Barlow’s characters, Sharp Teeth is smooth, cool and edgy. It  balances tension and action, and knits together reality and fantasy in such a way that after an initial pause to intellectually blink, the reader merely accepts the world the story is set in and carries on.

I positively adored it—if that’s not howlingly clear—and my only concern now is that I have to return the book to the dear friend who leant it to me. How he managed to live without it panting on his bookshelf I’ll never know, but I’m awfully glad he did and now plan to track down my own copy. Don’t get too close when I do, though. You may end up with concussion.

J is for Jeffery

Sometimes you walk past a bookshop and do a glorious double-take. You moonwalk back to the display window and peer in to check if your mind was playing tricks on you. When you see that it wasn’t—when indeed it seems that one of your favourite authors HAS A NEW BOOK OUT—the kick in your step and Wheeee! in your heart is second to none. And that’s just how I felt when I strolled past my local story-dispenser to see that Jeffery Deaver had a new Lincoln Rhyme novel on the shelves.

J is for Jeffery. And you probably know by now that he is my commercial thriller writer of choice. You can take your Pattersons, Reichs, Cornwalls, your Ludlums. I like my thrillers from an ex-lawyer, ex-folk singer chap who, sure, could do with a hair cut, but who mostly keeps me entertained and enthralled from go to woah.

The Burning Wire is a new novel featuring Lincoln Rhyme, the quadriplegic ex-policeman forensics expert who is a quick-minded, pedantic, workaholic scotch-drinker with a gruff exterior, who prefers solving a mystery to the company of people. Take away the cherry-red wheelchair and he sounds just like your usual loner detective. But the wheelchair and the character’s physical disability do serve to add extra layers of difficulty (complexity from a plot point of view) when it comes to discovering the unsub, to catching the perp. One of the most interesting things about Lincoln is how his being physically crippled isn’t usually what prevents him from catching the killer or indeed living a full life; rather there are emotional and psychological barriers he has trouble ‘stepping’ over. Yes, that speedy wheelchair represents more than just a means for our hero to get around.

I like prickly Lincoln. I like that while fulfilling the hero role and doing all the ‘good’ things our protagonist-detectives are supposed to do, he is still a sarcastic bastard; barking orders and correcting his underlings’ grammar, automatically dismissing anyone who shows signs of sympathy for his condition, demanding tumblers of aged scotch from his put-upon-but-unflappable aide, Thom, at all hours of the day.  His select crew of colleagues (which includes his beautiful partner Amelia and some old police friends) forgive him his foibles for they know that deep down he is a good man, dedicated to righting wrongs, to putting the bad guys away. I, though, don’t particularly care about this. For me it’s Lincoln’s brilliance which allows my acceptance of his being a superior, impatient, cranky arse. The man has a mind like a steel trap, a complex existence, he indulges in the occasional death-wish and has an appreciation for high-quality highland liquor. That’s why I like him.

An advantage of having a disabled protagonist somewhat restricted to his Manhattan brownstone, is that we readers get to discover a lot about the supporting characters in the Rhyme stories, maybe more than we might in other crime novels. One such player we get to focus on in The Burning Wire is FBI agent and undercover wunderkind, Fred Dellray—a wonderful ‘character-in-a-supporting-role’ if ever there was one. In fact, Deaver does a fine line in supporting characters: from Dellray, to Amelia—Lincoln’s partner and our co-protagonist, to ballroom-dancing Mel Cooper, crumpled Lon Selitto, American-pie Ron Pulaski and Thom the aide, to name a few. Deaver knows how to write intriguing, layered, entertaining characters who flesh out his stories. And, cleverly, they help maintain a strong connection with his readers across the different books. Every now and then you’ll be reading a Rhyme novel and a character from a previous story will pop up and the reading-you will give a little cheer at their appearance (or a nervous whimper like I did in this novel when a previous foe turned up). If that’s not a strong sign of reader-and-writer loving, I don’t know what is.

In this novel, our bad guy is using electricity to bring New York to its knees. 

Electricity you say? That thing wot makes the lights turn on? Not exactly a deranged axe-murderer, is it? Isn’t this something the local utilities supplier could deal with? These are the disloyal thoughts I had while reading the blurb.

But have a quick look about you and count off the number of things your surrounded by that run on electricity. Oh and then the number of things which can conduct it. This insano is creating flashes and electrical arcs that are metres long, electrocuting entire people-filled hotel lobbies, threatening to black out the city and cause chaos. How do you process evidence when the weapon can’t be examined in a lab? How do you stay safe when you can’t see the thing that’s rigged to kill you? Should you turn that kettle on? This case has Lincoln and Amelia stretched to their investigative limits and our pal Fred Dellray risks everything to try to catch the perp. So much so that it’s unclear whether he’s going to come out of it clean. If he, and the rest of them, can survive.

The Burning Wire is not the most thrilling Deaver novel I’ve read, but it’s still strongly plotted, character-filled, entertaining, heart-rate rising, solid Jeffery. I impatiently await the next book (which if running to plan will be a new Kathryn Dance novel next year). If you haven’t read Deaver before you should start with The Bone Collector. Start at the beginning and meet Lincoln and Amelia (and Fred and Thom and Mel and Lon) for the first time. You’ll find yourself hooked. You’ll work your way up to The Burning Wire and then the next time your ambling past your local book-supplier and you see a new Deaver in the window, you too will have a spring in your step and a song in your little crime-loving heart.

F is for Friends

I fell for this book a little like I do for some men. Cute cover, intelligent-sounding, interesting ideas, quirky humour and, if we’re being completely honest (at least recently), a foreign origin. And a little like some of those other episodes, without stretching the comparison too far, I perhaps expected this book to turn out a little bit differently to how it did. But such is both the reading (and romantic) life.

You see – and we’re back on the subject of books now – our ‘F’ book is a little non-fiction number called How Many Friends Does One Person Need? and I was expecting it to be an insightful contemporary commentary on social networking. And Robin Dunbar’s book does touch on this and much to do with personal connections but in a much wider context than I expected, moving through a series of interconnected subjects and intriguing facts and research about the many, many different reasons people are like they are. And if I had thought about it more when I had read the blurb I may have realised this, but I had latched on to a particular notion of ‘what it was all about’, judged the book by its title and wasn’t considering what the book’s true aim was (and now we refer back to the ‘man’ scenario). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I had imagined, so I had to adjust my reading brain.

Yes. We’re reading non-fiction. And a book on evolutionary biology of all things. Well, a change is as good as a holiday (a recent one on which I barely turned a page – the shame!). But I’m not very good at reading non-fiction for pleasure, unless it is presented in a narrative fashion,  even if I find the subject matter interesting and the writing entertaining. Both of which, I am keen to point out, I do in HMFDOPN?

I’m just not skilled at reading information for information’s sake. I seem to require stories, some kind of narrative arc to guide me through the data, a character to follow. Give me glorious facts and theories, and though I truly do sit there and think, ‘Isn’t that bloody amazing/wondrous/smart/mind-boggling’, I struggle to keep my attention on the book and its structure and fail to retain a lot of what I’m ‘learning’. It’s a bit like the mental version of those vague notes and diagrams you used to sketch for yourself in university lectures thinking they would jog your memory later, only to discover at assessment time that they jogged nothing. And that’s the other thing when reading ‘books about stuff’, I worry the whole time that I’m not taking in anything and feel a little like I’m going to be tested afterwards.

I mention these things to illustrate my failings as a reader, not of Robin Dunbar as a writer (and presumably an evolutionary biologist). Because his book really does contain many intriguing and fascinating insights into human behaviour. He has a lovely, delightful tone and his writing is chatty but still intelligent. I would like to have lunch with this man. Several long lunches, in fact, where I hope a mere skerrick of his smarts would rub off on me and I could discover so much more about why human babies are actually born 12 months earlier than they should be, how women developed language, why skin colours vary, why we tell stories. I recall these things now because the book is fresh in my mind though I am already forgetting the reasons why these things are so. I’m starting to worry about that test.

Fascinating, entertaining and approachable, cute package. Not a bad thing in a book or a bloke. But alas, I am not a reader made to feel compelled to keep reading this kind of book out of a sheer will to learn more facts and theories. It’s not what I want to snuggle up in bed holding or loll about on a banana lounge with – for that I need stories. How Many Friends Does One Person Need? is more a Saturday morning, eating eggs kind of reader, where you can look up from your page and say to your pancake-eating partner (or dog, or whoever is there), ‘Did you know…?’ before getting back to those eggs.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the answer is 150. That’s how many friends we need; in fact that’s in the upper limit of people we can accommodate in our social networks who we actually know, socialise with, enjoy their company and care about to some degree. The author describes them as someone you would be happy to approach and catch up with when you see them across an airport transit lounge at 3 am. Everyone else is an acquaintance, a colleague, a family member you’re not close to, someone you met once, or you know, only a Facebook friend.