Yes, it's that time of year when, for reasons that have never been clear to me, rabbits seem to loom up all over the place. So here's one, supposedly reading, but apparently having trouble deciding which book to go for. A familiar problem for some of us, maybe.
If you asked me to name my favourite contemporary novelists, Sebastian Barry would be a strong contender for the top of the list. In fact his A Long Long Way, which I read in pre-blogging days, is one of the most stunning novels I've read in a lifetime of reading, and The Secret Scripture, which I reviewed here in 2008, comes a close second. So imagine my delight when The Temporary Gentleman appeared in time to be included in issue 1 of Shiny New Books. And I really loved it.
If you'd like to see what I said about it, you can see my review here. And I was lucky enough to be able to ask him some questions about the novel, which appeared in our BookBuzz section -- here's the link to that.
Shiny New Books is doing really well, thanks to all our great readers. Do come and visit if you haven't already, or revisit if you have!
This arrived not long ago, but unfortunately too late for me to read it and get a review into Shiny New Books issue 1. But being a lover of Nordic crime, I wanted to read it anyway, and now I have. This is the first novel by a couple who are celebrated screen writers, and I'd say you can see the influence of film pretty clearly here.
The novel begins in 1987. Three figures are on the beach of an island off the west coast of Sweden, waiting for the incoming spring tide which will cover the beach to a depth of 50 centimetres. They have dug a deep hole, deep enough to hold the body of a woman, leaving the head uncovered. The woman is put in, and the figures watch as the tide comes up, inexorably. The water finally covers her head and she drowns. What they don't know is that a terrified ten-year-old boy has watched the whole thing from his hiding place behind the rocks.
Fast forward to 2011. Olivia Ronning, whose policeman dad died a few years earlier, is in her last year at police college. Just before the summer break, the tutor hands out folders to the students, containing unsolved cold cases -- an optional summer project. Olivia is intrigued to find that one of them involved her own father, and took place on the very day she was born. The discovery of a drowned woman buried in sand on a beach on a western island. She gets increasingly obsessed with the need to solve the crime, and her search for witnesses and clues leads her into some increasingly bizarre worlds, from world-class businesses to exclusive escort/call girl agencies, to homeless people, to young boys forced into cage fighting, to disturbed teenagers beating people up and filming it on their phones, and more besides.
This really is a rollercoaster of a novel, and zaps about with breathtaking speed between the various, and numerous, characters and locations in a dizzying manner, which I couldn't help thinking owed a good deal to the Borjlinds' experience in writing for the movies. There are enough red herrings to feed a large room full of hungry Swedes, and a couple of twists at the end which I certainly didn't see coming.
The novel has apparently been a huge hit in Sweden, and is the first in a projected series featuring Olivia and Tom Stilton, the retired detective she manages to unearth from the most unlikely and unpromising milieu. Not one for the faint-hearted or squeamish (which is usually me) but despite a few quibbles I whizzed through it avidly. The English translation came to me from Hesperus, so many thanks to them.
Most of the paintings I put up here seem to be 19th or 20th century, so here's a much more ancient one for a change. This is Quintilia Fischieri, painted in around 1600 by Federico Barocci (Italian, 1535–1612), an esteemed Renaissance painter of whom (as so often) I had never heard. He seems mostly to have painted religious subjects, but this is very sweet and domestic. I haven't discovered who this young woman was, but the books on the table as well as the one in her hand suggest she must have been rather learned. So, indeed, does the fact that she's standing up reading -- as if she was in the middle of doing something else and couldn't resist picking up a book.
I've written quite a few reviews in issue 1 of SNB, which came out a couple of days ago and seems to be going down rather well. So I shall pop a link in here from time to time and hope you will find something to enjoy.
Yes, folks, less than three months after Victoria and Annabel first cooked up the idea of an online book review magazine, and recruited Simon and me, the first issue of Shiny New Books is up and running this morning.
We've had great support from friends old and new in the run-up to going live, with lots of people tweeting and liking us on Facebook. Now it's time to start dipping in and exploring our four sections: New Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reprints and Book Buzz. We are sure everyone will find something to enjoy. There's a lot there -- 72 book reviews in all -- so this is something you can dip in and out of at leisure, just like a print magazine. And don't forget to check out the competition, with a chance to win four books, picked by the editors.
Over the coming weeks we will all be posting links to our own reviews. We've also had some excellent bloggers writing for us, and we will be in touch with them all today, with links to their posts. We want to include more of the talent that's out there in forthcoming issues, so if you think you'd like to write for us, there's a link for that on the site.
As SNB is a quarterly magazine, the next issue will be coming out around 1 July. But the site will updated in mid-May to add a few new reviews. And of course there's a newsletter, so do sign up for that if you haven't already.
Or, to be strictly accurate, Blue Girl Reading (1935). This is by Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874 – 1939) who, despite his indisputably Germanic name, was an American painter who spent most of his life in France. In fact he had a house in Giverney, right next door to Monet, with whom for some reason he never became close friends. He liked France because he could paint nudes outdoors there more freely than he could in America.
If you're British, you'll be well used to the concept of the north/south divide. Being a southerner myself, but having lived and worked for more than twenty years in the north, I can tell you that there are certainly some differences, though far fewer in many instances than the sterotypes might suggest. But in 1854, when Elizabeth Gaskell published North and South, the differences must have seemed enormous and insuperable.
In this great novel, nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale, together with her parents, is forced by circumstances to leave her lovely home in an idyllic southern country village and move to the northern town that Gaskell calls Milton. Obviously based on Manchester, where Gaskell herself lived, this is an industrial town that has expanded massively over the past few decades. The Hales are initially horrified by the harshness of the environment, and Margaret soon encounters at first hand examples of the clashes between masters and men, and the strikes that ensue. She also meets one of the masters, the self-made John Thornton, who is reading Greek with her father. At first they don't take to each other at all -- she thinks he's coarse, he thinks she's haughty. Well, she looks as if she is:
Margaret could not help her looks; but the short curled upper lip, the round, massive up-turned chin, the manner of carrying her head, her movements, full of a soft feminine defiance, always gave strangers the impression of haughtiness.
Before long, though, Thornton comes to admire Margaret and soon he is in love with her, but she turns down his proposal. Then she comes slowly to wonder if she's done the right thing, and finally to understand her own feelings -- but is it too late?
When I first read this book, more than twenty years ago, I was a southerner through and through, even though my grandfather, who I never knew, was born in Manchester. Now, having lived some twenty miles from there, I know the city like the back of my hand, and this added a great deal of interest to this second reading. Manchester started life as a small and unremarkable little town, and was completely transformed in the nineteenth century to become the cotton capital of Britain, with huge factories and mills springing up all over the place. All this meant a lot to me as I have found out lots about my own family history lately and now know that my ancestor Henry Devine, a skilled weaver, came over from Ireland to work in one of those exact same mills. Gaskell deals wonderfully with the social conditions of the day. The conflict between the masters and the men is exempliefied here by Thornton and his employee Nicholas Higgins, a staunch union man. The two men start by disliking and distrusting each other, but as time goes on they grow in respect and end up as good friends, mutually helping each other.
So yes, this is what's called a Condition of England novel. But of course it is primarily Margaret's story, and Margaret is a fascinatingly unstereotypical Victorian heroine. Born to a weak father and a delicate, emotional mother, separated by circumstances from her beloved older brother Frederick, she has to grow very rapidly in strength and decisiveness when the family moves to Milton. Decisions are forced on her which no young woman would have expected to have to make, and she feels increasingly constrained by the expectations of her gender. Having disliked Milton intensely at first, she finds when she is forced to move to a fashionable household in London that life in high society has no charms for her, and longs to return to somewhere where people are more real and grounded.
I've seen this novel, or at least the relationship between Margaret and Thornton, compared to Pride and Prejudice. Well, maybe there's a grain of truth there, but this is a very different kind of novel and nobody should run away with the idea that it's sub-Austen. It's a terrific read, and highly recommended.
If you've popped in here in the last few days, you may have noticed a smaller version of this logo over there on the left. If you wondered what it was doing there, wonder no more. Today's the day when we are announcing a new and exciting venture -- a quarterly online magazine, absolutely stuffed with reviews of all the latest books to hit the shelves. Our subtitle is 'What to Read Next and Why', and it's a recommendations magazine for everyone who loves books.
And having said we, I must now introduce you to our team of editors, and I'm sure they will all be familiar to you. The idea for Shiny New Books came from a discussion between Annabel and Victoria, and they recruited Simon and me. Between us we have nearly thirty years of blogging experience, and we see eye to eye when it comes to books and reviewing, so working together has been great.
In the magazine you will find reviews of newly published fiction, non-fiction and reprints. There's also a section called BookBuzz, with interviews and articles by many of the featured authors. Then there are competitions -- in the first one, the winner will receive a copy of each of the editors' favorite books.
We've done a great deal of reviewing ourselves, of course (and what fun that's been!) but we've also recruited some of our favorite bloggers and we'll continue to do so -- there's the option to offer to write for us, and we'll be on the lookout for talent online as well.
We're going live on 7 April, so if you go the the site at the moment, all you'll get is the front page. You can bookmark it if you like, or put it in Feedly (a great way of keeping up with the blogs you follow). Meanwhile you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook. You can also sign up for a newsletter which will appear more often than the magazine and will have lots of bonus material.
We are really excited about this venture and hope you will be too. We will of course be letting you know on 7 April that Shiny New Books is finally live!
Did ever a book have such an unpromising title? I can only suppose that by the time Frances Hodgson Burnett published it, in 1913, she was famous enough not to need to grab readers with snappy titles. But maybe she thought it would be intriguing, and maybe she was right. I happened upon it among the Kindle books on my iPad the other day, and couldn't think where I'd got it or why or when. I've since discovered it was because it had been recommended by the lovely Elaine of Random Jottings, who like me is a lover of the old and forgotten in the way of books. Anyway, having loved Frances Hodgson Burnett ever since before I could read, when my mother read me TheSecret Garden from her own childhood copy, I plunged in regardless.
So -- T. Tembarom. Such is the name of a young boy born in New York, the son of a feckless English father and a soon dead mother. In fact it's not really his name, which is Temple Temple Baron, but that sounds so strange to the ears of his contemporaries that he adopts a more acceptable alternative. Having to bring himself up on the New York streets from the age of ten would probably scar most people for life, but T.Tembarom, as well as having much natural intelligence, has been born fundamentally good, to naturally grow straight, as Burnett puts it, and nothing will change that. He steadily betters himself, and by his early twenties has got a good job as the society editor of a newspaper, lives in a nice, if simple boarding house, and has fallen in love with a fellow lodger, Little Ann, whose Lancashire father is desperately and unsuccessfull trying to sell an important invention. When he gets a raise, he and Ann start to talk seriously about marriage, but then something happens that will change both their lives forever.
On the doorstep one day appears a lawyer from England, with the astonishing news that TT's father had been the heir to a massive estate in Lancashire, and that he must come to England to assume the title and the wealth that goes with it. Somewhat unwillingly he agrees, seeing really that he has no option, though he'd rather stay in New York and marry Little Ann -- who, however, says he must wait a year and see if he still wants to marry her at the end. Although she doesn't want to believe it, she fears that he will be changed, and will want to marry a beautiful aristocratic lady such as appears in the fashionable magazines. So off he goes, taking with him Mr Strangeways, a mysterious man he picked up off the street one day with several thousand dollars in his pocket and an apparently irretrievably lost memory.
Everyone in Lancashire, from the servants to the villagers to the local aristocracy, thinks they know what to expect -- a brash, uneducated American who will be highly offensive to their sensibilities. So the great joy of this absolutely delightful novel is in watching everyone's preconceptions being defeated. TT is entirely loveable, and has soon taken under his wing his poor elderly relative Miss Alicia, whose life is totally transformed. He makes friends with a local Duke, who really understands and appreciates him, and -- well, in the end, everything turns out just fine, though perhaps not exactly as was originally envisaged.
I loved every minute of this. I've been reading a lot of crime novels lately for various reasons, and this was just wanted I needed to wash my mind clean. I've tried a couple of Burnett's adult novels -- The Making of a Marchioness and The Shuttle -- and they were OK, but I thought this one was better. As you may have spotted, it's a sort of return to the theme of her very first huge success, Little Lord Fauntleroy, which I'm actually reading at the moment and finding far less sickly sweet than its reputation. But what interested me the most about it was the way in which Burnett used the novel to provide a demonstration of her most deeply held beliefs. She was a follower of Theosophy, which I've always thought of as a sort of spin-off from Hinduism, though Wikipedia shows me that it has a long history in the Western world. But it seems to me that TT's irradicable goodness must owe something to this system, which also includes a belief in reincarnation. On that, there's an interesting throwaway moment when TT gets to know a clever young crippled boy in the village and finds it impossible to believe that the boy is only ten. Burnett comments:
He was in fact ten hundred, if those of his generation had been aware of the truth. But there he sat, having spent only a decade of his present incarnation in a whitewashed cottage, deprived of the use of his legs.
There's really nothing not to like in this novel, and what's more it is entirely free to download on Kindle, though I shall be looking out for a lovely printed copy like the one in the picture.