First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

by Sonia Purnell

I came across this book when I watched a video of the author giving hints and tips about writing biography.  I’ve just noticed that there are two titles by this author about Clementine Churchill.  Could it be that one was published in the US and one in the UK, with different titles?  I can’t imagine that they can be different books.  She has also written about Boris Johnson.  Hmmmm.

My feelings about First Lady are mixed.  On the plus side: the life is interesting enough for a biography, the times Clementine lived in provide an exciting backdrop, and Churchill himself is thrown into relief through this narrative of his wife’s life.  I found myself exploring some of the background, and even watched the film The Battle of Britain again after reading about that period in history.  During the time I was reading this book, we had also been to see the newly-released film Darkest Hour.  So I may say that the film sparked my imagination and my interest in the era Clementine lived through, and especially the Second World War.

But I have reservations about the writing style, as well as the story’s coverage.

Purnell’s language does not scintillate in the way that, say, Claire Tomalin’s writing does, making you feel that not only the subject of the book, but the writing itself compels you to read on.  A previous reader of my library book had ‘corrected’, in pencil, various words and phrases through the text.  I rubbed some of these out.  They were either stylistic alternatives and not improvements (“due to” in place of “thanks to”) or just plain wrong (“materiel” corrected to “material”).  Annoying, but hardly the author’s fault!  What I did find annoying, though, were the occasions when the author seemed to ‘dumb down’ what she was writing for the sake of a presumed uneducated reader.  In the chapter describing the Churchills’ life at Chartwell in the 1920s and 1930s, the list of notable people they entertained there includes “Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. Presumably she means the Duchess of York and T E Lawrence.  It is not only an inaccuracy, but insulting to the reader not to say so.  Put their other names in brackets or in a footnote if you must.  This is perhaps the crassest example, but I really felt that throughout the book, the author missed opportunities to elaborate on some of the no doubt interesting background to other characters, and links to the world around its subject.

There is no doubt that this book is painstakingly researched.  Notes at the end reference the many quotations in the text.  Maybe these are less distracting than footnotes on the page; but I would have welcomed something, in notes or in the body of the text, to make the story glow rather more than it does.

If this were an essay I would grudgingly give it an A or perhaps A-.   I won’t be rushing to read another book by Ms Purnell.  And anyway, who wants to read about Boris Johnson’s life?

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Home Fire

by Kamila Shamsie

Aneeka and Parvaiz are twins, raised by their sister since their mother died when the twins were only twelve.  The family lives in Wembley and is well-loved by members of the local, diverse community.

The story is split into section, each based primarily on the experience of one of the main characters, but with the whole still flowing as a story.  At the start, Isma is starting a new life as a PhD student at a Massachusetts college, having had her education interrupted during the years when she was caring for and financially supporting the twins, nine years her junior.  Life seems to be looking up when she meets and is immediately attracted to Eamonn, himself from London and half Pakistani.  We learn of Isma’s previous connection with Eamonn’s politician father.  The story of her own father begins to unfold, and at the same time the reader learns (though it is not spelled out) that Parvaiz has gone to Raqqa to fight with IS.

The story takes Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka and Karamat is turn as the primary actors, as it moves towards its inevitably tragic end.  The modern setting for this ancient story is littered with hashtags, Skype calls, text messaging – and yet this does not seem contrived but fits the action perfectly.  I feel that if I were to re-read this novel in twenty years’ time, whilst some of these things might appear old-fashioned, they would still fit the era (now) and place in which the the story is set.

Only on finishing the book did I read that it is based on the story of Antigone.  To my shame, I am largely unfamiliar with Ancient Greek myths and legends, so I read up on this one and I can clearly see the references in the inevitable and tragic fate of Parvaiz and Aneeka, but also in the names of the main characters.

This book gripped me from the start, and I read it in two days.  I had also enjoyed Shamsie’s earlier novel Burnt Shadows, but this most recent novel seemed more believable as a story, and perhaps less didactic than the earlier book.  It is one of those novels that you feel will give up even more in a second reading.  I hope so, since I may well recommend it for my book group.

The Abbess of Crewe

by Muriel Spark

I think this is the first book I have read by Muriel Spark – though it is possible that I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a young girl (I certainly saw the film).  A book group friend mentioned another Spark novel she had been reading, and I decided to download this one when I saw it mentioned in an online list of some sort.

It’s a short novel, written just after the Watergate scandal and presenting a version of that story, set in a convent.  Sister Alexandra and her supporters ‘fix’ the election of a new abbess, allowing Sister Felicity – who, it has to be said, is not blameless, but conducting an affair with a Jesuit priest.

Spark’s writing is pithy, humorous, clever.  The story is a bit silly and didn’t really ‘grab’ me.  But I can see why this writer is revered and, indeed, loved.  Perhaps this was not a good book to choose as my first venture into Spark territory, but I’m not sure I will rush out to read more by this author.

Hag-seed

by Margaret Atwood

Wow. I could have given this post the title “My favourite Canadian”, so entranced am I by Atwood’s writing. Not a word out of place, not a superfluous phrase.

This is the third book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, or – as in the case of Jacobson’s My Name is Shylock – attempted to read. I came to it through another book blog, on which various people claimed it was the best of he bunch (so far). So I determined to give it a try.

…….

The story is that of The Tempest. This is not a play I know well, but the author helpfully summarises the plot at the end of the book. Even without this summary, you feel you know the story well by the time you finish this novel. Why? Well, at least in part because the story is played out twice, in some detail, in the course of the novel.

Felix’s own exile echoes that of Prospero with his (in Felix’s case dead and imagined) daughter Miranda. The friends who send him there are every bit as evil and scheming as Antonio and Alonso. Felix’s plan to trick them into submission relies on the present-day ‘magic’ of electronic technology. And aside from this, there is a play within the play, as Felix stages, in the prison, the production which allows him his revenge.

The plot is ingenious and yet somehow believable. Even Ariel and the goddesses have a role in the prison production that seems entirely right and, if contrived, then contrived by Felix and not by the story’s author.

Atwood’s writing just gets better and better. This is the best thing I’ve read in months: for plot, characterisation, language and sheer chutzpah.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America

by Robert H Stockman

I confess that I don’t read much Bahá’í literature, apart from scripture.  I have read some biographical and historical books, the most spectacular of which was undoubtedly Lighting the Western Sky by Kathryn Hogenson, a wonderful book about the first pilgrimage of Western Bahá’ís to Haifa and Akká.

This book was recommended to me by a good friend, who was kind enough also to lend me his copy, which I selfishly hung on to for almost a year.  For some reason I got about halfway through and then paused for several months.  This is in no way a reflection on the writing or content of the book, however.  Stockman has researched his subject meticulously, using archive material and other published material, painstakingly (and correctly) pointing out where his sources differ and where there are gaps.  In fact, ‘Abduk’l-Bahá’s travels in America are very well documented, it seems.

The book achieves, for me, the right balance between historical fact to help the flow (journeys undertaken, houses stayed in, talks held), reported speech including chunks of text from some of the ‘Master’s’ talks, and anecdote which brings his and other characters to life.

Stockman has also written two volumes about the Bahá’í Faith in America in its early days.  I’m inspired to read these now.

A Whispered Name

by William Brodrick

Chosen by our book group.  I not sure why we chose it, or what the alternatives were – I probably missed the meeting where it was selected.  I got this book from the library and read it within ten days – but it was a bit of a slog.

Not sure exactly why I had so much trouble with this book.  I found it incredibly slow-moving at first, and the pace never really picked up, although my reading pace did.  I found myself reading ahead and jumping around in the narrative.  This didn’t make it any easier to follow the story, such as it is.

The action in this novel is quite restrained: a contemporary monk, Anselm, begins an investigation into the First World War experiences of another monk, Herbert Moore, now dead.  Herbert was the brother who first welcomed Anselm into the order.  We learn next to nothing about Anselm; his role is that of an investigator, uncovering the truth.  In this respect this book may be said to resemble a thriller – but its crawling pace is out of keeping with any thriller I have read recently.

The author looks deeply into motivation and legality of actions in times of war, and the lasting effect that wartime decisions and actions have on the actors long after the war is over. Two key experiences appear to shape Herbert’s life: his mercy shooting of a soldier in his unit who appears to be drowning in the mud of Flanders, and his part as one of the officers on a Field General Court Marshal trying an Irish deserter.  The ‘back story’ is mainly that of the deserter, another deserter with whom he apparently changes places, and – to a much more limited extent – of Herbert himself.

There are nuances in the plot.  Herbert has been disciplined himself for a similar offence, and perhaps for this reason the judgment weighs heavily on him.  It is implied that Flanagan was statistically more likely to be sentenced to death because he was Irish.  The soldier with whom Flanagan at one point changes identities has enlisted under an assumed name, and is really under age.

The other officers in the story come across as real people – some of them career soldiers, but most of them men who have just ended up on the battlefield and try to come to terms with the terrible things they are being asked to do.

Women don’t feature much in this novel.  The landscape, however – on the Ypres salient, around the convent of Larkwood and on Flanagan’s home island of Inisdúr – features greatly in the lives of each of the main protagonists.


Writing these words, two weeks after reading the book, I wonder why I found it so hard going.  It is in fact an interesting topic given a sensitive approach.  All the same, I don’t think I will be rushing to read anything else by this author, and I can’t give the book more than 6 out of 10.  It would have earned a 7 if the story could have moved along a bit faster!

Reykjavik Nights

by Arnaldur Indridason

Two deaths, apparently unconnected. Both took place at least a year ago. A married woman disappears after a night out with colleagues. A homeless man is found drowned in a muddy pool. The tramp is presumed to have fallen into the pool, drunk, and his death is not further investigated. The woman may have committed suicide, but her body has never been found and the case remains open.

Erlendur is a junior police officer working nights on traffic patrol.  He has met the homeless man on a couple of occasions before his death, and something prompts him to look more closely into the case, despite the fact that he does not work in CID.  He carries on a personal investigation, eventually finding a link between the two cases and solving both murders.

The book is a prequel to a series featuring Erlendur as a fully-fledged detective inspector.  I have not read any other books by this author, but in this book I found his style to be accessible, the English translation particularly so, and the content was fast-paced enough to keep my interest without being unbelievable.

The setting is, probably, typical of Nordic thrillers.  In a word: bleak.  Reykjavik in the 1970s is portrayed as having serious problems with alcohol and homelessness – though maybe this reflects mainly the preoccupations of the characters, who are after all policemen.

Erlendur’s private life features very little in this book, and this is, for me, something of a loss.  He has a girlfriend whom he meets occasionally and, it seems, almost reluctantly.  At one point she announces to that she is pregnant with his child, and suggests they move in together.  This storyline is promptly dropped, as Erlendur gets on with his investigation.  Perhaps readers of the detective series know what happens next – for me, reading only this book, it was deeply unsatisfying.  It would have been better if the author had left this story out of the novel altogether.  It does nothing for the plot, nor does it illuminate Erlendur’s character (except perhaps to show him as extremely callous in regard to his personal relationships).

I won’t rush out to read more by this author, but I will keep him in mind the next time I am looking for a detective story to download.