Sleepyhead

by Mark Billingham

Recommended and lent to me by Pay Ranson, who has read several of the series of books featuring DI Tom Thorne.

This is an intelligent and well-written detective thriller, with a somewhat far-fetched but nevertheless engaging plot.  One of the characters, Alison Willetts, has locked-in syndrome, and her ‘speech’ punctuates the story. (Her role in identifying the killer is also highly relevant.)

I was reading this at the time a new baby granddaughter arrived, and had to put the book down for 24 hours, so unwilling was I to read about murder and torture while revelling in a new life.

Never keen to read any genre, but especially thrillers, back to back, I will probably wait a while before reading another novel in this series.

Bridget Jones’ Baby

by Helen Fielding

It almost doesn’t seem worth adding this to my blog.  Yes, it was a fun read, and one that only took me a couple of sessions.  Yes, it’s a sweet story – and although nothing like the film, has a happy ending as you know it will do.

I can’t write much more about this.  The film is better, and indeed, I think (and my husband Martin agrees) that the third film is the best of the three.  We are great fans of Bridget Jones, and of rom-coms in general, but this film’s pithy script by Emma Thompson, and that lady’s excellent acting in the character of the doctor, really set this film apart from the other two.

Enough said.  A satisfying holiday read.

Conclave

by Robert Harris

A fantastic book; I don’t know when I was last so gripped by a book, and so keen to keep on reading.

True, I read it (or started to read it) on holiday, having picked up my copy in a charity shop in Sherborne, Dorset.  The setting doesn’t sound too promising: a conclave to elect the next pope.  But as the characters of various of the cardinals become exposed to the reader through the eyes of the Dean, Cardinal Lomeli, the reader gets swept along with a story which has several twists and turns.  The final twist is astonishing and sublimely satisfying.

It would be hard to say more about this book without spoilers.  Suffice to say that you warm to Lomeli from the start, but also begin to understand that although most (all?) of the papal candidates have flaws, they are ultimately human beings.

The world outside the Vatican does not obtrude through much of the story – but when it does, it is in the most dramatic way.

Harris has, as always, thoroughly researched the background to his story. He describes in some detail the process of the ballots, and even the clothing of the cardinals and the care and reverence with which they don each garment. Too much detail?  Probably not; to understand the thinking of these men it is perhaps necessary to get to grips with the minutiae of their lives.  Prayer takes a central place in this story.  Lamely is finding it difficult and this causes him some distress.  Others are observed praying at various times and in various ways.  You get the feeling that whatever their flaws, these are all pious men.

I can recommend this book unhesitatingly.

Hard Times

by Charles Dickens

It is not that I have read nothing over a month.  But this is the first novel I have read for quite a while.  Instead I have been reading some of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, and also some non-fiction, notably Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men.

I have read Hard Times within the past six years (since purchasing a Kindle and promising myself that I would read more nineteenth-century novels, given that they are cheap, if not free, to download, and that I enjoy them!  So it was somewhat disconcerting, when this book was selected by our book group, that I was able to remember little more about the story than the rather improbably fate of Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden but honest working-class hero, shunned by his own fellow workers and by management alike.

The characters are memorable, if somewhat exaggerated – as indeed is the story.  Professor Belinda Jack argues (in Charles Dickens:  Hard Times and Hyperbole) that the use of hyperbole in this novel serves a serious, rather than a comic purpose, and underlines the author’s outrage at the conditions of the working poor.

Professor Jack recommends the story synopsis on Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat it here, but refer my readers (and my future self) to that summary.  The story is compelling, and after grinding my way through the first couple of chapters I fairly flew along – helped perhaps by the fact that I am on holiday and so have more time than usual to devote to reading.  Through all its twists and turns, some of them unlikely or barely believable, it is still a good story.  The ending is satisfactory: the ‘good’ characters (Louisa, Sissy) go on to lead worthy lives; the ‘bad’ characters (Bounderby, Mrs Sparsit, young Tom “the whelp”) get their come-uppance, and the misled character (Mr Gradgrind) leans the error of his ways.  The circus folk are seen to be loyal as well as resourceful, if mischievous and devious.  The poor remain poor, and the reader is surely well aware that they will continue to suffer.


An unusual choice for book group, and one that will, I hope, yield some interesting discussion.  I read it too early – the meeting to discuss it is not for another seven weeks.  So it is just as well I am writing up my thoughts straight away, lest I forget this book for a second time…!

 

Belgravia

by Julian Fellowes

A quick pick from the library, just before I went on a walking holiday.  Though I didn’t take it along – perhaps partly because I didn’t expect to do much reading.

The story is rather forgettable and pretty predictable.  Set in the 1840s, after an initial scene at a party just before the battle of Waterloo which reminded me of Vanity Fair.  The story shows the etiquette and morals of an earlier age, presented through the prism of a 21st century viewpoint.  Fellowes acknowledges the assistance of no less than two historical researchers, but I suppose we should not think the worse of him for not doing his own research.  And yet I feel that by not doing so, he is unable to capture an authentic feeling for the age he is writing about.

The bad guys get their come-uppance, and the good guys come our on top.  What more can you wish for?

I don’t think I will read anything else by Fellowes.  Downton Abbey was a triumph, not of scripting but of a pacy story, believable characters and gorgeous costumes and settings.  Fellowes deserves to be celebrated for that achievement.  Let’s leave his novels well alone.

The Discomfort Zone

by Jonathan Franzen

My second foray into Franzen’s writing, ordered by mistake from the library but hugely enjoyed nonetheless.  I love this author’s use of language, perceptions and indeed the topics and settings he chooses.  In this case, the book is a series of autobiographical essays from Franzen’s childhood and youth.

He is a contemporary of mine (about two years younger) so the era he grew up in, and the Zeitgeist of his life, is something I can relate to. Even though his experience was in the US and mine in the UK, there is a freedom of movement and expression that permeates his youthful experiences and this resonates to quite an extent with what I remember of my younger years.  I don’t think my own children, or the children of today, had this amount of freedom.  Perhaps they are safer as a result – but at a price.

I have another volume of Franzen essays to look forward to (this time purchased, so I can take my time with them).  And then I will savour (I hope) his other novels, and hope that he has a few more in him!

 

The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

A short but brilliantly executed novel.  The story is gripping, the plot believable, disturbing, and so tightly told that you don’t need to read ahead or try to second-guess what will happen (though I did both).

The story opens with the main character Fiona Maye, who we are told in the first paragraph is a High Court judge, experiencing some kind of trauma in her emotional life.  We gradually find out what is the cause of her distress, and the novel takes us through Fiona’s analysis of the cases she tries and the unfolding of her own marital problems.  At no point does the reader feel compelled to take sides with either Fiona or her husband Jack.  They are, like the couple in another compact McEwan tale On Chesil Beach, caught up in the cause-and-effect drama of almost any relationship.

Fiona’s work is an important part of the story, and the reader is left to work out to what extent her work influences her personal life (a lot, probably) and to what extent her personal life influences her work (can she be impartial in her judgments when her marriage is in crisis?). McEwan has clearly done his research, and I found the descriptions of family law cases that reach the High Court, and the factors influencing the judgments, fascinating to learn about and also to reflect upon.

I could come back to this novel again and again.  I think McEwan’s best work inhabits a part of one’s consciousness – perhaps because the issues he addresses are both personal and troubling, and encourage us to reflect on our own life decisions.