Mick Herron – Spook Street

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Fantastic, breathtaking, audacious and exhausting – but read the series in order for maximum enjoyment

Introducing Slough House and the Slow Horses for those coming to the series via Book 4 I though I strongly suggest, starting with book 1, and getting to this one in sequence:

The series follows a group of Z lister sppoks, and also the high fliers of the A listers of MI5, who run policy and do the high octane stuff. Slough House is where former MI5 personnel, who have fouled up in some way either through character defects or evidence of some kind of incompetence, are put out to paid grass. Someone has to do the boring stuff of videocam checks, and trawl through vehicle licence plates and phone records, and getting the disgraced ‘Slow Horses’ to do this, stops redundancy pay outs and legal cases. Chances are, the Slow Horse will resign due to extreme tedium, hence, no payout, and there will always be others to demote to Horsedom. To a man and woman, the Slow Horses regret their prior high flying status, and hope against hope that some kind of saving the world and defence of the realm activity will come their way, and they might, therefore return to the fold of MI5. In their own way, each of this fascinating group of misfits is more than capable

They are led by a monstrous, Rabelasian (at least in turns of various odoriferous bodily emissions and capacity to indulge alcohol, junk food and tobacco) man, Jackson Lamb. Lamb is the least lamb like creature imaginable. Irascible, bullying, grubby, obnoxious and lethal, sharp as a whole army of lasers and with, despite his lack of obvious appeal, a great loyalty to the band of ‘joes’ he rules and insults. Despite the drudgery of desk work, the Slow Horses are still involved in dangerous activities. Over the course of the books some have died, new characters have come to take their places, and some, there from the start, are still with us, though the danger of their work makes the reader wonder from whence the heartache of losing a strange old friend from an earlier book, will come

Herron brings different Horses into the leaders of each book’s race, and some characters met much earlier might be very very slow horses, waiting their turn to gallop to the death or marginal glory finish.

Central to this book is the aging David Cartwright. Almost ‘First Desk’ during the Cold War, he is now living in quiet retirement in the country, beginning to slide into dementia. An elderly spook, becoming loose lipped and garrulous might have dangerous secrets to unwittingly spill. And there might be several interested in plugging such a leak before it happens.

I must confess to some small disappointment with the previous book in the series, Real Tigers, though not disappointed enough to not want to proceed on to the next.

Dazzle Ship – H.M.S. President

Very happily, Spook Street has gone stratospheric in my estimation. So stratospheric that I had to stop reading at times because Herron had taken me to a place where I hardly dared to advance, because of fear and grief of what might be to come. A writer does something particularly brilliant when they take a reader to a place of ‘in denial’ – I don’t think I can bear to know more, I can’t bear to not know. Suspense, anxiety, on the edge.

All through the series, from the very first page of Slow Horses, Herron has thrown justified shocks, surprises, feints, and reverses at his readers. This one though, has him pretty well surpassing himself, because, of course, we are now invested in each Slow Horse.

As ever I can’t give any information (or very little) on this one, as each reader deserves to read in innocence, in order to get the greatest level of involvement and commitment to each of Herron’s wonderful cast of characters

As in book 3 the main focus from which danger and bad deeds arise is internal – from within the organisation itself, where various individuals struggle for higher status and power over others. Some of the usual suspects are still to be found within MI5, but others are on the rise or fall. Danger of course also lurks without, from those who seek to undermine the system, but some of those within have shady ways of protecting the system, and shadier ways still of protecting their own selves.

The Horses themselves, flawed, flatulent, antisocial and strange as they may be, are still the ones with moral compasses – more than others who stalk these pages, they have a loyalty to each other, however much each of them may violently dislike or despise a fellow Horse

And London itself, as so often, is a major character in this book, in both her grime and her splendour

I am minded, whilst we now have a protracted wait whilst Herron decides how much further to ride his horses, to start a prior series by him, following the fortunes of a private detective, but with, no doubt his trademark signatures of sharp writing, wit, danger, strong characterisation, twisty plot – and surprises a plenty

I received this, as a serendipitous ARC from Amazon Vine. It certainly looked like an example of meaningful targeting as I bought books 1,2, and 3 in the series in extremely rapid succession. Payback time now though…as this one has only recently been published…now all I can do is wait. I hope Herron is writing, writing, writing

Spook Street Amazon UK
Spook Street Amazon USA

Sara Taylor – The Lauras

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“home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy” : A story of wanderings

Sara Taylor’s first novel, The Shore was a stunning debut, a collection of individual stories which were interweaving, deeply entangled exploring the history and geography of a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia, and the families and their descendants who marked the place, and were marked by it

So I was extremely interested (and with some trepidation) to read her ‘can you follow THAT – always a challenge when a debut writer sets a very high standard for themselves to meet again.

Well, I need not have worried. The Lauras is a very different book, but it is equally immersive, equally assured, equally wonderful.

Out of the dark, foaming ocean a sun was rising, massive and red. It balanced on the black line of the horizon and spilled its blood across the sky, tore the scudding clouds with pink and caked the wet sand, and for a moment, I wondered if, in the course of my sleeping, we’d made it to the end of the world, where the sun rose out of the ocean like a newborn thing in the way I’d always imagined seeing but never had

“Where are we?” I asked

“Florida,” she said

Taylor, originally from rural Virginia, clearly has a love of the landscape of her country, and this is evidenced in this book, effectively, a mother and child road trip. However, Taylor chose to complete her education in the UK, where she now lives, so she also brings that interesting outsider’s eye to her native country. Something being explored here, in many ways, is identity, and those who, in different ways, do not fit into the world which mainstream cultural thinking, and existing structures, have designed. Her interest is in misfits – which to some extent must mean almost all of us. Few are perfectly round pegs easily happy in perfectly round holes.

The mother in this story is clearly an outsider – child of Sicilian immigrants, she is not quite Sicilian, not quite American. Circumstances led to her having a wild, disrupted childhood, and she was fostered. The road trip is towards a journey back to her own past. She is married, with a thirteen year old child, but the marriage is foundering. Alex, the 13 year old is torn between whether to follow mother or father as the primary identity role model, as children of breaking marriages often can be. Ma rather takes matters into her own hands, following a particular row. She has been planning on escaping this marriage for some time, and has had hidden bags packed in readiness. Alex is scooped up in the middle of the night, without really knowing what is going on, and the two set out on a two year and more road trip, sometimes hunkering down so Alex’s schooling can continue, whilst Ma works at menial jobs. She is searching for some specific friends from childhood and young womanhood. Friends, and more than friends. Ma has a fluidity around her sexual orientation as well as her nationality and cultural identification. Coincidentally a few of the early significant friends were called Laura, so the name has acquired potency.

Ma and Alex are dependent on the kindness of strangers, at times, but are also at risk from the unkindness of others, and sometimes, they will have to be the ones offering kindness, or seeking to right wrongs and dispense rough justice

Narrator, now an adult, looking back some quarter of a century, is Alex, so the narrative voice is adolescence through the filter of maturity

Memory is slippery, not even like a fish but like an eel, like an ice cube, like a clot of blood whose membranous skin can barely contain internal shifting liquidity. It’s something that, the firmer you try to grasp it, the weaker the hold you have on it, the less trustworthy it becomes. But it doesn’t matter what really happened, does it? Reality matters less than how it is perceived, that edge or feather or scale that you catch onto as it flickers by. And after a year or ten in a dingy pocket who can say if it was a lizard’s scale or a dragon’s in the first place?

Unfortunately, so very much about this book might be spoiled for a reader if further information is given, yet I’m aware that a review this evasive or woolly might fail to lure a potential reader. I will have to err on the side of evasion. Like things are in this book for Alex, who does not know the destination Ma is heading for, it is the unknown journey – road, or book, which is the point. Naming, defining, holding out signposts for readers would be destructive

Humans – most of us, at least – have the incapability of pondering the really terrifying things for any serious length of time. It’s probably what keeps us from throwing ourselves off cliffs in mass fits of existential crisis

Taylor tells a wonderful story, and her writing of it is beautiful, crafted, sure.

I recommend this very strongly. I read it in digital version for review, from the publishers via NetGalley

I await Taylor’s next book with even higher hopes. Tremendous

The Lauras Amazon UK
The Lauras Amazon USA

Samer – The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’

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Hard to read, unbearable to write, unimaginable to live through

This is one of those books that any reader must wish had never needed to be written. ‘Samer’ is the pseudonym of a young man, living in Raqqa, who was part of a resistance group within Syria, struggling to survive under the harshness of the Assad regime, and then struggling to survive after Daesh captured the city. The small group he belonged to were endeavouring to let people in the outside world know what their terrifying existence had become.

In Raqqa controlled Daesh, communicating with the western media is punishable by beheading. And of course, Western journalists are not allowed into the city. Those who are determined that the outside world should be aware of what their lives are like are in permanent danger of discovery, permanent danger of death, and also place their families in danger. It is a vicious choice to have to make, bearing witness seems the only possibility of any kind of less bleak future. The activist group Samer belonged to had made contact with the BBC. Samer’s resistance was to keep a journal of events (something, of course, punishable by death)

The journal was published after his escape from Raqqa – his present whereabouts are in a refugee camp in northern Syria.

I received this as a digital review copy from the publisher via Netgalley. It is a book I did not want to read, but felt I must

Samer tells the bleakness of his country’s present story simply. Too much of what happens is unbearable to linger on, and, living amid horror I suspect that allowing full realisation in would make surviving impossible. There is only so much pain which can be borne. Here is the experience of one who should have been an ordinary young man, one who loves his country, his family, his friends, his religion, one with ordinary hopes for an ordinary future. Exceptional events, orchestrated by terrible people, have forced ordinary people into making heartbreaking choices – for Samer, telling this story meant a certain death, and leaving his country, his family, his friends, was the hard choice. Resistance is the act of bearing witness.

Illustration by Scott Coello

Line drawings by Scott Coello are similarly spare. Samer’s diary is translated by Nader Ibrahim. Excerpts were originally broadcast on Radio 4.

The Raqqa Diaries Amazon UK
The Raqqa Diaries Amazon USA

Shirley Jackson – Dark Tales

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Jackson Shorts – twisted everyday psychology and supernatural horror

This is collection of seventeen short stories, most of which have been published in earlier collections and also appeared in various magazines, for example, The New Yorker. Here, they are gathered together in a new Penguin Collection

I received this as a digital ARC, for review purposes, and I assume that it is only intended to release these as a wood book, since it must be said the digital version was unusually poorly formatted – basically, there was no obvious end or beginning to each story, it ran continuously as a single tale, so the reader needed to keep their attention sharp for when a new sentence made no sense, connected to the one before

The tales fell into two types. The bulk of them were stories of every day small town people, possessed of a kind of psychological warp of some kind of nastiness. These reminded me forcefully of some of the short stories by a slightly later writer – Patricia Highsmith, though Jackson is funnier. In this vein, is The Possibility of Evil, a story about an elderly spinster, a model of rectitude, neat, devoted to growing roses, but whose nature at root is quite different, inventively spiteful.

The small town world is often deconstructed and shown to be cracked and wanting by Jackson, and the not so hidden cruelty in human nature is laid bare by her. Families, sibling rivalries, the cracks in relationships are given savage and often blackly funny treatments. Some of the stories, such as The Summer People are quite poignant and frightening in the potential realism which underlies them – a couple of still hale retirees who go year on year to a backwoods summer cottage, decide to stay on for longer. The local residents, warm and welcoming to tourists in the summer, close ranks once the season is over, and the couple are left with the creeping intimation of their mortality approaching, suddenly frail and frightened.

I particularly liked the small number of stories on the edge of supernatural – a strange and haunted picture, seen in the moonlight, in an old house, a picture of that house itself, which seems to have some kind of malevolent power….

As is often the case with collections of short stories, not all are of equal brilliance, and I do prefer the fuller flowering of Jackson’s novels, but this is still a pleasurable, shiverable read of Jackson shorts. As long as you stick to wood book format!

Had it not been Jackson, I might have abandoned this digital arc right at the point where the first story ended and the second began, with no spatial indication or demarcation point between them.

Dark Tales Amazon UK
Dark Tales Amazon USA

Mick Herron – Real Tigers

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A little more formulaic than the earlier outings

Being so entranced by Mick Herron’s Slough House series, which I discovered early this year, has had its down-side. Real Tigers, the third of (so far) 4, has been read pretty quickly after reading book 2, which was almost instantaneously dived into after finishing book 1.

Normally, readers will be waiting eagerly for the next to come out, and may well have forgotten an author’s tics or tricks. Not so, this way of reading.

The last time I was feverishly sucked into total immersion by an author, was by Irish writer, Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, a couple of years ago. I read all of French’s long books, – at that time, 5 of them within an intense 6 weeks. And I have to say that French survived this immersion fabulously, as I did not ever feel ‘oh, that routine again’

Where she scores and where Herron just misses, is that French does not stay with the same central cast of characters, who must either develop or recycle themselves into their own predictability. Using the Murder Squad as a pool, or chorus, each of her books features a couple of members of that squad taking a place in the spotlight. She might allow some of the detectives more than one outing, even more than one outing in some kind of central position, but her characters don’t outstay their welcome, and, anyway, are dynamic, shifting, developing.

Whilst Herron, in his wonderfully tense’second team’ espionage books, does keep some kind of unpredictable page turning going, the challenge is, his central players stay the same, and the most archetypal,verge-of-caricature ones, can begin to feel as if they are running through their own grooves, merely driving them a little more predictably. So, in Real Tigers, it is the grossly unregenerate Jackson Lamb – flatulent, autocratic, bullying and disgustingly grubby, who comes off the worst. By book 3, I was well aware that we were heading up to another fart gag, another description of Lamb’s far from fragrant aromatic ambience/ Likewise, sex-obsessed, but permanently sex-denied, geeky Roderick Ho continues to be a butt of some rather similar jokes and put downs.

I suspect I might have enjoyed Real Tigers rather more if I had read it at the time of publication, after waiting eagerly having finished book 2. Dead Lions, at its publication.

Nonetheless, Real Tigers, which has as its central motif the dark doings and power struggles within M15 itself, rather than the dangers posed by external villainry, was a still enjoyable and page turning divertissement, and Herron still gives lots of unpredictable excitement and surprises in the journey. But also, more clichés. There is a prolonged version of a Shoot-Out at the Okay Corral, and I did find it less than credible because I was always aware that I was reading that trope, which went on far too long.

As an aside, I continue to be quite amazed that (as far as I know) Herron has never been sued by the current denizen of the Foreign Office. Set after the 2015 election, but before the referendum, Peter Judd, (PJ) Home Secretary, a devious, bombastic, floppy haired egomaniac with manic ambition, ever prepared to plot and plan and shift with the wind in order to achieve his dream to become PM, is not so much a thinly disguised Boris Johnson, as one completely without disguise!

The most interesting character in this one, and one who has been developing across the books, is Catherine Standish, Jackson Lamb’s PA.

I do recommend this – but also, recommend leaving decent gaps between the books!

Unfortunately though, this book follows reasonably hard on the heels of my last blog review, as though I have read several other titles in the last few weeks, not one of them was any better than ‘okay’ in my estimation, so have been un-reviewed here. The only one which will get blog space is so far in advance of publication that it will do the book no service to be blogged about for a couple of months. So its Herron and Herron!
Real Tigers Amazon UK
Real Tigers Amazon USA

Mick Herron – Dead Lions

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“Grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind” (Ode: Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth)

dead-lionsSo………having encountered Mick Herron’s first in his Jackson Lamb series, a bare week or so ago, I was utterly unable to resist downloading and compulsively devouring book 2. And (whispers): it might be even better

In Dead Lions, Mick Herron’s second Slough House/Jackson Lamb series spy thriller, Herron has further sharpened his pencil, turned up the dry wit, turned up the reverses to wrong foot (justifiably) the reader. And he has turned up the shock and the darkness, having softened up the reader by the effortless amusement in the earlier part of the book.

there was something about him, even leaving aside the secondhand clothing, the stained walls, the desperate address. Something off, like that gap between the use by date, and the moment the milk turns

But, be warned, killer punches are coming

Of course I recommend, highly, starting with Book 1,Slow Horses, getting to meet the characters, as different members of the second division of MI5 (or, perhaps even relegated lower than that) will come to the forefront and centre of Herron’s focus, and you will be deepening your knowledge of, and appreciation for, the spooks you meet (old and new) in Dead Lions

However, Herron has constructed his books well, and finds a way to introduce any needed back story and character details for new readers picking up book 2 by chance.

The storyline in this book, published in 2013, has Russia at its centre (and how topical might this be?) But this is a new Russia. Some of the spooks who have been around for a while are still stuck in an old Cold War scenario, where communism and capitalism square up against each other. Russia, as many have noted of late, has moved markedly rightwards, and its interests may no longer be in helping the workers of the world, who have nothing to lose but their chains, to unite.

city-london

An old, not very high flying, not very valuable, spook from the days of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sees a face he recognises. This (British) cipher clerk, was too lowly, too incompetent, even to merit deployment to ‘Slough House’ where spooks who have fouled up, get shafted to end their days as pen pushers, CCTV footage perusers, in order for government to avoid redundancy golden handshakes. In the fullness of time, is the thinking, the demoted ones will get fed up, and hand in their notice, saving payouts.

The ex-spook seeing a face from the past decides to trail the man from the other side, he last saw, memorably, at the end of the 80s. And so begins a whole, complex, twisty tangle of information, disinformation, plots, sub-plots, and things which are very much not what they seem.

cotswolds

It is set partly in the epicentre – London, and partly in that most English of English, safe, old fashioned, cosy part of the country, the Cotswolds – though a part of it not quite mainstream tourist destination:

Upshott has no high street, not like those in nearby villages, with their parades of mock-Tudor frontages gracefully declining riverwards….;whose grocery stores offer stem-ginger biscuits and seven kinds of pesto….. Because Upshott doesn’t invite the epithet ‘chocolate boxy’ , so often delivered through gritted teeth. If it resembles any kind of chocolate box, it’s the kind found on the shelf at its only supermarket: coated with dust, its cellophane crackly and yellowing

Some of the characters met in the first book are here again – but some are not. Espionage, even for the Slow Horses of Slough House is a dangerous game. And the more Herron invests the reader in each of the characters he develops, the more, I suspect, will reading subsequent books be a mixture of feverish page turning pleasure – and pain.

Yes. I cried, where I had laughed before.

Book 3 is now downloaded on the eReader, and I have book 4 (the latest) as an ARC Herron is THAT compulsive, THAT good.mick-herron

Dead Lions won the 2013 CWA Gold Dagger Award, and was a ‘Best Crime Novel of the Year’ for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, and A Times crime and thriller book of the year. And I wouldn’t argue with any of that

Dead Lions Amazon UK
Dead Lions Amazon USA

Marcus Sedgwick – Saint Death

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A fence, A wall. A border: who are the bad hombres, in the end?

saint-deathI must confess I would never normally be drawn to a book with this sort of cover – it suggests some book focused towards those enamoured of zombie/werewolf/vampires and the like, but perhaps with a notched up degree of violence, and possibly of appeal to young boys with a yen for shoot-em-up video games.

Nothing like the prejudice of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ going on here, eh?

Well, this is certainly geared to YA readers, though they might find that the violence and darkness in the pages is a kind of sweetener to encourage facing still darker matters. This book carries weightier themes, is bang-on-topical, and mixes myth, responsibility, gang warfare and class consciousness extremely powerfully. Not to mention friendship, free-will versus destiny, chance and choice..

It was the author that drew me, despite the lurid cover. This is, after all, Marcus Sedgwick, a wonderful author, writing challenging, thoughtful books for a younger audience – and also the odd foray into adult fiction

Saint Death is set on the Mexican side of the border with the US. It’s theme is the exploitation of the poor by capitalism, and how that goes hand in glove with gangland control and exploitation, drug running, violence and prostitution. It is strong meat for an adult reader, never mind a teen

anapra

Arturo is probably in his late teens. His mother is dead, his alcoholic, violent father gone from his life. He lives in the shantytown neighbourhood of Anapra, in the city of Juarez, Chihuahua, close to the Rio Grande. He gets by through occasional casual employment in an auto-shop, and steers clear of the gangs. He had a dear, childhood friend, Faustino, an immigrant from an even poorer place. Faustino had not kept so clear of trouble – extreme poverty means even the most righteous might find they surrender to powerful, vicious people, for the chance to put food on a plate. Faustino is now in danger and comes to his childhood friend for salvation

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Interspersed within this violent tale is a dark, older religion, a Death-cult figure, Santisima Muerte, ever present, who must be placated, prayed to, sought for protection against her own visitation. There are also reflections, riffs, poems, where Sedgwick, sometimes using the words of others, comments on the wider political, ethical issues. Reminding the reader that though this might be a story, it is, or something similar is, a reality happening daily

This book is about other stories that occur
over there, across the river

The comfortable way to deal with these
stories is to say they are about them.

The way to understand these stories is to say
they are about us”

Charles Bowden

There are aspects of it which don’t quite work for me – the Spanish punctuation, and the interjection of frequent snatches of Spanish dialogue. Okay, it gives ‘flavour’ but it seemed a little tricksy. I could imagine the slang would be something which might appeal though, to its target audience

And I do think Sedgwick is extremely skillful at writing something which has page-turning action which might appeal to younger readers, whilst what he is writing is very far from escapism; rather, an invitation to look at how an unfair world works, and then castigates those who it has forced into suffering

We handed the right to kill to that thing we call civilisation. Civilisation does our killing for us, and we can wash our hands of it. This is the management of death. But the blood will not wash off

I received this from Amazon Vine UKmarcus-sedgwick-012

Saint Death Amazon UK
Saint Death Amazon USA

This book won’t be published in the States till April 25th

Samantha Ellis – Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life

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A sisterly fight for the youngest, overlooked Brontë

take-courageI confess, with some shame, that the youngest Brontë, Anne, is the one I have never explored. Clearly, I surrendered to the fake news floating around for nearly 200 years which dismissed Anne as being lesser than her more respected siblings, Emily and Charlotte.

Anne has been championed in more modern times for her more realistic, less romantic, heroines, as the sister who more clearly reflected the way society was weighted against women, and, moreover who explored a journey towards independence for her heroines, a self-actualisation free from the lures of ‘the Byronic romantic hero’ which renders Emily’s and Charlotte’s books so very alluring to impressionable minds.

Anne might just be the writer for the woman wanting to make a journey out of myth.

And Ellis is a perfectly placed writer to explore this territory.

Anne by Charlotte 1834

Anne by Charlotte 1834

I adored Ellis’ first book, How to be a Heroine, which engagingly, intelligently, passionately, thoughtfully and entertainingly explored the various ‘heroines’ of literature whom female readers might internalise as aspirational role models. This was, and is, a book a strongly recommend to all of my literary minded sisters, as a feisty book which provokes much enjoyable debate. And THIS book will be another, and is certainly heading me over to explore Anne’s two novels.

Ellis writes exactly the kind of literary non-fiction which I most enjoy. Forget dry, cerebral, academic theory, which pins its subject matter like a chloroformed butterfly, so that it will never fly again. Without losing any ability to analyse, or being any less intelligent in analysis, what Samantha Ellis brings is dynamism, a whole-hearted, gut-felt, lively intellect engagement with her material. Literature MATTERS to her, it is a living thing, and she observes the flying butterfly of a book, a life, a society on the wing, and observes herself observing it, rather than pretending a book, a life, a society are something outside our observation. The observer is always also having subjective responses.

Anne by Branwell

Anne by Branwell

Ellis takes (of course she does!) an interesting approach to her analysis of Anne, her life and her books. Rather than a linear approach, she looks at the seminal influences on Anne, with a chapter devoted to each influencing person. And also chapters devoted to the central characters of her two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – there must, surely, always be a kind of symbiotic relationship between a writer and their creations. The writer (well, the depth writer, anyway) will create characters from their own ‘stuff’, but what is also happening is that written character is also potential, offering an ability for writer (and reader) to have something fed back to them, by the imaginative invention.

And I was pleased to discover (so Ellis, so Anne!) that the positive influence of less obvious individuals were allowed to take their places in Anne’s formative sun – not only her missing mother, Maria, who died in Anne’s infancy, but Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, Maria’s older sister, who moved from her beloved Cornwall to be the motherly presence in the Haworth household. Tabby, who served the family all her life, also provided stability and love. The often harshly vilified father, Patrick, is also shown to be far more positively formative, with his commitment to education, and a strong sense of class inequality, and its unjustiice.

…when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?  Anne Brontë, preface to Tenant of Wildfell Hall

It must be said that the person Ellis is most censorious of is the best known, most successful sister – Charlotte, and her proper champions, Mrs Gaskell and Ellen Nussey. It was Charlotte who prevented, initially, the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death. In writing a realistic novel about alcoholism and about violence within marriage, Anne had written too modern, too truthful a book. And one, moreover, ‘unfeminine’ The book was considered by some, coarse, because it showed truth, and held a mirror up to society. Charlotte rather presented the sanitised image of the youngest sister, shy and sweet, and what the youngest actually wrote, conflicted with the docile image :

Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer. Charlotte Brontë

At this time of course Charlotte is a literary sensation. There is no doubt she loved her sister, but it seems she may have found it easier to love the idea of a weak, ineffectual angel (possibly an unhealed loss of her eldest sister, Maria, who it seems WAS that child), but found a more tough-minded, truth, rather than romantic illusion, facing sister, too tough a prospect. A more modern, psychologically driven analysis also has to wonder about any role played by sibling rivalry. Despite being seen by some as ‘coarse’, BECAUSE it did not romanticise, Wildfell Hall did sell well, on first publication.

It seems even more poignant than getting her age wrong on the original inscription, that her status, in her own right, was omitted

It seems even more poignant than getting her age wrong on the original inscription, that her status, in her own right, was omitted

Samantha Ellis, in offering us a wonderfully complex, interesting person, challenging-of-pre-conceptions writer, in her Anne Brontë biography, does the reader a service by clearly indicating where she is ‘imagining’ from her own perspective how Anne might have felt, or thought this and that, with also backing up some of her assumptions by textual evidence from the books, from social history documents of the times, as well as Bronte-and-friends letters and other documents

I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man Anne Brontë, preface to Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Woven into the book, in a way I find wonderful, is a kind of life-story, journey, of Ellis as samantha-ellis-bronteartist and woman. This is a harking back to her first book ‘How to Be A Heroine’ as she uses Anne’s writing, Anne’s complex, struggling heroines, Agnes and Helen, to help her reflect on her own journey. Reminding me (who needs no such reminder) of the power of literature to shape lives. We learn and are inspired by a multiplicity of stories – our own, those of others we know personally, also figures in our own times on world stages, figures from other times – but, also, the inspiration of imagination itself, and that most ancient, and most potent of teachers – story.

I received this as a digital copy for review purposes from the publisher via NetGalley

Take Courage Amazon UK
Take Courage Amazon USA

Mick Herron – Slow Horses

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Borstal for spies; Herron trips, feints and cleverly deceives the reader every step of the way

slow-horsesMick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first book in a series set in ‘Slough House’ a kind of transfer to the bottom stream for spooks from MI5 who have made mistakes, is stunning. Absolutely stunning.

This is a highly intelligent, tautly written, compulsive page-turner, with a plot as highly charged and twisty turny as any reader could want, wonderfully complex, believable characters, and founded in a reality which seems terrifyingly plausible. It is bloody, violent – and, at times, very very funny.

He was aiming for a carefree delivery, with about as much success as Gordon Brown

I have found my series to compulsively read on – book 4 comes out this year and I’ve been fortunate to have bagged a copy as an ARC, but, 2 and 3 will be read in order first – if I can stop the dizzy spin I’m left in, reading this one.

The unfortunate challenge of writing a review, is that really, there is almost nothing I wish to say about plot – or even the cast of characters, because the best way to read this is to know as little as possible about the journey, other than to make it.

thames_house_exterior

All that might be useful to know, is that the title, ‘Slow Horses’ is a kind of dismissive word play, accorded to the Z lister spooks, fallen from grace, who now work at Slough House. One and all, they were operatives who, for different reasons, had been attracted to the boxing-at-shadows work of MI5, recruited for their spook-needed skills, trained for this, but, in each case somehow failed the grade, dropped a catch, failed to tick the right box. Now, they all do the grunt work associated with counter terrorism, the endless checking of videocams, CCTV, paper trails. And all are resentful and yearn to be back at the high, respected levels of the job.

cctv

The only name I will provide is that of Jackson Lamb – as in, this is the first in Herron’s Jackson Lamb series. He heads up the crew of misfits, who have ended up here. Bullying, and shambolic, disliked by his subordinates and superiors, he is none the less as devious, intelligent, astute at pulling wool over eyes and mastering dissimulation as a spook must be.

He resembled, someone had once remarked, Timothy Spall gone to seed (which left open the question of what Timothy Spall not gone to seed might look like)

Having finished this one, I have no real idea where Herron might go with the later books in the series. My instinct is that we will certainly be meeting some of the ‘Slow Horses’ denizens of Slough House – not to mention the MI5 high flier section, – again, and I suspect different characters will, in subsequent books, come into sharper relief, and take place centre stage. In this, the closet parallel I can find is to the magnificent Tana French, who does a similar ‘Greek tragedy chorus’ effect with her Dublin Murder Squad series – each book focuses on different central characters in the squad, some of whom may have made passing appearances earlier, and are now centre stage, and may well pass through again in a later book, as a minor character in someone else’s story. When I first found French, I did a kind of total immersion and read all her books in the space of 6 weeks.

I can see myself heading the same way with Herron.

intelligence-equipment-procurement

But, I have to hold back from saying even the most basic about plot, or other central characters beside Lamb because Herron starts the dissimulation and confounds the reader’s expectations right from the start, and you will be best pleased to read as an innocent, without knowing or second guessing in advance.

this particular block seemed ordinary enough in the early morning, with its shared entrance and its buzzer system that blinked continuously. Only the sign promising CCTV coverage hinted at Big Brother’s world, but signs were cheaper than the actual thing. The UK might be the most surveilled society in the world, but that was on the public purse, and building management companies generally preferred the cheaper option of hanging a fake camera

Counter Surveillance EquipmentAll I will say is that none of the sleights of hand, the cutting between different stories all heading in the same direction, deviously and twistily, is a gratuitous authorial series of tricks, coinicidences too far etc. The territory of the book, after all is one where no one is quite what they seem, because the territory of intelligence, counter-intelligence and their friends and enemies is, of its nature – hidden, deceptive, shadowy.

However…..this book was first published in 2010. There is a remarkably foresighted view of the future, and a thinly disguised character readers will ‘enjoy’ recognising. I guffawed out loud on a silent tube carriage………….Of course, humour gets laced with horror these days.mick-herron

I wonder what else Herron is predicting in later books in the series, and sincerely hope book 4 (published in 2017) won’t have World War 3 in mid-throes.

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E.M.Forster – The Machine Stops

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Considering the time of writing, astonishingly and horribly prophetic

the-machine-stopsE.M.Forster wrote this ‘Science Fiction story’ in 1909. Pre-computer, pre-world wide web, pre-smart talking to itself technology.

Just over 100 years later this seems not like science fiction at all, more, something which might be a mere handful of years away, and in many ways, already here.

Set sometime in the future (at the time of writing) human beings have gratefully done away with all the challenging, messy stuff of having to communicate with each other, and skilfully negotiate co-operation with another face to face human being, in real time and place.

Instead, each lives softly cocooned like a babe inside a personal pod, where all wants are regulated by sentient technology. The technology ‘The Machine’ was once created and conceived of by humans, but now it does things so much more efficiently than any one human can do. All needs, be they of ambient temperature, health and well being, education, entertainment, furniture, are seamlessly provided by the machine, and the human being in its pod never has to rub up against the messy flesh of another. Communication happens by seeing (and hearing) each other on some kind of screen. You in your small pod, me in mine

smartphone-obsession

Everything that can be controlled, is, and everything that can’t, in the material world, is regarded as unpleasant and dangerous.

Living happens in the personal pod, deep below the earth, where the air supply is regulated, and purified. The surface of the earth is deemed dangerous, the air not fit to breathe. The Machine has told us so, so it must be true.

Vashti, the central character is happy in her pod. Her son is a difficult and challenging embarrassment to her and their ‘meetings’ on screen do not go well. He also has disturbing things to say about The Machine, and appears to harbour dangerously subversive ideas about a better, earlier time, when people communicated directly with each other. And then………well, the title of the story shows where this will lead.

self-service-machines

Twenty-first century readers can’t help but look around at a world where we are all clutching our little screens,facetwitting, Instachatting, occupying the same space as each other in cafes, on buses, colliding on the street, but rarely connecting with each other, in real. Terminals in shops instruct us that we have placed an unrecognised item in the bagging area. Doctor’s surgeries require us to register our arrival on a screen, whilst the receptionist communicates only with her own terminal. And children, so we are told, no longer realise that potatoes grow in the earth, milk comes from cows, and, from early years are plonked in front of screens with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawking sounds, so their harassed parents can get on with the important stuff of staring at their own little screens, busy with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawks of their own

more-smartphones

Whilst I certainly prefer Forster’s more ‘traditional’, literary novels of relationship this is a horribly possible vision, and it is tempting to categorise it as contemporary fiction, not Sci-Fi at all

A short piece, it punches the gut and leaves the reader gasping for breathe-m-forster

And, the inevitable link to my virtual bloggy buddy FictionFan, who once again brought something to my attention I would otherwise not have known about. You can read her review here. We have never met, in real, and I realise the whole wonderful book blogging community is a ‘virtual’ like Forster is warning us about. There are many good things about our virtual connections, but I sincerely hope to live out my days on the surface of this planet, not beneath it (that can come later!) and welcome the real faces of real people as we meet each other, bump against each other, and even talk, face to face, in real time and space

A version a little more alarming than the better known one by Simon and Garfunkel

The Machine Stops Amazon UK
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