Three short reviews

Three short reviews

My book reviews are usually quite long. (The last one I did ended up being an extended discussion of the life and times of Henrietta Howard.) Lately, though, I’ve read a few books that I’d like to share my enthusiasm for without going on at length. So here are three short reviews.

(Anyone would think that since I finished writing Eat the Poor I’ve been on a writing break and able to catch up on my reading.)

The Shepherd’s Life: James Rebanks

This is the third book review I’ve written recently that starts, “ I don’t generally enjoy memoirs but…” Perhaps it’s a sign of age that I am beginning to get more into this genre. In any case, I loved The Shepherd’s Life. It’s a memoir of a life spent as a hill sheep farmer in the Lake District and it sums up a place and a way of life that deserves to be more celebrated.

Recently my son, having got married and bought a house more conveniently located than a remote part of mid-Wales, decided to sell up the house in sheep country that had passed through three generations of our family. Three generations, according to James Rebanks, is the time it takes to be accepted in a hill farming community. Being English and living most of the time in England, it was only when people said how sorry they were to hear we were leaving that I realised we were, up to point, accepted into that remote community and I miss it more than I can say. Reading this book took me back to misty mornings and hills where sheep wandered apparently randomly.

We had seen life there only as visitors. We had never been up at a winter’s dawn, working with dogs to check the sheep, soaked to the skin and desperate to finish before dark. But I have talked to farmers about the price they get in a bad year when every lamb sold represents an actual financial loss. It’s not a romantic life. It’s hard and economically ruinous. (Rebanks points out that almost all the farmers he knows have a second job to keep the farms afloat. My neighbours had so many, I honestly lost count.) Yet the families stay. I was talking to someone who had a relative who sold up. That person had just vanished from society. You never leave.

Being English, we left. This is a book that reminds me what we’ve let slip away.

Hill farmers have been here for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years. That link with the land is a vital part of what makes a nation. The French, with their near obsession with ‘patrie’ understand this. In Britain that link is being lost. Rebanks explains why it matters. It’s not just a lovely book, but an important one.

Gooseberry: Michael Gallagher

This is the first of Michael Gallagher’s series of stories about boy detective Octavius Guy. Octavius is a minor character in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Other characters from Collins’ book also turn up in Gooseberry. It’s a very long time since I read The Moonstone and I’ve forgotten most of them except for the butler, Betteredge, with his obsession with Robinson Crusoe. It was fun meeting him again and I imagine fans of The Moonstone will enjoy the joke.

You don’t need to have read The Moonstone to enjoy Gooseberry, though. It’s a wonderful romp through the Victorian underworld with a lovely sense of period. There are one or two fantastical elements: Gallagher admits that the Thames Tunnel was never remotely as described and since it’s easily enough visited today that seems an unnecessary invention, but it does allow the plot to bowl along. I’m not going to carp. It’s a great book and I had fun reading it.

Where There’s Doubt: Terry Tyler

I’ve read several of Terry Tyler’s books and always enjoyed her easy writing style and ability to produce convincing characters. With Where There’s Doubt she has upped her game.

There’s been a lot of publicity about Romance Fraudsters lately, particularly Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler, so Terry’s latest is timely. It may even be a useful warning to women who are swept off their feet by men with conveniently vague past lives.

The book starts slowly and reads like so many romances as Kate, a smart cookie with a sweet centre, meets her new man, Nico. We all know, from the blurb and publicity, that Nico is no good, so I did have my doubts as the romance grows. Kate, it turns out, has recently inherited a lot of money. Is Nico after this? You bet he is. All of us reading know he is, but we are wading further and further into Mills & Boon slush. Can this con sustain a whole book?

Suddenly we switch from Kate’s point of view to Nico’s. (His name’s not Nico, of course.) Now we see just what a creep the guy is and how complex the fraud he is building up to. And now it’s not slow (or like Mills & Boon) at all.

I can’t say anything else because of spoilers. The plot twists and turns with some genuine surprises that make perfect sense once they are revealed but which I never saw coming. We see how different victims of Nico’s crimes respond differently. Some are made stronger, other collapse. The victims’ stories are as fascinating as the main plot. We meet good people and bad – those we want to see come to a terrible end and those we have a sneaking sympathy for. (Making a villain simultaneously evil and vulnerable is a very difficult thing to do and one which Terry pulls off very well.)

The end is not the neat and tidy finish that you might expect, but it is very satisfying.

I can’t say any more. I really don’t want to spoil it. But I do hope you read it. It’s very, very good.

Harbour Ways: Val Poole.

Harbour Ways: Val Poole.

I was a bit nervous about reading Valerie Poore’s account of moving into an old barge that was little more than a shell and converting it into a floating home. Not only am I not that interested in memoirs, but I have no enthusiasm for blokey conversations about re-wiring and the joys of MDF boarding. I took the risk, though, because I have become a fan of Val Poore’s blog, Rivergirl (https://rivergirlrotterdam.blogspot.com/). She makes life on a barge sound fun, which, given that it’s too hot in summer, freezing cold in winter and your whole life has to fit into 30 square metres, is impressive.

It turns out that Val’s no more a fan of DIY than I am – or she certainly wasn’t when she bought her heritage barge, the Vereeniging. It was a literal museum piece and a thing of beauty, to a historic barge enthusiast at least.

Now I’m a big fan of museums, but would you really want to live in one? Val did. She was allowed to change the inside around, so long as she kept the barge looking like it should. That meant the first step was to strip everything out and start building her accommodation pretty much from scratch.

(Actually, the first step should have been to make sure that the hull was solid and keeping the water out. Still, we all learn from our mistakes, don’t we Val?)

Building her new home meant learning carpentry and then wiring and finally plumbing. And, of course, there was the engine to maintain. The Vereeniging isn’t a twee little houseboat. It’s a real schip that can (and does) pootle around the local canals. So basically, she has all the problems of living in a beautiful but old and run-down house, combined with the doubtful pleasures of maintaining an old car except that she’s doing all this on water and she hasn’t even got anywhere to go to the loo.

Here’s a picture of the Vereeniging from a recent post on Val’s blog

It should be miserable (every so often she allows herself a good cry) but the harbour she lives in is filled with a weird collection of friendly and supportive people and she learns as she goes along until slowly (oh so slowly) the Vereeniging turns into the home she always wanted. And on the way she learns Dutch (doing all this in a language she speaks fluently would take the fun out of it) and explores Rotterdam and beyond.

Harbour Ways is a vibrant and life-affirming book that can even make the details of plumbing a toilet into a boat surprisingly interesting. I found myself anxious to know what would go wrong next and how Val would overcome her problems. It read like a thriller: I just had to turn the page. Definitely recommended.

King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman

King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard by Tracy Borman

My home is very close to Marble Hill House in Twickenham, where Henrietta Howard lived. The house is owned by English Heritage and has recently undergone major work. English Heritage are restoring the place to how it was when Henrietta Howard lived there and this has meant a lot of discussion about who she was and the life she lived.

Tracy Borman’s book was written before this sudden flurry of interest in Henrietta, but it remains the standard book for people wanting to know more about her.

The instant summary of her life (as used to appear on posters advertising the house) is that she was the mistress of George II and she was given Marble Hill as a retirement gift on leaving the court.

Tracy Borman’s book shows that she was much more interesting than this (inaccurate) summary suggests.

Henrietta had an unfortunate life. Orphaned at an early age (her father was killed in a duel), she had made an unfortunate marriage in 1706 to a man who robbed her, beat her and essentially made her life hell. Reduced to living in lodgings in “an unsavoury part of the capital” and often skipping meals because her husband took all her money, Henrietta moved into a single room shared with her son and a husband she by now loathed, sold her furniture and saved whatever money she could from an allowance from her father’s will until she had gathered enough to pay to travel to Hanover. Her plan, almost incredibly bold, was to ingratiate herself with the Hanoverian court so that when Queen Anne died and the Hanoverians inherited the English throne, she would be well placed for a position in their London court. (I know it’s complicated but just trust me on this. We love to tell ourselves that the monarchy traces a single line back to Alfred the Great, but that line has an awful lot of kinks in it.)

Despite the fact that she arrived impoverished and with her drunken, loutish husband in tow, and that she was only on the very fringes of the English aristocracy, her desperate gamble succeeded. She made such a favourable impression on Sophia, the Hanoverian monarch who was tipped to inherit the English throne that Sophia promised that she would make her a Woman of the Bedchamber if she became Queen of England.

Queen Anne inconsiderately refused to die. Henrietta, though now a fixture in the Hanoverian court, had no official status. In 1714, Sophia was the first of the two royal ladies to shuffle off this mortal coil. Weeks later, Anne followed.

In the absence of his mother, George drew the lucky ticket that made him king of England. He took his time travelling to his new realm. (He never liked the country and almost resented being king.) Eventually, though, a date was fixed for his coronation and Henrietta and her husband returned to London ready to welcome their Hanoverian friends to their new home. It was a tense time. With Sophia dead, there were no firm promises of any position in George’s court.

Henrietta hitched her wagon to the rising star of George’s daughter-in-law, Caroline. Caroline’s husband (also George, because Hanoverians were unimaginative with names) would become king on his father’s death. Fortunately, Caroline had become very friendly with Henrietta in Hanover and honoured her mother-in-law’s promise that Mrs Howard should become a Woman of the Bedchamber.

Henrietta, then, was a professional courtier. Intelligent, charming and diplomatic, she naturally rose through the ranks of the court. By 1718, she had become George’s mistress, whilst continuing to serve with his wife, who she would spend hours with almost every day.

There is no suggestion that this was a grand passion. George was unfashionably devoted to his wife. In fact, one reason for taking a mistress may well have been to counter the impression, widely held in court, that it was Caroline who made all the decisions in their household. George was not a particularly sensuous man and his lovemaking took place to a strict timetable. A mistress was customary and convenient and Henrietta, subtle enough to serve both George and his wife, was ideally suited to the position.

She remained George’s mistress until 1734 by which time George was king. During that time her links with Caroline and George made her a key figure in the intrigues of the court, although she did her best not to become identified with the various factions. Eventually, though, she was inevitably drawn into politics and championed the Tory cause, to the intense irritation of Queen Caroline, who was a supporter of Walpole. The political divisions in court and her own fading charms (she was 45) led her to find life in royal circles increasingly difficult and she was relieved when the break with George was finally official.

She had known a break was coming for years and had prepared her house in Marble Hill as an escape from court life. She loved the place and spent as much time in it as possible. It’s not true that it was a retirement present from the king: she had bought it with her own money while she was still serving at court. However, the king did make her generous settlement when she left which enabled her to finish the building (work was constantly being delayed because of cost overruns) and live there comfortably.

Her appalling husband had died, leaving her free to marry again. She wed George Berkeley in 1735. She was too old to have children by then, but the couple were devoted to each other and she moved nieces and nephews into Marble Hill where they lived very happily as a family (albeit it one with a degree of coming and going among the younger family members).

Henrietta’s terrible experience of her first marriage and the helplessness of her position as a woman made her what we might well think of as an early feminist. She helped women friends and relatives to protect themselves against the predations of their menfolk and her will, when she finally died, tied up bequests to women in a way that ensured that they maintained control of their money in an age where most women were entirely dependent on husbands or fathers.

She had not only been involved in court and political life, but was the centre of an intellectual circle that included the playwright, Gay; the poet, Pope; and the novelist, Swift. Her private memoirs are regarded as one of the best guides to life in the early Georgian courts and the house at Marble Hill (the designing of which had been one of her main pleasures in her later years at court) still stands as one of the finest Palladian villas in England. (A quick Google search suggests several other contenders for this title but it is certainly a fine example.)

Even this whistle-stop tour of Henrietta’s life has run well past my usual word-count and Tracy Borman’s book is an impressive 350 pages. Sadly, though, she is distracted by the splendours of the Georgian court and the eccentricities of the courtiers and we can lose sight of Mrs Howard for extended periods. Pages are dedicated to details of the procession in which George I entered London, though Henrietta was not involved. There are rambling asides on Swift’s career and the social rituals of Bath (although, in fairness, these were rituals that Henrietta definitely joined in). But, although there is an awful lot about Marble Hill there are huge gaps in what we are told about the house. As it stands today, it is unliveable in. (There are, most obviously, no cooking facilities.) In fact, it has been described in the past as really just a ‘party house’ rather than a proper home. Borman makes it clear that it was definitely ‘a proper home’ and one which was lived in by young people as well as Henrietta who was in her mid-forties before she could spend much time there. I’m biased, knowing the place as I do, but a little more about the domestic arrangements would have been appreciated, given how much of the book is devoted to discussing the house.

Much the same is true of Hampton Court. A visit there makes it clear that the physical position of Mrs Howard’s rooms put her geographically close to the centre of power and this is important in understanding why she was (as Borman says) known as ‘the Swiss cantons’ (connected to everywhere but independent of all). This is not at all obvious from her account.

Sometimes Borman seems overwhelmed by the volume of material she has to hand. Why so much irrelevant discussion of details of the peccadillos of the young maids-in-waiting while Henrietta’s London house in Savile Street gets only a couple of pages? The Hanoverians were expert in distracting attention from things that mattered with glorious public displays (like the coronation, which is described at length) and riveting private feuds. Borman seems no less distracted than the citizenry of the time. There are also one or two occasions where I think some of her details is questionable. I would doubt, for example, if Twickenham is really only a couple of hours from London by river. (On a favourable tide and with a following wind, maybe, but other historians of the period would differ.)

Is it worth reading? Emphatically yes. Henrietta Howard is a fascinating figure and hers is a wonderful story to tell. Tracy Borman’s book is a good place to start, but I hope it is far from the last word we will read on this remarkable woman.

The Ides of April: Lindsay Davis

The Ides of April: Lindsay Davis

I used to be a huge fan of Lindsay Davis’s Falco stories – a model of how to write historical crime fiction. Falco eventually grew a little too middle aged to keep on with his criminal investigations and the torch was passed to his daughter, Albia.

The Ides of April is the first of the Flavia Albia books. It was published in 2013 but I have only just got around to reading it. It’s certainly encouraged me to read more in the future.

The Ides of April is clearly written as the first in a series. Although there are frequent references to her father and you will probably enjoy the book more if you have read Falco in the past, it definitely starts from scratch. We have not only a new detective (though still working from Falco’s old office) but a new Emperor. Vespasian and Titus (both of whom featured a lot in the Falco series) are dead and Domitian is running the country. Davis is clearly not a fan of Domitian and this means there is a dark political background to the story.

The change in the politics of Rome and all the new characters that come with a new series means that much of the early part of the book is given over to establishing the characters and the background, which makes it a little slow, especially for people who already know some of it from the overlap with Falco. Eventually, though, the story – Albia’s attempts to track down a serial killer who is murdering apparently at random – gets properly under way and gallops along very satisfactorily.

There are quite a lot of characters and all are clearly drawn and easy to keep track of when they are around, but I did find myself getting lost from time to time when they were being referred to while they were not present. There are lots of nephews and nieces and lovers and ex-wives and freed slaves who are essentially part of these rambling extended families and all have two names and may be referred to by either. At one point there is a discussion of how somebody had called on someone’s father about someone’s uncle (I’m being vague as to details) and I had to read it several times to work out who was talking about whom. Eventually, though, even with characters who take on hidden identities, we work out who is who and the plot is clear. Perhaps a little too clear: once all the red herrings are discarded the big silver herring is a bit obvious. In fairness all the people involved do accept that they have been remarkably obtuse and the story is much more than just a murder mystery. The sense of time and place is (as I’d expect after the Falco series) brilliant and there are some interesting characters I expect to meet again in future books.

Is it as good as Falco at his best? Of course not: Falco at his best was already established with his family and his friends and we all knew the Rome he lived in by then. Albia is starting over and it will take a while for her to be as sure-footed as her father, but I think she’ll get there. Definitely a series worth sticking with.

Shady Hollow: Juneau Black 

Shady Hollow: Juneau Black 

Imagine Beatrix Potter meets Agatha Christie and you have Shady Hollow. A bunch of animals live together in a small town where differences in size and diet don’t seem to be a problem as they mix together in coffee bars and restaurants. Fortunately, they all seem to have taken up vegetarianism so they don’t eat each other, but when a toad is found stabbed in the lake near his house it’s obvious that someone in Shady Hollow is prepared to kill for reasons other than getting their next meal. And when the beaver who owns the local sawmill is also murdered, it seems there may be a serial killer on the loose. 

Will ace reporter Vera Vixen be able to track down the murderer? Or will she be the next victim? 

I got a copy of this book through NetGalley and I did enjoy it. It’s the lightest of light reads and maybe what we all need nowadays, but it’s difficult to review. I’ve really said all there is to say about it. It’s nicely written in plain prose, but it’s hardly going to offer a wealth of characterisation: everyone is defined by their species characteristics (real or imagined). So the racoon is a bandit, the fox is cunning and the local police force are bears: strong and patient if sometimes a little plodding. 

If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like it and if you don’t, you won’t. Shady Hollow is the first in a series. It worked well for me but three (so far) might be a bit much: one dip into a childhood world of talking animals is fun, but three suggests problems adapting to adult life.  It’s nice to see odd books like this get support from their publishers but there are definitely worthier tomes out there being ignored. 

Anthem: Noah Hawley

Anthem: Noah Hawley

Anthem is, to put it mildly, rather a strange book. It is, perhaps, the book that 2022 deserves: quirky; darkly cynical; very funny in places but desperately sad in others; simultaneously deeply pessimistic but finally (perhaps unrealistically) optimistic.

The book is set in an America of the very near future with several incidental characters who are named real people and key figures who are given fictional names but who are clearly identifiable. It must have given the lawyers pause.

Hawley likes to take down the fourth wall from time to time and talk directly to his readers. Thus we know that he does not intend to take sides. There are two parties in the USA: the party of Truth and the Party of Lies and they are, he says, interchangeable.

… Right now, the Party of Truth is in power.
Before that the Party of Truth was in power.
(Except it was the other party.)
You can see how this is going to go.
For short, let’s call one side Truthers and the other side Liars.
Which is which depends on you.

Let’s not kid ourselves though. Hawley is a fully paid up member of the Liberal Elite and this book was never going to view Trump (referred to throughout as the god king) in a positive light. In fact, one of the funniest passages of the book is a random, rambling Trumpian monologue which catches his tone exactly and which, sadly, is too long to include here. It includes the line:

“But the omelet comes and the sausage – can I just tell you – the size of my pinkie, okay. Or smaller, ‘cause I got pretty big hands.”

It’s fair to say that this is not a book to appeal to mid-Western Republicans.

But, I hear you cry (because this demolishing the fourth wall is catching), what is the book ABOUT?

Good question, but arguably irrelevant. Is the Lord of the Rings about a couple of midgets trying to throw a ring into a volcano, or is it an epic metaphor about good and evil and the struggle for civilisation? Is Anthem a story about mass suicide amongst the youth of the world (although, frankly, this is so US-centric that “the world” is purely background colour) or is it an extended riff on the failure of modern politics, our refusal to deal properly with climate change and the general unpleasantness of human beings to each other? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.)

My personal politics hover somewhere between the Party of Truth and the Party of Lies, which means that I quite often read the Guardian but find that its painful insistence on being continually shocked by the basic unfairness of the world can irritate. Anthem is like reading the Guardian steadily for 427 pages. Fortunately, Hawley is a seriously good writer and his prose carries you along, even when you are losing patience with his remorselessly metrosexual, comfortable, all-American view of life and its woes. After all, the starting point of the book is that we are supposed to feel sympathetic and concerned about all the dear little children of privilege who are killing themselves because – well, we never discover exactly why. Teenage angst gone mad, mainly. It was difficult to care that much before the teenagers of Ukraine found themselves taking up weapons in a doomed attempt to save their homeland but, now that the news is full of young people with real troubles, I find myself struggling to tune up the world’s tiniest violin.

Hawley built his reputation in screen-writing and this is reflected in the style of his novel. While it does take itself seriously as a novel of ideas, it is happy too lurch off into action-packed sequences which show a Hollywood-inspired lack of attention to plot detail. People meet when the plot needs them to meet; escape deadly traps with implausible ease; and, when required, return from apparent death. When all the author’s attempts to get people to the right place at the right time fail, he resorts to having them guided directly by god, who speaks to them via a teen savant who calls himself the Prophet.

There is a figure called the Wizard (not a real wizard and bearing remarkable similarities to Jeffrey Epstein) and another called the Witch (probably a real witch). (You may notice that several characters seem unduly attracted to Capital Letters.)

The Witch appears, with no backstory and little attempt at narrative coherence and tortures a major character over an extended period. She is then apparently killed (more than once) but remorselessly continues, evil incarnate, to pursue our young hero until she doesn’t any more. She vanishes from the storyline as inexplicably as she arrived in it.

The messages from god, the improbable coincidences, characters like the Witch – all these are things that we have grown used to in a screenplay. The sort of thing where you wake after a fun night at the cinema (or on Netflix – this is 2022) and say, “But how did he know that she would be at the nightclub?” Only pedantic people allow this to spoil their pleasure in a good action movie, but one of the things that distinguishes books from film is that the plot of books should try to avoid this sort of thing while Anthem positively embraces it. I’m not going to give examples because even I am not quite that pedantic and, in any case, it would involve massive spoilers, but once you start looking you will see a lot of them.

So is this a terrible book? No, definitely not. It positively bowls along and the prose is a pleasure to read. And it does make some sharp and worthwhile points about the world we live in. But it is not the Great American Novel that some reviewers (and maybe even the author) think it is. It may well be the Great American Novel That Defines 2022, but that’s a bit like being the most cheerful Russian novel about the Gulag: there’s not that much competition and even the best of the field (take a bow The First Circle) is still pretty depressing.

Writing a review of Anthem and trying to say intelligent things about it, all the irritating quirks of the book become much more noticeable, but (though I was vaguely uneasy about some of it) while I was reading I was turning pages at speed and generally enjoying the experience. It’s a long book, but it was a relatively quick read. If you are not a mid-Western Republican and you can get through the Guardian without balling it up and throwing it at the wall, then you will probably find more to enjoy than to hate. Read it and form your own opinion.