Book No 9 (2018) : Manderley Forever

manderleyI bought my copy of ‘Manderley Forever’ when I went to the Fowey Festival of Arts & Literature in 2017. In conversation with Dr Laura Varnham, Tatiana de Rosnay revealed her lifelong fascination with Daphne du Maurier, and her desire to explore the French influences in the author’s life. Laura is a renowned du Maurier expert who drew out the best of Tatiana’s meticulous research and insights for the benefit of the Festival audience. I had my book signed by its author and came away happy. Since then, it has been up on my special Daphne shelf, waiting for March 2018. Because that is when I went to Manderley.

Menabilly in Cornwall, together with Milton House near Cambridge, was the inspiration for Manderley, the house in what is probably du Maurier’s most famous work, ‘Rebecca’. Menabilly is the seat of the Rashleigh family but Daphne rented it from them for 26 years, using her own money to restore and modernise the neglected mansion. She never owned the house. We rented Keeper’s Cottage on the Menabilly estate and I read ‘Manderley Forever’ while I was there.

There is already a great deal of published work about Daphne du Maurier, as well as her own novels, short stories, letters and memoirs. So is there room for another biography? Yes. Absolutely.

Tatiana de Rosnay uses a strong sense of place to examine Daphne’s life from a different angle, visiting the places which influenced du Maurier so profoundly. Not only Menabilly and Cornwall, but also London and France. She highlights Daphne’s fascination with her own French heritage and family history. It seems to me that when Daphne was grounded in a place, her imagination was free to soar – the staging of childhood plays in Cumberland Terrace and Cannon Hall, the blissful solitude of Ferryside in the early days of her writing career, her deep connection to Menabilly.

I could go on, and on! The nature of this blog is to provide short, useful reviews but I can’t resist the temptation to share the fact that Keepers Cottage features in ‘Don’t Look Now’, that Justine Picardie stayed there with her son while she was researching for her own novel, that Rebecca’s beach house on Polridmouth beach is real, or that I actually rang the doorbell of “Mena”. Such simple pleasures for a Du Maurier groupie but oh, such fun.

‘Manderley Forever’ is wonderful; an accessible and comprehensive account of Daphne du Maurier’s life by a skilled and intuitive biographer. I sank into it and didn’t surface for two days.

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Book No 8 (2018) : Cartes Postales from Greece

cartes postalesI still send postcards when I go on holiday. They’ve rather gone out of fashion with the advent of social media, but I’ve always liked them. As a child, I collected the ones sent from afar by a pilot friend of the family, and even now I cherish a collection of vintage ones depicting UK lighthouses. So Victoria Hislop’s most recent bestseller ‘Cartes Postales from Greece’ appealed to my love of the picture postcard.

The storyline is attractive. Postcards from Greece keep arriving at Ellie’s flat. She knows they aren’t for her, but the images and messages intrigue her. She plans a holiday to Greece to discover its magic for herself, and just as she is leaving for her trip, a notebook arrives in the post, addressed to the same recipient as the postcards and bearing the same simple signature. Just ‘A’. The notebook gradually reveals how A. rebuilds his life after a failed love affair. He travels through Greece and each section of the book is a ‘postcard’, a short story with accompanying photographs. As Ellie nears the end of the notebook, she cannot resist the temptation to track down its owner, and return the journal to him.

On the plus side, I like books with pictures. If I pick up a biography I usually flick to the middle to peruse those few glossy pages which accentuate the life story. On the negative side, this is a strange book, despite the promising premise. The short stories are unconnected to one another, and apart from one very creepy one about a young couple whose car breaks down in a deserted village, unrewarding. A’s cathartic journey is simply a washing line on which to hang all these wet rags, and it doesn’t work well. The ending of the book is twee and contrived, trying too hard to please.

I’ve read everything Victoria Hislop has written, but this was a disappointment. If you’ve never read her before, don’t start with this. If you are a fan, I wonder what you’ll make of ‘Cartes Postales’. Answers on a postcard, please…..

 

Book Nos 6 & 7 (2018) The Lewis Man & The Chess Men

Starting these books and putting them down is a bit like trying to hide chocolates in the fridge. They just sit there shouting and waving at me, ‘wooo-hoo, we’re over here’, until I have to go and retrieve them and finish them off!

The Lewis Man‘ and ‘The Chess Men‘ are the 2nd and 3rd books respectively in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy and I found them highly addictive.

The 1st novel, ‘The Black House‘, drew me in with its combination of murder and family stories, set against the background of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I’ve visited the island. It is beautiful, but also somewhat bleak, and the weather dominates daily life in a way we probably can’t quite comprehend, as so many of us have lost our essential connections to the land. May’s descriptions of fishing communities, peat-cutting and folklore, together with relationships and feuds stretching back through decades, make for compelling reading.

The Lewis Man‘ centres upon the discovery of a body in the peat bogs, its features preserved by the acidic soil. Crucial to identifying the victim and discovering his fate, is Marsailli’s father. But Tormod’s mind is confused by dementia, making the pieces of the crime puzzle even more difficult for former detective Fin McLeod to piece together.

The members of a successful Gaelic band are the central characters in ‘The Chess Men‘. When a freak of  nature reveal s a wrecked plane with the former lead singer of Sòlas still strapped in the pilot’s seat, Fin is drawn into unravelling the fate of the band’s musicians.

Both books weave in and out of Fin McLeod’s past. Although each could be taken as a standalone work, reading the whole trilogy allows the reader to examine the experiences and relationships which have shaped Fin’s life through childhood, teenage years and adulthood. The threads of the story are dropped and picked up, intertwined and re-visited in clever ways, but there is not really a neat ending for Fin. Even though it would have been satisfying, I rather liked the ambiguity about his future. Peter May has said there won’t be any more books in the series, so each reader is left with their own ideas about how McLeod’s story will continue.

If you decide to embark on this trilogy, I suggest buying all three books at the same time. Because if my experience is anything to go by, once you finish ‘The Black House‘ you’ll be so keen to move on to ‘The Lewis Man‘ that even waiting for it to arrive in the post will be a frustrating delay!

Book No 5 (2018) : The Humans

the humansTrain journeys are a great way to crack on with a good book, so I looked forward to starting Matt Haig’s ‘The Humans‘ on the way to London. I soon remembered that crowded trains can be awkward places to be caught reading laugh-out-loud funny books!

When Cambridge professor Andrew Martin cracks a mathematical problem which could push human innovation forwards, he doesn’t realise he has endangered not only his life, but also that of his family. Other life-forms have been keeping an eye on the backwards Earth, and they fear this new breakthrough. The hapless Prof. Martin is abducted and replaced with a Vonnadorian who is tasked with doing away with anyone who knows the answer to the mathematical conundrum. So far, so schoolboy sci-fi.

Although the premise of the book may not be that original (alien lands on Earth, what does he make of it all?), the writing is. When the narrator (we don’t learn its name) first lands, he has no knowledge of language and so has to acquire it quickly. He grabs a copy of ‘Cosmopolitan‘ in a petrol station, leading him to conclude that the large, ornate buildings in Cambridge must be ‘temples to the orgasm’. Stuck in the professor’s body, the visitor negotiates life with his wife and son, with hilarious and sometimes touching results. His interactions with Gulliver (age 15) reminded me that our teenagers clearly do think their parents are aliens.

From an outsider’s point of view, earthlings are strange creatures with odd priorities. “They can drive a car 30 miles every day and feel good about themselves for recycling a couple of empty jam jars.” I have a feeling that some readers may find the observations a little trite and simplistic, but I thought it was a humorous take on what it is to be human, with more than a little truth in its explorations.

P.S. teenage boys are not an easy audience to engage when it comes to novels. ‘The Humans‘ might be a good choice for some of them. The last few pages include invaluable advice for Gulliver. I found it hard to choose my favourite maxims, but these work for me. And probably for teenage boys:

30. “Don’t aim for perfection. Evolution, and life, only happen through mistakes.”

67. “War is the answer. To the wrong question”

37. “Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.”

93. “School is a joke. But go along with it, because you are very near to the punchline.”

 

 

Book No 4 (2018) : The Wild Air

wild airRebecca Mascull’s third novel reads like an adventure story for girls. And I mean that in a good way.We all need more adventure in our lives sometimes.

Della Dobbs is unremarkable as a youngster, shy and lacking in confidence. But she is inspired by her Auntie Betty, who has been in Carolina where early aviators, the Wright Brothers, were taking to the skies. Using kites to explain aerodynamics and design, Betty gradually cultivates in Della a desire to fly actual planes. Unheard of for a woman in the early 20th Century, but the determined young woman achieves her ambition. She earns a reputation as a respected competition and exhibition pilot. But when the Great War breaks out, she decides to put her flying skills to a far more important test, flying solo across the Channel on a daring rescue mission.

This would be a perfect place to introduce some lovely flight-themed metaphors, about how the plot of this book rises and soars, dips and yaws to keep the reader flying high. How the heroine handles the controls of the plot with perfect ease, rising with the thermals and coping with the turbulence which marks her early romantic connections. But that would be too cheesy. Suffice to say that Della is a credible protagonist, yelling at her Dad, falling in love, following her dreams and making her mark, all in a cleverly understated way. She’s ballsy, but not brash. I liked Della a lot.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the London launch of ‘The Wild Air‘ last year and heard the author speak about her research and sources for the book. She had been taken up in the kind of early plane described in the novel, and was able to describe the mixture of excitement and fear which shines through in all of Della’s flights. She manages to achieve the right balance between enough technical detail to allow the reader to understand the basic mechanics of the plane and flying it, and the story line. This isn’t a Haynes manual.

In 2015 I championed Mascull’s second novel ‘Song of the Sea Maid‘. Although I probably slightly preferred it to ‘The Wild Air‘, the common themes of pioneering, feisty women making their way in a male-dominated world, make both of these works highly readable. I look forward to Rebecca’s next book.

Book No 3 (2018) : The Blackhouse

the blackhouseCrime fiction has never been one of my favourite genres, but this novel drew me in from the very first pages. It’s set on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and we all know I’m a sucker for a Scottish tale, but it was the back story which had me hooked.

Fin is a detective in Edinburgh, but hails originally from the Isle of Lewis. When local islander Angel McCritchie is found murdered, the crime bears similarities to another murder in Leith. So Fin returns to his childhood home with the brief of finding Angel’s killer. Being back on the island brings Fin Macleod straight back into contact with his upbringing; childhood friend, Artair, his first love, Marsailli and their son, Fionnlagh and they all have secrets to reveal.

Central to the plot is the annual guga hunt undertaken by the men of the island. They spend two weeks on a desolate, craggy rock, fending for themselves in the blackhouse of the book’s title, whilst carrying out the historic cull of young gannets. The setting is harsh, violent, and woven into the very fabric of the relationships in the close community. What happens on the island, stays on the island, but the consequences of Fin’s participation in the guga hunt are devastating.

Peter May’s cleverly-crafted novel works on so many levels. As well as the twisting, turning plot, there is a very strong sense of place, evoked by descriptions of landscape and weather. Like the incessant wind, character’s emotions are raw and biting, cutting deep into the reader’s imagination. The closing chapter of the book is exciting, with a couple of last-minute revelations that I really couldn’t see coming.

A racy crime thriller with a real heart is a winning combination in this instance. I also love it when I discover that an author I’ve enjoyed has penned more of the same. I’ll definitely be seeking out the other two novels which follow Fin Macleod’s debut – the Lewis trilogy continues with ‘The Lewis Man‘ and concludes with ‘The Chessmen‘.

Even if, like me, crime is not usually your thing, I strongly urge you to let Peter May try and win you over. I bet he does.

Book No 2 (2018) : Sealskin

SealskinFittingly for the first week of the New Year, I had an epiphany. It was nothing as startling as the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ, but it has nevertheless had an important consequence. Following the lead of my teenage son, who clearly has far more sense than me, I deleted my social media apps from my phone. Instead of wasting far too much time watching Facebook videos about how to ice cookies or make a microwave cake in a mug (we don’t have a microwave), I have more time to read. Hence why only 9 days in to 2018, I’ve read 2 books. An auspicious start, I feel.

Selkies live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. If a selkie loses its sealskin, it is unable to return to the sea. ‘Sealskin‘ was a Christmas present as I had read many positive reviews about it. The novel is a re-working of the selkie myth, telling the story of Donald Macfarlane.

An awkward lad, Donald lives alone with his mother, a healer and midwife. Scorned by his peers for being unable to work on the fishing boats due to the sensitivity of his skin, Donald makes his money hauling crabs from the sea. It is whilst checking his creels that he finds a pile of abandoned sealskins and takes one, hiding it. Coming upon the owner of the skin, Donald forces himself upon her. Separated from her skin, the young girl is trapped on land. Donald takes her home to his mother and, inventing a plausible cover-story to explain her sudden arrival, they name her Mairhi. Donald takes the selkie as his wife.

Over time, Mairhi becomes integrated into the life of the fishing village. Even though she never learns to speak, Donald and Mhairi develop an intimacy and understanding whose evolution is a poignant and touching story. She and Donald are initially outsiders in their community, but Mairhi follows in Bridie’s footsteps as a medicine woman, gradually earning the trust of the villagers. Donald grows in confidence, nourished by the love in his marriage, becoming a respected member of his community. But Mairhi’s longing for the sea permeates the story with a haunting sense of loss.

I did not feel a strong sense of place within the novel, but the weather is a character in itself. Instead this is a book about people; their hopes, suspicion of incomers, their desire to be accepted, redemption and the power of love. It is an unlikely piece of work for me to like as I’m not a fan of mystical writing usually, but I was carried away it. Su Bristow has created a sealskin herself – I was left hoping that someone would hide the book, so that I could remain stranded within its pages and not have to slide back into the waves of everyday life!

Book No 1 (2018) : God’s Own Country

God's own Country4th day of the year and I’ve got one book under my belt already. I feel this is a good omen given my shocking performance in 2017, when I read a fair amount but failed miserably when it came to writing up reviews. In 2018 I resolve to do better and repeat the success of 2015 when I did manage to read 50 books in 52 weeks.

Here goes with Ross Raisin’s shortlisted-for-nine-awards novel. One of the things I liked especially about this book is the serendipitous match between the mustard and black image on the cover and the outfit I wore on the plane when I started reading. But, I digress…

The narrator and protagonist of ‘God’s Own Country’ is Sam Marsdyke, nick-named Lankenstein by the classmates who bullied him. He gets bullied at the end of the book as well, when he has been imprisoned for a crime which the reader sees him commit. Sam spends his days working his parents’ farm in the Yorkshire Dales, and he seems to have acquired a fair amount of expertise in working with sheep, driving the tractor, looking after a litter of sheepdog puppies. He’s a loner though, often found wandering the countryside, mocking the ‘towns’ who spend their weekends rambling and hill-walking.

When a family of Londoners moves into the farm just below the Marsdyke’s, Sam is immediately taken with their 15-year old daughter. The pair strike up an awkward friendship when the girl (Sam never calls her by her name) starts playing truant from school.  When truanting escalates to a plan to run away from home, Josephine (we find out her name much later) enlists Sam’s help.

The book has an air of menace and suspense throughout, as the reader has a strong sense that Sam Marsdyke is dangerous and unpredictable. He was accused of a sexual assault on a young woman, and he sneaks about. Clearly incapable of interacting meaningfully with others, he seems to vibrate with barely suppressed fury. When the two runaway’s escapade begins to turn sour and Sam is unable to communicate with his young ally, there is a frightening downturn of events.

Although not billed as a thriller, this is nevertheless a thrilling book, with a character who has loitered around in my mind ever since I finished reading. With its clever characterisation, eye-poppingly descriptive local language and strong sense of place, I think it would make a great A-level set text. Although I’m aware that is hardly a recommendation!

A good start to the year.

 

Book No 6 (2017) : Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

I’m sorry, I haven’t got change of a ladybird” has to be one of the most intriguing openings to a book I’ve ever come across (and remember I’m a du Maurier fan, for whom ‘last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ is the ultimate in classic first lines).

From that initial sentence, Chris Packham’s autobiography goes in only one direction, and that is upwards. It soars like his kestrel, demonstrating a complete mastery of vocabulary and description, permeated with discernible tension.

Packham’s unrelenting recall of events moves from early childhood when he tries to barter a beetle for an ice-cream, through school where he excels at art but skives a lot in favour of exploring and to escape the classroom bullies, to his identification with the rage of The Clash at 18. The author’s attention to detail is awe-inspiring, conjuring up breathtaking images of animals, insects, birds, weather, water.  But this is not a romanticised retrospective: there is dog shit, and fags, and girls “who hung around outside Chelsea Girl on Saturday afternoon smoking and squealing at the men in lumberjack jackets with furry collars.”  and then there is “the thrush’s silver-throated voice fell like pocketfuls of marbles down a church staircase.” And this eloquence from someone who was always anxious, barely spoke and was tormented at school for being weird.

Mr Packham intrigues me; his clearly encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife and obvious enthusiasm for his subject, contrast with his slightly ‘buttoned up’ manner and awkwardness, unusual in such a seasoned presenter. It all makes a lot more sense now I’ve read ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar‘, as interspersed with the wildlife explorations and discoveries, are some very raw accounts of counselling sessions which he undertook in 2003. As a result of the therapy, Chris was found to have Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. It explains a lot about his obsessions, collections, difficulty fitting in and forming relationships.

Apparently Chris Packham is not keen on his own work, and wasn’t sure whether this book was good enough for publication. Thank heavens for his mentor, whose resounding endorsement of the draft was “you must publish it.” How right she was.

Book No 5 (2017) : The Loving Spirit

loving spiritThe trouble with having an obsession with someone is that you can be blind to their faults. So it is with me and Daphne.

The Loving Spirit‘ was du Maurier’s first novel, written when she was just 22 and living in Fowey, Cornwall. It is a family saga, charting the fortunes of the Coombes, beginning with the matriarch, Janet. Janet has a longing to be free and at one with the sea and the wind, borne by the power of the loving spirit. She finds a partner in Thomas, who provides for her and her children, but it is not until her son, Joseph, is born, that Janet meets her true soulmate. She promises never to leave him and he, in turn, embodies her in a schooner named in her honour.

A wild sailor, driven by impulse rather than reason, Captain Joe places his hopes of succession in his eldest son, Christopher. But when Christopher fails to fulfil his father’s ambitions for him, Joseph sinks into a deep depression, exacerbated by the failing eyesight which forces him to abandon his sea-faring life. Whilst the family boat-building business is driven to the wall by recession and the financial shenanigans of Joe’s Uncle Philip, it seems as if the family’s fortunes are dashed. But hope for the family’s salvation appears in Jennifer, Christopher’s daughter. She also is driven by the loving spirit.

Despite the author’s obvious careful research into the family history of the Slades (upon which the Coombe family is based), the more contemporary the plot becomes, the more credible the descriptions. The novel is naive at best and the influences of the Brontes evident. There is a lot of wildness, tumult, roaring and plunging, resulting in a melodramatic tone to the whole work. It is nevertheless a remarkable achievement for the extremely young Daphne du Maurier who, as we know, went on to even greater things. Like ‘Rebecca‘, ‘My Cousin Rachel‘ and ‘Jamaica Inn‘.

My copy of ‘The Loving Spirit‘ is old, with slightly blurry font and brown-edged pages. I loved re-reading it. Although I realise it’s not a great book overall, as part of a body of work by an author I love, it is nevertheless important. All those churning seas and screaming gulls have a special place in my bookish affections.