Book No 10 (2021) : Anatomy of a Scandal

Sarah Vaughan’s novel has been hugely successful. As well as having been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2018, it has recently been added to that Club’s list of their favourite, stand-out titles from the past decade. Which all makes me think that anything I might have to say will be largely irrelevant, as the reading jury has already delivered its positive verdict on this one! Nevertheless, I’ll give you my twopenn’orth.

The plot of the novel (classed by Richard & Judy as ‘literary fiction‘ #debatable) centres upon a prosecution for rape brought against a politician (James Whithouse) by an aide with whom he was having an affair. The case is prosecuted by a female barrister, Kate; it transpires that she has a particular reason for wanting to see this perpetrator brought to justice.

Switching between the viewpoints of Kate, James and his wife (Sophie), and a University contemporary of the couple (Holly), the story is set between the University of Oxford in the early 1990s and the London setting of Westminster and the courts in 2017. Although this may sound complex, it works reasonably well as a literary device and the plot is easy to follow. I managed to read the book in a day.

For most of the day that I spent reading though, I wanted to fling the ‘Sunday Times‘ best-selling, 4-pages of plaudits, Simon & Schuster novel at the wall. If it hadn’t have been the monthly choice for our own village book group, I would have given up.

Firstly, the plot is paper-thin. If it was a hotel wall, you’d be able to hear your neighbour clipping their toenails. It is also predictable, and not in a dramatically ironic way, more in a ‘I saw that coming a mile off” way. Kate has a back-story which is barely disguised and the reveal is under-whelming.

Even more frustrating though, were the clumsy stereo-types, especially of Oxford students: the provincial, dull, hard-working state school pupil who is over-awed by the public-school types. Contrast her with the posh bird – beautiful, sporty, wealthy and only at Oxford to find a husband. The male counterparts are the posh boys – floppy haired members of exclusive drinking clubs, drug-taking champagne quaffers who are dismissive of their sexual flings with women. This may have been the Oxford of Sarah Vaughan’s youth, but I felt she does the University a huge disservice. Oxford today works hard to dispel these out-dated stereotypes, which threaten to make an Oxbridge place feel unattainable for less privileged and state school pupils. Interestingly, most of us in the book group discussion had come to the same conclusion – many of us have first-hand experience of the modern University of Oxford and were disappointed by the cliches.

The number of rape convictions in England and Wales has fallen to a record low but sadly the treatment of the issue in this novel was disappointing, with the prosecuting lawyer driven by a personal vendetta, rather than striving for a conviction to deliver justice for the victim.

I realise that my last few reviews I’ve been a bit Marmite about books – I other seem to love ’em or hate ’em. But this one is definitely toast!

Book No 21 (2015) : Sleepyhead

Sleepyhead 1Mark Billingham’s ‘Sleepyhead‘ was published in 2001 and I downloaded it from Amazon onto my Kindle for 99p. A bargain, considering this was a Sunday Times Bestseller.  Crime fiction is not really my thing, but I am always tempted by the blurbs promising thriller reads.

Tom Thorne is trying to trace a killer who has committed his crimes by using pressure in a specific part of the victim’s neck, followed by a couple of swift manipulations, to cause a fatal stroke. He tries to kill Allison Willetts as well, but fails. He leaves her alive but trapped, by Locked-In Syndrome. DI Tom Thorne thinks she may know the identity of the killer, but she can only communicate by blinking one eyelid. By the time she and her doctor have worked out an effective form of communication, time is running out. Thorne discovers the real reason behind the killer’s attacks and identifies a prime suspect; but can he prove who the killer is before yet another mistake is made?

Wait for it. Wait for it. Fanfare. Drum roll. I guessed, I guessed! For probably the first time since I figured out that Pauline was nothing but a common girl in ‘Claudine at St Clare’s‘, I correctly identified the killer before the big reveal. To my mind, this is a Good Thing. Nothing frustrates me more than reading through 300-or so pages of a crime novel, only to discover at the end that the murderer was the chap painting the Police Station fence at the end of the first chapter. Knowing that the author set down a trail of clues which I, the astute reader, managed to pick up on and collate made me feel pretty damn smug. Of course the DI works it all out as well, but I was there before him!

I can recommend this as an easy, passing time on a journey kind of book. You may also learn how to induce a stroke (there are some pretty graphic descriptions), should you feel the need to acquire such a skill. Not a book for the faint-hearted.

Book No 17 (2015) : The Miniaturist

miniaturistJessie Burton’s debut novel ‘The Miniaturist’ has reached the Sunday Times No 1 Bestseller list twice, and was the Waterstones Book of the Year 2014. Surely it must be exceptionally brilliant? Well, meh. To be honest, the book left me distinctly underwhelmed. I’ve since had a look around t’Internet at other reviews and opinions and I am not alone. There is a prevailing view that the book promises but does not deliver; it starts off interestingly but peters out towards the end, leaving readers dissatisfied. I recommended the novel to a book group and hadn’t quite finished it when we came to discuss it, but my friends’ views tallied with most others.

It is 1686: Petronella (Nella) has been married off to a wealthy merchant and is sent away to his house in Amsterdam to begin married life. She finds herself in a rather unconventional household, living with her sister-in-law, Marin, and two servants. Soon after her arrival, Nella is presented with a dolls’ house as a wedding gift from her husband. She commissions some pieces for the house and is surprised by the miniaturist’s uncanny knack of capturing the likenesses of the people and objects within the young bride’s dwelling. Although not unkind to Nella, Johannes, her husband, does not seem keen to consummate the marriage and is often away from home. On a surprise visit to Johannes’ place of work, Nella discovers the reason for his aversion to intimacy. When Johannes’ secret is discovered by others, his life is put in danger and Nella’s strength is put to the test. Meanwhile, the enigmatic miniaturist remains hidden but continues to produce perceptive and prophetic replicas.

The storyline and setting are unusual, which is one of the charms of the book, giving some insight into the lives of early Dutch traders. Sugar had only just begun to be available and it is interesting to see how what we see as a commonplace ingredient was treated with such reverence. But these details were not enough to sustain my interest as I did (extremely unusually for me!) manage to guess the main plot twists. The relationships within the household are complex but ultimately unconvincing; I didn’t sympathise with the characters’ dilemnas.

Dolls’ houses actually freak me out. I can’t explain why, but I think it might be something to do with a now-forgotten experience during a visit to Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle when I was a child. I am not a fan of miniatures in real life and, sadly, Jessie Burton’s work failed to persuade me of their attraction.