Monthly Archives: April 2014

Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic – Kate Colquhoun

With a title like that and a well-known obsession with all things Victorian, there was little doubt that I was going to miss out on reading Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic (which from now on we will just call Did She Kill Him? to save my poor fingers) was there? My only slight worry before I embarked on Kate Colquhoun’s latest book was that I haven’t got the best track record with non-fiction, however I needn’t have worried. Truth be told if more non-fiction was written like this, or I discovered more non-fiction with this kind of narrative, I think I would be a huge fan of it.

Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Being non-fiction the true story behind Did You Kill Him? is not difficult to look up. However I am going to assume that you know very little, or absolutely nothing like myself, of the case of Florence Maybrick. This means I don’t want to spoil it for any of you, as wondering the outcome of this book was one of its many wonders to read. I think it is enough to say that during 1889 Florence Maybrick became a household name all over the country, not just in the city of Liverpool where she (and now I) lived at the time, after she was arrested under the suspicion of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘Did She Kill Him?’ and Kate Colquhoun looks at the weeks leading up to James Maybrick’s death and just what was happening behind the façade of the Maybrick’s well suited marriage and happy household.

Sitting in the Battlecrease parlour that Saturday morning, 16 March 1889, Florence felt suffocated. It was too quiet. The nursemaid, Alice Yapp, has the children. James was in the city fussing over his deals. Mrs Humphreys, the cook, was preparing lunch. The young maids – Bessie Brierley and Mary Cadwallader – were tucking, polishing and tidying, putting to rights the nursery, straightening the upstairs rooms, quietly moving down corridors as they completed their chores.

It makes for fascinating reading. Again without giving anything away we learn of their marriage and how Florence left her American home, as many women did at the time, being a woman of new money looking for a title and old money in the UK – the husbands also looking for new money and fine young wives making it mutually agreeable. We learn how this initially was a marvellous thing for the Maybrick’s and then discover that for both parties it was not quite what they had pictured. Soon, we discover, arsenic addiction, infidelity and isolation were all part of the Maybrick household. All of this becoming more clear later on when the case goes to trial, when James falls suddenly ill and starts to deteriorate and suspicions over fly papers, bottles of medicine, mental states etc. all come to light, yet we as the reader know this already.

This is part of what makes Did She Kill Him? so wonderful to read. We learn about all the before and then see it through the various witnesses eyes at the time again when it goes to court. If you are like me the very idea of a court case in a book (all those docks and all that lawyer speak) makes you instantly think ‘boring’, think again. You are fascinated to hear the evidence from the witnesses and how different, untrue, cunning, misunderstood it all is (Alice Yapp and one of James’ brothers are such marvellous characters that you just couldn’t make up). Colquhoun also makes it incredibly fast paced and, to use an overused (I am so sorry) cliché, this book reads like a thriller – as will another court based fiction book I will discuss later this week. I digress…

There are some books I read that I call ‘google’ books, though really I should call them ‘run along to the reference section in the library’ books, where you just find out so much fascinating stuff you long to find out even more. Things like the 1857 divorce act and the 1870/1882 married women’s property acts, fascinating. I never thought I would want to know all about the history of arsenic as a substance and how it was used in its raw forms and in day to day life, well I can reveal exclusively here that I was gripped. Who knew?!? Yet Colquhoun makes it fascinating both in how it relates to the case but also Victorian society at large and without ever seeming to show off (some authors do, we’ve all read those books) and condenses pages and pages of what she must have read into marvellous factual titbits.

Some, like Queen Victoria in the late 1870’s, were concerned enough to order suspect wallpapers to be removed from their homes. Newspapers like The Times condemned the government for its laissez-faire attitude, suggesting that MPs would rather allow the slow poisoning of our little ones than the economic repercussions of trying to eliminate arsenic from a wide range of products. Others remained sceptical: William Morris refused to avoid even the most pernicious pigments, believing the scare to be a mere folly. Yet with so much arsenic in the domestic air, it was little wonder that a rest by the seaside could be so beneficial to the middle-class invalid, nor the digestive disorders, redness of eye and odd cramps in the legs resumed as soon as they returned home.

The other thing that makes this book so wonderful is that, as the title suggests, people really could not work out if Florence had or hadn’t killed her husband. The case was debated fiercely in the papers, in the Houses of Parliament and even in the Queen’s chambers, well the palace at least. At some points the case gained more coverage than a certain killed in London called Jack, indeed it worried many people more because Jack the Ripper was clearly some mentally unwell psychopathic heathen, yet if women from good homes and of stature in society were seemingly killing their husbands then no one was safe. Women in particular seemed to have the biggest problem with it, society was moving forward for women and then some supposed ‘sister’ of the cause would go and do something like that. Again, society’s history and state at the time both adding pressure to the case and making for fascinating reading.

The greengrocer’s fruit may have arrived at her cell every day with a note of sympathy, but the women attending the coroner’s inquest hissed when the contents of her letter to Brierley became known. Apart from her mother, few among her own sex were generous to regard her as innocent until proven guilty. Women, it turned out, would be among her most entrenched and bitter critics; it seemed to be widely accepted that unnatural urges and scandalous sexuality went hand in hand with predatory murder.

Considering I read so little non-fiction, whilst true, it doesn’t really put any weight behind my saying that Did She Kill Him? is one of the best non-fiction books I have read. However if I say it is one of my stand out favourite books of the year I am hoping you will all want to give it a go. If you love the Victorian period and society then you will love this, especially as a city other than London takes centre stage – and people forget how important a city Liverpool was in the Victorian era. If you love a good crime novel then with its pace, gripping nature and sense of ‘did she do it?’ you will devour this. In fact if you just love a good read then this really is a book you need to get your mitts on. It is as addictive as the arsenic that features so much in it, maybe the publishers have sneakily filled the pages with it?

If you would like to hear more about the book you can listen to Kate having a chat with me in an old Victorian prison cell on this episode of You Wrote The Book!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Little Brown Publishing, Non Fiction, Review

A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth

We all have bad days don’t we, like I might have yesterday, or times in our life when we just want to escape from the world we know and have created for ourselves. In Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy we follow a woman who gives herself a new start and we then watch as the past slowly starts to haunt her, creeping ever more to the forefront of her life again.

9781906413392

Arcadia Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 283 pages, borrowed from Emma Jane Unsworth (who may never get it back)

Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…

What had I told her that for? Honestly, you can sit me down with a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and ten minutes you’ve got my whole life story. I clamped my lips together to stop any more noise coming out until I had decided how I was going to approach things. There was no point making a fresh start if you were going to bring all the old junk along with you and I certainly didn’t want new friends to become unnecessarily embroiled in my history.

There is so much to love about A Kind of Intimacy it is going to be hard to do the book justice and also rather difficult not to gush about its brilliance. First credit to Jenn Ashworth has to be the pacing of this book. It is one of those books that really, and I don’t think this gives too much away, slowly racks up the tension. It is also one of those marvellous books where the author will give you a very normal seeming paragraph or two until you spot a word or two in one of the sentences that makes you do a double take and then start to ponder all the layers and dark corners that are going on around the edges. It takes a deft hand to do this, there must be hints and not too much show and tell and yet at the same time you really need to keep the reader interested in the ‘façade’ story, if you will, as the book goes on. It is very blooming clever that, a really hard trick to pull off and Ashworth does it deftly.

‘Annie reacts with appropriate anger when her human rights are infringed,’ I recited, which was as assertiveness affirmation I’d picked up from one of the new books. You were supposed to write them on slips of paper and stick them to all the mirrors in the house, but there were too many, the scraps of paper kept falling off and drifting to the carpet like oblong snowflakes, and so I just spent some time learning them instead. I said it ten times as I washed my bloody and dirtied hands with the lily of the valley liquid soap then I went to my bedroom for a lie down. I stayed up there for a couple of hours, only coming down to get a tub of ice cream and a tin of condensed milk because I hadn’t eaten anything since the sausages and I was hungry again.

Secondly, what makes the book all the more brilliant is the fact it is so centred in reality. The cast of characters around Annie are the people you have around you in any neighbourhood. You have the rather hapless yet helpful Neil and his much younger and rather ‘I am so mature for my age’ but actually not at all girlfriend, Lucy. The slightly randy and often rather drunk neighbour across the way, Raymond, and the lovely and very helpful and thoughtful couple round the corner of the cul-de-sac Barry and Sangita, the latter who sees Annie as a bit of a project to get on the local Neighbourhood Watch. Set in a nondescript town with its hairdressers and discount clothes stores, it all seems oh-so normal.

Thirdly, to create a character like Annie who tells us her side of all her stories (some true, some not so) and yet also cleverly give the reader hints that there is much more, and indeed much darker, things going on in the background making Annie sound delightful yet be utterly unreliable, is some sort of genius. It is something I have rarely seen done quite so well. Somehow Ashworth makes us like Annie despite the fact that we soon learn she is utterly bonkers, I mean loop the loop crazy, does some horrendous things (which are also hilarious whilst nightmarish) yet loves her cat dearly, deep down wants to be the perfect neighbour and friend and who has, if I can be blunt, had a pretty crap past. There are themes of being unwanted, missing out on your full potential, a sense of desperation to be liked and welcomed, and most importantly to be loved. We empathise even though we know we shouldn’t and sometimes might not want to.

Which leads to the fourth point of brilliance, the way in which A Kind of Intimacy switches from hilarious to disturbing, from fantastically filthy to utterly tragic. Ashworth knows how to write with all these emotions and feelings going on without one ever taking over or anything becoming too extreme, even when the book comes to its climax. She also knows how to set one against the other to make the reader more engaged be it the fact that the funny bits make you laugh all the louder because then something disturbing comes along, or because the sense of tragedy in the background hits you all the harder because of the humour, the balance only tilting till Ashworth has you in explosive giggles or feeling devastated or shocked.

As you might just have guessed I rather loved A Kind of Intimacy and thought it was rather brilliant. I love books which are quirky, tell a bloody good story, are well written and make you think. This book makes you do all of those and once you have closed the final page I bet you will find yourself often thinking of Annie. I cannot wait to read all of Jenn Ashworth’s other works.

Note: you can have a nosey through Jenn Ashworth’s bookshelves here.

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Filed under Arcadia Books, Books of 2014, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Book Guilt; I’m So Behind With Books (And Blogging)

I think I am going through a phase of rather large readers guilt. Yes, feeling guilty about my relationship with books as it seems to have changed in the last year or so.

I am sure I am not the only one though it is quite an isolating and frustrating place to be when you are going through it. Nice one Simon, start the post in a really miserable way and have everyone closing your post down as fast as you can! Ha! I am not miserable at the moment though I have to admit I am slightly cranky and this is partly because when I don’t get regular (and preferably prolonged) reading stints I turn into some sort of bookish banshee. At the moment I am in that phase. I am simply not finding the time to read and its making me resentful. This seems to be caused by three main things; my job – where I am possibly working too many hours; my house – because whenever I am in it I seem to be knackered (possibly from getting up and hour early every morning to try and create extra reading time but less sleeping time) or have chores to do, damn those chores and friends and family – who really selfishly want to spend time with me taking me away from books, ha! Then there is the Green Carnation Prize to sort for 2014 (very exciting news coming next week) and my bookish trip to America in August to finalise, and podcasts – which I have had to put on hold this week as just cannot keep up with myself. I am thinking the life of a hermit for a few years reading might be quite nice.

This lack of time (and I am normally good at being something of a magician and making time, pulling it out of hats and all sorts) of course leads to the age old issue of then being really behind with my reviews and feeling like the blog is a bit of a fraud. The other day I posted the below image on instagram (look up Savidge Reads) showing that my pile of books to review was as big as my cat! (Yes, that is Oscar, yes he has grown!) The thing is since then even more books have been read (yet I feel like I haven’t read anything, interesting) and now I feel really, really behind…

To Review

What makes me all the more cross is that some of the books (not all of them believe me) I have been reading have been utterly AMAZING, seriously BRILLIANT and so a) I want to tell you all about them all the more and b) I want to write reviews – and  that do them justice – which of course takes more time. Damn that thing called time. You see I don’t really think a book blog can be called that if it isn’t really featuring book reviews, and I am in danger of falling into that category. Reading guilt and blogging guilt, oh crumbs. At least I have a three day weekend this weekend coming to sort myself out.

Please tell me I am not the only one who feels a bit behind with books and blogs (I haven’t read another blog in months, also guilt inducing) on occasion leading to minimal moments of despair, some of you must get it too surely? Also does anyone else turn into an epic grump (who their partner and friends don’t seem to understand) and gets really, really cranky when they don’t get enough reading time? Or is that just me, and should I be ashamed? Do let me know, you made me all feel so much better when I had my small ‘there are too many brilliant books in the world’ meltdown the other week, ha! Oh and any recommendations how to make more time or be more organised/systematic most welcomed too, you are all good to me.

Note: I wrote this after having a small book breakdown last night – it is now the Tuesday following said breakdown and a visit to the library and Waterstones has sorted me out 😉

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Other People’s Bookshelves #39; Jenn Ashworth

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a regular series of posts where you get to have a nosey at other book lovers bookshelves. This week we head into the home of author Jenn Ashworth, another fine example of why we should #ReadBritish2014 as you will see in reviews over the next few weeks. So let us sit down with Jenn in her office, have a nice strong cup of northern tea (always the best) and possibly a bourbon biscuit or custard cream and  then have a nosey through her shelves, first though a little more about her…

Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston, where she still lives. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a librarian in a prison. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. Ashworth has also published short fiction and won an award for her blog, Every Day I Lie a Little. Her work has been compared to both Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith; all her novels to date have been set in the North West of England. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

books in the office 2

Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I mainly keep hold of my books – I still own anthologies of seventeenth century poetry that I last looked at in my first year of Uni. I’m very minimalist and restrained about all other kinds of stuff. Books are my indulgence. There’s always money for them, and I’m a member of a couple of libraries and have a kindle too. I have been promising myself I will go through and have a cull for ages. But I can’t predict where my interests will take me to in the future. Maybe that collected works of Aphra Benn is going to be just what I need to get the next novel into gear. Who knows? My shelves aren’t quite full, but they will be soon – even though I do buy plenty of e-books these days.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Nothing so organised as any of those things. There’s a vague system. I keep cooking books, reference books, books about nature and wildlife, astronomy, the weather, local history, maps, guides to pubs and walks and days out in Lancashire, loads of pop science books, books about card games and stuff like that – all at home in my red bookcase in my living room. We’ve got piles of board games and DVDs and National Geographics from the 1970s in there too. And paints for the kids, and their old shoes. It’s a sort of ‘everything in here’ bookcase. We could probably get rid of most of these books and rely on the internet, but I like looking up facts in books.

books in the office

At home, I have a pile of current reads next to my bed and a couple of stacks of recently-read-and-need-to-be-taken-back-to-the-office on a shelf over my desk. It’s one of those floating shelves that look quite nice but can’t really hold that many books. When it starts to wobble I take the books to work and dump them in my office. Where they stay. You can see there’s no order at all – maybe a rough chronological one in that the books I’ve read most recently are always closest to hand. I almost always remember what I have and find it when I need it, but I must clean it out sometime.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

It was The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and I bought it from Sweetens with book tokens my aunt in Glasgow posted to me. She used to send John Menzies vouchers but that year it was book tokens. I didn’t grow up in a particularly bookish house, though I always had a library ticket and my Uncle worked at Askews and would sometimes bring spoiled and damaged books back for me to keep. I don’t own any of the books I did have as a child – we moved when I was thirteen and left everything behind – but I have tracked down and rebought a few of the special ones I want to have with me since then. What Katy Did. Stig of the Dump. The Brothers Lionheart.  The Baby and Fly Pie. The Whitby Witches books. There’s one I’ve never been able to find – I can’t remember the title or the author – but it was about a boy who refused to go to school, built a raft and sailed away on it on the Mersey. It was narrated, I think, by his younger brother. Ring a bell with anyone?

books in the office close up 3

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I’m not guilty about any of my pleasures. Fighting fantasy game books. I’ve just rebought the reissued versions of the Fabled Lands adventure book series, in the hopes I can convince my daughter to give them a go. Ian Fleming – the boxed set of all the Bond novels. I don’t hide anything.  But now I really want to know what is on your hidden shelf and where in the house it is. Spill the beans! (Simon isn’t telling, he might after a few sherries.)

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

The Brothers Lionheart. And all the books I’ve borrowed and forgotten to give back.

books over my desk

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I used to read anything I could get my hands on. My mum had Danielle Steele books in the house and I remember reading them and being thrilled by the dirty bits. I had a library ticket and would borrow all kinds of weird stuff – there was a huge book called The Empty Fortress which was about children with autism written by an American consultant – I used to borrow that when I was eleven and renew it as many times as they’d let me. I don’t have it anymore but I would like to have it – if only to try and work out what it was that enchanted my younger self so much. I read Agatha Christie – all of them, lots of D. H. Lawrence – textbooks books about deaf culture and British Sign Language, books about wild flowers and foraging and self-sufficiency. I was probably quite an odd child. I suppose because I didn’t have much to do with school and didn’t have a bookish family there was no-one to tell me what kinds of books were the right ones, and which ones weren’t.  Indiscriminate and guiltless reading is something I’ve tried to carry into my adulthood.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I do borrow copies of people’s books and am terrible about giving them back. Horrific. I would give it back if pressed. And yes, probably buy my own copy if it was something that had altered me. Most books do, in some ways. I’m feeling guilty now.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I bought the Fabled Lands books – all six of them – and The Secret Lives of Trees by Colin Tudge which I am currently reading. I also bought A New Kind of Bleak by Owen Hatherly which I’m reading alongside the trees book. A strange and completely satisfactory combination, like fruitcake and cheese.

recent arrivals at the office

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

The one I mentioned earlier about the boy who didn’t go to school. I am haunted by it. Perhaps I imagined it. I had it in hardback and it had a dark brown cover. The implication was that this boy had committed suicide in the Mersey on this raft rather than go to school. I was utterly undone by it. I hope I find it one day. Maybe I did imagine it. I might buy the Empty Fortress if I can find it.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I suppose they’d think I was a bit of a book hoarder, was tough on my paperbacks (they are always tattered and written in, with post-its hanging out and bent spines, watermarked from reading in the bath, curry stained, dotted with tea and tears (!) They’d probably notice I had particular obsessions and favourite authors but that I was a magpie generalist.

books by the side of the bed

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A huge thanks to Jenn for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to find out more about Jenn visit her website here. I am still beaming at the fact Jenn loves the Whitby Witches which I loved too. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Jenn’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions? And can you help her discover what that book with a boy on the Mersey was all about?

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Filed under Jenn Ashworth, Other People's Bookshelves

My Top Ten Dead British Authors…

If you have ever wondered just who my top ten dead British authors are (and why wouldn’t you have wondered this?) then you might like to check out the latest piece I have written for Fiction Uncovered as their guest editor this month. Having done it, it actually looks like my ideal dinner party. Now some of you may well guess who is at number one, but there may be some gems in there you might have missed…


Anyway I thought I would share it with you. Do have a gander and let me know what you think of the list, also do let me know who your top deceased authors might be, British or otherwise?

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World Book Night 2014

Today/tonight is World Book Night which has become one of my favourite nights of the year, yes along with such joys as Christmas, my Birthday and the second night on a long holiday (when you have gone past the first day and night of being knackered from travel and have all that blissful time ahead, I need a holiday abroad soon). Any venture that sends you out into the world, without putting yourself in danger, to give people copies of books is a marvellous thing and in the UK alone they are giving a million books away. Great stuff.

I have been thrilled to have been chosen again, I initially had a sulk thinking I hadn’t until I checked my spam mail, for the fourth year running. I have been very lucky so far giving away copies of some of my favourite books; Half of a Yellow Sun, Rebecca (which I also read from to lots of people that year) and The Reader (at the first night of Liverpool’s first literature festival which really should come back). This year I think I have topped them all, yes even Rebecca, as I am giving away the first in my favourite ever series of books which I read in my teens (and made me feel less alone) and have re-read and re-read since. Yes, I am giving away Tales of the City.

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Now as is tradition, because it means a lot to me, I am giving most of these away to the local cancer hospital where the staff, patients and their loved ones can have copies that hopefully might shine some light in a very difficult time and then be passed on to others again and again.

I am keeping some back though this year and, as a giver who just loves to go on giving, four of them are going to come into work with me tomorrow, two being left on the train in the morning on the way in and two on the way home, with a little note hopefully finding them some new temporary homes and fans who will pass them on again. I am also sorting through my own books to pass some on to people at work and leave more in the library I made in the communal hall a while back.

Who else is giving books away for World Book Night, which title have you got to give and how are you going to give it away? If you haven’t been a giver have you planned on passing some of your favourite books? Oh and just out of interest, if you could give away a million copies of just one book which would it be and why? Suggest a few and who knows I may pick some of you at random to send a bookish treat through the post!

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Rook – Jane Rusbridge

One of the kinds of books I love to read the most (although I have only discovered in the last few years this is the case) are ones set in the British countryside. I am rather bored by books set in London, admittedly less so if they happen to be somewhere between 1850 and 1910. Whilst I know modern London is full of all walks of life, which is marvellous to read about, head out of the capital for a few hours and in the towns and villages some of the best stories can be found. This is one of the reasons I finally picked up Jane Rusbridge’s second novel Rook which I had heard would be right up my street for this very reason. In towns and villages secrets are much harder to keep buried.

Bloomsbury, paperback, 2013, fiction, 352 pages, borrowed from the library

Nora has fled from a love affair gone wrong and the international circuit of touring with her cello, back to her childhood home of Creek House in Bosham, Sussex to teach the locals. Whilst old childhood friends have welcomed her back the same cannot be said for her mother Ada. However things look set to change in Bosham as a TV documentary company, run by the suave Jonny, want to write about the possible body of King Cnut’s daughter buried below the church, along with the possibility of King Harold himself. Yet as a medieval secret of the town is about to be unburied after so long, so could be the secrets Nora and Ada have kept from each other.

Mother daughter relationships, along with all dysfunctional family set ups, are a prime subject for fiction. Nora and Ada’s estranged relationship puzzles and perplexes whilst it also intrigues; just what secrets have both women kept from each other, why did the death of Brian (Ada’s husband) along with Felicity (Nora’s sister) leaving the UK make them more estranged and not bring them together? How long can two women stay in the same place avoiding each other, one with her box of memories (and lots of cocktails, which seem a coping mechanism for getting older as well as keeping secrets locked away), the other with her cello and adopted Rook called, erm, Rook before the cracks finally fracture?

As we read on it is not only the secrets hidden under the floor boards of the local church that mirror Nora and Ada’s struggle with their own histories, the landscape also mirrors them too. It could actually be said that the main character in Rook is Sussex itself, its atmosphere comes out of every page and is often a metaphor for what is going on inside the characters heads.

The mud at low tide is alive with soft-lipped sucks and pops, the creek shrunk to a ribbon in the distance. Nora’s wellingtons slop around her calves as she steps from one hump of eel grass to another, arms spread to counterbalance any slip of the silt. Far off by the sluice gate twenty or thirty swans are clustered, startling white against the bladder-wrack and mud. Every limpid arch of neck and fan of wing displays an orchestrated grace, reminding Nora of her mother.

Occasionally though the sense of place and its relationship with the plot can cloud things. Dangers of flooding, the muddy coastline, the danger of private farmlands, etc are all wonderfully evoked – the prose in Rook is stunning – yet sometimes at the cost of explanations. I would sometimes be unsure if I was with Nora or with Ada, and occasionally we have gone into a flashback in the change of a paragraph which needs to be re-read before you realise what Rusbridge has done. I also on occasion found myself wishing that Rusbridge had written in the voice of Nora or Ada or alternated between the two of them. This may have lost some of the admirable subtleties Rusbridge allows the reader to expand upon themselves, but with all the mysteries Nora and Ada are harbouring themselves and from each other, they are prone to being slight enigma’s themselves. I interestingly found I knew Rook the most as a character and was fascinated learning all about how intelligent these birds are. I used to have a pet duck (super brainy birds) I now want a pet Rook, have I ever mentioned that before I was a book spotter I was a bird watcher? Anyway…

As I mentioned above, I love a book which has a real sense of place and in particular those which look at the British countryside. Therefore Rook couldn’t really be more ideal. Through Nora’s return to Bosham we have that sense we all know of nostalgia mixed with terror and edginess that going back to your hometown can bring. Through Jonny, who is a bit of a so and so, we see the attitudes to ‘the outsider’ which no matter how many times people say is a mentality that doesn’t exist in this forward thinking day and age, does. It is the sense of the atmosphere and nature of Sussex along with the definition of what makes a community (both the good and the bad) which seems to be at the very heart of Rook.

Around the polished table are people she has known since childhood. Miss Macleod is there, head down, reading something. Ted, who, now his son has taken over the day-to-day running of Manor Farm, has time on his hands so sits on many committees and is governor of the village primary school. George gives her a nod, jowls wobbling like wattles. Patricia, Ted’s wife and locally famous for her bridge suppers, flutters her fingers in a wave. Steve, the vicar, gives her a wink, and points to the empty chair beside him. A single father of three, Steve is not what most people expect in a vicar.

Using a ‘natural’ metaphor, which seems apt for this book particularly, I would compare Rook to a small brook (or a creek, all the more apt with Creek House) which slowly meanders to a larger stream which twists and turns into a river which builds up speed before it roars out to the sea. As we read on the pace, urgency and rawness become quicker and louder. I didn’t see the ending coming at all and it hits hard. In many ways Rook is a book about secrets and coping, or indeed not, with what life throws at us and how it changes our relationships with those around us. It is also a love letter to Sussex where Jane Rusbridge lives. It is beautifully written novel from an author I think more of us should be reading.

Who else has read Rook and what did you make of it? Have any of you read Jane’s debut The Devil’s Music as I am keen to give that a whirl. Oh and don’t forget you can find out more about Jane and have a nosey through her bookshelves on the latest Other People’s Bookshelves here.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing, Jane Rusbridge, Review