Category Archives: John Murray Publishers

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It – Jessie Greengrass

Now there is a title indeed.  One that had in fact made me pick up this debut short story collection quite some time ago, only for it to (rather shame facedly for me) linger on my shelves for all too long. However that all changed when I was asked if I would join the inaugural official shadow panel for the, speaking of titles, Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016. It was the only title that I hadn’t read yet and so I went to get the copy off my shelves… only I don’t have shelves at the moment, just masses of boxes filled with books I can’t get to, so thankfully the lovely folk at the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 sent me another copy, before the shortlist was officially announced, and I promptly devoured it. What a collection it proved to be.

9781473610859

John Murray, 2015, paperback, short stories, 182 pages, kindly sent by FMcM

I usually find, and this might just be me, that a collection of short stories can be really, really hard to write about. Firstly, if it is a good collection, you want to talk about every short story as if it was a novel. That after all is one of the wonders of short stories, when they are wonderful they can compete with the longest of tomes because their intense impact can have such a potent punch. Nice alliteration there Simon Savidge, ha. Secondly, collections can have a huge amount of scope. Another thing that makes them so great to read, you can go off here, there and everywhere within a collection. Marvellous. This is indeed the case with An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It though there is one familiar strand in almost every tale, loneliness.

I was lonely all through that summer, although at the time I didn’t realise how lonely. It was only later, looking back after everything was over, when the leaves were gone from the trees and when the dark in close about the library by mid afternoon, and when my work was going well again and I was happy, that I began to see how things had been, and to wonder if I might have been a little ill from it.

In pretty much every tale in An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (thank goodness for copy and paste) the narrator of the tale is inherently lonely, even if they might not seem it from their circumstance. A child might be feeling lonely at home as their parents marriage cracks become all the more apparent, as in Dolphin. A man and woman might become lonely strangers in a marriage, as in The Comfort of the Dead, or in a long distance relationship, as in Three Thousand, Nine Hundred and Forty Five Miles. Someone may become lonely and ostracised by their own manners, as in Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague. You get the gist; you can also see that Jessie Greengrass likes a good title, the two combining with most effect in The Lonesome Southern Trials of Knut The Whaler, which does what it says on the tin with the addition of a brilliant penguin and albatross. See made you want to read on there didn’t I?

This might have made An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It sound like a rather depressing and difficult, relentlessly lonely, read. Not at all. Where Greengrass makes things anything but is in her settings. Some of these are physical, so tales may take us from one side of the world to the other (though interestingly I always thought I was in cold seasons, even if in potentially warmer settings) but also some of these are time. We have stories from the past, like the title tale, we also have stories from the future such as Winter, 2058. This both showing loneliness has as few boundaries as Jessie Greengrass in her imagination and ability to take the reader anywhere and everywhere.

Yet whilst the settings might be foreign or futuristic, or indeed in the depths and mists of time, the feelings we humans feel and the extraordinary in the ordinary (something long time readers of this blog will know I love) feature heavily. Raw emotion, actually better put, basic/base emotion is always at the heart of Greengrass’ tales.  We have the simple situations of day to day life like the desire to find a new job/our true vocation and a plot for escape in the brilliant All The Other Jobs. I mean come on who hasn’t sat at their desk once or twice and daydreamed of becoming a cooper (yes, I had to look it up too) or tending chickens on a Welsh Island for a while? Ok, maybe I have imagined running a zoo, but you know what I mean. There are also those times of extreme emotions, for example this paragraph in my second most favourite story On Time Travel, which is one of the most vivid depictions of grief I have read.

My father had died very suddenly and it was hard, of course, in all the usual ways, but hard also because we hadn’t ever been a happy family; ever and it was this fact even more than the fact that he was gone which trapped us, me and my mother, in the moment of his passing; and because it seemed so awful that something so obviously terrible might in some ways come as a relief, we couldn’t talk about it and, unable to talk about it, couldn’t talk about anything else either.

Greengrass can turn her hand to pretty much anything. That isn’t to say this is a perfect collection, occasionally I didn’t ‘get a story’ or some were so brief I had to re-read them and ponder them a while and re-read them again, but that can be said of many collections. Overall this is a corking collection that I think looks at life now, regardless of when the story is set, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It may be set in the past but look at how we are treating nature now, Winter, 2058 might be about weird goings on in the future but actually I thought it looked at how we are, or aren’t as I think is more apt to say, dealing with people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Once I started to see these themes again and again, I wanted to go back to the very beginning again.

I do want to mention Winter, 2058 again and give it some special dedication because for me this was like a perfect example a ‘Simon Savidge favourite kind of short story’ – I know a special award indeed. It had absolutely everything I loved wrapped up into a mere 15 pages. It is a tale of loneliness is a very real yet very other world, has hints of fairy tale, folklore, the gothic, supernatural and alien yet is really about displacement. Oh and as I mentioned I think also about the horrors and prevalence of Alzheimer’s, but that could just be me. If I ever edited an anthology of short stories it would go straight in. Worth the cover price alone frankly. I have thought about it so much since, so much.

I was a child when the first intrusion was discovered, stumbled across by a pair of walkers in a clearing in the Forest of Dean. At first, their story was treated lightly. It was midsummer, and what they described sounded so much like a fairy tale: the odd lights and sounds between a stand of beech; the half remembered visions; confusion; and afterwards a kind of stupor, so that they became lost for a day and a night, unable to find their way out of the trees.

As you may have guessed I really, really liked this collection. I think Jessie Greengrass is clearly a very talented writer and I cannot wait to read what she writes next.

Having read The Ecliptic, Physical, Grief is the Thing With Feathers and now this I have no idea how the judges of the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 are going to choose a winner, let alone we shadow judges this Saturday. It is a corking list and you can win all four of the books on it here because I think these are books you really need on your shelves.

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Filed under Jessie Greengrass, John Murray Publishers, Review, Short Stories, Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award

The Girl on the Stairs – Louise Welsh

If I had done the list of forty books/authors to read before I turn forty back when I turned thirty earlier in the year then Louise Welsh would have been one of the authors on that list. I know many of you would imagine that list would have some of the classic authors on, and indeed it will, but there are many modern and contemporary authors that I have been meaning to try, Welsh is one of them as so many people have recommended I read one of her novels. As it is I still haven’t made that list, though I have been mulling it over again. I have, however, finally read Louise Welsh and I don’t think that ‘The Girl on the Stairs’, her fifth and latest novel, will be the only and last time I read one of her thrillers.

John Murray Publishing, hardback, 2012, fiction, 278 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Modern day Berlin is the setting for ‘The Girl on the Stairs’, as Jane moves from Scotland to the trendy area of Mitte to be with her high flying businesswoman girlfriend Petra. However being heavily pregnant with rather a lot of time on your hands in a new and strange to you city can feel quite isolating especially when you have neighbours you are rather uncertain about. Directly next door it is the relationship between father and daughter, Albert and Anna Mann, who Jane hears screaming at each other one night. Anna, just thirteen though looking rather inappropriately older, is then seen with bruises, could there be abuse going on next door and where is the mother? As Jane meets more her other neighbours, Karl and Heike Becker, Heike announces that Greta was killed by Albert and buried under the creepy ruined backhouse between the apartments and the local graveyard. Could the ramblings of a woman with early dementia be true and if so is Anna a young girl in a lot of danger with no one to protect her?

Louise Welsh plays a very clever game with her readers as ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ continues. Jane decides that she needs to find out more about the Mann’s and Greta in the hope of possibly saving a young girl from possible abuse. Is she doing this because she is soon to be a mother herself of with too much time on her hands, and the saying ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ came to mind for me, is she imagining things from too much time on her own in a city she doesn’t know and with a whole lot of hormones and conflicting feelings to do with her pregnancy. Do we believe Jane or do we think she might have cabin, well swanky apartment, fever?

I have to confess that somewhere in the middle I did have a break from the book, but it was one of those breaks you aren’t sure why you needed or how it happened. You know sometimes you pick up a book its going really well and then suddenly you realise you’re reading something else? That sounds like a rather damning thing to say about any book, weirdly I think in the case of ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ it is a compliment. Welsh’s writing, the situation she creates for Jane and the clinging atmosphere of the novel all become quite headily claustrophobic. Interestingly you start to understand Jane and the predicament she is in and why she could be going a little loopy, if indeed she is. I felt I needed some space now and again to breathe and escape (something that alas Jane cannot do) and that is why I stopped in the middle of the book I think. The book stayed with me though and so I carried on and then couldn’t quite put it down again.

The atmosphere of the book is one of the things that I most enjoyed about it. ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ has a delightful mixture of the Gothic and the fairytale elements to it. We have the young girl in danger (the cover of the book makes me think of Red Riding Hood, but who is the wolf?), the old graveyard, the women of ill repute, the creepy abandoned backhouse and possible ghosts and murder.  It also has the history and atmosphere Berlin a city renowned for its past, its divide and as Jane is told “This city is full of ghosts, most of them harmless. It’s the living you have to watch out for.”

Louise Welsh also packs a huge amount into ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ as it is filled with plot, many twists and several big themes. We have homophobia, the Catholic Church, child abuse, dementia, sperm donation, sibling relationships, possible infidelity… this book is brimming. This occasionally I felt, whilst brilliant, was to the cost of some of the characters. Jane is a fascinating psychological character yet because the whole book rests on whether or not she might be bonkers there is only so much Welsh can show and tell, fair enough though with no real back story etc she is occasionally a little under written, the same with the Mann’s for they are the mystery initially and heart of the story. However it was characters like Petra and her brother, her bosses partner Jurgen etc that not only didn’t seem fully formed, I just didn’t like them – again though this could have been part of the whole darkness of the book, and to be fair when the denouement came I was still unsure what was and wasn’t real and then there were a couple of brilliant, brilliant twists. Swings and roundabouts!

Overall I enjoyed ‘The Girl on the Stairs’. I had a few hiccups with it along the way but really those were all called for, the claustrophobia and the hidden characterisations etc, because of the possibility or not of the mystery at the heart of the novel. If you want an unusual and gothic feeling thriller then I would steer you in the direction of this book. I certainly finished the book wanting to try more of Welsh’s work myself.

So who else has read ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ and what did you think? Which of Louise Welsh’s other novels have you read and what did you make of them, would you recommend any to me for future reading?

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Filed under John Murray Publishers, Louise Welsh, Review

Heat and Dust – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I have never been fortunate enough to go to India in the real world, it’s one of my ‘when I win the lottery’ destinations, but I am always fascinated by the life and culture it has both now and in its past. This is where fiction is a joy because at the turn of the page, with the right author, we can find ourselves transported into the lives of people we could never meet and the worlds we can’t simply pop on a train to. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s deceptively small novel ‘Heat and Dust’, as the title states rather effortlessly, transports the reader into India not once but twice, in two very different time periods.

John Murray, paperback, 1975, fiction, 192 pages, from my TBR

There are two parallel stories running throughout ‘Heat and Dust’. In 1923 we have Olivia who, knewly married, moves to India when her husband Douglas gets a job there working for the British Government. Whilst there she meets the local ruling Nawab, a prince, which leads to (and this isn’t spoiling the story, we know this very quickly) an affair and her desertion. Fifty years later, after hearing of her grandfathers first wife who disappeared, we meet an unnamed woman who wants to find out more about this mysterious Olivia and just what happened to her after she seemingly vanished and starts to follow her trail.

What is so interesting about the book is how the events of both women start to mirror each other yet at the same time are completely polar experiences. They are both in the region of Khatm and yet, with the time between them, they seem like very separate worlds and ones that in each case Jhabvala sets the atmosphere incredibly. The world Olivia inhabits is one of lavishness, to the point of being spoiled, she has lots of money and often bored, verging on miserable, with either too much time on her hands of being forced into ‘socialising’ with other expat wives like the matronly Mrs Crawford and Mrs Minnies, women she doesn’t like and who don’t really like her. It is a world that bares almost no relation to the horrors her husband Douglas sees which the Nawab accepts which Jhabvala gives us occasional shocking glimpses of.

“It happened when Mr. Crawford was away on tour and Douglas on his own in charge of the district. A grain merchant had died and his widow had been forced by her relatives to burn herself with him on his funeral pyre.”

Her step-granddaughter (which seems an odd title as they never met) however inhabits the poorer, if slightly more developed, Satipur. There is the thrill of the new world and also the mystery of piecing this woman and her scandal together. It’s a world of community, the relationship between her, her landlord Inder Lal and his wife, who people believe is possessed by spirits when we could see she has epilepsy, Ritu, also adds a whole new dimension to the novel. This is the world of the ‘heat and dust’ that we are promised from the books title, it’s a foreign, exotic and occasionally scary world, yet she throws herself into the life that greets her, albeit after having to get somewhat accustomed to it.

“The family of the shop downstairs also sleep in this courtyard, and so does their little servant boy, and some others I haven’t been able to identify. So we’re quite a crowd. I no longer change into a nightie but sleep, like an Indian woman, in a sari.
It is amazing how still everything is. When Indians sleep, they really do sleep. Neither adults nor children have a regular bed-time – when they’re tired they just drop, fully clothed, onto their beds, or the ground if they have no beds, and don’t stir again till the next day begins.”

There is a lot of mystery and often some tragedy in ‘Heat and Dust’, yet there is also some bright humour there too, often Jhabvala mixes them at the same time, bittersweet moments or a laugh that casts a dark show. A section in the book where the unnamed narrator takes on an almost obligatory relationship with a fellow Englishman, Chid, who has converted and in doing so seems to have developed a rapacious sex drive had me laughing a lot. Jhabvala wants to add some lighter notes in a world where poverty and lepers are rife, after all for some this is the day to day and it has happy moments. In the case of Olivia’s story line we have her gossiping with the leech-like Harry, a man who has somehow got into the pocket of the Nawab which itself then adds a dark undertone to how manipilative this ruler can be and how controlling.

I thought ‘Heat and Dust’ was a marvellous book, I should add it won the Booker in 1975 – a controversial year. It is a book that is about a country at two very different points in time, the tale of failed marriage, the mysteries of people and love in the unlikeliest of places. Many writers would have needed to write a huge novel to tell this tale, instead what we have is a book you can get lost in for a single sitting and be rewarded beyond expectation. Its an epic distilled in a way, if thats not a cliche. That to me shows the power of Jhabvala’s wonderful prose. I thought it was marvellous. It shocked me it’s not been in print for some time, along with a lot of the authors other work (which I am keen to read), however it’s coming out through Abacus in October, I’d advise you get a copy.

Have you read this and if so what did you think? Have you read any of the authors other novels? I seem to be having a good run with more of the classic Booker novels like this and ‘Moon Tiger’ any others you would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2011, John Murray Publishers, Man Booker, Review, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Wait For Me! – Deborah Devonshire

There are certain books you have high expectations of which fall short of what you hoped for, and then there are those books that utterly exceed what you could ever have wished. ‘Wait for Me!’ the memoirs of Deborah Devonshire nee Mitford, is one of those latter gems. Now before you pass this post thinking ‘well it’s a book about a Mitford Sister, so he’s bound to love it’ I would urge you to read on, especially if you love books about the war, the thirties or the change in the lives of women in the last century, because ‘Wait for Me!’ is an incredible read for so many more reasons than just a love of the Mitford sisters. I wonder how annoyed ‘Debo’ gets at constantly having the words ‘Mitford sister’ attached to her. Anyway, onto the book…

John Murray, memoir, hardback, 2010, 370 pages, a gift and from publisher (one went to my Gran)

A memoir is a very difficult kind of book to surmise and really give impartial thoughts on. Invariably, and in particular in the case of a one such as ‘Wait for Me!’ you are reading the book because it’s someone who you are fascinated by and their life. So I might have to throw impartiality out the window with my thoughts here. Deborah Devonshire is someone I have become particularly interested in over the last few years since reading ‘Letters Between Six Sisters’ and becoming a Mitfordoholic and also since finding out she was the Duchess of Devonshire who made Chatsworth, which was a huge part of my childhood growing up down the road in Matlock Bath, come alive again.

In her open and frank writing, you imagine there is predominantly a sparkle in her eye and a wry smile on her face as she writes (apart from obviously discussing the war, the deaths of some of her children not long after birth and the deaths of her husband and siblings who she has outlived), she takes us through her childhood in the Mitford house, her debutante days in the 1930’s, meetings with Hitler and the Queen (not at the same time), marrying a Duke’s second son, becoming a Duchess and inheriting Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall and huge death duties, to her life as a widow and Dowager Duchess now. This starts from her birth date, a blank date in her mother’s engagements book, on the 31st of March 1920 until very recently – a huge amount of history of which she was in many ways rather privy to. This of course makes fascinating reading to anyone wanting to know British history and I would say easily equals the lives of the Mitford family themselves.

“The 1950s were grim for this country. Rationing did not end until 1954, nine long years after the end of the war, and recovery was painfully slow. In our case it was not recovery but a downward slope we were facing. Many beautiful buildings all over England were being destroyed and supplanted by monsters. No one believed that a house like Chatsworth would ever be wanted again, let alone lived in by the descendants of the family who built it. It was a period of limbo. No major decisions were being taken at Chatsworth but never the less a five-hundred-year legacy was beginning to come undone.”

I could possibly read about the Mitford’s all day long, so that was a huge box ticked for me from the start. What I didn’t expect was to be so enthralled, the way war affected her, the legacies and old laws of great families of society, and how not many years ago young women of the day were brought up to be wives and little more. Well look at all this wife achieved for her family. The times between the World War’s and the time just post WWII are two particular times in history I find fascinating and we get these in abundance, the sense of uncertainty is there on the pages if often with a funny tale thrown in throughout.

There is also a huge emotional pull in this book. The relationships between siblings are wonderfully displayed in terms of both the highs and the lows. There is an honesty from Deborah of how she wished she had known her brother better before he died in the war, how she might have done more after Unity, renowned for being a friend of Hitler, survived after shooting herself in the head when war was declared, and the genuine shock when she learnt her sister Nancy had advised the government to keep her other sister Diana locked up in prison as a danger to the country for her political views. There is the completely bare heartbreak of having children prematurely and their deaths. There is also the hardship of living with and loving someone who is an alcoholic, as her husband Andrew became, how you deal with that and how in old age they spend their time feeling they don’t want to live anymore. It is honestly incredible.

I think what makes this ever more impressive and ‘readable’ is all down to Deborah Devonshire’s voice and narrative through the book – its like talking to a very wise friend who is imparting gems of history, advice and knowledge onto you. You could actually be sat with her, the voice rings so true. I am also amazed she never wrote fiction, the atmosphere and sense of place be you in a derelict Chatsworth, Hitler’s lounge, London during the Blitz, visiting Buckingham Palace or the countryside in the 1920’s just comes out the pages seemingly effortlessly and often with much humour.

“Swinbrook village and its inhabitants seemed eternal. Winnie Crook, whose initials gave us such pleasure, ran the post office. She served a tuppence-worth of acid drops in a twist of paper, weighed on the same brass scales as the letters. Our other delights were Fry’s peppermint cream, which broke off into conveniently sized bits, and good old Cadbury’s tuppenny bars. I do not know if she sold anything more expensive but these were what we could afford. There was the village idiot who chased Nancy and no one thought anything of it, Mrs Price, who lived up the bank and was nearly a hundred years old, and at the Mill Cottage, Mrs Phelps whom Farve mistook for a heifer calf when she was bent over weeding her garden.”

I could ramble on about how much I loved this book for hours and hours. I could happily in fact just quote the whole thing. Instead though I shall simply say read it (and you can win a copy here), read it as soon as you can. Be you a lover of history, of the Mitford’s it’s a book for you, and those of you who think ‘oh no, not my cup of tea’ I dare you to give it a go and not come back converted and a possible Mitfordoholic too. Easily one of my favourite reads of this year, and one I have had to read on and off to prolong the enjoyment, I was very sad when I turned the final page.

P.S My only criticism of this book is the covers of both the UK hardback and paperback. The American one is rightly glamorous and less like the memoirs of an older lady who might be a bit eccentric with her chickens or her dog! It doesn’t show really what the book is truly about. Small issue, but needed to mention it.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Deborah Devonshire, John Murray Publishers, Non Fiction, Review

Farundell – L. R. Fredericks

I mentioned last week how sometimes I will persevere with a debut novel because I feel debut novelists should be given a few more pages to get you – it’s their first novel after all. This could of course simply mean I am a soft touch; it can also backfire as it did with L R Frederick’s ‘Farundell’ which popped through my letterbox unsolicited a few weeks ago. From the cover and the blurb I thought ‘ooh John Murray have done well with matching this from what I like’ but as we all know you shouldn’t judge a book by a marvellous cover.

First up I just want to discuss the blurb actually or a bit of it, I know it should be about what is inside but I have to show you why I thought I would love it when it I got it. “Farundell is a story of magical awakening as a young man searches for meaning in the aftermath of the First World War, a young girl comes of age and an old man journeys through memory to death. There’s an enigmatic book, an erotic obsession, magic both black and white, a ghost who’s not a ghost, a murder that’s not a murder, a treasure that’s not a treasure. It’s about love, loss and longing; language, imagination and the nature of reality.” I thought this sounded really interesting and imaginative and something quite different. Well I was spot on with the latter.

Paul Asher has been fighting in World War One and been somewhat traumatised, though initially we aren’t quite sure why though we do get a small taster in the prologue. Not wanting to go back to his father in America he accepts a job writing down the memoirs of the elderly Amazon explorer Lord Perceval Damory and moving into the grand house of ‘Farundell’ and its surrounding lands and rather bizarre inhabitants. This was where I started to get a little lost, L R Fredericks really introduces too many within the first 40 pages as you have Paul’s back story, his London friends and then this host of characters living in Farundell. I had my notebook out and even then I was never sure who was related to who or how. Paul’s sudden desire to leave London and work in Farundell also really mystified me, I wasn’t convinced and even with the unbelievable (this was merely more slightly unlikely) an author should have you convinced.

Once in Farundell we start to meet this family who awake in the night outside their bodies (their ‘moon bodies’) and float around following foxes and watching sleeping guests. Again that’s fine. Yet they would then sit and talk about the whole thing for a few pages with lines like “I am not purposefully trying to confuse you” and “sometimes there is no answer” leaving the reader feeling very confused and actually wanting a lot of answers.

So why did I persevere? Well I kept hoping it would turn into something like ‘Atonement’ or ‘Brideshead Revisited’ which the publishers compare it to and are two of my favourite books – it didn’t end up like either. I also liked the magical surrealism yet it never led anywhere. To me this is a book that needed someone to reign the author in a little as rather than being a great post-WWI grand house drama or a surreal fantasy novel it seemed to end up not being either, not being satisfactory and going nowhere (even the love story didn’t interest me). I feel mean writing that about a debut novel but it’s the truth, someone should have edited it down, it feels a good 150 pages plus too long, and helped the author decide what they wanted it to be. A shame as it’s beautifully written it just doesn’t do anything or seem to have any purpose behind it or driving it. It does have a lovely cover though.

A book that will: either win you over and have you thinking it’s the most beautiful, enigmatic and imaginative novel or have you thinking its twee nonsense that promises a lot and goes nowhere. Sadly, and I genuinely mean that, I fell into the latter category. 4/10

L R Fredericks no doubt has great signs of promise but I won’t be reading this, or its follow ups (yes there is a series), and am not sure would give any future books not related to this a whirl. Should I write off an author after only one book? I actually think I should have stopped reading half way (as I have another debut since) as then I could have told people that it had promise but just wasn’t for me, now if I told people it had promise having seen the end result I would feel I was lying. Have you ever had any books like that, the ones where if you had left them unfinished you might have liked them more?

*Oops I originally called the protagonist Paul Auster – only becase I wrote the blog whilst mulling over if I wanted to read that author, my brain is truly overtaken with all things bookish it seems.

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Filed under John Murray Publishers, L. R. Fredericks, Review

Maisie Dobbs & The Detective Series

After reading the first in the series of Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta Series Phenomenon I asked for you all too kindly recommend other detective series that I might find a treat. I didn’t realise there were publishers listening however it appears there were… The delightful people at John Murray (and in particular the delightful publicist Caroline) sent me a parcel filled with Maisie Dobbs Mysteries – as you, they, the cat next door and some people the Outer Hebrides know I can only read a series in the right order. Now I have to apologise and admit that I had never before heard of this series or their author Jacqueline Winspear but somehow I think they are going to be right up my street from what the blurb of the very first one says…

…“Young, feisty Maisie Dobbs has recently set herself up as a private detective. Such a move may not seem especially startling. But this is 1929, and Maisie is exceptional in many ways. Having started as a maid to the London aristocracy, studied her way to Cambridge and served as a nurse in the Great War, Maisie has wisdom, experience and understanding beyond her years. Little does she realise the extent to which this strength of character is soon to be tested. For her first case forces her to uncover secrets long buried, and to confront ghosts from her own past! In Maisie, Jacqueline Winspear has created a character that readers will immediately take to their hearts. Her first case combines a gripping investigation with a moving portrait of love and loss. It marks the beginning of a wonderful new detective series”.

The era is perfect as for some reason I have become slightly obsessed with the 1920’s and 1930’s in my reading this year. Maisie herself sounds feisty yet with a past which looks like it could be filled with a mixture of secrets and loss. I absolutely love the covers and frankly anything that Alexander McCall Smith is raving about is almost certain to be something I want to give a go. But will it live up to any of these that I love so much?

I noticed yesterday that Elaine of Random Jottings had done a wonderful blog on the Miss Silver Books by Patricia Wentworth which I might frankly have to have a delve into, plus people keep mentioning Josephine Tey and someone recently mentioned I would really like the Bryant & May series by Christopher Fowler… anymore for anymore?

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The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin

I have to say just from the cover I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of this novel. It looked like it might be a bit ‘chick-lit’ not that there is anything wrong with that by the way, just that it isn’t really my general cup of tea. I was actually sent this book ages and ages ago buy the lovely people at John Murray and despite a phone call raving about it from one of their delightful team I was still suspicious. It went to the bottom of the TBR I am ashamed to admit. However it has been this weeks Richard and Judy choice and as I am doing the challenge I picked it up, dusted it off and tried it out. I absolutely loved it.

Lilly Nelly Aphrodite is born just before midnight on December the 31st 1899; however she doesn’t actually take her first breath until one minute past twelve taking her first breath in the first minute of the twentieth century. Instantly you know that Lilly isn’t going to be your typical child and as a baby with her extremely vocal lungs she proves her point further. Things don’t start well for Lilly as within months her mother, a cabaret singer, is killed under scandalous circumstances. We then follow Lilly as she goes through her childhood as an orphan to becoming a major German movie star.

Now if your like me that final line would have made you think ‘chick-lit’ however with the background being Berlin and the timescale of the novel being from the start of the 1900’s until the mid 1940’s what you as the reader witness is war torn Germany… twice. Lilly is a wonderful set of eyes through this period as she has no real political streak, her only actual desire is to survive and through this you are given an insight (very realistically) into what life might have been like through such a horrific period in history for the general/poor public of Berlin. That isn’t the only historical facts that Colin focuses on, there is also the heyday of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hollywood and its golden era. How she manages to make all this work is quite a feat but it does.

Lilly is a wonderful character. She rightly steals the show… well book as she is witty, manipulative, wily, funny, naughty, kind and incredibly strong. Though she goes through endless turmoil she doesn’t wallow in self pity, well only occasionally, and instead she fights resolutely and carries one. Naturally she is flawed and makes several mistakes along the way but all in all you can’t help to admire her and like her, maybe a little less towards the end, but I don’t want to give anything away.

If Lilly isn’t enough I have to praise the characters that come and go, and come back. Eva is a wonderful character though in the end completely dislikeable you want to read more and more about her, especially the more conniving and bitter she gets. Hanne however almost steals the whole story from Lilly; she is a wonderful character a fighter like Lilly only much harder and much darker with a real self destructive streak. In fact it’s the women all in all that shine and take the main roles in this novel. Though not in the forefront of the novel the men are all there and very complete characters, in fact sometimes Colin does a wonderful trick of having a character say one line and then following it with what happened to that one small character in the rest of his life in the next single sentence.

It was in fact this quality that made me think of great authors like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elisabeth Braddon etc. In fact in many ways some of this novel reminded me of books like Moll Flanders or Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the fact that every character no matter how small has their part to play and their story to tell no matter how big or minor their role was in the general tale. The only other two authors I can think of that do that now are Sarah Waters and Jane Harris and if you like any of their work then you are sure to absolutely love this.

As you can tell overall this for me was an absolutely marvellous book. The setting richly painted like the make up on many of the wonderful characters faces. I simply cannot find a fault with this book and think its one that many, many people will be getting copies of for birthdays and one that I can’t wait to re-read and take it in all over again…Though with my TBR that may not be for some time.

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Filed under Beatrice Colin, Books of 2009, John Murray Publishers, Review, Richard and Judy