The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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Books within books within books. Sometimes I’m skeptical of such literary devices- the self-consciousness can distract at the expense of the narrative. Look how clever and well-read I am! But done well, they serve to create a complex, layered narrative, with all the satisfaction of slotting puzzle pieces into place.

Thankfully, The Thirteenth Tale is the latter- I devoured it in a single sitting. Quiet Margaret Lea lives a half-life; smothered in grief, sneaking small pleasures by writing biographies and working in her father’s bookshop. She adores stories. One day she gets a letter from famous, mysterious and prolific author Vida Winter requesting her services as a biographer.

Vida’s story takes Margaret to Angelfield, the dilapidated stately home of the Angelfield family. Uneasy and unusual, she meets the characters of Vida’s past to discover who she really is: Struggling housekeeper Missus, stern governess Hester, obsessive and strange Charles, beautiful but wilful Isabelle and her read-headed twins Emmeline and Adeline.

Setterfield borrows heavily and obviously from her source material- the plain governess of Jane Eyre, the tragic, complicated incestuousness of Wuthering Heights, the suspense and evil of The Turn of the Screw. Heavily Gothic (an evil twin, come on) with the traditional emphasis on plot of early 20th century literature, it is arguably a little old school but it is no less enjoyable for it.

Read: On a cold winter’s afternoon with a mug of hot tea to keep the chills away.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Count Alexander Rostov is an aristocratic Russian man-of-leisure. He duels, downs brandy and charms all- until he is sentenced to house arrest by the newly formed Communist government for writing seditious poetry. His house is the Hotel Metropol and there he remains for the next forty years.

Limited scope you say? No. There is lovely contrast between the inner life of the hotel and the macro-movements of the outside world. You can feel the influence of the Russian Revolution even in the ballrooms. Enough characters enter and leave so as to make this a compelling microcosm. The hotel itself is a splendid setting- the literary equivalent of a Wes Anderson film, all nostalgic colouring, silver teaspoons and endless stairways.

This would have worked better as a short story- the setting is wonderful, Rostov is an interesting, idiosyncratic character but not enough happens to justify the length. It can’t quite decide what it is- a fanciful fairytale? Social commentary? A comedy of manners? As a whole it is too sentimental and artful for my taste. The chapters of asides and drawing room manners grow a bit annoying, no matter how nicely written.

Constructed it may be, it is also the most meticulous literary dolls house and would certainly appeal to a less cynical reader.

Read: If you feel whimsical

 

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

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Daphne du Maurier does a great line in torturous, dark love affairs set on the Cornish cost. I’ve basically summarised most of her books right there. Saying that, My Cousin Rachel is my favourite of them.

Philip is the young cousin and heir of Cornish landowner Ambrose. Together they manage the beloved family estate in Cornwall, sharing a life of duty and diligence. Ambrose’s failing health forces him to Italian climes where he meets and marries distant relative Rachel but dies from a mysterious illness not long afterwards. The alluring Rachel (who may or may not have been involved in foul play) comes to England to meet Philip.

Self-contained, it is set within the estate, drawing rooms, gardens, parishes and objects. The novel has a limited cast and sphere. We see little of Italy or the wider world, limited only to Philip’s narrow vision. Philip is young and intense, heady with emotion. His moods are mercurial, forcing you to remember the possibility of unrealiable narration. This uncertainty is key- it’s not a fun book if you know for sure Rachel is a femme fatale or an innocent woman.

Every time I read it, I find new shades and nuances, shifting with my mood and perspective. This is what makes it du Maurier’s best work for me- the swirling ambiguity and the contrast between dramatic tragedy and light drawing room drama combining to create a beautiful whole.

Read: If you’re in the mood for mind games

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

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Children are so alien. It wasn’t long ago that I was a child but I cannot understand what goes on in their minds. This is partly why We Need To Talk About Kevin scares me so much.

It’s already had the full Hollywood treatment (with screen queen Tilda Swindon, no less) so I’m pretty late to the party and know the plot. Down-and-out Eva writes letters to her husband, detailing their life together, their domestic arrangements, their children. All up until the point their son Kevin stages a notorious mass school killing.

It’s a fascinating story of where it all went wrong. Eva herself is a spiky, difficult characters with her stylised self-image and pretentious conceits. These almost do the job of conveying character too well as they bog down the text and irritate with their twisting complexity and intellectualism. Ultimately though no one deserves a psychopath child no matter how annoying the narrator.

This book is an exploration of parenting, responsibility, the age old nature/nurture debate, but with the adrenaline-spiking feel of a thriller. This may be once instance where a book’s slow start works in its favour. The ponderous theorising of early chapters gives longer to ponder the scenarios and shades, making the ultimate denouement all the more chilling.

Read: If you’re thinking about having kids…

Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis

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Crown of Blood is a very sensational, melodramatic title for what is a fairly sensible historical biography.

I knew very little about Lady Jane Grey- put on the throne by unscrupulous relatives as Queen of England for nine days, before being beheaded by her cousin Mary I. Tragic. This book sets out to combat the idea of Jane as a powerless pawn, the classic Victorian heroine.

Tallis does this fairly well. I was surprised at the level of Jane’s academic ability, shown in her epistolary relationships with comtemporary leading thinkers. Her intellect tied to the strength of her convictions in the Protestant faith fuel Tallis’s thesis that Jane would have made a good queen.

It’s a tough sell though because there’s not that much source material available. Jane lives an obscure life until the age of 11 and then is executed at the age of 16ish- we don’t know her age. Much of the writing is conjecture: Jane ‘could have’ met this person or ‘might have’ felt scared. We don’t even have an actual portrait of her- a real shame as they’re effectively the Tudor equivalent of paparazzi shots in OK magazine.

Where we do have more information, interesting characters emerge. Her father Henry Grey is despicable- selfish and easily-swayed, he effectively gambles away his daughter. Her guardian Thomas Seymour is a real wheeler-dealer, always angling for the next improbable jackpot. Tallis also adds colours by talking of context and convention of the time.

It doesn’t totally change my views of Lady Jane Grey (I’m not sure they were that well formed with to begin with), but it does flesh out a girl often consigned to a postscript of history.

Read: If you like Antonia Fraser or Alison Weir

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

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Reading this book, I imagine warm browns, bleached blue and seventies orange. It has a faded, melancholy feel to it that captures a very specific moment in time, like a Polaroid or room in a grandmother’s house. It’s a small and self-contained book- a summer of events. But it is special at the same time.

A mother and daughter live on the genteel edge of an American Rust Belt town. Isabelle, a respectable, prim secretary in the office of a mill, is simmering with fury at adolescent daughter Amy. Amy is dreamy and intense, desperate for meaning and experiences in the wider world.

Stroud fuses together the minutiae of he domestic- Amy currently consigned to cooking dinner every night in penance- but also broader universal truths. It’s also about friendships, teenage sexuality, economic decline and class.

Similarly, Stroud also evokes great feeling through tiny actions or details. I cringe with pity at Isabelle’s pretensions of respectability like her Readers Digest obsession or hours spent making her boss dessert. I rail at Amy’s naivety around men and cliched teenage rebellions. It is ┬átheir relationship, of love mingled with deep disdain and anger with all those nuances, that is the powerful core of this domestic drama.

Read: When your mum gets under your skin

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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My book of 2017 so far. A bold claim considering we’ve still got five months of the year to go. Still, I find it hard to think I’ll pick up a contemporary novel as moving, original, and powerful between now and Christmas. And if Obama agrees with me, I must be right.

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, born a slave on a Georgian cotton plantation, who follows in the footsteps of her runaway mother. Alongside her accomplice Cesar, she escapes and begins her journey towards freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Now, for those unfamiliar with US history I feel like I have to make the point that the Underground Railroad was a metaphorical route of safe houses and passage where slaves were smuggled out of the South. But in Whitehead’s book, it is an actual mechanical railroad.

I don’t usually buy into magic realism, but the slight unreality serves to bring home how alien and appalling the reality was. Cora travels through various states, seeing the different forms of oppression and how people adapt and survive. It is her personal journey, but it is also a collective journey, a shared American history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

It is powerfully emotional, without dipping into sentimental cliche. It is unflinching in turning its gaze to uncomfortable truths, but not gratuitous. This difficult balancing act means Cora and her story will stay with me long after her journey passes out of sight.

Read: On Barack Obama’s personal recommendation.

 

Ripper by Patricia Cornwell

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Jack the Ripper is excellent material for countless writers of both fact and fiction. A serial murderer of five down-and-out women, the Ripper menaced the gloomy streets of London, teasing the Police with hundreds of creepy letters before vanishing. A mix of seedy music hall glamour and gin-soaked slum squalor, all overlaid with a good dose of Victorian morality and ruffles.

This is Crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s thesis on the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Her theory is that acclaimed British artist Walter Sickert. It’s certainly plausible as Cornwell methodically lists up the reasons why; master of disguise, similar writing paper, symbolism in his art, geographical proximity and so on.

It’s really interesting as she recounts each case of murder- from her Kay Scarpetta novels, she certainly has an eye for forensics and crime scenes. The extensive research and contextual exploration of London at the time and Sickert himself are fascinating. It all tallies up rather satisfyingly.

Except for the fact there’s absolutely zero solid proof.

I don’t doubt that Cornwell truly believes the culprit was Sickert. You don’t spend two years and lots of time and money on something clearly unfounded (unless she got a huge book advance!) She’s vehement, branding those in disagreement ‘Sickert apologists’ which is a bit harsh considering there’s no conclusive evidence.

Still, I’m fine with considering the Ripper’s identity a mystery lost to time if only to fuel the imagination of countless more writers.

Read: If you like a good conspiracy theory.

 

What a Carve Up! By Jonathan Coe

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What a Carve Up! is like having a weird dream- spooky coincidences, off-kilter cinematic scenes, and an absolutely inability to determine the course of frantic action.

Novelist Micheal Owen has been hired by a mad aunt to write a biography is the despicable upper-class Winshaws. In the midst of the Thatcher years, each of the family members is up to their elbows in shady dealings across multiple spheres; there is the poisonous columnist, the arms dealer, the no-morals politician trying to sell off the NHS, and so on. As Owen digs deeper into their part, startling coincidences emerge.

It is inventive political and social satire, stuffed with cultural reference to show place and time. Partly told through letters, different charters, film scripts, diaries- whatever the medium, it’s very funny. Coe mercilessly captures ridiculousness of ludicrous social situations and pretentious characters, and send them up in style.

The disparate threads and styles have an overall effect of a crazy patchwork quilt or a magic eye picture. For some people, its complexity and layering comes together as a coherent, rollicking read but I’m left totally bamboozled by the ending. This is exactly why it reminds me of a dream; funny, nonsensical, and uncomfortably disorienting at the same time. I couldn’t even tell you if I enjoyed it or not!

Read: For a literary version of Spitting Image or Private Eye

An Absolute Scandal by Penny Vincenzi

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It’s 1988. Sloaney girls buy ludicrously expensive shoes on the Kings Road. Liquid lunches are de-rigeur. Merchant banks still exist. Money is everywhere. What a cool setting: the recent past is rarely written about. The novel’s time period spans some of my lifetime and yet it is as alien to me as corsets and telegrams.

This is a classic Penny Vincenzi beach read- lots of escapism through (someone else’s) family drama, extra-marital affairs and entangled acquaintances. What elevates it a little is this instalment puts finance front and centre, whilst still being a page turner. Not especially sexy, you think? Hear me out.

Lloyds of London is one of the biggest insurance marketplaces globally. Investors or ‘names’ have unlimited liability, and therefore are personally responsible for underwriting losses. One by one, families crumble and fold as they face destitution.

There is old-school gentlemen Nigel, pretty young widowed Catherine, Flora the feisty grandmother, and charming banker Simon- all of them on the precipice of bankruptcy. Inevitable this takes its toll on those around them. Apparently money is the leading cause of stress in relationships, something Vincenzi shows to great effect.

I would say that ending is a too abrupt- I’d have enjoyed a courtroom finale. More conclusiveness would have made it a more satisfying chick-lit standalone. Still, there’s a bit more substance here than behind the shoulder-pads and blow-dry.

Read: For a glimpse into a more hedonistic time.