What I’ve Been Reading

Remember how I resolved to spend more time reading books and blogging about them in 2020? Hmm, that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? Other people may have spent lockdown reading War and Peace or the collected works of Anthony Powell or teaching themselves Italian so they could fully appreciate the original manuscript of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I’ve been getting up each morning to go to Day Job, then coming home and collapsing. I work as a hospital administrator in a large, busy public hospital — a job that is stressful and underappreciated at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I should note that I work with some lovely people dedicated to the well-being of their patients and colleagues, and that Australia has so far, through a combination of luck and good governance, avoided the terrible rates of infection, sickness and death that other countries have experienced during the pandemic. I also know how lucky I am to have a job, when so many others are now unemployed. But I’m still tired and stressed and I don’t feel much like reading long, complex books. Also, my library has closed down, so I’ve mostly been re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves. However, I have read a few new-to-me books that I liked.

'The Secret Place' by Tana FrenchI read The Secret Place by Tana French way back in February, in the Before Times, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a suspenseful murder mystery, cleverly plotted with some surprising twists, but along the way, it thoughtfully explores some interesting themes through vivid, authentic characters. The narration alternates between four Dublin schoolgirls and a young, ambitious detective who is investigating a murder in the grounds of their posh boarding school. The intense friendships between the girls felt true to me, although their fate is rather depressing. There is also a supernatural element that didn’t work so well for me. I don’t want to get into spoilery details, but the girls experience something occult and then there’s an outbreak of ghost-sightings in the wider school community. Mass hysteria in a school is believable, but what actually happens in the book isn’t. It’s possible that the author is critiquing Irish superstition and I’m missing some important context. Anyway, this was a riveting read and if my library ever re-opens, I’d like to borrow more of Tana French’s Murder Squad books.

'The Crown' by Robert LaceyI also liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle And The Years That Define Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, which provides a good summary of the actual historical events portrayed in the TV series, The Crown. The author of this book was the historical consultant for the series and he sets out which parts of the script actually happened (or occurred in a less dramatic manner than portrayed on screen). I gave up on the TV series at the end of the first season because the historical inaccuracies were driving me up the wall and I found Prince Philip and Matt Smith deeply irritating, but as Robert Lacey points out, “drama is not the same as documentary”. I would have liked more photos of real events, but there’s a good index and bibliography and I learned some interesting things. For example, did you know that Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and replace him with an unelected ‘Government of National Unity’, headed by Mountbatten himself?

'The Queen' by A.N. WilsonAs a companion read, I picked up The Queen, an eccentric extended essay by A. N. Wilson, a novelist and popular historian who doesn’t let facts get in the way of his opinions (apparently he wrote a scientifically-illiterate biography of Charles Darwin that argued against the theory of evolution). In this book, Wilson asserts that although Queen Elizabeth II is badly educated and dull, her steadiness and respect for tradition have been good for Britain, so hereditary monarchy is a logical and beneficial system of government. He thinks Prince Philip is basically a good egg and that his notorious gaffes are simply due to his tragic childhood; that Princess Anne would make a much better regent than Prince Charles, but at least poor Charles is earnest and well-meaning; and that Prince Andrew and the other young royals are beneath contempt (and this was published in 2016, before the depths of Andrew’s depravity were public knowledge). I can’t say I learned a lot about the British royals, but this was a quick, entertaining read.

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossHowever, the best book I’ve read recently was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. This is an intense, deeply affecting novella in which a history professor, his three students and Bill, a local expert in living off the land, spend a week emulating the lives of Iron Age hunter-gatherers in the north of England. Seventeen-year-old Silvie is dragged along on the field trip by her father Bill, along with Silvie’s long-suffering mother. Bill is a bigot and a bully, tyrannising his wife and daughter, controlling every aspect of their lives, keeping them in line with vicious verbal and physical abuse. He’s not a cartoon villain, though — we see glimpses of his pride in Silvie, it’s clear he’s hard-working and intelligent, and his frustration with his working-class life becomes more understandable when we see how patronising the professor and his students are. But there are no excuses for how Bill and the other men start to behave during the field trip and the tension ratchets up to nearly unbearable levels. I should warn you, this book is really grim in parts, but there’s a hopeful ending. I saw this as a powerful book about domestic violence, but I’ve since read reviews that discuss it in the context of Brexit and the rise of the far right in Britain, and that makes sense, too. It’s about how men use their own versions of British history, which may or may not be based on fact, to justify their oppression of less powerful people. It’s also really beautifully written, despite the dark, confronting themes.

I also read False Value, the latest Rivers of London novel by Ben Aaronovitch, and I’m sorry to say that I found it disappointing and I won’t be continuing to read that series. I’ll do a separate blog post about that if anyone’s interested.

What I Read During My Holidays

Yes, my holidays ended a fortnight ago and I’m only now getting around to blogging about the books I read.

'Lady in Waiting' by Anne GlenconnerLady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown by Anne Glenconner was exactly what the title suggests — a memoir of Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting, who was married to Colin Tennant, one of those badly-behaved rich aristocrats who enjoyed hanging out with celebrities. Tennant had numerous affairs, enjoyed bullying his family, delighted in eccentric behaviour such as pulling off his own underwear and eating it, and spent most of his time throwing enormous ‘uncontrollable’ tantrums in public (yet, oddly enough, he was able to restrain himself in the presence of people more powerful than he was, such as the Queen). Lady Anne coped with his abuse by travelling the world with Princess Margaret and finding a boyfriend of her own. Meanwhile their eldest children were left in the care of various sadistic and incompetent nannies, then sent off to boarding school. Unsurprisingly, their eldest son developed mental health problems. He was a heroin addict by the age of 16, was disinherited by his father, then died of hepatitis. Their second son, unexpectedly finding himself the heir to the family title, dutifully got married and produced a son, then came out as gay, left his wife and died of AIDS. Meanwhile, their third son had been nearly killed in an accident caused by his reckless behaviour and spent years in rehabilitation re-learning how to walk and talk. (There were also twin girls, who were ignored because they were female.) I spent the book alternately despising Anne for being a doormat and feeling desperately sorry for her. It’s a fascinating, appalling look at some very privileged, very repressed British people. Mitford fans will adore this.

'The Weekend' by Charlotte WoodI’d wanted to read The Weekend by Charlotte Wood ever since I heard her speak about the process of writing it a few years ago. This is an engrossing novel about three older women who gather to clear out their dead friend’s holiday house at Christmas. There are a lot of sharp, funny observations about friendship, men, families and ageing, although there’s not much compassion in the author’s gaze. I expected to find the characters unlikeable, which they were, but they were always interesting enough to keep my attention. I can’t say the women and their experiences are ‘typical’ — one is a celebrity chef, one a famous actress and the other a ‘public intellectual’ whose books are international bestsellers. The characters all live in modern-day Sydney and yet everyone in the novel is white and middle-class (with the exception of a young priest who briefly appears at the end and is “Filipino, Wendy thought”). I also never quite understood why the characters remained friends when they seemed to dislike each other so much. However, my main issue with this book was the final chapter, which veers so wildly into melodrama and cliché that it seemed to have been tacked on from an entirely different novel. Book clubs will love this, because there’s so much to discuss.

'The Wych Elm' by Tana FrenchMy favourite holiday read was definitely The Wych Elm by Tana French, a crime thriller with a literary bent that reminded me of the novels Ruth Rendell used to write under her ‘Barbara Vine’ pseudonym. The twists of the murder mystery plot kept me turning the pages eagerly, but this was also an intelligent exploration of privilege, identity and memory. Golden boy Toby is handsome, clever and rich, with a loving, stable family and a devoted, beautiful girlfriend. He begins by saying “I always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person”, but his life changes in an instant when he’s the victim of a violent home invasion. Physically and psychologically damaged, he goes to stay with his dying uncle in the family mansion. And then a body is discovered inside an elm tree in the garden and Toby gradually learns just how privileged his previous life had been… Some fans of this author have complained that this was too slow and a disappointment compared to her earlier crime series set in Dublin. I haven’t read her previous books, but I thought Toby’s rambling, repetitious narration was characteristic of someone recovering from a traumatic brain injury and I tore through the nearly 500 pages in two days. It was a grim read at times, but a satisfying one and I’m keen to read more of this author’s work now. (I was also filled with horrified admiration for someone who could dream up the notion of a dead body in a tree until I discovered that this actually happened and the real-life mystery of Bella in the Wych Elm remains unsolved.)

Finally, two books that ended up being not what I expected or what I really wanted to read, but that’s not the fault of these authors, who have both written thoughtful, well-researched historical novels.

'The Fountains of Silence' by Ruta SepetysThe Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys sounded as though it would be exactly my cup of tea — a novel set in Fascist Spain in the 1950s. The story involves the ‘stolen children’, the tens of thousands of babies stolen from Republican families and other ‘enemies of Spain’, who were sent to orphanages and then adopted by the Spanish political elite and rich foreigners. Ana, from a poor and traumatised Republican family, is working at a hotel in 1957 when she meets Daniel, aspiring photojournalist and son of a Texan oil tycoon. A forbidden romance blossoms, but Daniel doesn’t understand just how repressive, corrupt and dangerous Franco’s regime is. The author’s research is thorough and wide-ranging, the setting is fascinating and I learned a lot about post-war Spain. However, I found the story too soap-opera-ish for my tastes, involving a lot of amazing coincidences and clunky dialogue. I think I would have preferred to read non-fiction about this subject, but I’m sure a lot of readers will find this novel engrossing.

'Exposure' by Helen DunmoreExposure by Helen Dunmore was also very well-researched. Set in England in 1960, the book jacket suggests it’s a fast-paced thriller about Cold War spies. It’s actually an extremely slow-moving account of a British civil servant accused of espionage and the effect of this scandal on his German-born wife and their three young children. There is a lot of fascinating detail about the grimness of English life and while none of the characters are particularly warm or likeable, they are carefully portrayed. It was just a bit of a slog to get through, because nothing very exciting happened until the final chapter. In fact, it ends just where I thought it should have started. I would probably have enjoyed this more if I’d begun the book with more realistic expectations. Note to publishers: write accurate blurbs on your book jackets!