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Read any good books lately?

All writers are readers, and I am no exception. I read fairly widely, but the nineteenth century classics are my favourites and I often settle down with an Anthony Trollope, a Dickens or an Austen, and it’s like being with an old friend.

There are some twentieth century writers who I also enjoy, although sadly these days I have to scour second hand bookshops to find their books. AJ Cronin is one of these, RF Delderfield is another. I do recommend them for thoroughly good story-telling and memorable characters. Another favourite of this era is Anya Seton. I think ‘Katherine’ is her best-known book but I found ‘Devil Water’ in a second hand bookshop and bought it last year. It turned out to be a first edition! But what a story! Based on her own ancestors, it tells of Lord James Derwentwater and also of his wider family. The Derwentwaters were Catholics and Jacobites at a time when being either was dangerous. The book covers the uprisings of 1715 and 1745, travels from Northumberland to London and from there to Virginia. The fact that it is based on truth made the story very poignant. Do look out for it.

Our recent holiday in Scotland gave me lots of opportunity to read an I polished off quite a few books. This one promised much but, in the end, didn’t deliver quite as much as I’d hoped. I'm a big fan of Cloud Atlas and I hoped this book would be just as good. As with Cloud Atlas, this book has a huge canvas of time, metaphysics, the environment and the consequences of human actions.

This really is a book of our time and a book for our time. Beginning in the 1980s and proceeding though to the 2050s, the story of the main character is told initially through her own words and then, in subsequent chapters, through the eyes and words of those with whom she comes into contact. Sometimes the contact is quite brief, tangential, the wash of ships in the night. Sometimes the relationships are more enduring. Each character has their own compelling episode and Mitchell conjures the world of the successful writer - readings, book signings, international travel - and of Cambridge - privilege, earnest academic debate, booze and drugs - with great skill. But they all add to build a picture of her life through its successive decades. The later ones are especially frightening, as the impact of global warming, the ever increasing power of China and fuel shortages culminate in a world that has returned to the middle ages.

For me, this would have been enough. But, for reasons best known to himself, Mitchell introduces a layer of fantasy into his narrative, a select group of men and women who have discovered the secret of eternal life, albeit 'with terms and conditions'. The two factions vye with each other in a Miltonic battle of supernatural powers, telepathy, mind-control and time travel and these too, impact the life of our heroine. I couldn't see what it added to the narrative, other than to broaden the appeal of the book to those who like fantasy. I felt it weakened the essential message of the book.

There are some books that hit the market just as their subject hits the news. They sing the song the nations are humming, they are aligned with the trending social narrative. I don’t for a moment accuse this book of capitalising on the #metoo movement. I know that the book took several years to write, and that the author struggled her way through the psychology and human politics of abuse years before these things were spoken of. My own book, Game Show, was the same. Ten years in the writing, my attempts to understand mob mentality were finally endorsed when Dr Zimbardo’s book on situational psychology was published.

The story of this book is a sad one. A young girl with low self esteem is identified by a teacher, groomed and finally abused. The interesting part of it is her own feelings about it. She thinks she loves the teacher but at the same time she is often revolted by him. But the crux of the complex web of emotions is not really what she feels for him throughout the many years of their on-going relationship, nor what he feels for her; it is how he makes her feel about herself. Although he goes on to abuse other girls, she believes that those girls are not the same as her. She is special, she is different, and, because of that, she does not see herself as abused.

Of course it is sickening that any women are taken advantage of by men. But what sickens me most is the way the media, modern society, sexual politics has created women who have such low self confidence that we are the bait of such predators. Why do women feel that we need to be attractive, to be desirable to others, in order to be worthy?

This is a beautifully written book, wonderfully literary, with literary allusions galore, and yet Vanessa’s voice is human, believable, real.

Not an easy read, but one I recommend.

I really like Helen Ryan’s writing and recommend you go and buy one her books. Like me, she writes without the support of an agent or a publishing house, plugging away at her books just because she is a born writer who can’t do anything else. Like me, she writes in a number of different genres, so there is sure to be something that appeals.

I’ve had this one on my TBR pile for a while, and came to it just after My Dark Vanessa. Some of Helen’s books are dark and gritty - she tells the truth about things even when those things are ugly. But this book isn’t like that. It’s a familiar story of a woman who rents a country cottage in order to come to terms with a family bereavement. The countryside and one local man in particular helps her to come to terms with what has happened to her. It was just what I needed and I lapped it up.

My last recommendation for today is Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville. Grenville has written a number of books and I have liked some of them better than others. Her first, and Ornage Prize-winning book, ‘An Idea of Perfection’ was, for me, her best.

I read this book in one day but that doesn’t mean it was an easy or a lightweight read. As with many of this author’s books, the lyrical prose was breath-taking. She paints an extraordinarily vivid canvas of the Australian landscape. The narrative voice, too, was authentic and compelling. What I find myself struggling with now that I have read and thought about this book, is the disconnect between the author’s underlying (and, in many places, not so underlying) message and the story she uses to explore it. Her main theme is the need for stories, history and traditions to be told, re-told, kept alive. She believes that it is wrong to sweep history under the carpet or to let the narratives of peoples or of individuals to die out. Even - especially - if they are raw, uncomfortable or shameful. Of course she has the shocking treatment of indigenous peoples at the hands of white settlers in mind, as well as the rich culture of those indigenous peoples unfortunately threatened with dying into obscurity. There has recently been a popular groundswell in favour of removing statues of people now known to have profited from the slave trade. The military leaders of the Confederate armies, once celebrated, are now vilified. But in my view - and I think Kate Grenville will agree with me here - we need reminding of the past, the awful mistakes, the appalling mishandlings, the corruption and blindness that allowed history’s most dreadful and lamentable episodes to take place, so that we don’t allow them to happen again. We must keep alive the diverse and age-old cultural traditions of all ethnicities so that we can all benefit by their wisdom. On the other hand, the story of this novel is that of a love affair between two people clearly destined to be together, soul mates from their earliest meeting, and how it is doomed by the dragging up of a past crime that had nothing to do with either of them, was not their fault, that they would never have endorsed and for which they were not to blame. The revealed secret that drives an irreparable wedge between the two lovers is indeed a dreadful and shameful one, and one which at least one of its perpetrators suffers daily remorse over. Was it appalling? Yes. Did he profit from it? Yes. But was he remorseful? Oh yes, clearly. Had he also suffered as a consequence? Yes. If he could turn back time and do things differently, would he? Emphatically, yes. But all that was HIS burden to bear, and the revelation of it broke the hearts of two innocent people. In this way, the idea of it being better to hide SOME history becomes quite persuasive, acting counter to the thrust of the rest of the book.


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