Still Life by Sarah Winman

I picked up Sarah Winman’s new novel, Still Life, with vague memories of enjoying one of her earlier books, When God Was a Rabbit. That was ten years ago and although she has had two other books published since then, I never got round to reading either of them. The pretty cover of Still Life caught my eye and the Italian setting sounded appealing, so I thought I would give this one a try.

The novel opens in wartime Tuscany in 1944 with a chance meeting between two very different people: Evelyn Skinner, almost sixty-four years old, is an art historian who has come to Italy to try to salvage important works of art; Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, formerly a globe-maker from London. As the Allies advance across Italy, a brief friendship forms between Evelyn and Ulysses before they are parted and return to their separate lives.

For most of the novel, we follow Ulysses and his friends, first back at home in London and later in Florence, where some of them decide to relocate after the war. There’s Ulysses’ ex-wife, the talented but troubled Peg and her young daughter, Alys; Col who runs the Stoat and Parrot pub and Pete the pianist; Old Cress, who talks to trees and has visions which have a habit of coming true; and a Shakespeare-quoting blue parrot called Claude. It took me a while to warm to these characters, but eventually I became quite fond of some of them, particularly Cress and Alys. None of them are perfect – they all have their flaws and all make mistakes – but they feel like real and believable human beings.

Evelyn, though, appears only occasionally after that opening scene and we have to wait almost until the end of the novel to hear her story – by which time I found I’d lost interest in her and would have preferred to continue reading about Ulysses and the others. Evelyn’s story, which should have been fascinating as it involved a meeting with EM Forster and a pre-war romance with an Italian maid, felt as if it had been squeezed into the end of the book as an afterthought and in my opinion would have worked better if it had unfolded gradually alongside the other storylines.

The novel is beautifully written, there are some lovely descriptions of Florence and the influence of Forster’s A Room With a View can be seen in several different ways throughout the story. With a timespan of several decades, Winman also writes about various historical events that take place during that period; for example, there’s a memorable section set during the devastating flood of the Arno river in 1966. Unfortunately, there was one thing I really disliked about Winman’s writing in this book – and that was the lack of speech marks. I’m never sure what authors are trying to achieve in leaving out basic punctuation. A more ‘literary’ style? A stream of consciousness feel? Whatever it is, it never works for me and I end up just finding it distracting and annoying.

Still Life wasn’t completely successful with me, then, but I did enjoy getting to know the characters and spending some time in Italy in virtual form, which is the closest I will get to a holiday abroad this year!

Thanks to 4th Estate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 28/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 1/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

China by Edward Rutherfurd

I loved this! It’s been a long time since Edward Rutherfurd’s last novel was published (Paris in 2013), but China is so good I think it’s definitely been worth the wait. It’s slightly different from his earlier novels – all of which I have read and enjoyed – because whereas those previous books follow the history of a country, city or region over a period of many centuries, this one covers a much shorter period, telling the story of China in the 19th century. At nearly 800 pages, that decision to concentrate only on one century allows for more character development and more time spent exploring each historical event or incident in detail.

Beginning in 1839, the first few sections of the novel deal with the First Opium War, taking us through the complicated background to this conflict from the perspectives of several different characters: Shi-Rong, secretary to Commissioner Lin, the man responsible for trying to end the illegal import of opium into China; John Trader, a British merchant who has become involved in the opium trade to improve his financial situation so that he can marry the woman he loves; Nio, a Chinese pirate and opium smuggler; and John’s cousin Cecil Whiteparish, who is a missionary. This range of viewpoints helps to build a full picture of the events leading to the Opium Wars and what happens in the aftermath. These characters and their families appear again and again throughout the novel as the years go by and they are drawn into other key events such as the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Uprising.

In a novel of this length, it was inevitable that I would find some parts much more interesting than others – for example, the chapters involving Nio’s adopted sister Mei-Ling who makes the decision to have her little girl’s feet bound while her husband is in America working on the railroads were particularly compelling. However, my favourite sections of the book were those narrated by ‘Lacquer Nail’, a eunuch in the service of the Empress Dowager Cixi. I’m not sure whether it’s because Lacquer Nail is the only character whose story is told in the first person instead of third, but he really comes to life in a way that some of the others don’t. I could have read a whole book about his adventures alone.

Like all of Rutherfurd’s novels, this one is clearly the result of a huge amount of research; as well as the coverage of major political and military events, we are given lots of fascinating little snippets of information on Chinese folklore, crafts such as calligraphy and pottery, and the details of the tea ritual and other traditions. There are also some beautiful descriptions of the various locations in which the action takes place, including Guangzhou (Canton), Hong Kong, Macao and, in Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. I think anyone with even the slightest curiosity about China, its history, geography and people, will find a lot to interest them in this book – just be aware that it’s quite a commitment and will take a while to get through, even for the fastest of readers!

If China doesn’t appeal, I can highly recommend almost any of Edward Rutherfurd’s other books, particularly Sarum, Russka and his two novels about Ireland.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 27/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Missing Sister is the seventh book in the Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology surrounding the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Looking at other reviews of this book, it seems that a lot of people were expecting this to be the final book in the series and were disappointed to find that it’s not; it didn’t bother me as I’d seen Lucinda Riley’s announcement on Twitter regarding an eighth book, but if you weren’t already aware, it’s probably best to know before you start that you will need to wait another year for all of the series’ mysteries to finally be resolved.

The first six Seven Sisters novels each tell the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving the sisters some clues to help them trace their biological parents. The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and come from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In this seventh volume, the D’Aplièse sisters have decided to find Merope and invite her to join them to mark the anniversary of Pa Salt’s death. However, the only clue they have to her identity is a picture of a star-shaped emerald ring. Their search will lead them first to a vineyard in New Zealand and then right across the world to a farmhouse in West Cork, Ireland, but I can’t really say too much about who and what they discover, as to do so would risk spoiling the story and I would prefer to allow other readers to enjoy the hunt for the missing sister without knowing too much in advance.

Although I think the previous six books could probably be read in any order, I would recommend saving this one until you’ve read the others and are already familiar with the D’Aplièse sisters and their stories. All six of them have important parts to play in this book and while some of the methods they use in trying to track down Merope are a bit far-fetched and not always very kind, it was nice to see all of the sisters getting involved (with some help from other characters from earlier in the series – I particularly enjoyed meeting Star’s eccentric friend Orlando again).

The search for Merope is set in the modern day, but as some possible clues to her identity and background emerge, we also spend some time in the past, particularly in Ireland in 1920 where we follow the story of Nuala Murphy, a young woman who has joined her country’s struggle for independence. I found the historical sections of the book fascinating and completely gripping, as well as educational. For example, I knew nothing about the work of Cumann na mBan, the Irish republican women’s association who played a part in the rebellion and the subsequent civil war of 1922. It isn’t clear at first how Nuala’s story will be connected to Merope’s, but things do start to come together later in the book.

As for the overall story arc of the seven sisters, this book has left me with more questions than I started with! I’ve been forming a few theories of my own, but will have to wait for the publication of Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt for everything to be revealed.

Thanks to Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review

Book 26/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Edited 11th June 2021: I was so sorry to hear the sad news today that Lucinda Riley has died after a four-year battle with cancer. Maybe we will never get to know Pa Salt’s secrets now, but Lucinda has left a wonderful legacy of work behind for her fans to treasure and new readers to discover.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Bass Rock to The Last Summer

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds like one I might enjoy:

Surging out of the sea, the Bass Rock has for centuries watched over the lives that pass under its shadow on the Scottish mainland. And across the centuries the fates of three women are linked: to this place, to each other.

In the early 1700s, Sarah, accused of being a witch, flees for her life.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Ruth navigates a new house, a new husband and the strange waters of the local community.

Six decades later, the house stands empty. Viv, mourning the death of her father, catalogues Ruth’s belongings and discovers her place in the past – and perhaps a way forward.

Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life. Intricately crafted and compulsively readable, The Bass Rock burns bright with anger and love.

I’m not feeling very creative this month, so I have chosen an obvious link to start with: witchcraft. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (1) is the story of Gilly Ramsey, who inherits a cottage in the countryside which belonged to her mother’s cousin. On arriving at the cottage, Thornyhold, Gilly discovers that Cousin Geillis had a reputation as a witch and has left behind her collection of magic spells and herbology books. Despite the witchcraft theme, though, this is a lovely, gentle read!

Lesley Frewen, the heroine of The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp (2) also relocates to the countryside. Lesley is a London socialite who finds herself volunteering to adopt Patrick, a four-year-old orphan, and decides to start a new life for them both in a cottage in Buckinghamshire. I had already linked to this book through the country cottage setting before I noticed that the title also contains the word ‘thorn’ – a double link!

The next book in my chain is by another author called Margery. The Oaken Heart (3) is crime writer Margery Allingham’s memoir in which she writes about life in her village (Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex, renamed ‘Auburn’ in the book) during World War II. I found it particularly interesting that the book was written in 1941, so Allingham would have had no idea while she was writing it how much longer the war would last and what else might happen to the people of Auburn before it was over.

I don’t read a lot of authors’ memoirs, but another that does come to mind is Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (4), the first in Lee’s autobiographical trilogy. I still haven’t read the other two books, but in this first volume he looks back on his childhood, his school, his friends and family and the village of Slad in which he grew up. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a world on the brink of change and a way of life about to disappear forever.

The cover of Cider with Rosie reminded me of the cover of The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (5) – similar colours, pictures of nature, figures in silhouette. The war referred to in the title is the First World War and the novel follows the story of Beatrice Nash, a young woman who starts a new job as a school Latin teacher in the summer of 1914.

The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn (6) is also set during that same idyllic summer with war just on the horizon. Through the story of seventeen-year-old Clarissa Granville, the novel shows us the effects the outbreak of war will have on society, class structure and the life Clarissa has always known. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, it has just occurred to me that all of the books in my chain this month are about people starting new lives or seeing the world around them beginning to change.

~

And that’s my chain for June! My links have included: witchcraft, moving to the countryside, the name Margery, memoirs, similar covers and the summer of 1914.

Next month we’ll be starting with Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.

My Commonplace Book: May 2021

A selection of words and pictures to represent May’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

~

In the corner sat the old fellow as he always sat, astride a childish stool, sharpening the horseshoe nails a Crocker son had cut from an iron rod; hunched over an ancient anvil this gatfer sat beneath a window festooned with cobwebs, and put a point on the nails with a small hammer. Did the old man ever move from that spot, night or day, or was he welded to it? Perhaps he had been there for ever, tapping at the nails since the first horses were shod a thousand years ago, crouching with his little hammer like a hobgoblin smith at the oldest forge in the known world.

The Horseman by Tim Pears (2017)

~

Illustration by Walter Crane: “Sing a song of sixpence”

“Is St. Mary Mead a very nice village?”

“Well, I don’t know what you would call a nice village, my dear. It’s quite a pretty village. There are some nice people living in it and some extremely unpleasant people as well. Very curious things go on there just as in any other village. Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?”

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie (1953)

~

The lane twisted, turned, then became narrower as we drove towards Clogagh.

At this moment, I felt it was a metaphor for my life:

What if I was to turn left instead of right in my own life at this moment? Is all life simply a series of twisting and turning paths, with a crossroads every so often when fate allows humanity to decide their own destiny…?

The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley (2021)

~

Daphne du Maurier

The child destined to be a writer is vulnerable to every wind that blows. Now warm, now chill, next joyous, then despairing, the essence of his nature is to escape the atmosphere about him, no matter how stable, even loving. No ties, no binding chains, save those he forges for himself. Or so he thinks. But escape can be delusion, and what he is running from is not the enclosing world and its inhabitants, but his own inadequate self that fears to meet the demands which life makes upon it.

Myself When Young by Daphne du Maurier (1977)

~

Favourite book read in May:

The Missing Sister

Authors read for the first time in May:

Tim Pears

Places visited in my May reading:

England, Ireland, New Zealand

~

This hasn’t been a great month of reading for me, due to a combination of health problems over the last week (nothing too serious, I hope) and being in the middle of several very long books at the same time. I’m sure I’ll be back to my normal reading and blogging routine soon.

Have you read any of these? What did you read in May and do you have any plans for June?

The Pact by Sharon Bolton

A new book from Sharon Bolton is always something to look forward to and she very rarely disappoints. Her latest one, The Pact, is a real pageturner; although I wouldn’t rank it amongst my favourite Bolton novels, it does have a typically gripping plot with lots of twists and turns and I read most of it in one day.

The novel begins with six teenagers – Felix, Daniel, Talitha, Amber, Xavier and Megan – awaiting their exam results. As six of the top students at the prestigious All Souls School, they are all expected to get the perfect As they need to go to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Despite having such bright futures ahead of them, the six of them have spent the summer drinking, taking drugs and playing a dangerous, reckless game of dares that, if it went wrong, could leave those bright futures in ruins. And that is exactly what happens the night before they are due to receive their results: there’s an accident and innocent people are killed. Eighteen-year-old Megan volunteers to take the blame, leaving her friends free to get on with their lives – but in return, each of them will owe her a favour when she gets out of prison.

Twenty years later, we catch up with Dan, Felix, Tal, Xav and Amber, now all adults with successful careers, some married and some with children. Although the events of that fateful night have left their scars, the five friends have moved on and Megan has been almost forgotten. Megan, however, has not forgotten about them – and now that she has been released, she is coming back to remind them of their pact…

As I’ve said, The Pact kept me gripped from beginning to end, which is an impressive feat as I didn’t like or care about a single character! Five of the group are spoiled and privileged and admit themselves that they are not nice people, and even the sixth, Megan, a scholarship student from a much poorer background, is not much easier to like than the others. I felt that I should at least feel some sympathy for Megan because of her twenty years in prison – and I usually did find myself siding with her against the other characters – but I struggled to believe that anyone would really have made such a sacrifice in the first place! In fact, the whole plot seemed unlikely and implausible, although that didn’t stop me from enjoying it and hoping each of the characters would get what they deserved in the end.

As the end approaches, there are some of those typical Sharon Bolton twists and turns I mentioned earlier, but I found them too easy to predict which was disappointing when I think of how genuinely shocked I was by the surprises and revelations in most of her earlier books. In this case, I think I would also have preferred fewer twists, as the original direction in which the story was heading was excellent and I felt that it fizzled out slightly towards the end. Despite these reservations, though, this was an exciting, fast-paced read and kept me entertained for a day or two. I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction so it’s always good to pick up one of Sharon Bolton’s books and immerse myself in something different for a while!

Thanks to Trapeze for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The May prompt for the Read Christie 2021 Challenge is ‘a story featuring tea’.  I would have had no idea which Christie novels fit that theme, but as ever the challenge hosts provided a list of suggestions and this one, A Pocket Full of Rye, turned out to be perfect.   

First published in 1953, the novel opens with London businessman Rex Fortescue being served his morning tea in his office by his secretary.  When Fortescue dies in hospital shortly afterwards and the cause of death is said to be taxine, a poison found in yew trees, the tea is naturally blamed.  However, the autopsy suggests that the poisoning must have actually taken place earlier that morning, while Fortescue was eating breakfast at his home, Yew Tree Lodge.  This widens the circle of potential suspects to include his wife, his three children and their spouses, and an assortment of servants.  Inspector Neele is brought in to lead the investigation, but his only real clue is a handful of rye found in Fortescue’s pocket.

Neele believes he is close to identifying the culprit, but a second murder forces him to think again.  It is only when Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge, having read about the murders in the newspaper, that a connection is spotted with the popular children’s rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye”.  Inspector Neele may be a clever man with a sharp mind, but it will take Miss Marple’s knowledge of Mother Goose, blackbirds and human nature to solve this particular mystery.

I usually seem to prefer Christie’s Poirot novels to her Miss Marple ones, but I really enjoyed this book; it’s one of my favourite Marples so far, along with A Murder is Announced. I loved the nursery rhyme element – although it’s maybe not all that relevant to the overall solving of the mystery, it does add some fun to the plot. I can’t say that I loved the characters, but as Neele himself describes them as “all very unpleasant people”, we’re obviously not supposed to – and the fact that they are so unpleasant means that there are plenty of suspects. For once, I did correctly identify who was behind the murders, but I think it was really just a lucky guess; I certainly didn’t work everything out and I needed Miss Marple to explain all the details for me. Sadly, though, we don’t spend a lot of time with her in this book. She doesn’t appear until almost halfway through and then we don’t see very much of her actually investigating the mystery…which makes it all the more impressive that she manages to solve it ahead of Inspector Neele!

I’m enjoying taking part in Read Christie this year. I’ve read five great books in the first five months and am looking forward to another one in June!