Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is an author I’ve been intending to try for a long time. His 1942 novel, Pied Piper, is on my Classics Club list and I decided to also put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to give me some extra motivation to pick it up and read it sooner rather than later! I have no idea whether this was the best Shute novel to begin with – A Town Like Alice and On the Beach are probably better known; however, it turned out to be a good choice for me.

The ‘pied piper’ of the title is John Sidney Howard, an elderly Englishman who goes to France in the spring of 1940 to spend some time fishing, relaxing and trying to come to terms with the death of his son whose plane came down in the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. It may seem a strange time to be taking a holiday in Europe, but Howard believes the situation in France is stable and that he won’t be in any danger. However, when the Nazis begin to advance much more quickly than he expected, Howard decides to return home immediately. His departure is delayed when an English couple staying in the same hotel ask him to take their two young children with him to the safety of England, but soon Howard, accompanied by little Sheila and Ronnie, is boarding the train to Paris for the first stage of his journey.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Howard and the children find themselves facing one obstacle after another, including sickness, cancelled trains and German bombing raids. Along the way, Howard collects more lost or orphaned children and together they try to avoid the rapidly advancing German army and make their way to safety.

I usually enjoy novels with World War II settings, but I find it particularly interesting when they were actually written during the war itself. It makes a book feel very different when you know that at the time of writing, the author had no idea what would happen next or how the war would eventually end. It’s intriguing to think of how a 1942 reader may have viewed a book like this compared to those of us who are reading it today with the benefit of hindsight and a knowledge of history.

Another thing which makes Pied Piper different from a lot of other wartime novels is that Shute’s protagonist is so ordinary – not a soldier or a spy or a romantic young lover, but a quiet, unassuming old man who becomes a hero unintentionally through a mixture of circumstance and his own basic decency and humanity. The only link between Howard and the sinister ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ (apart from the obvious connection with children) comes when we see Howard making whistles from hazel twigs for his young companions to play with.

Although Howard and the children witness and experience some terrible things during their journey, they also encounter several people who offer kindness and generosity, so the novel shows us both the best and the worst of human nature. The book is structured using a framing narrative where Howard is relating the story of his adventures in France to a friend in a London club during an air raid several weeks into the future. This means we know almost from the first page that Howard has survived to tell the tale, yet there’s still plenty of suspense and I was genuinely afraid for him and for the children at various points throughout the novel!

Which of Nevil Shute’s books should I read next?

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This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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This is also book 29/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

I enjoyed Gill Hornby’s previous novel, Miss Austen, about the life of Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra. Her new one, Godmersham Park, is also inspired by the Austens, telling the story of Anne Sharp, who became one of Jane’s closest friends after taking up the position of governess to her niece, Fanny.

We first meet Anne in 1804 on the day of her arrival at Godmersham Park, the estate in Kent that is home to Edward Austen Knight, his wife Elizabeth and their many children. (If you’re in the UK and have a current £10 note to hand, Godmersham Park is the house depicted on the back beside the portrait of Jane Austen). At thirty-one years old, Anne has no experience of teaching or caring for children, but following the death of her mother she has found herself in need of employment and somewhere to live. This change of circumstances comes as a shock to Anne and it takes her a while to settle into her new job and way of life.

When Anne’s eleven-year-old charge, Fanny, shows her the letters she has been receiving from her Aunt Jane (yes, that Jane), Anne finds them charming and immediately decides that Jane is her ‘favourite Austen’. Anne will have to wait a long time for her chance to meet this mysterious letter-writer, but first she makes the acquaintance of another Austen – Jane and Edward’s brother Henry, who comes to stay at Godmersham Park and quickly befriends the new governess.

This is a lovely novel and, like Miss Austen, although it doesn’t self-consciously try to recreate the style of Jane Austen’s work, the language still transports you back to the early years of the 19th century. There are no glaring anachronisms that I noticed and it even feels like the sort of story Austen herself could have written. The pace is slow and apart from a subplot involving a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Anne’s father, nothing very dramatic happens, yet I was drawn in by the characters and the setting and found it quite absorbing. It was particularly interesting to read about Anne’s experience of working as a governess and how she struggled to find her place within the household, not being fully accepted either as one of the family or one of the servants.

The novel is inspired by the diaries kept by Fanny Austen Knight, letters exchanged between Anne Sharp and Jane and Cassandra Austen, and a first edition of Emma that Jane signed for Anne. All of these things add to our knowledge of Anne’s life and personality and provide evidence of her close friendship with Jane Austen. However, almost nothing is known of Anne’s background before she arrived at Godmersham Park and Gill Hornby explains in her author’s note that she had to use her imagination to create a backstory for Anne. The overall result is a convincing blend of fact and fiction, which I really enjoyed.

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

This is book 6/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 31/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Summerhills by D.E. Stevenson

Summerhills, first published in 1956, is the second book in D.E. Stevenson’s Ayrton family trilogy which began with Amberwell. I knew it had been a few years since I read the first book but was shocked to find that it was actually more than six years! I was worried that I’d left it so long I would struggle to get back into the story, but that turned out to not be a problem; although I could barely remember what happened in Amberwell, Stevenson provides enough of a recap in the opening chapters that I could easily pick up all the threads again.

The book begins with Roger Ayrton, now an officer in the Army, returning to his family home in Scotland for a visit. The house, Amberwell, is where Roger and his brothers and sisters grew up before the outbreak of World War II and it still holds a special place in his heart. Some of the family have moved on, but Amberwell is still home to Roger’s stepmother and his younger sister Nell, who has been taking care of his son, Stephen, since his wife’s death. Stephen is now eight years old and Roger thinks it’s time he was sent away to school, but Nell objects, wanting him to stay close to home. As there are no suitable schools near Amberwell, Roger comes up with what he thinks is the perfect plan – he’ll open a school of his own!

At first it seems that the creation of the school – which becomes known as Summerhills – is going to be the main focus of the book, but the plot soon branches off into several different directions. Roger finds himself unexpectedly falling in love, as does Nell, while his youngest sister, Anne, whose first marriage ended unhappily is trying to move on from her traumatic past and has become housekeeper to an elderly neighbour. A new cook arrives at Amberwell, adding a touch of humour to the story, and there’s also a new governess, Georgina Glassford, who enjoys running and is always looking for someone to time her mile. Although most of the main characters in the book are very likeable, I did find their treatment of Georgina very unkind, particularly as their dislike of her seems to be based on the fact that she wears trousers and gets up early to exercise.

I enjoyed the glimpse of life in post-war Scotland – even though the lifestyles of the Ayrton family seem largely unchanged thanks to Roger receiving a large inheritance on his wife’s death, all around them other once-wealthy families are having to sell their country houses as they can no longer afford to maintain them or pay for servants. This is how Roger manages to acquire a large house to convert into a school (of course there’s no question of an Ayrton boy being sent to an ordinary day school – it must be a boarding school – and there’s no mention of the girls being allowed to go either). At least he does promise to charge reduced fees so that less fortunate boys can attend and gives the job of headmaster to his friend Arnold Maddon (one of my favourite characters), who has lost a foot during the war and has been struggling to find work.

I would have liked Anne’s storyline to have had a proper conclusion – it was left very open-ended – and I was sorry that we saw very little of the other Ayrton sister, Connie, and nothing at all of their brother Tom, who has become a doctor. There’s also a strange subplot in the middle of the book where Roger goes to Rome in search of Aunt Beatrice; I couldn’t really see the point of this as it didn’t have much relevance to the rest of the novel. Still, Stevenson’s writing style is so readable that even pointless episodes like this are quite enjoyable. There is a third novel, Still Glides the Stream, which is described as the final book in the Ayrton trilogy, but seems to be about a completely different family. Have any of you read that one?

This is book 5/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben

Damian Dibben’s previous novel, Tomorrow, was a fascinating and unusual story of an immortal dog searching for his master across two centuries (it was better than it sounds, honestly!). I was curious to see what his next book, The Colour Storm, would be like, but it turns out that it’s a much more conventional historical novel this time. It’s also a very good one; although the subject reminded me of another of my recent reads, The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau, the setting gives it a very different feel.

The Colour Storm is the story of the Italian painter Giorgio Barbarelli, who lived and worked in Venice during the Renaissance. He was a real person, as are many of the other characters in the novel, and you may already be familiar with his paintings – if not, you can easily find images online of some of the pieces attributed to him which will give you an idea of the quality of his work.

At the beginning of the novel, Barbarelli – or ‘Zorzo’ as he is called throughout the book – is finding life difficult. Work is becoming hard to find, the competition from other artists is fierce and Zorzo’s debts are increasing. He’s responsible not only for himself, but also for his team of young apprentices and assistants, so he urgently needs to find some way of gaining commissions from rich clients. An opportunity arises when a wealthy German merchant, Jakob Fugger, arrives in Venice and is said to be looking for an artist to paint an altarpiece for St Peter’s Basilica. When Zorzo hears that Fugger also possesses a new colour, a pigment known as ‘prince orient’, he becomes even more determined to bring himself to the merchant’s attention.

In an attempt to win Fugger’s favour, Zorzo agrees to paint a portrait of his wife, Sybille – but as he becomes closer to Sybille, he finds that he has become involved in a conspiracy which could have huge implications for the people of Europe. And then, while Zorzo is still considering his next move, a new threat arrives in Venice…the plague:

Only the poorest folk, who have no choice but to go to work, are continuing as normal, but they’re wary, treading more carefully than usual. Many cover their faces with their sleeves or improvised masks and everyone keeps their distance. From behind closed windows and shutters, Zorzo’s aware of families pressed together, restless shadows, watching and fretting as to whether this episode will pass – as most do – without significant horror, or if this one will be severe.

Still very relevant, isn’t it? The plague plays a part in the later stages of the novel, but before that we follow the story of Zorzo’s search for the prince orient and his entanglement with Jakob and Sybille (also real historical figures). We are given some insights into the workings of an artist’s studio in Renaissance Venice and there are appearances by other famous names from the art world, including Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. By focusing on the dark side of life in 16th century Venice, Dibben creates plenty of atmosphere, and although the parts of the book that concentrate on Zorzo’s relationships with Sybille and her husband interested me less, I found this an enjoyable read overall.

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

This is book 4/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 30/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Death in the Andamans by M. M. Kaye

This is the sixth and final book in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series. I’ve now read all of them and although this one, Death in the Andamans, is not my favourite it’s another that I’ve enjoyed. If you’re new to these books, don’t worry about reading them in order – they are all completely separate, standalone novels, the only connection between them being that they’re all murder mysteries featuring a young female protagonist and set in countries the author had personally visited.

Copper Randall is working as a typist in a London office when she receives an unexpected inheritance from an uncle and decides to spend some of the money on a visit to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Her friend, Valerie Masson, is the stepdaughter of the Chief Commissioner there and has invited Copper to stay with them at Government House on Ross Island, the administrative capital of the Andamans (at this time, the Andamans, like the rest of India, are still under British control). Copper arrives just in time for Christmas and, on Christmas Eve, attends a picnic with the other British people on the island – a community which includes Valerie’s fiancé Charles and his friend Nick, who has become Copper’s own love interest.

As the picnic breaks up and the group begin to return home, some by road and some by boat, they are caught in a sudden, violent storm. One of the party is swept overboard and presumed drowned, but as the others reach the safety of Government House and take shelter there, they start to wonder whether it really was an accidental death. Cut off from the rest of the islands by the weather, Copper and her friends must try to identify the murderer before they have a chance to kill again.

There are plenty of suspects, the most obvious being the dead man’s cousin, who stands to inherit his coconut plantation if no will is found. But of course, there are other people who also had the opportunity, although their motives are less clear. There are lots of clues, lots of red herrings and lots of creeping around in the middle of the night listening to footsteps and creaking floorboards (this sort of scene seems to be a speciality of Kaye’s, appearing several times in almost every book in the series!). I didn’t solve the mystery, although the culprit was one of several people I had suspected throughout the novel. Once the villain was revealed, though, I felt that the conclusion was too drawn-out with various characters taking turns to give explanations and tie up loose ends.

Like most of the other Death In… books, this one provides a snapshot of the British Empire in its final days, although she doesn’t really explore the local politics or the effects of colonialism here the way she does in Death in Kashmir or Death in Kenya. You do have to put up with some of the attitudes of the time – the sense of entitlement, the dismissal of the local people as superstitious and uneducated, as well as some sexism with Copper and Valerie’s two boyfriends, Nick and Charles, determined to keep the women out of danger. Charles also has an irritating habit of speaking like someone from a PG Wodehouse novel (deliberately – we are told that he’s been modelling his conversation on the books he’s found in the library, ‘an institution that would appear to have been last stocked during the frivolous twenties by a fervent admirer of such characters as Bertie Wooster’.).

However, the descriptions of the Andaman Islands are beautiful: the breeze ‘whispering through the mango trees’, the ‘tall, feathery clusters of bamboo’, the beach with its ‘clear, glassy water that shivered to a lace of foam about the dark shelves of rock’. Kaye really excels at creating a strong sense of place – I think only Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart are as good! The way she describes the approach of the storm, with its torrential rain and hurricane-force winds is particularly dramatic.

In her author’s note, Kaye describes how she came to write this novel; it was inspired by a visit to the Andamans in the 1930s, when her friend’s father was posted there as Chief Commissioner (the character of Valerie is clearly based on the friend). However, due to the outbreak of World War II, the book didn’t get published until 1960 – originally under the title of Night on the Island and then again in 1985 as Death in the Andamans. This explains why the novel feels much older than the publication date would suggest.

Not the best book in the series, then, but still an entertaining read.

This is book 3/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (Trans. Louise Heal Kawai)

The second book I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list is this 1971 Japanese mystery novel, now available in an English translation. This is the fourth book in Yokomizo’s Kosuke Kindaichi series to be published in English by Pushkin Press, but actually the second in original publication order. It works as a standalone, with a few references to Kindaichi’s first case, The Honjin Murders, so you could easily start with this one if you wanted to.

Death on Gokumon Island is set in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, and nearly ten years after the events of The Honjin Murders. Kosuke Kindaichi is on his way to the strangely named Gokumon – or ‘Hell’s Gate’ – Island to deliver the sad news of his army friend Chimata Kito’s death. Kindaichi knows this will be a difficult task, but what really worries him is a prediction made by the dying man that his three half-sisters, who all live on the island in the family home, are going to be murdered.

Arriving on Gokumon Island, Kindaichi gets to know the members of the Kito household, including Chimata’s father who is said to be mad and kept locked up behind bars, as well as another rival branch of the family who live nearby and would benefit from deaths in the main Kito family. The scene is set for a classic murder mystery – and it’s not long before the first murder does take place. Kindaichi begins to investigate, but the islanders are suspicious of newcomers and are reluctant to answer questions.

I struggled to get into this book at first; I felt that we were being introduced to a lot of characters all at once and it was difficult to distinguish between them. I’ve found that with all of the Japanese mysteries I’ve read the authors seem to be more concerned with puzzle-solving than with character development, although Yokomizo is better in that respect than some of the others. After a few chapters I had settled into the story and began to enjoy it. It was good to see more of Kosuke Kindaichi than we did in The Village of Eight Graves; he’s quite endearing with his nervous stammer and head-scratching and the way he makes mistakes and isn’t afraid to admit to them.

Louise Heal Kawai’s translation is clear and easy to read (she also did the translation for The Honjin Murders, although not Eight Graves, which was translated by Bryan Karetnyk). I’m sure Japanese must be a difficult language to translate into English and I do wonder if any nuance is lost along the way, but I was impressed by the way she managed to capture the meaning of the wordplay, poetry and haikus that form part of the plot. I felt I was learning quite a lot about Japanese culture, as well as post-war life in a country that had been on the losing side.

This book has been compared with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but I don’t think they have much in common other than that they are both mysteries set on islands. This is a very different sort of island, for a start – unlike Christie’s, it’s inhabited, with a fishing community, a mayor, doctors, priests and barbers (to name just some of the characters we meet) – and although there may be a few similarities in the way the murders are carried out, the solution is completely different. It’s a solution I didn’t manage to guess at all; I was convinced I had picked up on an important clue halfway through but it turned out to be a red herring!

Now I need to find time to read The Inugami Curse, the other Yokomizo book currently available in English.

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

This is book 2/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Fortune by Amanda Smyth

My first book for this year’s 20 Books of Summer is also one of the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The winner is going to be revealed at the Borders Book Festival on Friday 17th June, so I wanted to read this one before the announcement. It’s the second of the four titles on the shortlist that I’ve read – the other is the excellent Rose Nicolson; I am currently halfway through the third, The Magician, but am not sure if I’ll finish it in time, and I won’t get to the fourth one, News of the Dead, now either.

Anyway, Fortune is set in Trinidad in the 1920s and begins with a chance meeting between two men. One of them, Eddie Wade, has spent the last few years working in the US oilfields and has recently returned home, hoping to make his fortune on the island. He’s convinced that the land beneath Sonny Chatterjee’s cocoa plantation is rich in oil and is on the verge of persuading Sonny to let him start drilling when his truck breaks down on the road. Businessman Tito Fernandez stops to help and when he hears about Eddie’s project, he agrees to invest.

Soon Eddie and Tito are the best of friends and their trust in each other pays off when the oil begins to flow. However, as Eddie spends more and more time visiting the Fernandez family and becoming part of their social circle, he finds himself increasingly drawn to Tito’s beautiful wife, Ada – and the attraction is mutual.

The novel is inspired by a real event which took place in Trinidad in 1928, but I would recommend not looking it up before reading the book. Although I did eventually guess what was going to happen, I’m glad I didn’t know for certain as it would have taken away some of the impact of the story. The characters also seem to be loosely based on real people, but with different names and obviously with fictitious storylines created around the historical facts.

I can’t think of any other books I’ve read set in Trinidad and I’m ashamed to admit that it’s a place I know very little about, but Amanda Smyth, who is an Irish-Trinidadian author, brings it to life beautifully – the landscape, the plants and wildlife, the bustling streets of Port of Spain, and the cultures, beliefs and traditions of the Trinidadian people. At the time of our story, the island is going through a period of change; the cocoa trees that had formed such an important part of the economy are dying and new sources of income are needed. With the growing popularity of cars and planes, Trinidad’s oil boom comes at just the right time. Smyth does a wonderful job of portraying the ambition and greed of the various oil prospectors, the reluctance of Sonny Chatterjee to give up on his cocoa farming and allow drilling on his land, the fears of his wife Sita, who is mistrustful and suspicious of the whole business, and the excitement the characters feel when the first well is struck.

The tensions between the characters are also very well done; the relationship between Eddie and Ada develops slowly but once their affair begins they take so many risks it seems inevitable that Tito will find out and you wonder what will happen when he does. The personal stories of the characters play out against the backdrop of the oil rush, with all the different elements of the novel falling into place to build towards a dramatic conclusion. Although I still prefer Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, this is an impressive novel too and while it hadn’t sounded very appealing to me at first, I can see now why the Walter Scott Prize judges decided to shortlist it.

This is book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 26/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.