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Review – The Ruby in the Smoke
by Philip Pullman
In the year 1879, 16 year-old Sally Lockhart is ‘uncommonly pretty’, plucky and bright. She’s also an orphan. So far, then, a traditional heroine, but there it stops. She may be bright, but she knows nothing of the things a well-heeled young lady in Victorian England ought to know. She can’t play an instrument, embroider, sing, converse in French, or display any of the qualities required to succeed in polite society (success being defined as securing a husband). That doesn’t matter to Sally, because polite society is not what interests her.
What does interest her is what became of her father, how he died and why, and what has happened to the money that should have been in the business he founded. She does have some of the talents needed for this. For example, she knows how to handle a gun and is an excellent shot. She’s inquisitive. She’s determined. She’s very good at figures.
There are plenty of accounts of the story in other reviews, as a quick glance at Goodreads will show, and I don’t do spoilers. It’s enough here to say that Sally sets out on a journey of discovery which takes her to some very unsavoury places and brings her up against Mrs Holland, an extremely nasty (if at times a little predictable) villainess; sort of a Mrs Coulter but without the finesse. Between Sally and Mrs Holland are a collection of other characters, each telling in their own right.
One of the many things I liked about this book was its moral stance. I don’t mean simply making clear the differences between the baddies and the goodies and making sure the former get their come uppance. No, what I have in mind is the stance on the opium trade and the appalling episode in British history when we used that deadly drug to exploit the Chinese and hold them in check.On a more positive note, there’s the egalitarian group in which Sally finds her allies, where money and class and social norms don’t matter, and neither does gender. It’s a 1960s hippie commune but portrayed as it might have been in the 1880s, firmly in the footsteps of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood although with the new science of photography rather than painting at its core.
Lastly, I liked the narrative shape. The novel is beautifully constructed. It has a strong protagonist and antagonist. The story gets off to a cracking start with the required ‘inciting incident’ very early on, and the reader is not only hooked but reeled in. It then proceeds at a cracking pace, with plenty of climaxes on the way. Some reviewers have complained that the ending flags a bit. I can see what they mean, but I didn’t find it so. I think anyone who wants to write an exciting story can learn much from the structure of this one.
I must confess to being a Philip Pullman fan. One of the chief things I love about his work is the counterfactual worlds he creates. This is obvious in His Dark Materials (three books I truly wish I had written), in fact it’s their very foundation. It’s also there in this book, less obviously and more subtly. Sally inhabits the London of Dickens with all its violence, unpredictability, poverty, privilege and squalor; it’s the same as Dickens but in several ways it’s also different. The Ruby in the Smoke is billed as YA primarily because the heroine is 16, but it has adult appeal too. It gets an unhesitating 5 stars from me and I enthusiastically recommend it. I intend to start without delay on the next book in the Sally Lockhart quartet.
Rating: 5 stars
Review – A Season in the Sun
by Robert Rees
Even though most of A Season in the Sun is set in the Seychelles, it’s very English in tone. And it’s a rather particular sort of English at that: public schools, Oxbridge, London clubs and, of course, cricket. It’s the world of Bertie Wooster, and some of the writing wouldn’t disgrace Wodehouse at his best.
There’s a lot of cricket in it. Coming from the county where cricket was, OK, not invented but certainly perfected, I loved that. Robert Rees likes his cricket too, and he knows the game well. The descriptions of the matches are convincing and absorbing.
But it’s much more than a collection of sports reports. There are some amusing portraits of Seychellois, lovely descriptions of island scenery, and a tale of skullduggery attempting to corrupt the beautiful game and bringing a nasty stench of modernity into an island paradise. The central character who carries the story is Henry Fanshawe, a commodities trader, who comes across initially as a bumbling has-been, but who is gradually revealed as a man of spirit and backbone and considerable verve, a formidable tactician and tenor sax player. A Season in the Sun is well written, proceeds at a good pace and is an immersive read. I loved it and gave it 5 stars, but I concede it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Rating: 5 stars
An Interesting Idea That Doesn’t Quite Come Off
I enjoyed this novel which contains some good writing, but it has shortcomings.
It’s a scholarly work which displays the author’s fascination with and knowledge of antiquarian books. The bibliophile references are interesting and convincing. However, there are a few problems.
The developing relationship between Arthur and Bethany, and his growing awareness of his feelings for her is well done, but the relationship itself is barely credible. Here we have a beautiful (we are told many time she is), intelligent, sassy, tech-savvy, mid 20s, modern American girl who is supposed to fall for a man who is old beyond his 40+ years, a stick-in-the-mud and a fuddy-duddy. I was unable to swallow that, which of course undermines the basis of the whole thing.
I also found Arthur’s atheism hard to take. He loves Barchester Cathedral and attends several services a day there. He knows the liturgy by heart and he’s steeped in the history of the place and feels its numinosity (if there is such a word) to the depths of his being; but he is firm in his lack of belief. Really?
Overall the plot moves OK, but there are long periods when little happens. The flashes back in time help to convey the historical associations, but as none of the historical characters are at all developed they’re rather arid and I was tempted to skip over them.
Finally the ending. I won’t do a spoiler, but a great deal has been lost by going for the option the author took. It would have been more powerful had Arthur’s choice been different, which – given what we have learnt of him – it logically should have been. This seemed to me to be too easy an option.
Rating: 3 stars
Review – The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Cora Seaborne is newly widowed. Freed from what is hinted at as an abusive relationship with her dead husband, she leaves London for the wilds of Essex, accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis. There she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life and terrorising the Blackwater estuary. She meets the rector of Aldwinter, William Ransome, with whom she is soon entangled in a relationship which fizzes with repressed sexuality.
The people of Aldwinter are a gullible and superstitious lot, only too ready to believe scary tales of a sea monster and to attribute to this happenings which may have natural causes. Perry is very clever at always leaving a measure of doubt; was it the serpent, or was it something else? With Cora’s arrival, everything ramps up. Cora has become interested in Darwinism and starts collecting fossils. She wants to believe in the serpent and hopes it might be an ichthyosaur left over from prehistoric times. Meanwhile hysteria grips the village. There’s an outbreak of madness at the school and a disastrous attempt to hypnotise the rector’s daughter in an effort to discover what has possessed the children.
In a parallel story Martha works to alleviate the suffering of the poor in London’s east end, and to persuade Cora’s wealthy friends to donate to her worthy causes. At the same time there is the unrequited love Luke, the doctor who attended Cora’s husband, feels for her. These narrative threads build to an intriguing climax.
The book has the feel of a classic and the story unfolds well. The prose is lovely, with lilting cadences that in places reminded me of Under Milk Wood. There are some minor irritations. For example, it takes some time to work out the exact period. Victorian times, yes, but it’s only by piecing together hints that we can see just when. For example, the explosion of Krakatoa is referred to and that was 1883, so it must be after that; the first Housing of the Poor Act was in 1885, and as that too is mentioned the action must be later. Eventually it becomes settled that it’s taking place in the 1890s, but why could we not simply be told? A stylistic niggle is that the author is over enamoured of the colon and semicolon. These can be effective when used properly, but they occur every other sentence, often in places where a comma, full stop or conjunction would be better.
However, there are also great strengths. The contrasts – between wealth and poverty in London, between the bustling city and the pagan backwater of the Essex coast, between the socially conscious Martha and her well-meaning but blinkered backers, between the dedication and passion of the doctor and the blundering and careless Cora – are beautifully drawn. In the rector, Ransome, Perry has managed to portray convincingly a man genuinely in love with two woman at the same time, who takes a lenient view of his own adulterous advances because he dresses them in the formality of his cloth. Hints, shifts, elisions, red herrings, half truths abound, making for a fascinating read.
Sarah Perry has been criticised for not writing ‘proper’ historical fiction and making her characters and their speech too modern. I think this misses the point. In choosing to make her characters ‘modern’ in thought, act and expression Perry is conveying that the 1890s were a very odd period indeed: Britain at the height of its empire, huge social upheavals, an explosion of the arts and sciences and the challenging of orthodoxies that had stood for years are at the heart of the setting. The Essex Serpent is an absorbing read, and the acclaim it has received is well deserved. I strongly recommend it.
Rating: 4 stars