Don’t forget Phill’s blog, or to sign up to be notified of updates and offers.

All Phill’s book reviews can be read on his Goodreads page.


Review: Bewitcher by Hickory Crowl

Chilling and Intriguing

Bewitcher is set in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire in the mid 1660s. Eyam is famous as ‘the village of the damned’ because of the heroic action of the villagers in accepting voluntary quarantine in order to contain an outbreak of the plague, which had been brought from London by fleas in a bale of cloth. 260 people died in 14 months before the infection burnt itself out. Without this sacrifice the pestilence would probably have spread to Sheffield, Derby, Bakewell and beyond, and many more people would have perished.
However, although the plague is a powerful and horrific backdrop, the book is really a whodunnit. Not only is the plague killing people, but a deranged and bloodthirsty murderer is also at large. Or is it a murderer? It might be a demon sent by Satan to punish the villagers. The eventual answer to this questions comes after an exciting journey, with a couple of false trails, and reaches a pacy climax.
A further theme is the tension between the central character, the new Rector, and his predecessor, a Puritan who had been removed from his position because of his refusal to support the Act of Uniformity and accept the Book of Common Prayer. It is because the two men eventually reach a cautious reconciliation that the quarantine is observed by the villagers and the explanation for the murders found.
The book is rooted in history and actual events. William Mompesson, the Rector and hero, existed; so did Thomas Stanley, his rival. Even the unfortunate individual who brought the infected bale of cloth into the village and became the plague’s first victim there was a real character. Because most of the background is so well researched and refers to specific places, people and events, where there are anachronisms they jar. For example, Thomas Stanley uses bifocals, although these would not be invented for more than a hundred years, and some of the language and constructions used in the generally well-written dialogue are not appropriate for the 17th century.
Don’t let these minor quibbles put you off. This is a really good read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The context of disease, death, superstition and squalor is excellently drawn, and the depiction of a village which became a virtual prison is claustrophobic and compelling. William Mompesson is a complex character, well drawn and sympathetic. I’m looking forward to meeting him again in his next challenging adventure.

The Other by Marilyn Peake

‘The Other’ is an easy book. I don’t mean that rudely – it’s well written, goes at a good pace and is very readable. What I mean is that it’s short, the plot is simple and the characterisation straightforward. That makes it a good read for when you want to be entertained and don’t want to have to think too hard.

The premise is intriguing, although not really new. The story features aliens, little green people in an image established in comics and sci-fi folklore, who are not from another solar system or galaxy but are actually Earthlings from the future who have come back in time. There is even an explanation of their bug eyes (convincing) and their greenness (not so convincing).

The setting is very contemporary: trouble with North Korea, Russian computer hackers, terrorist attacks, US cults. In the midst of this are alien sightings which are… well, what? Genuine observations? Or mass hysteria brought on as a result of the highly charged environment? The opposing views are well put. The structure is neat: three discrete sections about different women, with a final section which shows how everyone is connected.

More could have been made of some of the elements of the story. For example, the stand-off between the armed authorities and the cult could have been more exciting and dramatic. Also there were a few things I didn’t get. I couldn’t see the significance of the hoarders or why so much is made of them – but maybe that’s me reading carelessly and missing something. Having said that, there are also some satisfying features: the main characters learn about themselves and grow; the paradox of how visitors from the future might return without interfering with events and changing them is well put – although I think would have been even better if some reference had been made to modern theories of multi-verses.

I enjoyed this book. I came to it after re-reading Moby Dick, which is neither short nor an easy read, so this one was refreshing. To be honest, I could have done with a bit more reflection and discursiveness but I’m happy to recommend it and give it 4 stars as a good holiday read.

4 Stars

Review – Storm Clouds Gathering

by Pauline Barclay

I expected Storm Clouds Gathering to be about the build-up to the war, but it’s not. It’s set in the 1960s, and features three couples: Anne and Paul, teachers engaged to be married; Kathleen and Joe, a devoted couple with two children at Anne’s school; Shirley and Jimmy, a childless pair who have found that the spark has gone from their marriage. Around them are several lesser characters who add their own dimensions and tensions. Janet is an older colleague of Anne, a teacher of the old school whose traditional methods are at loggerheads with those of the younger (and more popular) woman. Billy is a local lothario who sets his sights on Shirley. Mary is the bitter mother who doesn’t think her son-in-law is good enough for her daughter. There are others.
The story is told mostly through the eyes of the
three main female characters, and clearly this means it appeals to women (in fact I think I’m the first man to post a review on Goodreads or Amazon). However, it would be a shame if male readers missed it. Just as the women are sensitively drawn and captivating, so the men are engrossing and convincing. Jimmy is finding it hard to come to terms with his infertility, Paul is driven by ambition and exercises over Anne acoercive control which he himself can’t see, and Joe – well, he has his problems too, but I won’t spoil it by revealing here the blow he suffers. Gradually the narrative builds to a climax, in which the characters show that they have learnt
 and have developed, but at a cost for each of them.

The plot evolves slowly, but that’s a good thing. It gives Pauline Barclay the space to do what she does so well, that is exploring motivation, action and emotion through the layering on of detail. It means that the reader’s knowledge and understanding of the characters builds, and one becomes involved in and with them. The detail contributes to the fascination of this book in other ways too. For example, there is the almost casual but very effective observation – Shirley’s cigarette sizzles as she drops it into the sink, her cardigan scrapes the edge of her plate as she leans forward over the table, fluff floats in the air in the spinning shed – all enhanced by the minutiae of the period setting – Formica, tea cosies, public phones with buttons A and B. It’s a bit like an artist constructing a complicated portrait, little by little, until the viewer can step back and see the whole picture. The effect is cinematic, and in fact Storm Clouds Gathering would lend itself beautifully to a film, or even better to a TV series. For anyone who can remember the 1960s it’s fascinating. And for anyone who can’t it will give a good idea of what they missed.
I found it hard to put this book down because I was captivated and needed to know how everything resolved. It’s the first of Pauline Barclay’s that I’ve read but it won’t be the last.

Rating: 5 stars

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