Book Group 4 – Books Read 2: H-L

About the book and a review

NonFiction  |  Fiction:  Authors A-G  |  Authors  H-L  |  Authors  M-S   |  Authors T-Z   

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris

In the 1970s, Jay Mackintosh spends his summers with his grandparents in a small northern town, where he strikes up a friendship with old Joe Cox, who grows all sorts of strange vegetables and makes his own wine.  In the 1990s, Jay is a writer with one hugely successful novel – a fictional account of his summers with Joe – and many trashy but lucrative sci-fi novels behind him.  Unhappy in his life and his relationship with his girlfriend he impulsively buys, unseen, a derelict farmhouse in France near the village of Lansquenet (the setting for ‘Chocolat’ but some time after the departure of Vianne).   The story is partly about his life in France and the people he meets, but is also told in flashbacks to his time with Joe – whose spirit is a regular visitor at his new home. 

As with all of her books, there is a dark side, a hidden secret but this novel has a positive ending.  One of my favourites of her books.

Coastliners by Joanne Harris

Set on a small Breton Island –  Le Devin – where for some residents life has changed little over the centuries.  When local girl, Mado, returns to her father’s house after some years away she finds two of the island communities in conflict – one side (where her family are from) wanting to preserve old traditions and the other where local businessman Brismand wants change and is unscrupulous as to how he achieves it.  Mado finds a friend in Irishman, Flynn, who helps her try to gently improve the lives of her community.  At first things go well – but trouble is not far away.

Something of standard Joanne Harris – a small, insular community hiding dark secrets – but an enjoyable read.  What I find interesting is that I can’t help but think that Brismand was right in what he was trying to do – if not in how he was doing it!

The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard

First published in 1970, but set not long after World War 2 in a Naples still scarred by the War, it is the story of Jenny, herself suffering the scars of her experiences as an evacuee to South Africa and separation from her family.  She takes up a job in Naples, where she forms a friendship with Giaconda, a writer, who is in a one-sided relationship with Gianni, a film producer and womaniser.  Jenny herself enters in what is almost a non-relationship with a colleague, Justin.   A meeting between Giaconda and Justin changes everything.

I have mixed feelings about this book.  Nothing much happens – it’s all very low key, and the characters are never really clearly defined.   You do get a feeling, however, that the writer has a genuine knowledge and love of Naples from her description of the city.  

One thing that did make it worth reading, for me, was the quality of the prose – Hazzard knows how to construct complex sentences using words of more than two syllables.  (One of my grouches about 21st century novels is the ‘dumbing down’ – for want of a better phrase – of the language and too much use of conversation.)   Hazzard only wrote about six books, but I will certainly read two others – ‘The Great Fire’ and ‘The Transit of Venus’ are on my ‘to-read’ list.

Diamonds and dust by Carol Hedges

This is the story of a schoolgirl liberated from her starvation boarding school to live in comfort with her wealthy uncle.  When he is murdered on London Bridge, she has to try and preserve her new life in the face of her housemaid, who disapproves of her every action to the length of destroying the visiting card of an intimate friend of his.   A superior sex worker determined to leave the life and open a cake shop and teashop in Hampstead.  There are police, crossing sweepers and crime lords.

Realistic social picture. “Does Dickens better than Dickens”

Slow Horses      )
Dead Lions       )
Real Tigers       )  by Mike Herron
Spook Street     )
London Rules   )

Slough House Thriller series

We are in John le Carré territory, but with slightly comic characters, and less moral outrage (although deserved).

Slough house is an old building where members of the security services who have messed up – left confidential disks on a train, developed gambling habits, become alcoholics, etc. – are sent and given menial tasks in the hope that they resign and save on the redundancy payments and employment tribunals.  The head of this division is Jackson Lamb, an ex-spook who worked behind “The Wall” before it came down.  He drinks too much, smokes, farts, looks like he sleeps in his clothes and is constantly verbally abusing his staff.  But he is also brilliantly perceptive and the man you would most like to have at your back in a dangerous situation.

Several of the plots of the books involve infighting inside MI5 and quite a lot of the characters die in each book.

It took me a while to start to enjoy the first book, clearly the writer has read all of John le Carré’s books (I even spotted a character who is based, perhaps unconsciously, on one of  le Carré’s) but the books have a style of their own, and once I had stopped thinking of George Smiley, I started to enjoy them more.  Highly recommended.

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

When Adam Deverill, 6th Viscount Lynton, returns from the Peninsular War unfit for further military duty and with his inheritance in debt and disrepair, he talks to his exquisite fiancée’s parents who not only advise him not to marry her, but suggest that he consider marrying for money.  This is an obvious solution for the time, but he is in love, and she loves him.  He tells her that he must not marry her, and goes to meet Jonathan Chawleigh, a man from the City, with a young, but plain and shy, daughter, who he wants to launch into Society regardless of expense.  Chawleigh is well aware of his financial situation, but will help him if he marries Jenny, his only daughter, and treat her right.  No infidelity, no ignoring of her.  Adam’s efforts to make a real marriage with Jenny are filled with difficulties, but both determine to make each other happy.  Jonathan’s enthusiastic determination to shower his daughter with nothing but the best results in Adam having to put his foot down on occasion, but as he tamps down his passion for his ex, Julia Oversley, who does not go quietly, and encounters her in Society, he gradually finds love and happiness in his marriage.  He even learns how to make money for himself, and joins his sister in a fondness for his father in law.  I love this book as it is not a Regency Romance but a mature love story, with all the wit and style of an excellent writer. 

Georgette Heyer used to be a guilty pleasure but on rebuilding my collection, I find a lot to appreciate in her books.  I think Jane Austen would have enjoyed them.

A Song For Arbonne  by  Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay is a Canadian writer of a type of fantasy unlike any other writer’s fantasy.  A family friend of the Tolkiens, he collaborated with Christopher Tolkien on the compiling and publishing of ‘The Silmarillion’.   He saw that much of the fantasy being published was little better than a reworking of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and determined to find his own style. 

His novels are based on real places, real people and real events in history but are entirely fictional.  As he said in an interview with The Guardian:

I’m happier not pretending I know anything about El Cid in Spain.  He’s a Spanish national hero.  I’d rather invent a character inspired by him but clearly not identical to him.  And then I feel liberated creatively.  I steep myself in a period and then I twist it just that little bit to give myself the ethical and creative space that seems to work for me.

(One reason I don’t much like novels about real historical people or events is that too much is made up so I whole-heartedly agree with Kay on this!)

Arbonne is based on Provence and the setting of the novel is in the Middle Ages.  Arbonne is cultured, ruled by women, worships a goddess, Rian, and values troubadours above soldiers.  It isn’t entirely without problems, as two of its most powerful nobles – Talair and Miraval – hate each other with a vengeance.  Its biggest threat comes from Galbert de Garsenc, high priest of the god Corannos of the neighbouring country, Gorhaut, who is determined to rid the world of the heretical abomination he considers Arbonne to be.   Arbonne will have to fight a war to survive and it needs Talair and Miraval to set aside their long-held feud.  An additional complication is the presence in Arbonne of a mercenary, Blaise, who turns out to be the son of Garsenc – whose side will he take?  There is also much political conspiring and counter-conspiring over whom other neighbouring countries will support. 

The story is based on the Albigensian Crusade when Pope Innocent III conducted a merciless war against the Cathars of Languedoc. 

Kay’s prose is always beautiful and his books are well researched and very carefully crafted.  They read more like historical novels than fantasy – there are rarely any monsters or magicians but there is usually an element of mysticism in them.  His characters are not one-dimensional – they are flawed and rarely either entirely ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’.

Some of his novels are, for me, too much about battles (I hate battle scenes and always skim them) but A Song for Arbonne is more about the personalities of the main characters and the relationships between them.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

This is a little book of stores, ostensibly for ‘little children’, but I think has a lot to offer adults.  It is a series of stories, primarily about animals, which give amusing theories about things like how animals became what they are today.  For example, How the Camel got his Hump, and How the Leopard got his Spots.  My favourite is The Cat That Walked by Himself.

I see this as a rather cautionary tale about cats.  In this story many of the animals we think of as domesticated are gradually conscripted into the service of the humans, in return for food and shelter.  The cat refuses to provide a service but still wants the food and shelter.  Lots of people think this is a story about independence, but I read it again recently and feel it is more a story about cunning and selfishness.  The people think they domesticated him – but they really haven’t.

I have a paperback copy of this book and it is beautifully illustrated by the author.

The Savage Altar   (Rebecka Martinsson 1) by Asa Larsson
The Blood Spilt     
(Rebecka Martinsson 2) by Asa Larsson
The Black Path     
(Rebecka Martinsson 3) by Asa Larsson
Until Thy Wrath Be Past 
(Rebecka Martinsson 4) by Asa Larsson
The Second Deadly Sin   
(Rebecka Martinsson 5) by Asa Larsson

The stories are set in and around Kiruna in the far north of Sweden, and concern grisly murders.  They are not in the Christie style.  The two principal characters are Rebecka Martinsson, a lawyer, and Anna-Maria Mella, a police inspector.

The events behind the murders are gradually revealed.  Rebecka Martinsson does some investigation, but otherwise just seems to get caught up in the plot.  They all end (thriller style) in violent deaths, and Rebecka is caught up in these at the end of all but one of the books.  (Larsson gave her time off at the end of that one to go to a party, meanwhile Anna-Maria Mella is involved in a situation where at least 17 people are shot dead!)

Larrson writes really well and the descriptions are a pleasure to read.  But unlike J K Rowling she gets inside peoples’ heads.  She tells her stories from multiple points of view.  She often has characters who have no real connection to the plot, but are only there because she wants to tell you their history.  The style is slightly quirky; in one we follow in the mind of a she-wolf; in another the spirit of a murdered girl.

I recommend all the books above. 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson was a Swedish writer and journalist; he was a leading expert on anti-democratic, right-wing extremist, and Nazi organizations.  He produced these novels in 2004 and unfortunately died soon afterwards, before he could see how successful his books would become.  He had intended to produce more novels about the characters and other authors have written further books in the series, which I don’t recommend.

Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist, who at the beginning of the first book has just lost a libel case against a powerful businessman.  He resigns from his job as editor of a financial magazine in order to protect it from any fallout from the case.

He is offered a job to try and solve an old mystery of a missing girl; Lisbeth Salander, a strange girl (probably autistic), is also hired to assist him.

The story is part mystery, part thriller and despite its length is completely gripping.  In the middle of the book there is a violent and graphic rape scene, but this is central to the story as it plays out over the three books.

The final ending of the trilogy is very satisfying.  As one of the reviewers on Amazon says – Nordic Noir at its best.

Independent People by Halldor Laxness

An Icelandic novel set in the earliest part of the 20th century, through WW1 and into at least the 1920s.  It is the story of Bjartur, who spent 18 years working for others and who was finally able to buy his own sheep farm.  He is determined to be independent, owing nothing to anyone and this makes him narrow, obstinate and uncaring to others.  

When he first moves to his farm he has just married, but is aware that his wife is already pregnant by another man.  He treats her harshly and she dies in childbirth whilst he is away – her baby daughter only kept alive by his dog keeping her warm.

He remarries and has three sons but his family are malnourished, overworked and depressed.   He is angry when they acquire a cow as it will take feed from his sheep. 

Bjartur does not seem to care about anyone except his step-daughter, whom he named Ásta Sóllilja (“beloved sun lily”) but even to her he rarely shows affection.  Desperate for love, she is seduced by a teacher and is thrown out of the home by Bjartur when he discovers she is pregnant.   His oldest son disappears (the reader can see what happened, even if Bjartur doesn’t), his youngest son gets the chance to go to America and only his middle son is left, but Bjartur eventually rejects even him.  It does have something of a positive ending though, with a reconciliation and the possibility of a new beginning.

The story is, frankly, depressing and the main character annoying.  It seems odd that for all his determination to be independent he later allows himself to get into debt. 

It was a slog to read but what kept me going were the descriptions of Iceland, snippets of folklore and the socio-economic changes happening there at the time.