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books we read in March

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

This book is of a genre called ‘Narrative Non Fiction’ and is a page turner. It reads like a cross between the HBO TV series ‘Succession’ and a John Grisham novel. His previous book of murder and memory in 1970s Belfast was wonderful. This one is just as good. It recounts how the fortune of the secretive Sackler family was built by three brothers, sons of early 20th century US immigrants. Their link with the Opioid crisis is tracked from an over the counter drugs company to heroin, via Valium and OxyContin. Hiding behind their philanthropic giving to the arts and medicine they escape all accountability for their dodgy dealings by buying off the regulatory powers in the US who threaten their Empire. It seems unthinkable that this went on so long and the legal battle continues in 2022.

The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths

What can I say about this, the 14th novel in the Ruth Galloway series? I just can’t wait for the next one which is apparently finished and coming out next year. The title is the link to it being a novel set during the Covid epidemic. She really captures those early days of the first lockdown – was it just two years ago? Each character reacts to the situation in their own way; Ruth gives her lectures over Zoom and home schools Kate, D.I.Nelson is reduced to expletives of ‘Jesus Wept’ each time new Corona measures are introduced and the Druid, Cathbad, puts a protective circle round his house – of course he does!. The plot is, as ever, not especially important.

Free Love by Tessa Hadley

I almost abandoned this in the first chapter but stuck with it as I’ve loved Hadley’s previous work. It is set in 1960s. A woman is dissatisfied with her lot as the middle class suburban wife of a senior Whitehall civil servant. She yearns to escape into Swinging London and takes a lover who is not much older than her daughter. It picks up as the bohemian lifestyle she lives in a run down Ladbrooke Grove is described. There is also a mystery that develops which makes it an easy if uninspiring read.

Opal Country by Chris Hammer

In my view Chris Hammer is surpassing Jane Harper with his atmospheric Ozzie Noir books. As a journalist he knows how to reel you in. Previous novels were set in Sydney & Western Australia. This one is set on the New South Wales Queensland border. A relatively junior cop flies into a one shack airport while his boss, having ruffled powerful feathers, is subjected to an internal investigation back in Sydney. He teams up with a local cop from the nearest bigger town a couple of hours away. She in her turn has a history with this place…

 

The Cutting Place by Jane Casey

Being totally up to date with Helen Fields’ Luc/Ava and Elly Griffiths’ Nelson/ Ruth thrillers I was in urgent need of a new series. I think I’ve found it. Interestingly these are female authors. This takes place in London with two CID cops who have a complicated professional relationship. Meanwhile the bad guys are up to ever more complicated crimes with multiple twists that keep you guessing to the end. I think she also writes stand alone thrillers which I may try.

 

French Braid by Anne Tyler

This has the familiar Anne Tyler opening with one generation, steps back to the previous ones and then proceeds chronologically. It is a family saga set in Baltimore that fills me simultaneously with melancholy and nostalgia. I was struck by the isolation, secrets and loneliness of the characters – this seems to be a side effect of the American Lifestyle. It’s almost a surprise when characters outside the family appear. I read it at a sitting which is a tribute to her marvellous writing.

Jenny Newton

Talking about Books, Much Wenlock

Empire of Pain Patrick Radden Keefe

Forgotten Fitzgerald: Echoes of a lost America, Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Edited and introduced by Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at UEA

Prior to reading these stories, my only experience of Fitzgerald was The Great Gatsby and that was many years ago. Since then I have watched two film versions. I must admit to not being a fan of this writer and although I’m fascinated by the 1920s and 30s in Europe, the same period in the USA holds no interest.

After completing the first story, I was ready to send the book to a charity shop, however, I forced myself to read all twelve and have to say that as a writer, I became fascinated by his approach and style. His stories have not converted me to that period or class of characters, but I have enjoyed studying the way he writes. Compared to modern advice offered by workshop leaders, his style suggests an edit might create more appeal, but of course it is of its time.

What I found particularly useful were the introductions by Sarah Churchwell, although I chose to read them after I’d read the stories, lest there be spoilers.

If you are a Fitzgerald fan and have not discovered this book, then you need no further comment from me. If like me, you’re relatively new to the writer, then give it a go, especially if you write. There is always something more to learn.

Roger Noons

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễ Phan Quế Mai

This is a family saga set in VietNam covering the period from the mid 1930s to the early 1980s. The two main characters are a grandmother and her granddaughter and the story starts with them taking shelter from the bombing in Hanoi in 1972. The chapters jump time periods and the grandmother’s life story is gradually told interspersed with the granddaughter’s as she grows up through her teenage years during and after the VietNam war. The book really gave me a potted history of VietNam and described the horrors of the Great Famine, the Land Reforms (when the Communists rose in the north and villages had quotas for the number of wealthier people who had to be executed), and then the division of the country into communist north, supported by Russia, and the more capitalist south which was supported by the Western Bloc as part of the Cold War. Then there was the VietNam war of the late 1960s and early 1970s with all the bombings and Agent Orange attacks plus the re-education camps after the war ended and the whole of VietNam was united as one country. All these are covered in the experiences of the various characters in the book. It was quite a harrowing read but the characters were very well described and showed how hope can remain and is really needed to have any chance of surviving in dreadful times. I think it is a story that will stay in my mind for a long time. When I first read the blurb on the book jacket I was not terribly enthusiastic about reading the book but as it was a gift from one of my sons I felt I ought to read it. I was completely wrong in my initial  assessment; I really enjoyed the book and can definitely recommend it even though some of the events covered are so harrowing.

 

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

This is another book that I enjoyed a lot. It is set in Trinidad and is about a young widow, her son and her lodger, who make up a rather unconventional family. It covers a time span of about twenty years. The story is told from the points of view of all three main characters. Betty, the widow, had married young but her husband turned into a drunk who physically abused her. His death was therefore a relief for her. Mr Chetan, the lodger, is a gay in-the-closet man. He is a kind, considerate man and becomes a close supportive friend to Betty and a father figure to Solo, the son. The unusual family splits up when Solo overhears a conversation between Betty and Mr Chetan and the rest of the book is about how they gradually overcome the problems between them. The book is not about romantic love, more about all the other sorts of love that exists between family members and friends. It is written in Trinidadian dialect (at least partly). Mostly I could guess what the words meant but I did eventually look up a glossary of Trinidadian English words and phrases on Google to be sure.

 

Fiona Berryman

Talking about Books, Much Wenlock

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

This book is now firmly on my list of favourite books. I loved it. It tells the story of Teoh Yun Ling looking back over her life in Malaya (now Malaysia) and her apprenticeship to Aritomo, once a gardener for the Emperor of Japan. Yun Ling wants to build a garden as a memorial to her sister who lost her life in a Japanese PoW camp, a camp from which Yun Ling escaped as the sole survivor. She must not only learn the art of gardening from a Japanese man – a sworn enemy – but must confront all that happened to her during her own internment.
The subject matter is sometimes harrowing as the story of the Japanese occupation of Malaya unfolds; an unfamiliar history to me but one told with dignity. The main characters are human and flawed and therefore felt very real and there were several moments of small gestures or lines of conversation that took my breath away and made me cry. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the art of creating a Japanese garden; the landscapes of Malaysia; the Chinese traditions; the life of the expat community. One of the most well-written books I have read for a while – highly recommended.

The Rat-catcher’s Olympics by Colin Cotterell

Light-hearted relief! I first met Siri Paiboun, chief ‘undertaker turned detective’ in The Coroner’s Lunch, the first book in Colin Cotterell’s Siri Paiboun detective series set in the People’s Republic of Laos. I read a couple more a few years ago and the latest came to me as a gift after a too close for comfort rat issue! All the stories provide gentle, heart-warming and amusing reads.

Rad

Lusaka Book Club and Silverwood Book Group

The Story of the Battersea Dogs’ Home by Gloria Cottesloe (out of print)

This is an odd title for me to include, as it was published in 1979 and I just picked it up casually in an antiques shop. However, I found it interesting and so I thought it worth a mention. The author worked in both book and newspaper publishing, had articles published in field/country magazines and bred Tibetan Spaniels. Her husband was Chairman of the dogs’ home at the time she wrote the book.

Being a professional writer, she made the book far broader than it might have been in different hands. She touches on many subjects around the dogs and the home, including social change in the 19th century and world wars in the 20th. There’s also a short appendix about cats at Battersea.

We had Freya, our lovely Staffie, from Battersea Old Windsor and so this book had personal resonance.

Lewis Percy by Anita Brookner

This is a rather sad novel about a man who was devoted to his widowed mother and had the ‘conviction that women were a congenial and compassionate sex’. I gather that the author is famous for her character studies of female characters but then moved on to the male perspective. Lewis finds himself at odds with changing values in the 1960s, trying to make the best of an unhappy marriage and generally be decent when others are less so.

The book was published in 1989, at a time when the author had recently retired from her career as an art historian. She evokes a cloistered academic world very well, presumably based on her own experience. I wonder if she perhaps met less worldly and competitive men in that environment than she might have elsewhere. Lewis represents an old-fashioned type that has probably faded away.

This was my first Brookner (she won the 1984 Booker for Hotel du Lac). I gather from other reviews that she’s regarded as a consistent author or one-trick pony, depending whether reviewers like her work. I enjoyed my time with Lewis, even though his naivety could be frustrating, and might well try another title by this author.

Marian Newell

Talking about Books, Much Wenlock

A mixture of fiction and non-fiction this time. Four novels to mention briefly: I didn’t finish The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman as I just lost interest although I recognise that it’s very popular and all credit to Richard Osman but it just isn’t my kind of book. I did finish Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens out of courtesy to the friend who lent it to me but despite its imaginative plotline it I found it too unbelievable – not for me. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell is in a different league, not only for the quality of its writing  but in the heft of the plot of this family story. No spoilers, but highly recommended. The final novel this time, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a delightful new Jeeves and Wooster novel by Sebastian Faulks, authorised by the P G Wodehouse estate. A daft but hilarious story along conventional lines, a welcome addition to the silly ass school of English humour.

 

I’m a fan of Michael Sandel, ‘the Public Philosopher’ and have followed him for a number of years. In The Tyranny of Merit  he has turned to the topic of Meritocracy and discusses how the concept has contributed to the fractured society we have today both here and in the USA.  While acknowledging that fracture,  Adrian Wooldridge, in The Aristocracy of Talent says that rather than abandoning meritocracy, we should reinvent and revitalise it.  Both books acknowledge that social mobility has at least stalled and look at ways we could bridge the growing divide between rich and poor.

 

What Does Jeremy Think? by his widow Suzanne Heywood is the biography of Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary who worked at the top level of the civil service for twenty five years under prime ministers from Blair to May until he tragically died in office from cancer in 2018 at the age of 56. The picture the book paints of how government works at the top is revealing. I was impressed by the way Heywood meticulously drew the line between his role and the politics, despite what he privately may have thought. I was amused at how many times Sue Gray was mentioned, clearly another power in the land! The personal story was also interesting, and moving at the end.  He was immensely talented; although the book is obviously about him, and he was exceptional, it’s clear that there are a lot of very bright people at the top – a pity we don’t have many of them as politicians. The book highlights the power and influence of the cabinet secretary across government.   I was left wondering how Jeremy Heywood would have dealt with Boris and all his works.

 

Paradise Lost by Giles Milton is the story of the destruction of Smyrna in 1922 during the war between Greece and Turkey following the First World War. A sombre but fascinating account which I read before the awful current events in Ukraine. As always when I read history books I realise just how much I don’t know.

Philip Browning

Talking about Books and Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock

Instructions for a Heatwave Maggie O'Farrell

My reading has been severely restricted by an attack of abyrinthitis which has left me with ‘funny eyes’ and a disinclination to read (or watch) anything.

Just before being taken poorly, I was reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens which I mentioned last month. Since then I have listened to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which was more awful than I remembered but also so much more gripping, and also Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, which is always worth reading (or listening to!) again. My reading ability is returning only slowly, and in very short bursts, so I have been reading poetry ~ which you can read quite quickly, and then spend a long time thinking about it! In particular ~ The Heart’s Time, edited by Janet Morley which is full of excellent poetry and accompanied by very thoughtful commentary, and my newly arrived Devotions by Mary Oliver which is a collection she selected herself not long before her death in 2019 from several of her many books. I’m loving it. I’ve also just begun Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury, Alison will be our Poetry Breakfast guest poet in June so watch out for that!

BBC Sounds has become my new best friend and I have enjoyed Trespass by Rose Tremain from the Book at Bedtime series and I have downloaded and enjoyed countless episodes of Private Passions; The Verb; Poetry Extra; The Essay: Pick of the Week and Soul Music.

Hopefully normal reading will resume soon, and the book I am enjoying but reading oh-so-slowly is Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay ~ more when I’ve finished it!

Anna Dreda

Wenlock Books Events

Thank you!

Thank you so much to everyone who contributes to this book blog, and to all our readers ~ thank you for getting in touch to tell me how you like it.

Please let me have your reading recommendations for the ‘Books we Read in April’ blog by 15th April  ~ or (even better!) as soon as you like . . .

Thank you everyone!

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