An Advancement of Learning by Reginald Hill: Mini Review

An Advancement of learning

An Advancement of Learning is Reginald Hill’s second Dalziel and Pascoe novel, first published in 1971. It’s much better than the first one, A Clubbable Woman and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set in a college, Holm Coultram College, where Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the discovery of a body found as an eight foot high bronze statue of Miss Girling, a former head of the College in the grounds is being moved. As the base of the statue is lifted earth falls away together with a shin bone followed by part of a rib cage and then a skull, still with a mop of dark red hair attached. Miss Girling had red hair – but she had died in an avalanche in Austria – so whose body was buried under the statue?

The plot is by no means straight forward and for most of the book continued to puzzle me, even though I thought the ending was rather weak. But the strength of this book is in the writing and the characterisation. It is a character-driven murder mystery, with a cast of characters including Girling, Halfdane, Fallowfield, Cockshut, and Disney, known as ‘Walt’, of course and I had no difficulty in keeping who was who clearly in my mind. It’s interesting to see the early relationship between Dalziel, shown as a rude, boorish character, and Pascoe, the university educated young DS. Dalziel is very much out of his comfort zone with the academic staff and looks to Pascoe to understand how the college operates, whilst mocking him. Pascoe renews his relationship with Ellie Soper, an ex-girlfriend from his university days – a feisty young woman, but a minor character in this book. 

Written in 1971 it is very much a book of its time. I read it quickly, as the two detectives uncover plenty of disagreements and power struggles in both the staff and student bodies – from rivalries to revelries on the beach, and more dead bodies turn up before the mystery is solved.

And reading it has made me keen to get on the next book in the series, Ruling Passion, which I’ve started almost straight away! I’ve been reading this series totally out of order, beginning with some of the later books – much more detailed and complex than the first books.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (25 Jun. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780007313037
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007313037
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 4.5*

Reading challenges: Mount TBR, Calendar of Crime, 20 Books of Summer

My Friday Post: The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley is one of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list and it’s also one of my TBRs. I recently finished reading it. It’s the first book in her Seven Sisters series of books based on the legends of the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades. 

seven sisters ebook

I will always remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that my father had died.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

‘Presumably, you had a tough night last night, Maia, dealing with Electra’s usual histrionics? said Ce-Ce.

‘As a matter of fact, for Electra, she was relatively calm,’ I answered, knowing there was little love lost between my fourth and fifth sisters. Each was the antithesis of the other: Ce-Ce so practical and loath to show any emotion, and Electra so volatile.

Blurb:

Maia D’Aplièse and her five sisters gather together at their childhood home, ‘Atlantis’ – a fabulous, secluded castle situated on the shores of Lake Geneva – having been told that their beloved father, the elusive billionaire they call Pa Salt, has died. Maia and her sisters were all adopted by him as babies and, discovering he has already been buried at sea, each of them is handed a tantalising clue to their true heritage – a clue which takes Maia across the world to a crumbling mansion in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Once there, she begins to put together the pieces of where her story began . . .

Eighty years earlier, in the Belle Epoque of Rio, 1927, Izabela Bonifacio’s father has aspirations for his daughter to marry into aristocracy. Meanwhile, architect Heitor da Silva Costa is working on a statue, to be called Christ the Redeemer, and will soon travel to Paris to find the right sculptor to complete his vision. Izabela – passionate and longing to see the world – convinces her father to allow her to accompany him and his family to Europe before she is married. There, at Paul Landowski’s studio and in the heady, vibrant cafés of Montparnasse, she meets ambitious young sculptor Laurent Brouilly, and knows at once that her life will never be the same again.

My thoughts:

I knew very little about this series when I began reading the book, but I was soon caught up in this family saga. It’s not crime fiction but there is plenty of mystery – first of all why are there only six sisters, not seven? Who was Pa Salt and why did he adopt these  girls from the four corners of the globe when they were babies? He has died before the book begins and immediately buried and, as I read a lot of crime fiction, my first thought was –  why was he adamant that as soon as he died his body was to be buried at sea, with none of the girls present? And I wondered if he had really died? Please don’t tell me the answers to my questions – I intend to read all the Seven Sisters books, when I hope all will become clear.

Pa Salt has left clues for each girl so that if they want they can discover who their parents were and the circumstances of their birth. Having introduced all the sisters Maia’s story unfolds and it is an amazing story, taking her back to Brazil, the country of her birth. It’s beautifully written and completely convincing and I raced through it eager to find out the details of Maia’s family history.

I loved all the details about the building of the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain in the Carioca Range, overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro and how Lucinda Riley incorporated it so seamlessly into Maia’s story.

Have read this book? What did you think about it? And if you haven’t, would you keep on reading?

For more about the series see Lucinda Riley’s website, where she explains why she based the books on the legends of The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades and about the details of her extensive research for each story.

I’ll be reading the next book – The Storm Sister as soon as possible. The six books in the series are:

1. The Seven Sisters (2014)
2. The Storm Sister (2015) – Ally (Alcyone)
3. The Shadow Sister (2016) – Star (Asterope)
4. The Pearl Sister (2017) – CeCe (Celaeno)
5. The Moon Sister (2018) – Tiggy (Taygete)
6. The Sun Sister (2019) – Electra

The seventh sister is Merope – in the cast of characters at the beginning of the first book she is described as ‘missing’ …

The Seven Sisters:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2822 KB
  • Print Length: 641 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Main Market edition (6 Nov. 2014)
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 5*

Come a Little Closer by Rachel Abbott

Once again I’ve fallen behind with writing reviews! This is the first post in a series of short reviews of the books that I’ve read this year and not reviewed.

Come A Little Closer (DCI Tom Douglas #7)

Come a Little Closer by Rachel Abbott. I had high hopes for this book as I’ve seen Rachel Abbott’s books praised on other book blogs and highly rated on Amazon and Goodreads, but I’d never read any of them. This is the seventh in the DCI Tom Douglas series, but I was encouraged by Rachel Abbott’s reassurance (on Goodreads author questions) that ‘each story is entirely standalone, but the character of Tom Douglas does run through the whole series. There are bits in each story about his life, but nothing that would require you to have read previous books. So please feel free to read them in any order you like. Many people do.’

Synopsis:

They will be coming soon. They come every night. 

Snow is falling softly as a young woman takes her last breath. 

Fifteen miles away, two women sit silently in a dark kitchen. They don’t speak, because there is nothing left to be said. 

Another woman boards a plane to escape the man who is trying to steal her life. But she will have to return, sooner or later. 

These strangers have one thing in common. They each made one bad choice – and now they have no choices left. Soon they won’t be strangers, they’ll be family…

When DCI Tom Douglas is called to the cold, lonely scene of a suspicious death, he is baffled. Who is she? Where did she come from? How did she get there? How many more must die? 

Who is controlling them, and how can they be stopped? 

My thoughts:

I have mixed thoughts about this book – I didn’t ‘like’ it (although I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads), but it held my interest and I read to the end. It reads OK as a standalone, although it probably would have helped to have known more about Tom Douglas, but the police investigation isn’t the main focus of the book.

The main focus is on Callie and the mess she gets herself into. Her relationship with her boyfriend, Ian is awful, he’s just sponging off her and treating her like a doormat. Although she tells him to leave, by the time she returns from a trip to Myanmar, he is still living in her flat. She then goes to stay with a couple she met on the cruise ship, without knowing that she is letting herself in for a nightmare scenario.

Here’s where the two women mentioned in the synopsis come into the story – a story that left me feeling sick. It’s not blood thirsty or gory – it’s just sick as the protagonists set about manipulating their victims. It’s full of action and barely credible coincidences. About halfway in I could see where this was going – and I didn’t like it. I was glad to finish it. It’s easy to read, but the characters seemed shallow and the only ones I liked were Tom his team and his brother, Nathan – now that sounds as though it’s a more interesting story.

What do you think? Should I read any of the other Tom Douglas books – or are they all like this one?

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 6326 KB
  • Print Length: 406 pages
  • Publisher: Black Dot Publishing Ltd (15 Feb. 2018)
  • Source: Kindle Users Lending Library
  • My rating: 3*

Queen Victoria and John Brown

 

Victoria progress Jan 2018

I’ve been reading Victoria: a Life by A N Wilson and writing an occasional post as I’m reading this long book.

One of the things that interests me is Victoria’s relationships with the men around her – such as with Albert, Lord Melbourne, Gladstone and Disraeli. But there is also her relationship with John Brown. Years ago I saw the excellent film Mrs Brown with Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly as John Brown and I was wondering what Wilson would make of their relationship.

She first met John Brown when he was one of the gillies at Balmoral in 1848. He also worked in the stables. In 1864, still grieving for Albert, Victoria found Balmoral a place that brought consolations. In the happy days of her marriage she had taken a great shine to John Brown.

By the end of 1864, Princess Alice, who had noticed that rides in the pony cart at Balmoral were almost the only things which made her mother half cheerful, recommended that they brought Brown to England. She put the idea to Dr Jenner and to Colonel Phipps, Keeper of the Privy Purse. They both agreed that it was an admirable idea. So it was, in December 1864, that John Brown came to Osborne House.

From now onwards, Brown would be he constant companion. At Osborne, he brought in her correspondence at 10 am, and took her for a morning ride. This was repeated in the afternoon. At Balmoral, he stayed with her while she did her correspondence and took it upon himself to post her letters. At Windsor, he would stand guard in the corridor outside her room, ‘fending off’, as one courtier put it, ‘even the highest in the land’.

The very qualities which others found irritating in Brown were ones which made him an ideal companion for Queen Victoria. (page 286)

Brown was humorous, abrasive with pompous courtiers, but above all he treated her like a human being and was devoted to her. But the amount of time he spent with the Queen alarmed the Establishment and the Court – his lack of side, his directness and his breeziness, all of which Victoria liked, offended them:

And of course they suspected him of sleeping with her. Lord Stanley, Foreign Secretary in his father Lord Derby’s Third Cabinet, asked in his journal, ‘Why is the Queen penny wise and pound foolish? Because she looks after the browns and lets the sovereigns take care of themselves.’ (pages 321-2)

Wilson considers that whatever the situation was between them, Victoria’s infatuation with Brown and his unruly behaviour at Court were enough to cause the scandal:

‘It was the talk of all the Household,’ said that notoriously unreliable tittle-tattler Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, ‘that he was “the queen’s stallion” … he was a fine man physically, though coarsely made and had fine eyes (like the late Prince Consort’s, it was said) and the Queen, who had been passionately in love with her husband, got it into her head that somehow the prince’s Spirit had passed into Brown and after four years of widowhood, being very unhappy allowed him all privileges … She used to go away with him to a little house in the hills where, on the pretence that it was for protection and to “look after the dogs”, he had a bedroom next to hers, ladies in waiting being put at the other end of the  building … [There could be] no doubt of his being allowed every conjugal privilege.’ (page 323)

Scawen Blunt’s tittle-tattle was not proven.

Despite having worked on the subject of Queen Victoria for many years Wilson concluded that he felt unable to make up his mind about the nature of the Queen’s relationship with Brown. His instinct is

to believe that it was what it appears in her letters to Vicky: namely an embarrassingly close monarch-and-servant relationship.Brown meant it when he said he would die for her, and the Queen meant it when she called him her ‘treuer’ Brown. If I were forced to say what did or did not happen, I would point out the impossibility of carnal relations between them in her early days of widowhood, when she was plainly fixated on the memory of Albert, and he was plainly no more than her Highland servant. (page 325)

But then Wilson records the words of Lewis Harcourt, who was the son of Gladstone’s Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer quoting from Lady Ponsonby in 1885 – wife of the Queen’s Private Secretary who

… ‘told the Home Secretary a few days ago that Miss Macleod declares that her brother Norman Macleod confessed to her on his deathbed that he had married the Queen to John Brown and … had always bitterly regretted it. Miss Macleod could have no object in inventing such a story, so that one is almost inclined to believe it, improbable as it sounds.  (page 326)

Norman Macleod was the Minister at Crathie, on the edge of the Balmoral estate, where the Royal Family worshipped.

However, the truth about their relationship remains a mystery – there was a file containing all the letters from John Brown to Queen Victoria  but they were destroyed (page 422). After Victoria’s death, her daughter Princess Beatrice copied her diaries and censored them as she did so and Bertie went round rooms at both Windsor and Buckingham Palace ‘destroying as he went‘. ‘Busts and statues of John Brown were smashed. (His statue at Balmoral was removed to a remote corner of the estate.)’ (page 574)

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

The Fear Index

The Fear Index by Robert Harris is a fast-paced story set in the world of high finance and computer technology but it didn’t appeal to me as much as the other books by him that I’ve read. It’s about scientist Dr Alex Hoffman, who together with his partner Hugo Quarry, an investment banker, runs a hedge fund based in Geneva, that makes billions. Alex has developed a revolutionary form of artificial intelligence that tracks human emotions, enabling it to predict movements in the financial markets. It’s built around the standard measure of market volatility: the VIX or ‘Fear Index’.

Alex wakes up one morning in the early hours to find an intruder has managed to bypass the elaborate security of the house. He challenges him only to receive a blow to his head that knocks him out and the intruder escapes. That is just the start of his troubles. A brain scan indicates he may have MS or possibly dementia and he is advised to take further advice, which of course, he doesn’t want to do. It appears that someone is out to destroy him and his company and even worse it soon looks as though this will cause a major global economic crisis. He is at a complete loss as to who it can be. It’s someone who has infiltrated into all areas of his life, affecting his marriage as well as his business.  He even begins to doubt his sanity.

On the one hand it helped me understand a bit more about hedge funds and how they operate but I got lost in the computer technology details. The characters are all not particularly likeable, but it’s definitely a page turner with plenty of suspense as the story raced to a conclusion, and it kept me puzzling over what or who was really causing the paranoia and violence. I thought it began well but didn’t find the ending very illuminating or satisfying and was left wondering what it was really all about.

I liked the chapter headings with extracts from books such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which made me wonder if the book was about the evolution of man into machine. Just an idea – if you’ve read the book what did you make of it all?

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Hutchinson; First Edition, First Printing edition (29 Sept. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091936969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091936969
  • Source: Library book
  • My rating: 3*

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean

Notes on Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean (1926 – 1994).

Alasdair Maclean was a Scottish poet, born in Glasgow. He left school at fourteen to work in the Clydeside shipyards. In his late thirties he read English at Edinburgh University, later returning to the family croft at Sanna in Ardnamurchan to write. His father had worked as Deputy Harbour Master in the Greater Glasgow docks until he retired in the 1950s and moved back to take over the croft from his father.

What their life was like on the croft is captured in detail in Maclean’s only book of prose Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family.

The main section of the book is made up of extracts from his father’s journals forming a factual account of his daily life on the croft covering two years, a decade apart: 1960 and 1970, for the same three days at the beginning, middle and end of every month in those years, with explanatory comments where he thought necessary.

I  enjoyed this section together with the Prologue and two introductions – the first about his father and their relationship and the second, a brief history of Ardnamuchan – more that the section on Alasdair’s own journal of 1979 – 1980.

I quoted the opening of the book with an extract from page 56 in this earlier post. Here are a few more extracts to give a flavour of the book:

Due to Father’s complete lack of push, coupled with his unwillingness to flatter or connive, he was passed over for promotion on several occasions. In the early 1950s he retired, somewhat prematurely, and came back to Ardnamurchan to operate the family croft, which my grandparents were getting too old to look after. Poverty accompanied him north and this lasted till a state pension at sixty-five brought some slight ease. He died five months after my mother of a coronary, they said, but of being worn out and heartbroken, say I. (page 23)

Each journal entry begins with a description of the weather and its effects. This is a typical example:

November 15 1969

Moderate to fresh Southerly wind became strong in evening. Drizzle in early forenoon. Dry for an hour in the middle of the day. In the afternoon the sleety rain became torrential and continued into the night. Did a little more to a new house for Tilly. Gave cattle a little hay. Managed across river at Cnoc Brac peats.

Alasdair commented: Tilly was a pet sheep, the first of many orphans we hand-reared. She was a privileged character (I tell her story later) and no ageing butler, slopping sherry around the salver on his tottering passage between pantry and drawing room, could have been more conscious of possessing security of tenure or more determined to exploit it. The ‘house’ that was being built for her was but one indication of her status. Your ordinary sheep shivers it out on the hillside all night, having no roof but the low cloud of winter. (pages 84-85)

The state of the weather had great importance. To the crofter:

…  clinging by a mixture of instinct and experience to the remote fringes of these islands, the weather is a god. It is the difference not merely between a pleasant and an unpleasant life, but between success and failure, until the advent of the welfare state between – possibly – living and dying.  (page 52)

Winter is hard on Sanna:

Gales often blow for days on end, accompanied for much of the time by rain. The ground around house and outbuildings, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of animals and people becomes a churned-up quagmire, a constant drag and hindrance to everything one tries to do.

… Even to enter or leave one’s house, if it lacks a back door – and most of the old cottages did – may be a hazardous operation in a gale and a door once opened may not be easy to shut again. I have seen old people in Sanna go from house to steading on hands and knees, being unable to proceed any other way. (page 52)

This is an unusual book describing not only life in a dying community but also revealing the relationship between children and parents, particularly in an isolated community. I was fascinated.

I was also interested to know what Ardnamurchan is like today. The Ardnamuchan website states it is on the most westerly peninsular of the British mainland, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and with views from every shore of islands, castles, lochs and wilderness, an amazing part of the West Coast of Scotland.

File:Sanna Bay - geograph.org.uk - 354282.jpg
Sanna Bay (The copyright on this image is owned by Stuart Wilding and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

Amazon UK –  only available from third-party sellers

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (22 Feb. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140108122
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140108125
  • Source: I bought the book
  • Rating: 3.5 stars

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

Synopsis:

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II

Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.

Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.

At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.

Doerr’s combination of soaring imagination and meticulous observation is electric. As Europe is engulfed by war and lives collide unpredictably, ‘˜All The Light We Cannot See’ is a captivating and devastating elegy for innocence.

I have just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’m not going to write a review but want to jot down some thoughts:

  • It began well and I liked it straight away – see this Friday post.
  • There are three story lines – that of Marie-Laure, of Werner, and of a diamond that has magical powers.
  • But my overall picture of the book is of a blur, of confusion as it moved not only between characters but also backwards and forwards in time and I couldn’t work out the time sequence. I kept going back to the contents list to try to work it out was I in 1944 when the book began or in 1942, or 43. Had I met this character before in the future, or in the past and where was I -in France, Germany, Vienna or Russia? How did the characters relate to each other? I was hopelessly puzzled for quite a large portion of this book. For a while the fog in my mind cleared and I thought I’d got it, only to find a few chapters later I was lost again.
  • So I gave up trying to work out dates; places and people became clearer to me and I did (I think) follow the story, but it wasn’t easy as Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s time-lines were so fragmented.
  • The writing in parts is beautiful, great descriptions giving me some insight into what it was liked for ordinary people from both sides during the 2nd World War and what it must be like to be blind.
  • I liked all the detail of the model of Saint-Malo that Marie-Laure’s father made to help her find her way around, models of the buildings and roads.
  • The title refers (I think) to the how the brain, which is enclosed within the scull – ie in darkness – is yet full of light, brimming with colour and movement. And also to the light transmitted by radio wavelengths; light caught from the sun within plants and within gem stones such a diamonds; light beyond our ability to see it within the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • I was glad to get to the end. I think it is over-long, and very slow. But overall, mainly because of its descriptive prose; the way it conveys what being involved in war is like; and the character of Marie-Laure, I liked it and gave it 3 stars on Goodreads.

A book for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge, a book I’ve owned since 2016.