Speaking of Love by Angela Young

I enjoy reading Angela Young’™s blog Writing, Life and the Universe and so of course I just had to read her book, Speaking of Love. I found it a moving book, but never sentimental and as stated on the book cover it is:

‘œ ‘¦ a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’™t say so. It deals passionately and honestly with human breakdown. And it tells of our need for stories and how stories can help make sense of the random nature of life.’

This is a story told by three people ‘“ Iris, her daughter Vivie, and Matthew. It takes place over three days leading up to the story-telling festival where Iris is performing. Iris and Vivie are estranged and gradually the reason is revealed as all three characters tell their stories. As the book starts Matthew and his dad Dick are about to travel to the festival, Iris is already there and Vivie, living in London is having a crisis in her life, unbeknown to the others. Matthew and Vivie had been childhood friends, living next door to each other at the time when Iris first suffered a breakdown, which is later revealed to be schizophrenia.

This is also a book about story-telling, indeed the book is structured into separate tales which interlink and finally unite. Along with the stories of the three characters’™ lives there are also the stories that Iris tells. These are reminiscent of folk and fairy tales. Appropriately, Iris treasures the book of fairy tales that had belonged to her mother. I must have read all the books of fairy tales in the junior library as a child – I loved them. So it was with nostalgia that I read Iris’™s stories such as ‘œEarth and Sea’, the story of the fisherman, his wife and Murmurina their daughter, ‘œborn with a fat fishtail that glistened where she should have had legs’ and who ‘œmade ‘˜O’™ shapes with her mouth when she should have had a voice’.

The story-telling motif also runs through Dick and Matthew’™s journey to the festival. Dick has planned it to take place over three days, stopping over night at various places and using only the minor roads. I liked the comparison of travelling in this way as ‘œdarning’ by going under and over the motorways and A roads.

The main theme is the effects that not communicating has on the people we love. Iris’™s father is locked in his grief after the death of his wife and Iris believes he blames her for her mother’™s death; Iris isolated by her illness can’™t communicate her love to her daughter; Matthew, who learnt at the age of twelve that ‘œif you say how you feel you lose control over what happens next’ couldn’™t tell Vivie he loves her; and Vivie knew that ‘œyou had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides ‘“ or anyone else’™s insides ‘“ might spill out.’

The book explores the difficulties and effects of living with someone with schizophrenia, burying frightening experiences and the way we lose control over events. Dick sums it up in his advice to Matthew:

‘œThe real risk, it seems to me, lies in not talking about the things that matter the most. That’™s what made Iris ill. What we don’™t say doesn’™t go away. It stays inside and after a while of not being spoken about it turns against us. ‘¦ The things we don’™t talk about fester and then they infect us. They eat away at us like a cancer.’

The book is full of beautiful descriptions ‘“ of trees, particularly the laburnum (the “story-telling tree”) and gardens in East Anglia, of the mediaeval castle over looking the Bristol Channel and the festival performers and the landscape of England as Dick and Matthew travel across country, which brings the story alive.

The opening sentence sums up Iris’s story “I have come home, after a long and difficult journey.” Everything after that is the story of how she got there. A book worth reading.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – August Books Part Two

The trilogy is made up of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Taken together the books form a grand epic, encompassing parallel universes and their inhabitants. It’s a fabulous story, featuring armoured bears who talk, witches, spectres, angels, and tiny hand sized creatures who fly on the backs of dragonflies.

I think of it as a modern myth, not just for children, but for all ages (although I wonder what age this would best suit – not for young children, I wouldn’t have thought). Karen Armstrong in her informative and most helpful book A Short History of Myth writes, ‘We are meaning-seeking creatures … mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.‘ Concerning the novel and myth she writes:

Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not’real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives long after we have laid the book aside.

Yes, these books are exactly that. I read the books between July and August and they are all compelling reading, both in terms of storyline (with many parallel worlds) and in ideas. I am still contemplating the ideas and themes. My copy of Karen Armstrong’s book is in a Limited Signed Edition of Box Sets and includes an essay by Philip Pullman, which I had forgotten was there. In it he writes, ‘A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story.‘ How right he is and what a good description of his own trilogy.

I find it impossible to do justice to the plot in this post. I think the best thing is to read the books and look at Philip Pullman’s website. This is my brief and inadequate summary:

The main characters are Lyra and Will, who are from different worlds and the story is essentially about their journey into adolescence, from innocence into knowledge. ‘Dust’, seemingly similar to the idea of original sin, plays a large part in this. Once children reach adolescence Dust is then attracted to them, as they lose their innocence. The first book concerns the search for the source of Dust in Lyra’s world.

Will is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The action takes place in several universes and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which enables him to cut windows from one universe into a parallel one. In one of these worlds he meets Lyra and they join forces.

Daemons, representing the soul, feature in Lyra’s world where they are separate physical entities. A daemon takes the form of an animal or bird and in children can change form until the child becomes an adult. Then he or she assumes a form reflecting the person’s personality, for example a daemon in the form of dog reflects a faithful person, a cat an independent person, etc. In Will’s world (our world) the soul is an integral part of a person, and is invisible and non-physical.

The Amber Spyglass completes the trilogy, climaxing in a perilous journey through the Land of the Dead and the greatest war ever between the worlds and heaven, with the defeat of heaven and the death of ‘God’ in the form of the Ancient of Days, who is not the Creator, but a demented and powerless being, whose form loosened and dissolved: ‘A mystery dissolving in mystery.

The trilogy abounds with themes, alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in a retelling of the Creation and the Fall, where the ‘Authority‘ (the Ancient of Days) is a fallen angel and Lyra is seen as a second Eve. The relationship between the body and soul is evident through the concept of daemons, introduced in Northern Lights and this is developed throughout until it becomes explicit in The Amber Spyglass, particularly in the description of the passage through the Land of the Dead. Lyra has to leave her daemon behind and it’s at this point that it becomes evident that Will’s soul or daemon is also unable to travel with him. Lyra lives up to her name here (Orpheus in Greek mythology is able to charm beasts with his lyre), where she is able to win round the harpy ‘No-Name’ and release human beings from the Land of the Dead.

The question of the nature of consciousness and when it becomes self-consciousness for example during adolescence is explored. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, when they become self-conscious and aware of evil and sin. Dust which is invisible to the human eye is the physical representation of original sin. It is attracted to adults and is the means of conferring consciousness and wisdom. It seems to me to be based on the biblical account of God creating Man from dust and also on the concept of dust being dirty and thus sinful, but it is also the element that indicates a living being.

Of course, one thing that comes to mind in reading these books is the question of their relationship with Christianity. I’m not surprised to read that they have attracted much criticism as being anti-Christian. One of the characters is Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has lost her faith on her realisation that there ‘wasn’t any God at all – The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.

Philip Pullman’s view expressed in an interview in Surefish (Christian Aid) in November 2002 – (see here) is that he is telling a story. He is not Mary, she is a character in his book  – he is somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic.

Another enlightening interview was recorded between Pullman and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004 – see here.

Other interesting articles I found are an interview Telegraph in January 2002 and one on the BBC website dated March 2004.

August’s Books Part One

Books read in August

The Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Made in Heaven by Adele Geras
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert

I started August reading The Crooked House by Agatha Christie, which I had borrowed from the library. It’s been a long time since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I felt like reading something quick and easy after some of the long books I’ve read this year. This is a short book and an easy read, but enjoyable because I didn’t have to think too much and I guessed the murderer’s identity. Sometimes that’s annoying but in this instance I found it satisfying to spot the clues along the way – and be right.

Agatha Christie described this as “one of my best.” Neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot feature in the book and as my current knowledge of Christie’s books are from the TV programmes I found this a refreshing change. That’s not to say I dislike Miss Marple and Poirot – on the contrary I avidly read and enjoyed many of the books featuring these two characters and love both Joan Hickson’s and David Suchet’s performances and the productions as a whole.

Aristide, the head of the Leonides family has been murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection. It seemed that they were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion, but things are not what they seem. His young widow, fifty years his junior, is the obvious suspect. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiancé of Sophia, the late millionaire’s granddaughter.

Next up was Adele Geras’s Made in Heaven. It’s a story that pulls you along – even though I could see where it was heading and the ending was no surprise. The main themes of the book are marriage and divorce and relationships. A traditional wedding is being planned between Zannah and Adrian. The story opens with the lunch that has been arranged so that Zannah’s parents can meet Adrian’s mother and stepfather. Zannah wants a perfect, elaborate and very expensive wedding, to make up for her first wedding in a Registry Office, which ended in divorce. She knows exactly what she wants – the dress, flowers, church, reception and so on. The first problem that arises is the strange behaviour of Joss, Zannah’s mother, on meeting Adrian’s parents and everything goes downhill from then on, from her relationship with Adrian and Cal, her ex-husband to that of Adrian with Isis, Zannah’s daughter. Obviously there is a secret that will eventually surface and cause complications all round.

The characters are believable and the analysis of their relationships is good, so much so that I found some of the characters exasperating. The descriptions of the wedding preparations, the homes and garden, the beautiful dress materials, the sumptuous, delicious food bring the book to life, although I found it intriguing that one of the locations is Altrincham. I used to live near Altrincham and went to school there, but apart from the name I didn’t recognise it in this book – but then that wasn’t important in terms of the plot. However, I did get quite excited when “Altrincham” was mentioned as I’ve never come across it in fiction before and wanted more detail.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman and Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert are much longer books.

I found all of them to be satisfying and excellent books. I’ve already written about Season of the Witch here. The Amber Spyglass is the final book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and I’ll write a separate post about all three books.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a contrast to the other books. The story is narrated by a boy who leaves California to attend a college in New England and becomes involved with a group of students studying ancient Greek. From the back cover:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

There is a death recounted in the prologue. The book then goes back in time and the mystery unfolds. I found it just a bit too long and drawn out in parts and wanted to wind it up before it actually finished, but taken as a whole the tension and pace of the book was maintained.

Season of the Witch – Natasha Mostert

I first read about this book on Ann’s blog, Patternings and thought it would be one I would enjoy, so when a friend gave me a book token for my birthday I bought it. Many thanks to both of you – this is an excellent book. I’ve read so many good books recently I seem to be saying that a lot.

Season of the Witch is a thrilling, spine tingling story of mystery, mysticism and magic, abounding with symbolism. It’s a modern day gothic epic, mixing computer technology with witchcraft, alchemy and the power of the human mind, in the search for enlightenment.

The book jacket gives a good summary of the Season of the Witch:

‘Gabriel Blackstone is a cool, hip, thoroughly twenty-first century Londoner with an unusual talent. A computer hacker by trade, he is – by inclination- a remote viewer; someone whose unique gifts enable him to ‘slam rides’ through the thought processes of others.

But reading people’s minds is something he does only with the greatest reluctance – until he is contacted by an ex-lover who begs him to use his gift to find her stepson, last seen months earlier in the company of two sisters.

And so Gabriel visits Monk House in Chelsea, a place where time seems to stand still.’

The mystery of Robbie’s disappearance leads Gabriel into breaking into Monk House and there are many passages which I felt I had to race through to prevent him from being discovered; that nervous tension anticipating danger that you feel watching a horror film build up leaving me breathless as I read.

I find it hard when reading a book to take notes at the same time as it breaks the flow of my reading and then I struggle to pinpoint exactly what I particularly liked and where in the narrative things occurred. The pace of this book was making me read so fast that I knew I had to slow down or I’d never remember anything except that I liked it. So every now and then I stopped to take stock and after about 100 pages I did start to jot down some page references.

Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk (wonderful names), the beautiful mysterious sisters are descendants of Dr John Dee, a mathematical genius, alchemist and secret adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Minnaloushe similarly is a mathematical genius who constructs a ‘memory palace’ a mental aid to enhance the memory in the Renaissance tradition. Morrighan is the strong, athletic, risk taker. Both of them bewitch Gabriel as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind Robbie’s disappearance.

The connection to Dee reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee which moves between London of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, sometimes with no clear distinction between the two, and is about Dee’s alleged attempt to kill Queen Mary by sorcery and the secrets of love and power. Mostert’s book is also about the power of the mind; and the seduction of obsession and love, combined with the concept of alchemy, not only being used to turn lead into gold but as the means to enlightenment. Morrighan says,

Alchemy is really the transformation of the spirit into a higher form of consciousness. Enlightenment. Coming face to face with God and discovering His motivations for creating the universe and your own place within it.

One of the themes that interested me is that of memory, so when I read ‘ we forget what we’ve read almost as soon as we’ve read it’, I couldn’t agree more. The memory palace was a technique originating with the ancient Greeks, which was later developed by alchemists and Gnostics during the Renaissance. A form of mnemonics. These days we use so many aids to memory that don’t actually involve remembering, so much as finding out where to find information. We don’t commit things to memory so much as people did in the past – our minds are shrinking, a horrible thought. It comes as no surprise to find out that the sisters’ mother had Alzheimer’s, which triggered Minnaloushe’s interest in the subject of memory.

Minnaloushe’s hypothesis is that ‘Man’s soul is inextricably bound to his power of recollection.’ This is a disturbing thought and I remembered my feeling of dis-ease when reading Deborah Wearing’s biographical account of her husband Clive’s amnesia in Forever Today. A virus attacked his brain destroying that part essential for memory, leaving him trapped in a limbo of the constant present. He had been a BBC music producer and conductor and the musical part of his brain seemed unaffected as well as his love for his wife. The constant repetition of the same thing over and over is harrowing, every moment was new and every thought the same. Eventually his memory began to improve.

I’m also reading The Remainder by Tom McCarthy, another novel on the themes of memory, amnesia and identity. I’m finding this hard going at the moment as it seems to be going over and over the same ideas, reflecting the state of mind of the main character as he tries to regain his memory. As I haven’t finished it all I can say now is that it’s a disturbing book and I found myself thinking this is just not real – strange really considering I can easily accept complete fantasy as ‘real’.

Season of a Witch is a book that leads me to thinking of other books, not just the ones I’ve mentioned but also David Shenk’s The Forgetting: understanding Alzheimer’s: the biography of a disease. This is a remarkable book about the wasting away of the mind, inside a still vigorous body. I read this a few years ago when we thought my mother-in-law might have it – she didn’t, but she had dementia which is very similar in its effects. Looking at it today I think I’d like to read it again. Adam Phillips in the preface refers to reconsidering our relationship with time as Alzheimer’s is about living in (and so for) the moment. ‘Out of fear of mortality we have idealised health and youth and competence. The Forgetting reminds us, among many other things, that there is more to life than all that.’

Another reason this has piqued my interest again is Shenk’s account of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s senile dementia, and because of Stefanie’s posts on Emerson at So Many Books I know more about him than when I read Shenk’s book.

This post has digressed from its original topic but I’m so glad I read Season of the Witch – a compelling read, which has given me much to ponder and led me back to other books and forward to yet others. I see that Natasha Mostert has written other books – see here for more information. This is the first book of hers I’ve read but it will not be the last.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I finished reading Arlington Park over a week ago and I’ve been pondering since then why I found this book so interesting when it is about an ordinary day, when nothing much happens, in the lives of bored, suburban housewives.

This book starts off well for me with the opening sentence: ‘All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.‘ The entire chapter is then devoted to a description of the rain falling on this English suburb contrasted with the neighbouring city. This was very apt because as I started to read the rain was falling and continued to fall for some considerable time. Rachel Cusk’s writing is most impressive in this description of rain.The monotony of it is emphasisied by the numerous repetions of “It fell…“; its sound is reproduced: “like the sound of uproarious applause. It was if a great audience were applauding. Louder and louder it grew, this strange unsettling sound … as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.

This was only one of a few books that I was reading, so I hadn’t finish it when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and that was just one book too many to add to my piles of reading. Unusually for me, I decided to concentrate on reading just one book at a time and read Harry Potter straight through.

Then I decided to finish, one by one, the other books I’d started. Surprisingly, this worked quite well and as I was away from home I did have more time to just sit and read. The weather was good too, so that helped. I sat on the patio at Twilles Barn enjoying the sunshine, cups of tea, glasses of wine and my books. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman was next as I was two thirds of the way into that – more about that in another post.

Then I picked up Arlington Park again and when I began to read I wished I’d not put it down. I was about half way through it and the rain had stopped falling on Arlington Park and the sun was shining there, bringing people out from their cars, houses and streets down the paths into the park. This section reminded me of Virginia Wolfe’s short story Kew Gardens with its descriptions of people in the park on a sunny day. Location is important in this book, with vivid well-drawn descriptions of places as well as the people who live there and their relationships. It’s a well-written, easy to read book that makes you want to read on, which is amazing really as it’s about an ordinary day in the lives of several women, their relationships and the everyday minutiae of life.

My overall view of Arlington Park is that it is a book about angry, discontented women who are feeling either inadequate, or as though something they cannot identify is missing from their lives, blaming their discontent and frustration on their husbands and children. We meet Juliet first, who is a part-time teacher, married with two children. It is morning and Juliet is upset, feeling that she is the person who does everything, angry at men and the way she perceives they treat women, ‘All men are murderers’, Juliet thought. Juliet and Benedict are invited to the Langhams for dinner in the evening.

Then there is Amanda, a perfectionist who appears cool and detached (she loves her car) and in control of her life, whereas she actually feels that she is inadequate and boring. She has invited other mothers for coffee and is preparing for their visit, when her sister phones with news that their grandmother has just died. She appears to be in the novel as a link, as one of the mothers who visits her is Christine Langham (who gives the dinner party in the evening) and it is Christine who is next in the spotlight, when she, Maisie and Stephanie drive to Merrywood Mall, the shopping centre three miles from Arlington Park. I would have liked to know more about Amanda and how she dealt with her feelings on hearing of her grandmother’s death.

We see the shopping expedition mainly from Christine’s point of view. She contrasts the refinement of living in Arlington Park with the surrounding areas they cross to get to the Mall. She is afraid of ‘inauthenticity which seemed to reveal to her the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life.’ The Shopping Centre makes her feel good, that life is full of possibilities – but how it makes her feel good and what these possibilities are seem also to be beyond her grasp. I particularly like the description of the shopping mall:

It was like an illustration of the heart: people were carried upwards by the escalators, eventually to re-emerge, oxygenated by shopping.  The place was full of people, on the escalators, all along the glass-fronted galleries milling on the broad avenues that led off the main hall, yet the acoustics and saturating glassy light deadened the sense of human congress so that they seemed almost to be swimming or floating rather than walking.

The there is Solly, who has no connection with the other women apart from the fact that she also lives in Arlington Park. She too feels she’s a failure – ‘a sack stuffed with children, a woman who had spent and spent her life until there was none left‘. She’s pregnant and dreading the birth of yet another child. Children are either ignored or considered to be a nuisance or a hindrance to most of the women in this book.

Back then to Juliet and her boredom with life. It is now late afternoon and she is taking the after school Literary Club. Juliet’s disillusionment with life is expressed in her thoughts on the pointlessness of it all:

And what was it all for? What was the point of it? In what sense did the girls, even the scientists, profit from their hard work and their grades? Sooner or later they would meet a man and it would all be stolen from them. The girl with her chemistry textbooks would meet a man and little by little he would murder her.

More doom and gloom follows when we enter Maisie Carrington’s house and are confronted with her melancholy. She feels divorced from life, as a character in a play, seeing herself ‘always animated by a nameless dissatisfaction.’ She is driven by her needs into her marriage, her job, house and children, but always feeling ‘not right, like a boat in a harbour where the tide has gone out, lying helplessly on her side in the mud with the neutered fin of her rudder drying in the air.’

This sense of the hopelessness of these women’s lives concludes the book with the dinner party in the evening at the Langhams, where Juliet and Benedict Randall, Maisie and Dom Carrington and a new couple Dave and Maggie Spooner meet. By this time Christine is at the end of her tether, preparing for the dinner party (reminders of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway?) and feeling that all life is work and that she has to do it all, Joe, her husband arousing feelings of mutiny within her. I did enjoy this description, needless to say I’m glad I was reading it and not having to eat the end result:

With a knife Chrisitine slit open a chicken breast and forced the herb
butter into the jellied flesh with her fingers. It was hard to get the butter to
stay in. It kept coming away on her fingers. She prised open the slit and wiped
her fingers all over the veined insides. Liquid ran out and coated the gobs of
butter and made them slippery.

Christine, like Juliet is an angry, self-centred woman, dissatisfied with her life. ‘You’ve got to love just – being alive’, she says more in despair than in hope, it seems. Yet the final paragraph in this book does hold out some hope for Christine, but only through Joe. She looks at him and ‘sees his face as a form of safekeeping, the whole world of herself concentrated on this little stage.’

To me this is a book about the depression, discontent and the despair some women feel trapped in lives that they find meaningless and futile. I am amazed that such topics can be made so entertaining and enjoyable. I think I like it because of Cusk’s style of writing – the descriptions of people and places so that they are real, I can see and hear them in my mind. At times I laughed out loud and at other times I was irritated by the attitudes and prejudices, but at all times I was entertained. It was nominated for the Orange Prize, but lost out to Half a Yellow Sun, which I have waiting to be read. I only hope that I enjoy it as much as Arlington Park.

June Books

I finished reading seven books this month. I’ve already written about Jenny Diski’s On Trying To Keep Still here, John Pollock’s Wilberforce here and Anne Tyler’s Digging To America here. The other books –

  • Death’s Jest-Book – Reginald Hill
  • The Poe Shadow –  Matthew Pearl
  • King of the Streets – John Baker
  • Theft  – Peter Carey

all deal with crime and death. It seems that murder has become somewhat of a theme in my reading, especially as the next book I’m reading is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a fascinating novel set in 12th century England concerning the investigation into the death of three children in Cambridge by a Adelia, a doctor from Salerno – more in a later post on this one.

However it may look, I don’t have a reading plan at all and pick up a book as it appeals to me. So, I am surprised to find connections between the books, even when it seems that they are widely different. For example, The Poe Shadow contains many references to slavery, one of the main topics in the Wilberforce biography and is set mainly in Baltimore, as is Digging To America, although more than a century later. The Poe Shadow is a long novel about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death in 1849. It is based on authentic details, combined with the results of research in various archives and libraries. It uses historical figures as well as fictional characters in the search to explain how Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore, after being found in an inn, dressed in dirty, shabby clothes. His visit to Baltimore was unexplained and over the years numerous theories have been put forward to explain how he died. The novel also explores who was the real ‘Dupin’ of Poe’s mystery tales. Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was on my parents’ bookshelves and I dipped into them as a teenager. I’ve now dug out a copy and have started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring Dupin. I was surprised that the opening of this tale is a detailed analysis of analysis, using as comparison the games of draughts, chess and whist.

I have always found Poe fascinating and previously read The American Boy by Andrew Taylor, a novel about Poe’s childhood. The Poe Society has much more information on him.

Murder is of course a staple subject of the detective story, and Reginald Hill and John Baker are both experts in the field. Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book and John Baker’s King of the Streets cover violent murders in graphic detail, some of which I found hard to stomach, but as one of the characters in the Mistress of the Art of Death says: ‘To ignore his [ie man’s] capacity for evil is as obtuse as blinding oneself to the height to which he can soar.’

I read Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book quickly, even given that I had to look up the meaning of several words and the long, rambling letters from Roote, an ex-convict, which troubled Pascoe so much that he became obsessed with finding Roote guilty again. There are a number of sub-plots running through this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly exploring the psychology of the criminal mind.

Baker’s King of the Streets is also a quick read, although the subject matter of the abuse and murder of children is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate. This is the third book I’ve read by Baker, all featuring the private detective, Sam Turner and his assistant Geordie (naive, but street-wise). It’s well written, giving insight into the minds of both the detective and the criminal characters. I particularly liked the nickname ‘Gog’ for one of the ‘minders’, who trashes Sam’s office. Gog is, as the name suggests, a huge giant of a man, with little reasoning power, but plenty of brawn, looked after (not very successfully) by his brother, Ben. Gog and Magog, hills near Cambridge, crop again in Franklin’s book, ‘British giants as pagan as their name’. Baker also refers to Gulliver’s Travels in describing Gog as ‘Brobdingnagian’. All, very appropriate.

Theft, by Peter Carey, ends this month’s list of books. This is a very different book from the others, but is still on the theme of crime, although the sub-title is ‘A Love Story’, which it is as well. This time it is in the art world, with forgeries and details of the international art scene. The book ranges from Australia to Japan and America, split between alternating accounts from the two Boone brothers, Michael the artist, and Hugh his ‘Broken’ brother, who he is ‘looking after’. Another shared theme in the King of the Streets and Theft, is that both books feature brothers, one of whom is ‘damaged’ and cared for by the other. Hugh’s sections of the books counter-balance Michael’s, giving additional insight into the action of the book. I found it hard to read in parts, not knowing anything of the technicalities of the art world, but feel I’ve learned quite a lot. This is only the second book by Carey that I’ve read, and whilst I prefer Oscar and Lucinda I think Theft is still worth reading.

Digging to America – Anne Tyler

I’m so glad I’ve read Digging to America. I’d been resisting reading it because when I first heard about I just didn’t like the sound of it; I think what put me off were the names of some of the characters, particularly Bitsy who came over to me as a know-it-all bossy woman. It just shows you shouldn’ make snap judgements like that.

This book had me captivated right from the start, with the description of two contrasting families waiting at Baltimore Airport for the arrival of two Korean babies they have adopted. The story develops as the two girls, Jo-Hin and Susan (originally Sooki) are integrated into their families – one American, the Donaldsons, outgoing and confident and the other the Yazdans, American/Iranian, reserved and restrained. Each year they have a party on ‘Arrival Day’- and it is through these parties as well as in their everyday lives that the contrast between the two families is revealed and how they are gradually brought to a greater understanding and appreciation.

There are a number of themes running through the book as well as the cultural differences between the families – what it means to be American, being one. But it’s not just specific to America. There are universal issues such as not being able to have a child; being an outsider or a foreigner, or being different; illness and death; growing old; family relationships between the generations, in-laws and the extended family; traditions, pride and independence; and in particular friendship. Even though it was a quick read, there is so much in this brilliant book, giving insight into human nature that I think it will stay with me for a long time. I shall certainly be looking for more books by Anne Tyler.

By the way, Baltimore is also, coincidentally, the setting for The Poe Shadow, which I had to stop reading once I started to read Digging to America.