Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard (2013)

Apple Tree Yard

I wanted to read Apple Tree Yard as soon as it was out last year because I’d enjoyed Louise Doughty’s earlier novel Whatever You Love so much. I didn’t really know what to expect, didn’t read any reviews, and so I was glad to find out that not only is the book very different from her earlier novel, but just as good, maybe even better.

Apple Tree Yard tells the story of an affair that goes terribly wrong. Yvonne Carmichael is in her fifties, married with two grown-up kids. She’s a scientist and very successful in her work. Her marriage could be better but yshe and her husband do get along fine. What it is that makes her follow a man and start an affair with him? Boredom? Love—or rather lust— at first sight? Maybe a bit of both.

The book opens with a prologue that gives away a lot. We know Yvonne Carmichael and her lover have been arrested and are being tried and we also know that the prosecution has found out something that could be fatal for Yvonne. I think it’s quite impressive that Louise Doughty managed to give away this much in the prologue and still was able to write a page-turner that held my interest until the last page.

What worked particularly well for me was that large parts of the story were written as if Yvonne was talking to her lover, which was intimate and eerie at the same time.

Apple Tree Yard is the third crime novel with a London setting that I’ve read this year and, once again, the setting is almost a character.

The book is a crime novel but it explores a lot of themes in a very arresting way. Unfortunately mentioning some of them would really spoil the book. One theme I can mention, which is important, is the exploration of a marriage. Yvonne and her husband still share a lot but they are clearly not in love.

Apple Tree Yard is part thriller, part court-room drama, nicely paced, intricately plotted and infused with a bitter-sweet, melancholy mood that is quite rare in crime novels. A very gripping and intense novel.

 

Literature and War Readalong September 29 2014: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

If I hadn’t read a lot of favourable reviews of Louisa Young’s novel My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You, I would never have picked it up. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I’m allergic to men in greatcoat’s on WWI novels. On the other hand it’s better than a man in a greatcoat kissing a woman. But, as fluffy as it looks, the reviews made it sound poignant.

Louisa Young is a versatile author. Not only has she written three previous novels and a biography but, as Zizou Corder, she also writes a successful YA adult series together with her daughter.

Here are the first sentences

France, 7 June, 3.10 a.m.

It had been a warm night. Summery. Quiet, as such nights go.

The shattering roar of the explosion was so very sudden, cracking through the physicality of air and earth, that every battered skull, and every baffled brain within those skulls, was shaken by it, and every surviving thought was shaken out. It shuddered eardrums and set livers quivering; it ran under skin, set up counter-waves of blood veins and arteries, pierced rocking into the tiny canals of the sponge of the bone marrow. It clenched hearts, broke teeth, and reverberated in synapses and the spaces between cells. The men became a part of the noise, drowned in it, dismembered by it saturated. They were of it. It was of them.

They were all used to that.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young (UK 2011) WWI, Historical Fiction, 336 pages

A letter, two lovers, a terrible lie. In war, truth is only the first casualty. ‘Inspires the kind of devotion among its readers not seen since David Nicholls’ One Day’ The Times

While Riley Purefoy and Peter Locke fight for their country, their survival and their sanity in the trenches of Flanders, Nadine Waveney, Julia Locke and Rose Locke do what they can at home. Beautiful, obsessive Julia and gentle, eccentric Peter are married: each day Julia goes through rituals to prepare for her beloved husband’s return. Nadine and Riley, only eighteen when the war starts, and with problems of their own already, want above all to make promises – but how can they when the future is not in their hands? And Rose? Well, what did happen to the traditionally brought-up women who lost all hope of marriage, because all the young men were dead?

Moving between Ypres, London and Paris, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a deeply affecting, moving and brilliant novel of love and war, and how they affect those left behind as well as those who fight.

 

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 September 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

I’m Back – Sort Of

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Thanks everyone for the comments, kind words and the heartfelt emails. I really appreciate it. Unfortunately this wasn’t the type of blogging break from which you return refreshed. Far from it. I’m sorry for being this cryptic but I don’t feel like writing about what happened in a blog post at the moment. I’m sure you understand.

I’d like to apologize for skipping last month’s Literature and War Readalong. It was really not possible to read the book. I didn’t read much else either and I’m only slowly picking up books again.

I’m looking forward to visit your blogs again and to write posts of my own.  It will take my mind off things, I’m sure.

Across the Universe (2011) A Sci-Fi Thriller

Across the Universe is the first Sci-Fi thriller I’ve ever read. It’s also a YA novel and the first in a trilogy. Luckily it’s not the type of series beginning without a proper ending. There are open questions but the mystery is resolved, the perpetrator is caught.

Amy follows her parents on a mission to a planet that is three hundred years away from Earth. Her parents are part of a project crew needed to terraform Centauri-Earth. They have agreed to board the spaceship Godspeed and to be cyrogenically frozen. Three hundred years in the future they will be unfrozen. Amy didn’t have to follow her parents. They gave her a choice: she could stay with her grandparents and her boyfriend or travel to a new planet with her parents. Her love for her parents is stronger than anything else and she accepts to be frozen. The description of this is actually extremely well done. I could almost feel the ice in my veins.

Fifty years before they should land, someone brutally unplugs Amy. Luckily Elder, the future leader of Godspeed, Eldest’s heir, finds her in time. He’s fascinated by Amy, who is a redhead with translucent white skin and green eyes. Nobody looks like Amy on Godspeed. Everyone looks exactly the same: olive skin, dark eyes, brown hair, tall and strong. Eldest, the current leader, is far less thrilled. He’d like to open a hatch and throw Amy into space. He thinks that having someone on board who looks so different, who knows what it was like on earth, poses a huge threat to peace and stability on Godspeed.

Amy and Elder find out that Amy’s attempted murder probably was a mistake. Someone is targeting the crew of the project, which means Amy’s parents are in danger.

The plot is gripping enough but that wasn’t what I liked about this book. What I liked was the world Beth Revis created. The spaceship Godspeed is like a snow globe. I happen to love snow globes, those mini-worlds inside of glass bubbles filled with water. So naturally, I loved the setting. Godspeed has many layers and is like a replica of the earth. While there are no seasons, there’s still weather; they have rain and wind and they grow plants and have cattle.

For those who were born aboard Godspeed their environment poses no problem, but for Amy the ship is claustrophobic. She knows that the stars on the ship’s ceiling are fake. When they discover that there is a hidden window which allows to look out into space, things become dramatic. People are only docile and agreeing to work like slaves because they know nothing else. But once they would realize how vast the world is outside of the ship, things could change. We soon understand that Godspeed is not so much peaceful but totalitarian.

Amy and Elder try to find out who wants to kill the frozen crew members and they try to make sense of many inconsistencies. Someone, for example, has changed the books on Earth’s history. Facts are distorted and used to manipulate people.

I enjoyed this novel. I loved the setting, I thought the book had many thought-provoking elements, the plot was suspenseful, and Beth Revis has a knack for descriptions. There’s a love story but it’s not too romantic. The character’s are a bit flat and Amy thinks a few silly things, but I didn’t mind. I read this as highly entertaining guilty pleasure. Plus it’s an interesting genre mix that works really well. A bit like a locked room mystery set in space.

Anthony Trollope: The Warden (1855)

The Warden

Memory is a funny thing. For years I have been haunted by a sensual impression of a place. I remember being in England and walking along a row of houses. It’s a very peaceful, mild, warm autumn afternoon. The houses are part of a larger compound, overshadowed by a huge cathedral. I remember walking away from the cathedral close and coming to a small river that was flowing through the grassy meadow, on the same level as the soil. There were weeping willows and sheep. Walking around that place was like visiting a time long gone. These haunting images returned periodically. The light outside of my windows sometimes triggered the memory. It was always nice to go back in my mind, the only trouble was – I couldn’t remember where this had been. I’ve been in England many times, stayed there for a couple of months or weeks. I’ve visited many places and many cathedrals, but as much as I thought about it – I had no clue where I’d been on that warm autumn afternoon. Not until reading The Warden. The moment I opened the book and read the description of Barchester I knew – this is where I had been. But how could that be? Barchester doesn’t exist. Although I like to keep the introduction of a book until I’ve finished it, I had to read it to find out more. In the introduction I learned that Trollope based Barchester on Salisbury and Winchester. I immediately went online and looked up photos of Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral close and the meadows around and, yes, indeed, that’s where I’ve been some years ago. I found it pretty uncanny that Trollope was so capable at describing a place. I still don’t know why I forgot that the images were images of Salisbury. I’ve never frogotten a place like that. Maybe because it was so dreamlike?

I’ve meant to read Trollope for a while. Actually ever since I’ve read Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations) and Brian’s (Babbling Books) reviews of his novels. Most of Trollope’s books are chunky but The Warden, the first in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, is a mere 180 pages.

According to the introduction, Henry James called The Warden “the history of an old man’s conscience”. That’s true, however, it’s only one of at least three major themes Trollope exlpores and which all contribute to make The Warden a highly worthwhile and interesting book and one of those you’d love to discuss with other people.

Septimus Harding is precentor and warden of an almshouse. With these positions come 800£ per year. In order to obtain this money Mr Harding doesn’t have to work a lot. As a precentor he’s in charge of the choir in the cathedral and as warden he’s the moral support of the twelve destitute men who are allowed to spend their last years in the almshouse. Since the almshouse was founded in the 15th century, the warden has received  more money every year because of the revenue of the land. The twelve men’s allowance however would have been still the same as in the 15th Century if Mr Harding hadn’t given them some of his own money.

At the time when this story takes place, numerous reformers are hunting down greedy clergymen, showing how they abuse of their power and enrich themselves at the expense of others. Dr Bold is just such a reformer. When he meets the warden and his daughter, with whom he falls in love, he learns about the founder’s will and instigates an investigation which leads him to the conclusion that Mr Harding receives money that is due to the almsmen. His inquiry quickly gets out of hand when the biggest newspaper publicly accuses the warden of greed and malpractice.

Mr Harding is an excessively private man. He’s weak but kind and good-hearted. Being dragged into the spotlight like this, accused and shamed, is more than he can bear. He never thought that he might be doing something wrong but once he starts to think about it, he’s not so sure that he wasn’t enriching himself at the expense of the twelve poor men. While he doesn’t want to fight the accusation, his son-in-law, archdeacon Dr Grantly and the bishop of Barchester, fight for him and soon both parties involve lawyers. The warden has another strong supporter in his daughter who begs Dr Bold to abandon the cause.

The three themes which are explored each center on another figure. Mr Harding has to examine his conscience. Will he stay warden if it has been proven that he’s legally entitled to his money or will his own conscience tell him to let go?

Mr Bold shows how good intentions at the wrong moment and without thinking about consequences can be fatal. Maybe Mr Harding gets too much money, but why make this a matter of public interest and involve the newspaper? Why does he disregard the peace and quiet that reigns at the almshouse? Neither Mr Harding nor the twelve men are wanting anything. They live together amicably but once Dr Bold tells the twelve men that they should get more money, peace is lost forever.

For contemporary readers it might be interesting to read about the role of the press and the journalist Tom Towers. Trollope was inspired by true stories and what he lets us experience is the beginning of the value of public opinion and the power of the press.

Trollope chose to show us the end of an era. The tone of the book is elegiac throughout. In the introduction Robin Gilmour makes an interesting point. The warden’s garden is a strong symbol of this dying of an era. At the beginning of the novel it’s lush, green and lovely. At the end:

The warden’s garden is a wretched wilderness, the drive and paths are covered with weeds, the flowerbeds are bare, and the unshorn lawn is now a mass of long damp grass and unwholesome moss.

I had a very strong reaction when I read how content Mr Harding was in the beginning and how quickly a lifetime of ease was destroyed. At the same time I had to agree with Bold. Not in this matter, but in general. Why would a clergyman be given so many riches, a huge house with gardens, and a large income without doing any work? Still, I was sad for Mr Harding who was threatened to lose everything he held dear, even though he might not have been entitled to have it.

What annoyed me about Mr Bold’s doing was that the man he attacked was a kind and generous man and – compared to other clergymen – a tiny fish.

Before ending this rather lengthy review, I’d like to say a few things about Trollope’s writing. I enjoyed the descriptions and I had to laugh out loud a few times when he characterized people, notably the archdeacon, using caricature and satire. I found many of his authorial intrusions interesting but there were too many for my taste. I had problems with the parodies of Carlyle and Dickens because they felt glued on and were not a part of the story. I didn’t mind that Trollope spoke to the reader directly but some of the more hidden intrusions were annoying.

I’m glad I read The Warden. It made me remember my stay at Salisbury and I loved the descriptions. I liked his choice of themes and think they are just as important today as they were then. I also think he’s a wonderful satirist. Will I read the next in the series? In all honesty – I’m not so sure. I can’t pretend I fully warmed to Trollope and although I’ve started a small Victorian literature reading project, I think I’ll move on to Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontës.

If you’d like to read more reviews on Trollope visit Guy’s  (His Futile Preoccupations), Brian’s (Babbling Books) and Tony’s (Tony’s Reading List) blogs. Brian’s reading and reviewing The Barsetshire Chronicles (here’s his review of The Warden). Tony has reviewed both the Barchester and the Palliser novels – and some more and  Guy has written about many of the other novels.

 

Kate Rhodes: Crossbones Yard (2012)

Crossbones Yard

When I reviewed Nicci French’s third Frieda Klein novel two weeks ago, Alex (Thinking in Fragments) mentioned Kate Rhodes’ Alice Quentin series as being similar and just as good. Of course, I had to get the first in the series Crossbones Yard and read it right away. Reading a new author with a favourite one in mind is often an unfortunate thing, but not in this case. I noticed similarities – a well-described London setting – one protagonist is a psychoanalyst, the other a psychologist – they both work for the police – they both get in trouble – they both have family issues and loyal friends – the pacing is similar and so is the knack for a strong plot. The best news is—Kate Rhodes’ book is still different enough to be interesting. I think one reason is that Alice is at least ten years younger than Frieda. She sounds and feels younger. She goes clubbing and drinks too much on occasions. She’s a professional, but she’s working for a hospital, not for herself, like Frieda. The London described in Crossbones Yard is edgier, it also seems bigger, as Kate Rhodes mentions more neighbourhoods.

The novel opens with a prologue. A flashback: an abusive father, a child in hiding. At the beginning of the novel, Alice avoids taking the elevator to her office on the 24th floor. She’d rather jog. Although she’s a successful psychologist, she suffers from claustrophobia. She’s working at a hospital where she has her practice and helps the police. Not surprisingly then, DCI Burns comes to fetch her. He wants her to talk to a man who is in prison for murder but will be released soon. Burns wants Alice to assess how dangerous he really is. She finds him creepy but mentally challenged and doesn’t see him as a risk. Unfortunately, just after he’s been released, a young woman, who’s obviously been held captive, is brutally murdered. Her face and abdomen were carved. Alice finds her body when she goes jogging one evening. The woman’s been dumped on the former burial ground Crossbones Yard. Nowadays it’s just a wasteland and happens to be exactly where Alice goes for her evening runs.

It will not be the last body Alice finds. At the same time she receives threatening letters and Alice knows that whoever kills these women is after her as well.

The book is swarming with suspects and many of them are somehow linked to a couple of serial killers. The husband is already dead but his wife is still serving time and the new murders look strikingly like those they committed.

I really liked Crossbones Yard a great deal in spite of feeling let down by the ending. The red herrings were too obvious; instead of misleading me, they led me to discover the murderer a bit too early. Still, this is a promising beginning to a series and I’m looking forward to read the sequels. Alice is a strong character and her troubled family history adds to her complexity. Another aspect I liked is that the comments Alice makes on psychology and human behaviour are eve more pertinent than those coming from Frieda Klein. And the descriptions of London are fantastic.