Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer

IMG_0020Naxos Audiobooks. Narrated by Laura Paton. 2014

This is the most entertaining Georgette Heyer book I have read (or listened to) since These Old Shades.

The story opens with the dowager Lady Maplethorpe summoning her nephew, Mr. Ravenscar, to her with the dreadful news that his young cousin Lord Maplethorpe  has just announced his engagement to a young lady who works in a gaming hall. His attempt to buy the lovely Deborah off, who runs the gaming house with her aunt, doesn’t go well and a bitter tug of war over Lord Maplethorpe starts between them.

At first I thought I’ve seen this before. They’ll quarrel and fall in love, The End. Actually the argument turns into a stone cold battle that ends up encompassing bills, the mortgage on the house and debtors prison. We get halfway through the novel and the characters are still ruthless in their campaign to humiliate and tear down the other with no hint of warmth. It was a very satisfying relationship to watch grow.

Deborah, being one of the few Heyer heroines who actually has a job and a traditionally male one at that, is pragmatic, competitive and hot tempered. The whole story verges on the comical but underneath is her desire to be able to commit formal violence against an enemy, also traditionally a male activity, is woven throughout the book.

“Oh if I were a man to be able to call him out and run him through and through and through.
Lady Bellingham, who appeared quite shattered, said feebly that you could not run a man through three times.

“At least I don’t think so,” she added, “of course I never was present at a duel but there are always seconds, you know, and they would be bound to stop you.”
“Nobody would stop me!” declared Miss Grantham  bloodthirstily. “I would like to carve him into mincemeat .”

This wasn’t quite the sugary confection I was expecting  (being well acquainted with Georgette Heyer) but more like a bright cup of tea and is one of the most entertaining historical romances I have read. There is still the froth of declarations of love and lashings of lace (this is Heyer after all) but the ruthless battle of wits that makes the heart of the story kept me hooked for hours.

 

 

 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

jamaica-innYou might ask why I have not devoured all of du Maurier’s books, seeing as Rebecca is one of my favourite novels of all time. Well, with authors I love (and especially dead authors) I am very wary of running out of their books and having none to look forward to. Which is why I tend to shy away from books I am pretty sure I will love.

This story opens in 1820 with Mary Yellan on her way to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn after her mother dies. Her aunt, who was a laughing, carefree woman when Mary was a child, is now cringing and meek and her uncle Joss Merlyn, the landlord, is a vicious bully. The Bodwin Moor seems a dark wasteland to her and there is something strange about the Inn. Why are there never any guests staying there? And why do mysterious carriages pull up in the dead of night?

Mary Yellen is a wonderful protagonist. The same theme I saw in Rebecca, the restlessness of being in a woman’s role, was shown here through Mary.

“I’ll not show fear before Joss Merlyn or any man,” she said, “and, to prove it, I will go down now, in the dark passage, and take a look at them in the bar, and if he kills me it will be my own fault.”

She pities and loves her aunt and yet feels exasperation at her devotion to a man who ruined her happiness. And all the while she is going down the same dark road with her uncle’s younger brother, Jem. His family has a long history of women sticking by the men who treat them worse than dirt and it’s never made clear that Jem won’t follow in this path too. He certainly doesn’t seem to see anything much out of the ordinary in it.

This novel  went a lot darker than I expected which thrilled me of course. It is not only beautifully written but extremely readable. The kind of book that keeps you up at night. There is nothing even remotely supernatural in this book rather du Maurier illustrates true darkness is in nature and the hearts of human beings. The landlord was a very brutish sort of fear to impress but du Maurier goes one step further and injects something even more horrifying in her book from an unexpected source.

I loved everything about this. It was much richer and thrilling than I thought it would be. Before I read this book, Cornwall just evoked twee images of clotted cream and pixies but du Maurier has shown me a place I didn’t know existed. Bogs, windswept moors, deadly marshes and a sign to Jamaica Inn, swinging like a gibbet, and a dead man hanging.”

Honour by Elif Shafak

honour“Never had it occurred to him that you could deceive the person you held dear. It was his first lesson in the complexity of love.”

A dark little anecdote with which Elif Shafak opens her book paves the way for a novel that fearlessly takes on Honour killing and everything that comes with it. Shafak recalls a childhood memory of a neighbour who often beat his wife. “In the evenings we listened to the shouts, the cries, the swearing.” The entire neighbourhood pretended not to hear.

This tale of a Kurdish-Turkish family spans three generations and is the first of Shafak’s books to be set in London.

The story opens with Esme setting out to get her brother after his 14 year sentence in Shrewsbury Prison. He has been locked up for murder and it is suggested that the victim was his own mother. We then journey back and forth through Istanbul in the 50s, to Hackney in the 70s and a small Kurdish village where twin girls, Pembe and Jamila, step on the paths to the rest of their lives.

It is Pembe and her husband Adem who journey to London and start to raise their three children and we watch with the slow inevitably as a character starts a chaste relationship that leads to tragedy. Shafak neither villanises nor sugar coats the characters and issues this raises and unflinchingly shows the result of what happens when misogyny is allowed to run unchecked.

This story is written with a touch of magical realism and contains stories within stories that have the touch of the fantastical; a mother waits on a riverbank for an old woman to name her child and Jamila lives hermit-like as the “Virgin Midwife.” This writing style with touches of humour made what could have been a grim story, something warm and human and while I did not fall in love I did enjoy the reading.

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

unicornThis is a very strange book. From the beginning it fills you full of emotions; fear, apprehension, excitement, longing but without, at first, giving a reason for any of them. The scene is set with a fatalistically gothic opening of a remote windswept castle, a determined heroine, a mysterious beauty and a sinister presence…

Marian Taylor is employed as a teacher or “companion” to a beautiful woman, Hannah, in Gaze Castle. A soon as she arrives she sense something is not quite right, from her employer to the various inhabitants, the whole place is thick with some kind of awful tension.

Indeed there are so many undercurrents that it seems an entire ocean rolls underneath this book. Everything seems to have a hidden purpose or meaning. Murdoch does this with half glimpses and hints of huge terrifying things just out of reach, always unseen and had me gripping the pages and waiting for… what exactly?

“Scottow and Jamesie were still regarding each other. Scottow said, “Have you been telling fairy stories?” He laughed and brushed the boy’s cheek lightly with his whip.”

The novel started out sedately enough but as it got going I was satisfyingly weirded out and nervous for what would happen next. I couldn’t take any of the characters at face value and one in particular appeared so ordinary and then proceeded to dominate every person in the book, breaking them to their will and taking my breath away.

I was gripped at the climax of this books as nightmare after nightmare sucked the characters in like a whirlpool. It was so gothic it became ridiculous, with lashings of pathetic fallacy and every other Gothic trope you could think of. What spoiled it for me was Murdoch shying away from fully committing to the genre through using a massive egotist as one of the protagonists. Look how ridiculous this is she seems to say and although I found it very funny it broke the spell, maybe intentionally.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

8686068“It’s more difficult to create the problem than to solve it. All the person trying to solve the problem has to do is always respect the problem’s creator.”

Is it a coincidence that the only other Japanese crime novel I read also involved bento box production and a woman strangling her husband? The Devotion of Suspect X opens with single mother Yasuko Hanaoka strangling her ex-husband after a period of stalking, sponging off and threatening her teenage daughter Misato who finally cracks and hits her stepfather over the head with a vase. Faced with the problem of a dead body they are  overheard by their next door neighbour, a maths teacher named Ishigami, who proceeds to come conveniently to their rescue.

There is no give away of the plot by saying this. The murder happens in the books opening. The majority of the plot is dedicated to the cat and mouse game Ishigami plays with the police, the genius consultant they bring in and the strength of Ishigami’s devotion to Yasuko when an old flame re-enters her life.

Despite committing the murder Yasuka and Misato are not really the protagonists of this story. They only seem to react to the situations around them. It is the male characters doing the scheming, the investigating and the brainwork. I was a bit disappointed because the opening led me to believe it would be the two women at the centre of the plot

This book sold over 2 million copies in Japan and is considered Higashino’s best work. While I enjoyed the read I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat as the detectives circled around the evidence for nearly the entire book. It wasn’t like the speeding car falling down hill in Out where the situation spirals out of control and in fact I found the novel dragged quite a bit. It is unfortunate for this book that I read Natsuo Karino’s work first and the premise was so similar. However Karino created a work of devastation you can’t look away from and imprints the horror on your mind. The difference between the two crime novels is like the snow outside to the snow inside a snow globe.

 

 

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

bluecastleWhen I’m sick or sad or it’s raining outside this is my number one book to reach for. What Anne of Green Gables did for me as a child The Blue Castle does for me as an adult. This story is as timeless and warming as hot soup and a warm blanket.

Valancy Stirling lives a cramped dreary life, cowed by her overbearing and critical family. Dismissed as an old maid at 29 and meekly doing everything her family asks of her, her only escapes are her “dream sprees” in her imaginary Blue Castle every night and the nature books of John Foster. A shocking diagnosis from a doctor frees her from her miserable existence and causes her to say and do what she thinks for the first time in her life.

“Fear is the original sin,” suddenly said a still, small voice away back—back—back of Valancy’s consciousness. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.”

Valancy stood up. She was still in the clutches of fear, but her soul was her own again. She would not be false to that inner voice.”

Montgomery is a genius at capturing the intricacies of human interaction. I grew up reading her Anne series so I always appreciated this but seeing her skill in a novel directed towards adults illustrates her skills in an entirely new light. Her ability to inject warmth and humour into the tragic and mundane makes me return to her again and again.

I love Valancy and her efforts to find “her own little dust pile.” Despite the flowery romantic cover this is actually predominantly a novel about gaining psychological and financial independence. There is a romance with a character brilliant enough to rival Gilbert Blythe and I loved all the other characters too from the colourful “Roaring Abel” to the petty clan of Stirlings.

I can’t recommend this book enough, it’s severely underrated. As I grow older I’ve returned to it more than any of Montgomery’s other books and it also remains close by for a re-read.

Deathless by Catherine M. Valente

deathlessFrom the first chapter of Deathless, I was ordering, pleading with myself to slow down and not to read so fast. But I couldn’t help gobbling the story down in one lavish gulp. Valente has written book that is both beautifully written and exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Set against the backdrop of Russia in the twentieth century, the story follows Marya Morevna as she watches the world change from a narrow house in Leningrad. A young man who is neither young or a man knocks on her door; he is Koschei, the Tsar of Life and he is Marya’s fate.

Every part of this book was so clever and imaginative I felt like I was stopping to gawp at the pages every five minutes. Valente writes the kind of story where I can hunt for the hidden meaning buried inside each passage or let the true significance fly over my head and just admire how beautiful it is.

After that, Marya Morevna understood that she belonged to her secret and it belonged to her. They had struck a bloody bargain between them. Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

This is what magical stories should always be. Showing the real world for what it is. Where the mythological world reflects the real world, where house elves have embraced Stalinism and the Tsar of life is at war with the Tsar of death. Where everyone pretends not to know what happened yesterday and the dead still have to go to work the next morning. Where Baba Yaga rides her pestle and mortar and turns girls into soup. The rich world of Russian folklore has been weaved into the twentieth century so effortlessly it sent shivers through me even though these are not the stories I grew up with.

After reading this gorgeous book and glancing at Valente’s website, where I see she has written a number of fantasy books and won dozens of prestigious awards, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to read one of her works.  I recommend Deathless not only to fantasy fans but also to those who love history and writers with a mastery over storytelling and the English language.