Recently I posted Liz's comment on Sue Gee's new novel Trio, and having finished the book now I can echo Liz's words; I haven't read a work of fiction as good as this for quite some time.
Trio exhibits all Sue Gee's* hallmarks - an unhurried narrative, measured handling of material, particularly of the story's emotional substrate, a calmness and restraint in plotting, beautifully drawn characters, and a feel for place such that she could be called a landscape artist with words.
Trio is set in Northumberland in the late 1930s where Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, loses his wife to tuberculosis. Finding solace in his work, Steven is helped through his grief by his friendship with his colleague Frank whose cellist sister Diana is a member of a trio. As, for the first time, Steven experiences the expressive power of music, its ability to transport and to heal, so he becomes close to the musicians - Diana, Margot and George - and enters their world of country houses, shared history, and repressed emotion. When one of the friends breaks the charmed circle to follow a path they can, in conscience, no longer avoid, everything changes for all of them.
I'm always drawn to books which feature music**, as a knowledgeable and sensitive treatment of the subject provides a rich extra dimension, and this one incorporates it seamlessly and perfectly. Done with care, integrity and balance, the musical element both enhances the novel itself and leads the reader to find recordings and listen closely to the specific pieces described - a bonus, to my mind.
But as I've said above there's so much more than that to Trio, and I can't recommend it too highly. Sue Gee is a writer of clarity and quality, a Bawden or Ravilious, a Reynolds Stone or Clare Leighton of prose, and reading her work is pure pleasure.
* There are links to posts on some of her other novels here.
"Mrs. Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs. Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs. Rodd to investigate the background of an 'unsuitable' woman his son intends to marry - a match he is determined to prevent.
In the guise of governess, she travels to the family seat, Wishtide, deep in the frozen Lincolnshire countryside, where she soon discovers that the Calderstones have more to hide than most. As their secrets unfold, the case takes an unpleasant turn when a man is found dead outside a tavern. Mrs. Rodd's keen eyes and astute wits are taxed as never before in her search for the truth - which carries her from elite drawing rooms to London's notorious inns and its steaming laundry houses.
Dickensian in its scope and characters, The Secrets of Wishtide brings nineteenth century society vividly to life and illuminates the effect of Victorian morality on women's lives. Introducing an irresistible new detective, the first book in the Laetitia Rodd Mystery series will enthral and delight."
Tightrope follows Marian Sutro, who has survived Ravensbruck and is back in dreary London trying to pick up the pieces of her post-War life. It is Simon Mawer’s tenth novel; his seventh, The Glass Room (which many of us read in 2012), was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2010.
The Judges said: ‘Tightrope is a spy story in the grand tradition, sweeping the reader irresistibly into the harrowing life of a secret agent in World War Two. Impeccably researched, it perfectly inhabits its time and place. It is a worthy winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Marian Sutro, who made her first appearance in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is a commanding character, enigmatic and fascinating. Damaged by her experiences, by the dangers she has faced, by those who have betrayed her and those she has been forced to betray, Sutro walks the tightrope between the people in her life who have sent her into danger, those whom she must fear, and those she seeks to protect.
Tightrope, however, is more than a very good spy thriller. We are used now, in a century already scarred by wars, to the concept of post traumatic stress disorder. There was no such diagnosis in the aftermath of the twentieth century's terrible wars, but it afflicted millions, nevertheless. Simon Mawer has given us, in the character of Marian Sutro, a study of how the terrifying events she endured in her youth shaped and transformed the rest of her life.'
"Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post which inspired me to read Trio. I have just finished it, after reading as slowly as I possibly could, to make it last longer, and have loved it SO much that I am convinced it will be one of, if not THE Book of the Year for me. The writing, the spirit of place, the characterisation, the whole historical atmosphere have combined to make it a magical read for me which I am sure will remain in my memory, and on my bookshelf, for many a year. Just magical! Now on a mission to track down the other Sue Gee books I have bought over the years so I can catch up on what I have been missing."
"In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the Millennium Bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.
In 1888, five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master.
In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns.
In 1666, poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later.
But from where comes the feeling that the world is about to end?"
Toby Litt says this is "one of the most exciting novels I've read in recent years. Michael Hughes writes like a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel," while the acquiring editor at publisher John Murray says, "It’s very rare that a debut both has this much ambition and also delivers on that ambition; it’s dizzying, genre-blending, polyphonic and one hell of a ride."
... Trio, the new novel by the excellent Sue Gee (which will shortly be out).
"Northumberland: the winter of 1937. In a remote moorland cottage, Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, is filled with sadness and longing at the death of his wife. Through a charismatic colleague, Frank Embleton, and Frank's sister, Diana, he is drawn into the beguiling world of a group of musicians, and falls gradually under their spell. But as war approaches a decision is made which calls all their lives quite shockingly into question. Moving between the beauty and isolation of the moors, a hill-town school and a graceful old country house, Trio delicately explores conscience and idealism, romantic love and most painful desire. Throughout it all, the power of music to disturb, uplift and affirm is unforgettably evoked."
If you're not already acquainted with Sue Gee's work, here are posts on some of her other books:
Lots of us are admirers of the work of Sarah Moss, and as her 2014 novel Bodies of Light is one of today's Kindle bargains, I thought I'd repost my thoughts:
This is a very fine work indeed: tightly controlled and restrained, and all the more powerful for it; elegant, eloquent; founded on careful research, every fact used with skill and precision to make a point - and there are many to be made in this novel which is concise and self-contained but universal in its themes.
It is the story of Alethea Moberley, sister of May from the historical strand of Night Waking, but it is also an account of the position of women in society in the second half of the 19th. century, of their rights and educational opportunities (or lack of same), of their gradual incursion into the world of medicine*, and of family life and maternal feeling and failings.
I could go into greater detail regarding the measured plot, the characters who are all seen in relation to Alethea, the clever use of her father's paintings as allegory/commentary, the chilling epigraph which sets the tone ... but suffice to say there is a sequel in the offing, and that is good news on many counts, but chiefly - and simply - because this book is first class.
The shortlisted authors have been invited to take part in a panel discussion on historical fiction at The Borders Book Festival in Melrose on Saturday, 18th, June, and the winner will be announced that day.
Catalogues from Profile Books and Serpent's Tail for the second half of the year have just arrived and two titles particularly caught my eye.
From Susan Hill, who needs no introduction but is here described as "grande dame of English supernatural fiction", comes The Travelling Bag, "a chilling collection of new ghost stories. In the title story, in the warmly lit surrounds of a club off St. James's, a bishop listens closely as a supernatural detective recounts his most memorable case, one whose horrifying denouement took place in that very building.
"This is Susan Hill at her best, with a characteristically flesh-creeping and startling collection of new tales of thwarted ambition, terrifying revenge and supernatural stirrings that will leave readers wide-awake long into the night."
Look for that one in September.
Out in June comes The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, "a sumptuously imagined novel of passion, ideas and friendship.
"Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890s, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other - but not in the usual way. Cora Seaborne is a well-to-do London widow and amateur naturalist who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, where William Ransome is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. As the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.
"Dazzlingly written and woven through with rich historical detail, this novel is most profoundly a celebration of love and the many different guises it can take."
I'm always glad to have another chance to bring a good book back to centre stage, and the Kindle daily deals often give me that opportunity. Today you can bag a bargain in the shape of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows which was a huge hit when it came out around eight years ago.
At the time I called it "an utter joy of a book, beautifully judged, witty, lively, almost Mitfordesque in places, sparky, and extremely touching."
Here's the rest of my post:
In early 1946 the popular writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey farmer, who happens to have acquired a book she once owned. So begins an extraordinary correspondence between Juliet and the various members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to which the shy but dependable Dawsey belongs, and in which the details - both funny and tragic - of the German occupation of the island come to light. So enamoured is Juliet of her new pen-friends and the life that they describe that she determines to write her next book about the island in wartime and she takes up residence there to begin her research. She soon realises that the person who should be at the book's heart is the one islander she has yet to meet: the spirited, much-loved Elizabeth McKenna, transported to a concentration camp for her bravery and defiance in the face of the enemy, leaving behind her infant daughter Kit - to whom Juliet becomes close - and the secret of the child's paternity.
Written in epistolary form (and it does bear comparison with Helene Hanff's wonderful 84 Charing Cross Road), the book is both a love story and an unemotionally honest picture of its subject matter, but yet it has a light touch and is full of distinct and engaging characters such as Isola Pribby with her passion for the Brontes and her homemade potions, John Booker the wine-loving valet who's a fan of Seneca, Jonas Skeeter and his dim view of Marcus Aurelius : "...[he] was an old woman - always taking his mind's temperature...." and Clovis Fossey, who is much taken with poetry since joining the Society, and writes "Mrs. Maugery lent me a book last week. It's called The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. They let a man named Yeats make the choosings. They shouldn't have. Who is he - and what does he know about verse?"
Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer died [in 2008]; her legacy is this simply lovely book which has been a great pleasure to read.
Lindsay's Hawdon's debut novel Jakob's Colours is a superb piece of work and a heart-rending one. It's out today in paperback and really does deserve a wide readership, for its quality and its subject matter. It deals with an overlooked aspect of twentieth century history, the persecution of Europe's Roma people which culminated in death camps and genocide, and it follows Jakob, a young half-blood gypsy boy, his Roma father and his English mother, and moves from Jakob's flight from the Nazi net in 1944 back to his parents' earlier lives in the '30s.
When I reviewed it last year I summed up thus:
"A novel of great beauty, compassion and sensitivity which yet portrays man’s inhumanity to man at its very worst, the book’s episodic structure - taking the reader back and forth in time and place - adds to its intensity, while Lindsay Hawdon’s gift for language makes for luminous, affecting writing."
Not that we lack good books to read now, but it's nice to glance ahead and see interesting ones in the pipeline. Today's example of a book to look forward to is by Andrew Taylor, author of The Anatomy of Ghosts (post on it here), The Scent of Death (an absorbing, atmospheric historical thriller of the highest quality), and The American Boy, among many others; coming from him next November is Broken Voices and Other Stories, a collection of three ghost novellas "to make a perfect fireside read for the cold winter months. Whether the setting is an icy cathedral close before World War 1, the storm-battered East Anglian coast, or the mysterious forest of Dean, these unnerving stories grip and disturb the reader in equal measure."
If you fancy giving Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels a try, the first three in the series are among today's Kindle deals. I've read Master and Commander (which is book 1) and I enjoyed it thoroughly, while Mr. C. has read the lot and loved them all. I refer to them in this post and in a rather different context in this one - they might sway you if you're swithering.
And to get your toes tapping, here's the final scene from the film:
I very much enjoyed Cecilia Ekbäck's debut novel Wolf Winter a few months ago, and as it has just come out in paperback I wanted to mention it again.
It's an accomplished, atmospheric piece set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, and it's multi-faceted, being a murder mystery, an exploration of a remote place and distant time, and a fable-like piece of literary fiction.
As I said of it on publication:
Joining a small group of settlers on forbidding Blackåsen Mountain is a family of Finnish incomers. When young Frederika discovers a neighbour’s mutilated body on the mountainside one day, the death is at first put down to a wolf attack, but Frederika’s mother Maija – an ‘earth-woman’ or healer – is sure it was a man’s hand at work.
As harsh winter approaches, Maija tries to uncover the truth about the killing, her search for answers to the many questions raised by it revealing the secrets each Blackåsen family has brought with them and tried to hide, and putting the lives of both her daughters at risk as she unwittingly exposes them to dangers both natural and unnatural.
"Like a silent fall of snow; suddenly, the reader is enveloped ... visually acute, skilfully written; it won't easily erase its tracks in the reader's mind." So says Hilary Mantel, and she's right.
If you've been following the rugby world cup - and congratulations to New Zealand on an impressive win this afternoon - you might be interested in an excellent novel I wrote about a few years ago.
The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones tells the story of the All Blacks' tour of the UK in 1905, and "in this melding of true history and imagination, recreates an unforgettable journey from innocence to celebrity."
Here's some of what I had to say about it at the time:
" ... Jones has taken real events and imagined the story around them, and the result, though short, has great 'presence' and power. In 1905 a group of young men from all walks of life set sail from New Zealand, bound for Britain. They were the All Blacks, then little known, but their expertise on the rugby pitch soon brought them the sort of celebrity we associate with the present day.
On the voyage, where the backs honed their passing skills with hard young pumpkins bought in Montevideo, they had no idea that their tour would see them virtually undefeated (only the Welsh would beat them). As they played round the country, the New Zealanders' skill and excellence earned them enormous fame, with which, of course, they had to deal - hence the novel's title.
The book reads sometimes like an extended diary entry, at others a newsreel; its reportage is mixed with list-style facts, impressions, and details which stand out. It is a very vivid book, and one written with immense sympathy and empathy for its subject. I recommend it thoroughly, as does Mr. C. who read it after me, and you don't need to have an interest in rugby to enjoy it."
I've read a few of Lloyd Jones' novels but this one is by far my favourite.
Kate Mosse's novel The Taxidermist's Daughter came out in paperback last month, and I should have flagged it then, but better late than never.
It's a gothic thriller set on the Sussex coast in 1912, and it begins in the graveyard of the church of St. Peter and St. Mary in Fishbourne, where at midnight on the Eve of St. Mark, it is believed that the ghosts of those destined to die in the coming year will be seen entering the church at the turning of the hour.
As the bell tolls, and the eyes of all who have gathered are fixed on the church, a woman is murdered – garrotted by gloved hands – and as over the ensuing days the rising tide and fierce storms threaten the village, the mystery of the dead woman, and of a group of gentlemen - strangers to the village but seen in the graveyard - deepens.
Kate Mosse describes herself as a storyteller, and this book certainly bears that out. I was impressed by the way the central conceit is developed, and I admire the lengths the author went to for her research (the clue is in the title!) for this "compelling story of justice, and of a punishment to fit a crime".
Edited to add: the hardback cover (shown here) is a much stronger design and more appropriate, I think.