On the bookshelf: July and August

It’s been seriously long, and I do apologise. I will get back into this series from next month! 

The latest books!

The latest books!

Readers may know I’m a big Terry Pratchett fan, and so I raced through a collection of his non-fiction, A Slip of the Keyboard in July. The fantasy author, who passed away in March, was an outspoken advocate of causes such as the right-to-die movement, and environmental issues (especially the protection of orang-utans). He writes movingly of these here, but his trademark humour and wit is still in evidence. His descriptions of writing tours, and his average writing day, are laugh-out-loud hilarious. For Discworld fans, there’s also some wonderful insights on how Pratchett created this marvellous universe, and as always, his humanity shines through.

Being a collection of his non-fiction, which appeared over a lifetime in print, speech and book introductions, there are moments of repetition. However when the material is this good, who cares?

Sigmund Freud is generally regarded as the father of psychology, regardless of the subsequent debunking of many of his theories. The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld imagines Freud and his rival Carl Jung being drawn into a murder mystery during Freud’s only visit to the United States in 1909. When a wealthy heiress is found strangled in his hotel, Freud and his American protege, Streatham Younger, are called upon to help the investigation.

Rubenfeld once wrote a thesis on Freud, and his in-depth knowledge of the man and the early development of psychology is evident. The novel is not bogged down by research thankfully; at its heart it’s a very enjoyable murder mystery. One thing that did spoil it for me slightly was the sudden switching of voices from Streatham’s first person narration into the third person. It felt jarring, and it’s a wonder an editor did not pull the author up over it.

Edinburgh (by Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons)

Edinburgh (by Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons)

I read two Kate Atkinson books in August, and she’s fast becoming a favourite author of mine. Firstly, One Good Turn is the second of Jackson Brodie series. Jackson is Edinburgh with his girlfriend, Julia, who is starring in a Fringe show. While out strolling the city, he witnesses a brutal road rage incident, and this kicks off an unstoppable chain of events.

As always, Atkinson has written a tightly plotted mystery and brought us into the heads of diverse characters. Martin, a man who uncharacteristically intervenes during the road rage incident, is one of the most intriguing. He’s a passive, timid writer of twee Miss Marple-like mysteries, but he’s carrying a shocking secret.

Unputdownable to the very end… and indeed, the last line is a twist in itself. One to really enjoy.

I also enjoyed Atkinson’s collection of short stories, Not the End of the WorldIt feels like she’s really just playing and letting loose with these stories; all of them vaguely connected, most of them referencing Buffy and Greco-Roman mythology. There are some marvellous ones here; my favourite being nanny who rescues the neglected son of a Z-list celebrity by being a cross between Mary Poppins and Diana the Huntress. There’s wordplay, there’s karma harshly delivered and immortals mixing with mortals. The whole thing is a joy, and a word nerd’s heaven.

I loved Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, so I decided to give Jamaica Inn a go. I was not disappointed. Set in 19th century Cornwall, it follows Mary Yellan, a young orphan who goes to live with her aunt Patience following the death of her mother. Patience is married to the cruel and frightening Joss Merlyn, the landlord of the Jamaica Inn, an isolated pub on the moors. Mary is prepared to roll up her sleeves and work behind the bar, but the Jamaica hardly ever has customers, apart from villainous friends of her uncle. Mary soon finds herself in a nightmarish world; knowing her uncle and his associates are vicious criminals, but unable to turn to the authorities for the sake of her aunt. And then there’s Joss’ younger brother Jem, to whom she’s attracted but unable to trust.

Jamaica Inn is atmospheric and engrossing, and well deserves the title of ‘classic’. Even better, the Jamaica Inn is a real place on Bodmin Moor. Another destination added to my endless travel bucket list.

The real Jamaica Inn (by Dave Goodman via Wikimedia Commons)

The real Jamaica Inn (by Dave Goodman via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, to David Mitchell’s first novel, GhostwrittenLike Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocksit’s the story of a number of strangers across the world, all of whom are interconnected somehow. Mitchell’s pet locations of Japan, London and West Cork show up too, and in many ways it’s a precursor to his later books.

Ghostwritten deserves to be taken on its own merits too though. For me, it packs a greater emotional heft than Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks. I found myself caring greatly for these characters, especially Marco, the London ghostwriter whose life is at a crossroads, Margarita, the St Petersburg art curator with a gift for self-deception and Mo, the Irish-born research scientist who is on the run from forces she cannot possibly fight. Even the ghost-narrated chapter is emotionally affecting. Even more so is the “Holy Mountain” section, where an elderly Chinese woman takes us through the brutal changes she’s witnessed over the decades.

The usual themes of chance, interconnectedness and power show up here, and as always, Mitchell has created a thought-provoking journey for the reader. Also, any author who actually writes the line “I cannot outrun the Pentagon using the Republic of Ireland’s public transport system” is always welcome for tea at my house.

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