Wednesday 15 August 2012

Angels and Men by Catherine Fox

The City is a galleon sailing on the river. Listen to the wind thrumming in the trees and singing round the chimney pots. High on the crow's nest of the cathedral hear the ping-ping-ping of rope against flagpole. This is where the angels pass by. These are the angel paths, the windy walkways. They are clothed with polished air and their faces are the faces of statues, bright as sunlight off water. No one sees them.
I'm going to file this under Northumbrian Books - okay, I know it's not, it's Durham, but I said I was going to apply the category loosely. And, to be fair, I found it during my hunt for books set in Northumberland, so it occupies that place in my mind. And I am so glad I found it, because it is terrific!

Mara is a postgraduate at Durham University, researching women in cults for her Master's -- a topic she's chosen because she had a disturbing experience with a sect which sucked in both her and her twin sister. It quickly becomes evident that she was emotionally frail anyway, but is now deeply scarred, and she's arrived at university determined to stay aloof from her fellow students and to concentrate on her work. Her detachment is read as contempt by those around her, particularly by her neighbour in her hall of residence, whom she has immediately named "the polecat". Two of the undergrads, however, May and Maddy, both, like Mara, clergy daughters, refuse to be put off by by her manners, and set out to befriend her. In their wake are clean-cut Rupert and local boy Johnny, both ordinands, both wildly attractive, and the disturbingly insidious Joanna, whose religion is of the charismatic kind. Mara finds herself, albeit against her will, caught up in college life and struggling to maintain the defences she's built to protect herself from further damage.

Does this sound oppressive? Well, it might be, except that Mara is cursed -- for someone who wants to stay angry all the time -- with a sense of humour. She can be disarmed by wit. The story as it unfolds is by turns funny and painful, but always compelling, and even when she's accused of histrionics, Mara's pain is plausible and convincing. Despite her prickliness, though, it's clear to the reader that she is capable of the active process of healing, however reluctantly she embarks on it. The other students both help and hinder, of course.

The intensity of college life is wonderfully depicted against the background of cathedral and castle -- Fox's portrait of the city reminds me a little of Elizabeth Goudge's portrayal of Ely and Wells, perhaps in the way that they both linger on rock and stone, the cathedrals rooted in the earth but soaring upwards. The river runs a constant course through the novel too, while behind the massive city sprawl the industrial wastelands of Johnny's birthplace.

I ache for a sequel to Angels and Men. Fox has written two other books which I'll be reading just as soon as I get my paws on them (warning: the third, Love for the Lost, is hard to find if you get hooked, and expensive). Meantime, I shall be busily imagining futures for all the characters...

Cross-posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf

Sunday 15 July 2012

Broken Harmony, Roz Southey

"I am talking to a dead man, trying to persuade him to give up the name of his murderer. Trying to persuade him that justice is more than a private matter. And getting nowhere." 
This is a bit of an oddity, but none the worse for that. Broken Harmony is a mystery set in the 1730s in Newcastle, and it's written by a musicologist, so you can be assured that the occupation of the main characters is going to be convincing. Charles Patterson is a harpsichord player (though he's proficient on other instruments too) who aspires to lead the city's small chamber orchestra, a position he thinks should be his by right: in those days it was quite usual for an ensemble to be led from the harpsichord, something, indeed, which we often see today. However, Patterson has an arch rival, first violin Henri Le Sac, and it is he who leads - and, as Patterson grudgingly admits, is a virtuoso player, dextrous and showy, to the frequent delight of audiences. Patterson himself, meanwhile, is proficient and an excellent leader, but unexciting. The two men vie for pupils, as well, as teaching provides an important supplementary income, and it only exacerbates their antagonism that each has a friend who is a dancing master. Indeed, if anything, Demsey and Nichols hate each other even more than the two musicians.

The oddity is that there is a supernatural element to the story. We quickly learn that hauntings are a part of everyday existence - spirits, it seems, usually take a hundred years before they leave the place where death occurred. Patterson's landlady, Mrs Foxton, is still running her establishment with a firm word despite her incorporeality, while on stormy nights the ghosts make the streets an eerily frightening place:

The Key was a river of smoke, eddying and drifting in a wind that dragged at my clothes and hair. As the smoke swirled, it covered everything in a pall of dark grey, then tugged itself apart again, offering glimpses of cobbles, bundles of charcoal, ballast stones abandoned in huge hillocks. The scream of seagulls echoed as if from a great distance; faintly I heard shouting - confused and alarmed, frightened even - as if some calamity had occurred. A man stumbled out of the smoke, coughing and retching - a collier by his clothes and the ingrained black lines on his hands and face. He pushed past me, swearing through his coughing, and stumbled on.

At last I understood. No seagulls made those unearthly noises but the spirits of drowned sailors, calling from the water for assistance, pleading to be lifted from the river, crying out for rescue. Sailors who had fallen from the keels, or cast down by wreck, or thrown over by drink or malice or the impenetrable workings of fate. Each of them tormented, crying for help.
The grimy, ghost-ridden streets, and Patterson's glimpses of a house in Caroline Square which only seems to be there at certain moments, tease and chill the reader: there's a sense that you don't quite know where firm ground is. Patterson is so matter of fact, except when he sees the strange house, but you do begin to wonder who of the characters can be trusted. Is there something odd about the the two women who patronise the musicians? One of them is certainly playing games, apparently with little care for the safety of her pawns.

I imagine that some readers will feel uncomfortable with the notion that ghosts, if they can be found, can reveal the identity of their murderers, but there are constraints on the ways this can happen. And after all, we're dealing with a period when most methods of investigation that we take for granted now are not available. No DNA, no mobile phone tracing, not even any fingerprints. So a little leeway can surely be granted. And anyway, there's something about the 18th-century world which is amenable to the paranormal, perhaps because it's the one which gave birth to the gothic. I found that I quickly accepted the spirits almost as part of the period detail - which, not surprisingly, is excellent, since the author's own research area is 18th-century music-making. She evokes Newcastle of the time, a provincial city surrounded by by coalmines, to great effect, persuading me that it's every bit as fascinating as London or Edinburgh. And I intend to read the next in the series, Chords and Discords, while listening to the music of Newcastle's very own 18th-century composer, Charles Avison. The perfect accompaniment!

Cross-posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf.

Thursday 12 July 2012


Living in north Northumberland, one of the less well-known parts of the UK, seems to have encouraged another of my obsessions: seeking out books and novels about the county. Fortunately, it hasn't been as compulsive as it might be, perhaps because some form of latent self-preservation persuaded me that I was never going to be able to read the works of Catherine Cookson, "heartwarming" shipyard sagas or books about football. So it's my usual idiosyncratic mix, and there will be some leeway over actual borders - for a start, there will have to be, as Northumbria once extended rather further than it does today, but there will also be books which I decide in an entirely arbitrary fashion, get in because they have some relevance to Northumberland - for instance, something which is essentially about the Scottish borders may find its way in.

There may also be occasional reviews of local films, exhibitions and anything else I find interesting. It's a work in progress...

Friday 10 February 2012

A Lesson in Dying, Ann Cleeves

I've been trying of late to track down novels set in Northumberland, and this was one of them. A Lesson in Dying is set in the south of the county, but you don't get a huge sense of place, really - it's recognisably the Northumbrian coast with its ex-mining villages, and there's mention of Morpeth and Blyth to locate it, but there's no sustained description of the area. Partly this is owing to the comparative shortness, which curtails description or leisured portrayal of characters - the word which came into my head was "workmanlike" - it set out its plot and then got on with it briskly. We've become used, of late, to long rambling detective novels with multiple red herrings and complex sub-plots, but here we have just 200-odd pages and not much exploration of the inner workings of people's minds.

I could certainly imagine it set not many miles away, and hear the local accents, but I think that depended more on my own knowledge of the area than its evocation by the author. I missed the kind of development and examination of motive and personality that we get in longer books, including of the lead detective, Inspector Ramsay - he is clearly intended to engage our interest and sympathies, but I never really felt that I got a handle on him, nor was my interest really piqued. You know how with a new protagonist you can be really itching to get the next in the series to see what they'll do next, and to learn more about them? For example, no one could have loved Andy Dalziel in the first of the Reginald Hill books, but you were certainly eager to be appalled by him all over again in the next! I've read one of the books featuring Cleeves' later creation, Vera Stanhope, and she's certainly a much more rounded character, although admittedly I read it after I'd seen the excellent TV series. I've yet to read any of the Shetland series, but I've heard good things said about them. Perhaps it didn't help that Ramsay is a loner - the chat between a detective and his or her sidekick is always illuminating, and we're missing that here.

A brief run down on the plot: Harold Medburn is headmaster of the small local school, but no-one likes him, he's a man who abuses his position of authority in the community. But a small town isn't a likely place for murder and, when Medburn's found dead, Ramsay is happy to fix on the obvious suspect, the dead man's wife. It takes the school caretaker, Jack Robson and his daughter to keep the investigation going, and Ramsay, faced with a lack of support from his own team, finds himself making an almost cynical use of their efforts to prove Kitty Medburn's innocence, even while believing that their faith may be misplaced.

All in all, it's a perfectly competent and readable novel - maybe not one to get excited about, but I'd be perfectly happy to read more about Ramsay.

Originally posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf.