May in books

“Doctor Who: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” – Russell T Davies

A hit and miss month, in which I venture away from my usual crime novels – and find a gem – and attempt to build on my recent ‘self help’ disaster and get no further…

Anna Mazzola, The Unseeing*

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Sarah Gale, a seamstress with a young illegitimate child, was sentenced to death for her part in a murder – that of a love rival – in Victorian London. The case was sensational, given the brutality of the killing and the distribution of body parts across the city, but Gale’s story has disappeared into history. Mazzola has brought back Sarah Gale in this reimagining of a true crime, telling the case through the eyes of the struggling young lawyer brought in by the home secretary to investigate the conviction. But why is Sarah so reluctant to receive the help she needs? What is she hiding?

It’s incredibly difficult to review this book without accidentally letting out an enormous spoiler, partly because the plot is so very simple. The portrayal of Gale herself is the biggest success, simultaneously appealing to the reader because of her vulnerability, but also one of the most infuriating protagonists I’ve come across (there were a few times I wanted to shake her!). Characters and murder aside, I’d probably say the biggest theme in The Unseeing is how utterly horrific life was for impoverished people in the nineteenth century. Gale’s fall from grace, mirroring that of another minor character, is a stark reminder of how vulnerable many women and children were.

Frustrating, exasperating and at times harrowing – I loved it.

Heron Carvic, Picture Miss Seeton*

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When retired art teacher Miss Emily Seeton leaves a Soho theatre and finds herself a witness to a stabbing, little does she think that it will draw her into a dark criminal underworld involving drugs, murder and mayhem… 

A forgotten classic from the 1960s, Carvic pastiches the earlier Golden Age spinster detectives in Miss Seeton, who is somewhat of a cross between Miss Marple, and Mapp and Lucia. Miss Seeton isn’t the most intellectual of heroines, and I found this rather refreshing – rather than setting out to solve crimes, she does it by accident which means we get to know our supporting cast rather better than in other cosy crimes, but also allows Carvic to introduce a lot more dry humour along the way. I’ll be honest, the plot had me slightly baffled (clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention to pick up the finer details in the opening chapters – it’s both silly and subtle) but I enjoyed the period setting, and the 1960s backdrop allowed for a little bit more scandal than my usual Agatha Christie crimes. Not my favourite crime read of the month, but recommended for fans of the classics.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

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Brown, a social worker by background, draws on years of academic research to offer ten guidelines for wholehearted living – or – on how to live with authenticity. Reflecting on topics including courage, compassion and shame, Brown encourages her reader to develop confidence in themselves.

I was really looking forward to reading this – having first heard of Brown via her marvellous TED talks and enjoyed reading some of her online articles, I was expecting to get on rather better than my first foray into the world of “self improvement”. After all, Brown is an academic, and my inner snob was reassured that someone with a PhD in the topic would be worth listening to. And so I downloaded the audiobook, listened while I was walking home from work for the rest of the week… and that’s all I have to say. Bizarrely the entire 7hour tome seems to have gone in one ear and out the other because I remember next to nothing, other than a couple of anecdotes. I realise this makes for a rubbish review but in some ways I think it’s telling that, despite my initial hopes, this book made absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. Oh well – lesson learnt… no more self improvement for me.

Marie-Sabine Roger (trans. Frank Wynne), Soft In The Head*

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Originally published in French, the inspiration for the 2010 film “My Afternoons with Margueritte” has been retranslated and republished for an international audience. Following the friendship of Germain, a mid-40s man with a learning difficulty who bonds with mid-80s Margueritte over pigeons in the park, this gentle tale explores friendship and family – and the joy of reading.

Oh, how I devoured this one – it was the perfect accompaniment to a long train journey. Easy to read, charming and with gentle but realistic characterisation, I really enjoyed getting to know our leads, particularly gentle Germain. Roger manages to draw out a realistic depiction of someone who calls himself “soft in the head” without putting a label on him (a rather nice contrast to The Rosie Project), exploring Germain’s neglectful childhood, and allowing the reader in to understand just why the friendship is so important to both Germain, and Margueritte.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers – this is another take with a very simple plot, but again, because it’s done so beautifully well it works. The translation was excellent (sometimes I feel that humour or wordplay are missed, both of which are a key feature here), the only criticism I would have is that it’s very French and I found myself googling references to literature at several points. That aside though, a gorgeous read. Highly recommended.


*provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.