Spies by Michael Frayn #ThrowbackThursday

I’m borrowing the #ThrowbackThursday meme from It’s Book Talk

to share a book I read several years ago.

 Spies

Blurb

 A mesmerizing novel about secrecy, imagination, and a child’s game turned deadly earnest

The sudden trace of a disturbing, forgotten aroma compels Stephen Wheatley to return to the site of a dimly remembered but troubling childhood summer in wartime London. As he pieces together his scattered images, we are brought back to a quiet, suburan street where two boys, Keith and his sidekick-Stephen-are engaged in their own version of the war effort: spying on the neighbors, recording their movements, ferreting out their secrets.

But when Keith utters six shocking words, the boys’ game of espionage takes a sinister and unintended turn. A wife’s simple errands and a family’s ordinary rituals-once the focus of childish speculation-become the tragic elements of adult catastrophe.

In gripping prose, charged with emotional intensity, Spies reaches into the moral confusion of youth to reveal a reality filled with deceptions and betrayals, where the bonds of friendship, marriage, and family are unravelled by cowardice and erotic desire. Master illusionist Michael Frayn powerfully demonstrates, yet again, that what appears to be happening in front of our eyes often turns out to be something we can’t see at all.

My Review

You need to be in the right frame of mind to read “Spies”. It’s a slow ramble through the confused mind of a young boy in the apparently uneventful “Close” against the background of a war in Europe which only occasionally impinges upon his life. As long as you’re not in a hurry to get to exactly what’s happening behind the lies then it’s an enjoyable enticing read.

It reminded me of my own childhood in the 1950s planning and creating camps & schemes with my cousins. There is a languorous atmosphere created by the evocative scents and the summer weather. It is also a really frustrating book because you feel like shaking Stephen to make him react and to further the plot.

I have always enjoyed Michael Frayn’s plays because of the way he skilfully uses words but in this book he seems to work too hard spelling things out like “private”, “privet” and “privy”. He takes many chapters trying to explain the tortuous thoughts of a young boy as seen through the eyes of his mature self and then ties up all the loose ends of the plot in a few brief sentences at the end.

I have read critics comparing “Spies” to “The Go-Between” by L. P. Hartley and it certainly reminds me of the misunderstandings and deceit of that book. But somehow “Spies” feels unfinished. We weren’t given enough information to understand Stephen’s relationship with his family and I really wanted to know what happened to Keith’s family.

This book could have been something special but somehow it misses out. Stephen is not really very likeable even if he is a typical boy of his time & circumstances. The real passions are out of reach for the reader. We cannot see inside the mind of Keith’s mother & can only imagine how she is suffering. Someone needs to write the book again, from her viewpoint.

Spies can be found on Amazon UK

Michael Frayn

Frayn

Michael Frayn was born in London in 1933 and began his career as a journalist on the Guardian and the Observer. His novels include Towards the End of the Morning, Headlong (shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize), Spies (longlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize) and Skios. His seventeen plays range from Noises Off, recently chosen as one of the nation’s three favourite plays, to Copenhagen, which won the 1998 Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year and the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play. He is married to the writer Claire Tomalin.

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A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity by Trish Nicholson #BookReview

Bio of Story

Dedicated, “to all who love Story whoever you are,” this book encompasses storytelling since communication began and covers most corners of the globe.  Story is personified, weaving through History, influencing events, and what happens affects the nature of stories.

From early Creation stories of Africa and Australia, we move through legend, myth, saga and fable.  As words begin to be written down, words confer authority and as we all know, history is written by the victors.  Common themes of the wisdom of animals, of good versus evil, of disguise and mistaken identity recur but there are also specific features only present in one era.

Trish Nicholson gives us tantalising details of the lives of so many tellers of tales, but as she says, “Teasing out strands of the old storytellers’ lives is like following a thread through the Cretan labyrinth; the “Minotaur” we discover at the other end may turn out to be a goat rather than a bull.”  The lives of Chaucer and Boccaccio are compared and the similarities and differences in their work marked.  Similarly, she shows us how Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper reflected their era and their environment in using the tales told by the indigenous people of their countries.

My favourite chapter tells us about Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, the talented sister of the King of France.  Her life was varied and eventful, surrounded by poets and writers. A politically astute woman, she was widely respected and a skilled mediator. She spent time translating parts of the New Testament and more relevantly, writing stories. When her collection of tales was published posthumously in 1558, some of her humorous stories were considered of an unsuitable bawdy nature for a woman so some were edited and credited to a man.

“A Biography of Story” is no boring book of literary criticism, since the author is herself a storyteller.  She narrates significant stories to her readers, highlighting the essential strands of each literary era so that the book can be dipped into, using the clear descriptive chapter summaries or the comprehensive index.  But perhaps, like me, you would rather start at the beginning and enjoy reading the entire delightful text.

A Last Thought from the Book

The story is our escort; without it we are blind

Chinua Achebe

 

A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity is available at Amazon UK

 

Trish Nicholson

Trish Nicholson

I have scribbled in various forms since childhood. Twice I turned from the beginnings of a writing career to dive into something else: the first time to work overseas on rural aid and development projects; the second time, in 2000, when I emigrated to New Zealand. Writing has claimed me again and I’m not planning to go anywhere else this time.

My mother’s side of the family are Scots (Clarks and MacAndrews), and being born in the Isle of Man, and of Manx stock, makes me part Celtic and part Nordic. I believe my paternal family name, Taggart, is a Manx Gaelic term for ‘priest’ or ‘healer’; as most of my forbears were parsons, this seems fitting. Later, like lots of young people, I left the Island to seek tertiary education and never found my way back.

In 2017 I revisited the island for the first time in 30 years as part of a speaking/book tour with A Biography of Story. You can read about the trip and a bit of family history on the blog post: ‘Story Visits the Island of Stories’.

I have lived in many places in Britain: southeast England, East Anglia, Yorkshire, and the Highlands of Scotland where I lived and worked for 12 years. It is from Scotland that I went to work overseas; first in Papua New Guinea, then in the Philippines, where I completed also a doctoral degree in social anthropology. Research in Vietnam and Australia – on indigenous tourism – and many other trips, to South America and Africa, and especially unforgettable treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal, brought me eventually back to England, and the decision to settle in New Zealand.

My home is in the ‘winterless’ Far North, where native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture. No ‘off-season’ for garden work here – no splendid lacy icicles either, but I have photographs to remind me of those.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Kate A

A God in ruins is a slow boiler. It tells the story of Teddy, a beloved son and brother whose comfortable life changed so dramatically when the second world war began. Moving back and forth through his life, we see him as a gentle, loving grandfather, a much-respected pilot and a dutiful husband. But it is a life full of quandaries; should he marry his childhood sweetheart, how can he communicate with his wayward daughter and how can he defend bombing Germany?

Looking through Teddy’s eyes the juxtaposition of different eras flows logically. I was more at ease with this book than with the artifice of “Life After Life.” Once immersed in the story I could read it forever, but there is a finale and that is both a surprise and yet absolutely right.

There are so many facets to this book such as the delightful stories of the mischievous child, Augustus, written by Teddy’s aunt with him as a model, the awful behaviour and total lack of empathy of Teddy’s daughter, Viola, and the very British, stubborn manner in which Teddy’s wife, Nancy, deals with illness.
I tend to ignore essential words at the beginning of a novel, so it is important to return to the quotes Kate Atkinson begins with, especially the source of her title:

“A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we wake from dreams.“ – Ralph Waldo Emerson – Nature

I could write so much more about Kate Atkinson’s descriptive prose, her pithy comments, her understanding of humanity and the savage consequences of war, but it would be much better for you to read her book.

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley #BookReview

new JA

On the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen I feel beholden to return to her timeless stories, but in Lucy Worsley’s book I have been given additional insight into Jane’ character and sensitivity. “Jane Austen at Home” is assiduously well documented, showing a depth of research and most importantly, a grasp of Jane’s spirit.

At first sight, the thick book of small text seems daunting, but as you begin to read you are invited in to Steventon Rectory and soon come to know Jane’s family; her loving father, unsympathetic mother, the legion of brothers and dear sister Cassandra. From Jane’s letters and many accounts by family members, Lucy has built up a clear picture of her everyday life and the way in which her homes are reflected in her books.

It is a delight to read Lucy’s own voice as she reveals her discoveries about Jane Austen,
in her letters – “her personality is there, bold as brass, bursting with life, buoyant or recalcitrant as each day required.”
Jane’s letters were “double-voiced,” giving an entertaining account to be read aloud, but with a subtext that her nearest and dearest would understand. Lucy Worsley also parallels Jane’s letters to the tweets of J K Rowling!

It is the first time I had fully appreciated that the demands of the long Napoleonic War, raising prices and causing shortages, made middling families, such as Jane’s, experience hardship but they also brought the military officers in their dashing uniforms, both aspects being the meat for Jane’s plots.

The retirement of Reverend Austen and the family’s move to Bath are described in intricate detail, underlining the dreadful effect on Jane and Cassandra. We read of the sale of all the family’s books and of Jane’s piano and her music. Leaving her home of 25 years, they move from one rented house to another among the “pea-soup fogs in Bath.” Her father’s death causing a large drop in their income shows how much she understood the importance of money to her heroines.

The frustration of Jane Austen’s life story is how poorly she was acknowledged as an author, during her lifetime and what a pittance she received when they were published. Despite the help of her father and her brother in finding publishers, novels and women writers were not yet considered worthy of great praise.

Reaching the chapter where Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen move back to Hampshire and settle into Chawton Cottage, I also felt as if I was coming home. I could see her sitting by her table in the cottage window, trying to write, while others moved about the compact house. The last few years of her life show Jane as a calm, determined woman with the same purpose and energy as her heroines.
This is a book for lovers of Jane Austen’s books who wish to know more about this quiet, enigmatic person. Did she have romances, were there regrets that she remained single and had no children? Did she achieve what she wished to accomplish? I suggest you read “Jane Austen at Home” to look for those answers.

Jane Austen at Home will be published on May 18th 2017 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon UK or Amazon US

(A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the publishers, Hodder & Stoughton)

Lucy Worsley

worsley

Dr Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.

Her first paid employment after studying history at Oxford was at a minor stately home called Milton Manor, near Abingdon, where she fed the llamas. After that she became an Inspector of Ancient Monuments at English Heritage, doing historical research at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire: this led to her first book, ‘Cavalier’, about a dissolute Royalist duke. Her work as a curator at Kensington Palace led to ‘Courtiers’, which was followed by ‘If Walls Could Talk’, ‘A Very British Murder’, and her first historical novel for young readers, ‘Eliza Rose’, which is set at the Tudor court.