Archive for August, 2014

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

ShadowSidney Chambers, the Vicar of Grantchester, is a thirty-two-year-old bachelor. Tall, with dark brown hair, eyes the colour of hazelnuts and a reassuringly gentle manner, Sidney is an unconventional clergyman and can go where the police cannot.

Together with his roguish friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, Sidney inquires into the suspect suicide of a Cambridge solicitor, a scandalous jewellery theft at a New Year’s Eve dinner party, the unexplained death of a well-known jazz promoter and a shocking art forgery, the disclosure of which puts a close friend in danger. Sidney discovers that being a detective, like being a clergyman, means that you are never off duty. Nonetheless, he manages to find time for a keen interest in cricket, warm beer, hot jazz and the works of Tolstoy and Shakespeare – as well as a curious fondness for a German widow three years his junior.

From the son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, this is the first of The Grantchester Mysteries, six detective novels spanning thirty years of British history – from the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 to the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 – featuring the unforgettable vicar and sleuth, Sidney Chambers. 

This was a book that had been recommended to me by another book group. Anything which sounds like a Harry Potter novel will always get me excited, but I was rather curious as to what this could be about. I’m a huge fan of the old, tradition style crime novels so I was really looking forward to giving this a try. Personally, I loved it. If I could roll Murder, She Wrote and Cluedo together then I’m pretty sure that this would be the end result. You have six short stories that were wonderfully written with very satisfying conclusions. The primary story (about Sidney himself) is interesting to read and you can’t help but want to know what happens next.

The group were quite positive about the book too. Although it was seen as quite an ‘easy’ read it was also a pleasure to read, which trumps our past books as some have been quite an effort. There were various religious comments peppered throughout but rather than clouding the overall story these were welcomed by most readers. It makes for a refreshing change without being overbearing and I thought that it added something a little fresh to the crime novel. It was also quite interesting to learn that hanging was still present in the 1950s and it was illegal to be homosexual. These themes were quite present throughout some of the stories and it made for an interesting conversation about the fact that these practices were still very much alive just 50 years ago. How times have changed (thankfully!).

There was just one story that the group felt was a little bit over the top, and didn’t quite fit. It became very personal and creepy, which didn’t feel true to the story’s structure. Some of the investigative work felt a little too easy in this story as well, which was a shame as the rest of the novel flowed quite nicely. Overall, it was a nice read and various members have already bought the next book – me included. It’s quite nice to get away from all the blood and gore sometimes and just read a novel where the investigator just uses their instincts (like our good friend Sherlock Holmes).

So, this was generally a great little read with a lot to offer, and if you like your crime fiction but fancy a modern day Agatha Christie, then this is the book for you. It’s also going to be coming out as a TV series on ITV in the autumn so keep your eyes peeled.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

 

a+thousand+acres copyThe Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling novel from one of America’s greatest contemporary writers.Larry Cook’s farm is the largest in Zebulon County, Iowa, and a tribute to his hard work and single-mindedness. Proud and possessive, his sudden decision to retire and hand over the farm to his three daughters, is disarmingly uncharacteristic.Ginny and Rose, the two eldest, are startled yet eager to accept, but Caroline, the youngest daughter, has misgivings. Immediately, her father cuts her out.In A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley transposes the King Lear story to the modern day, and in so doing at once illuminates Shakespeare’s original and subtly transforms it. This astonishing novel won both of America’s highest literary awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend our regular meeting as I was away, but a wonderful member of the group stepped in and took the reins. Personally, I didn’t enjoy this book at all. I struggled to get into the book but continued to struggle right to the very end. Considering that I grew up with horses and farming I struggle to identify with this aspect. Whether it was too American, I’m not sure, but I simply couldn’t get excited by either the writing, characters or plot. One of my members kindly sent me notes on the evening’s discussion so I’ve added these comments below.
The group seemed to have mixed reviews too. However, like most books that are loved or hated by the group, a good discussion was had by all. One member really liked it and had been brought up on a farm and very much identified with the story, and felt that the main theme was one of remorse. Another member found the first 100 pages or so a bit slow (not liking the farming bits so much) but felt it picked up after that. A couple of members weren’t so keen, feeling that some things happened a bit out of the blue and also became pretty bored every now and then and found it really hard to identify with the characters.
It seems that the negative opinions may have had something to do with the narration. Some members found it rather alienating (but, on the other hand, this may have been the intention so maybe it worked!).  Some members felt it was very American – the wide open spaces and the sense that the family had tamed the land wasn’t quite griping enough.
There was a lot of conversation about the links to King Lear – it seems to follow the plot fairly closely, but some members wondered whether it tried a bit too hard.
The land was obviously central – the effect it had on the characters, how things were changing etc, and also touched on the character of the father and his relationship with the daughters and the fact that no-one wins in the end.
So, to conclude, although the book wasn’t well received by everyone, a hearty discussion was still had by all.

 


About the group

The Tees Valley Book Group meets at Stockton Central Library at 6.30pm on the first Tuesday of the month.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-tees-valley-book-group.

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