Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd

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I have always thoroughly enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s work. It is well written, researched and erudite. This shortish book on the medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, is no exception. Able to succinctly portray what was a varied life and view it through the lens of both contemporary sources and, at times, the man’s own works, Ackroyd gives the reader a well-rounded portrait of the man who earned the trust of royals, the loyalty of the most powerful house in the kingdom (Lancaster), the love of English people for his prose and earned, as a consequence, literary longevity.

Ackroyd also makes some delicious suppositions about Chaucer’s life, which were original and convincing (especially to do with the paternity of his second son, Lewis and the “raptus” charge against him brought by Cecily Champain). There are also fascinating titbits, such as the fact Chaucer is credited with introducing St Valentine’s Day to Britain. I also confess to enjoying the occasional bits of gossip Ackroyd presented and which you can’t help but feel that someone like the Chaucer he presents, a man with great insights and tolerance for human nature in all its foibles, would also have enjoyed.

An engaging and fascinating read. Highly recommended.

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Careless Love by Peter Robinson

I have been a huge fan of Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks novels, relishing each new arrival, reading them quickly and then being so disappointed when I finish and have to wait for another one. Careless Love was no different… to start with. I gulped it down but, rather than eagerly awaiting the next instalment, I am left feeling a wee bit short-changed.

Let me explain why.

The crime is set up early in the novel – a young student is found dead in an abandoned car. It becomes evident that her body has been deliberately placed here as she didn’t drive and certainly didn’t own the car. A bit further along, a successful businessman is found dead at the bottom of an incline, apparently from a fall. Pretty soon, the inconsistencies in the two cases start to show some commonalities, as does yet another death. Add to this information Zelda, Annie’s father’s new partner gives to Banks and Annie one night, about the man who tried to murder Banks a few books ago, and the team is on the case – all of them.

So, it starts off so promising and then…it isn’t so much. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is tight, as one would expect from someone so practiced in their craft. Banks and Annie are mostly true to form, except, in what appears to be a bit of self-indulgence, Robinson has Banks bang on and on and on about his music – and when it doesn’t really fit the narrative and most certainly holds it up. In the past, it was sort of funny and quirky, Banks’s ad hoc musical references and preferences for certain types of (to most of us) obscure jazz and other artists. In this book, it interferes with and interrupts the narrative to the point of distraction. Further, Banks has also taken it upon himself to become familiar with poetry. OK. Poetry can function as a great analogy to the action of the novel, as a metaphor, or prolepsis… only, no. Not here. All the references to it do nothing to serve the story. Music and poetry, both of which show Banks to be sophisticated, I guess, do nothing except become great ellipses in terms of the narrative and overall action. Then there’s the fact a great deal of the book is taken up with interviews that go absolutely nowhere. I was left wondering where my beloved, feisty and clever Banks had disappeared to. It doesn’t help that he develops what’s tantamount to a pervy, middle-aged crush on one of the suspects that is both grating and borders on inappropriate. As a consequence of all this, I found this instalment to fall well short of expectations.

So, sadly, unlike previous books, I cannot make a song and dance about this one – not when Banks does that in almost every scene he appears. Well, makes a song of it, anyhow.

Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the next book in the hope that what Zelda has uncovered is explored, sans the unnecessary poetry and most of the musical references.

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Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

A book about a second-hand bookshop with a quirky owner and the dry, snippy young woman who has sentences from books tattooed on various parts of her body who works for him? Set in England? With a mystery and, maybe, a love story as well? With references to literary and genre greats? That celebrates the written word? What’s not to love? Certainly, the wonderfully titled Lost for Words is a book to capture your heart.

Centred on Loveday Cardew, a woman with a mysterious past and an inability to speak of it, we follow her slow awakening to trust and her dark memories. Invited to a poetry reading – more a slam contest – in an old pub in the village where she works, Loveday attends against her better judgement. Listening to the words of others, and one person in particular, Loveday finds herself, as many of us do through the power of words, transported and moved. Over time, she slowly begins to understand she’s not the only one with an uncomfortable past and memories she’s tried to forget. Nor is she the only person afraid of heartbreak and loneliness.

But it’s not until, through a great act of courage and sacrifice, that Loveday learns the most important lesson of all.

Beautifully written and filled with whimsical, clever and unforgettable characters, this is a rich and haunting book that will move and charm you and often both at the same time. When I’d finished it, there was a sense of loss so great, I almost started reading it again so I didn’t have to leave this wonderful world Stephanie Butland has created. Delightful and deep.

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A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

25612964This is a simply magical book that, as the title suggests, covers a year in the life of ninety year old Marvellous Ways, a fantastically named, sprightly, imaginative and kind old woman with a unique take on life.

Born in simpler times, Marvellous, the daughter of a “mermaid” and the man who adored her, she is a vulnerable and strong child and later woman who endures and sees much in her long life and yet never loses her faith in the universe and people. A recluse by choice and circumstances, Marvellous’s life is simple and self-sufficient, but she is wonderfully complex. Content with her own company, and in tune with nature and the rhythms of the seasons, she is able to adjust easily to changing circumstances. When a young, former soldier and drifter, who also has a fabulous and somewhat ironic moniker, Francis Drake, washes up on the shores of her riverside home believing life as he knows it is over, Marvellous (who has been expecting him) shows him why it isn’t and teachers him about life and love and why, even when we believe we cannot, we go on.

Segueing from past to present, allowing stories of Marvellous, Drake and others who enter their orbit to unfold, the prose is sublime – poetic, really – and the events, encounters and the scenes heart-wrenchingly lovely. From before the wars to mid-last century, this is a tale about age and the ages, love, loss, faith, friendship and so much more. As I read, I felt as if Marvellous, Drake and their stories nuzzled their way into my heart and, when I finished, I knew it was there they would remain.

This is a gorgeous and very special book that will stay with you long after the final page.

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