The Cleaner of Chartres, by Salley Vickers

Told with finesse and delicacy, this is a moving story of loss, relationships, secrets and redemption, revolving around the mysterious Agnès Morel. The city and cathedral of Chartres are beautifully described, the atmosphere of place almost effortlessly conjured – its inhabitants are plausible, slightly comedic in places, but well-rounded characters whose stories all weave into the main plot, which is the unwinding of Agnes’s mysterious past.

The chapters of this book generally alternate between the present day and Agnès’s past, slowly revealing more and more information about her childhood alongside developments in her current situation in Chartres. Agnès’s inherent kindness is offset by the variety of people she interacts with in Chartres, of wildly different temperaments and motives – some are touched by her silent willingness to help, others seek to bring scandal down upon her. Whether scandal has its place in Agnès’s life is left to reader to decide as gradually more and more information is laid before them.

Vickers’s writing is sophisticated, and she sticks to the chief rule – tell a good story. While themes are teased out throughout the novel, such as the role of religion, the nature of belief, the effects people have on each other both intentional and not, the main purpose of this novel is simply the story. The tale of Agnès’s life both past and present is interesting, tragic and hopeful enough to drive the reader to read on, without resorting to cliff-hangers or other such devices. The narrative is engaging in its own right, and Vickers allows the story to follow a very natural pace. Overall, this is a novel to be highly recommended – atmospheric, absorbing, and thoroughly understanding of human nature.

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

cold comfort farmThis is a classic parody of romantic novels, with a ludicrous plot and comic style. Newly orphaned Flora Poste moves to her relatives’ farm in the countryside and sets about righting all the problems which rural life has bestowed upon them. Stella Gibbons takes great delight in hamming up the doom-laden atmosphere of the Cold Comfort Farm, near the village of Howling, and she takes even greater delight in ensuring that the reader is fully aware of the parody. There are pure strokes of genius in this novel, especially in the naming of characters and indeed animals – for example the cows’ names are Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless. Another highlight is the presence of made-up words which lend a rural feel but are totally ridiculous.

The writing is skilful – it maintains the humorous strain throughout but also manages to control the plot. Although the plot is of course comical it does serve a purpose: that of Flora, the urban young woman, arriving into the midst of a hapless rural family and setting everything to rights. The transformation of the farm throughout the novel is the driving force, and it can only happen when each of its inhabitants undergoes a transformation – achieved by Flora. She herself undergoes a change from unwanted visitor to cherished relative, and having grown throughout the novel, leaves in good romantic form in the arms of an admirer from London.

This parody is a thousand times more enjoyable than the serious works it lampoons, and is obviously worthy as a piece of literature in its own right. It should be read by anyone who enjoys something of the absurd – fans of P. G. Wodehouse spring to mind (although the style is very different), and Northanger Abbey (which is far less silly but is a parody nonetheless).

A Game of Thrones & A Clash of Kings (‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ Books 1 & 2), by George R. R. Martin

So, it had to happen. After watching three seasons of the hit-series ‘Game of Thrones,’ I finally decided to pick up the books. So far the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has seven parts, and to start with I’m reviewing the first and second books together.

A Game of Thrones is a fantasy epic which refuses to follow the rules. It has incredible scope, an innumerable host of characters, and doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. Barely has the book begun when we witness a seven-year-old child being thrown out of a window in an attempted murder. If you haven’t heard anything about ‘Game of Thrones’, then this should be enough to tell you what kind of story it is. Based in part on a fantasised medieval England with a huge emphasis on knights, tourneys, liege lords and the like, but also taking a great deal from Roman imperial politics (the ‘mad king’ Aerys Targaryen sounding a great deal like a combination of Caligula and Nero), the world the author has created is vast but credible. He does not waste time explaining the world at length, but lets the reader get on with it – and that is the best thing about this book series. The reader can dip in and out quite easily, yet always want to read on.

A criticism could be the sheer number of characters, but this is something I would praise in this particular case. The array of characters allows Martin to tell a whole handful of plot-threads and present wildly different points of view, leaving the reader with the much-appreciated conundrum of initially despising a certain character, only to sympathise with them later on. The different paths which the characters follow build-up to present an overall picture of what is happening in this fantasy world, and allows a real opportunity for dramatic irony as we know much more than each of the individual characters. A real criticism I do have is that the chapters are all written in a very similar way. The author relies too much on a repeated structure which presents us with a gripping scene at the outset, then jumps back in time to explain how the characters got there. This is a good device but is over-used. He also lets us read the characters’ thoughts in italics far too often – while the insight given by this is interesting, it tends to give the characters a similar feel, which, given the excellent cast of vastly different personalities, is not to be desired.

Out of the first two books in the series I enjoyed A Clash of Kings the most. The narrative feels like the author has got into his stride, and the characters have established stories to follow and different paths to tread – each of them unique and gripping. The characterisation by this point is extremely well developed, and the writing style feels more fluent. Overall I highly recommend this series so far, but mostly due to the plot and conceptual world which Martin has created. The writing is less sophisticated than certain other fantasy writers, and certainly takes a back-seat to the plotting – but it is successful enough to make the reader care about the characters and want to know what happens next. To conclude – if you’ve seen the TV series – you won’t be disappointed with the books (and vice versa).

Talking to the Dead, by Harry Bingham

This is a detective novel with a difference. Unlike most of the crime novels which tout that tag-line, this one actually does have a difference. Its heroine is a distinctive, memorable and interesting character. Young, talented, female slightly maverick – we think we’ve heard this before. But DC Fiona Griffiths has something more: an unusual connection with dead people. What this connection is and why it exists is not something I’ll go into, as I don’t wish to give away what for me was the driving force of this story. (Suffice to say that it is not a supernatural or spiritual talent, which the title may suggest.)

Fiona becomes embroiled in the dark underworld of Cardiff when a brutal murder involving a woman and a child is discovered in a squalid house. The strange presence of a millionaire’s credit card at the crime scene complicates the investigation, especially when the millionaire turns out to have been declared deceased. Fiona follows her own paths of inquiry against the advice of her colleagues, and sniffs out leads with a disregard for her own safety, despite being unable to sleep for fear of her house being broken into and herself being attacked. The characterisation is good: her brave exterior and inner turmoil are successfully combined. Fiona is not a superhero, but she is passionate, and while there are aspects of her personality which we might not like, she is ultimately a sympathetic character.

While the subject matter was not something I enjoyed, that is because I am not usually a reader of crime novels. Talking to the Dead managed to pull me in, made me turn the pages, and certainly seems to be the start of a successful series for Bingham. It will be interesting to see how Fiona Griffiths’s character is developed, and how the author will use her peculiar condition in future books now that the secret is out…

Silas Marner, by George Eliot

This novel has some interesting themes woven into a straightforward tale of a miserly and reclusive man whose bitter obsession with gold is cured by the almost miraculous appearance of a child in his cottage. His fixation that the child came to him by fate just as the gold was taken away drives him to care fiercely for the toddler, a care which grows into a genuine and loving relationship between father and daughter.

The narrative has its amusing elements. Eliot revels in describing the dynamic between the residents of the town, especially in the pub gatherings. However there is a danger that some readers might miss the humour altogether as they get bogged down in the length of these scenes which have no overt relevance to the plot. Yet plot is not really what this novel is about – rather it is a social commentary. The themes of redemption, faith, community are interesting, especially the contrast between Marner’s non-conformist background and the Church of England community into which he moves.

The themes are thinly veiled due to the shortness of this novel. The back story of Silas Marner is the element I was most interested in, and although our strange hero returns to his old abode towards the end of the book, his reaction to its alteration was a little trite and melodramatic. Other small criticisms I had were that I was not won over by the other characters Eliot spent time with; Dunstan and Godfrey Cass. We are not intended to like them, and it was necessary to be shown their personalities in contrast to Marner’s, but I found myself wanting to be finished with those chapters and so get back to Marner.