Morality Play by Barry Unsworth narrated by Michael Maloney

morality play barry unsworthNicholas Barber is a fourteenth-century cleric who has left his position in Lincoln Cathedral through youthful restlessness. He is therefore a fugitive, and a hungry one, when he happens upon a group of players and they allow him to join them. Their journey takes them through a town where a woman is about to be hung for murder. They decide to perform a play about her crime but somehow the story refuses to fit the form.

There is so much packed into this beautifully crafted short novel. It is alive with the sights and sounds and smells (especially the smells) of the period and has all the archetypes of the Medieval hierarchy. However, it is an order under strain, where the conflict between the individual and the role that is assigned to them is about to come to the boil.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the dramatisation of the murder by the players. The writing is impressive because we see everything from Nicholas’ point of view as he performs, but we also get a vivid sense of what the audience sees. This is enhanced in the audiobook by the excellent narrator. He distinguishes not just the individual characters, but between their ‘real’ and their theatrical voices, as they move between artifice and realism.

As the players perform the play their understanding of the murder changes. They are not only learning the truth, they are creating it. In telling a story of their own devising, rather than the officially sanctioned account, they are questioning the very basis of their society, even though they know there will be consequences.

Morality Play is a book that stays with you, with its intricate drawing together of the visceral honesty of theatre and the role-playing that we call real life.

View Morality Play on Goodreads

 

 

 

The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson

the butterfly effect jon ronsonThe Butterfly Effect is an original Audible documentary by Jon Ronson. He explores how technology has changed the porn industry and by extension all of us. He begins by interviewing the man who used technology to create what became PornHub, a YouTube-style platform for porn. This discursive approach takes in, among other things, porn stars in the San Fernando Valley, the death of an Italian priest, and a Norwegian stamp collector.

Ronson is a sensitive interviewer, letting people tell their own story. He’s also a great storyteller and each episode has intriguing hooks, twists and a teaser ending so you have to keep listening. I’m almost afraid of giving spoilers, but certain things particularly stayed with me.

In Montreal, the data analysts who worked behind the scenes at PornHub were almost oblivious (or in denial) of what they were working on. They just focused on the task. Meanwhile, a whole generation of women lost work in porn because of the search categories that they created in response to the way people access porn. Women under 20 get work in the ‘babysitter’ and ‘cheerleader’ categories, women over 30 get the ‘milf’ roles, but between those ages they are unemployable. (There’s an interesting analogy here with Amazon’s book categories, where discoverability is increasingly driven by genre.)

In another episode, Ronson is on a porn set during the making of a movie. There is an orgy scene and many of the male performers are watching porn on their phones so they can get an erection. It seems watching someone have sex with a porn star is more arousing than the imminent prospect of actually doing it. The analogy here hardly needs stating.

Ronson doesn’t take a position on porn per se but he considers the way in which people ignore the human consequences of porn and the way in which they simultaneously are excited by it and despise the people who work in it. Porn stars report being spotted in the street and facing hostility from the very people who have recognised them.

At one point Ronson sets up an interview which is somehow both poignant and deeply ironic. An old-school San Fernando porn director whose income has dropped dramatically because of piracy challenges PornHub’s founder. The director expresses exasperation at his lack of empathy as free illegal downloads drain away his livelihood, but he asks no such questions about the effect on people of the films he makes.

This documentary is thought provoking and fascinating and I listened to it in one sitting. The stories it tells are sometimes dark, often strange and occasionally moving.

The Butterfly Effect is available as an audiobook and as a podcast.
View The Butterfly Effect on Goodreads

Conclave by Robert Harris

conclave by robert harrisLast year I went to Rome for the first time. It’s hard to write about the experience – the art, the sights, the culture – without lapsing into cliché, but I became particularly intrigued by the institution of the Vatican.

We spent one wonderful day in the Vatican Museums, gorging on some of the world’s greatest art (and not one work by a woman). As someone who had a notionally Catholic upbringing – I wouldn’t go so far as to say lapsed as I was never convinced to begin with – I felt keenly the contradiction between enjoying all these treasures and thinking that the wealth that purchased them should never have been appropriated from my ancestors in the first place.

On another day we visited Saint Peter’s Basilica and, as we were staying nearby, we often found ourselves wandering round the Piazza and the surrounding streets in the evening. All these experiences, and my reading before we went, left me with a jumble of conflicting images and a fascination with this strange world: the nuns who are excluded from influence but perform so many vital tasks and whose presence is even felt in the galleries (they get to repair Raphael’s tapestries so I guess we did see some women’s art after all); the priests from around the world offering confession in  Italian and English, Polish and Tamil; the hot priests calendar; the shops selling lavish ecclesiastical robes; the high-tech efficiency of the tourist operation.

So I’ve had my eye on Robert Harris’ Conclave for a while, with its promise to delve into the mysteries of this strange world. And I was not disappointed.

The conclave of the title takes place after the death of a fictional Pope, but one with some resemblance to Pope Francis. We don’t learn too much about him at the beginning, except that he is a reformer. The story is narrated by Cardinal Lomeli, one of the Pope’s closest associates, who is tasked with the organisation of the conclave, just as he is struggling with a crisis of faith.

As the cardinals assemble from around the world to choose his successor, we are introduced to the favourites to succeed the Pope and to their supporters and factions. The deceased Pope also plays a significant role, even after death. His influence, his love, and the consequences of his actions are felt acutely by Lomeli and the others who were close to him and they learn that he made some surprising decisions in his final days.

You might question whether there is much drama to be had in the deliberations of a group of men over 60, largely confined in one place. However Harris does it brilliantly. He weaves together all the issues confronting the church, and the contrasts between the cardinals – in matters of faith, temperament, politics and geography. Lomeli’s role means he has to liaise with the outside world during their supposed confinement and his assistants prove to be able co-conspirators (and of course there are nuns again, providing the catering).

There is a lot of detail of the traditions of the conclave, capturing both the splendour and the banality of the life of the Vatican. There are a few Father Ted moments, such as when the cardinals make their way to their accommodation for the conclave, dressed in their full regalia, pulling their wheelie suitcases behind them.

Harris asks interesting questions about the nature of spirituality and its relationship to ritual. There are moments when the cardinals may be moved by the voice of God, or it may just be that they imagine him saying what they want to hear. The reader is left to make up their own mind.

I spent some time thinking about the way the conclave, and the novel, end. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. But then an ending that makes you think, and question, is perhaps the best kind. I found this a fascinating insight into the strange world of Vatican politics and a great political thriller.

View Conclave on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with Robert Harris on the Kobo Writing Life podcast 

Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated by Alex Valente

can you hear me elena varvelloI sometimes feel I am missing something. Other people love a book, people whose opinions I respect and often share, but I just don’t get it. I feel a bit like this with Can You Hear Me? It is marketed as both suspense and coming-of-age. It is a coming-of-age story, but I am struggling to find any suspense.

The narrator, 16-year-old Elia, begins by telling you the climax of the story. His father is having some kind of mental crisis. Elia suspects he was involved in the disappearance of a boy and he will go on to take the teenage babysitter from next door into the woods.

Of course many great books employ this technique and yet still manage to pique your curiosity because you want to know how they get there, books as diverse as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier or Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. However here, I didn’t feel that there was any interest or anything to feel curious about, because there is no struggle or conflict, no sense that anyone is trying to influence events.

Elia drifts through the summer, doing coming-of-age stuff, hanging out with a kid his parents disapprove of, challenging him to dares, getting the hots for his mate’s mum, and meanwhile his father is disintegrating. Elia signals his unease by putting a picture of the missing boy on his wall and saying inarticulate teenage boy things to his mum along the lines of, what about that boy, though?

The characters speak in abstractions so you know that they’re deep, such as when Elia’s mother says to him, ‘I’ve thought about some things, you know? I don’t know why they felt so important. They don’t matter at all now. You have your life to live.’ And so it goes on to the inevitable.

There’s a sense of overwhelming passivity about it, there’s no suspense because the characters don’t do anything or even look remotely as if they might. It’s very moody and atmospheric but you feel like you want to puncture it, like ask them why no one thought to contact the police or a mental health professional. Elia’s mum works in a library, she could have looked it up.

If it weren’t for the fact that it came highly recommended, I wouldn’t have finished it.

I received a copy of Can You Hear Me? from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Can You Hear Me? on Goodreads

 

Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

ruth rendell dark cornersI almost wish I hadn’t read Dark Corners. I went through a massive Ruth Rendell phase in the late 1990s/early 2000s (at that time the TV adaptations of her work were still running and her books were easy to pick up in charity shops as well as libraries).

What I found so special, and what influenced me, is the way she wrote about ordinary people with a dark twist. She seemed to suggest that evil wasn’t something abstract or other, but something that lurked in all of us, that pushed, we might also commit extraordinary acts.

She also had great craft. If she mentioned a dog barking on page 27, you could be sure that this was not incidental, even though you might not notice it on a first reading, that everything was there for a reason, primed. And I loved her prose. People underestimate her prose because you almost don’t notice it. It is not literary, intended to be weighed and savoured and interpreted, it’s so light and beautifully wrought that in reading it you become inseparable from the story. It’s not true that prose style doesn’t matter in commercial fiction. There are too many thriller writers whose clunky wording and tired phrasing make them unreadable for me.

Dark Corners reminds me why I stopped reading Ruth Rendell’s books over a decade ago – they started to feel too detached from reality. The turning point for me was one of the Inspector Wexford novels, The Babes in the Wood, where a woman reports her children are missing and they get a junior officer to do some desultory paperwork and leave further enquiries till the morning. The most casual watcher of 24-hour news would know that would never happen.

In Dark Corners, Carl at 23 has just got a publishing deal and inherited a house in Maida Vale. By any standards, he is extraordinarily privileged. But when he sells some slimming pills to a friend and she dies, even though he has not committed a crime, he fears publicity and this sets in chain a series of events that have profound consequences.

It’s not a bad set up, but the characters all feel strange and unconvincing. Carl (remember, he’s 23) allows himself to be blackmailed because he is afraid of the story being printed in his local paper! What person of his age reads, or even considers the existence of, their local paper? If he’d feared trolling on social media that might have been more believable, but as a struggling writer he’d be just as likely to welcome the attention. He’d be Instagramming his anguish, while his agent would be lining up interviews where he talked movingly of his remorse, while being photographed with a stack of hardbacks behind him on this bookcase.

There are other examples that seem to belong to another era. A couple of his contemporaries introduce themselves to him as ‘Mr and Mrs’ because they think it will make them seem ‘respectable’. Worse, the flawless plotting is notably absent. There’s a subplot which is equally implausible and which is not resolved by the end of the book. The trademark prose is still there (thankfully it was at least an easy read) but I found myself skimming just to get to the end.

I picked this up because it was Ruth Rendell’s last book but it is not one I’d recommend. Because there are so may, it’s hard to have a favourite. The standalone suspense, the Wexford series, the novels she wrote as Barbara Vine, all have their own character. That’s how I want to remember her.

View Dark Corners on Goodreads

Read more: I haven’t picked a favourite but here’s a good list to start an argument –  Top 10 Ruth Rendell Novels from Dead Good Books

 

 

To Catch a Rabbit by Helen Cadbury, narrated by Jonathan Keeble

to catch a rabbit helen cadburyBy sad coincidence, I only discovered Helen Cadbury last week. I loved To Catch a Rabbit and as soon as I finished it I went online to see what else she had written. I learnt that she had died just a few days earlier aged 52.

To Catch a Rabbit is the first in a crime series featuring Sean Denton. Sean is a police community support officer (PCSO) in Doncaster. Two boys lead him to a woman’s body in a caravan. She appears to have been a prostitute, possibly trafficked. The officer in charge seems to want the investigation shut down, but Sean is determined to find out more about her life and how she died.

Meanwhile, Karen Friedman lives in an affluent home but an unhappy marriage in York. She finds sanctuary in her work for a refugee charity. However the disappearance of her brother throws her into confusion and grief.

It is so refreshing to see a working-class character at the centre of a novel. Crime fiction may do better than other genres, but even then they are more likely to be committing the crime than solving it. Sean Denton is not a high flier. He doesn’t drive an eccentric car (or any car at all). He struggles financially and has a complex family background. However, he is observant and focused and able to empathise with people in his community. He has a strong sense of his own beliefs and identity.

It is also good to see a realistic depiction of police work which focuses on the civilians and lower ranks. Just as the woman in the caravan is marginalised, so are many of the police workforce. You get a real sense of the palace intrigue within the force, distinctions of class, hierarchy and power, as well as camaraderie and humour. There is a large cast of characters but they are so vivid that I had no trouble keeping track of them.

Karen’s world is very different but equally sharply observed. Karen goes through a range of emotions in both her personal and work life and her dilemmas feel very real. The two stories are skilfully woven together, criss-crossing the contrasting landscapes of contemporary Yorkshire.

To Catch a Rabbit is a crime novel but it is also a book about big issues, told through unforgettable characters.
*
I listened to the audio version of To Catch a Rabbit. The excellent narration by Jonathan Keeble meant I was immediately immersed in the story.

View To Catch a Rabbit on Goodreads

Read more: Helen Cadbury obituary in the Yorkshire Post

 

 

 

Spook Street by Mick Herron (Jackson Lamb 4)

spook street mick herronWhat happens to spies when they get old? This is the intriguing question posed by Spook Street. Former senior spy David Cartwright is showing the early signs of dementia. He wanders round his village in his pyjamas, convinced that the flickering streetlights are a code, and that the local shopkeeper’s small talk is an interrogation. What might he reveal in his confusion?

His grandson, River Cartwright, is one of the misfit spies exiled to Slough House under Jackson Lamb (the so-called Slow Horses). He is concerned about his grandfather and wants to take care of him before the Service move to ‘take care of him’ in another sense.

At first I found it hard to orient myself in the present day, particularly as this was my introduction to Slough House. I’m a big fan of John le Carré and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was back in the world of Smiley. The grotty building, the sluggish central heating, the air of ennui, the animal terminology (stoats and horses rather than moles) – Even the cadence of the prose echoes le Carré. It’s only the references to technology that hurtle you back to the present day.

But this is more than Smiley with iPods. I soon warmed (if that’s the right word) to the Slow Horses. They are flawed but clever, unlikeable to varying degrees (likeability is, in my view, a much-overrated quality in a fictional character) but always interesting.

One way Spook Street differs from le Carré is that no one here seems to much believe in anything. In Smiley’s world, people are motivated at times by principle, even if they’re not the principles they’re supposed to have. Here the ambitious are motivated by their own power and status, while the employees at Slough House seem to have enough to do just to make it through the day.

A lot of contemporary spy fiction, and crime in general, seems to be high in concept and low in substance. Fast food for the eyeball, with clockwork characters marching through the obligatory twists. This is the opposite. The plot is the plot, and is probably best not examined too closely, but the prose is rich and satisfying and funny in the darkness and bleak in the light. There are complex, grown up characters and a world in Slough House that may owe a debt to le Carré but clearly has a life of its own. A world that lives and breathes and which you are sure is still there when you have stopped reading. I’ll definitely be back.

I received a copy of Spook Street from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Spook Street on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my crime novel Recognition on Kindle

A child’s evidence convicted him – what if she was wrong?

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