In Praise of Books! In Praise of Libraries!

Daisy Chapter and Verse

Daisy is one of the Chapterhouse directors. She loves libraries, family sagas, and children’s fiction.

When the first lockdown came along in March 2020, I’d just finished reading the books I’d been given for Christmas and for my birthday and was planning a major trip to the library. Alas, the books I’d reserved waited for me on the shelves for many long months, and in the meantime I started rereading old favourites.

Where to start? Some favourite writers, obviously. Comfort reading? Definitely yes: some of the choices I made were comfort reading, but not always, except in terms of my having already read most of the books at least once, but not always in terms of the subject matter.

Kate Atkinson’s long been a favourite of mine, and I rapidly worked my way through all the Jackson Brodie novels, revelling in her attention to details and ability to weave together highly complex strands of plot, all with a light but deft touch, an elegant use of language and gorgeous sense of humour. As I said, not exactly comfort reading in the conventional sense, with some pretty gruesome deaths being investigated by the apparently fearless detective, who must surely have the complex private life of any fictional private investigator. While I was still in Kate Atkinson mode, just for good measure I reread Life After Life – definitely on my personal shortlist for Desert Island book.

Moving through the alphabet, there were a couple of Helen Dunmore books I couldn’t resist rereading (Burning Bright and Mourning Ruby) before alighting on Penelope Fitzgerald’s fabulous books (The Bookshop and Human Voices are particular favourites of mine).

Moving down the bookshelves, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet series of novels was my next major project; dealing with the fortunes of the members of the Cazalet family:  “elderly” parents, three brothers, their wives and young children and their sister, starting in the between-war period and moving over the course of the series to close in modern times. Again the author handles a huge range of characters, their lives mingling together, in London and at their parents’ home in the country, the difficulties they face trying to keep the family business going in increasingly turbulent and challenging times. The Radio 4 adaptation of the series is a delight, too, if you can find it!

Delving back into children’s books, I was tempted to reread the Harry Potter books, but stuck mostly to older classics including my old favourites by Frances Hodgson BurnettThe Secret Garden and A Little Princess; the former is the better known of the two and has been adapted into classic films (four times, no less) and various television versions, including a new film released in 2020 (which I revelled in watching) starring Julie Walters and Colin Firth in the central adult roles as Mrs Medlock, the housekeeper, and Lord Craven. To be honest, though, A Little Princess is my favourite of these two Hodgson Burnett books, and the sad tale (riches to rags and back again) of little Sarah Crewe never fails to move me.

Having started to work my way through children’s books, modern award-winning books like Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War called out to be read again, as did some of my really old favourites: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was another must-read (there was a fabulous television version in 2007) as were E Nesbit’s Five Children and It and The Railway Children. (Cue more re-watching of the much-loved filmed versions of these.) 

Interspersed with all the children’s fiction, I read psychological thrillers by writers including Nicci French, Minette Walters and Clare Mackintosh. When the library re-opened partially and I could reserve books, I discovered new works I’d never read before by writers like Claire Fuller, Fredrik Backman, John Banville, Emma Donoghue, Anne Enright, Deborah Moggach, Colm Toibin – what a delight to find books by contemporary writers I’d not previously read.

Now the library here has fully re-opened, there’s a whole new world of books out there, just waiting for me to chance upon them as I walk through a safe new one-way system (I never knew there was a back door!). The librarians are marvellous too and know which authors will be likely to appeal to which of their readers. I can’t sing their praises highly enough for their patience and understanding of their customers, whether it’s the families whose children are just being introduced to the world of reading or the 90-year-olds who love having the latest large print and audio versions of books old and new put aside for them. Thank goodness for books and thank goodness for librarians!

Let Me Lie – Clare Mackintosh

Rating: 5 stars

let me lie.jpgAnna Johnson’s parents have both committed suicide, just seven months apart, and on the anniversary of her mother’s death she receives several cards, one of which is a garish Happy Anniversary card, inside containing the typed words: Suicide? Think again.

Let Me Lie gives us Anna’s narrative as she struggles to deal with a multitude of factors: her parents’ deaths; the looming failure of their business, now run by her uncle Billy; her partner, Mark, whom she met as a therapist under a year before; and her two-month-old baby.

The other narrator is apparently a ghost – that of one of Anna’s parents:

On the day of my death I walked the tightrope between the two worlds, the safety net in tatters beneath me. This way safety; that way danger.

I stepped.

I died.

What happens next to Anna comes about from her reporting of the card at the local police station, to Murray Mackenzie, a former detective who now works in a civilian capacity. Murray’s own narrative then winds in and through those of Anna and her dead parent, as the tale swiftly moves through the next few days, culminating on the last day of the year, with fireworks appropriately exploding around them.

Clare Mackintosh brings many twists and turns to this plot, and it’s impossible to know whose explanation of events to believe. We feel enormous sympathy for Anna and for Murray, who has what could most simply be described as a “difficult” marriage. His wife Sarah is central to the book and she has a key role to play in explaining the mystery; her illness is sympathetically portrayed, as is Murray’s understanding of it and of her. Anna relies heavily on three people: Billy, Mark, and old family friend Laura. By turns we trust and mistrust all three, as they weave through the rapidly churning developments.

Mackintosh has a great talent for writing novels which grip readers and keep them enthralled and mystified. If you’re at all like me, though, it’s best not to read this late at night, as parts of it are not conducive to sleep. And beware, there’s a final twist right at the very end, which will probably give you the shivers and make your spine tingle with dread.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

Find this book on Amazon

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

Rating: 4.5 stars

I Let You Go.jpgPublished in hardback in 2014, this first novel written by Clare Mackintosh has now sold over a million copies and won the Crime Novel of the Year award last year. Clare has plenty of experience of crime investigations, having worked in the police for twelve years, including time in the CID, so the police attempts to solve the shocking event that happens in the opening pages ring utterly true, including the inevitable worries about understaffing and overtime costs, both of which naturally affect the course of the police investigation which follows.

Initially, I was confused between the voice of the first person narrative sections – a young woman whose son has died and who is fleeing her past – and the third person narrative sections following the police officers’ working to get justice for a dead boy and his grieving mother. Then suddenly the novel really clicked in and I read it compulsively, adjusting between the different voices and shifting of times back and forth to build a horrifying and compelling picture of the events leading up to and following the horror of the prologue. By the final chapters I felt as if I were living alongside the terrified young woman, too scared to breathe, needing to run but petrified of moving an inch.

The plot twists are unexpected and shocking, and at the same time utterly plausible. I sympathised with the police struggling to keep going through their heavy workload, while trying also to maintain a grip on their family lives.

Read this: but I strongly recommend not too late at night if you’re at all of a nervous disposition.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

Find this book on Amazon