Everyone having a relaxing Christmas? I am. There’s something about the Christmas season that encourages a relaxation of all the rules – perhaps it’s the exhaustion after all the rushing about. The shopping, cooking, the frantic rush for everything to be ready for the big day. It is when time seems to stop. What day is it? Friday or Saturday? It makes no difference. It is also when there are no rules – misrule – when you can do what you want without guilt.
At one time, this would have meant eating too much, gorging on chocolates, long meals with a different wine for each course, then sitting slumped and hungover in front of the television. I am older now, and wiser. I have been binge reading. I would always have spent a lot the time reading but this year I gave myself permission to forget everything else. Anyway there was a precarious pile of books I needed to tackle.
Normally, I would think carefully about what to read next but this Christmas I decided to start at the top of the pile and work down. The books in this particular pile (it is one of many) were ones I retrieved from my mother’s house. We cleared it when she moved to a care home. They are not family heirlooms – she was better at me of keeping things tidy. These were the books that she bought when her memory was starting to fail. The compulsion to buy books remained, but the ability to remember what she had bought and then read them had diminished.
I am not going to talk today about what is in the pile. The first one I read sent my thoughts travelling in another direction. Why do we pick the books we read? Or do they pick us? In the last few months I have read three books, all on a similar subject, the Second World War – a period that I would not normally read about and specifically about Resistance and how the past impacts on the present. I read the books for completely different reasons, not for the connection.
The first book, the one on the top of my pile was Citadel by Kate Mosse. The paperback edition was published in 2013. I, and presumably my mother, had read the first two books in the Languedoc series – Labyrinth and Sepulchre. They are all set in Southern France and involve a certain amount of time slippage – between the present day and the distant past. All involve mystical secrets that must be kept hidden.
In Citadel the present day is limited to an epilogue. The action takes place first in 1942 when Carcassonne is part of Vichy France, the unoccupied area under the control of Marshal Petain and then in 1944, after the Germans have invaded. It tells the story of Sandrine Vidal as she changes from innocent girl to experienced member of the resistance. There is a parallel storyline as Arinius, a monk, travels through the same area in the fourth century, carrying a valuable document for which he must find a hiding place.
As well as the tangled politics of wartime France, people are searching for the same document, some to destroy it, others to preserve it – even use it to fight against the destruction of the local population by the enemy as the Allies land in the South of France.
An exciting book with plenty of tension – setting bombs, evading the enemy and a love story as well. I learned a lot about conditions in France during the occupation, a time I knew little about and the connections with the past added an extra layer of interest.
And the connections with my writing? Earlier this year I was contacted by a friend of a friend, who wanted to find out about how to publish his writing. Originally from Rugby, he now lives in France and had met Kate Mosse – probably a better person to ask about getting published than me!
The second of the three books is The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths. This is the tenth, and most recent book in the Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries. The way I found this series is an example of the serendipity of discovering books. One Thursday morning in writing class, we were talking about writing in the present tense. This is something that is frowned upon in certain writing circles. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a famous example – some people find it impossible to read. A member of the class mentioned books they had read that were in this format and easy to read. A detective series, set in Norfolk, in which the protagonist is an archaeologist. This piqued my interest and I made a note of the author – Elly Griffiths. That afternoon, after finishing my weekly shop at Sainsburys, I stopped at the charity second hand book stall. Staring up at me was a book by the same author – I think it was Dying Fall, the fifth in the series. I bought it and later started reading it. I discovered that after the first couple of pages, I was hooked, I no longer noticed the present tense.
The main character is a forensic archaeologist, Ruth. She specialises to bones, teaching at a local university. She is single, middle aged and slightly overweight – the ideal character to relate to. She lives on the edge of the saltmarsh in north Norfolk – a landscape that becomes a character in its own right. In the first of the series, The Crossing Places, the bones of a child are found on the marsh. Ruth is called in, but body turns out to be more modern. DCI Harry Nelson of Norfolk Police investigates. There are mysterious notes, archaeologists and police and a druid. By the end of the book, after an exciting night chase across the marsh, Ruth and Harry have solved the case and a partnership has begun.
I won’t go into details – I don’t want to give anything away but the series continues. New characters appear, others go (or die). There are old bones and new bodies. The culprit is revealed but at the same time you get to know these people: Ruth and Harry, their friends, relations and colleagues.
Most of the books are set in Norfolk but in the most recent, The Dark Angel, Ruth goes to Italy. In a hilltop village an ancient grave has been found, but the skeleton holds a modern mobile phone. Someone is killed and the answer lies in the past, in the conflict between resistance heroes and fascists during the second world war. I didn’t find it as good as the previous books. The situation was somewhat contrived and the characters were out of their comfort zone. Is the series reaching the end of its life?
The next book, The Stone Circle, is out in February 2019. It returns to the saltmarsh and the case where it all started.
If you want more coincidences, I was intending to buy The Dark Angel (it came out in Feb this year) when I went, on impulse, into a charity shop I had never been into before. There it was on the shelf.
Also, I have only just noticed there is a quote on the back by – Kate Mosse!
The third book I want to talk about today is Tell Me No Truths, by Gill Vickery. There was nothing forcing me to buy this book, unless you could say that sharing a stall at a Christmas Fair with the author counts. The fact that the Fair was in the same building as the writing class I attend and the author is my tutor might also have had something to do with it.
Like the Elly Griffiths book, this is also set in Italy, but whereas The Dark Angel is set in the Liri Valley, south of Rome, this book takes place in Florence and the surrounding villages. The book is Young Adult, and concerns a trip to Italy by three modern teenagers. Twins Amber and Jade are hoping to find out more about their much loved Italian grandfather, a hero of the Partisans in the second world war. They meet Nico who is only interested in discovering the identity of a reclusive writer of detective thrillers about the same period. They uncover secrets that have remained hidden for years.
I don’t know about young adults, but any adult would enjoy it. The story was gradually revealed and I loved the references to plants and flowers. It brought out the heat and beauty of Florence and its art, as well as some of less savory aspects of life during the war.
So, three books on a subject that I wouldn’t normally read but enjoyed. I wonder what else will force its way to my attention, or I will encounter in my mother’s TBR pile, before I plunge back into the tenth century?
On which note, you have only a few more days to read an extract of Bright Axe – to be published next year (or this year if you are late in reading this post!)