Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay by William Boyd (2015)

Books that guide you through a whole life can be magical.

I know that William Boyd has written that kind of book before and I’ve read his books before I’ve not read any that have been journeys right through lives. I’ve meant to, because I’ve read good things about them, but because I’ve liked some of his books more than others they’ve never quite come to the top of my reading queue.

Until now.

I found much to appreciate in the stories that Amory Clay had to tell, reaching back from the late seventies to childhood when the twentieth century was still quite young, but I also found that some things were missing.

When Amory was seven, her uncle Greville, a society photographer, gave her camera, a Kodak Brownie. He showed her how to use it, and she was captivated. Her father had been her hero, but he was damaged by his experiences in the Great War and he let her down. That would shape her outlook on life, and her relationships with men.

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Amory wanted to establish herself as a photographer and her uncle took her under his wing. She began by photographing socialites for the magazine Beau Monde. But a misjudgement has consequences and she escapes to Berlin, where she will take pictures of the demi monde of the late 20s. Back in London those pictures cause a sensation, but soon she needs another escape, and that leads her to 1930s.

Over the years she will photograph the Blackshirt riots in London, France during the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and an alternative community founded by those who opposed that war in 70s California.

Amory had a happy knack of being present at defining moments of modern history, but it is to William Boyd’s great credit that his story doesn’t feel contrived; Amory’s life was shaped by her own initiative, and by a few mistakes along the way.

It helped that the author clearly had a depth of knowledge of all of the history that Amory’s life touched. The story is episodic, as Amory looks back at significant parts of her life, and in every episode the world was so well evoked, the details were so well done, that I never doubted that Amory lived and breathed there, and that the author might, if he chose, extend every episode into a much longer piece.

The history is wonderful, but the book is at its strongest when Amory is involved with her family. Maybe because this is her story, because those relationships shape her, and it’s only then is her story feels entirely hers.

She’s a fascinating character, Amory Clay. Life taught her to be self-reliant, and she was. She made mistakes but she gained wisdom and I loved watching her operate; she was bright, she was complex, and she had all of the social skills she needed to move forward as a woman in what was very much a man’s world.

I appreciated that, in a world that sees full of fictional retellings of real lives lived, Amory is a proper fictional character. Clearly her life story is informed by lives of real 20th century women photographers, but I couldn’t tie it any more closely than that.

I was disappointed though that, as she told her story, she often seemed quite guarded; I appreciated that she was restrained, and in any places her understatement was wonderfully telling, but I often found myself wanting to feel a little more emotionally engaged.

I had to think that this was a life story told because she wanted to leave a clear record of the facts; rather than a story told because she wanted others to understand who she had been, and why she had done the things she had done.

I could understand that. I could accept it. I just would have liked to understand a little more of what made her want to become a photographer, and what made her define herself as a photographer throughout the course of her life.

I loved what I found in this book, I’ve very glad that I read it, and my only wish is that it had told me a little more that it did.

As it stands I’d say it’s a very good book, but not quite as magical as it might have been.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (2015)

I was intrigued by the title. I was intrigued by the synopsis.

I was smitten with the design of the whole thing.

Could a debut novel live up to this?

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Yes, it could!

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The story opens in London, and in a world that mixes the real and the fantastical in the loveliest of ways.

Nathaniel Steepleton – Thaniel – was a young  telegraph operator at the Home Office. His life was a dull routine; he had wanted to be a pianist, but he took  job so that he could help to support his widowed sister and her young children.

Grace Carrow, was an Oxford educated physicist, but her career was in jeopardy, because  her father would not give her an inheritance unless she was married and she could not find  a man to marry. Not ever her best friend, an aristocratic Japanese student would help her.

Two very different people, two very different stories, but there was a link.

Both Thaniel and Grace found themselves, quite inexplicably, in possession of watches that were both extraordinarily beautiful and unusually, exceptionally,  functional.

Those watches were made by The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Keita Mori was kinsman to a Samurai lord and he had been assistant to the interior minister of Japan. But he had travelled to London to pursue his vocation, to make the finest of watches.

Or had he?

Scotland Yard suspected that Mori’s mechanisms had been used in a series of bombs set by Fenians. What else would explain why Thaniel’s watch had opened for the first time when he was just feet from a bomb, and sound an alarm before, moments later, the bomb exploded? That bomb saved the telegraph operator’s life, and it led him to the watchmaker.

But Thaniel knew that the police were wrong. He was certain that the charming gentleman who created Katsu, the randomly programed, clockwork, sock-stealing octopus, who became his friend, wouldn’t use his wonderful skills to make bombs.

Grace and Thaniel had met by then, they had recognised something in each other, they had realised that they might help each other, and a relationship had blossomed.

But Grace agreed with the police.

What other explanation could there be …. ?

This story is beautifully and intricately crafted, and it’s clear that attention has been paid to every little detail of character, setting and plot. It rewards slow careful reading, because all of those details are important, they work together, and they draw you right into this finely wrought world.

The plot so cleverly constructed. Sometimes I could see where it was going, sometimes I couldn’t, but in the end it all made wonderful sense.

This is a book that asks questions about life; about how predictable, how predetermined, how comprehensible it might or might not be. You might chose to consider those questions, or you might want to simply enjoy the journey through this lovely book.

I’m sure that there’s much more that could be said, but I’m still caught up and enjoying the wonder of it all.

I could see the influence of other books and authors, but Natasha Pulley has taken those influences and built on them to create something quite distinctive of her own.

This isn’t the kind of book I read often, but  I have to say that I loved stepping into her world, and I would gladly step into it again.

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River of Souls by Kate Rhodes (2015)

It’s lovely when an author pulls you into a world, into a story, into the lives of her characters with the very first words of a book.

“The Thames is preparing  to race back to the sea, currents twisting like sinews of muscle. Endless rain has upset its smoothness, reflected lights scattering in a blur of silver. A man stands beside it, gazing across the water’s moonlit surface, listening to the voices of the drowned ….”

‘Lovely’ is probably not the right word, given that this is a dark crime novel; let’s just say that Kate Rhodes writes very well indeed, and that I’d happily read almost any kind of novel she might chose to write.

At present she is writing ‘expert working with the police’ procedurals, and this is the fourth book in a series centred around the life and work of Alice Quentin, a forensic psychologist.

This book stands alone, and can be read without reading the three that came before; but I have to say that your understanding of the characters and relationships of Alice and the people around her would be enhanced by reading in order. I’m happy to recommend all four!

25307541Jude Shelley, the daughter of a cabinet minister, was left for dead in the Thames. She was horrifically injured and her face was destroyed. The police investigation reached a dead end,but it was re-opened when the body of an elderly priest was recovered from the river. His injuries were strikingly similar to Jude’s; he had an artefact reclaimed from the river tied to his body, as Jude had.

Jude’s mother had read Alice’s book, and she asked that she be part of the investigation. That brought Alice back to work with DCI Burns and his team again; they had a complicated history, but each had respect for the other’s professional expertise.

There would be more murders.

The story stays close to Alice, as she works with the police, as she meets and assesses key figures in the enquiry, as she researches the artefacts found with the bodies, as she interviews witnesses and those who were close to the victims.

Most strikingly, she works so sensitively with Jude, who lies in a private hospital bed, her life still very much in the balance, in the hope that understanding her relationships with her family and friends, and maybe reawakening memories of the night she was attacked, would lead her to the killer.

That gives this story such depth, and makes it moving in a way that crime novels rarely are.

I love that Alice is a capable professional, and I appreciate the complexity, and believability of her character.

All of characterisation – of the city and its people – was real and complicated and wonderful. The ongoing story – Alice’s difficult relationship with her mother, her concern for her errant brother, her warm bond with her dearest friend – held my interest, and provided an effective backdrop to the crime story. However serious the investigation may be, life goes on.

The portrayal and the psychology of Jude’s family, shaken to the core by what had happened, was particularly intriguing. Alice believed that they were keeping secrets, and that those secrets held part – if not all – of the solution to the case.

The story was compelling, and though I thought I had the solution quite early in the story I discovered that I was wrong. The plotting was very clever; the quality of the plot, the characterisation, and the writing held me from start to finish.

My only disappointment was that the building blocks of the ‘expert working with the police’ procedural were a little too obvious; the lining up of suspects, the shifts to the killer’s perspective, the escalation of events, the dramatic final act, …. I was a little sorry that this was so clearly a certain type of book.

Kate Rhodes does it all very well, but I’d love to see her stretch – or even break – the boundaries. And I think she’s too good a writer not to.

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