“Burning Bright” by Tracy Chevalier

In her latest novel, Tracy Chevalier has chosen William Blake as her inspiration, spinning a tale of how she imagines he may have been inspired to write one of his famous poems, “The Tyger”. Blake is not the main focus of the story though, and we are lead through 18th century London by the Jem, one of the Kellaway family who have just recently moved from Dorsetshire to the Lambeth area of London following a family tragedy, and Maggie, a born and bred London girl in the Butterfield family who acts as a guide to the strangers to the busy and frantic capital city. The Kellaways travel to the city after the owner of the circus offers to help them make business contacts in London. Even with the hustle and bustle of the city as well as the excitement of the circus to occupy them, it is their neighbours, William Blake and his wife, who intrigue Jem and Maggie.

This book, like Chevalier’s earlier novels, has a story that carries you along with characters you feel you know, and allows you to be transformed to the period and city that is evoked through dense description, even if a bit cliched at times. One complaint is that sometimes we stray from Jem and Maggie slightly too long as the focus changes to another of the Kellaway or Butterfield family.

You don’t need to know anything about William Blake to read this book, and he appears too briefly to get to know him, but then it’s not supposed to be a biography and he’s not supposed to be a main character. Unfortunately, this meant I didn’t feel that the author gave us a real feeling for the man, and short of a few quotes and a thorough description of the printing process, there was little to inspire me to find out more.

Having said all that, it’s a breezy, eventful story, not too taxing, and generally entertaining. If you liked “Girl With A Pearl Earring”, you’ll probably like this, but to get the best of Tracy Chevalier, I’d recommend “Falling Angels”.

“Arthur & George” by Julian Barnes

“Arthur” is the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous Victorian writer and creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, while “George” is a Midlands solicitor George Edalji. While the two men grow up in very different circumstances, their worlds are brought together by the crimes known in the press as The Great Wryley Outrages. The first half of the novel develops the characters of Arthur and George and leads into of the events surrounding the crime.

Based on true events, this is not a book for a quick read on a Sunday afternoon, but an involving, compelling story that requires time to consider and absorb fully. Julian Barnes has obviously put an amazing amount of research into this book, and it reads as a biography of the two contrasting men, with the investigation into The Great Wryley Outages as the device that brings the two threads of the story together. It is a completely engrossing crime story based around a miscarriage of justice, and it almost seems hard to believe it is based on real events, and although the story is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the themes are as relevant today as they were then, and include faith, justice and race.

The book itself offers fascinating insights into the lives and societies inhabited by the two title characters, as well as providing an important historical element in the form of the development of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

It is a beautifully crafted story and a wonderful combination of excellent character observation and intriguing crime investigation. Highly recommended.

“The Book of Lost Things” by John Connolly

Just before the start of the Second World War, a twelve year old boy, David, watches his mother die of a terminal illness. While she is still well enough, they read books of stories, myths and legends together, but when she dies, David is left with the books and stories they loved together which hold bitter sweet memories of his mother. Within a year, his father has remarried and his step-mother is pregnant with his half-brother, and the family move house to his step-mothers family home in the country, nearer to his fathers secret work for the Government in the war effort.

Grieving for his mother, David is unable to love or even accept being thrust into the new family his father is creating. In his attic room, once belonging to a long lost relation of his step-mother, he finds the long forgotten books of a boy who disappeared mysteriously many years ago. The books start to whisper to him, and the Crooked Man starts to move into David’s consciousness, while David is drawn to the strange and violent world beyond the sunken garden.

In order to get back to his own world, David must face the quest of a lifetime and come face to face with some of the myths and legends in the stories his mother has left him with.

Every time I visited my book shop, this book would jump out at me from the “3 for 2” table, or in the “Staff recommends” book section, but it wasn’t until my book group leader chose it, that I actually got round to reading it. As I already read quite a lot of children’s books, I wasn’t put off by the fantastical, fairy tale elements of the plot, and had high hopes for an engaging story that would keep me occupied for a few hours on a cold Sunday in January. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed. I’m not sure how long the author had been planning and writing this book, but I found that as I got further into the book, I felt that I’d read or seen it all before, and all slightly better. I was reminded a lot of the film “Pan’s Labyrinth” from a couple of years ago, with a very similar story, except it’s a young Spanish girl with a step-father who is a sadistic captain in the Army fighting a small band of anti-fascist rebels in the Spanish countryside, who escapes into a world of fables to forget reality.

As a huge fan of Jasper Fforde, I’m happy with the use of our well known nursery rhymes and fairy tales being used to tell a new story, but in this book I’m not sure that it really worked. There was a lot of inspiration drawn from the old tales and reworked into the plot, and it was essential to the narrative to keep David’s journey moving forward, but it all felt too familiar and derivative of other books I’ve read or films I’ve seen before, and it just wasn’t original. The author is obviously compelled by fairy tales and myths, as at the back of my copy of the book was a 150 pages of supplementary notes about the genuine origins of some of the stories he refers to in the book, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t be bothered to read it.

In the author interview at the end of the book, he does allude to the fact that he has delved deep into his subconscious and I wonder if it was written as a kind of therapy to help him deal with and understand his own experiences. We see glimpses of a boy suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and are unsure whether the entire story is one of the inner thoughts of a grief stricken young boy with mental health problems, or whether the author intended us to believe this supposed to be a genuine fantastical adventure.

I think this probably comes across as me saying this is a bad book, but it isn’t. It was enjoyable, it was well written, it was entertaining, and if you haven’t had the same exposure to the other things I’ve mentioned, then you may find it original and fascinating. If it’s not the type of book you would normally read, then maybe you’ll find it interesting and unusual, and I would recommend you try it.