I borrowed Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett from the library because I really enjoyed reading The Bus on Thursday last year. Barrett’s debut novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. Set in the early 20th century in the port town of Eden in New South Wales, ‘Rush Oh!’ is loosely based on the life of George Davidson, one of Australia’s most prominent master whalers at the time. During the 1908 season, his fictional teenage daughter, Mary, is tasked with supporting her father’s whaling crew and caring for her five siblings after their mother’s death, and the arrival of the mysterious former Methodist preacher, John Beck, proves to be a welcome distraction for her.
In ‘Rush Oh!’, Barrett strikes a good balance between the well-researched and brutal descriptions of whale hunting and the more gentle strands of Davidson family drama. Mary is a brilliantly imagined narrator, looking back on the events of her youth with amusingly chatty asides to the reader. In terms of genre, Barrett’s two novels to date couldn’t be more different, but they share a brilliant sense of humour and I look forward to reading more by Barrett in the future.
Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith is the fifth book in the Cormoran Strike series, and sees the private detective and his business partner, Robin Ellacott, investigating their first cold case, namely the disappearance of Margot Bamborough in 1974. Margot was a general practitioner working in the Clerkenwell area of London and it is widely believed she was a victim of the serial killer, Dennis Creed. However, Margot’s body was never found, and her daughter approaches Strike in a last-ditch effort to uncover what happened to her mother.
The investigation spans over a year from late 2013 to 2014 shortly after the result of the Scottish independence referendum. The Strike books have always been brilliant at convincingly intertwining the personal and professional lives of the two main characters and ‘Troubled Blood’ is no different. Robin is in the process of divorcing Matthew and continues to struggle with the effects of PTSD. Strike’s personal life is also messy as he deals with his aunt Joan’s terminal illness, his ex-fiancée Charlotte’s mental health struggles and his siblings’ unwelcome attempts to reunite with him.
‘Troubled Blood’ is easily the longest book I have read this year, clocking in at over 920 pages. Of course, it could have been shorter, but it is a realistic portrayal of a cold case investigation in that the pace is slowed by a huge number of dead ends because several key witnesses are either deceased or have unreliable memories, even when they don’t have something to hide. However, ‘Troubled Blood’ also has one of the most satisfying “big reveals” at the end, showing that the lengthy interview scenes with a dozen or so suspects all had something to contribute to the dramatic conclusion. This is the most complex and immersive book in the series to date and I look forward to Cormoran and Robin’s next case.
I can’t say I am particularly looking forward to the inevitable glut of literary fiction set during the current pandemic with musings on time spent in isolation which will no doubt appear on shelves over the next few years. However, I was intrigued by the premise of The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue which is set during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, and it’s easy to guess why this was one of the few novels to have its publication date brought forward this year. Nurse Julia Power works on a maternity ward in an understaffed hospital in Dublin alongside young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, and a new doctor called Kathleen Lynn, who was a real-life suffragette and social justice activist and wanted by the police for her role in the Easter Rising. Over the course of just three days in a confined setting, their patients experience numerous complications, partly a result of the conditions caused by the pandemic and partly due to poverty and attitudes towards women’s health at the time. The descriptions of childbirth are not for the fainthearted, but ‘The Pull of the Stars’ is a darkly compelling novel with striking contemporary relevance, albeit unintentionally. Many thanks to Picador for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
Finally, my non-fiction book of the month is Dead Famous by Greg Jenner, whose subtitle is ‘An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen’. Addressing the nuances between celebrity, fame and glory, Jenner dates the origins of the modern concept of celebrity to the early 18th century when the Tory clergyman, Dr. Henry Sacheverell, gave an incendiary sermon which caused something of a nationwide stir in 1709. The other subjects in Jenner’s whirlwind tour of celebrity include the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, Lord Byron, and Shirley Temple among many others. Much like celebrity culture today, some famous figures actively pursued and encouraged their own notoriety, while others had it thrust upon them unwillingly. The book analyses how image, public opinion and promotion all played a part in the development of celebrity, long before television and the internet set the landscape as we know it today. Jenner, a historical consultant for the Horrible Histories TV series and host of the You’re Dead To Me podcast, is a fittingly charismatic guide in this fun and informative book.