Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The People's Act Of Love by James Meek / Edith Cavell by Catherine Butcher / The Explorers Club by Nell Benjamin


The People's Act of LoveThe People's Act of Love by James Meek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up The People's Act Of Love in a charity shop expecting a probable three star read and was happily surprised to absolutely love the book! Although it is set in Siberia, this is my eighth Scottish read for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge so I have now achieved the Highlander level I hoped to attain. It is (just) still only July though so I think I will upgrade to The Hebridean and try to find another four Scottish books by the end of this year.

The People's Act Of Love is an intense swirl of characters and intertwining lives set against the bitterly cold and hostile environment of Siberia in the aftermath of the First World War and during the Russian Revolution. An army of Czechoslovakian soldiers are trapped holding the railroad they have won, desperate to go home, but forced to remain by the pride of their leader. A solitary male prison camp escapee appears out of the snow after many days walking. A lone widow and her son are struggling to make something of their lives despite the attentions of several men who seem only to let her down. And there is something really not quite right about the villagers of Yazyk.

This is very much a book about small acts and connections. Huge world-changing events are happening offstage so to speak, but Meek concentrates on how individual decisions can affect more than just a single life. I loved his prose and his way of implying so much more than is said. For example, at one point the widow, Anna, spots a one-shoed soldier limping as the regiment marches by. 'You lost a boot' she says. 'No', he answers, 'I found one.' That image of one of many soldiers, far from home and without even his own boots, really struck me.

Anna is a fascinating creation and proof that male authors can convincingly write female characters. I was also intrigued by the shifting realities of Samarin, the man from the prison camp, and by Meek's portrayal of the religious fervour of the villagers. They are Christians and it was interesting to be presented with extremists in this faith when the modern media tends to only offer up examples of other faiths as fanatics.

The People's Act Of Faith is very Russian in its style and pace although it does manage to mostly avoid the confusing patronymics! I can appreciate that this won't be a book for everyone, but I loved it.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.


Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad by Catherine Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a copy of Edith Cavell by Catherine Butcher from its publishers, Monarch, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. It will be published on the 18th September 2015 and is available to pre-order now.

I photographed a stained glass window depicting Edith Cavell while we were in Norwich. I was interested to learn more about this remarkable woman and so was delighted when, soon afterwards, this biography of her was offered for review. Subtitled 'Faith Before The Firing Squad', it is obvious that her story is not going to end well and her execution at the hands of the invading German army in Belgium was the event that secured her 'fame' a century ago this year in 1915. Cavell has faded from popular memory since the First World War, but resurgent interest this year will culminate in the issuing of an official UK coin bearing her image - and not before time!

Catherine Butcher has pieced together Cavell's life from various sources including previously published biographies and original letters. She allows us a glimpse into Cavell's fervently religious childhood, her schooling and early career as a governess, the start of her nursing career and how she led the creation of the nursing profession in Belgium. Unfortunately, although this is only a short book in which to portray such a full life, Butcher has also included a remarkable amount of padding which often made me wonder if she had really accumulated enough material for a whole book. Monarch is a Christian publisher so I expected religious bias, but much of Cavell's early life is taken up with quoting, word for word, passages that she would have heard from the Bible, rather than describing in detail how the family actually lived.

I liked reading excerpts from Cavell's own letters and would have appreciated more of such material. Butcher does give a balanced view of this independent woman and her incredible strength of character. She isn't a saint(!) and it was interesting to learn different people's perceptions of her attitudes and behaviour. However I would have preferred a more in-depth investigation into her life.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.


The Explorers ClubThe Explorers Club by Nell Benjamin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a download of The Explorers Club via AudioSYNC. The book is actually an audio recording of the successful play, produced by LA Theatre Works, and so is only about an hour and a half long although it does also include an interesting interview with scientist turned writer Eileen Pollack. One of the first women to study physics at Yale, Eileen reveals that little in the way of attitudes towards women in science has changed since the Victorian era!

The play itself is quite silly, but entertainingly so, and has a serious message behind its shenanigans. Our heroine, Phyllida, has returned from discovering a lost tribe, bringing one of its number with her. Grudgingly impressed by her scientific endeavours, the all-male Explorers Club consider allowing her to join their ranks, but cannot countenance her sitting in the same room for Brandy And Cigars. Sexism, racism, religious dogma and class snobbery all combine to produce a humorous farce. I did like that the characters all had good accents (no Dick Van Dyke moments!) and the cast understood their comedic timing, but there was unseen physical comedy as well which left me with a sense of missing out.


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