Saturday, 20 October 2007

Eleven and a half inches of Harry
That's what's on my bookshelf now I've finally worked my way through the Potters I to VII. Great fun - though, strangely, I'm not sorry to be over it. I kind of muddled my way through the last volume - honestly, I couldn't follow most of that stuff about the hallows and the horcruxes and who had whose wands and what was in them and where they'd been and what that meant. And I was nostalgic for the freshness and vivacity of the very first book, but hey! I'm not really complaining.

**SPOILERS**: Though someone let it slip that Mrs Weasley was killed in VII, and that almost ruined it for me, as with every page I feared her sticky end. Thanks so much.
And I'll always associate Dumbledore's death with the start of Radiohead's Knives Out - 'I want you to know / he's not coming back ...' which I was listening to an awful lot while reading VI.

:: After Harry I turned to a far more elegant and grown-up novel, which I first got wind of on some of the excellent bookish blogs I read. I'd never heard of William Boyd before this, and it's such a great thing to have found an author I enjoy who has seven or eight other books I can get stuck into. And winter is (supposed to be) coming, which means lots of reading time.

I'm always a bit fascinated by men who can write convincingly in the first person as women ... I kept examining what his women were doing and seeing if I agreed with their actions and responses, or whether the man writing it was merely making odd assumptions about women and their feelings. WB did a good job. It all sat well, I thought.
His prose is crisp, and articulate, and he keeps the narrative cool and uncluttered, so you can concentrate on who's who and who's doing what in all the cloak-and-daggery. The basic plot's quite simple: Ruth, a young English woman, finds out her mother, Sally, had been a WWII spy, writing and disseminating propaganda for a small British intelligence organisation. Sally has been compelled to tell Ruth because she suspects someone's still out to get her.

WB alternates chapters from Sally's memoir, which she has written in the third person, with chapters from the daughter's life, written in the first person. It heightens the drama to swing from Ruth's humdrum but benign life in 1970s Oxford to the tension of Sally's derring-do thirty to forty years before — from her recruitment in pre-war Paris to missions in the US as it tries to withstand pressure from Britain and Russia to enter the war.

Like all great spy stories, the tension builds beautifully with twists and intrigue and subterfuge. And the plot thickens but never bewilders (unlike Harry).

I enjoyed reading about Sally's recruitment and training, loved the sense of atmosphere of '40s London and New York, and sympathised with both women as they had to deal with the outrageous skeletons in Sally's cupboard.
A ripper!

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