20 Books of Summer: 8 & 9 – St John Mandel & Ferguson

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St John Mandel

After the brilliance that was Station Eleven (reviewed here), I’ve been keen to read more by the Canadian author, finally managing it with this one, her second novel from 2010.  While The Singer’s Gun differs thematically from Station Eleven, Mandel’s style of writing, with its elegant observational nature that makes you think whilst things are going on all around, was already in place.

The Singer’s Gun is  thriller-ish!  A modern noir in which crimes and murder are committed – but that isn’t really the primary focus of the narrative. It’s all about identity and no-one in this book is quite who they seem, except perhaps Alexandra Broden, an agent investigating cousins, Anton and Aria Walker. She travels over to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to speak to their parents, who run an architectural salvage yard.

“Mr Waker, I was hoping to speak with your son.”
“Don’t know where he is, exactly. Traveling, far as I know.” Samuel Waker’s voice was steady, but the hand that painted the figurehead’s hair was trembling. […]
“What about your neice? You spoken with her recently?”
“Not recently. No.”
“Mr Waker,” Broden said, “a shipping container came into the dock at Red Hook last week. It held fifteen girls who were being smuggled into the country from Eastern Europe, and one of them died in transit. I think your son and your neice may have been involved in the shipping operation.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Mr Waker, is your son dead?”
Anton’s father was silent for a moment. “I’m offended by the question,” he finally said. “Here I just told you that he’s traveling, and now you’re callingme a liar.”

Cut to the island of Ischia, next door to Capri, off the Neapolitan coast. Anton had been on honeymoon, but bizarrely, decides to stay on the island to write his book, abandoning his new wife, Sophie who returns to New York alone.

Anton had been a good catch for neurotic cellist, Sophie. He works for a consulting firm of water engineers, has a respectable career, a Harvard diploma on the wall. Sophie had already had the wedding rescheduled twice, but it was on for a third time at the end of the summer. However, some weeks before, when he turns up at work, his secretary Elena isn’t there and his office has been moved to another floor… what’s going on? This is the start of everything going wrong for Anton. He wants to be normal and guilt-free, but comes from a family of crooks. Aria is a criminal mastermind, and has a habit of involving Anton. Just one more job. It’s family…

Alexandra has her job cut out to get to the bottom of the case, and the narrative twists round and round as she uncovers layers of intrigue and questions of identity. Elena, who has an increasing role to play as the story continues has her own moral quandaries to deal with too, making her the most intriguing character. This was a very satisfying  and elegant thriller. (9/10)

Source: Own copy from the TBR.    Emily St John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun (2010) Picador paperback, 304 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson

From an elegant thriller to a madcap, middlebrow comedy from the 1930s. So mad, actually,  that I nearly threw the book across the room in defeat at one stage!

Meet the Carne girls: There’s Deirdre, aka Deiry, our narrator, a sort-of journalist; Katrine, the eldest, who is at drama school; and Sheil (not Sheila) who is about eleven. They live with their widowed mother, and Miss Martin, Sheil’s governess, in London.

It began well – on the first page, Deirdre is discussing books:

A woman at one of mother’s parties once said to me, ‘Do you like reading?’ which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation.

which I could identify with, but then a couple of pages later:

Three years ago I was proposed to. I couldn’t accept the man, much as I liked him, because I was in love with Sherlock Holmes. For Holmes and his personality and brain I had a force of feeling which, for the time, converted living men to shadows.

The first inkling that her imagination has a habit of running away with things.  The older sisters invent a rich imaginary life for themselves to entertain Sheil, with the collusion of their mother, and to the complete and utter bewilderment of Miss Martin. The problem is that those imagined  persons they people their conversations with are all real – from the actor Dion Saffyn, to eminent Judge Toddington, whom they affectionately call Toddy.

I was getting mightily fed up with all this. Deirdre, Katrine and their mother are all old enough to know better and it was hard work keeping track of who was real and who was not as Deirdre’s narration is so here, there and everywhere. I nearly gave up in frustration, but then real life intruded. Deirdre meets Lady Toddington, the judge’s wife and things have to change – but not necessarily in the way you may imagine…

Initially, reading this book was like a fizzy drink frothing over the edge of the glass – and it never totally settles down either.  It was sort of fun, but it was also rather arch, and I didn’t really warm to the girls either, finding Katrine too flightly, Sheil too spoilt, and Deirdre appears to have talked her way into a columnist’s job straight from school.  There are parallels with another of the books in this Bloomsbury series, the wonderful Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (reviewed here).  In it, two young men invent a batty old woman for fun during a wet holiday, and the fun begins when she turns up once they’re home and proceeds to dominate their lives – how can they get rid of her?  The dark edge in Miss H really made a good story, whereas in The Brontes Went to Woolworths, I was just hoping they’d finally stop making things up and go away. (6/10)

Who else has read this one?  I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts…

Source: Own copy from the TBR.   Rachel Ferguson, The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931) Bloomsbury pbk, 188 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)


16 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer: 8 & 9 – St John Mandel & Ferguson

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    How interesting Annabel! I’ve heard good things about the Ferguson (and possibly even have a copy somewhere) but obviously it didn’t really gel for you. I also loved Miss Hargreaves so I shall have to see if I have this one so I can have a compare,

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’ve meant to try something else by Mandel ever since reading Station Eleven. I think I have Last Night in Montreal on my Kindle.

    The Ferguson sounds … bizarre! I wonder if Ali, Liz and/or Simon have read it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Last Night in Montreal was her debut – but it augurs well… Re Ferguson: I hope they have read it – and can offer a balancing view!

  3. Elle says:

    The one I’ve read from that Bloomsbury classics series is Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson, which is totally delightful, although it sounds as though The Brontes Went to Woolworths starts to wear a bit…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I have a couple of the others, including Mrs Tim and I did love Mrs Hargreaves, but this one was too much!

  4. Laura says:

    I loved Station Eleven so much that I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to read anything else by St John Mandel – thanks for the recommendation. I’ve heard about The Brontes Went To Woolworths before, and this just confirms my sense that I wouldn’t enjoy it at all.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Station Eleven was outstanding for me too and I am dying to read Mandel’s other two books now. Forget the BWTW! 😀

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I can only take so much English whimsy! Magical realism bring it on (but only if done properly!). 😀

  5. Peggy says:

    Oh dear. I just ordered The Brontes… and it is on its way to me. Well, on the bright side (?!) I didn’t like Station Eleven (there’s always one!), so perhaps, The Brontes… will suit.

  6. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I tore through all of Emily St. John Mandel’s backlist after reading Station Eleven, and The Singer’s Gun was easily my favorite of her three pre-Station Eleven novels. It has that same twisty plotting that impressed me so much in Station Eleven, whereas the other two somehow just didn’t do it for me as much.

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