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The QuarryThis is a really sad review to write, because as everyone will know The Quarry is the last book completed by Iain Banks before his untimely death a month or so ago, a real loss to the world of books. And as everyone probably also knows, one of the main characters is dying of cancer, a fact that Banks made much of in his last interviews, lamenting the lateness of his research amidst a lot of gallows humour. I was very lucky to have met him briefly at a book signing in London where the Book God and I queued to get our copy of Excession signed and had a little chat about The Culture and Michael Moorcock. He was a twinkly man with a dry sense of humour and a lot of interest to say and he will be missed by his fans.

His last book centres around Kit who is 18 and somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He is also in the middle of the last weeks of his father Guy’s illness, cancer which is at an advanced stage and, with only the help of a sort of housekeeper, Kit is the main carer. the events of the book take place over one weekend where hid father’s closest friends come to visit, say their last goodbyes and, which seems to be important for all of them, look for a video recording of them when they were students which if it got into the public domain would have a real effect on all of their lives. Kit assumes that it is a sex tape but that isn’t made clear for quite a while, because of course the tape is the McGuffin that kicks off a book which is about family, death, grief, friendship and growing up different. Kit doesn’t have effective people skills and some of the humour in the book is watching him work out how best to interact with the people around him, what is and isn’t acceptable to say.

I really liked The Quarry, though some of the characters in the book are quite unpleasant, not least Guy himself who is suffering physically and mentally and takes every opportunity to launch invective at the people around him. Thankfully Kit is a superb character, complex and simple all at once, trying his best. The thing he wants to know most of all is who is mother is, something that has always been kept hidden from him.

This is a very funny book in places, and although the subject matter takes on a whole new significance when you factor in that Banks got his diagnosis as he was coming to the end of the writing process he doesn’t hold back, and some of the passages where Guy lets loose how he feels are astonishingly bitter though you don’t get that sense from Banks that he necessarily agrees, because it is a book with quite a lot of hope in it.

So, a story that is really worth reading, sad as I said that there will be no more written, though I have two or three of his works that I still haven’t read so something for me to look forward to at least.

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The Last Days of Glory by Tony Rennell gives us a detailed insight into events around the death of Queen Victoria, from Christmas 1900 until her magnificent funeral six weeks later.

It’s a book that’s been on my shelves for a long time; I spotted it in a bookshop just after it came out which is why I have this rather handsome little hardback copy. I’m slightly astonished (and also a bit ashamed) to say that means this has been in the stacks for close to twelve years. But it is one of those books which needs to be read at exactly the right time because of its level of detail. I can’t even remember why I picked it up when I did but I was soon absorbed and read it over a weekend.

I studied history at university and the past has always been of great interest to me, regardless of period, but I came late to the Victorians, probably being in my early thirties when I started to read up on the nineteenth century although the social history of her reign was very much a focus at school and so I knew enough to get by, I just wasn’t interested enough to become absorbed. I blame the Bloomsbury set a bit for that, probably unfairly, but it seems to make sense that I wasn’t interested in a period which some of my great literary heroes had written off. A number of books on social and cultural history and a bit of a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites had me wandering back, and the figure of Queen Victoria herself became increasingly fascinating to me.

So if you are at all interested in Victoria and her family and household then this is a really enjoyable book. Much of what is in it comes from the recollections of the doctor who attended her in her last weeks and months, and who assisted in preparing her body for burial. Rather than being slightly morbid as a topic, the whole issue around what she had instructed was to be placed in the coffin with her is a mini-drama in itself, and Rennell devotes a number of pages to it, giving a sense of how strong-willed and secretive the old Queen could be. There is a real insight into the complex relationships between her children and grandchildren and the figure of the Kaiser looms large. There is also a great deal about the planning of the funeral itself; she had been on the throne for so long that there was no-one alive who could remember the last time a monarch was buried and what the protocol should be, so much had to be reconstructed and quite a bit invented entirely.

It seems odd in some ways to consider the impact of her death, but for a great many of her subjects she was the only ruler they had ever known; it will be interesting to see if something similar happens when the present Queen dies (she came to the throne 10 years before I was born) although  I’m not so sure in this day and age whether it will be seen in quite the same way as the end of an era.

This is a book full of rich anecdotal material and a really interesting and useful annex on the whole issue of the role of John Brown in Victoria’s life; it is well written and it gave me great pleasure to read. Recommended.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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