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The New World by Andrew Motion

the new worldConflicted…

:) :) :) :)

At the end of Silver: Return to Treasure Island, Jim and Natty had been shipwrecked on the coast of Texas in the year 1803. We rejoin them at the start of this one as they are trying to recover the bodies of their companions, when suddenly they are discovered by a scavenging party of Indians from a local tribe. Taken prisoner, they are held captive and know that they are doomed to die. Granted an opportunity to escape, they take it – and also take something that doesn’t belong to them; something so important that the leader of the tribe, Black Cloud, and his evil henchman will hunt them down to recover it…

Although this is a continuation of a continuation of Treasure Island, in fact, it has nothing to do with Robert Louis Stevenson’s original except for Jim and Natty being the children of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver respectively. Motion makes this fairly clear himself by metaphorically getting rid of Stevenson in the first chapter, along with the all-important silver from the original and the first follow-up. In one sense, this works, since I felt the tone of Silver was so far from the tone of Treasure Island anyway that it didn’t truly feel like a continuation, so better to draw a clear divide than to invite comparison. In another sense, it doesn’t quite work so well, because we are left with the same two rather unsatisfactory lead characters.

Apache Encampment in the Texas Hill Country by George Nelson

Apache Encampment in the Texas Hill Country by George Nelson

I’m completely conflicted about this book. Motion writes beautifully, as one would expect from a former Poet Laureate. When he’s talking about nature in particular – the wide open landscape, the animals, the birds – his prose is wonderful. And even when he’s writing action scenes, his technical skill shines through – his sudden changes of tense and shifts in style are incredibly effective at creating tension or drama. As Jim and Natty journey across the country, the various people they meet are very well drawn, many of them in a slightly caricatured way that reminded me a little of the secondary characters in a Dickens novel. His descriptions of the tragedy of the Native Americans following the arrival of the Europeans are moving without being overstated, as he shows the slow attrition of the tribes as they were driven from their lands and denied their traditional ways of life.

I woke in the air – swept up by the angels of heaven all beating their wings together and singing. Then not singing but whispering. Whistling. Cooing. Gurgling. Crooning. Because they were not angels any more, they were pigeons, the same as last night, and now leaving with their mess drizzling beneath them in a continual white rain, first with laborious flusterings and squabblings, then twisting and looping and swaying and swerving until they had formed a gigantic letter S which held its shape . . . and held its shape . . . before it slackened and became a smoke-cloud blowing towards the horizon.

Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion

On the other hand, the plot moves so slowly and I’m afraid I find both Jim and Natty deeply annoying. At risk of being drummed out of the feminist sisterhood here, this is primarily because Jim is the world’s foremost leading wimp and Natty has to perform the functions of the hero. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the woman to be a simpering miss, but then I don’t want the man to be a simpering miss either. And Jim is. He’s tortured by everything that happens to him and is completely passive throughout. He does nothing when it looks as if Natty might be going off with another man, and it never occurs to him to face up to Black Cloud rather than running and hiding. He leaves it to Natty to make all the big decisions, but then whinges when she does. And she – mean, moody, selfish, silent, but (of course) beautiful Natty – treats him appallingly at all times. Why does he love her? Why does she love him? Two books now, and I still don’t know…

The thing is though, that despite everything that annoys me about these, I know I’ll be just as keen to read the next one – and the ending makes it fairly clear that there is a next one in the pipeline. Personally, I feel Motion’s writing style would be much better suited to a different kind of story – something much more traditionally ‘literary’. He gets too moralistic and introspective about the rights and wrongs of the adventure aspects of the story – the tone just isn’t quite suited to the material. But still, I love the way he uses language, and his secondary characters, and his descriptions of nature…and so I’ll continue to put up with Jim and Natty if I must. See what I mean? Conflicted…

NB This book was provided for review by Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 41…

Episode 41

 

The TBR is still going down. (Hurrah!) Currently standing at an almost respectable 103, it will hopefully dip back down to two figures within the next few weeks…if I can continue to withstand the temptation of all your lovely reviews, that is. So here’s another bumper crop of pre-Christmas treats on the list – though Christmas may have to be put back a couple of months to give me time to read them all…

Crime

 

moriartyIt’s publication day for Anthony Horowitz’s second Holmes follow-on (though I’m not sure Holmes is actually in it), and it’s already arrived on my Kindle. I thought he caught Watson’s voice incredibly well in his first, The House of Silk, though I was slightly less enamoured with some aspects of the plot. Intrigued to see where he takes us in this one…

The Blurb saysSherlock Holmes is dead. Days after Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty fall to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls, Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase arrives in Europe from New York. The death of Moriarty has created a poisonous vacuum which has been swiftly filled by a fiendish new criminal mastermind who has risen to take his place. Ably assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, a devoted student of Holmes’s methods of investigation and deduction, Frederick Chase must forge a path through the darkest corners of the capital to shine light on this shadowy figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, a man determined to engulf London in a tide of murder and menace.

 * * * * *

want you deadNow, I blame Cleo for this one. She’s always raving about Peter James, so when I was offered a copy of this from Pan MacMillan, I found it impossible to say no. Click to read her review on Cleopatra Loves Books – but be warned. Visiting Cleo’s blog can severely damage your TBR…

The Blurb saysWhen Red Westwood meets handsome, charming and rich Bryce Laurent through an online dating agency, there is an instant attraction. But as their love blossoms, the truth about his past, and his dark side, begins to emerge. Everything he has told Red about himself turns out to be a tissue of lies, and her infatuation with him gradually turns to terror.

Within a year, and under police protection, she evicts him from her flat and her life. But Red’s nightmare is only just beginning. For Bryce is obsessed with her, and he intends to destroy everything and everyone she has ever known and loved – and then her too…

* * * * *

Factual

 

the edge of extinctionCourtesy of NetGalley. I haven’t come across too many environmental/wildlife books this year, so looking forward to this one…

The Blurb saysJules Pretty’s travels take him among the Māori people along the coasts of the Pacific, into the mountains of China, and across petroglyph-rich deserts of Australia. He treks with nomads over the continent-wide steppes of Tuva in southern Siberia, walks and boats in the wildlife-rich inland swamps of southern Africa, and experiences the Arctic with ice fishermen in Finland. He explores the coasts and inland marshes of eastern England and Northern Ireland and accompanies Innu people across the taiga’s snowy forests and the lakes of the Labrador interior. Pretty concludes his global journey immersed in the discrete cultures and landscapes embedded within the American landscape: the small farms of the Amish, the swamps of the Cajuns in the deep South, and the deserts of California. From these accounts of people living close to the land and close to the edge emerges a larger story about sustainability and the future of the planet. Pretty addresses not only current threats to natural and cultural diversity but also the unsustainability of modern lifestyles typical of industrialized countries. In a very real sense, Pretty discovers, what we manage to preserve now may well save us later.”

* * * * *

Fiction

 

gutenberg's apprenticeFrom bookbridgr (sic) this time – a paper book! Do I still remember how to read them? But it seems rather appropriate that this book should be printed ‘properly’…

The Blurb says “In the middle of the 15th century, scribe Peter Schoeffer is dismayed to be instructed by his father to give up his beloved profession of illuminating texts in Paris. Instead he is to travel to Mainz in Germany to be apprenticed to Johann Gutenberg, an entrepreneur who has invented a new process for producing books – the printing press. Working in conditions of extreme secrecy, the men employed by Gutenberg daily face new challenges both artistic and physical as they strive to create the new books to the standard required by their master. In a time of huge turmoil in Europe and around the world, Gutenberg is relentless in pursuing his dream and wooing the powerful religious leaders whose support is critical. Peter’s resistance to the project slowly dissolves as he sees that, with the guidance of a scribe such as himself, the new Bibles could be as beautiful in their way as the old. Today we can see that beauty in some of our museums, but few know the astonishing tale of ambition, ruthlessness and triumph that lies behind it.

 * * * * *

london a literary anthologyAnd on the subject of beautiful books, I am the lucky recipient of a hardback copy of this courtesy of The British Library. It is sumptuously illustrated – if the content lives up to the look and feel of this one, it will be a thing of pure joy…

The Blurb says“There’s nowhere like London really you know,” says Ginger in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. From the innumerable books written about London or set in the city, it would seem countless other writers agree. This anthology features a broad collection of poems and scenes from novels that stretch from the fifteenth century to the present day. They range from Daniel Defoe extolling it as “the greatest, the finest, the richest city in the world,” and Rudyard Kipling declaring impatiently, “I am sick of London town,” to William Makepeace Thackeray moving among “the very greatest circles of the London fashion,” and Charles Dickens venturing into an “infernal gulf.”

Illustrated with evocative prints, drawings, and full-color artwork from British Library collections, the book explores London as never before. Experience London for the first time with Lord Byron’s Don Juan and James Berry in his Caribbean gear “beginning in the city.”  Plunge into the multiracial whirlpool described in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and see the ever-changing city through the eyes of Tobias Smollett, John Galsworthy, and Angela Carter. From well-known texts to others that are less familiar, London: A Literary Anthology brings London to life through the words of many of the greatest writers in the English language.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley, Goodreads or Amazon.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora webster‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’

:D :D :D :D :D

When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. The book is set in Tóibín’s own birth town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford just at the turn of the decade to the 1970s. This means it’s positioned between two of Tóibín’s earlier works: Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl sent abroad from the same town as an economic migrant in the 1950s, and The Blackwater Lightship, about three generations of women forced together by grief and trying to overcome old resentments. Although these books are entirely separate from this one in terms of story and characters, Tóibín makes reference to them both early on, and it would not be unreasonable, I feel, to see the three as a loose trilogy, building together to show us the changes in this small old-fashioned society over the decades, especially as they affected women. Brooklyn was set at a time when girls were still expected to conform to traditions upheld by their families and church in terms of their lives and marriages, while in The Blackwater Lightship, Helen has broken almost completely from this society and its traditions, though we see how they can still exert an emotional hold over her. Here, through Nora Webster, we see the midway point – the cusp of feminism if you like, arriving late in this small backwater, when women were beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by parents or husbands.

Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains

Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains

Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Nora is in her forties with two daughters almost grown and living away at school and college, and two younger sons, both deeply affected by the death of their father and by Nora’s withdrawal into grief. We see that the marriage was a traditional one, with Maurice as the breadwinner and the one who made the big decisions, while Nora fulfilled the role of housewife and mother and had no expectations of a wider life. Left to cope on her own after Maurice’s death, at first she is determined to maintain a continuity with the past and to hold her grief inside herself, hoping that a sense of normality will shield her sons from the worst feelings of loss. But as time passes, and as she is thrust back into the world through the economic need to work, Nora begins to feel the influence of the changes that are taking place in society.

Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.

My reaction to Tóibín’s writing of these women of the generation of Nora, and Eilis from Brooklyn, is a very personal one, mainly because his characters remind me so much of my own mother. The cultures of Ireland and the West of Scotland are so intertwined that I find the society he portrays wholly recognisable; and these strong post-war women who bore their sorrows within themselves, often in silence, are written with such integrity and understanding. As Nora gradually emerges from her first grief and begins, in a small way, to embrace life again, Tóibín subtly shows the guilt she feels, as if her enjoyment is a betrayal of her husband. And when, at this time of change, she finds she is drawn to things that Maurice would never have understood, such as developing a love for classical music and a desire to learn to sing, we see her struggle to accept her own right to make decisions about her life – a right she may never have considered had Maurice lived. Even making a decision to buy something for herself is so carefully weighed against the guilt that she may be being selfish, that her own wants shouldn’t matter.

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín

Though the story is very focussed on Nora, through her Tóibín shows the impact of the wider events of the time. Maurice was the political one in the family, but now, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland worsening every day, Nora finds herself forming her own opinions and no longer being willing to nod quietly in acceptance of the views of the men in her family. Through her daughters, Tóibín shows how much freer the next generation of women felt, and how much more involved they would be in the world outside the home, both in careers and politics. For me the three books – from Eilis in Brooklyn, through Nora and her daughters, and on to Helen in The Blackwater Lightship – give a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. This one gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK. Er…and Scribner. (What can I say? I requested it from both to be on the safe side and they both approved it. Oops!)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Gelatinous jellyfish in the sky…

 

Even the bravest amongst us must surely have shivered when the ghastly howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles echoed over the doom-laden moors. So who better than the master storyteller to lead us into a nightmare far above the clouds in this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

The Horror of the Heights cover

I have seen the beauty and I have seen the horror of the heights – and greater beauty or greater horror than that is not within the ken of man.

First published in 1913, we are in the early days of flight, when brave aviators were exploring the previously unknown regions above the clouds. The story is taken from the pages of a notebook found amidst wreckage in a field in the south of England, but no trace was ever found of the man who wrote them – Mr Joyce-Armstrong, known to his friends as ‘a poet and a dreamer, as well as a mechanic and an inventor’. A skilled amateur aeronaut, he has been roused to suspicion by a number of mysterious deaths of other flyers…

And then there was Myrtle’s head. Do you really believe – does anybody really believe – that a man’s head could be driven clean into his body by the force of a fall?

He has a theory that, far above the clouds, at the extreme limit of where the most modern aeroplanes could reach, there lurks an unknown danger…

A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.

 

The Horror of the Heights 2

And so he sets off in his tiny monoplane to fly above thirty thousand feet into one of the zones where some of the mysterious deaths and disappearances have happened…

Every cord and strut was humming and vibrating like so many harp-strings, but it was glorious to see how, for all the beating and buffeting, she was still the conqueror of Nature and the mistress of the sky.

The journey is a long one as his ascent must be slow so that he can become accustomed to the rarefied air, and as he rises he describes the wonders of the clouds he is passing through and the earth beneath him. And finally, he reaches forty thousand feet and lo! There is indeed an air-jungle filled with beautiful mysterious creatures like giant jellyfish, changing colour as they float through the air. But they are not the only creatures that inhabit the jungle – there is a purple thing, with monstrous eyes and three bubble-like protuberances on its back…

The vague, goggling eyes which were turned always upon me were cold and merciless in their viscid hatred… As quick as a flash there shot out a long tentacle from this mass of floating blubber, and it fell as light and sinuous as a whip-lash across the front of my machine.

The Horror of the Heights 1

Pulling out his trusty shotgun, he fires on the beast…

…though, indeed, it was like attacking an elephant with a pea-shooter to imagine that any human weapon could cripple that mighty bulk.

Escaping, he returns to earth; but wishing to have something to prove that his story was true, he decides to make one more trip to catch one of the creatures…

OK, I admit it. This story made me chuckle more than shiver, but only because we know now that there are no such creatures in the sky…don’t we? But back in 1913, I’m sure it would have been considerably more effective. In terms of descriptive writing, it’s great – giving a real feel for the experience of early flying in a plane held together by string and prayer. The monsters have an almost Lovecraftian feel about them, as does the idea of the tale being found in a fragmentary journal. But of course it was written long before Lovecraft, so probably fairer to say that Lovecraft achieves a Doylian feel. There’s no mystery about how it will end, since we know from the beginning that the trip doesn’t go well, but that lack of tension is compensated for by the imagination that created these creatures and described them so well. It would be a fun story to read just as you’re taking off on your next budget flight…

The Horror of the Heights 4

 

Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock:

Overall story rating:         :D :D :D :D

Lost (Joe O’Loughlin 2) by Michael Robotham

lostPainful memories…

:D :D :D :D :D

Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz awakes in hospital to discover that he has lost all memory of the events that have put him there. He has been shot through the leg and was dragged half-dead from the Thames, the boat he was on drifting empty but with the blood of more than one person on the deck. His furious boss accuses him of having been involved in a rogue operation to pay ransom for the return of a missing child – young Mickey Carlyle, who went missing three years earlier and is presumed dead, with her supposed killer convicted and in prison. Ruiz knows that if he was indeed willing to help with the ransom payment, he must have had some reason for believing that Mickey is alive, so turns to his psychologist friend, Professor Joe O’Loughlin, for help in trying to retrieve his memories. And meantime, though he is suspended from duty, he is desperate to find Mickey, if she is still alive…

This is another excellent thriller from Michael Robotham, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite crime writers. Although the two main characters are the same as in the first in the series, The Suspect, Robotham has shifted the point of view from Joe O’Loughlin in the earlier one to Vincent Ruiz in this one. Still unfortunately written in the first person present tense, it seems to me that Robotham has improved at that technique between the two books, and this one avoided the occasional clumsiness that marred the last one. Changing the point of view means that we get to know much more about Ruiz in this one, finding out about his family background and the early tragedy that is still affecting him as he approaches retirement. It also means that we see O’Loughlin from a different perspective, getting a more rounded picture of how he appears to other people. I’ve only read one other in the series – no. 6, Watching You – and that is told mainly in the third person. It’s an interesting approach that means we keep the familiarity of the same characters while getting a fresh angle on them each time.

Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham

The plot is complex but credible, and though there are plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing, each one stays within the bound of believability. There’s plenty of action, and occasionally Ruiz perhaps strays just a little too much towards superhero status. Set in London, there’s a good sense of place and, as we are taken down beneath the city into the sewers and tunnels, Robotham uses his clearly thorough research lightly to create atmosphere and tension with some fine descriptive writing. But the real strength of the book is in the characterisation. Ruiz is the main focus of this one and, although he is carrying some heavy personal baggage, he is in no way a stereotypical angst-ridden maverick. He is a successful professional copper, well respected until the events at the start of the book – making it all the more intriguing to discover what has made him act so out of character. The other characters are well-rounded too – Mickey’s parents, the other officers involved in the investigation, Ruiz’s mother and of course Joe O’Loughlin himself.

Although this is a series, each of the books stands alone and there isn’t really a continuing story arc as such. So my recommendation is to grab any one you can get hold of and settle down for a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m certainly looking forward to catching up with the rest of the series.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mulholland Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sailing Close to the Wind by Dennis Skinner

sailing close to the windLet’s do the Time Warp again…

:) :) :) :)

Now in his eighties and still an active Labour Member of (the UK) Parliament, it seems to me as if Dennis Skinner has been around forever. Certainly he’s been there since Parliament was televised, sitting in his usual seat beside the passage and making his famous quips at the opposition speakers…and sometimes those from his own party too. He claims that he didn’t want to write this book of memoirs, but has finally given in to the requests of many people who have enjoyed his public speaking. Certainly the book’s progress to publication seems to have been a difficult one – it has been delayed and delayed till it reached the stage that I wondered whether it would ever actually appear. At first, Skinner was shown as the sole author, then for a while the pre-order details said that it was to be co-written by Kevin Maguire, a left-wing journalist – but this finished version has reverted back to being credited to Skinner alone.

A youngish Dennis Skinner in the House of Commons. Plus ça change...

A youngish Dennis Skinner in the House of Commons. Plus ça change…

All of which might help to explain why the book is, quite frankly, a bit messy. It’s a cross between a rather patchy memoir and a statement of Skinner’s political convictions, with occasional musings on other subjects, such as his love for London parks. That’s not to say it’s not interesting – it is. Well, I’ll narrow that down a little – it’s interesting if you happen to be a left-wing UK political nerd who remembers the miners’ strike and gets nostalgic over the thought of those halcyon days when we marched through the streets of wherever we happened to be at the time, shouting ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ Skinner is an unreconstructed socialist and proud of it. Following his father into the mines, he is of ‘good working-class stock’ (which was in fact the title the book was listed as at one stage of its production), and still sees himself very much as a class warrior. His hatred for the Conservatives is visceral and often expressed in terms not unlike a small boy calling nasty names. On the other hand, he is strangely unforthcoming about the changes in the Labour party over the decades – he surely must have hated and despised the New Labour ‘project’, but he keeps that pretty much under wraps, while making it clear he thinks it’s well past time for Labour to get back to its roots.

...plus c'est la même chose

…plus c’est la même chose

The thing is that politics has moved on so far from the seventies and eighties (whether for better or worse is for each person to decide for him/herself) and Skinner’s views now come over as so out-dated, as does his manner of expressing them. (It may – or may not – have been acceptable to call a woman politician ‘darling’ in the seventies, but not so much today.) I would have agreed with him politically about 80% of the time in the Thatcher era, but those days, and the society that existed then, are gone, and won’t be coming back. I felt at points as if I had accidentally stepped into a time-machine. Too much of the book is spent on him recounting his best insults – many of them were quite funny at the time (and many others were just childish), but I did start wondering if the tax-payers were paying for an MP or a comedian. However I felt that was more to do with the uneven structure of the book, than a real reflection on Skinner’s career. He doesn’t really say much about any of the committees he served on (I assume there were some) and the details he gives of the political highpoints of his career are too few and far between. He does go quite deeply into the miners’ strike, obviously with a very strong bias towards the miners, and that was interesting. But the book is too heavily weighted to the Thatcher era – he glosses over the last Labour administration and then gets into his stride again with a series of childish personal insults about the current batch of Tories. (It always amuses me how both sides think the other side behaves badly – and it amused me how hoity-toity Skinner, the arch-insulter, got when Cameron hurled a couple in his direction. Wouldn’t it be great to have a few adults in politics for a change?)

Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner in the Miners' Strike

Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner in the Miners’ Strike

Overall, I found this in parts interesting, in parts annoying, and as a whole, too unstructured to be completely satisfying. I can’t imagine it appealing to many people outwith the Old Labour tradition, but for them I’m sure it will be an essential read, as it was for me. If for no other reason than that it gives us the chance to do the Time Warp again…

 

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 40…

Episode 40

 

I’m thrilled to say the TBR has dropped to an almost bearable 106 – due in part to some brutal weeding out of books that have been languishing there for so long I can no longer remember why I wanted to read them in the first place. So with a song in my heart and a merry tra-la, here’s a bumper bunch of some of the upcoming delights…

Crime

 

the seventh linkCourtesy of NetGalley, a nice little cosy to start the ball rolling…

The Blurb saysThe village of Frog End may be peaceful, but that doesn’t mean that the Colonel’s life there is quiet – not with his friendly but nosy neighbour Naomi, desperate to know what he’s keeping in his new shed; the curious Miss Butler, who tracks his every move with her German U-boat captain’s binoculars; and the attentions of the local vicar, who’s keen to involve him in church affairs. That’s not forgetting the demands of the aloof, imperious cat Thursday, who seems to have adopted the Colonel.”

 * * * * *

lamentationComing out on 23rd October, at last, at last! The new Shardlake!

The Blurb saysAutumn, 1546. King Henry VIII is slowly, painfully dying. His Protestant and Catholic councillors prepare for a final and decisive power struggle; whoever wins will control the government. The Catholics decide to focus their attack on Henry’s sixth wife, the Protestant Queen Catherine Parr. As Catherine begins to lose the King’s favor, she turns to the shrewd, hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, to contain a potentially fatal secret. The Queen has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, a memoir so radical that if it came to the King’s attention, it could bring her and her courtly sympathizers to ruination. The London printer into whose hands she entrusted the manuscript has been murdered, the book nowhere to be found.

Shardlake’s investigations take him down a trail that begins among printshops in the filthy backstreets of London, but leads him once more to the labyrinthine world of court politics, where Protestant friends can be as dangerous as Catholic enemies, and those who will support either side to further their ambition are the most dangerous of all.

* * * * *

Factual

 

napoleonNetGalley, what would I do without you? Napoleon was one of my early heroes based, I think, on a Ladybird book when I was about 8. Time to discover if he was worthy of my worship…

The Blurb saysAndrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.

An award-winning historian, Roberts traveled to fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battle sites, discovered crucial new documents in archives, and even made the long trip by boat to St. Helena. He is as acute in his understanding of politics as he is of military history. Here at last is a biography worthy of its subject: magisterial, insightful, beautifully written, by one of our foremost historians.”

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the new worldHave I mentioned that I love NetGalley? Andrew Motion’s second follow-up to Treasure Island – despite some reservations over the first, his writing impressed me so much this is a must-read…and isn’t the cover the most gorgeoous thing you’ve seen in years? 

The Blurb saysJim and Natty are shipwrecked on the coast of Texas, blown off course on their way home from Treasure Island. But they have stolen something they should have left well alone, something that will haunt them until what was taken has been returned…

On their journey they encounter Native American tribes, a wandering group of European Circus performers, deracinated warriors, eccentric pioneers, some landscapes of great serenity and others of terrible savagery, until, at last, they reach the mighty Mississippi.

The New World is an adventure story, a race across America, a Western, a travelogue, a love story and a lament for an indigenous culture in the years before its destruction. Andrew Motion has achieved that singular thing – a story that is both very moving and very exciting, and always written with a remarkable clear beauty.”

 * * * * *

emma austenProbably my least favourite of Austen’s books, though I know it has its own legion of ardent admirers. I admire rather than love it. But time for a preparatory re-read…

The Blurb saysBeautiful, clever, rich – and single – Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen’s most flawless work.

* * * * *

emma mccall smith…because, on 6th November, the Austen Project rolls back into town with Alexander McCall Smith’s version! Will it be a another Trollope-esque turkey? Or will it match McDermid for amazeballsness…?

The Blurb (which makes me shudder a bit) saysFresh from university, Emma Woodhouse arrives home in Norfolk ready to embark on adult life with a splash. Not only has her sister, Isabella, been whisked away on a motorbike to London, but her astute governess, Miss Taylor is at a loose end watching as Mr. Woodhouse worries about his girls. Someone is needed to rule the roost and young Emma is more than happy to oblige.

At the helm of her own dinner parties, and often found either rearranging the furniture at the family home of Hartfield, or instructing her new protégée, Harriet Smith, Emma is in charge. You don’t have to be in London to go to parties, find amusement or make trouble. Not if you’re Emma, the very big fish in the rather small pond.

But for someone who knows everything, Emma doesn’t know her own heart. And there is only one person who can play with Emma’s indestructible confidence, her friend and inscrutable neighbour George Knightly – this time has Emma finally met her match?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

Falling Freely, As If In A Dream by Leif GW Persson

Falling freelyFiction is stranger than fact…

:D :D :D :)

Lars Martin Johansson, Chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, decides to have a final shot at solving the twenty-year old assassination of then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. Pulling together a small team of his best detectives, he gets them to begin a review of the huge amount of paperwork relating to the investigation, trusting that fresh eyes might spot something previously overlooked. Meantime, Chief Inspector Bäckström, now sidelined to working in the Lost Property division, is determined to find a way to get the reward offered for solving the crime.

This is a rather strange book in that the assassination of Olof Palme is, of course, a real event, which has never been properly solved. Although one man was convicted of the murder, he was later released on appeal. While many still think him guilty, there are about a zillion other theories too – from rogue police officers to Kurdish terrorists – and all, from what Persson suggests, based on the thinnest of evidence or none at all. So from the start it was hard to see exactly where we were going to end up in this book – either Persson would have to stick with the facts, leading to an untidy unresolved ending, or he would have to invent a solution. I thought he might be going to use the opportunity to put forward his own pet theory (I’m guessing every Swede has one) but the book didn’t really give me that impression. Instead it read more like a kind of slow thriller and seemed to veer further from reality as it progressed. In fact, I found all the way through that I didn’t know which bits were fact and which were fiction, which meant that by the end I couldn’t really say I knew more about the real assassination than I did at the beginning (i.e., nothing). I suspect this would work much better for anyone who knows the ins and outs of the crime and investigation before they begin, but for me it all felt too confused and unclear. The more I read, the more unconvinced I became about the merit of using a real, unsolved case in this way, especially such a high profile and recent case.

Olof Palme

Olof Palme

Putting the concept to one side, then, and looking at the book purely as a crime thriller worked a little better for me. Johansson and his team are well drawn and their interactions have a convincing feel. We get to see them in their off-duty lives too, which makes them feel well rounded. This is a team of professionals who on the whole respect each other and work well together. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Bäckström – obviously supposed to be the comic relief, he is an ‘old-fashioned’ sexist, racist, drunken, corrupt copper – oh dear! Yes, occasionally he has a funny line, but really he is so stereotyped and one-dimensional as to be completely unbelievable, and I tired very quickly of his foul-mouthed, offensive remarks. Maybe they were funnier in Swedish. The whole strand relating to him made very little sense as far as I could see, and I felt the book would have been better and tighter without him in it.

Leif GW Persson

Leif GW Persson

The fictional investigation sees the detectives discussing many of the ‘tracks’ followed by the real investigators, plus, I assume, some made up stuff so that Persson could deliver his own version of events. While interesting, there is a good deal of repetition in these sections, not just of information, but often the same phrases being used time and again, all of which contributes to the book being seriously overlong. The translation is fine for the most part, but occasionally becomes clunky and a few times actually leaves the meaning somewhat unclear. Overall, the interest of the original case plus the good characterisation of the main team just about outweighed the annoying Bäckström and my mild irritation at not knowing where the line lay between fact and fiction. I’d guess that Persson fans will enjoy this but, although it works as a standalone, in hindsight perhaps it’s not the best of his books to start with.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

No rest for the wicked…

 

The fretful porpentine has stirred from his summer sleep and is back to haunt our winter nightmares. Aye, the nichts are fair drawin’ in, and the cauld wind is blawin’ through the deid leaves wi’ a sound like auld bones rattlin’…

And where better to begin our journey into darkness than in a graveyard with a master of horror…

TUESDAY TERROR!

The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Sargent

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Sargent

The tale begins in the parlour of an inn, where sits Fettes, an ‘old drunken Scotchman’, getting steadily drunk on rum as he does every night. The locals call him ‘Doctor’ because he seems to have some medical knowledge, but his past is shrouded in mystery. Until one night another doctor turns up at the inn to treat a patient and Fettes recognises his name. They meet, and Dr Wolfe Macfarlane is clearly horrified to have encountered this old acquaintance. He tries to get rid of Fettes by offering him money…

‘Money!’ cried Fettes; ‘money from you! The money that I had from you is lying where I cast it in the rain.’

Macfarlane tries to brush past Fettes and get away from the inn but…

…even as he was passing Fettes clutched him by the arm and these words came in a whisper, and yet painfully distinct, ‘Have you seen it again?’

The great rich London doctor cried out aloud with a sharp, throttling cry; he dashed his questioner across the open space, and, with his hands over his head, fled out of the door…

The story then goes back to an earlier time when both these men were anatomy students in Edinburgh at the time of the Resurrection Men – the body-snatchers. Fettes is responsible for receiving the bodies for dissection by the anatomy classes and paying the men who brought them. For a time he dulls his conscience by choosing to believe that they are getting the bodies from graves, and sometimes he and Macfarlane go grave-robbing themselves when bodies are in short supply. But gradually he can no longer fool himself – some of the bodies are of people murdered for the money their corpses will bring.

movie poster the body snatcher

And then one night Macfarlane brings a corpse of a man they both know… and Fettes, knowing that Macfarlane had cause to want the man dead, has to choose whether to obey his conscience or his avarice…

It was Macfarlane himself who made the first advance. He came up quietly behind and laid his hand gently but firmly on the other’s shoulder. ‘Richardson,’ said he, ‘may have the head.’

But murder victims do not always rest easy in their graves, and consciences cannot always be kept quiet. And on a dark night, when the two men set out to rob a newly dug grave, they will meet with a horror that will haunt them for the rest of their lives…

Boris Karloff in the 1945 film...

Boris Karloff in the 1945 film…

Even though the reader pretty much knows all the way through where this story is heading, Stevenson manages to create a truly chilling atmosphere of fear and tension. He doesn’t overdo the descriptions – just enough to set the scene and then leaves the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. Written in 1884, it’s set 60 years earlier at the time of the Burke and Hare murders and apparently much of the story is taken from fact. The build-up to the climax is truly spine-tingling – the darkness, the graveyard, the silence – and then the journey back to Edinburgh with the freshly dug corpse between them on the seat…oooh! The fretful porpentine was wide awake by the time we finished this one…

Still their unnatural burden bumped from side to side; and now the head would be laid, as if in confidence, upon their shoulders, and now the drenching sack-cloth would flap icily about their faces…

It's a fretful porpentine!!!

It’s a fretful porpentine!!!

Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock:

Overall story rating:         :D :D :D :D :D

* * * * * * *

PS For anyone who wasn’t around for this series last year the ‘fretful porpentine’ reference is from Hamlet’s ghostly father’s speech…

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

the assassination of margaret thatcherTen out of ten…

:D :D :D :D :D

Having previously only read Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which I loved, I was intrigued to see how her rather slow-burning style in those books would convert to short, contemporary fiction. I’m pleased to say the answer is very well indeed – Mantel shows she is a mistress of this format just as much as the novel. Although the ten stories in this book weren’t written specifically as a collection, there is a common theme that runs through them of women somewhat trapped in their lives, usually either by physical circumstances or by social constriction; and several of the stories feel quite autobiographical in tone, giving the impression that Mantel has perhaps drawn heavily on her own experiences.

Mary with her scrawny arms, her knee-caps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand, her own perhaps, had placed on her rat-tails a twisted white ribbon; by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly-tied parcel.

I was expecting beautiful writing and I was hoping for some moving, thought-provoking subject matter and the book has both in spades. What came as a surprise to me though was the rather wicked humour that appears in many of the stories – Mantel uses her keen observation of human nature to make us laugh out loud with the characters at some points, and at others traps us with a kind of wry cynicism into laughing at them. She brings an almost conspiratorial edge to some of the stories, where she and the reader know more than the narrator, allowing us to share a deliciously guilty feeling of superiority.

I enjoyed each of the stories, but here are just a couple that particularly stood out for me -

Harley Street is a story of a group of women working in a doctors’ practice in Harley Street (where the posh people in the UK go to have their hypochondria pampered). Told in the first person by a narrator who thinks she understands people but really misses the big things right under her nose, this humorous story, like many of the others, has a bittersweet edge. The three women are fundamentally alone and lonely and we see the ebb and flow of their attempts to connect with each other. In the end, though, the humour wins out and I found myself chuckling merrily as Mantel and I winked knowingly at each other behind the poor narrator’s back.

How Shall I Know You? is a brilliantly told story of a once successful author visiting literary societies in obscure places to give talks on her work. The descriptions of the shabby hotels, the aspiring writers thrusting their manuscripts at her, the questions she has answered a hundred times before, are so cringe-makingly funny they must be based on truth! But there is a much darker side to this story and in the end Mantel left this reader at least rather wishing she hadn’t found quite so much to laugh at in the narrator’s life. A fine example of how a couple of sentences can change the reader’s perception.

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Not all the stories are as quirky as these. The first one, Sorry to Disturb, very autobiographical in feel, is a longer story of a woman living as an ex-pat in Jeddah and finding herself having to conform to the very different expectations of women in that society. Another, The Heart Fails Without Warning, is a dark and rather disturbing story of a young girl watching her anorexic sister starve herself close to the point of death.

The final story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, gives the collection its title,  and is the only one written specifically for this collection, I believe. It seems to have raised a storm of criticism because of the subject matter and to be honest Mrs Thatcher is too recently dead for me to feel that it’s in the best taste (her children are, after all, still alive). However, it’s an interesting take on just how hated Mrs Thatcher was by a large minority in her day, and while personally I thought it was one of the weakest in the collection, it is still well-written and very readable.

Overall, as with any collection, some of the stories are stronger than others, and occasionally there’s a twist at the end which is just a little too neat. But overall this short book is a great read. The stories are varied enough that almost everyone is bound to find something to their taste, and the quality of the writing and characterisation is so good that it outweighs any weaknesses in the plots. Dare I say it? The perfect Christmas gift…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

the lives of otherSometimes life really is too short…

:(

This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari uprising. I abandoned it at the halfway point – sometimes life really is too short. A fellow reviewer* described it as “Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good”. I think that’s a perfect description – and I found The Lowland pretty underwhelming…

There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it’s often not made clear what period we’re in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the ’60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).

But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover – at the point I abandoned it we still don’t know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance – we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist’s interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory – at great length.

Calcutta 1967

Calcutta street scene 1967

The quality of the writing is fine – neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there’s no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories – well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all in her writing of The Goldfinch – Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be ‘densely rendered’ (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money’s worth. Personally, I’d prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the ‘Bengali-ness’ that he is apparently trying to portray – I guess therefore it’s understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.

Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee

The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn’t a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I’d have become a Marxist terrorist myself.

I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and I’ll say it again – I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while – there has to be something to contrast it with if it’s going to have an emotional impact.** Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn’t care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.

In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker, of course…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

* Amazon UK reviewer “Mister Hobgoblin”

** As an aside, I find it intriguing that the three authors I have criticised as portraying such a bleak mono-coloured view of India are all people who have left it to live elsewhere (Rohinton Mistry, Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri). On the other hand the two Indian authors whom I have hugely enjoyed (Aravind Adiga and Chandrahas Choudhury) both live and work there, as far as I know, and give a much more balanced and nuanced picture of the people and of life there. I rather wish someone would do a thesis on differing viewpoints of emigrants and residents…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 39…

The People’s Choice 4…The Result!

 

Excitingly, the voting has once again resulted in a tie for first place! The Professor and the Madman sounds like a great read. But since I’m up to my eyes in factual books at the moment and since the spooky season will soon be upon us, I’m giving the casting vote to…

the haunting of hill house

The BlurbFirst published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to Cathy at 746 Books for the review that brought this book to my attention.

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…

*******

And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

 

joan of arc

Courtesy of NetGalley, heading away from British and American history for a bit…

The BlurbWe all know the story of Joan of Arc. A peasant girl who hears voices from God. A warrior leading an army to victory, in an age that believes women cannot fight. The Maid of Orleans, and the saviour of France. Burned at the stake as a heretic at the age of just nineteen. Five hundred years later, a saint. Her case was heard in court twice over. One trial, in 1431, condemned her; the other, twenty-five years after her death, cleared her name. In the transcripts, we hear first-hand testimony from Joan, her family and her friends: a rare survival from the medieval world. What could be more revealing? But all is not as simple as it seems, because this is a life told backwards, in hindsight – a story already shaped by the knowledge of what Joan would become.

In Joan of Arc: A History, Helen Castor tells this gripping story afresh: forwards, not backwards, setting this extraordinary girl within her extraordinary world where no one – not Joan herself, nor the people around her, princes, bishops, soldiers or peasants – knew what would happen next.

 

* * * * *

Crime

 

the beat goes onPublication today, it will be interesting to see how the Grand Old Man of Tartan Noir fares in short story format…

The BlurbOver the years, Ian Rankin has amassed an incredible portfolio of short stories. Published in crime magazines, composed for events, broadcast on radio, they all share the best qualities of his phenomenally popular Rebus novels.

Brought together for the first time, and including brand new material, this is the ultimate Rebus short-story collection and a must-have book for crime lovers and for Ian’s millions of fans alike.

No Rankin aficionado can go without it.

 

* * * * *

Fiction

 

nora webster

From NetGalley again, towards the end of the dreariest year I can remember for new literary fiction, here’s hoping Colm Tóibín can lift the standard…

The BlurbSet in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.

 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Scottish History for Dummies by William Knox

scottish history for dummiesA basic introduction…

:) :) :) :|

At the risk of sounding obnoxiously conceited, I’m going to start by saying this book isn’t really aimed at me. I have a pretty good knowledge and understanding of Scotland’s history in general and a reasonably in-depth amateur knowledge of some periods in particular. However I was intrigued to see how the ‘…for Dummies’ series would present history, having only used them in the past for more technical subjects, and I always find it’s good to start with a subject you know something about to get a feel for the quality and accuracy of the series.

This book covers the entire human history of Scotland from the Stone Age to the current day in just over 300 pages. It is therefore to be expected that it’s going to be a fairly quick romp and indeed it is. In fact, the first several sections irritated me quite a lot by their superficiality – not just the Stone Age, etc., but also the Romans, the Vikings and right on past the Bruce and Wallace era. The section on the Kings of Scotland between Bruce and the Union was a sprint – admittedly they did have a tendency to die young, but some of them only got a couple of pages. It’s not that these sections lacked facts; but they did lack much interpretation and I didn’t feel they were put into the context of the wider world particularly well. In this early part of the book, the author has also included lots of little jokey asides, often schoolboy humour about sexual mores, and he is a huge enthusiast for the exclamation mark!!!! I think there may be more exclamation marks in this book than in the whole of world literature put together!!!!

Wallace Monument  by BusterBrownBB

Wallace Monument
by BusterBrownBB

However, once we get to what we would think of as modern history – the last 300 years or so, the book becomes more in-depth with more analysis and a greater feeling of context. The ‘About the Author’ section tells us that this is the period in which Knox has done most of his work and I think that shows. Even here, though, there are some issues where I wondered if a reader would be left floundering for lack of information. For instance, the fueing system of land rents rates one sentence. I felt it would actually have been clearer to omit reference to it entirely than to explain it so inadequately, and there were many other examples like this. In general, however, these later sections give a much fuller picture of Scottish society and how it changed in response to the rise and fall of Empire and beyond.

The book is very much in the style of the ‘…for Dummies’ series, using icons and bullet-point lists to highlight information the author considers important for the reader to remember. This works reasonably well, though sometimes it felt a bit patronising. What worked less well were the grammatical errors and typos – they didn’t by any means make the book unreadable but there were too many of them in what is after all a scholarly work. Sometimes the lack of grammatical clarity led to errors in fact – for instance, on page 14 the author says Scotland was uninhabitable between the second century AD and the 13th century – a surprise, I imagine, to the people who lived there. What he meant was that it was uninhabitable for thousands of years at a much earlier period due to the Ice Age. The error is caused by a lack of clarity in the writing style, and again there are other examples of this. As so often, I found myself wondering if the editor had read the book.

William Knox

William Knox

I don’t want to be too harsh on the book because it does provide a basic introduction to Scottish history and that’s what it sets out to do. And certainly for modern history I felt it gave a good overview. But I felt the earlier sections were too superficial even as an introduction, there were too many areas that lacked clarity and as a result were confusing, and personally I disliked the author’s jokey style. I was also disappointed to see that there’s no bibliography included, so anyone wishing to read further is given no guidance on where to look next. So in conclusion I fear I can only give a lukewarm recommendation to this one overall, though I’d recommend it more strongly to someone who was primarily interested in the sections on modern history.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

the skeleton roadA welcome return to form…

:) :) :) :)

When a long-dead body is found on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh school, the case is handed to Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Calling on her friend and colleague, forensic anthropologist Dr River Wilde, for help in identifying the body, Karen soon finds that the victim is of Eastern European origin. So begins a case that is as much about the history of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s as it is about a murder investigation.

When Val McDermid is on form she’s one of the best of the current crime writers, and I’m pleased to say that she’s on form in this one. Personally I’m glad to see her getting away from the Tony Hill series, which in my opinion has gone on too long and has lost its way over the last few books. (In fact, I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read the last couple.) And, unlike her last foray into standalone thriller territory with the truly bad The Vanishing Point, this one is a return to her strengths as a police procedural with an intriguing and believable plot. Although much of the action takes place in Oxford and Croatia, Karen Pirie is based in Scotland and I enjoyed seeing McDermid return to her roots (which she also did very successfully recently in her take on Austen’s Northanger Abbey.) Karen is a likeable detective – neither drunken nor angst-ridden, she is in a stable supportive relationship with a man she loves, and seems to get on well with her colleagues, all of which is nicely refreshing.

The new Scottish Crime Campus - McDermid tells us it's in the shape of a human chromosome and the barcode effect is meant to represent DNA. Hmm!

The new Scottish Crime Campus – McDermid tells us it’s in the shape of a human chromosome and the barcode effect is meant to represent DNA. Hmm!

As the investigation advances, Karen contacts an Oxford University professor, Maggie Blake, who was involved in a scheme to bring ‘underground universities’ to Croatia just before the war began. While there, Maggie had fallen in love with a Croatian army officer, so stayed on once the war began. Karen hopes she will be able to shed some light on the country at that time, and perhaps more specifically on why the Edinburgh victim may have been murdered. The book is told mainly in the third-person past-tense from Karen’s viewpoint, but there are sections between the chapters where Maggie tells the story of her time in Croatia and her return to Oxford after the war. There is another strand which links through the book of two detectives from the International War Crimes Tribunal, who are investigating a string of murders of suspected war criminals. Oddly, it’s these characters who provide a bit of much-needed humour to lift the book, despite their task – they are an ill-matched couple, fighting to keep their jobs, and their rather bumbling interactions with each other and Karen stop the book from becoming too oppressively dark.

Val McDermid

Val McDermid

But the main story is very dark indeed, as we are told of some of the atrocities that happened during that period. McDermid has clearly done her research thoroughly and, although obviously the events in the book are mainly fictional, they have a horrific ring of truth about them. While we’re mainly seeing the story from the Croatian viewpoint, McDermid briefly gives the Serbian side of the story too and, while she doesn’t attempt to justify, she makes sure the reader is aware of how complex the situation was – not quite as black and white as it is sometimes portrayed. Living through this period as I did, I must say I’m much clearer about what went on after reading this book than I ever was at the time.

The book isn’t without its flaws, the main one being that there is too small a cast of suspects and it’s therefore pretty easy to spot the solution fairly early on. This seems to be becoming a frequent problem in current crime-writing – the authors seem to be so concerned with cramming in a great deal of research sometimes at the expense of creating a complex mystery. However, taking the book as a whole, the quality of the writing and the depth of the story more than compensate for the weaknesses, and overall I found this an absorbing and satisfying read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

a separate peaceHeart of darkness…

:D :D :D :D :D

The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.

In Gene’s memory, Finny is a kind of golden boy, an exceptional athlete and a natural leader who recognises no rules but his own. Gene loves and admires him and is proud to be counted as his closest friend. But in his heart he is also jealous that Finny is always the leader and Gene is merely one of his followers. Finny is the superior athlete and the more imaginative of the two; and the only way Gene can see to outdo him is in the academic side of things. But he knows for certain that Finny will be untouched even if Gene excels in his studies – partly because Finny doesn’t much care about classwork but, more importantly, because he is a truer, more honest friend than Gene, and will be pleased, rather than jealous, about his friend’s success. And feeling this – that Finny is untouchably superior and the better person – leaves Gene struggling to reconcile his love for Finny with the jealousy and irritation that this intense adolescent friendship brings him. And, more than that, he resents, but is unable to resist, being forced to follow Finny into dangerous activities – effortless to the athletic Finny but terrifying to Gene. And, one day, all of these feelings boil over for just one second – a second that will change both boys for ever…

In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left. Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax. Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there.

The boys’ knowledge that they will be enlisted into the Army as soon as their schooling finishes is at the heart of the story. The parallels between Gene’s moment of madness and the bigger madness of the war are obvious, but handled with a subtlety that prevents the reader from feeling lectured to. These privileged boys don’t question that they will go off to fight – their families and school have made sure they understand it is their duty. Knowles shows very well how the need to hide any weakness from their peers means that the boys whip up a kind of self-induced enthusiasm for the war and all things martial, leading in turn to the ascendency of the athletic over the academic. And the microcosm of this enclosed little society mirrors the wider world, goading itself on to ever greater sacrifices in the name of war.

No locker room could have more pungent air than Devon’s; sweat predominated, but it was richly mingled with smells of paraffin and singed rubber, of soaked wool and liniment, and for those who could interpret it, of exhaustion, lost hope and triumph and bodies battling against each other. I thought it anything but a bad smell. It was pre-eminently the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignance for any athlete, just as it has for any lover.

This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand – a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can’t even point to on a map.

Winter’s occupation seems to have conquered, overrun and destroyed everything, so that now there is no longer any resistance movement left in nature; all the juices are dead, every sprig of vitality snapped, and now winter itself, an old, corrupt, tired conqueror, loosens its grip on the desolation, recedes a little, grows careless in its watch; sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins to withdraw from the ruined countryside.

John Knowles

John Knowles

But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. Gene’s first-person narrative is achingly honest in its portrayal of his emotions. Told as a memory from a distance, Knowles manages the difficult task of keeping the adolescent Gene’s emotions feeling fresh and immediate, while colouring the whole book with a kind of nostalgic regret. Finny is seen at a remove – adult Gene recounting his memories of younger Gene’s feelings about him – and has an almost mythic quality, as if surrounded by a golden aura. It’s a beautiful evocation of how nostalgia and grief tend to lead to an idealisation of a person once loved. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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TBR Thursday 38…

The People’s Choice 4…

 

The TBR is sitting at a 112 – ridiculously high but heading downwards for once. Despite my iron willpower in requesting nothing from NetGalley and Amazon Vine, my fellow bloggers remain a souce of constant temptation – grrrr!! But I can’t add them all…so, yet again, I need your help in deciding, Which one deserves a coveted place on the TBR?

Here’s my shortlist – and they all look great! So which is it to be?  The winner will be announced next Thursday…

With my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:

The Contenders…

 

the brokenThe Blurb – Best friends tell you everything; about their kitchen renovation; about their little girl’s schooling. How one of them is leaving the other for a younger model. Best friends don’t tell lies. They don’t take up residence on your couch for weeks. They don’t call lawyers. They don’t make you choose sides. Best friends don’t keep secrets about their past. They don’t put you in danger.

Best friends don’t always stay best friends.

Rebecca Bradley says: “Then it happened, I looked at the book, looked at the clock and realised I couldn’t put the book down. There just wasn’t a chance it was going to leave my hands until I had got to the end. The tension had been ramped up. The behaviours and relationships were becoming stretched thin and yet the people within them didn’t seem capable of doing anything to stop what was happening and the strange thing was, I could completely see how that would happen.

See the full review at Rebecca Bradley

*******

the professor and the madmanThe BlurbThe Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857 – it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

I Know What You Should Read says: …by and large, the book reads like fiction—it is fast-paced, interesting, and exciting (War? Check! Murder? Check! Dismemberment? Check!). Appropriately, each chapter begins with an excerpted OED word entry that corresponds to an event or person highlighted in that chapter (the words range from “bedlam” to “sesquipedalian”). The words and definitions serve as a fun tie-in to the OED–they bring to life the work that is being discussed throughout the book.

See the full review at I Know What You Should Read

*******

the house at rivertonThe BlurbSummer 1924 – On the eve of a glittering society party, by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.

Winter 1999 – Grace Bradley, ninety-eight, one-time housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet’s suicide. Ghosts awaken and old memories – long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace’s mind – begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge, something history has forgotten but Grace never could.

Set as the war-shattered Edwardian summer surrenders to the decadent twenties, The House at Riverton is a thrilling mystery and a compelling love story.

What Amy Read Next says: “From the first paragraph this novel gripped me. The quote above, the novel’s opening paragraph, is one of the many beautiful passages evoking the haunting feel of war-time Britain, so intricately and vividly done that you can almost imagine yourself there. The House at Riverton is a beautifully written and enthralling read, perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Ian McEwan’s Atonement- and Downton Abbey.

See the full review at What Amy Read Next

*******

the haunting of hill houseThe BlurbFirst published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Cathy at 746 Books says: The Haunting of Hill House is a taut and creepy master class in how to write a ‘ghost story’ that is as much about the demons of a haunted house as it is about the demons inside our own heads. Like all good ghost stories, Hill House offers some spine-tingling chills, but what the book really exudes is a lingering, oppressive sense of dread.”

See the full review at 746 Books

*******

station elevenThe BlurbOne snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

wanderaven says: You guys, this book is incredible. If, like me before reading this book, you read apocalyptic and cringe, please, please don’t move on. Does it help if I tell you that it is partially set in the current era, before the collapse of the world? Does it help if I tell you that much of the apocalyptic part is during the time immediately after the collapse so it’s all too painfully easy to imagine precisely what it would be like if this all happened to you today?”

See the full review at wanderaven

*******

NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

An impossible choice, isn’t it? So…over to you! Choose just one or as many as you like – the book with most votes will be this week’s winner…

Hope you pick a good one! ;)

Wednesday Witterings – Book Banning

Since last week was Banned Books Week there have been a lot of posts around the blogosphere on the subject, so I thought I’d throw in my Tuppence-worth…

 

Tuppence - she's worth a lot! Laser eyes don't come cheap...

Tuppence – she’s worth a lot! Laser eyes don’t come cheap…

 

I think the real problem with book banning is determining who gets to decide which books to ban and which criteria should be used. So, always willing to help, I reckon it would be best if I make all the decisions in future and save everyone else the trouble. (No, please – don’t thank me! It’s a tough job, but I’ll be happy to do it…)

* * * * * * * * *

 

I’ve given it a great deal of thought (at least 13½ minutes worth) and here are the initial criteria I’ll be using. Books that fall into any of the following categories will be banned and the authors will be denied all access to chocolate for a term to be set…by me.

* * * * * * * * *

 

1) All books with a first-person present-tense narration.

2) All books with ‘Fifty Shades’ in the title.

 

 

3) All literary fiction, no matter how beautifully written, where the author has forgotten to include a plot.

4) All crime novels with a drunken and/or angst-ridden maverick detective.

5) All books about baseball.

 

calico joe

 

6) All books that are described as “the next Gone Girl”.

7) Magical realism.

8) All ‘continuation novels’ – no more Poirots, Austens, Holmeses (though obviously I will have to read them all first to be sure they really are bad).

 

 

9) All books that are longer than 400 pages (except Dickens).

AND

 

the goldfinch

 

10) Ms Tartt will never know the delightful taste of chocolate again.

* * * * * * * * *

 

Please let me know if there are any other criteria you would like me to consider. Or, in the exceedingly unlikely event that you wish to save a book destined for oblivion, make your case below… but hurry!

bonfire

Transwarp Tuesday: Soulminder by Timothy Zahn

An intriguing premise…

 

New-to-me author Timothy Zahn is a prolific writer and a Hugo Award winner for his novella Cascade Point. So his new novel seemed like a good choice for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

 

Soulminder by Timothy Zahn

 

Soulminder

 

When Dr Adrian Sommer loses his young son in a vehicle accident, he dedicates his life to finding a way to prevent such unnecessary deaths in the future. In partnership with Dr Jessica Sands, he develops the Soulminder machine which can trap the life force or “soul” at what would normally be the point of death. This enables the soul to be held in a form of limbo while the doctors put the patient’s body to rights, and then to be returned to it. At first the machine is seen as a marvellous invention, equivalent to keeping someone on life support. But gradually all sorts of moral questions come to the surface as people and governments begin to abuse the technology. As the head of the organisation, Dr Sommer also becomes its moral conscience, trying to ensure that his invention is used only for good.

Although this is a novel, with an overall story arc, it has something of the feel of a collection of short stories all set within the same society over a period of a couple of decades. There are a few recurring characters, but many others who only appear in one or two chapters. Once the basic premise of the Soulminder society is set up, each chapter takes a look at one or two of the ways the machine can be used or abused. That makes it sound very dry, but the moral questions are embedded into interesting and inventive stories, which keeps it all very readable. The quality of the writing is good and the main characters are likeable. The characterisation is not particularly in-depth – we really only get to know them in terms of their involvement with the Soulminder project, and learn next to nothing about their personal lives. I found this made it difficult to feel any real emotional involvement in what happened to them.

Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn

Assuming the reader can accept the premise of a soul being something that could be ‘captured’, the questions Zahn raises are interesting ones, and on the whole fairly credible. For example, he looks at how rich people might be able to achieve a form of immortality by transferring their souls into the bodies of poor people who can’t afford to be in the Soulminder programme. In another chapter he considers how the machine could be used as a method of torture. I felt, though, that he completely underplayed the reaction of humanity in general, and religion in particular, to having absolute proof of the existence of a soul which exists even when separated from the body, hence implying some form of afterlife. I couldn’t help but wonder if this discovery might actually have the effect of making people more willing to die rather than less, and I felt the casual acceptance of all the religious people in the book to the trapping of souls was frankly incredible.

Otherwise, though, I found it an intriguing premise – perhaps a bit too full of moral ‘messages’, at the expense sometimes of a feeling of credibility in the reactions of the characters, but well-written and enjoyable overall.

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

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Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

“Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”

 

:D :D :D :D :D

rebel yellI’ll start with my usual disclaimer that I can’t speak to the accuracy of the history in this book. In fact, my prior knowledge of Stonewall Jackson, and indeed the whole Civil War, could fairly be described as non-existent. But Gwynne has clearly done a huge amount of research and, assuming the accuracy, the only word that I can find to describe the book is superb. In terms of the quality of the descriptive writing, the structure and skilful use of language, and the depth Gwynne brings to the characters of Jackson and his comrades and friends, the book stands not just as an outstanding biography but as a very fine piece of literary writing.

As Jackson and his force of cadets set out to war, Gwynne tells us of his pre-war life as a rather strange and awkward man, deeply religious, suffering from poor health and perhaps a degree of hypochondria. Having overcome his early lack of education to scrape into West Point, he took full advantage of the opportunities on offer there, dragging himself up from the bottom of the class to graduate in a fairly high position. The first signs of his heroism were seen in the Mexican war when his courageous – some might say reckless – actions against a much greater enemy force were crucial to the success of the assault on Mexico City. But after this war, Jackson had taken a position as professor at the Virginia Military Institute, a job for which he seemed remarkably unsuited. Unable to control his unruly classes and an uninspiring teacher, he was seen as something of an oddity by his pupils. Gwynne shows how that all changed as he became one of the Confederacy’s finest leaders, with many of these same pupils ending up willing to follow him anywhere and die for him if necessary.

Jackson's Foot Cavalry

Jackson’s Foot Cavalry

To them, Jackson’s movement east with his vaunted Army of the Valley meant that he was coming to save Richmond, which meant that he was coming to save the Confederacy. And the soldiers of the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia believed to the bottom of their ragged, malnourished rebel souls that he was going to do precisely that.

This is very much a biography of Jackson and a history of his military campaigns, rather than a history of the Civil War itself. Therefore Gwynne doesn’t go too deeply into the politics of why the war came about, nor does he make any overt judgements about the rights or wrongs of it. Although in the course of the campaigns, we find out a lot about some of the commanders and politicians on the Unionist side, the book is rooted within the Confederacy and the reader sees the war very much from their side. As we follow Jackson through his campaigns, Gwynne, with the assistance of clear and well-placed maps, brings the terrain to life, vividly contrasting the beauty of the country with the brutality and horrors of the battlefields. He gives such clear detail of the strategies and battle-plans, of troop numbers and movements, of weaponry and equipment, that each battle is brought dramatically to life. In fact, my lack of knowledge was something of an unexpected benefit since I genuinely didn’t know the outcome of the battles and so was in a constant state of suspense. And found that I very soon had given myself over completely to willing Jackson onto victory. The image of this heroic man mounted on his favourite horse in the midst of mayhem, the light of battle in his eyes, one hand held high as he prayed for God’s help while the bullets and artillery thudded all around him, is not one I shall soon forget.

Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia  by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume

Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia
by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume

On the way back to headquarters Jackson, riding now with McGuire and Smith, said nothing until they neared their camp, when he suddenly said, “How horrible is war.”

“Horrible, yes,” McGuire replied. “But we have been invaded. What can we do?”

“Kill them, sir,” Jackson said. “Kill every man.”

From the beginnings of the creation of the Jackson legend in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, then on through the series of battles where he snatched victory from what should have been certain defeat, till his final stunning achievements as the right-hand man of General Robert E Lee, Gwynne shows the growing admiration and even love of his troops for this man whose total belief in the rightness of his cause and God’s protection led him to take extraordinary risks. He drove his men brutally hard, marching them at unheard-of speeds, on half rations or worse, and he threw them into battle even when they were exhausted and weak and hugely outnumbered. But his personal courage and strategic brilliance turned him into a figurehead – a symbol for the South, whose very name could make the Unionist commanders tremble. Cheered and adulated by soldiers and citizenry everywhere he went, he consistently insisted that all praise for his victories was God’s due, not his, and remained awkward in the face of his growing celebrity to the end.

Men were fixing dinner and taking naps or relaxing, listening to the distant music of a regimental band, or perhaps discussing the Confederate retreat, when suddenly all nature seemed to rise up in revolt around them. Through their camps rushed frantic rabbits, deer, quail, and wild turkeys, then there was an odd silence, and then Jackson’s massive, screaming, onrushing wall of grey was upon them.

But amidst all the warfare, Gwynne doesn’t forget to tell us about the man. We see the other side of Jackson – the family man, grieving for the death of his first young wife and then finding happiness with his second, Anna. Through extracts from his letters, we see the softer, loving side of Jackson and also learn more about his deeply held conviction of God’s presence in every aspect of his life. We learn how the war divided him from his much loved sister who took the Unionist side. And we’re told of the efforts he made to nurture religion amongst his troops. A silent and somewhat socially awkward man to outward appearance, we see how he opened up to the people closest to him, taking special pleasure in the company of young children. A man of contradictions, truly, who could hurl his men to their almost certain deaths one day and weep for the death of a friend’s child the next.

Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J "Stonewall" Jackson

Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson

A biography that balances the history and the personal perfectly, what really made this book stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. As Gwynne recounted the final scenes of Jackson’s death and funereal journey, I freely admit I wept along with the crowds of people who lined the streets in wait for a last chance to see their great hero. And I wondered with them whether the outcome might have been different had Jackson lived. If only all history were written like this…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The continuing adventures of John Carter…

 

Left dangling by the cliffhanger ending of the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom Chronicles, A Princess of Mars, I had no alternative but to take up the next in the series. Would John Carter ever find a way to return to Barsoom (Mars, to you and me)? Would the people of Barsoom have survived the danger that threatened to destroy their world? Would Dejah Thoris’ egg have hatched?!?

All will be revealed in this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * * * *

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

the gods of mars

There is no way to review this book without spoilers for the first, so if you intend to read the books at some point, you may want to skip this review…

Once again, we are told the story by John Carter himself, in the journals that he left in the possession of his nephew when he was last on Earth. After spending many years trying to find a way back to Mars, one night John Carter is swept back there (no explanation is given – that would spoil the fun). But rather than being returned to the city of Helium, where he hopes that his lost love Dejah Thoris and his little chicky-child will be waiting for him, he lands in a mighty forest populated by fiercely vicious creatures – the Plant Men!

Its hairless body was a strange and ghoulish blue, except for a broad band of white which encircled its protruding, single eye: an eye that was all dead white – pupil, iris, and ball. Its nose was a ragged, inflamed, circular hole in the center of its blank face; a hole that resembled more closely nothing that I could think of other than a fresh bullet wound which has not yet commenced to bleed.

From this starting point we are whirled into another frantic adventure story, filled with heroics and battles, love, loyalty and horrors of all kinds. And the greatest horror of all is the ancient goddess, Issus, obese and wrinkled (and, of course, naked – do bear in mind that everyone is naked all the time), who rules the race of the black First Born, who think of themselves as gods. This gives them the right not only to enslave any passing strangers but to…you might want to put down your bun for a moment here…eat all the red and green Martians, and they’re even willing to sample the odd Earthman should he be tender enough. But there is another race who also think themselves gods – the white Therns – who share the appetite for sautéed Martian. And for some reason all the other Martians think that this place is their version of heaven, the place they go to to die, thus delivering themselves up to the ever-peckish gods…if they make it past the Plant Men…

The Plant Men...

The Plant Men…

And by pure coincidence, who should happen along to the forest at the same time as John Carter but his old green Thark friend Tars Tarkas, and a young boy with the nature of a true warrior, and skills that he can only have inherited from his father, whose name is… well, that’s a bit of a secret actually. Much hoohah ensues, with lots of derring-do, and finally John Carter makes his way to Helium only to discover that his beloved Dejah Thoris has been captured by the First Born and is scheduled to appear on the dinner-plate of Issus in one year’s time. Will John Carter be able to get together a war fleet of airships and rescue her in time??

“And you! You shall be the meanest slave in the service of the goddess you have attempted to humiliate. Tortures and ignominies shall be heaped upon you until you grovel at my feet asking the boon of death. In my gracious generosity I shall at length grant your prayer, and from the high balcony of the Golden Cliffs I shall watch the great white apes tear you asunder.”

(A hint for travellers – when a Martian goddess says she loves you, don’t tell her about the little woman back home…)

Finally…finally…John Carter and Dejah Thoris meet as the battle rages around them. (Which is a good thing since it puts a stop to John Carter’s outrageous flirting with every woman he meets!) So brave John Carter shoves her into a side tunnel for safety while he goes off to battle a million or so of the First Born.

Just as an aside at this point, I feel I have to mention that John Carter has brought all kinds of human values with him to Mars, like love and loyalty and heroism, but unfortunately (and I think we must bear in mind here that he’s a man) it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to bring the most important human value of all – that of wearing suitable clothing…or indeed any clothing. It’s bad enough leaving the eternal love of your life unarmed and unprotected in a tunnel, but leaving her there undressed too seems so much worse somehow. I reckon there’s a huge commercial opportunity for us Earthlings to set up Marks & Spencer franchises throughout the Martian cities – surely given a choice the Martian women would be glad of some decent thermal underwear?

Anyway, back to the battle! After numerous acts of heroism, John Carter returns for Dejah Thoris only to find that… there’s another cliffhanger ending!!! Will John Carter and Dejah Thoris ever get together again? Will he be whisked back to Earth? Will my favourite character of all, Woola the dog-like calot, ever re-appear or (gulp!) has someone eaten him?? Will I really have to read the next book in the series to find out???

Woola...four legs missing, but still smiling...

Sweet little Woola…how I worry about him…

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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