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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.

Amazon UK Link
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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.

Amazon UK Link
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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:

Amazon UK Link
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The Monogram Murders (Hercule Poirot) by Sophie Hannah

Poirot just knows

:mad:

the monogram murdersA terrified woman bursts into the coffee house where Hercule Poirot is partaking of the best coffee in London. When Poirot tells her he is a detective, she seems tempted to share her worries but in the end tells him only that she is about to be murdered and that, once she is dead, justice will have been done. Pausing only to beg him to prevent the police from investigating, she pleads cryptically ‘Oh, please let no one open their mouths’ and flees back into the night. Meantime Mr Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who lives in the same lodging house as Poirot, has been called to the Bloxham Hotel where three guests have been found murdered. Poirot (psychically) suspects there may be a link…

In fact, I hadn’t ever before realised just how psychic Poirot was. How remiss of Ms Christie never to reveal this fact! All these years she led us to believe he came to his conclusions based on his reading of the clues, his ability to see through the red herrings to the facts, the superior power of his little grey cells. Ms Hannah kindly lets us in on the true secret though. Clues are unnecessary. Poirot just knows what has happened. At each stage, as other people flounder to make sense of the plot (well, I certainly did!), Poirot sees straight through to the truth without the need for any pesky evidence or suchlike nonsense. What a gift! Unfortunately not one that makes a detective novel work very well though…

If this book had been written about a detective called Smith, it might have rated maybe three stars. The plot is convoluted, psychologically unconvincing and over-padded. The list of suspects is far too small, meaning that there are no big surprises come the reveal. But the writing style is quite good, some of the characterisation is fine and the descriptions of the places involved in the plot are done reasonably well.

The real Agatha Christie

The real Agatha Christie

BUT…there is a great big ‘Agatha Christie’ on the front of the book, so this should really read like one of hers, shouldn’t it? It doesn’t. From the very beginning Poirot is not right. For a start, he has moved into a lodging house because he wants to escape from his fame for a while and be anonymous. Doesn’t sound like the Poirot I know! Secondly we hear almost nothing about his little foibles – his vanity, his moustaches, his rotundity, his endearingly egg-shaped head, his patent leather shoes. We do get to hear a little about his passion for order but just as a sop. Thirdly he goes about searching rooms and seeking out physical clues like Holmes on an eager day. The real Poirot, as we know, is actually much more interested in the psychology of the crime. Fourthly, when the real Poirot speaks French, he kindly only uses words we’re all going to get without resorting to a French-English dictionary – mais pas ce prétendant. Fifthly, at the end he actually participates in a formal police interview in a police station – but I was past the stage of caring long before then anyway. So I’ll be kind and spare you sixthly, seventhly…etc.

Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah

I saw Sophie Hannah being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel, and she said that she had decided not to try to recreate Christie’s style. So she created a new character, Catchpool, to be the narrator so that he could bring a new voice to the story. I was willing to go along with this idea, though it seemed a shame not to have Hastings along for the ride. But firstly (sorry), Catchpool is extremely annoying. He can’t stand dead bodies, keeps walking away from the investigation, is as thick as a brick and basically hands the entire investigation over to Poirot (mind you, with Poirot’s amazing supernatural abilities, who wouldn’t?). Secondly, he’s struggling not to reveal that he’s gay – that’s never spelled out, but it’s quite clear from the unsubtle hints that are dropped all over the place. Now I know it’s obligatory that every police officer in detective fiction is either gay or drunk these days, or both, (I suppose I should be glad that at least he was sober), but this is supposed to be a Christie-style book. I’m certainly not arguing that all gay men should be portrayed like Mr Pye in The Moving Finger, but the idea of Ms Christie having a gay policeman is frankly ridiculous. And Poirot’s psychic powers let him down on that one, since he seems determined to pair Catchpool off with a nice woman. Thirdly, Catchpool tells the story in the first-person (past tense, thankfully), and yet knows every detail of what happens when he’s not there. So he can describe all of Poirot’s conversations verbatim, tells us when people stand up, sit down, blush, etc. – clearly Poirot’s psychic abilities are catching.

hercule-poirot

The last fifth of the book is taken up with the traditional get-together where Poirot reveals what happened, but it goes on for ever and is mainly just Poirot telling us the whole story, with no reference as to how he came by all these amazing insights. As I said before, he just knows! And considering how silly and unlikely the plot is, that seems beyond miraculous.

I can only say that I sincerely hope there won’t be another of these. If there is, even I will be able to resist the temptation next time. Because now (cue spooky music), FictionFan just knows too

Amazon UK Link
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Her by Harriet Lane

Revenge is a dish best served cold…

:| :| :|

herWhen Nina sees Emma across a London street, it stirs old memories – and they’re not good ones. Engineering an ‘accidental’ meeting, she’s happy to find that Emma doesn’t recognise her. Emma, mother of a toddler and pregnant again, is struggling with a life of domesticity and is badly in need of a friend and confidante, giving Nina the ideal opportunity to insinuate herself into Emma’s life. But the reader knows from an early stage that Nina isn’t the kind, supportive person she seems to Emma. For reasons we don’t discover till late on in the book, she’s out to have some kind of revenge on Emma – small things at first, but gradually becoming more sinister…

The book is told from the two women’s perspectives in alternating chapters. Unfortunately both voices are in the dreaded first-person present tense. I also found that both voices are too similar – while their stories and perspectives are different, their speech patterns and vocabulary are pretty much identical. So apparently are their experiences of child-rearing. I do get rather tired of all the fictional middle-class and fairly wealthy mothers who seem to find child-rearing so difficult and burdensome. Emma is struggling to cope with one child and it’s pretty obvious things aren’t going to improve when she has to deal with a new-born too. Nina has the typical troublesome teenager, who stays out late and is occasionally rude to her mother. I must say the misery of the two mothers over rather minor things seemed pretty overdone.

Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane

The story itself is reasonably interesting, though the device of covering the same ground twice from the two different perspectives becomes really tedious quite quickly. It’s been done before and done better – by Gillian White in Copycat, for instance. Again, there isn’t enough difference in the two voices to make the re-telling fresh, and we very soon come to know, I felt, how innocent Emma’s account would be seen in the next chapter through the eyes of wicked Nina. But from about halfway through the story begins to speed up a bit and the duplication in narrative is reduced. When the action moves to the south of France, Lane gives us some good descriptive writing that creates an authentic sense of place. And although I found the ‘children are so hard’ angst overdone, she does give a realistic picture of the joys or otherwise of travelling and holidaying with young children in tow.

As the book approaches the conclusion, Lane ratchets up the tension nicely and there’s no doubt the ending is suitably thrillerish. No spoilers, but from other reviews the ending seems to be dividing people into love or hate camps – I thought it was well written…but hated it. I didn’t feel it worked with the psychology of the characters and I didn’t think it matched the overall tone of the book. I think it may be my disappointment with the ending that’s colouring my overall view of the book, because for the most part, despite the flaws I’ve mentioned, I found this a flowing, reasonably enjoyable read, and quite well written. But in the end I felt it was nothing more than a lightweight entertainment, with not enough depth to compensate for some of the weaknesses or to justify the unexpectedly heavyweight ending.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 37…

Episode 37

 

There seems to be a growing gap between the number of books going on to the TBR and the number coming off at the moment. The terrifying total is currently…117! But on this occasion I’m not going to blame my fellow bloggers. The villains this week are:

The Booker committee who this week announced the shortlist.

NetGalley who promptly provided me with copies of three of the Booker shortlist (see how they gang up on me?).

America – whose selfish insistence on having a different time-zone from us Scots meant that I was up till dawn several nights watching the US Open Tennis – not conducive to reading, I assure you (though very conducive to mid-afternoon napping).

Rafa wasn't playing...

Rafa wasn’t playing…

Politicians – of all persuasions, plus polling organisations, TV commentators etc., who have all kept me glued to the Scotland debate for weeks now. I’m wondering if it’s too late to emigrate…

So, here’s a few of the ones that I’ll be reading…sometime…

Crime

 

the skeleton roadCourtesy of NetGalley. About 80% of the time, I love Val McDermid…and then there’s the other 20%. Here’s hoping for this one…

The Blurb saysWhen a skeleton is discovered hidden at the top of a crumbling, gothic building in Edinburgh, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is faced with the unenviable task of identifying the bones. As Karen’s investigation gathers momentum, she is drawn deeper into a world of intrigue and betrayal, spanning the dark days of the Balkan Wars.

Karen’s search for answers brings her to a small village in Croatia, a place scarred by fear, where people have endured unspeakable acts of violence. Meanwhile, someone is taking the law into their own hands in the name of justice and revenge, but when present resentment collides with secrets of the past, the truth is more shocking than anyone could have imagined…”

 * * * * *

 

the monogram murdersA brand new Poirot mystery, from the pen of Sophie Hannah. As a huge Christie fan I’m apprehensive, but couldn’t resist. I’m about a quarter of the way through it and so far…well, I haven’t decided yet…

The Blurb saysHercule Poirot’s quiet supper in a London coffeehouse is interrupted when a young woman confides to him that she is about to be murdered.  She is terrified – but begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done.

Later that night, Poirot learns that three guests at a fashionable London Hotel have been murdered, and a cufflink has been placed in each one’s mouth. Could there be a connection with the frightened woman? While Poirot struggles to put together the bizarre pieces of the puzzle, the murderer prepares another hotel bedroom for a fourth victim…”

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the lives of otherThe first of this year’s Booker shortlist and the one that most appeals to me. The size of a brick, of course! Thanks to NetGalley. Sounds like it might be the book last year’s contender The Lowland should have been…but wasn’t.

The Blurb saysCalcutta, 1967. Unnoticed by his family, Supratik has become dangerously involved in extremist political activism. Compelled by an idealistic desire to change his life and the world around him, all he leaves behind before disappearing is this note …

The ageing patriarch and matriarch of his family, the Ghoshes, preside over their large household, unaware that beneath the barely ruffled surface of their lives the sands are shifting. More than poisonous rivalries among sisters-in-law, destructive secrets, and the implosion of the family business, this is a family unravelling as the society around it fractures. For this is a moment of turbulence, of inevitable and unstoppable change: the chasm between the generations, and between those who have and those who have not, has never been wider.”

* * * * *

Factual

 

scottish history for dummies(Don’t you dare laugh!) My dear friends at Amazon Vine supposedly target the things they offer us for review. So I find it somewhat unflattering that barely a month goes by without them offering me a …For Dummies book. I’ve been offered everything from Basic Maths For Dummies to Ukelele For Dummies. Finally, they found one that I couldn’t resist. Scotland from the Stone Age to today in 300 pages – hmm! I wish they’d offer me chocolate sometimes…

From its turbulent past to the present day, this informative guide sheds a new and timely light on the story of Scotland and its people. Dig into a wealth of fascinating facts on the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. Get to know how Scotland was built into an industrial economy by inventors, explorers and missionaries. Discover the impact of the world wars on Scotland and how the country has responded to challenges created by them. Find up-to-the-minute information on Scotland’s referendum on independence.” (Oops! I guess that means it’ll be out of date by next Thursday then…)

 * * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

 

Confessions by Kanae Minato

confessionsDark and compelling…

:D :D :D :D :D

Middle-grade teacher Yuko Moriguchi is about to retire from teaching following the tragic death of her young daughter in the school’s swimming pool. But her farewell speech is unusual to say the least, as she accuses two of her pupils of murdering her daughter and then tells them of how she plans to get her revenge…

Each time I read a Japanese novel I come away from it feeling more and more that it’s a society I simply don’t understand, and one that always seems to be deeply troubled. In this short novel, we know who the victim and murderers are from a fairly early stage, but we don’t know the motivations. The book is divided into sections, each told in the first person from a different viewpoint. Starting as it does with the deliberate murder of a child by other children, it’s hard to imagine that it could get darker as it progresses – but it does. However it’s written in a style that somehow prevents it from becoming too grim a read, perhaps because the crime itself is somewhat secondary to the stories of what has brought each of the characters to this particular point. There should be a credibility problem in that the likelihood of their being so many morally corrupted people in one place is remote. But the story is so absorbing that it becomes chillingly believable.

The society Minato describes is one where traditional family life is breaking down under the assault of modernism but, as I’ve found in Japanese fiction before, the old values seem to have been thrown out without new ones taking their place, leaving a kind of cultural or, in this case, moral vacuum. Minato looks at the role of women in particular, with each of the mothers in the book representing a different stage of this seeming breakdown. Yuko is a single mother and Minato shows how this is still much more frowned upon than it is in most Western societies. The mother of one of the boys is an old-fashioned stay-at-home mother, but we see clearly how this is becoming more difficult in a society where the children are growing up with very different values and outlooks. The other boy’s mother gave up the prospect of a glittering career when she married, but her unhappiness in the traditional role has grave effects on her son.

Kanae Minato

Kanae Minato

As well as seeing how the various families function – or rather, don’t function – Minato takes us inside the school system. She shows us a society where the drive for educational attainment is so strong that the children seem to be under enormous stress. They seem isolated – there is more rivalry than friendship and bullying is the norm, tolerated to a large degree by the authorities. If this is in any way an accurate picture of life in Japan, I was astonished to learn that teachers are expected to be on-call to deal with problems the children might have outside school – another indication that the role of the parent is dangerously weak. The absence of fathers as authority figures is also striking and the overall sense is of children drifting without any strong moral guidance. I would normally say this all makes the book hard to believe, but in fact it ties in with a lot of the unease I’ve felt when reading other Japanese fiction.

I realise my review might have made the book sound like some kind of social sciences paper, but in fact the story is intriguing and very readable. As the well-drawn characters reveal their individual stories, I found my sympathies were constantly fluctuating. No-one comes out of the book as a hero but the line between victim and villain becomes so blurred that in the end it’s difficult to wholeheartedly condemn. There is one exception to that, in my opinion, but to reveal who and why would be a major spoiler. A strange book, dark and compelling – one of the more original crime novels I’ve read recently, and highly recommended.

This is another one that I found via an excellent review from Raven Crime Reads – thanks again, Raven! Keep up the good work! ;)

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

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick

Sci-fi from the Cold War era…

 

This collection includes 12 of Philip K Dick’s early stories, published between 1952 and 1954 in some of the many sci-fi magazines that were in their heyday in the ’50s. I’ve already reviewed one of the stories, The Variable Man, taken from the book, but now it’s time to look at the other eleven for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

 

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick

 

the early sci-fi of philip k dickPhilip K Dick was one of the biggest names in sci-fi in the second half of the twentieth century, and his stories have been the inspiration for some blockbuster movies – Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report among others. These early stories already show the imagination and story-telling skills that would mark his later work.

Certainly on the basis of these stories, Dick’s work couldn’t be classed as ‘hard’ sci-fi – the ‘science’ aspect is frequently so unscientific that even I can spot it. However, in general, there is an internal consistency to the made-up science that allows the stories to work. Perhaps the more interesting aspect is how many of the stories are clearly influenced by the Cold War which was well under way by the time of writing – there is a feeling of paranoia that runs through many of the stories. Most of the stories involve war in some form or another, often between people on Earth, but just as often between Earth and alien species. Nuclear holocaust is central in more than one, and there are mentions of terrorism and spies. None of these wars are glorious though and victory, if it comes at all, comes at a terrible price. As a collection, it is an intriguing and enlightening look at the fears of Dick’s contemporary society.

beyond lies the wub

Fortunately, amidst all this bleakness, there are a couple of lighter stories with some quirky and occasionally black humour. In Beyond Lies the Wub, we have a psychic Martian creature who wreaks a form of poetic justice on the Earthman who eats him; while Beyond the Door might easily be retitled as The Disagreeable Husband and the Revenge of the Cuckoo Clock! Dick also heads off into the field of (pseudo)psychology in Piper in the Woods, as men on an outpost on an asteroid suddenly start believing they have turned into plants. As with the war stories, this story seems to grow out of the stresses of Dick’s own times, and as a result probably resonated more with contemporary audiences than it perhaps does today.

Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick

Overall, the collection is both interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure that I would recommend it as an introduction either to the genre or necessarily to Philip K Dick – the bleakness and narrow focus of the majority of the stories might give an unfairly grim impression of either to the new reader. However this would be an intriguing read for anyone who admires Dick’s later work, or who is interested in seeing how sci-fi writers used the greater freedom that the genre gave them to examine real-life contemporary concerns.

 

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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

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The Children Act by Ian McEwan

the children actBanal, unconvincing and arrogant…

:( :(

High Court judge Fiona Maye’s comfortable life is rocked when her husband of many years announces that he would like her permission to have an affair. The poor man has his reasons – apparently he and Fiona haven’t had sex for seven weeks and one day so you can understand his desperation. (Am I sounding unsympathetic? Oh, I haven’t even begun…) This shattering event happens just before Fiona is to preside over a case where a hospital is seeking permission to give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukaemia, over the religious objections of the boy himself, his parents and the elders of his church. In her emotional turmoil over her marriage, Fiona allows herself to become personally involved in the case, throwing her carefully nurtured professionalism to the winds. This is the story of what happens to Fiona’s marriage and to the boy…

His face had been tight as he shrugged and turned to leave the room. At the sight of his retreating back, she felt the same cold fear. She would have called after him but for the dread of being ignored. And what could she say? Hold me, kiss me, have the girl. She had listened to his footsteps down the hall, their bedroom door closing firmly, then silence settling over their flat, silence and the rain that hadn’t stopped in a month.

I have a strange relationship with Ian McEwan’s books. I find his writing style very compelling and occasionally he writes a brilliant book – Atonement, Enduring Love. At other times I find his subject matter banal or designed merely to shock. This one falls into the banal category. He has set out to have a go at religion or, as he likes to term it, supernatural belief, and has chosen a hackneyed plot to do so. The whole idea of whether the state should intervene when a child’s life is at risk because of a religious belief has been debated ad nauseam and McEwan has nothing new or even interesting to say on the subject. But that’s not his purpose anyway. He is really setting out to show how religion is an evil thing from which children require protection. He makes it crystal clear that he believes that children brought up in a faith are really victims of indoctrination and need to be saved – the suggestion hovers unspoken that it is tantamount to a form of child abuse. The central case concentrates on the Witnesses because, of course, they’re an easy target, but he manages to get in criticisms of Jews, Muslims and Catholics too. He openly suggests that the beliefs of Adam’s parents are superficial and that they will be glad if the court overrides them as that will get them off the hook and see them alright with God and their church – and he implies that that superficiality is common to all who profess religious beliefs. In fact, and I speak as an atheist here, his denigration of the sincerity of religious belief left me feeling furious and a little soiled. I find the attitude held by some atheists that theirs is the only possible right answer displays an arrogance greater than that of most religious people of whatever faith.

He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

Of course, it’s quite possible to disagree vehemently with an author’s point and still find the book to be worthwhile. Certainly this one starts off well. The description of Fiona’s shock at her husband’s request is done well and the story of how their relationship develops from that point has much about it that feels convincing. But McEwan has obviously done a ton of research on how the courts work and on the life of a High Court judge, and he has determinedly shoe-horned it all in at the expense of any sense of forward momentum for large parts of the book. While his descriptions are written well for the most part, sometimes he gives far too much detail of stuff that is both trivial and irrelevant, leaving me impatiently turning pages in the hopes that we might return to the story sometime soon. And while I found the characters of Fiona and her husband believable, I found them both to be cold and rather detached, not just from each other but from life. McEwan suggests that Fiona is realising too late that perhaps she should have made time to have children – largely so she’d have someone to sympathise with her over her husband’s desertion, it would appear. Again I found this banal – wouldn’t it be interesting if just once an author didn’t suggest that a woman can only find fulfilment through breeding? Unsurprisingly the husband didn’t seem to feel the lack of children at all…

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

But from a literary point of view it’s the story of the boy, Adam, that’s the real problem. We are told several times that he is mature for his age but, despite having the vocabulary and speaking style of a middle-aged Oxford don, he acts more like a thirteen-year-old adolescent than someone on the cusp of manhood. His reaction to Fiona’s decision left me entirely unconvinced, while his personal reaction to this 59-year-old woman verges on the ludicrous, as does her behaviour towards him. Not only does she behave unprofessionally, which she at least recognises, but her behaviour is inhumane – or perhaps more accurately, unhuman. Adam’s behaviour is manipulated clumsily to make McEwan’s point about the evil effects of a religious upbringing, meaning that he at no point seems like anything more than a cipher. And the ending is so deeply coloured by McEwan’s clear hatred of religion that it has no ring of truth or compassion to it at all.

‘Of course they didn’t want me to die! They love me. Why didn’t they say that, instead of going on about the joys of heaven? That’s when I saw it as an ordinary human thing. Ordinary and good. It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up.’

Overall, this is one I rather wish I hadn’t read. The quality of the prose is the only thing that raises it above 1-star status, but I feel I’ve had enough of McEwan now. I think he has finally removed himself from my must-read list…

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Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

little liesAll for one and one for all…

:D :D :D :D :D

Trivia Night at Pirriwee Public Primary School in New South Wales doesn’t turn out quite as planned. We learn in Chapter 1 that the evening ends with a murder, but we don’t know the victim, the murderer or the motive. We are then whisked back six months to meet the various characters and follow the events leading up to the murder. It all begins on the day the mothers bring their five-year-olds along to the Kindergarten ‘Let’s Get Ready’ Orientation Day…

This is such a clever book. The mothers are brilliantly observed, completely believable – people most of us have met. They each have quirks and flaws, they can be annoying, but they’re also intensely likeable – you can’t help but feel that it would be so much fun to spend time with them. And this despite the fact that they are ‘helicopter’ parents – obsessed with every aspect of their little dears’ lives. So when an accusation is made that one child has bullied another, the mothers are much more upset about the whole thing than the children seem to be. There is so much humour in the book that it’s only gradually the darker underlying subjects begin to show through. Moriarty avoids the temptation to over-dramatise so that, even as we learn of the secrets some of the women are hiding, the characters remain totally credible. And as the book progresses, the author keeps a perfect balance between the serious side of the story and the humour – like in real life, she allows her characters to have both happy and sad times, rather than burying them under a blanket of angst. Oh, and she writes in the third person past tense – I think I love her!!

She’d once been appalled to hear of women claiming PMT as a defence for murder. Now she understood. She could happily murder someone today! In fact, she felt like there should be some sort of recognition for her remarkable strength of character that she didn’t.

As the book starts, Madeline has just turned forty. On her second marriage, she’s far older than most of the other mothers and takes on a sort of maternal role with them too. She’s loud, extrovert and feisty – but she’s also kind, generous and understanding. She may be very happily married now, but that doesn’t stop her being very bitter (and extremely funny) about her first husband, Patrick, who deserted her not long after the birth of her eldest daughter. And now he’s moved to Pirriwee with his wife Bonnie and new daughter – Madeline is less than thrilled. On the surface, Celeste has an ideal life – stunningly beautiful, she is the mother of a set of agreeably naughty twin boys, and the wife of rich and handsome Perry. But it’s soon obvious that the marriage is not as golden as it appears. The third of the main characters is Jane, a young single mother new in town, whose son is the child accused of bullying. Upset by this, Jane is taken under the wing of an outraged Madeline and so begins a war between Madeline’s crowd and the Blonde Bobs – the yummy-mummies who think they rule the school. But what starts as something reasonably light-hearted will soon begin to spiral out of control…

Perhaps Madeline should take up yoga so she and [her daughter] Alice would have something in common? But every time she tried yoga she found herself silently chanting her own mantra: I’m so boooored, I’m so boooored.

Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty

I loved this book. The characterisation is great, as is the writing. These women may have problems in their lives, but ultimately they’re survivors, with a strength that comes from their friendships and mutual support. The book reminded me of some of the great female ensemble films of the past – Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias or even 9 to 5. There’s a lovely device where comments made by some of the uninvolved mothers during police interviews after the murder give a kind of running commentary on how the rest of the community viewed the growing feud. The ending managed that difficult feat of being both surprising and yet entirely consistent with what had gone before. This will undoubtedly be one of my favourite books of the year – highly recommended.

Thanks again to Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books, whose excellent review persuaded me to read this book.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link  – for reasons too deep for me to fathom, the title in the US has been changed to Big Little Lies.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Abandoned, but not lightly…

:(

a fine balanceShortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize, and recommended by just about everyone who’s read it, this book has accumulated 244 5-star reviews on Amazon UK, and only three 1-stars. Well, four now. I began the book on the 27th July and finally abandoned it on 1st September at just over the half-way mark. So this review is an attempt to explain why I struggled so badly with a book that apparently the whole world loves.

The book is set in the period of the late ’70s/early ’80s, probably in Bombay, I think, though I don’t think Mistry ever actually says so. Mrs Ghandi is in power and ‘The Emergency’ has been declared – a period, it would seem, when the government was cracking down on opposition and civil liberties in general. I say ‘it would seem’ because again Mistry doesn’t really bother to tell us about the political situation – he implies his characters are too poor or disinterested to care about politics and, since we see only through their eyes, we get only a vague, fuzzy view of what’s going on. Fine, if you already have an in-depth knowledge of Indian politics of four decades ago, but unfortunately I don’t.

Indira Gandhi Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS

Indira Gandhi
Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS

The book starts with the coming together of four people whose stories make up the heart of the book. Dina Dalal, a widow on the edge of poverty, takes on a contract to make clothing for one of the big new companies that have taken work away from the traditional tailors. To fulfil the work, she hires two such dispossessed tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash. At the same time she takes in student Maneck, the son of an old school friend, as a paying lodger. The first half of the book is taken up with the backstories of these characters, explaining what tragedies have led them to this point. And when I say tragedies, boy, do I mean tragedies. Rape, murder, all forms of cruelty, racial and religious attacks, threatened incest – all human misery is here, often several times over. But these poor people don’t realise this has actually been the good part of their lives – things are going to get worse…

But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

Mistry’s writing style is very good. The descriptions of these awful lives in this horrible country are detailed and convincing. So convincing, in fact, that one is left wondering why anyone would choose to go on living at all. Each day is a joyless burden, filled with nastiness and filth. There are only two groups of people in this country: the oppressors and the oppressed. No hope, no chance for escape from the degradations and privations that increase with every passing day. Not a picture of India that I recognise from other novels, the best of which do show the extreme poverty and huge inequalities, but also show the diversity and even vibrancy of the country as a whole.

The characterisation is strong in the sense that each of the four main protagonists is well delineated and their behaviour is consistent with their past experiences. But the problem is that Mistry clearly has a political agenda and the characters are no more than puppets. I felt that Mistry had started with a list of all the bad things about life under Mrs Ghandi, added all the different ways people can be nasty to each other, and then dumped all this misery on the heads of this tiny group of characters. I’m sure all these bad things happened, indeed still do, but I’m equally sure they don’t happen every single day to the same people. If there’s a riot, they’ll be caught up in it. If a slum is pulled down, it’ll be their slum. If a father is murdered for being the wrong caste, it’ll be their father. If a wife is raped for being poor…well, you get my point. Even if one of them pauses to make friends with a dog, you can be sure the dog will die hideously within a chapter. The strange result of this was that I didn’t care what happened to any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as people – merely as fairground ducks for Mistry to shoot over and over again.

Mumbai slum

Mumbai slum

I’ve had a long, long time to think about why I found it so difficult to pick the book up and read even a few pages each day, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the book lacks two fundamental necessaries. Firstly, there is no plot. There is simply a description of the miserable lives of these miserable people – we’re not heading towards, or even away from, anything. And secondly, there is no glimmer of hope. I’m not suggesting there should be a happy ending with them all becoming rich and happy, but there has to be a possibility of something in the future that would make their present lives worth the horrible daily struggle. But there isn’t – it’s crystal clear that things are going to get worse and worse until Mistry finally runs out of things to torment them with; at which point they will be abandoned to their miserable fates. (When I decided to give up, I flicked ahead to the end to see if I was being unfair – I wasn’t.) I’m a political animal, so I love novels that include an element of politics in them. But there must be something else in them too – otherwise it’s not a novel. This book is about one important sector of society, the poor, at a particular point of Indian history; but I got no overall picture of the society, no understanding of why the political situation had reached this stage, no glimmer of what opposition might be in train. As an extremely lengthy description of how awful life can be for people caught up in hopeless poverty and cruelty, full marks. But then we already know that, don’t we? We watch the news…don’t we? A novel needs to be more than that, surely? It needs to tell us what we don’t already know – it needs to make us think…to care. And ultimately this one doesn’t…

‘Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’ he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.’

For me, Mistry failed to achieve a balance – the book is too heavily weighted towards misery and hopelessness. The quality of the characterisation and descriptive writing makes me feel that my 1-star rating is harsh, but since I can’t bring myself to finish the book, I feel it’s the only rating I can give it.

If you’re one of the people who loved it, I’ll be interested to hear why…

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Transwarp Tuesday Terror! Blackout by Tim Curran

It was a dark and stormy night…

 

This week’s story is a novella from the publisher Darkfuse, who specialise in ‘dark fiction’. Tim Curran is best known as a horror writer, but this tale is just as much sci-fi as horror. So for one week only, welcome to…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY TERROR!

* * * * * * *

 

Blackout by Tim Curran

 

The story I’m going to tell you is about what happened after the lights went out. I’m going to tell you what happened to our beautiful green world and the people that called it home. Understand, it”s not a happy story and there is no moral. It’s not that kind of story.

blackoutThe story begins in middle-class, middle-America, as the middle-aged residents of respectable, suburban Piccamore Way get together for a little outdoor party. It’s the kind of place where nothing worse ever happens than the paperboy throwing the paper into the bushes, or old Iris Phelan turning her TV up too loud. But later that night our narrator Jon wakes with a bit of a hangover to find that a huge storm has blown up, full of strange strobing lightning. And then he discovers that his wife, Kathy, is missing. As he stumbles around in the dark and the rain looking for her, he comes across a strange snake-like thing in the garden. Calling on the neighbours to help him in his search, they begin to discover that the darkness is more than just the normal night, that more people are going missing every minute, and that the ‘snakes’ are actually something even more frightening and sinister. And then the screaming begins…

UFO

This is an alien invasion story of the school of The War of the Worlds, in that these aliens are not interested in getting to know us Earthlings – they’re just out to destroy us…for a horrible (but quite credible really) purpose that only becomes fully clear towards the end. It’s very well written with lots of scary description and plenty of suspense, Given the shortness of the book, Curran manages to develop his characters well, so that we genuinely care when they begin to meet increasingly gruesome ends. Jon himself has the survival instinct to the full, but we still get to see his grief over his wife as he becomes more aware of what has probably happened to her; and, like us, he watches in horror as one after another of his neighbours is…er…taken.

A split second after he was hoisted into the air, an orifice opened in the center of the sack. It looked like the puckering mouth of an old lady without her teeth in. The orifice irised open and I saw a bloodred orb the size of a softball that looked as juicy as a fresh cherry. It was an evil thing like the eye of a witch or a demon…

Tim Curran

Tim Curran

The rest of that paragraph becomes progressively gorier, as does the novella. Curran is very good at finding the line between telling all and leaving some of it up to the reader’s imagination, but still this is definitely not one for the faint-hearted. However, it’s very imaginative in a dark way, and the standard of writing is unusually high in a genre where style is sometimes sacrificed in the rush to get to the thrills. The horror and tension mount in tandem, so that even as you’re turning away in disgust, you can’t help looking back to see what’s happening. Personally, perhaps a bit too gruesome for me and I could have lived without some of the language, but the quality of both story and story-telling kept me hooked right up to the end nevertheless. And hasn’t helped in any way to rid me of my fears of either snakes or spiders…or, indeed, aliens…

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

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Fretful Porpentine Rating: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock:

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Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

When in Rome…

:) :) :) :)

“…as military dictators go, Caesar Augustus was not such a bad one.”

augustusGreat-nephew and principal heir to Julius Caesar, Augustus was just nineteen when Caesar was murdered, but it seems he was never in doubt of his right to take over the honours of the older man. His early career was as a warlord, using the wealth he had inherited and borrowing extensively to ensure that he had the largest army as the Roman republic descended into civil war. He was also helped by the loyalty of Julius Caesar’s troops – a loyalty they were willing, on the whole, to extend to his heir. Having at length achieved internal peace, Augustus’ later career was as a (fairly) benevolent military dictator who brought stability to Rome and enabled it to extend and, to some degree, pacify the empire.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a recognised scholar of ancient Rome and has a doctorate from Oxford University in ancient military history. Although this is a period I know nothing about, it quickly becomes clear that the book has been thoroughly researched. While concentrating on Augustus himself, Goldsworthy takes time to set his story well into the period, giving plenty of information about the period before Augustus rose to prominence, so that the newcomer gets a real feeling for the society that he was operating within. As always with histories of so long ago, the source documents are limited and often even they were written a considerable time after the events. Goldsworthy acknowledges this and reminds the reader of the effect of contemporary and later propaganda on the picture left behind of such a prominent figure as Augustus. As he says “As always with the ancient world, it is easier to say what he did than it is to understand the man’s inner thoughts and character.” He also remembers that not all of his readers will have a grounding in Roman history, so takes the time to explain things that can be confusing, like the naming conventions for both men and women or the structure of the army. This meant that I found the book very accessible and only very rarely felt that I was floundering a bit.

Anthony and Cleopatra - Hollywood style

Anthony and Cleopatra – Hollywood style

Personally there was a bit too much concentration on the military side of things for me. Obviously as a military dictator, the army was an important part of Augustus’ story, as were the various rebellions, battles and conquests. It certainly isn’t a criticism of the book, therefore, since I can’t see how Goldsworthy could really have left any of it out, but I did find it all got a little tedious after a while. He shows Augustus as a slick political operator rather than a heroic warrior – in fact, there is a clear suggestion that Augustus tended to fall conveniently ill and retreat to the rear whenever the fighting hotted up. However he seems to have been ruthless in pursuit of his aims, willing to change allegiance whenever he thought it would benefit him and displaying a high degree of brutality towards his defeated enemies – behaviour all the more remarkable, perhaps, given his youth. Goldsworthy covers the Cleopatra/Mark Anthony episode in some depth, but rather suggests that Cleopatra has been given more importance by later historians than she really deserved (somewhat disappointingly for any Liz Taylor/Richard Burton fans out there).

Augustus and Livia (Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips) - BBC style

Augustus and Livia (Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips) – BBC style

I found Augustus’ later life of more interest, especially his attempts to ensure that he had ‘trained’ heirs to take over after his death – attempts that were constantly thwarted by the tragedy of early deaths within his extended family. Names familiar to anyone who watched the BBC’s I, Claudius (or, indeed, who read the original book by Robert Graves) have their context and importance thoroughly explained, and Goldsworthy weighs up the evidence for and against the suggestions of Livia (Augustus’ wife) as murderer of more than one of her relations – and tends to come down in her favour on the whole.

Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy

Considering the difficulties of lack of source material, I felt Goldsworthy gave a fairly rounded picture of Augustus – a man whose behaviour seemed, as Goldsworthy says, to improve as he got older. The man who in his youth cheerfully proscribed his enemies and had them killed seemed willing to show a little more tolerance in his old age – though not always to his own family. I got the distinct impression that Goldsworthy was being kinder to Augustus than some of his critics may have been over the years.

Overall, this is a well written book, accessible enough for a casual reader with little or no pre-existing knowledge of the period; but with enough depth and detail to be interesting to people more familiar with this part of history too.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

forty acresThe sins of the fathers…

:D :D :D :D :D

When up-and-coming lawyer Martin Grey is hired to fight a racial prejudice lawsuit against a big corporation, he finds himself up against a fellow black lawyer, the slick and successful Damon Darrell. Pulling off a shock victory, Martin is surprised when Darrell shows up at the celebration party and begins to draw Martin into his circle of exclusively black friends. As well as growing to like Darrell, Martin sees how useful these successful and powerful men could be to his career so, although his white partner is a bit miffed at being excluded from the charmed circle, Martin allows himself to be flattered by their attention. So although he’s not an outdoorsy type, he agrees to join them on one of their regular white-water rafting trips. But as he’s enjoying the journey aboard the luxurious private jet, Martin suddenly realises they’re not heading in the direction he was expecting…

In some respects, this could be seen as a fairly standard thriller – good guy, villains, jeopardy etc. But the underlying premise is much more thought-provoking and quite disturbing. The title refers to the promise made to emancipated slaves that each would be given forty acres and a mule – a promise subsequently broken. Martin soon discovers that the group he has joined is something of a cult, under the leadership of the guru-like Dr Kasim, dedicated to taking revenge for the cruelties and inhumanities their forebears were subjected to under slavery. My first feelings were that it was all too far-fetched, that these men would not be angry enough several generations on, and that their actions were too extreme. But each time I halted from the book and looked at the news, we were seeing pictures of race-related violence on the streets of Missouri, and that added a certain chilling possibility to the whole concept, and a feeling that, as a Brit, I can’t really know just how deep (or otherwise) the racial divide still is in the US. (That’s not to make any kind of smug point – we have our own race issues over here, too.)

There is some pretty graphic violence in the book, but it isn’t gratuitous. It is portrayed powerfully, but with a degree of restraint – it is clear that the author was trying to avoid being overly sensationalist in this regard, on the whole successfully. Martin is a very credible hero – we see him move gradually from feeling flattered by the attentions of these powerful men, to being confused and bemused, and finally to having to face some agonising moral dilemmas as he tries to work out what is the right thing to do. A modern, liberal, successful black man, he feels he’s moved on from the legacy of the past, but we see how close to the surface his sense of grievance still is in the hands of a clever manipulator, how easily he can be roused to anger and a desire for vengeance. It’s not only Martin’s life that is in danger, but his character – his own sense of who he is and who he should be.

Dwayne Alexander Smith

Dwayne Alexander Smith

There were some flaws in the book. It took a little too long to get going, and I continued to feel that these successful men wouldn’t have been so easily influenced by the somewhat simplistic spoutings of old Dr Kasim. I also felt the portrayal of the wives was somewhat old-fashioned, with most of them appearing to care only about manicures and hairdos, and which restaurant they would lunch in. (But maybe rich men really do still marry trophy brides!) But these flaws were minor in comparison to the strength of the main thrust of the story and in the second-half of the book, Smith built the tension very skilfully towards an explosive thriller ending. A layered book that kept me struggling throughout with the same moral questions as Martin had to face and finally left me feeling uncomfortable, as the author surely intended. One of the best thrillers of the year for me, and undoubtedly the most thought-provoking.

Thanks again to Raven Crime Reads, whose excellent review persuaded me to read this book.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 36…

Episode 36

 

So there I was, all ready for another hard day’s blogging, when all of a sudden my computer heaved a mighty sigh, rolled over…and died! (Oh sorry! I should have warned you this was a sad story – I’ll wait if you need to get a tissue… ) Perhaps it was due to its great age, or perhaps it just couldn’t take one more cat video…we’ll never know, I guess. But after I’d given up my attempts at resuscitation, and was gazing brokenly at a black screen, a little thought came into my head. The TBR!! When did I last back up the TBR list??? Devastation rolled over me at the thought of losing the whole list… devastation, closely followed by something that felt not unlike the sun peeping out from behind a cloud, or losing a tin of spinach and finding a box of chocolates…

Turns out the last back-up was May. Furthermore it turns out that there are over 60 books that were on the list back then that I’ve still not read! And sadly/happily the list was easily resurrected from pre-orders and wishlists. So what have we learned here, people? Either – ALWAYS backup your TBR list or… NEVER backup your TBR list. I hope that advice is helpful to you.

So after all that, this week’s total is… 115! Here are a few that will be reaching the top of the pile soon…

Crime

 

confessionsCourtesy of NetGalley, I’m sure I was tempted into this by another blogger, but the computer fiasco means I can’t remember who. Thanks, anyway – it looks interesting…

The Blurb saysHer pupils murdered her daughter. Now she will have her revenge.
After calling off her engagement in the wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation. But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a diabolical plot for revenge. Narrated in alternating voices, with twists you’ll never see coming, Confessions probes the limits of punishment, despair, and tragic love, culminating in a harrowing confrontation between teacher and student that will place the occupants of an entire school in danger. You’ll never look at a classroom the same way again.

 * * * * *

Factual

 

rebel yellFrom NetGalley again. I’m not sure what kind of mood I was in when I requested this one, but it seemed like a good idea at the time…

The Blurb saysStonewall Jackson has long been a figure of legend and romance. As much as any person in the Confederate pantheon, even Robert E. Lee, he embodies the romantic Southern notion of the virtuous lost cause. Jackson is also considered, without argument, one of our country’s greatest military figures. His brilliance at the art of war tied Abraham Lincoln and the Union high command in knots and threatened the ultimate success of the Union armies. Jackson’s strategic innovations shattered the conventional wisdom of how war was waged; he was so far ahead of his time that his techniques would be studied generations into the future.

Rebel Yell is written with the swiftly vivid narrative that is Gwynne’s hallmark and is rich with battle lore, biographical detail, and intense conflict between historical figures. Gwynne delves deep into Jackson’s private life, including the loss of his young beloved first wife and his regimented personal habits. It traces Jackson’s brilliant twenty-four-month career in the Civil War, the period that encompasses his rise from obscurity to fame and legend; his stunning effect on the course of the war itself; and his tragic death, which caused both North and South to grieve the loss of a remarkable American hero.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the children actIan McEwan’s previous books have covered the whole range from Love It to Hate It for me, but though I’m always a bit apprehensive I’m driven to read them as soon as they come out. This one will arrive on my Kindle around 1 a.m. on 2nd September…

The Blurb saysFiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well-respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law. Often the outcome of a case seems simple from the outside, the course of action to ensure a child’s welfare obvious. But the law requires more rigor than mere pragmatism, and Fiona is expert in considering the sensitivities of culture and religion when handing down her verdicts.

But Fiona’s professional success belies domestic strife. Her husband, Jack, asks her to consider an open marriage and, after an argument, moves out of their house. His departure leaves her adrift, wondering whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability; whether it was not contempt and ostracism she really fears. She decides to throw herself into her work, especially a complex case involving a seventeen-year-old boy whose parents will not permit a lifesaving blood transfusion because it conflicts with their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Jack doesn’t leave her thoughts, and the pressure to resolve the case—as well as her crumbling marriage—tests Fiona in ways that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.

 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

 

Cotillion by Georgette Heyer

Roses are red…

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3

cotillionWhen curmudgeonly old miser Matthew Penicuik suffers a particularly bad episode of gout, he thinks it’s time to decide who will inherit his considerable fortune once he’s gone. Not that any of his relatives believe him to be in any danger, hypochondria being another of his endearing qualities. Many years earlier, he had taken in Kitty Charing, the orphaned daughter of a friend, and he wants to be sure she’ll be provided for. So he hits upon the infamous notion of announcing that he will leave all of his money to whichever of his great-nephews marries Kitty, and invites them all to come for a visit – and to propose to poor Kitty. Everyone assumes Jack will be the lucky man – not only is he Great-Uncle Matthew’s favourite, but Kitty has had a crush on him since she was a schoolroom miss. But Jack’s pride won’t let him dance to Great-Uncle Matthew’s tune and anyway he’s not ready to get married, being too busy womanising all over town, so he refuses to come. In a fit of pique, Kitty persuades her cousin, the Honourable Freddy Standen, to pretend to become engaged to her and take her to London for a month on the pretext of meeting his parents…

‘You think I’ve got brains?’ he said, awed. ‘Not confusing me with Charlie?’

‘Charlie?’ uttered Miss Charing contemptuously. ‘I daresay he has book-learning, but you have—you have address, Freddy!’

‘Well, by Jove!’ said Mr Standen, dazzled by this new vision of himself.

Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances are my idea of literary chicken soup – they’re what I turn to if I have a cold or a fit of the dismals or, as now, hit a brick wall with some of the stuff I’ve been reading. She writes with such humour and the books are generally light and frothy fun. The heroes are usually rich, often proud and always handsome. The heroines are always strong, usually feisty and spirited, and would never dream of marrying for anything other than love. In fact, they are all variations of Darcy and Lizzie, and the road to true love is always as convoluted as in Pride and Prejudice, but stripped of the serious side of that book. Heyer is fun and romance, pure and simple, and the inevitable happy ending in no way diminishes the pleasure of the journey.

Oh, come on! You didn't really think I'd miss an opportunity like that...?

Oh, come on! You didn’t really think I’d miss an opportunity like that…?

‘I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons- but one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!’

Cotillion is my favourite of all Heyer’s romances. Kitty is such a likeable heroine – kept countrified and dowdy all her life, she discovers the joys of clothes-shopping, hairdressing, learning to dance, and is soon able to stand her ground with the best of them. Freddy’s friends and family have always considered him nothing more than a fashionable young man about town – a Bertie Woosterish figure – but as he has to pull Kitty out of one scrape after another, he shows a level of intelligence and competence no-one ever suspected he possessed. The supporting cast is the usual Regency line-up of fops and dandies, grande dames and put-upon companions, flirts and innocent young misses, out-and-outers and Pinks of the Ton. The assorted great nephews vying with varying degrees of enthusiasm for Kitty’s hand add an extra level of humour to the book. And then there’s Jack – all charming exterior and wicked interior.

Upon Mrs Scorton’s reappearance, she found herself confronted, not by the fool of his family, but by the Honourable Frederick Standen, a Pink of the Pinks, who knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur, and who informed her, with exquisite politeness, that he rather fancied his cousin was tired, and would like to be taken home. One of the uninvited guests, entering the box in Eliza’s wake, ventured on a warm sally, found himself being inspected from head to foot through a quizzing-glass, and stammered an apology.

Will Kitty realise Freddy’s superior worth before it’s too late? Will Freddy begin to reconsider his bachelor ways? Will Kitty’s friend Olivia marry the old roué Sir Henry Gosford for money or find a way to marry the gorgeous Chevalier d’Evron for love? Will Great-Uncle Matthew ever recover from his gout? And will I read this book again and again and again? Entertaining, mood-enhancing fun to brighten up the greyest day!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Treachery in Bordeaux (The Winemaker Detective Series 1) by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

treachery in bordeauxWining and dining…

:) :) :) :)

When some barrels of wine in the Moniales Haut-Brion vineyard are contaminated, the owner turns for advice to his friend Benjamin Cooker, a highly talented winemaker and renowned writer of wine guides. Cooker and his new assistant Virgil work to save the wine but soon become convinced that the contamination was deliberate. With the reputation of the vineyard at stake, they must try to find out who would do this and why, while making sure the whole matter stays confidential. Meantime, Cooker finds out that a painting he owns and which he thought was unique may in fact be part of a set. As he tries to track down the other paintings he finds they may be hiding a mystery…

This is the first in a series of stories featuring Cooker and Virgil, set in the winemaking industry in France. Not much longer than novella length, these fall more or less into the ‘cosy’ category of crime fiction – amateur detectives, attractive setting and a mystery to solve. Being the first, quite a lot of space is taken up with introducing the main characters and the setting, and this means the actual investigation is somewhat relegated to the background. There’s also a bit too much technical information about the chemistry involved in wine-making for my liking – I prefer to think of peasants singing in the sunshine as they tramp the grapes (with very clean feet of course). But the book is set very much in the real world of wine-making as a modern industry, subject to all the pressures of profit and loss, and open to industrial sabotage and general skulduggery.

tramping grapes

Cooker is an interesting character. He takes his role as a wine expert very seriously but also has time for the good things in life – antiques, fine dining, good cigars and, of course, the best of French wines. It’s this aspect that makes the books enjoyable, though probably best not to read while hungry! Happily married and pleasantly angst-free, he has taken on a young assistant to give him more time to do the things he enjoys. Virgil is straight out of college, eager to learn. He’s also attractive and likeable and I’m sure will have some romance in his life as the series develops.

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

I actually read the second in the series, The Grand Cru Heist, before this one and I’m rather glad I did. While this one is a good introduction, the actual mystery part is a bit weak and if I’d read it first I may not have been enthusiastic enough to read the others. However, knowing that in the second one, with the introductory spadework out of the way, there is more room for a fuller investigation element means that I’ll look forward to taking the occasional short break in France with Cooker in the future. Recommended as a light and pleasurable read for those days when you just want to chill out for a few hours with a glass of wine and some good company.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Le French Book.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Hugo Awards 2014 continued…

The best laid plans…

 

Well, I promised last week that I’d follow up with the winners of the Best Short Story Hugo Awards for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * *

hugo header

 

The winner of the Retro-Hugo for 1939 is…

How We Went to Mars by Arthur C Clarke

 

Sounds like fun! Unfortunately I can’t track it down anywhere on the internet, so haven’t been able to read it, making this perhaps the shortest ‘review’ you’ll ever find on my blog. (Did I hear someone cheering??)

* * * * * * *

The winner of the Hugo Award for 2014 is…

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

 

This is available and you can read it here. Unfotunately I found this one both uninteresting and not sci-fi, so gave up halfway through, making this possibly the second-shortest review you’ll ever find on my blog! I don’t know how to classify it really – it appears to be the story of a young man ‘coming out’ as gay, and the fantasy quirk is that every time anyone tells a lie water falls on them from…er…nowhere. Not nearly as good as last week’s nominee, and yet another indication that the Hugos have very little to do with sci-fi these days as far as I can see.

So a rather stunted little Transwarp Tuesday! this week, I fear. Oh well, back to some of the greats soon…

* * * * * * *

 

the gods of mars

 

…and, on that subject, the Professor and I have just started a readalong of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Gods of Mars, follow-up to A Princess of Mars (and John Carter). Up to Chapter 2 so far, and he’s given us a fantastic new alien – the Plant Men of Mars. Since Tuesday is also often known as Teaser day, here’s a little description…

By far the most remarkable feature of this most remarkable creature, however, were the two tiny replicas of it, each about six inches in length, which dangled, one on either side, from its armpits. They were suspended by a small stem which seemed to grow from the exact tops of their heads to where it connected them with the body of the adult.

Whether they were the young, or merely portions of a composite creature, I did not know.

That image may haunt my nightmares…

Not tempted to join in yet? Then here’s how Chapter 2 ends…

And then, from unseen lips, a cruel and mocking peal of laughter rang through the desolate place.

I might be too scared to read Chapter 3…

Pride and Prejudice (Manga Classics) by Jane Austen adapted by Stacy King

Manga?? Seriously?? Oh, yes…

:D :D :D :D :D

p&p mangaI’ve never read any manga before – in truth, I wasn’t at all sure what it really is other than being some form of graphic novel, but honestly! Look at the cover! How could I possibly resist?

Once I’d worked out that you have to read this from back to front and from right to left, I settled down to see just how awful it would be. And for the first few pages I really thought the answer might be pretty awful! And then…and then…I began to smile, then giggle, then chuckle unrestrainedly…and the sun came out, gloom was banished from the world and joy began to burst out all over! This is an utterly charming, witty and affectionate adaptation with some really fabulous artwork by Po Tse, (who is apparently a manga-ka, whatever that might be). Apart from the cover all the artwork is black and white, which apparently is the norm for manga, but this really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment. Most of the social commentary has been thrown out, but all the fun and romance of the original has been retained – enhanced, even – by the great marrying together of the original text with a beautifully modern outlook. I can see how this adaptation might annoy Austen purists (and you know that usually includes me). But this is done with such skill and warmth that it completely won me over.

the bennet girls

Wickham is deceptively sweet-looking while Darcy is outrageously sexy, and Lizzie’s huge eyes twinkle with mischief. Some of the pages made me positively guffaw with laughter. Mrs Bennet is a joy – drawn to perfection and often appearing in odd corners of pages just being her awesomely awful self. Because it’s so flowing there can be a tendency to speed through the pages, especially for someone like me who’s not used to the graphic format – but it’s essential to slow down and really look, ‘cos there’s all kinds of little humorous touches in the backgrounds. I’ve put a little gallery below of some of the pages which hopefully will give you an idea of the humour, but really it’s when you’re reading page after page that the full effect builds up. We often say a book is a ‘real page-turner’ – well, this one certainly is. I found I couldn’t wait to get to some of the big scenes – the ball, the proposal, the wet shirt scene (oh yes, it may not be in the original, but it’s become an essential scene now!).

Clever, lovely, light, refreshing – can you tell that I really enjoyed this? I hope, I hope, I HOPE they’re going to do Northanger Abbey…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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