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A massive leap up to 105 for the TBR this week. So much for all my good intentions! The problem is some books are just irresistible…
Courtesy of NetGalley:
“You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick –
But first you must travel to Victorian Yorkshire, and there, on a remote country estate, meet a brother and sister alone in the world and bound by tragedy. In time, you will enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of some of the richest, most powerful men in fin-de-siecle England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide. It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, one of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed.“
I loved Tom Vowler’s first book What Lies Within. Can he do it again…?
“When Stephen gets a phone call to say his mother isn’t well, he knows he must go to her straight away. But he dreads going back there. He has never been able to understand why his mother chose to stay in the town he grew up in, after everything that happened. One day’s tragic events years before had left no one living there untouched. Stephen’s own dark memories are still poisoning his life, as well as his marriage. Perhaps now is the time to go back and confront the place and the people of his shattered childhood. But will he ever be able to understand the crime that punctured their lives so brutally? How can a community move on from such a terrible legacy?“
A re-read in preparation:
“Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers give the story an uncanny air, but one with a decidedly satirical twist. The story’s unlikely heroine is Catherine Morland, a remarkably innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage. While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney, who invites her to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions. What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry’s mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey?“
Courtesy of Amazon Vine:
I couldn’t resist! It can’t possibly be worse than Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility…can it…?
“Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A homeschooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels?“
All blurbs are taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.
At least I’m sure to enjoy the Austen! Will you be reading any of these?
PS Due to life interfering with my reading time, I will be having a short bloggie break. Apologies in advance if I also don’t get around to visiting your blogs as often as usual for a short while. Back soon!
After an accident during a dust storm, Mark Watney finds himself alone on Mars. His colleagues in the Ares 3 expedition believed he was dead and were forced to evacuate the planet while they still could. The communications system was broken in the storm so Mark can’t let anyone know he’s alive. And it’s four years till the next scheduled mission to Mars. Fortunately Mark has a few things going for him. He’s an engineer and a botanist, there’s quite a lot of equipment left over from the mission including the Hab – the living quarters complete with atmospheric and water reclamation equipment – and, perhaps most importantly, he has twelve potatoes. And most of all he has the determination to survive…
It died instantly. The screen went black before I was out of the Airlock. Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid”. I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.”
This is a fantastic adventure story set in the near future. It only just scrapes into the sci-fi category since all the science and equipment is pretty much stuff that’s available now – and though it’s chock full of science and technology, it’s presented in a way that makes it not just interesting but fun. Mark is a hero of the old school – he just decides to get on with things and doesn’t waste time angsting or philosophising. And he’s got a great sense of humour which keeps the whole thing deliciously light-hearted. It reminded me of the way old-time adventure stories were written – the Challenger books or the Quatermain stories mixed with a generous dash of HG Wells – but brought bang up to date in terms of language and setting. And although Mark is heroic, he’s a believable hero – he’s a NASA-trained astronaut with a scientific background, so it’s easy to accept that he knows how to make stuff work and also to believe that he is psychologically and physically equipped to deal with this kind of extreme situation.
If I could have anything, it would be a radio to ask NASA the safe path down the Ramp. Well, if I could have anything, it would be for the green-skinned yet beautiful Queen of Mars to rescue me so she can learn more about this Earth thing called “lovemaking”.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a woman. Just sayin’.
As the book progresses we also get to meet the people in mission control and Mark’s erstwhile colleagues on the space-ship. Again, although they are shocked by what has happened, they show their professionalism by just focussing on finding a solution, reacting to each new development as it happens. So refreshing to not have to spend hours and hours reading about how they felt! There’s a place for that in fiction obviously, but sometimes there’s a place for a rollicking good roller-coaster of an adventure yarn too – and that’s what this is.
When a book becomes a huge runaway bestseller, there’s always the fear that it can’t live up to the hype. Fear not! This one certainly does! It started out as a self-published book which sold in the zillions, has now gone on to be traditionally published, and the film rights have already been bought up. Well written, though not at all literary; great characterisation in the tradition of the heroes of Star Trek, Buchan et al; enough science and stuff to satisfy the geekiest geek but explained simply and humorously enough for us technophobes to understand – and a brilliantly depicted setting on the surface of Mars. All the best sci-fi comes from Mars and this is a new one to add to that illustrious list. Put it on your TBR!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ebury.
Seeds of fear…
Daphne du Maurier’s collection The Birds and Other Stories contains not only the title story that Hitchcock turned into one of his greatest films, but also five other perhaps lesser known stories. So in advance of reading the full collection, I have randomly picked one to feature as this week’s…
Suddenly, for no reason, he was seized with a kind of fear, a feeling of panic almost. What if the smell filled the whole house through the night, came up from the kitchen quarters to the floor above, and while he slept found its way into the bedroom, choking him, stifling him, so that he could not breathe? The thought was ridiculous, insane – and yet…
The Apple Tree tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. A self-appointed martyr, she had always managed to make him feel guilty about how little he did around the house and how hard she worked, though he always felt she took on tasks that could easily have been left undone or left for the daily maid. She had always taken the pessimistic view of any piece of news and for years he had felt she sucked the joy out of life. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…
This is a fine example of what du Maurier does best – creating a chilling atmosphere just bordering on the supernatural but never clearly crossing that line. Although the story is told in the third person, we see it unfold through the widower’s eyes, giving it the effect of an ‘unreliable narrator’. If Midge was as the widower saw her, then his happiness at her death is understandable. But how much did he contribute to making her what she became? We catch glimpses of the young woman she once was, trying to please the husband she loved and having her enthusiasm stamped on by this man who clearly looked down on her. Is the widower to be pitied or condemned? And is the story one of a ghostly haunting or of self-inflicted psychological horror brought on by guilt?
As the seasons wear past, the tree affects the widower more and more – its blossom horribly overblown to his eyes, while seeming to be admired by others; its fruit disgusting to him while seeming fine to his daily maid; the smell of the wood from a fallen branch that he burns nauseating…choking. And in all its oversized ugliness, it hides the beauty of the little tree next to it – a tree that reminds the widower of a girl he once knew, perhaps a little too well. At last he decides to do what he has been putting off for too long – he will chop the tree down…
Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.
Supernatural or psychological, either way this is a superbly written chiller. Du Maurier uses the weather to great effect, as she often does, going from the contrast of sunny blossomy summer days to the bitter cold and snow of deep winter. She never piles on the horror – instead she lets the atmosphere build slowly and gradually, making the reader share in the widower’s growing revulsion. And the ending works beautifully to leave the reader’s spine a-tingling…
Fretful porpentine rating
Overall story rating
NB This book was provided for review by the publishers, Little, Brown and Company.
The keeper of the keys…
William Heming has always been fascinated by the lives of the people around him. Some might call him a stalker, but he wouldn’t call himself that. He just likes to find out all about people…without them knowing. So when he is given a job as an estate agent, what joy! The ability to poke and pry round other people’s houses; and better yet, to be able to copy the keys of the houses so that he can pop back when the owners are out – or even when they’re in…
Mr Heming (as he prefers to be called) is the most original creation I’ve come across in a long time. He is telling us his story in the first person and despite his increasingly outrageous behaviour the reader can’t help developing a sneaking fondness for him, while being very, very glad that he’s fictional! Although he got into trouble frequently as a child, he has now made an outwardly respectable life for himself as the owner of the small-town estate agency. He does have the strange little habit of sneaking into people’s houses, making a nest for himself in their attics and listening to the goings-on below, but otherwise he’s quite a decent chap really – always willing to secretly help a neighbour, even if by doing so he’ll frighten them half to death.
And if he’d only stuck to this life, everything would have been fine. But one day, he accidentally gets actively involved in the life of the Sharp family and at the same time falls in love, and suddenly he’s involved in a murder investigation that risks revealing his peculiar little habits to the world. This is the story of how Mr Heming sets about keeping his secrets safe…
This is a hugely entertaining read, both creepy and humorous. Twisty and turny all the way through, it kept me guessing right up to the end. As Mr Heming gets more and more involved in the police investigation we see him becoming ever more creative in trying to direct their attention elsewhere. There are distinct elements of farce here, with people whisking out of back doors as others come through the front etc., but it’s all handled with huge skill and a lot of humour so that the reader ends up completely ambivalent about the awful Mr Heming – laughing along with his wicked sense of humour even while condemning his ever-more extreme behaviour. Guilt by association!
Very well-written, the characterisation is strong throughout, but Mr Heming himself is the key to this book – a wonderful creation. While the current story unfolds, we are taken back through his life to see what brought him to this point, but though he had a difficult childhood we get the distinct impression he was born this way, not made. And the worst thing is that it’s all so chillingly possible…
Highly recommended…but I must dash! Got to get my locks changed!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.
…OK, it’s not really. But it is my blog’s birthday – One Today!
(OK, actually it was the 9th Feb, but I forgot…)
Unfortunately since you all live far, far away, I can’t give you a piece of cake. So pop out to the bakery, buy yourself a cupcake and pretend it’s from me. Enjoy!
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Thanks all of you for making the last year so much more fun than I expected – thanks commenters, likers, silent readers, fellow bloggers, followers who never visit (and, in many cases, never have!), and all those people who pop in accidentally on the whim of weird Google search results. I value you all (though not equally ).
I often think my eclectic reading tastes might put people off, but when I look at the most popular reviews I have to conclude that my followers and random visitors are a pretty eclectic bunch too…
- Entry Island by Peter May
- Carmilla: A Critical Edition by J Sheridan Le Fanu
- The Cosmic View of Albert Einstein
- The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain
- Like This, For Ever by SJ Bolton
My top rant came in in 7th position – my disgruntlement about the new rules for Amazon Vine, which indeed has stopped being a booklover’s dream since the changes. Thank goodness for NetGalley!
And my post on Rafa’s shorts has racked up zillions of views (approximately) and still gets visits – which must tell us something, but I’m not quite sure what…
* * * * * * *
(And just to be on the safe side…)
(Well, it’s my birthday!!)
Hope to see you all again in Year 2!
Rigid self-control means the TBR is down to 99 – the broken-hearted sobbing that went along with rejecting so many lovely books will ease soon, I’m sure. And, as usual, the situation is NOT helped by all the great reviews around the blogosphere. I’d love to read all of this week’s shortlist, not to mention the other 6 that made it onto the longlist, but I’m sticking to just one. Probably.
So, with my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:
Wordman says: “If I knew where to begin, I’d explore the storyline that unfolded before my very eyes, and take you inside the dark, dank abandoned mansion where David Martin pens of his own madness; I’d want you to be a part of the clandestine affairs within the shadows of Barcelona, and come face to face with Andreas Corelli who knows your innermost desires even before you know them yourself.“
Lady Fancifull says “…historical mystery, theatrical and creative gloriousness, and a pretty cast of characters assembled. AND we have an unpublished new ‘Shakespeare’ play by Robert Winder – Henry VII – not the play he has been commissioned to write at all, but something subversive and dangerous. The bulk of this stunningly enjoyable romp is the making of the play, and then we have the play itself, privately performed.“
Raven says: “What is most intriguing about the book, and accomplished by the exquisite pace of the narrative, is how a family structure can be so quickly thrown into turmoil. Daniel has withheld his homosexuality from his parents, his parents have not been entirely truthful about the happiness of their retirement, and Daniel is cast into the unenviable position of questioning which parent to believe…“
Delia says: “I enjoyed this book for the sense of adventure and the historical references. The story keeps up an engaging pace and the reader is kept guessing until the very last sentence in the book. Although one might get a feel for where the story is going, the question remains: will Eliza find her first love, and if she does what will she do? Only that last line will provide the answer…”
And the winner is…
Books Please says “I read the first in February 2013 and now a year later I’ve been just as engrossed in Crucible. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions and it’s just full of atmosphere. I loved it.“
Lots of historical stuff this week – an area I’ve been neglecting recently. So which of these appeal to you?
Dressed up in the language of academia…
(…or Where’s my Gobbledegook-English dictionary?)
In recent years, in the fields of history and science, there has been a marked and welcome move towards academics writing books in language that makes them accessible to the wider public, while maintaining high standards of research and scholarship. Sadly, in my limited experience, this trend has not yet spread to the field of literary criticism. This book is so mired and obfuscated in academic
gobbledegook language, that large parts of it are well-nigh incomprehensible to someone who only speaks standard English – which is unfortunate, since the glimpses I got into the author’s meaning suggested that the subject could be interesting.
As far as I could gather, the author’s argument seems to consist of three main points: that American literature of the 19th century and beyond tends to deal with the subject of failure; that the great writers of the 19th century struggled to find new literary forms in which to portray this literature of failure; and – it gets very unclear here and I may well be misrepresenting badly – that this struggle for form, combined with failures in the authors’ own lives, led directly or indirectly to their works themselves failing, especially in the eyes of contemporary critics and readers.
“Hawthorne and his Mosses” is Melville’s effort to account for Hawthorne’s relative lack of popularity, by laying blame on a market that purportedly valued literary trash over works of quality. Rather than studying the way to success, however, Melville’s essay offers an explicit theory of failure in a culture whose faltering standards of taste made failure seem a necessity, if not a condition of genius itself.
When I was a student, and even when writing policies in the workplace, I was always taught that you should “say what you’re going to say, then say it, then say what you just said”. If Jones had followed this simplistic but effective device, then his introduction would have made clear what his argument was going to be – unfortunately he leaps straight into his discussion of the works he has chosen to prove his argument without ever clarifying exactly what his argument is. And the conclusion, which I found I was eagerly anticipating, did little to elucidate. The result is that, having finished the book, I wasn’t much closer to getting Jones’ point than I was at the beginning. That’s not to say the book is uninteresting – just unfathomable in parts.
Critics have noted the “subjunctive” reality of Strether’s world, his enabling bewilderment and epistemological provisionalness. Placing this in historical context, Ross Posnock has described Strether’s groping and bewildered contemplation as a form of pragmatic fallibilism, which “emphasizes the self as contingent, inseparable from the process of experimental inquiry and interpretation…”
The first strand – that American authors tend to write about failure – seems clear and fairly indisputable. In each chapter, Jones concentrates on one author and usually on one particular work of that author. So in the chapter on Melville, for instance, while referring to many of his works, Jones concentrates on Moby Dick, while the chapter on Twain deals largely with Pudd’nhead Wilson. In each chapter, Jones sets the work into the context of the author’s life and the wider society of the time. His view is that the 19th century itself was felt to have been a failed century, with recurring economic problems, increasing mechanisation and subsequently urbanisation and the decline of the rural economy, and in particular the failure of the Civil War to lead to the kind of society that its proponents had envisaged.
…in Poe we see the glimmering of an attitude that looks forward to the modernist writers of the twentieth century: not a struggle with failure as a problem to be debated or transcended, but an acceptance of failure as an inevitable condition of identity, one of the necessitating qualities of a style.
The second and third strands are both more complex and less well-argued, in my view – certainly less clearly argued. Jones seems to be suggesting that it was the attempt to find ways to portray this failure that led to these great authors producing often messy books. He uses the authors’ own writings and contemporaneous critical and peer reviews of their works to back up his arguments, and to some degree he convinced me that some at least of the authors were indeed trying to find new literary forms. Where I found his argument completely unconvincing was that it was this that led to the contemporary failure of the books. Now, I have only read a handful of the books discussed, so I am basing my comments purely on Jones’ own analyses of them, but it seemed to me that in fact all he proved was that some of the books were simply badly written, and that the reasons for this varied from case to case. I also felt he proved indirectly that a form of intellectual elitism was creeping into the works of many of these authors which could be summed up as “if people don’t like my books, it’s because they’re stupid”, and that, in that sense, commercial and critical failure was almost seen as an endorsement of literary success (an attitude still very recognisable today, I fear). But his central argument, if I have grasped it at all, that the failure of the books was related to the authors’ attempts to find new forms to portray failure, remained unproven to me. But then maybe that’s not what he was trying to say at all!
In his phenomenological study, Paul Armstrong argues that James’ approach to man is most properly understood as ontic, not ontological: he is concerned with real existence, with experience, rather than with the properties of being.
Overall, I found the analyses of the various books and authors very interesting, but found the arguments so dressed up in the language of academia that they were hard to understand and, perhaps as a result, remained largely unproven, at least to me. I’m sure this book may be of great interest to other academics, but for the casual reader may prove a little disappointing, as ultimately it was for me.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.
“If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise!”
When I started the whole search for the hair-raising thing a few months back, I trotted around various blogs specialising in horror to get some names of contemporary authors, and Graham Masterton’s name came up repeatedly. So when this book became available on NetGalley it seemed ideal to be this week’s…
Standing up to her waist in the middle of the pool was a woman with no head. She was wearing a white T-shirt, the front of which was heavily stained with blood and with the green and black juices of putrescence. The three-inch stump of her neck was like a volcano erupting – not with lava, but with maggots…
A group of scouts and their leaders go off for a camping weekend in a forest in Owasippe, Michigan. But while there, something happens that makes them all commit suicide, often in bloodily horrific ways. One of the scouts was the friend of young Sparky Wallace, a 12-year-old with Asperger’s (hasn’t every fictional child these days?), who becomes obsessed with the need to know what caused the tragedy. So his father Jack starts off on a journey that takes him from Owasippe to the Kampinos Forest in Poland where Jack’s great-grandfather had died in similar circumstances during the war.
This story is firmly based in the supernatural so it’s necessary to leave your inner sceptic at the door. As the story unfolds, we become aware that there is something living in our forests that has the ability to drive people into such panic that they would rather kill themselves than wait for the horrific death they fear awaits them. Sparky seems to know more than he’s telling and uses his (remarkable) knowledge of astrology to see what future lies in the stars for himself and the other protagonists. Unfortunately he rarely tells them, so each time one ends up dead, Sparky rather annoyingly says something like ‘I knew that was going to happen.’ (I found I was developing an unfortunate but overwhelming desire to slap him upside the head as the story progressed.)
The book is well written but a little over-stretched and repetitive which prevents the tension building as much as it might have done. The characterisation is quite strong with both Jack and Sparky coming over as credible and well-rounded, despite Sparky’s supernatural tendencies, which get stronger as the book goes on. But these are integral to the story, and in that context work well.
Leaves and dust and twigs and pine needles came whirling through the tress like a blizzard, and Jack had to close his eyes tightly to prevent himself from being blinded. The trees began to creak again, in a terrible off-key chorus, and the birds started screeching. He felt as if the entire forest was telling him to get out, and to run for his life.
It would be easy to pick holes in the plot, since some of them are pretty glaring – but really the book is more about creating an atmosphere than trying to tell a consistent story. If I have to accept that mysterious wood-spirits have been lurking in our forests for aeons, then I can surely also accept that Jack is the most gullible and easily confused man who ever existed. The aforesaid mysterious wood-spirits are quite effective as spooky creations go, although the author tries to fit an environmental message into their story which doesn’t really work. It’s all a bit hazy as to whether they’re really filled with good intentions towards humanity or just particularly nasty evil creatures – but on the evidence of the number of gore-splattered bodies that mount up during the course of the book, I’m going with the latter. Having said that, the gore isn’t excessively done – there are only a couple of incidents where it’s directly described and overall I found it more giggleworthy than gruesome.
I do have one serious objection about the story, which is that the author has incorporated into the plot a real massacre that took place in Kampinos Forest during WW2, and that struck me as pretty tasteless and entirely unnecessary.
Otherwise I found this a well-written and reasonably enjoyable supernatural romp – not to be taken too seriously. I can’t say I found it terribly scary but there were places where the author did build up an effective atmosphere. So recommended – but really to fans of horror only.
Fretful porpentine rating:
Overall story rating:
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Severn House.
Not just for horror fans…
Stephen Jones is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of horror stories and anthologies. For this one, he has asked some of the best of today’s horror writers to come up with a modern spin on some old folk and fairy tales – most but not all are taken from the Grimms’ collections. These are not in the main re-writings of the old stories but instead are imaginatively inspired by some aspect of them. Some are in traditional fairy tale settings and some in the modern day. The stories range from only a few pages up to almost novella-length, and a short author bio is given at the end of each.
Each new story is preceded by a version of the original story that inspired it and, although I can’t find anything in the book to confirm this, I assume these original stories have been re-written or at least re-edited specially for this book, probably by Jones himself, since no-one else is credited for it. And very well re-written they are too, in standard modern language but without the intrusion of anachronistic modern slang. Although they’re really only there as a taster and prompt for the new stories, I found these versions of the originals a pleasure to read in themselves.
The meat of the book however is in the new stories. As with any anthology, both approach and standard varies a little from story to story, but overall I found all of the stories to be above average for the genre and some are really excellent. Regular visitors will know that I have already raved about Neil Gaiman’s entry, Down to a Sunless Sea – not a supernatural story as such, but spun very imaginatively from the old tale of The Singing Bone. But there were several other stories that I enjoyed just as much. Here’s a brief flavour of just a few of them…
Look Inside by Michael Marshall Smith is a modern-day take on the story of The Three Little Men in the Wood. Marshall Smith has also appeared before in “Tuesday Terror!” and this story shows all the same humour that made that one so enjoyable. Told by our first-person female narrator, Marshall Smith has a lot of fun being cheekily rude about feminism in a way that wouldn’t have worked at all with a male narrator, and while this story is pretty unscary it’s clever and amusing.
Brian Lumley’s The Changeling is a very well written story of an aeons-old alien encountered by our unsuspecting narrator on a deserted beach. This is so in the style of HP Lovecraft that even I noticed it, and the blurb at the end confirms that Lumley has indeed specialised in that particular sub-genre. But – and Lovecraft fans will hate me for this – this is so much better written than HPL’s stories! It has a beginning, a middle and an end and does not involve pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of tunnels, ruins etc. He brings out all the imagination of the world Lovecraft created without sending the reader (OK, this reader) off to sleep in quite the same way.
Angela Slatter’s story By the Weeping Gate is based on The Robber Bridegroom. It tells the tale of a brothel-keeper and her daughters, all but one of whom are forced into the life of the brothel. However Madame Dalita is keeping her fairest daughter pure – she is destined for better things. But girls in the town are turning up murdered…and no-one knows why. I thought this was a fantastic story – Slatter built up a brilliantly scary atmosphere with some great language and really effective story-telling, and again showed huge imagination in how she spun this story from the original. And introduced me to a lovely new word – ensorcelled – meaning enchanted or fascinated.
I’ve only highlighted these three, but could easily have picked another half-dozen or so that I also greatly enjoyed. And amongst the names that might only be familiar to horror fans, there are some that are known much more widely – Gaiman, of course, Christopher Fowler of Bryant and May fame, and Joanne Harris, best known perhaps for Chocolat.
Yes, there are a few less good stories in the book, or at least that appealed less to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed the collection as a whole. Some are scary, but there’s no gore-fest or chainsaw massacre in here – the horror is in the atmosphere created by some fine writing and a lot of inventiveness. A word of caution – Jones makes it clear that this book is aimed at adults, not children, and I would endorse that. But I certainly don’t think they’re only for dedicated horror fans either – this quality of writing and imagination deserves a wider audience than that. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
Sex, violence and misogyny – a losing combination…
When Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy finds a lost phone, the images and messages on it lead him to believe that a death that had been ruled a suicide may in fact have been a murder. The victim is a flamboyantly tattooed young man who was clearly involved in the dangerous game of arranging sexual encounters with strangers. The reader knows a little more than Aector since the prologue shows us the murder taking place and tells us that the murderer is also hunting down another possible victim, Simon’s friend Suzie. Meantime, a drugs war is kicking off on the streets of Hull, involving Vietnamese drug lords and the brutal torture and killings of competitors.
This book seems to be getting a generally positive reaction so I’m afraid my review will be swimming against the tide – again. Hard-hitting and noir seem to be becoming synonymous with graphic and sleazy in current crime-writing, so Mark is probably on track for major success. There’s no doubt that he has the ability to tell his story well. The drugs plot seems a bit pointless, thrown in purely to give a reason for some pretty graphic descriptions of violence and torture (including of course the obligatory tortured naked woman incident), but the murder plot is quite original, intriguing and brought to a reasonably satisfying, if unlikely, conclusion.
The character of Aector is fairly poorly drawn, I felt. Pretty much all that we learn about him is that he is the one moral man in the whole of Hull, he’s tall, blushes a lot and loves his wife. We know these things because we are told them repeatedly (and boy, do I mean repeatedly) but there’s no real depth to the characterisation. The other male officers are mainly as violent and lacking in morals as the criminals, and behave in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated in even the laxest of police departments and would certainly destroy any chance of a prosecution holding up in court. In Hull, apparently violence is the main male currency.
The women on the other hand come straight from the Misogyny section of Central Casting, and their currency is sex. The stay-at-home wife – foul-mouthed (as are all the women) but great in the kitchen and better in the bedroom; the female boss who sexually harasses her subordinates; the female detective who dresses like a hooker and hopes that allowing suspects to look down her blouse while she sexily crosses and uncrosses her legs will tempt them into confession; and Suzie, the nymphomaniac (literally), whose sexual fantasies and activities, while admittedly integral to the sleazy plot, are graphically described in endless gratuitous detail. There isn’t a woman character who is not defined in one way or another by her sexuality.
But if you can overlook all this and ignore the constant use of the foulest of foul language, it must be admitted that the story flows fairly well and, despite my feeling that Suzie’s story is mainly there to provide an excuse for titillation, Mark manages to make her the most believable and sympathetic character in the book.
So overall, as sex, violence and misogyny go, this is pretty well-written sex, violence and misogyny. But not to my taste – I see no reason why crime-writing has to wallow in the gutter. There are plenty of authors out there who can tell a hard-hitting story without descending to this level. 4 stars for the basic flow of the writing and the plotting of the murder element – less 1 for the gratuitous foul language, 1 for the unnecessary and repeated violence and torture, and 1 for the constant soft-porn sex. All adds up to a 1-star rating for me. And I haven’t even deducted anything for the misogyny…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
Hovering at 100, and determined to get below it, so adding nothing today. Instead, here’s a few of the existing TBR list that I hope to be reading soon…
All courtesy of NetGalley:
I’ve been seeing enthusiastic reviews of this all over the place – not my usual kind of thing, but looks good…
“Apollo 13 meets Cast Away in this grippingly detailed, brilliantly ingenious man-vs-nature survival thriller, set on the surface of Mars. Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there. It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet.”
“On the evening of April 13, 1970, the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were just hours from the third lunar landing in history. But as they soared through space, two hundred thousand miles from earth, an explosion badly damaged their spacecraft. With compromised engines and failing life-support systems, the crew was in incomparably grave danger. Faced with below-freezing temperatures, a seriously ill crew member, and a dwindling water supply, a safe return seemed unlikely. Thirteen is the shocking, miraculous, and entirely true story of how the astronauts and ground crew guided Apollo 13 to a safe landing on earth. Expanding on dispatches written for the New Yorker, Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. brings readers unparalleled detail on the moment-by-moment developments of one of NASA’s most dramatic missions.“
“The town of Henbane sits deep in the Ozark Mountains. Folks there still whisper about Lucy Dane’s mother, a bewitching stranger who appeared long enough to marry Carl Dane and then vanished when Lucy was just a child. Now on the brink of adulthood, Lucy experiences another loss when her friend Cheri disappears and is then found murdered, her body placed on display for all to see. Lucy’s family has deep roots in the Ozarks, part of a community that is fiercely protective of its own. Yet despite her close ties to the land, and despite her family’s influence, Lucy—darkly beautiful as her mother was—is always thought of by those around her as her mother’s daughter. When Cheri disappears, Lucy is haunted by the two lost girls—the mother she never knew and the friend she couldn’t save—and sets out with the help of a local boy, Daniel, to uncover the mystery behind Cheri’s death.“
All blurbs are taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.
Any of these appeal to you? What books are you looking foward to?
“No-one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”
Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.
Although Yates takes us into the minds of most of the characters at points, we mainly see the world through the eyes of Frank Wheeler. The book begins as April takes part in an amateur performance of The Petrified Forest – a play with the central theme of artistic and intellectual worth trapped in a loveless and humdrum existence, but where tragedy leads to escape. No coincidence that this should be the play that Yates chose, and no coincidence either that the performance should fail badly, leaving April publicly humiliated. Already in these early pages, Yates has signalled his major themes of intellectual elitism, entrapment and failure.
Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.
Frank once aspired to lead the life of an intellectual, perhaps to be a Hemingway, defying convention and rejecting the lifestyle of his parents. He was feted in his student days as one of the coming generation, a brilliant conversationalist who would (in some way that he never quite got around to pinning down) have an intellectual impact on the world. April – beautiful, cool, aloof – aspired to be a serious actress. Each attracted to the other’s projected image rather than to the underlying person, they seemed an ideal glittering match, until the reality of pregnancy forced them down the path of conventionality towards earning a living and making a home.
Now they are trapped – by their children, by society, but mostly by each other. As they fail to be what they anticipated they see their failure reflected back to them from the other’s eyes. It is only when April comes up with a radical plan to allow them to regain their lost glamour as free-wheeling intellectuals that Frank begins to realise he may no longer have the courage to pursue this dream – to risk discovering that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal, the belief in which has been the foundation of his sense of snobbish superiority over his neighbours and colleagues. When April reveals that she is once again pregnant, for Frank it is an excuse to retreat back to the safety of his conventional life. But to April it’s another trap – to keep her in a lifestyle she never wanted and to prevent Frank from becoming the man she thought she was marrying. For April, the coming child is her prison – for Frank, it is his escape.
She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.
Yates is brutal to his characters, shining a light so bright there’s nowhere for them to hide. And through them, shining a light on this ’50s society, perhaps the last generation where women were still so irrevocably defined by motherhood and the men they married; and perhaps the first generation where men were beginning to question the role of masculinity in an increasingly white-collar world. Frank’s ambivalence towards his father is based on a mixture of intellectual condescension together with an unacknowledged jealousy of his physical skills, embodied in the recurring image of his father’s powerful hands.
Post-war, we see a generation of ordinary men who had access to higher education, often as the first in their family to do so. Where for Gatsby the American Dream was about money, birth and beauty, Yates shows the ’50s as a time of two dreams in conflict – the security of middle-class suburbia and the excitement of intellectual escape – with his characters caught between them. And yet Yates also seems to suggest that neither dream is worthy of pursuit – that somewhere along the way the lofty aspirations of previous generations have narrowed and shrunk down to this.
The place [Paris] had filled him with a sense of wisdom hovering just out of reach, of unspeakable grace prepared and waiting just around the corner, but he’d walked himself weak down its endless blue streets and all the people who knew how to live had kept their tantalizing secret to themselves, and time after time he had ended up drunk and puking over the tailgate of the truck that bore him jolting back into the army.
The ’50s were a time of huge change – the beginning of the decade still reflecting pre-war values and conventions, and the end looking forward to the surge of youth culture, sexual freedom and social upheaval that typified the ’60s. Yates brings the period brilliantly to life in this shortish novel that nevertheless has space to look not just at the characters as individuals but also at the society and culture they inhabit. His depiction of Frank’s workplace as a soulless maze of pointless paper-shuffling is superb, reflecting the growing struggle, for men in particular, to find some sense of fulfilment and worth when there is no physical input and no visible end result.
“Whaddya do then? Advertising man, or what?”
“ No, I work for Knox Business Machines.”
“Whaddya do there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?”
“Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don’t really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually it’s sort of a stupid job. I mean there’s nothing – you know, interesting about it, or anything.”
Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere. A masterpiece.
Great American Novel Quest
So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
Subjective, but yes, I think so – the theme has been revisited since (and to some degree before – as Yates himself makes clear by referencing The Petrified Forest), but the setting, the climax and most of all the language within the dialogue make it innovative and original, so…achieved
Must be superbly written.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
Oh dear…I’m going to change this criterion when I do a GAN Quest update, since I really think it’s unachievable and unreasonable. But meantime, no…this is about a specific group within America – young, white, educated, middle-class, so can’t be said to capture the entire American Experience. I also feel that, dialogue aside, the themes in this novel are not completely specific to the US – Britain and most of Western Europe were struggling with very similar issues of identity and aspiration at much the same period.
* * * * * * * * *
So with great regret, not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare Revolutionary Road to be A Great American Novel. And another truly great novel – if all the ones on my list are as good as this, the quest will be a rare treat.
* * * * * * * * *
Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…
The Curse of the Big Sister…
For most of my life, regular commenter BigSister (who by one of life’s amazing coincidences just happens to be my big sister) has been trying to convince me of the merits of Rudyard Kipling. So when she recommended one of his horror stories, I knew it was going to be a scary experience – either the story would be “sheer, shuddering horror” as she promised, or I’d have to publicly disagree with her…the thought of which is totally terrifying. So one way or another, The Mark of the Beast seemed a most suitable entrant for…
It was a very wet night, and I remember that we sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with our feet in the Polo Championship Cup, and our heads among the stars, and swore that we were all dear friends. Then some of us went away and annexed Burma, and some tried to open up the Soudan and were opened up by Fuzzies in that cruel scrub outside Huakim, and some found stars and medals, and some were married, which was bad, and some did other things which were worse…
It’s Kipling, so the setting is colonial India, where the vastly superior white man rules over an unquiet land of superstitious and unruly natives with their strange customs and even stranger gods. After a drunken party at their club, our narrator and his friend Strickland are escorting Fleete, a particularly drunken guest, home when he breaks away from them and stubs out his cigar on the head of an idol in the temple. The shocked natives stand by as a strange leper shambles out of the temple and weirdly hugs Fleete. By the next morning, Fleete has a red mark on his breast where the leper’s head touched him and, as the day wears on, the mark turns to black and Fleete develops a ravenous appetite for undercooked meat. Then Fleete begins to change…
There were five horses in the stables, and I shall never forget the scene as we tried to look them over. They seemed to have gone mad. They reared and screamed and nearly tore up their pickets; they sweated and shivered and lathered and were distraught with fear.
This is a well-written story in Kipling’s normal style – that is, half facetious and half serious. He portrays the natives as so different from the white men as to be almost a different species rather than just a different race – and in this case a species with supernatural powers granted to them, presumably, by their gods. To be fair, he takes a lot of sideways swipes at the white men too, but I always find Kipling’s attitude to race leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable, more so than some other writers of the colonial era, and this story was no different in that respect.* The horror element works quite well, though I must say the bit I found most horrifying was not what the leper did to Fleete, but what Strickland and the narrator subsequently did to the leper (sorry, that would be a major spoiler – you’d need to read it), though he did make it clear that they at least suffered a few moral qualms over it…and one could see why they did it… (bet you’re nearly intrigued enough to read it now!)
People write and talk lightly of blood running cold and hair standing up and things of that kind. Both sensations are too horrible to be trifled with. My heart stopped as though a knife had been driven through it, and Strickland turned as white as the tablecloth. The howl was repeated, and was answered by another howl far across the fields…
I’m afraid though that I didn’t find it particularly scary – it’s quite a short story and it all happened too quickly for there to be time for any build-up of suspense. I think I find things scarier if they are set in a more familiar environment – the rattling at my neighbour’s window is considerably more frightening than the monster in another world. So, in conclusion, a good story with some humour and a lot of darkness, but didn’t bring me out in goosebumps. On the upside, this proves I must be braver than BigSister!
*(I’m really, really sorry, BigSister. I will always be grateful to you for the Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings, Agatha Christie and the thousand other books and authors you have introduced me to over the years. But not Kipling!)
Fretful porpentine rating:
Overall story rating:
Quality crime writing for any age…
Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan is one of my favourite detectives – a series which has improved with each new book. I love Casey’s realistic characterisation and strong plotting, and although the storylines are dark, Casey’s trademark humour lifts them, making the books considerably more enjoyable than the majority of grimy, gloomy books that are filling the crime shelves at the moment. Now Casey is alternating the Kerrigan books with the Jess Tennant series for Young Adults, and she brings all the same hallmarks of quality to these.
After her experience in the first book in the series, How to Fall, Jess has developed a bit of a reputation in the small coastal town of Port Sentinel as someone who can get to the truth of a problem. So when Seb Dawson is found badly injured after a Hallowe’en party, his little sister, Beth, asks Jess to investigate. Jess is reluctant, partly because she doesn’t want to cross swords again with the local police inspector Dan Henderson, Will’s dad. But when it looks as though the police are going to write the matter off as an accident, Jess can’t accept this and so her investigation begins…
The first thing I have to say is that this book is not aimed at me. I ceased to be a Young Adult many moons ago, and I must admit that any time I read a YA book I feel a) tremendously old and b) thrilled to bits that I’m not sixteen any more and never will be again. Having made that disclaimer, I still find these books more enjoyable than most of the ‘adult’ crime I read, and that’s down to Casey’s story-telling skills.
Jess is developing nicely in this second outing. She’s just as strong and obstinate as she was in the first book (and still gorgeous, of course) but she’s beginning to show a level of sensitivity to other people’s feelings that I felt was lacking last time round. In How to Fall her motto seemed very much to be ‘the truth at all costs, no matter who it hurts’, but she’s now beginning to understand that sometimes some truths are better left hidden. This doesn’t stop her wanting to get to the truth, but it makes her a more nuanced character, and more likeable. My other slight disappointment in How to Fall was that in the end the hero had to step in to save her. This time though, Jess takes more control and, although she does end up in peril, it’s not really through her own headstrong foolishness and she doesn’t wait around for some strong, silent male to come to the rescue.
But, for any YAs who read the first book and are now worried, fear not! Will is back in all his hot but moody glory. And we have a love triangle with Will’s equally hot old friend/enemy Ryan trying to win Jess’s affections. (I vastly prefer Ryan’s humorous approach to Will’s moody one myself – but I suspect that’s age-related!)
The storyline starts off looking as if it’s going to be about bullying again, but gradually becomes much darker. Hard-hitting, it addresses issues that are very relevant to young people – difficult to specify without spoilers, but involving questions of drinking, peer pressure, misuse of power and sex – and although handled sensitively, Casey doesn’t pull her punches. So definitely more for the older YA audience, I would suggest – perhaps from about 14 up? And the whole love triangle thing means it’s going to work better for girls.Highly recommended, and not just for YAs. The quality of the plot and writing make this an enjoyable read for Old Adults too. (Though personally I find Maeve Kerrigan’s Rob much hotter than either Ryan or Will. )
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Children’s.
A Valentine’s Day Tribute to PG Wodehouse…
All dedicated Jeeves followers know that, amidst all the sundered hearts and star-crossed lovers, one thing can be counted on throughout – Tuppy Glossop’s one true love is Aunt Dahlia’s only child, Angela.
Or is she? I beg to put forward another hypothesis for your consideration. My evidence is taken from Right Ho, Jeeves – the book which lets us see the Angela/Tuppy relationship most intimately, and I think when the facts are presented to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you too will draw the conclusion that Tuppy’s heart belongs firmly to Another.
* * * * * * * * *
First let’s look at some of the things that Tuppy says about his supposedly beloved Angela.
* * * * * * * * *
The witness Bertie Wooster tells us…
…they had had their little tiffs, notably on the occasion when Tuppy – with what he said was fearless honesty and I considered thorough goofiness – had told Angela that her new hat made her look like a Pekinese.
Next Aunt Dahlia takes the stand to recount Tuppy’s reaction on learning of Angela’s terrifying encounter with a shark while holidaying in the South of France…
He sat listening like a lump of dough, as if she had been talking about the weather, and when she had finished, he took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and said “I expect it was only a floating log!” And when Angela described how the thing had jumped and snapped at her, he took his cigarette holder out of his mouth again, and said, “Ah! Probably a flatfish. Quite harmless. No doubt it was just trying to play.” Well, I mean!
But perhaps the most damning evidence comes directly from Tuppy’s own mouth…
I’m not saying I don’t love the little blighter! I love her passionately. But that doesn’t alter the fact that I consider that what she needs most in this world is a swift kick in the pants.
* * * * * * * * *
Do these sound like the comments of a dedicated lover when talking about the object of his adoration? I think not! But, you may be thinking, this merely shows that Tuppy is unromantic, incapable of expressing his true feelings. It doesn’t prove his heart is inconstant.
Valid points, ladies and gentlemen…until we see how eloquent Tuppy can be when he is truly moved by overwhelming feelings of love and desire…
* * * * * * * * *
He lets his mask slip when talking to Bertie…
There is something cold there [in the larder]. A steak-and-kidney pie. We had it for lunch today. One of Anatole’s ripest. A masterly pie, Bertie, and it wasn’t more than half-finished.
And wakeful late that night, does Tuppy sneak round to serenade Angela beneath the light of the moon? Let’s ask him…
Well, round about one a.m. I thought the time was ripe. I stole from my room and went downstairs. The pie seemed to beckon to me. I got to the larder. I fished it out. I set it on the table. I found knife and fork. I collected salt, mustard, and pepper. There were some cold potatoes. I added those. And I was about to pitch in when I heard a sound behind me…
Catching him in this compromising position, Angela bravely tries to hide her broken heart behind a little womanly badinage, but is Tuppy’s first concern for Angela’s hurt feelings? Judge for yourself from Tuppy’s own words as he tells Bertie what happened next…
“You’ve no idea,” she said, “how Mr Glossop loves food. He just lives for it. He always eats six or seven meals a day and then starts in again after bedtime. I think it’s rather wonderful.” Your aunt seemed interested, and said it reminded her of a boa constrictor. Angela said, didn’t she mean a python? And then they argued as to which of the two it was…And the pie lying there on the table, and me unable to touch it. You begin to understand why I said I had been through hell.
* * * * * * * * *
There you have it, ladies and gentleman of the jury – the evidence is before you. And I put it to you that the evidence proves conclusively that Tuppy Glossop’s one true love is not Angela – it is in fact…
Anatole’s Steak-and-Kidney Pie!
* * * * * * * * *
How do you find the defendant? Guilty or not guilty?
* * * * * * * * *
This post was inspired by Honoria Plum’s request on her blog Plumtopia for fans to honour PG Wodehouse this Valentine’s Day by discussing some of the greatest romances contained within his pages. If you visit her blog, you will find the other posts and links that she has gathered. Thanks for thinking up such a fun idea, Honoria Plum!
(The illustration is © Paul Cox from the Folio Society edition of the book.)
The TBR has drifted back up to 103 – how did that happen? I’m sure someone must sneak in and add things when I’m not looking. Oh well, I’ll just have to restrict myself to one winner this week, despite the fact that I would really like to read them all.
So, with my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:
Three novellas each based at a critical time in New York’s history…
Mrs SW says: “…the retrospective perspectives and sense of overwhelming guilt or the way in which the events are shrouded in deceit and mystery prevents a completely reliable picture of events emerging and it is this element of mystery and the way it forces the reader into the story in order to decipher McGrath’s subtle nuances of meaning that brings the stories to life.“
Cleo says “This is just the sort of book I enjoy, there are so many different stories all playing out; those of Marnie, Noah, the social worker Ed and the female residents have clear personalities and stories to tell without slowing down the pace or preventing a bucketful surprises along the way. I love a book that makes you gasp and this one did.“
That’s What She Read says: “I gushed a little hard over McCarthy’s The Road and I’m a fervent fan of No Country for Old Men, but Charles Portis has one thing McCarthy will never have: a sense of humor. Mattie’s narration is matter-of-fact, and rife with dry wit. She doesn’t waste words and I like plots that get straight to the point without trying to misdirect or be too clever.“
Book Lust says: “In this story that is both tragic, inspiring, and darkly humorous, we find a young man searching for his father in order to confront him for leaving his family; an old man who discovers he still has much to learn about the world, even after years at sea, and that he’s still capable of love; a widow who would rather destroy the town than see any more young men leave.”
And the winner is…
Reading, Writing and Reisling says “This is a beguiling read; the slow, straightforward relating of this tale in the first person cleverly builds tension and creates mystery… the reader does not get the full picture immediately but is fed crumbs that lead us to a path of death and mayhem. As you turn each page you will continue to wonder where this story is heading, and will question what is to happen next…“
Ooh, that was too hard this week! I want to add them all…
Lana Granger’s childhood hasn’t been easy. A problem child with a personality disorder that even the professionals can’t quite pin down, she has also had to deal with the violent death of her mother. Now at college, the conditions of her trust fund mean she has to look for work and so she takes a job childminding for Luke, an 11-year-old boy with psychological problems of his own. But somehow Lana feels an affinity for him, and feels sorry for his mother, struggling on her own to cope with Luke’s violence and temper tantrums that have seen him expelled from one school after another. Luke is also a master of manipulation and soon Lana finds she has been sucked into playing his sinister games. And then Lana’s best friend Beck goes missing, mirroring the disappearance of another girl from the college a couple of years earlier…
So long as you can suspend your disbelief, this is a decent psychological thriller. Told mainly by Lana in the first person (but thankfully past tense – yay!), there are also chapters given over to extracts from the diary of an unnamed character, and part of the mystery is trying to work out who this person is. The writing is of a good quality throughout and, while it’s hard to believe that so many seriously damaged people have all come together in one place, the characterisation is nonetheless strong and convincing for the most part. Lana herself is an intriguing character who is easy to like, even though the reader is aware of the dark undercurrents of her personality that are only kept under control by medication. The first person narration does mean that we know all the way through that Lana is holding things back from us though, which creates a feeling of distance and stops the reader from fully empathising with her. Luke starts out very convincingly but becomes increasingly less believable as the story unfolds. The character writing the diary, herself the mother of a disturbed child, gives a compelling picture of the tensions and problems this can bring to a marriage and wider family relationships.
So lots of good points and a fairly page-turning read on the whole, but the book does have one major and glaring problem – it’s way too easy to work out early on all the twists that are supposed to come as surprises at the end. In fact, the major plot point – i.e., whodunit – was so obvious from the moment we met the character (when the person did something that could only have been done if that person had ulterior motives) that I spent the rest of the book expecting that the author must be going to find a way to turn that reveal on its head further down the line – but she didn’t. The other major twists had become blindingly obvious by about halfway through, and from there on in there wasn’t much left to be surprised about. I am no Miss Marple – it’s very unusual for me to work out a mystery, so the fact that this one was so obvious to me suggests serious problems with the structure of the plot. Definitely fair-play, in that all the clues are there, but not well enough hidden to maintain any level of suspense I’m afraid.
Despite these fairly major problems, I enjoyed the writing and characterisation enough to be keen to read more of Unger’s work in the hopes that the plotting problems in this book are a one-off. But those problems, combined with the level of credulity-stretching in the story, mean I can only recommend this one half-heartedly.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Touchstone.
Unlucky for some…
I’ve read a few MR James stories over the years, listened to some on audio and seen some TV adaptations, and I’ve never found any of them remotely scary. However his name always appears on lists of top horror writers. So I googled ‘MR James scariest story’ and the top answer suggested Number 13. And that’s why it’s this week’s…
…as he neared the door he could hear footsteps and voices, or a voice, within. During the few seconds in which he halted to make sure of the number, the footsteps ceased, seemingly very near the door, and he was a little startled at hearing a quick hissing breathing as of a person in strong excitement.
Our hero, Anderson, books into the Golden Lion in Viborg, Denmark. He is given room number 12, and chuckles to himself about silly superstitions when he notices that number 13 doesn’t appear on the list of rooms. Number 12 is spacious with room for him to work – he is in Viborg to study old papers relating to the last days of Roman Catholicism in Denmark. (Did you yawn there? Me too!) On his first evening on returning to his room, he notices two things – firstly, that there is a room 13 after all, and although the door is locked he can hear someone inside; and secondly, that his own room seems much smaller somehow in the evening gloom. But the next time he walks along the corridor in daylight, room 13 has disappeared. Enlisting the help of the owner, he sets out to solve the mystery of room 13 and of the increasingly terrifying noises emanating from it each night…
It was a high, thin voice that they heard, and it seemed dry, as if from long disuse. Of words or tune there was no question. It went sailing up to a surprising height, and was carried down with a despairing moan as of a winter wind in a hollow chimney, or an organ whose wind fails suddenly.
Hmm! The thing is it’s quite imaginative – and I’d expect that if it were adapted for the screen with good casting and some great sound effects it could be quite scary. But sadly, James’ writing style doesn’t lead to a build-up of tension. It’s all told very matter-of-factly and Anderson takes the whole thing in his stride pretty much. We need a screaming damsel or some descriptions of pounding hearts, clammy hands etc – or at the very least some element of real danger. James makes the odd decision to let us know in the second paragraph that Anderson survives quite comfortably, killing any uncertainty as to how the thing will turn out. And the ‘being’ who haunts Number 13 is, to say the least of it, not the scariest one I’ve come across. The big climax is over so quickly that if you blink at the wrong moment you’d miss it.
No, I’m afraid I just don’t get MR James. Mildly interesting (but only mildly), adequately written…and completely terror-free.
But what do you think? Have any of his stories tingled your spine?
Fretful porpentine rating:
Overall story rating:
In the excitement of modern cosmology – when we can see back almost to the Big Bang itself, when we are discovering exoplanets with the capacity to sustain life, when mankind has just taken its first tentative robotic steps beyond the solar system – it can be easy to forget how much there still is to learn about the objects closer to hand. In this book, the authors set out to explain what we know, and what we don’t, about our own star, the Sun, and about its effects on us in the past, present and future. Originally published in 2001, this 2014 edition has been fully updated to take account of the most current knowledge on the subject. The book is presented as a series of eight chapters, each looking at a separate aspect of the science of the Sun.
The first three chapters provide a general introduction to the Sun, explaining its origins and impact on the development of life here on Earth. The authors don’t just tell us what we know, however; they also tell us how we know it, showing how the science has gradually developed from naked eye observations through to the hugely sophisticated and complex space observatories we have become almost blasé about today. This is quite a technical book in parts, so there’s a lot of information on how these machines are built and controlled, even down to the size of lenses and lengths of exposures in the photography of the Sun. The fourth chapter takes us one step further, explaining the development of scientific methods to allow us to ‘see’ those things beyond our visual capacity and ‘look’ inside the Sun.
The four remaining chapters each look in depth at a separate subject: eclipses, space missions, the effects of the Sun on Earth climate, and space weather. As is often the case with scientific books, the authors’ desire to inspire enthusiasm for their subject comes through very clearly in these chapters. As well as describing the complexities of cutting edge solar physics, they take the time to describe, for example, how an amateur photographer should go about getting the best photos of an eclipse with standard equipment. Solar winds, auroras, carbon-dating, even how winds are affected by the Sun, influencing trade routes throughout history – all of these diverse subjects and more find a place in here. And in the chapter on Earth climate, they explain some of the science that allows scientists to differentiate between the natural effects of solar cycles and the actions of mankind on the current trend of global warming.
Popular science books have to tread a fine line between being so simplified that they irritate anyone with any level of scientific education or being so ‘sciency’ that they lose the novice completely. This book steps over that line several times in the direction of too sciency for this uneducated reader. While the authors carefully avoid bringing in too many mathematical formulae etc., they do use fairly technical language a lot of the time and though they are very good at explaining a technical term on first usage, they then assume the reader will remember that concept chapters later. I don’t know about other casual science readers but I really don’t take in scientific concepts that easily and found that more and more I was having to backtrack or go to the (very useful) glossary of terms at the back – or, being something of a lazy reader, beginning to skip the passages that would have required too much work. That’s not a fault of the book – I would not for one moment suggest that all science books should be written simplistically enough for the novice. But I would say that this book is probably more suited to someone with an existing familiarity with physics to at least high school standards. I was a little hampered by the fact that in the ARC copy I was given to review many of the graphs were not included – I would think they would probably have been very helpful in clarifying some of the more complex stuff. (Why do publishers give out ARCs of scientific books before they are complete? I find that nearly as baffling a concept as relativity.)
Having said all that, despite getting lost along the way a few times, I learned a lot from the book and on the whole found it an enjoyable and very informative read. So highly recommended to anyone with a reasonable basic knowledge of physics or to anyone who, like me, is happy to skim through the more difficult bits and enjoy the rest.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.
Subhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up together in post-independence Calcutta. Subhash is conventional and studious, fully intending to follow the path expected for him by his parents. Udayan is more adventurous and becomes politicised after the brutal suppression of a communist uprising in the small village of Naxalbari. Udayan soon becomes a member of the Naxalites, an offshoot of the Communist Party, which believes in direct action – i.e. terrorism – to achieve its ends. Subhash meantime takes up an opportunity to go to the States to continue his studies in oceanography.
This is where Lahiri makes her first strange choice. Instead of remaining in Calcutta with the charismatic and interesting Udayan, learning more about the Naxalites and the political situation, we are whisked off with the frankly dull-to-the-point-of-catatonia Subhash, and given detailed accounts of the considerably less exciting environment of the campus of a University in Rhode Island, where the most thrilling thing that happens is that Subhash decides not to get involved in Vietnam protests. From there on, we only learn what is happening in India through the occasional letter that Udayan sends, until an incident occurs that makes Subhash return briefly – but only long enough to marry, when he and his new wife return to Rhode Island. The bulk of the remainder of the book is taken up with detailed minutiae about the extremely dull and miserable lives led by Subhash, Gauri and their daughter, Bela. Subhash and Gauri both spend their lives studying and then teaching in Universities so we rarely get off campus and, after an entertaining start, Bela turns into as dull and misery-laden a character as her parents.
I suspect the aim of the book is three-fold: to show the sense of displacement felt by immigrants, to examine the effect of a violent incident on the futures of those affected by it and to look at the moral questions surrounding the use of terrorism as a political tool. The blurb describes it as ‘epic’, ‘achingly poignant’ and ‘exquisitely empathetic’. It is epic in the sense that it covers a period of 50 years, but geographically and emotionally it remains static for most of that time. The other claims, I’m afraid, would depend on the reader caring about the characters and sadly these characters are not written in a way that induces empathy. Lahiri’s second strange choice is to make the book entirely humourless and passionless, with Subhash and Gauri perpetually wallowing in their self-created misery. Each has a successful career, but neither seems able to form real relationships – not even with each other.
The writing is completely flat, and so is the story; no passion, no light and no real dark – just greyness, like living under permanent cloud-cover. On the rare occasions that Lahiri discusses the politics of the Naxalites, she does so in a way that reads like a textbook or a Wikipedia article, which means that there is no depth or humanity to it. The old saw of ‘show, don’t tell’ was constantly running thorough my mind at these points. The moral questions around terrorism are only discussed at the end of the book, in a very superficial and throwaway manner. The implication is that these characters were damaged by Udayan’s actions, but we are given nothing to make us believe they were significantly different people before. In fact, it is very clear that Subhash in particular lacks passion and humour before the life-changing incident just as much as after.
For a plot that promises so much, the book fails to deliver. Competently written rather than beautifully, I find it hard to understand why this book was shortlisted for the Booker. If this is really one of the best books being produced in the Commonwealth, it goes some way to explaining why the Booker is being opened up to the rest of the world. But I suspect it was shortlisted for the author’s reputation and the ‘worthiness’ of the message rather than for any real qualities of writing or story-telling. A disappointingly average read that I didn’t feel gave me an adequate return on the time I invested in it.