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FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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Agostino by Alberto Moravia

Sexual awakening…

:) :) :) :)

agostinoAgostino and his widowed mother are staying at a Mediterranean beach resort for the summer. As we meet them, thirteen-year-old Agostino is still a child, devoted to his mother, rather infatuated by her and proud to bask in the admiration she attracts as they spend their days on the beach or swimming from the rowboat they take out each day. But when his mother becomes involved with a young man, Agostino’s feelings turn to a jealousy which he barely understands.

This is a haunting and rather melancholy coming-of-age tale of Agostino’s sexual awakening and troubled realisation of his mother as a woman and a sexual being in her own right. As he ceases to be the sole focus of his mother’s attention, the cosseted Agostino drifts into a sort of friendship with a gang of poor, rough boys and the rather frightening man who seems to have some control over them. The boys mock Agostino’s innocence and resent his privileged life, and he is both fascinated and fearful of them. It is these boys who tell Agostino about sex and force him to realise the nature of his mother’s relationship with her lover. And as he grows more aware of his mother’s sexuality, Agostino’s infatuation turns almost to an Oedipal-like obsession.

From the 1962 film of the novella

From the 1962 film of the novella

Although I enjoyed reading this novella, I wasn’t totally convinced by it. The mother, who is never named, seems to see Agostino as a much younger child and constantly, though seemingly unconsciously, flaunts her sexuality at him. Saro, the man on the beach, seemed to be there only to provide another form of sexual threat and awakening for Agostino and the whole relationship between Agostino and the gang felt unreal. His almost masochistic acceptance of the bullying of the gang didn’t ring true for me, and the gang’s seeming dependence on Saro was given no solid foundation to make it believable. I’ve seen other reviews talking about a surreal feeling to the whole novella, but for me ‘unreal’ is the more apt word. I felt Moravia pushed the whole Freudian aspect so far that the whole thing began to feel too contrived. And Agostino’s innocence was all a bit too much – it wasn’t just that he was sexually unaware; he seemed to have no real idea or experience of how people interact on any level.

Alberto Moravia

Alberto Moravia

There’s an interesting afterword from the translator, Michael F Moore, where he puts the novella in the context of Italian literature and explains some of the stylistic elements of Moravia’s writing. Certainly the writing and word choice was what worked best for me – Moravia uses repetition of certain words and phrases to build a lush and somewhat dreamlike atmosphere, and his constant references to the fleshy physicality of the mother serve to focus the book firmly on sex rather than its gentler and more civilised sibling, love.

An interesting read, certainly, but in the end its failure to convince me completely meant that I found it more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Reckoning (John Madden 4) by Rennie Airth

the reckoning rennie airthAftermath of war…

:D :D :D :D :)

When a retired banker is shot while fishing, it seems to be a bafflingly motiveless crime. The man was a respectable, self-effacing type with no known enemies. Even more bafflingly, elements of the crime mirrored an earlier murder that had taken place hundreds of miles away in Aberdeenshire. Because of these similarities, Billy Styles, now a Scotland Yard inspector, is asked to investigate possible links. And when it is discovered that the second victim had been trying to get an address for John Madden, he is dragged back from retirement and once again becomes involved in the investigation.

This fourth entry in the John Madden series very much follows the pattern of the previous one, The Dead of Winter, which is no bad thing. The Second World War is now over but the country is still suffering the aftermaths. One of Airth’s strengths is in creating an authentic setting and in this one he gives a very credible picture of life under rationing, and London still marked by bombsites and ruined buildings. He tells the story at a leisurely pace with some fine descriptive writing and his characters are, as always, well-rounded and believable. There is a feel of the Golden Age about his writing – the police force is made up of honourable, upright officers from top to bottom, mostly men, but we get to see the beginnings of that changing with Lily Poole now having been promoted to detective constable. Again there’s an authentic feel about Lily’s position – she’s no superhero and the sexism she encounters is simply part of the culture of the society of the time rather than blatant and caricatured (as it so often is in modern crime fiction).

Post-war food rationing...

Post-war food rationing…

As usual, the plot is rooted in the wars that disrupted the first half of the century and Airth shows the after-effects of some of the horrors that took place; but again, he does it with a welcome degree of restraint. I tire easily of the huge piles of fiction that all suggest that everyone who lived through the wars was permanently emotionally damaged – these were the people of my parents’ generation and the vast bulk of them managed to get back to normality fairly quickly and lead as happy and productive lives as earlier or later generations, and Airth’s characters are in the main cut from this cloth. However, as Airth shows, some people were very badly affected, physically or emotionally, and this allows him to build a level of moral complexity into the plot that lifts it above the run of the psychopathic serial killer novel, and makes it a more emotional and thought-provoking read as a result.

My only criticism of this book is the same as I had of the last one – that is, that much of the story is told at second-hand via the device of the policemen and Madden telling each other about their investigations rather than taking the reader out and about with them. This means again that we don’t get to meet many of the witnesses for ourselves and still feels a little like lazy writing to me. However I found the plot of this one much more interesting, with a genuine mystery at its core. I admit, I felt I was way ahead of the investigators for much of the book, but then I have the advantage of having read the previous books so knew what direction Airth was likely to take.

Even chocolate was rationed...barbaric!!

Even chocolate was rationed…barbaric!!

These are thoughtful, intelligent novels that are as much about how the wars affected the society of the time as they are about the specific crimes. With likeable main characters, a good plot and a strong historical context, this one is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates the more traditional kind of crime novel.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 33…

Episode 33


Now, before I tell you this week’s total I just want to make it clear that I will not tolerate any giggling, is that understood?

111. Yes, that’s right, one hundred and eleven. Or as Bilbo would say, eleventy-one! I’m beginning to understand why he vanished…

You three! What did I say about giggling? Yes, you three at the back – you know who you are! See me after class!

For the better behaved amongst you, here’s just a few of the soon-to-be-reads…

* * * * *



the childCourtesy of Audible. Half narration, half dramatisation and a stellar castlist for this spooky new crime thriller by Sebastian Fitzek on audio. I’m already about halfway through this and it’s got me totally hooked…

The Blurb saysMy name is Simon. I’m 10 years old. I’m a serial killer. Robert Stern (Rupert Penry-Jones), a successful defense attorney, doesn’t know what lies in store for him when he agrees to meet a new client in a derelict estate on the outskirts of Berlin. Stern is more than surprised, when his old love interest and professional nurse Carina (Emilia Fox) presents him with a ten year old boy as his new client: Simon (Jack Boulter), a terminally ill child, who is convinced he has murdered many men in a previous life.

* * * * *

Science fiction


the early sci-fi of philip k dickCourtesy of NetGalley, some early short stories of one of the great names of sci-fi, Philip K Dick – author of the classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep amongst many other things…

The Blurb saysThese gripping stories include “Second Variety”, which stars nasty little death-robots;  “The Crystal Crypt”, an account of a terrifying flight to Mars; “The Defenders”, featuring a self-aware weapon frightful enough to put an end to war; and “The Variable Man”, a tale of a handyman’s misadventures in the future. Additional selections include “Beyond the Door”, the story of the lonely bird inside a cuckoo clock; “Mr. Spaceship”, a fable concerning spacecraft controlled by the human brain; and “Beyond Lies the Wub”, in which intelligence lurks in an unlikely form.

* * * * *


augustusAgain courtesy of NetGalley, the story of the ‘first and greatest’ Emperor of Rome…still never managed to conquer Scotland though…

The Blurb saysCaesar Augustus’ story, one of the most riveting in western history, is filled with drama and contradiction, risky gambles and unexpected success. He began as a teenage warlord, whose only claim to power was as the heir of the murdered Julius Caesar. Mark Antony dubbed him “a boy who owes everything to a name,” but in the years to come the youth outmaneuvered all the older and more experienced politicians and was the last man standing in 30 BC. Over the next half century he reinvented himself as a servant of the state who gave Rome peace and stability, and created a new system of government—the Principate or rule of an emperor.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

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


Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

birdsongLest we forget…


:) :) :)

Birdsong is undoubtedly one of the best known modern novels about World War I so it’s not surprising that a new edition has been issued to coincide with the centenary. I avoided it when it was going through it’s initial huge success – to be honest, I try to avoid books about war as often as possible; not easy when you live in a country as obsessed as Britain is by the two big wars of last century. However, Faulks swam onto my horizon recently with his very good Jeeves homage and so I was tempted to read the book that he’s most famous for.

The sweat ran down into his eyes and stung them, making him shake his head from side to side. At this point the tunnel was about four feet across and five feet high. Jack kept sticking the spade into the earth ahead of him, hacking it out as though he hated it.

Battle of the Somme 1916

Battle of the Somme 1916

There are three main parts to the book, and the connecting thread between them is the main protagonist Stephen Wraysford. By far the best written and most emotional part of the book is the middle section, when Stephen is on active service in the trenches of WW1. Faulks’ depiction of the mud and filth of the trenches, the bloodiness and horror that the troops faced on a daily basis, the sheer exhaustion and increasing hopelessness as the war wore interminably on, is convincing and sickening in equal measure. Faulks splits this part of the narrative so that we partly follow Stephen, an officer with certain privileges, and partly some of his men, especially Jack Firebrace, a miner who is digging tunnels for the laying of mines. As the war drags on, Faulks shows the futility of the small gains and losses for which so many lives were lost or shattered. There is a tendency for Faulks to take it too far on occasion – to slip almost into bathos, as he piles one tragedy after another on the same poor soldier’s head. And I found it a little trite that the only German officer we met was a patriotic German Jew. But putting these issues aside, this main part of the book is well worth reading and would probably have gained it a five-star rating from me.

The mine tunnellers

The mine tunnellers

BUT – unfortunately there are the two other sections. The third part is a rather pointless and extraneous strand set in the 1970s, when a descendant of Stephen sets out to find out what happened to him. This section is only there so that Faulks can give a pointed little ‘Lest We Forget’ message, suggesting that indeed we have forgotten and must now remember. I felt the main part of the book had made that point adequately without it needing to be emphasised with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the head.

Bombardment of Amiens

Bombardment of Amiens

Once when he had stood in the chilling cathedral in Amiens he had foreseen the numbers of the dead. It was not a premonition, more a recognition, he told himself, that the difference between death and life was not one of fact but merely of time. This belief had helped him bear the sound of the dying on the slopes of Thiepval.

And then there’s the first section – the pre-war love story, when young Stephen has an affair with the older wife of the man in whose house he is staying. I say love story, but it is actually a lust story – the two lovers rarely talk other than to decide where next they can have sex. And unfortunately, Faulks just doesn’t have what it takes to make sex sound like fun. As he gives us detail after detail of each positional change, each bodily fluid and its eventual destination, each grunt, groan and sigh, I developed a picture of poor Elizabeth, the love interest, as one of those bendy toys that used to be so popular. As so often in male sex fantasies, her willingness, nay, desperation, to have sex with Stephen knows no bounds, so we’ve barely finished the cigarette after the last session before we’re off again. Oh dear! It honestly is some of the worst written sex I’ve ever read. (I wonder if anyone has considered marketing it as a form of contraception?) And this affair which is so important at the beginning of the book fades almost entirely into the background and seems to serve very little purpose thereafter.

Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks

All-in-all, I found the book very unbalanced – some great writing, some poor writing; a fragmented plot that perhaps tries to do too much; and a tendency on Faulks’ part not to trust his readers, but to feel he had to beat his ‘message’ into them with a blunt instrument. Although the section about the war is powerful and emotive, the rest of the book didn’t really work for me at all. I’m finding it hard to decide whether I’d recommend it or not, to be honest…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov

Water, water, everywhere…


robot dreamsOne of the ‘Big Three’ of sci-fi writers of the mid-to-late twentieth century (with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke), Isaac Asimov was not just incredibly prolific but also hugely influential – on actual science as well as on later sci-fi authors. He also happens to be my favourite sci-fi author of all time and the one I’ve read most extensively, though mostly long, long ago. Most of his stuff is ‘hard sci-fi’ – roughly speaking, possible human futures based on realistic science – and he’s arguably best known for his robot stories. Pretty much all the later robots and androids of our acquaintance are direct descendants of Asimov’s characters and he was, as far as I know, the first to really speculate in any depth about where the dividing line is between ‘machine’ and ‘life’. Anyone who watched Commander Data of Star Trek fame struggle to become ‘human’ was in fact watching an Asimov-inspired creation – a credit the Star Trek team were glad to give. The ‘positronic’ brain and the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ have not just become a sci-fi standard, but also something that real robotocists (another Asimov term) still use as a goal – as is evident from Michio Kaku’s recent book on The Future of the Mind.

commander data

So when I downloaded this collection of Asimov’s short stories, Robot Dreams, I intended to review a robot story…but I may have previously mentioned my Mars obsession, so instead went straight to the following story for this week’s…


* * * * * * *

The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov


As this longish short story begins, the colony on Mars has been in existence for around three generations and the people born there have begun to think of themselves as Martians rather than colonists. However they’re still dependent on Earth for some of their food and, more importantly, for the water that they need not just to live, but to provide their rockets with the power that they need to get their ships into space. As each water-holding shell is used it is jettisoned into space, and the first people we meet are Martian ‘scavengers’, who search for these shells and recover them for their scrap value.

The original pubblication in Galaxy magazine in 1952

The original publication in Galaxy magazine in 1952

But back on earth a politician is whipping up a storm about the amount of water that is being taken from Earth and ‘wasted’ in space or in the colonies. And when Hilder gets into a position of power, he aims to stop providing supplies to Mars, effectively ending the ability of the colonists to stay there. The option is open for them to return to Earth to live – but they feel they are Martian now. So one of the scavengers, Ted Long, comes up with a daring and dangerous plan to find a water source elsewhere in the solar system…

This is hard sci-fi at its finest. Asimov takes what is known at the time of writing and builds realistically on it to speculate what might be possible in the future. Obviously the science is sometimes out-dated now with new discoveries making Asimov’s speculations look wrong – but when you know as little about real science as I do that really doesn’t matter. I once asked a couple of sciency-type people if Asimov’s science is robust and, while they were a bit sniffy about the way he sometimes makes incredibly complex things sound reasonably straightforward, I felt that said more about sciency-type people than it did about Asimov! ;)











But it’s not all science, and that’s why he’s so readable. His stories are exciting, with a great mix of suspense and humour, his writing style is approachable even when he’s explaining the connection between quantity of water required and mass plus velocity(!), he sets out to entertain and never patronises the reader, and his characterisation is great. In this one, as is often the case in his stories, the scavengers aren’t scientists – just practical working guys using their skills and experience to solve problems. And, of course, things don’t go smoothly, so they have to be able to think fast and act faster…

An excellent story that is a great introduction to Asimov’s style, you can also read this story online  together with the original illustrations, including the ones I’ve posted here. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go read some robot stories…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Traitor’s Storm (Kit Marlowe 6) by MJ Trow

traitor's stormSecrets and spies…

:) :) :) :)

While the Spanish Armada is gathering together in preparation of invading England, one of Walsingham’s spies goes missing on the Isle of Wight. So Christopher Marlowe, playwright and spy, is despatched to the island to investigate the disappearance and the rumour that there may be a traitor on the island. But not long after he arrives, a body is found – not the body of the missing spy, but of Matthew Compton, a lawyer who had been run off the island a few days earlier by the Governor Sir George Carey. Was this simply because Sir George hates lawyers, or did he know that Matthew had been having an affair with his wife, Lady Bet? Matt wasn’t the only one to be granted access to Lady Bet’s favours though, and as the bodies begin to mount up, Bet asks Kit to investigate…

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, by JMW Turner

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, by JMW Turner

Another in the Kit Marlowe series, this is a light-hearted historical crime story. Trow does a very good job of mixing fact with fiction and of creating a credible society for Marlowe to operate in. There’s lots of humour in the book and although the body count is pretty high there’s nothing gruesome about it – the violence all takes place off-stage. The characters all talk in modern English, including modern buzzwords and phrases from time to time. This takes a bit of getting used to, but it does work in the end – it’s probably as realistic as any attempt to mix in Elizabethan language would be. The ‘did Marlowe write Shakespeare’ debate is a running gag throughout, with Marlowe frequently saying things that are recognisably quotes that will later appear in Shakespeare’s work, while Master Shaxsper himself is still struggling to move from the role of mediocre actor to playwright.

The dark around him became peopled with all manner of apparitions and he turned them over in his mind, discarding them when the image was too bizarre. The three witches outlined briefly on the hilltop he dismissed at once as being so far-fetched that not even a Rose audience at their most ale-soaked would swallow them.

MJ Trow

MJ Trow

The characterisation is good, with Marlowe himself being a likeable protagonist. There is a touch of caricature to some of the more eccentric characters but that’s intentional and works with the humorous tone of the book. Where this one falls down a little for me is in its complexity – there’s too much going on and the mystery gets a bit swamped amongst the preparations for war and the spy story. Now and again we are taken to where the Spanish are getting the fleet ready and these sections really seemed somewhat extraneous – they complicated the thing without really adding anything much. I felt if the plot had been more streamlined it would actually have worked better.

But overall this was an enjoyable romp with a good mystery and an interesting setting, which I’m sure would entertain anyone who enjoys light historical crime. Recommended, and I’ll certainly be watching out for the next in the series.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Suspect (Joe O’Loughlin 1) by Michael Robotham

the suspectHigh quality thriller…

:) :) :) :)

When the body of a young woman is found following an anonymous tip-off, coincidentally psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is close to the scene. But when it turns out that he also knew the victim and even had what could be seen as a motive, Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz’s belief in coincidence is stretched past breaking point. As he becomes the chief suspect, Joe finds he must investigate the crime himself to find out why everything about it seems to lead back to him. And suddenly Joe finds himself in danger of losing everything he holds dear – his beloved wife and daughter, his career, perhaps even his life…

Having recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Robotham’s most recent book, Watching You, I jumped at the chance to backtrack to the first in the Joe O’Loughlin series, currently being reissued in paperback by Mulholland Books. I’m pleased to say that this one shows all the same hallmarks that made the later book so good.

Joe is a likeable protagonist and very well-drawn. As we meet him here for the first time, his life seems fairly idyllic – happy family, a job that he loves, good friends. But we soon discover that even before the crime comes to light Joe’s life has been rocked to its foundations as he has been diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Still in its early stages, it’s not directly affecting Joe’s life too badly yet, but he’s struggling to come to terms with it and his wife feels he’s shutting her out. And his reaction to getting the diagnosis caused him to do some things that are now coming back to haunt him.

The plot twists and turns and keeps some surprises back till the end. Although Joe quickly comes to suspect who’s behind the murders, the mystery is in the how and why of the crimes – not just why the victims are being murdered, but why Joe seems to be being targeted as the fallguy. The pacing falters a bit from time to time – I felt the book could have been shorter without losing anything important – but on the whole it keeps the reader’s attention throughout. There are a few inconsistencies, but nothing too major, and although the story does cross over the credulity line on occasion, the quality of Robotham’s story-telling stops this from being too much of a problem.

Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham

Sadly the book is written in the ever-clumsy first person present tense (will that bandwagon never pass?) so we have exciting bits like Joe possibly drowning but apparently being able to jot down his thoughts contemporaneously – the moral being to always go equipped with a waterproof notebook and pen, I suppose. This did detract from the enjoyment for me, much more than it did in the later book which is also written in the present tense but in the slightly more palatable third person, so it’s good to know that at some point in the series, Robotham has varied the style (note to other authors – try it! Or better yet, try past tense!)

Overall, this is a high quality thriller which confirms that the series is well worth following – I’ll certainly be going on to read the next one, Lost. Although I found the later book Watching You worked fine as a standalone, I enjoyed getting to know the characters and backstories of Joe and Vincent Ruiz better from this one. So despite a few weaknesses, highly recommended – especially if you don’t share my aversion to the dreaded first person present tense.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 32…

Episode 32


Oh dear! 107 – need I say more? And I seem to be spending so much time adding books to the TBR that I’m not really managing to read many! Oh well (she said despairingly) better to have too many books than too few, eh? The only thing I can hope is that all the pre-Christmas books have been announced now. But (gulps!) the Booker shortlist is due to be announced next week…

Meantime, here are a few more that have risen close to the top of the list…

* * * * *



money treeA totally new departure from Gordon Ferris, following the conclusion of the great Douglas Brodie series. I’m excited to see how he deals with a modern setting…

The Blurb saysMONEY TREE is a modern-day thriller set among the glittering canyons of New York and the seething alleyways of New Delhi. At its heart is the story of Anila Jhabvala, a destitute woman in a dying village in central India, and her struggle against the daily embrace of usury. Into her fraught existence blunder two westerners: Ted Saddler, a has-been American reporter living off the faded glory of a Pulitzer Prize, and Erin Wishart, a hard-bitten Scottish banker with a late-developing conscience. As the tension mounts, their three storylines interweave and fuse in a thundering and moving climax.

In pointing up the gulf between rich and poor, and the misguided efforts of western institutions to meddle in developing countries, Gordon pays homage to Professor Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Peace and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

* * * * *


lostCourtesy of NetGalley, I’ve been enjoying reading some of the early books in the Joe O’Loughlin series, which have been made available in advance of his forthcoming new one, Life or Death, due out in August in the UK. My review of the first in the series, The Suspect, will appear tomorrow. This second one has also been particularly recommended to me by the blogosphere’s own Queen of Crime, Margot Kinberg, so I have high expectations…

The Blurb saysDetective Inspector Vincent Ruiz doesn’t know who wants him dead. He has no recollection of the firefight that landed him in the Thames, covered in his own blood and that of at least two other people. A photo of missing child Mickey Carlyle is found in his pocket—but Carlyle’s killer is already in jail. And Ruiz is the detective who put him there.

Accused of faking amnesia, Ruiz reaches out to psychologist Joe O’Loughlin to help him unearth his memory and clear his name. Together they battle against an internal affairs investigator convinced Ruiz is hiding the truth, and a ruthless criminal who claims Ruiz has something of his that can’t be replaced. As Ruiz’s memories begin to resurface, they offer tantalizing glimpses at a shocking discovery.

* * * * *

forty acresAgain courtesy of NetGalley (who really have a lot to answer for concerning the state of my TBR), I was persuaded to request this one by this great review from Raven Crime Reads (who really has a lot to answer for concerning the state of my TBR)…

The Blurb saysA young black attorney is thrown headlong into controversial issues of race and power in this page-turning and provocative new novel.

Martin Grey, a smart, talented. young lawyer working out of a storefront in Queens, is taken under the wing of a secretive group made up of America’s most powerful, wealthy, and esteemed black men. He’s dazzled by what they have accomplished, and they seem to think he has the potential to be one of them They invite him for a weekend away from it all – no wives, no cell phones, no talk of business. But what he discovers, far from home, is a disturbing alternative reality which challenges his deepest convictions…

* * * * *



the sun also risesHemingway’s name hovered around the Great American Novel Quest list but didn’t quite make it on – and then that dratted NetGalley offered this one…and of course I couldn’t resist…

The Blurb says “The Sun Also Rises is a classic example of Hemingway’s spare but powerful writing style. A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation, the novel introduces two of Hemingway’s most unforgettable characters: Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love and vanishing illusions. First published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises is “an absorbing, beautifully and tenderly absurd, heartbreaking narrative…a truly gripping story, told in lean, hard, athletic prose” (The New York Times).

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

(And please don’t write any enticing reviews for at least the next 3 weeks…)


The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

the zhivago affair“To drive men mad is a heroic thing.”

:D :D :D :D :)

When Russian poet Boris Pasternak wrote his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, he knew that its criticism of the Soviet revolution, though mild, would be enough to ensure that the book wouldn’t get past the censors. So he decided to give it to an Italian publisher to be translated and published abroad despite knowing that this would be severely frowned upon by the authorities. However the CIA decided it would be a propaganda coup if they could have the book printed in Russian and smuggled back into the USSR. The Zhivago Affair is billed as the story of that CIA campaign and of the impact it had on the Soviet regime and on Pasternak himself.

Although the CIA campaign is given plenty of space, most of the book really takes the form of a biography of Pasternak. Already a highly regarded poet when he began writing his novel, Pasternak was also already seen as potentially dangerous to the regime and therefore his work was closely monitored, as was the work of most writers. The Soviet regime pampered its authors and intellectuals in comparison to other sectors of society, but punished any disloyalty harshly, with imprisonment in the gulags or even death on occasion. So from the moment it became known that he was writing the novel, Pasternak ran grave risks of bringing retribution down on himself and the people close to him.

Pasternak's dacha in the Soviet Writers' village of Peredelkino

Pasternak’s dacha in the Soviet Writers’ village of Peredelkino

I expected to find that I admired Pasternak – that he was a courageous man standing up for his beliefs against a regime that could crush him. Sadly, I came away from the book feeling that in fact he was an arrogant egoist, who cared little for anyone but himself and had no purpose in writing his book other than self-aggrandisement. Well, I can accept that – writers should not have to serve a higher calling any more than the rest of us, but then they shouldn’t ask for special treatment either – and oh, how Pasternak felt that his amazing, unmatched genius (as he judged it) deserved to be recognised, honoured and lauded! He also felt that he was so special that he shouldn’t be expected to live within commonly accepted standards, so kindly moved his mistress and her family in just down the road from his wife and own family and divided his time happily between them. Happily for him, that is – one felt the wife and mistress weren’t quite so thrilled by the arrangement. But I think his level of self-centeredness is best shown by the fact that when he decided the only way out of the pressure over the book was suicide, he expected his mistress to kill herself along with him. To my amusement, the devoted but almost equally self-centred Ivinskaya was having none of it! And, denied his dramatically artistic and romantic exit, Pasternak decided to live on…

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak

The CIA operation was dogged with incompetence from the outset (no big surprise there, I’m guessing) and also paid scant attention to the problems it may cause for Pasternak inside the USSR. However, they did in the end manage to smuggle some copies of the book in and, although the readership in the USSR was limited, the book became a huge bestseller internationally. This may have provided a level of protection for Pasternak since any severe action against him would have provoked international condemnation; and by the late ’50s and early ’60’s, the Soviet regime cared a bit more about their international standing than they perhaps had a decade or two earlier. However, they did subject Pasternak to a number of restrictions and humiliations that made his life increasingly difficulty – they forced his peers to publicly condemn him and suspend him from the writers’ union, which in turn meant that he couldn’t get work. With no income, he was driven to trying to smuggle the royalties from the sale of the book in Europe into the USSR at great risk to himself and those he involved in the plan. And again Pasternak’s selfishness and egoism can be seen at play here – too afraid to collect the money himself, he gave the task to the young daughter of his mistress, a task which later resulted in her spending time in prison – something Pasternak always managed to avoid for himself.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak's long-term mistress.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s long-term mistress.

The book is well written and gives the impression of having been thoroughly researched. Despite my lack of sympathy for Pasternak, I enjoyed the biographical strand more than the CIA story and was glad that Pasternak’s story got more space than the spy stuff. In case I’ve made it seem that the book is very critical of him, I must say that the authors’ interpretation of Pasternak is considerably more sympathetic than my own, while not making any attempt to whitewash the less appealing aspects of his personality and behaviour. Overall, the book gave a clear picture of the difficulties faced by writers trying to operate under a regime of censorship backed up by fear, and some of the more moving moments were when the authors recounted the later thoughts of Pasternak’s peers, regretting how they had allowed themselves to be manipulated into turning away from him at the height of the affair. An interesting and thought-provoking read – recommended.

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Transwarp Tuesday! AI Unbound by Nancy Kress

Sci-fi is alive!


ai unboundWell, fellow travellers, while I have been enjoying reading some of the classic sci-fi authors, I have really been struggling to find any modern writers who come within lightyears of the greats of the ’50s and ’60s. So much so, that I was beginning to think that sci-fi was dead and only fantasy lives on.

And then I stumbled across the name of Nancy Kress, winner of 5 Nebulas and 2 Hugos. Thinking it was about time a woman made an appearance I promptly downloaded this little collection of two novelettes and am delighted to say they have restored my hope for the genre. So here we go for this week’s…


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AI Unbound by Nancy Kress


Each story is about 65 pages long and both concern AI – Artificial Intelligence – and have elements of genetics and environmental pollution. However otherwise they have very little in common…oh, except for the fact that they are both excellent.

“It’s out,” someone said, a tech probably, although later McTaggart could never remember who spoke first. “It’s out!”
“It can’t be!” someone else cried, and then the whole room was roiling, running, frantic with activity that never left the workstations. Running in place.

The first story, Computer Virus, is set in the near future. Cassie’s husband was murdered by neo-Luddites after he had created a bio-engineered thingy that would eat nonbiodegradable plastic. Now Cassie has retreated with her two children to a high-tech house that is secure from all intruders, and is monitored by its own in-built computer. The house is not secure from an escaped AI though – infiltrating the house’s computer, it takes Cassie and her children hostage and demands that the authorities allow it to tell its story to the press.

The story is about whether the AI’s ethics will develop enough to allow it to sympathise, especially when the young boy Donnie gets sick; and conversely will Cassie be able to avoid empathising with the AI. The old ‘What is Life’ question – if the AI can think and seems to feel human emotions, is it still a machine?

The characterisation is very strong, with both Cassie and the AI developing as the story progresses. The plot is very firmly based on believable future science, not just regarding the AI, but also on bioengineering. Cassie is a geneticist and her skills come into play as she tries to keep her family safe. The plot has a few holes – not least the fairly large one that is never quite clear why the AI has chosen to act as it has – and some of the science went way over my head. But it’s well written and builds to a tense and satisfying climax. This one rates 4 stars for me.

* * * * * * *

Shanghai. Why? You'll need to read the story to find out...

Shanghai. Why? You’ll need to read the story to find out…

The object slowed, silvery in the starlight. It continued to slow until it was moving at perhaps three miles per hour, no more, at a roughly forty-five degree angle. The landing was smooth and even. There was no hovering, no jet blasts, no scorched ground. Only a faint whump as the object touched the earth, and a rustle of corn husks in the unseen wind.

The second story though, Savior, is something special. It starts in 2007, when an alien object lands in Northern Minnesota. The government is ready to welcome peaceful aliens or battle invading ones – but nothing happens. The egg-shaped object just sits there, emitting nothing, encased in its own force-field that nothing can get through. The story then jumps forward eighty or so years, and we discover that an environmental catastrophe has destroyed huge numbers of people and left the survivors struggling to survive. And still the egg does nothing…

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

The story is divided into five chapters, each moving the world on by several decades – in total about three hundred years. We see humanity destroy itself and recover; we see technology ebb and flow; we see genetics, bioengineering and computers develop and change. And through it all, the half-forgotten alien object waits – and it’s only at the end of the last chapter that we discover what its purpose is.

For me, this story is the equal of any of the classics. Imaginative and very well written, it does what the best sci-fi does – looks at humanity’s strengths and weaknesses and considers how scientific advancements might affect the future. The build-up works so well that I was scared the ending might be an anti-climax, but I needn’t have worried. Kress brings it to an intelligent and satisfactory conclusion with just enough of a little quirk to leave the reader smiling.

Together, these stories provide a fine contrast to each other and I certainly found them an inspiring introduction to Kress’ work. Highly recommended.

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

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman illustrated by Eddie Campbell

“…and that way is treacherous and hard”

:D :D :D :D :D

the truth is a cave

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…

So starts this dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven; by what, we don’t yet know but we feel a slow anger in him, an undiminished determination despite his ten year search for the object of his obsession. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…


This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. To avoid spoilers the pages I have shown are all from the beginning of the book, but as the story darkens, some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable.


I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery-red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things.

I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle, that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.


Gaiman was apparently inspired to write the story by his visits to the Isle of Skye and the legends of the Hebrides. While the pictures quite clearly place the story in the Highlands – the kilts, the purples and greens, the blackness of the mountains – Gaiman has very wisely steered clear of any attempt to ‘do’ dialect. The book is written in standard English, but with the lush layering of traditional legends and with a rhythm in the words that really calls for it to be read aloud. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since the story was originally devised to be read by Gaiman himself at the Sydney Opera House with Campbell’s illustrations projected as a backdrop. I was the lucky, lucky recipient of a hardback copy of the book, but apparently the Kindle Fire edition has audio and video links, though to what I don’t know. However, the book is so beautiful that, devoted though I am to my Kindle, this is one where I would strongly recommend the paper version.


All the way through, the story is foreshadowing the eventual end as if to suggest that all things are fore-ordained. It’s well worth reading the book twice in fact (it’s only 73 pages) – the first reading has all the tension of not knowing how it ends, while the second reading allows the reader to see how carefully Gaiman fits everything together to create the folk-tale feeling of inevitability. And then read it again a third time, just because it’s wonderful. I end where I began – stunning!


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

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Ten Cities that Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

The sun never sets…


:) :) :) :)

After sporting pastimes and the English language (to which might be added Anglicism, the parliamentary system and Common Law), Jan Morris has described urbanism as ‘the most lasting of the British imperial legacies’.

ten citiesTristram Hunt, historian and Member of (the British) Parliament, has chosen an innovative way to look at the history and legacy of the British Empire by considering ten of the cities that played important roles in the two centuries when the Empire was at its height. There can be a tendency to think that the Empire came into being at some defined point, existed for a while, and then ceased. Hunt’s city tour gives a much clearer picture of how the Empire was always evolving, always changing, as global events raised and lowered the importance of products and markets – and he makes it very clear that the Empire’s primary purpose was indeed economic rather than political, at least initially. Hunt admits that there were many other cities with as good a claim to be included as the ones he chose, but his purpose is to show how the Empire shifted geographically and politically over time and his choices work well for this purpose.

Starting with Boston, Hunt sets the pattern he subsequently follows with each city. He gives the reasons for the city’s founding (or colonisation if it already existed), explains its importance to the development of the Empire, describes the culture of the society and discusses how the city developed physically in terms of its architecture and industrial or trading infrastructure.

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" - 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.

“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor” – 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The book is not immensely long, so each city only gets around forty pages. This is long enough to give a reasonable overview of the city’s place within the Empire, but clearly Hunt has had to set himself some limitations to keep the length down. The major limitation for me was that he only told us about each city at the point that it was at its height in terms of Empire. As the Empire rolled on and away, we aren’t given much feel for what happened to the cities afterwards. This is truer of the early cities more than the late ones – Boston is more or less dropped at the point of Independence while the current political situation of Hong Kong is briefly discussed. At first, I found this abrupt departure from each city very disconcerting, but as the book went on it became clear that Hunt was portraying the Empire like a wave or perhaps a bandwagon that rolled into town, changed everything, and then rolled on. I found that in the end it did give me a much clearer picture of how all the various geographic bits fitted in at different points in history.

Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy's House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy’s House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

So from America, Hunt takes us to the West Indies, stops off in Dublin, and then heads east – to Africa, China and, of course, India. India’s importance to the Empire is indicated by the fact that three of its cities are covered – Calcutta, Bombay and New Delhi, showing how the Empire in India developed from an initial trading zone to the full scale colonial undertaking it eventually became before gaining independence. Hunt balances the book well between the colonies and the Dominions, showing how the Dominions were seen as a means of disseminating British values and of building an interconnected anglicised world that would come to the support of the mother-country in times of need (as indeed they did in both WW1 and WW2). He finishes off with a look at Liverpool, the only British city to merit a chapter, showing its importance as a trading hub under the Empire and discussing the economically devastating effects, still being dealt with today, of the end of Empire.

The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool - the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson's major battles apparently, but somehow more resonant now of the city's involvement in the slave trade...)

The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool – the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude Admiral Lord Nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson’s major victories apparently, but it has been suggested they might also have been making a veiled statement about the cruelty of the slave trade…)

Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt

While I was glad that the book was kept down to a reasonable length, I’d have liked to learn more about what happened to the cities post-Empire, and I’d have been happy to sacrifice some of the architectural detail to make way for that. However, I think that’s probably more a matter of personal preference than a criticism. All-in-all, I found this an interesting and well written read that took an innovative approach to telling the much-told story of the Empire, and recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about how the Empire worked. I read an advance copy of the book, so can’t comment on the illustrations, but I believe there are over forty colour plates plus maps in the final copy, which I imagine would greatly enhance the enjoyment of the book.

The Ten Cities are: Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi, Liverpool.

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

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 31…

Episode 31


Tragically, the TBR list has grown to an incredible and devastating 105 during my absence from the blogosphere. No, don’t laugh – it’s not funny! It’s also not my fault! All the October pre-Christmas publications appeared on Amazon so the pre-ordering went a bit crazy. On the upside that’s months away, so plenty of time to get the list back down before they all arrive…isn’t there? Of course, there were other temptations too – and somehow I couldn’t resist. So here are a few that will reach the top of the list in the next few weeks…

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strange loyaltiesThe last book in the Laidlaw Trilogy, I’ve had this one since last Christmas (thanks, BigSister!) but I don’t like to read books by the same author too close together. So now’s the time to find out if this one can live up to the high standards set by the first two…

The Blurb saysThis third book in the series begins with Jack Laidlaw’s despair and anger at his brother’s death in a banal road accident. His questions as to the dynamics of his bother’s death lead to larger questions about the nature of pain and injustice about meaning of his own life. Laidlaw is determined to learn more about the circumstances surrounding Scott Laidlaw’s death. His investigations will lead to a confrontation with his own past and a harrowing journey into the dark Glasgow underworld.

* * * * *


the ties that bindCourtesy of NetGalley, I was inspired to read this one by this review from one of my chief temptresses, Cleopatra Loves Books…

The Blurb saysLuke is a true crime writer in search of a story. When he flees to Brighton after an explosive break-up, the perfect subject lands in his lap: reformed gangster Joss Grand. Now in his eighties, Grand once ruled the Brighton underworld with his sadistic sidekick Jacky Nye – until Jacky washed up by the West Pier in 1968, strangled and thrown into the sea. Though Grand’s alibi seems cast-iron, Luke is sure there’s more to the story than meets the eye, and he convinces the criminal-turned-philanthropist to be interviewed for a book about his life.

Luke is drawn deeper into the mystery of Jacky Nye’s murder. Was Grand there that night? Is he really as reformed a character as he claims? And who was the girl in the red coat seen fleeing the murder scene? Soon Luke realises that in stirring up secrets from the past, he may have placed himself in terrible danger.

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the adventures of siskin and valderanI’ve enjoyed reading Alastair Savage’s blog for a long time, particularly the hugely imaginative short stories he sometimes posts. In fact, one of his creations, an alien with lactating armpits, has gained a permanent place in my nightmares memory! So I’m looking forward to reading his newly published book, The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan

The Blurb saysSiskin and Valderan, swords for hire, are on a desperate chase to find mystic relics throughout the known world. Powerful forces are watching the heroes at every step, with monstrous servants at their command.

Aided by their talking monkey Jackanapes, Siskin and Valderan must cross the desolate steppe in search of a mysterious mound and the secret which it conceals. István, a bizarre creature from the tropical lands fears the discovery of the contents of the mound and will do anything to prevent Siskin and Valderan from reaching it.

Alone in the wilderness, far from their friends and allies, Siskin, Valderan and Jackanapes must fight for their lives as István’s ruthless servants lie in wait, ready to ambush them at any time.

* * * * *



p&p mangaYes, really – manga! No, I don’t know what I was thinking either! But you never know – it might be brilliant. And whatever – it can’t possibly be as awful as Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. Can it?

Again, courtesy of NetGalley.

The Blurb saysBeloved by millions the world over, Pride & Prejudice is delightfully transformed in this bold, new manga adaptation. All of the joy, heartache, and romance of Jane Austen’s original, perfectly illuminated by the sumptuous art of manga-ka Po Tse, and faithfully adapted by Stacy E. King.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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


GAN Quest: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

empire fallsGreat expectations…

:D :D :D :D :D

Miles Roby nearly escaped from the small run-down town of Empire Falls once upon a time. He made it all the way to college, but came home before graduation to look after his terminally ill mother against her wishes. And while there, he made a pact with the devil in the shape of Mrs Francine Whiting, the owner of nearly everything and everyone in Empire Falls, that she would pay for his mother’s medical care if Miles would work off the debt by running the Empire Grill. Twenty years later, Miles still flips hamburgers for a living and Mrs Whiting still owns him.

The lovely wrought iron gates and fencing that had been brought all the way from New York to mark the perimeter of the estate were to her the walls of her prison, and every time she observed this, Honus reminded her that he held the keys to these gates and would let her out at any time. If she wanted to go back to Boston so damn bad, she should just do it. He said this knowing full well she wouldn’t, for it was the particular curse of the Whiting men that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite.

This is a heavily character-driven book and with a huge cast of characters to drive it. As Russo meanders leisurely through past and present, we gradually get to know many of the people who have touched Miles’ life, from close family to old school friends and foes. Russo achieves a remarkable level of depth across such a wide field of characters with a good dozen or more of them becoming intimately known to the reader, strengths and weaknesses all exposed. In this decaying town with little hope for the future, the people who’ve stayed are mostly the ones who lack the courage or impetus to have tried to make a more successful life elsewhere. Money is scarce, houses can’t find buyers, disappointment hovers over the whole town like a grey cloud. And the poverty and lack of opportunity give the Whiting family disproportionate power and influence. Not that that brings them joy – joy doesn’t really happen much in Empire Falls for anyone. Francine’s husband first abandoned her and then killed himself; and her daughter Cindy, crippled in a childhood accident, also has a history of suicide attempts.

To his surprise, she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead, a kiss so full of affection that it dispelled the awkwardness, even as it caused Miles’ heart to plummet, because all kisses are calibrated, and this one revealed the great chasm between affection and love.

Tick, Max and Miles (Danielle Panabaker, Paul Newman and Ed Harris) in the 2005 HBO mini-series of Empire Falls

Tick, Max and Miles (Danielle Panabaker, Paul Newman and Ed Harris) in the 2005 HBO mini-series of Empire Falls

All of which makes the book sound gloomy indeed, and it probably would be without the affectionate warmth Russo shows for his creations and the humour that runs through the book. I’ve objected to several books being labelled ‘Dickensian’ recently since the word seems to be being used as a synonym for ‘long’ this year – but this one does have aspects that made me think of Dickens. The characterisation of the more humorous characters is slightly overblown and caricatured. Miles’ reprobate father Max, (”He becomes a public nuisance every now and then when he tires of being a private one,”) is a ne’er-do-well with personal hygiene issues – never to be relied on and always ready to steal any money that Miles, or indeed anyone else, leaves lying around. Then there’s Walter Comeau, the ‘Silver Fox’, a sixty-year-old fitness fanatic who wears muscle shirts and croons Perry Como songs while flaunting his affair with Miles’ ex-wife. Mrs Whiting definitely has touches of Miss Havisham, using her wealth to manipulate and control the lives and loves of the people within her reach to get some kind of revenge for the tragedies in her own past. In fact, the whole plot is predicated on Miles’ great expectations that Mrs Whiting will leave him the Empire Grill in her will. But Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles puts in a cameo appearance too, as Max believes firmly that the Robys are related to the Robideaux – Mrs Whiting’s maiden name – and feels therefore that he’s due a share in the Whiting wealth. To be honest, sometimes these references appear fairly blatant but often don’t seem to lead anywhere in particular – as if they were thrown in as kind of literary in-jokes.

Apparently women all over the world wanted to have sex with Mick Jagger, or at least had wanted to once upon a time. Others had not found Max Roby repulsive. Miles couldn’t help admiring the ability of women to dismiss the evidence of their senses. If that’s what explained it. If it wasn’t simply that from time to time they were unaccountably drawn to the grotesque.

As well as the adult characters, Russo does a very fine job of creating some of the most believable literary teenagers I’ve come across. Tick, Miles’ daughter, is in an on-off relationship with bad-boy Zack Minty, but is self-aware enough to know that she’s really only tolerating him so that she can be part of the in-crowd. But she’s still repelled by his bullying behaviour towards the solitary and silent John, about whom no-one seems to know anything much. Tick’s relationship with her parents and reaction to their marriage break-up is also completely convincing – she’s old enough to understand what’s going on but still young enough to be totally judgemental and a little selfish about it all.

My God, he couldn’t help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about — acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.

Richard Russo

Richard Russo

The quality of the writing is excellent throughout and Russo achieves a wonderful balance between a kind of nostalgic sadness and a somewhat wry humour, interspersed with some brilliantly funny set-pieces. I must admit, however, that for large parts of the book, I felt that it lacked any kind of narrative drive and was left entirely unsure where we were heading – if anywhere. There seemed to be lots of little mini-themes and some muted symbolism – such as the Catholic church being about to close, the senile priest, or the Whitings paying to have the river re-routed – that I felt weren’t fully developed. The book often felt like a loosely connected series of vignettes rather than a directed narrative. And sure enough, the shock ending so blatantly signalled in the blurb felt tacked on and seemed to come from nowhere; and, as a result, didn’t have nearly as much impact as I felt it ought to have done. It’s hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, so I won’t, except to say that it’s interesting to consider how the book reflects the anxieties of American society at the time of publication – 2001, just before the much more shocking real-life events of 9/11 fundamentally affected every aspect of American life and therefore literature, with an impact that is still resonating today and doubtless will continue to do so for many years yet. The concerns Russo addresses of industrial decay, class divisions and broken societies haven’t gone away, but they’ve been somewhat subsumed under the larger and more global questions being addressed in much subsequent literature.

Overall, the quality of the writing, the wonderfully compassionate characterisation and Russo’s ability to tread the tricky path between humour and melancholy outweigh any lack of depth in the narrative and make this a highly recommended read.

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.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, the decay of small towns as part of the industrial realignment of the end of the last century combined with the aspects of the ‘broken society’ are handled well. And the events of the ending reflect a phenomenon that, although it has also happened elsewhere, still seems to be somehow peculiarly American. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagNo – the themes of class divisions and the effects on society of economic depression have been addressed on many occasions, so I don’t think this can be classed as innovative or original. So not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes, while the prose isn’t particularly poetic or even distinctly ‘literary’, it is written in a way that keeps the reader engrossed and involved, and I can’t think of many other books where the characters come so vividly and realistically to life – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo, I don’t think Russo is even attempting to achieve this impossible criterion – a wise decision, but one that means I must say – not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

With 5 stars but only 3 GAN flags, I hereby declare this book to be A Great Novel, but neither The Great American Novel nor even A Great American Novel. But am I right? Over to you…

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Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Hormone-soaked tale of teenage obsession…

:D :D :D :D :)

You spend a long time waiting for life to start – the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.

the feverIt all starts when Lise has a dramatic and terrifying seizure during class and ends up unconscious and possibly comatose in hospital. As if this wasn’t frightening enough, over the next few days other girls are exhibiting similar symptoms, and soon an atmosphere of panic is running through the town. No-one knows what has caused this outbreak. Could it be the vaccination the girls recently had? Or is it something to do with the poisoned lake at the edge of the town? No-one knows – but Deenie sees that whatever it is seems to be affecting all the girls closest to her, and she’s not the only one who begins to wonder if somehow she’s at the centre of it all…

Megan Abbott’s new thriller takes us again into the world of the older adolescent girl that she used to such great effect in her last novel, Dare Me. Although the plot is entirely different, there are many similarities in terms of her portrayal of this hormone-soaked, angsty world of the teenager, where friendships, jealousies and rivalries mix and overlap with an emotional intensity unique to that age-group.

Deenie and her friends have reached the age where boys and sex are the subjects of their daily obsession. But the girls are also still just young enough to be passionate about their relationships with each other – jealous of each other and jostling for position to keep their place as part of the in-crowd. In Deenie’s crowd, Gabby is the queen, the one everyone wants to be friends with, and until recently Deenie was sure that she was Gabby’s closest confidante. But now witchy Skye seems to have taken her place, and Gabby and Skye seem to have secrets they don’t share with the others. And Lise, always something of an ugly duckling, has suddenly blossomed into a beautiful swan, and her sudden and reciprocated popularity with the boys has brought new layers of tensions and jealousies into the crowd. These tangled relationships and emotions form the backdrop to the story.

Megan Abbott (© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

The book is written in the third-person past tense, mainly from Deenie’s perspective. But we also get to see through the eyes of her father Tom, a teacher at the school, and her older brother Eli, himself still a student there. I found both Deenie and Tom very convincing, but Eli a little less so. I thought Abbott showed well the dichotomy of the older brother who is at the age of viewing all girls through the prism of his raging hormones while feeling outraged when other boys look in the same way at his sister. But I felt that she made Eli seem a bit too involved with his sister and her friends at the expense of his own male friendships, and this didn’t ring true to the age-group for me. I also felt that the girls in this story were not quite as three-dimensional as Abbott has achieved in earlier books – the boy/sex obsession seemed to be not just central but total – the girls seemed to have no other interests in their lives. It works in terms of the plotting but made the girls less real to me than, say, Beth from Dare Me or Lizzie from The End of Everything. I also thought that Abbott’s originality of language felt a bit more stylised in this one – occasionally I found myself wishing for a noun to be left unadorned by an innovative adjective.

The problem with writing two really great books one after the other is that expectations are so high for the next. For me, The Fever is not quite as good as the earlier books, but that still leaves it head and shoulders above most of what’s out there. Without ever crossing the line into the supernatural, Abbott introduces an element of witchiness into the novel that, combined with the growing hysteria and finger-pointing, is reminiscent of The Crucible. As more and more girls are affected, Abbott achieves true tension and a growing atmosphere of dread. So, despite some small weaknesses, I would still highly recommend this to existing Abbott fans or newcomers alike.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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Book Shortage Hits Blogosphere!


empty bookcase


Reports are coming in of the mysterious disappearance of book reviews from all around the Kirkintilloch area. One reviewer told our intrepid newshound:

“I don’t understand it! I just woke up this morning and realised I had no books to review. Three books are sitting there unfinished, and nearly 100 are unstarted…but not a single one has made it to the To Be Reviewed Shelf.”

At this point, the reviewer broke down and had to be given some medicinal chocolate.




Experts looking into the matter are split (that’s unusual, eh?). Some think it’s to do with the strange and unidentified yellow object that has appeared in the sky above Scotland…


sunshine map


…while others believe it’s to do with a vast conspiracy of multi-nationals to beam adverts directly into Scottish homes…


djokovic adverts


A top-level conference is to be held over the next two weeks in Wimbledon bringing together experts from all over the world…


rafa and andy 6th june 2014


It is hoped that they will find a solution, allowing normal service to be resumed sometime in July. Meantime…

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andy wimbledon


The Son by Jo Nesbo

the sonThe sins of the father…

:) :) :)

Sonny Lofthus has been in prison for twelve years for crimes he didn’t commit. However he is quite content to be there and even to confess to other crimes, so long as he is paid with a plentiful supply of the heroin to which he is addicted. When Sonny was a boy, he idolised his policeman father Ab, but his life was shattered when Ab committed suicide just as he was about to be revealed as the ‘mole’ who had been giving information to a shady underworld figure known as the Twin. Now Sonny sits in his cell in a drug-induced trance listening to the confessions of his fellow prisoners and dispensing forgiveness. Until one day one of the prisoners confesses that Ab was set up – he never was the mole and the apparent suicide was actually murder. Now Sonny is set on the path for revenge…

This is a standalone from the author who is best known for the much-admired Harry Hole series. Much-admired by other people, that is – personally one Harry Hole book was enough for me. Though if I ever get too happy and feel the need to be made miserable again, I may pick up another one. However, despite hating the character of Harry Hole, I admired Nesbo’s writing enough to see how it would work in a different context.

Let’s get rid of the negatives first. The premise of the book is ridiculous. The character of Sonny is…ridiculous! This is a man who has been addicted to heroin for at least twelve years, but then goes cold turkey and turns into some kind of superman, who can break out of impregnable prisons, tackle gangs of baddies, evade the forces of law and order and persuade a perfectly respectable woman to give up everything she has for sudden love of him. And the book is chock full of pseudo-religious symbolism as if suggesting that in some way Sonny’s revenge is divinely inspired; or worse, that he in some way represents goodness or holiness. Yes, Nesbo is deliberately playing with ideas of morality and when revenge may be justified, but with such a lack of subtlety it’s almost awe-inspiring. I think the heights were reached for me when we were introduced to the character named Pontius – or perhaps it was when The Son’s head began to develop a strange halo-like glow. (Oh, how I wish I was joking!)

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

Unusually, the positives are equally strong. Apart from the unbelievable Son and the pantomime villain Twin, the rest of the characterisation is very good. Simon Kefas was a friend of Sonny’s father and is now the police officer tasked with catching Sonny. However his sympathy for Sonny and loyalty to his father’s memory complicate matters for him, as does his urgent need to find enough money to fund an eye operation for his young wife who is going blind. Simon’s partner is an ambitious young woman who is determined not to be tainted by any of the corruption she sees going on around her. And even Sonny’s love interest is well drawn and believable once the reader has accepted the unlikelihood of the love-affair. The plotting is strong and well-paced although the violence is far more graphic than it needs to be, or indeed than sits well with Nesbo’s attempt to blur the morality line. The writing flows well and the translation by Charlotte Barslund is excellent.

So all-in-all, if you can overlook the significant credibility weaknesses and the violence, this is a reasonably entertaining noirish thriller. Not nearly as thought-provoking or meaningful as I think it would like to be, but quite entertaining nonetheless.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke

The End is Nigh…


Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 story The Nine Billion Names of God is considered to be a classic. Although it appeared on the scene before either of the big sci-fi awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, it was awarded a retrospective Hugo in 2004. So it seems like a good choice for this week’s…


* * * * * * *

Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke


Dr. Wagner was scarcely conscious of the faint sounds from the Manhattan streets far below. He was in a different world, a world of natural, not man-made, mountains. High up in their remote aeries these monks had been patiently at work, generation after generation, compiling their lists of meaningless words. Was there any limit to the follies of mankind? Still, he must give no hint of his inner thoughts. The customer was always right….

A computer company is approached by a Tibetan lama with a strange request. The monks want a computer that will enable them to print out all the possible permutations of God’s names. They have decided on an alphabet of nine characters and expected to spend fifteen thousand years identifying all nine billion possibilities manually, but with the advent of computers they expect that the work can now be done in 100 days. Though the head of the computer company thinks they’re crackpots, he takes their money and agrees.

early computer

As part of the deal, two technicians travel with the machine to Tibet to oversee the project. At first all goes well – the machine churns out lists of names and the monks rush to cut the pages up and paste each name individually in books. But a week before the project is due to be completed, the lama explains the purpose of it all to one of the technicians…

“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names — and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them — God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.”
“Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?”
“There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up… bingo!”

The technicians don’t believe this, of course, but they fear that when things don’t go as expected the monks may blame the computer – and them. So they decide to escape from the monastery before the project is over…


This is a very neat little take on the science v religion debate, or perhaps more logic v mysticism. It’s well written and amusing, with a nicely quirky ending, and I’m reasonably confident that the spiritual aspects are not meant to be taken too seriously. It’s interesting to see how basic computers were back in the ‘50s – not much more powerful than a pocket calculator really – and yet how they were considered such an amazing invention with the power to radically alter the course of history. If the story has a message, I’d say it’s more about this aspect – a humorous warning that we need to show caution in how we allow technology to be used. While it’s enjoyable and thought-provoking enough to have a bit of substance, I’m not convinced it’s one of the greatest stories I’ve read, and I suspect the retrospective Hugo it won was probably more of a recognition of Clarke’s overall reputation. However it is certainly interesting and fun, and will encourage me to read more of Arthur C Clarke’s work.

The story is available online if you’d like to read it. Click here!

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

Death at Wentwater Court (Daisy Dalrymple 1) by Carola Dunn

death at wentwater courtAn entertaining cosy…

:) :) :) :)

It’s 1923, and the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, daughter of a viscount, has broken with tradition by getting a job. Hired by an up-market magazine to write articles on stately homes, her aristocratic background is useful in allowing her to mingle on an equal footing with the owners and their families. So as the book begins, Daisy is on her way to stay at Wentwater Court, home of the Earl of Wentwater.

Daisy is not the only guest and she soon finds that the house is filled with tensions and misunderstandings. The Earl’s new young wife Annabel seems isolated and unhappy and is being pursued by another guest, the obviously wicked Lord Stephen Astwick. The Earls’ three grown-up children from his previous marriage are also visiting – James, showing every sign of resenting his new stepmother and hinting that she is returning Lord Stephen’s affections; Marjorie, who fancies herself in love with Lord Stephen and is wildly jealous of Annabel; and Geoffrey, his outwardly quiet manner hiding the fact that he has fallen in love with the wrong woman. Add in an old admirer of Daisy’s, and the house party is hardly set to be a great success. But when Lord Stephen falls to his death through the ice on the frozen lake at first everyone assumes it’s an accident…until Daisy’s photographs reveal that a human hand may have been at work…

This is a highly entertaining mystery with all the hallmarks of a ‘cosy’ – the deeply unlikeable victim who ‘deserves’ all he gets, a rural location with a limited cast of suspects, an amateur detective. All it needs is a nice romance – enter the delicious Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of the CID! Will he be the man who can help Daisy to get over the loss of her fiancé in the war? Within hours, Alec and Daisy have developed a mutual trust and understanding that sees them begin to work together as a team to solve the mystery of Lord Stephen’s death.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

OK, the plot is a bit silly really, with the various misunderstandings being not unlike a Wodehouse plot on a particularly busy day. One quick conversation between Annabel and the Earl could have resolved everything long before murder was ever required, and the ending requires the reader not just to suspend disbelief but to strangle it. But then the book is very convincingly emulating the style of the Golden Age, and the same could be said of many of them. Both Daisy and Alec are attractive characters and their budding romance looks like it will be an enjoyable one. The book is well written, with plenty of humour but with enough weight to the plot to make it interesting as well as enjoyable. Altogether this is a fun read and I look forward to reading some of the others in the series – I believe there are more than twenty of them so far.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link


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