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FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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

treachery in bordeauxWining and dining…

:) :) :) :)

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

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

tramping grapes

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

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Hugo Awards 2014 continued…

The best laid plans…

 

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

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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hugo header

 

The winner of the Retro-Hugo for 1939 is…

How We Went to Mars by Arthur C Clarke

 

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

* * * * * * *

The winner of the Hugo Award for 2014 is…

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

 

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

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

* * * * * * *

 

the gods of mars

 

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

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

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

That image may haunt my nightmares…

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

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

I might be too scared to read Chapter 3…

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

Manga?? Seriously?? Oh, yes…

:D :D :D :D :D

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

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

the bennet girls

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Life or Death by Michael Robotham

Keeping a promise…

:D :D :D :D :D

life or deathAudie Palmer has been in prison for ten years for an armed robbery that went wrong. Although two of the gang died and Audie was arrested, the stolen $7 million has never been found. Since Audie’s brother is suspected of being the fourth gang member, everyone assumes he’s living a life of luxury somewhere and that Audie will get his share when he gets out. So why would Audie suddenly choose to escape, just one day before he’s due to be released? It seems he has made a promise that he must keep – but there are people who want to stop him. So not only is Audie running from the law, he’s in a race to fulfil his mission before he loses his life…

I’ve been enjoying working my way through Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series recently, so grabbed the opportunity to read this new standalone novel. From the moment Audie escapes right at the beginning, the plot begins to twist and turn. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the reader is very much on Audie’s side – we’re not sure why he ended up in jail, but we’re soon convinced that he’s an honourable man and his intentions must be good. As we follow him on his present-day mission, we gradually find out about his past – the brother whose drug abuse and criminality brought Audie under suspicion more than once, the crime lord he ended up working for, the girl he fell in love with. And it gradually becomes clear that these past events are in some way connected to the present.

The book is told mostly in the present tense but in the third person and, although Audie’s is the main viewpoint, we also see through the eyes of Desiree, one of the FBI agents on the case, and Moss, a former prison-mate of Audie’s. Desiree has had the original robbery on her books as a cold case, but when Audie escapes her boss takes over the investigation and seems to want to keep Desiree out. But the diminutive Desiree is stubborn and she’s determined to be in on it, especially since she’s not sure things are quite what they seem on the surface. Moss is a great character – inside for life on the three strikes rule, he suddenly finds himself freed on condition that he hunts Audie down. But will Moss put his chance of freedom above his friendship for Audie? Even he doesn’t seem too sure…

Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham

As always with Robotham, the characterisation is very strong. Audie himself might be just a shade too perfect to be fully credible, but that’s more than compensated for by the characters of Moss and Desiree, both of whom come over as wholly believable and likeable. It takes a while for us to suspect who the baddies are but, when we do, boy, are they bad! And if Audie wants to keep the promise that he made ten years earlier, he has to be running towards the baddies rather than away…

This is a fast-paced rollercoaster of a thriller that reminded me of Harlan Coben at his best (and also just a bit of The Shawshank Redemption). Definitely movie material – has it been snapped up yet, I wonder? Loads of action, strong characters, great writing, a twisty plot and an explosive ending – this is the thriller of the year for me so far. Highly recommended, either for existing fans of the O’Loughlin series or as a great way for new readers to sample Robotham’s work.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Hugo Awards 2014

And the winner is…

 

The 2014 Hugo Award winners will be announced later this week. The Hugo is one of the two big awards in fantasy and sci-fi – the other being the Nebula. As well as awards for the current year’s ‘Bests’, occasionally a retrospective set of awards is given for a year before the Hugos began (1953). This year Retro-Hugos are being awarded for the year 1939.

So I thought I’d look at one of the nominations in the Best Short Story category from each year for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * *

The Faithful by Lester del Rey

 

Today, in a green and lovely world, here in the mightiest of human cities, the last of the human race is dying. And we of Man’s creation are left to mourn his passing, and to worship the memory of Man, who controlled all that he knew save only himself.

First published in 1938, the story is clearly influenced by the shadow of the coming war. Some time earlier, a man had worked out how to surgically modify dogs so that they could talk and learn, and operate specially modified equipment. Through careful breeding, there are now thousands of these Dog-People. Our narrator is Hunger, one of the Dogs who survive when Man, their masters, destroy themselves in war. But although the Dogs can cope well enough to live, there are tasks they cannot do without hands; and, more importantly, without Man to worship they find their lives empty and meaningless. Until, one day, the last human survivor turns up and tells the Dog-People of another experiment that had taken place on the other side of the world – to create Ape-People, not as intellectually advanced as the Dogs, but walking on two legs and modified to have human-like hands…

So I picked the only sci-fi classic with no illustrations. But Gromit's pretty much Dog-People, isn't he?

So I picked the only sci-fi classic with no illustrations. But Gromit’s pretty much Dog-People, isn’t he?

An imaginative story, but I found the ‘message’, if there is one, too obscure for my simple mind. On the one hand it seems like a timely warning about the annihilation of humanity through war. But it also seems to have rather a hopeful strain – as if the Dogs and Apes are the natural inheritors of Man, perhaps? There’s also a bit of a religious tone at points but for the life of me I have no idea where del Rey was going with that! However, the story struck me as original and inventive, and given its dating I’m sure would have resonated with its contemporary audience. The writing itself is a bit simplistic, but nonetheless the story is well told. I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted stories, but would be quite happy to see this one win the Retro-Hugo. You can download it here, though it’s pretty badly formatted (I did, and so far my computer hasn’t caught a virus…).

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

* * * * * * *

 

hugo header

 

If You were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky

 

If we lived in a world of magic where anything was possible, then you would be a dinosaur, my love. You’d be a creature of courage and strength but also gentleness. Your claws and fangs would intimidate your foes effortlessly. Whereas you—fragile, lovely, human you—must rely on wits and charm.

Nominated for this year’s Hugo, I will say very little about this story and instead urge you to read it for yourself. You will find it here.

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

I’m not convinced that this is either sci-fi or fantasy, but it is one of the most powerful shorts I’ve read in years – filled with love and rage and sorrow. Add to that a beautifully imaginative premise, a lovely structure and some gorgeously emotive writing and this story is worthy of any awards going. In fact, it has already won the Best Short Story Nebula for 2013. I’ve read it twice three times now and each time it has left me in tears. A tale told in under a thousand words with more impact than many a 500-page novel.

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

* * * * * * *

 

Tune in next week for the winners – unless of course these two win, in which case…tune in next week for…er…something else…

Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw Trilogy 3) by William McIlvanney

Moving the stars to pity…

:D :D :D :D :D

strange loyaltiesIn the third and, to date, last outing for Jack Laidlaw, he is grieving for the death of his brother, Scott. Although Scott’s death was accidental – he was knocked down by a car – Laidlaw believes that his brother’s state of mind played a major part in his death. And so as the story begins, he has taken some time off work to try to find out what had led Scott into the depression and heavy drinking that marred his final months. As he talks to the people who knew Scott best, Laidlaw finds there were things he never knew about his brother and begins to realise that the answers he is seeking may lie far back in Scott’s past…

Nobody had said ‘crime’. But that dying seemed to me as unjust, as indicative of meaninglessness as any I had known. And I had known many. For he had been so rich in potential, so much alive, so undeserving – aren’t we all? – of a meaningless death. I knew.

I should know. He was my brother.

The first book in the trilogy, Laidlaw, would certainly be in contention on any list I might draw up of best crime novels, possibly even best novels overall. The second, The Papers of Tony Veitch, came very close to matching it in quality. So for me, this one had a couple of hard acts to follow, and it was with some trepidation that I began to read. And, although this is undoubtedly an excellent novel in its own right, in truth it didn’t reach quite the same heights for me, though only by a small margin.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is very much a matter of personal preference. The Laidlaw brothers grew up in Ayrshire so, unlike the previous books which were very firmly set in the Glasgow of my youth, this one takes place mainly away from the city. McIlvanney himself was an Ayrshire lad so for him the emotional connections are just as strong, perhaps stronger, but for me, there wasn’t the same resonance as in the other two. It also meant there was very little of McIlvanney’s wonderful use of Glasgow dialect which so enhanced the earlier books for me. The other reason is that this one is written in the first person from Laidlaw’s perspective, whilst the first two were third person. I found Laidlaw a more believable character seeing him from the outside, as it were. Being told his philosophical thoughts in his own voice meant I found that, just occasionally, he came over as a little pretentious.

William McIlvanney Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

William McIlvanney
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

However, slightly less good from McIlvanney is still about a zillion times better than excellent from most authors, so I certainly wouldn’t want either of these quibbles to put anyone off reading this one. McIlvanney’s prose is wonderful – there is a poetic edge to it that makes the reading of it an intensely pleasurable and often emotional experience. I don’t usually use such longs quotes as this but I feel this gives a true flavour of the deep understanding and love of – pity for – humanity that pervades these books:

But, imagining Scott’s nights here, I populated the emptiness. This had been one of his places and some small part of his spirit had been left here. Holding my own brief séance for my brother, I conjured vivid faces and loud nights. I saw that smile of his, sudden as a sunray, when he loved what you were saying. I saw the strained expression when he felt you must agree with him and couldn’t get you to see that. I caught the way the laughter would light up his eyes when he was trying to suppress it. I heard the laughing when it broke. He must have had some nights here. He had lived with such intensity. The thought was my funeral for him. Who needed possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do and how you be were the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.

His characterisation is superb – each person flawed but believably so, and he writes them with a sympathy that makes it hard for the reader to condemn. He is very much of the school that believes criminals are made, not born, and for his characters there is always the possibility of redemption. Some of the most moving scenes in this book are of a petty criminal back in Ayrshire to look after his dying mother in her last weeks. No McIlvanney character is black or white – they are all multi-shaded and multi-layered, and Laidlaw has the empathy to see them in the round. And it is Laidlaw’s empathy and understanding that makes these books special, because through him the reader is also brought to feel a sorrow and a pity for the way the world is.

One of my favourite quotes is Flaubert’s “Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity”. In this trilogy, McIlvanney’s writing surely moves the stars.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. 2

Drifting genres…

:) :) :)

the very best of fantasy and science fictionThis is an anthology of twenty-seven stories first published in the long-running magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction and includes tales from some very well-known names – Robert A Heinlein, Brian W Aldiss etc. The stories are very evenly spaced over the last sixty years, with roughly a two or three year gap between each. This means it really gives a good impression of how the genre has developed over time, which oddly is both the main strength and main weakness of the book. Because what it seems to show is that somewhere round about the late ’70s/early ’80s, sci-fi morphed into fantasy and then gradually splintered off into subgenres like cyberpunk and even, to my great sadness, the hideousness of ‘magical realism’ (a term that should be taken out and shot at dawn for allowing authors to resolve plot problems by waving a literary magic wand and spouting a bit of mumbo-jumbo). Now, that’s all very well if you like that kind of thing, but frankly I don’t (as the discerning amongst you may already have spotted), and as a result I became increasingly disappointed as the book went on. Some of the stories were so far from being sci-fi or even fantasy that had they not been collected under this umbrella I’d have found it hard to classify them at all.

That’s not to say the stories are bad. A few of them are excellent and many are good. But a few are a bit dull and several seemed to me to be far too long for their content – perhaps a throwback to the days when writers were paid to write to a given length. A couple of the more modern ones I abandoned as we gradually sank into the modern habit of replacing adjectives with profanities and imagination with drugs and violence.

There are some standout stories in the collection, including CM Kornbluth’s The Cosmic Expense Account, which I have reviewed separately as a Transwarp Tuesday! story. Here’s a flavour of a few of the other goodies –

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind is a dark story about a society where no-one commits crime any longer – except for one man, our narrator. The society has developed to think that traditional punishments are abhorrent, but the method they find to control the criminal through total social isolation drives him to extreme lengths to find company in his criminality…

Robert A Heinlein’s All You Zombies is considered a classic of time-travel paradox stories. Clever and complicated, Heinlein uses the paradox to take a sideways look at what it is to be ‘different’ in society. If you can get past the sexism and near-misogyny, this is a well written and thought-provoking story.

Sundance by Robert Silverberg is a fabulous story, showing man repeating the horrors of the real-life destructions of aboriginal races as they begin to colonise new planets. But it’s done imaginatively – he alternates between first, second and third person, he blurs the lines between reality and insanity, he gives us lots of symbolism, but he leaves the central questions unanswered – the reader has to decide. Brilliantly written and intensely moving, and a fine example of how transplanting a story to a sci-fi setting can give an author room to explore a deeply human question.

So there’s plenty of good stuff in here, but overall the variability in quality combined with the drift in genres as it progresses means I find it hard to recommend it wholeheartedly. Interesting to die-hard sci-fi/fantasy fans or for someone like myself who’s looking to see what happened to the genre over the years, but I’m not convinced by the ‘Very Best’ claim – there’s plenty of older stuff that’s better than most of this and I’m still hoping to find better new stuff too.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 35…

Episode 35

 

The TBR has stayed steady this week…on 114! Unfortunately I seem to be in reading lull – I’m enjoying the three books I’m currently reading, but seem to be going slower than a snail on a go-slow. I may run out of reviews soon and be forced to ‘entertain’ you all with a sing-a-long. Though I’m not really sure that you deserve that…

Crime

 

Anyway, I’m starting this week with a question to all you crime aficionados…

 

Falling freely On the grounds of having seen so many rave reviews around the crimosphere for Leif GW Persson, I cheerfully pressed the NetGalley request button for this one…

The Blurb saysIt’s August 2007, and Lars Martin Johansson, chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Sweden has opened the files on the unsolved murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme. With his retirement quickly closing in, Johansson forms a new group comprised of a few trustworthy detectives who doggedly wade through mountains of paperwork and pursue new leads in a case that has all but gone cold despite the open wound the assassination has left on the consciousness of Swedish society. Yet the closer the group gets to the truth, the more Johansson compromises the greater good for personal gain, becoming a pawn for the private vendetta of a shady political spin doctor. Sharply detailed and boldly plotted, Persson’s work lifts the veil on one of history’s greatest unsolved crimes in a novel that goes toe-to-toe with the best of true crime books.

 

between summer's longingHowever, what the blurb doesn’t say is that this is apparently the third in his The Story of a Crime series. So the question is do they standalone or must they be read in order? Just in case, I’ve downloaded no. 1 in the series…

The Blurb saysA young man falls to his death from a window in a student dorm in Stockholm, his loose shoe striking and killing the little dog being taken for his evening walk by an old man. It seems to be a mundane suicide—at least that’s what the police choose to think. But the young man is American, not Swedish, and there are a couple of odd things about his room when they search it. . . .

From these tiny beginnings, Leif GW Persson slowly begins to unravel a puzzle that gets larger and larger as it becomes more and more complex, until it sweeps us into a web of international espionage, backroom politics, greed, sheer incompetence, and the shoddy work of Sweden’s intelligence force that leads to the murder of the prime minister.

* * * * *

And a couple of others that I hope to read sometime in the ever more distant future…

Fiction

 

a separate peaceCourtesy of NetGalley again. Two things attracted me to this one – it’s described as ‘an American classic’ and, more importantly, it’s short…

The Blurb saysAn American coming-of-age tale during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to the second world war.

Set at a boys’ boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.

* * * * *

the dubliners

I really don’t like James Joyce, and I tried and failed once before (a long, long time ago) to read The Dubliners. But regular commenter Jilanne Hoffman sandbagged me on a comments thread a few weeks ago and in a moment of weakness I downloaded it. Jilanne says that reading the story The Dead may cause me to die of heartbreak. Er…I better thank you in advance then, Jilanne, eh?

The Blurb saysThis work of art reflects life in Ireland at the turn of the last century, and by rejecting euphemism, reveals to the Irish their unromantic reality. Each of the 15 stories offers glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners, and collectively they paint a portrait of a nation.

 

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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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

 

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friendsEt tu, Philby?

:D :D :D :D

The post-war Cambridge spy ring holds an endless and rather strange fascination – a group of men who betrayed their country and its allies to the Soviet regime for the most nebulous of reasons and whose actions are considered to have cost many lives. And yet somehow they are held up as anti-heroes, a bit like the Great Train Robbers or Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a strange phenomenon and one that always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. So it was with a mix of anticipation and apprehension that I started to read this one about the infamous ‘Third Man’, Kim Philby (the inspiration behind Graham Greene’s screenplay for the film of that name). Ben Macintyre is a journalist by trade and has written several books about real-life spies. In this one he has approached his subject by looking at the friendships that to a large extent shielded Philby from discovery for years, even after suspicions had become aroused.

Kim Philby

Kim Philby

Philby had already become a Soviet agent before he joined MI6. Like all the spies, he would claim this was because he was convinced by the arguments of communism – but, again like them all, that didn’t stop him living as lavish and hedonistic a lifestyle as he possibly could. Rather than making him stand out, his heavy drinking and constant partying meant that he fitted in perfectly to the overgrown-boys’ club that was MI6 at that time. (Oh, how I wish I believed it was different now…) And this is really the point that Macintyre is making in this book – that MI6 in particular was filled by the upper-classes, selected not so much for their characters as their families and old school ties, and living in a kind of closed community where they didn’t talk to outsiders but revealed secrets casually to each other on the grounds that of course they could all trust each other.

Macintyre tells the parallel story of Nicholas Elliott, a loyal servant of the Crown, who was (or thought he was) Philby’s closest friend and confidant. As they both rose in their careers, Elliott admired Philby’s charm as much as his skills as a fellow spy. Philby was also particularly close to the flamboyant and outrageously behaved Guy Burgess, and won over James Jesus Angleton, who was on a simultaneous rise through the ranks of the newly formed CIA, and would later become Chief of its Counterintelligence branch. When Burgess was finally outed as a double-agent and fled to Moscow along with Donald Maclean, Elliott and Angleton were pivotal in deflecting suspicion from Philby as a possibility for the ‘third man’ known to still be operating. When the truth finally became unavoidable, Elliott was given the task of trying to get a confession from Philby – a task complicated by his conflicting feelings of friendship and betrayal.

Orson Welles in The Third Man

Orson Welles in The Third Man

I found the first few chapters of the book a bit tedious, as Macintyre would stray from the main thrust of the book to describe some of the exploits of various spies not really directly involved in the Philby story. I suspect however that these bits would appeal to someone with more interest in spying games than I have. But once the story focused on the path towards Philby’s eventual downfall I found myself gripped by it. Macintyre is a good storyteller and the book felt well researched. By the time he got to the crux of the matter, I felt that I knew the major participants well and this meant that I could sympathise with Elliott in his anger and disappointment. I was pleased that Macintyre didn’t try to show Philby as any kind of hero – he made it clear that his actions had led to many deaths, not just of spies on both sides, but of other people caught up in the games he played. He showed Philby as a curiously amoral character, whose charm gave him an appearance of warmth belied by the coldness of his actions. I didn’t feel, however, that Macintyre gave a particularly plausible reason for Philby’s seeming loyalty to the Soviet regime – perhaps there isn’t one. It seemed that he perhaps just liked the excitement of fooling everyone.

Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre

An interesting story that tells as much about the class-ridden power structures of British society as it does about Philby and Elliott – a class that sometimes puts loyalty to its own members above all other considerations, including patriotism. Have things changed since then? I guess it might be another fifty years before we really find out the answer to that question…

Thanks again to Lady Fancifull, whose great review brought this book to my attention. You can also see her review of another of Macintyre’s books, Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies, here.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Variable Man by Philip K Dick

the early sci-fi of philip k dickCalculating the odds…

 

Another of the biggest names in sci-fi in the second half of the twentieth century, several of Philip K Dick’s books and stories have been used as the basis for blockbuster movies – Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc. The stories in this book are taken from the early part of his writing career, all first published in the various sci-fi magazines in the mid-1950s. I will as usual be reviewing the whole book later, but here’s one I’ve picked pretty much at random for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * *

The Variable Man by Philip K Dick

 

the variable man 2

The year is 2136, and Terra (Earth) is at war with the Centauran Empire. As each side continues to make advances in weaponry, the balance stays in favour of the Centaurans, whose territory surrounds Terra in an unbroken ring. As any changes are made, new information is fed into the SRB machines that calculate the odds, but each time they show Centaurus still in front. However things are about to change. Leading scientist Peter Sherikov has found details of a failed experiment to travel at faster than light speeds and reckons he can turn it into a massively destructive bomb. He has the original blueprints – now he just needs someone with the skills to do the intricate wiring. As this information is fed into the SRB machines, the ratio suddenly swings dramatically in favour of Terra. Security Commissioner Reinhart issues orders to start preparing an attack on Centaurus.

the variable man 1

Meantime, elsewhere on Terra, scientists are carrying out time-travelling experiments. Ordered by Reinhart to close the experiments down before the beginning of the battle, an accident means that they also bring a man, a general handyman, from the early 20th century. He escapes into the mountains, but not before proving he has unique skills at fixing things. On being told about the existence of this man, the SRB machines close down and no longer show a ratio at all. Reinhart believes the solution is to find him and kill him. But Sherikov still needs someone to fix his bomb…

the variable man 3

This is quite a long short story, perhaps novelette length. I’m no scientist, as you know, but I feel the science in this book is a long, long way from being founded on anything realistic. However it sounds pretty good nonetheless and is consistent within the story. The dependence of the future men on computers and technology is contrasted with the man from the past’s ability to work with his hands and his brain, with Dick being clearly in favour of the latter. The two warring sides at a standstill, desperately trying to gain a technological advantage, clearly mirror the real-world cold war and arms race which were just beginning to get seriously under way at the time of writing. There’s a lot – a lot! – of people chasing and shooting and bombing each other with massive destruction all over the place. And that’s just the Terrans! For much of the story the view of how man has developed over the next couple of centuries is pretty bleak, but the ending is much more hopeful – courtesy of the twentieth century visitor, of course.

Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick

For the most part this is a very well written story with an imaginative plot. The ending is signalled a bit if the reader is paying attention, but still works. It dips for me a bit when the blowing-things-up stuff goes a bit over the top – blowing up an entire mountain range to kill one man seems excessive even by 1950s standards. But it’s an enjoyable read overall with the right kind of mix that makes for good sci-fi – a strong speculative future used to look sideways at contemporary society. Even as early in his career as this, Philip K Dick is showing the imagination and storytelling skills that enabled him to become one of the greats of the genre.

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

(Now, as I said, this is quite a long story, but here’s a link to The Eyes Have It, a delightful little Philip K Dick story that won’t take you five minutes to read – funny, quirky and clever. Is it sci-fi? Well, it’s about aliens…sorta…)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Child by Sebastian Fitzek (Audible Studios Dramatisation)

the childGreat listening experience…

:) :) :) :)

It’s been a while since I did much listening to audiobooks, since I don’t spend as much time driving as I used to. But when Audible offered me this one for review, the genuine enthusiasm that came across from the publicist’s e-mail made me pause – and then I spotted the stellar cast-list and was hooked.

Ten-year-old Simon feels he needs a lawyer, because he believes that fifteen years ago, he murdered someone – in fact, more than one person – in a previous life, and now he wants to tell the police. The boy is suffering from a terminal brain tumour, so when his nurse Carina contacts her old boyfriend, lawyer Robert Stern, he believes at first that Simon must be hallucinating. But when Simon leads him to discover the body of a man, killed by an axe just as Simon said, Stern suddenly finds himself sucked in to a strange and dangerous investigation…

Very unusually the book is being issued in audio form first, in the UK – quite often audiobooks still come a long time after the printed word. Also the audio presentation of the book takes a new approach – half narration, half-dramatisation. Normally audiobooks are entirely narrated, with just one or occasionally two voices throughout, or they are abridged and adapted for dramatisation. This one is completely unabridged, with a running time of just under 7 hours. All sections where there is dialogue have been dramatised, and the bits in between are superbly narrated by Robert Glenister. The cast list for the dramatised pieces is amazing, with some of the top UK actors in the big roles – Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks, Whitechapel) as Stern, Emilia Fox (Silent Witness) as Carina, Stephen Marcus (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as Stern’s sidekick and Andy Serkis (aka Gollum) as the police officer. Jack Boulter gives a great performance as young Simon, and there are loads of good minor performances from the cast of 20.

Not only is the acting of an extremely high quality throughout, the whole sound throughout the production is great and, in my experience, innovative for audiobooks. They have recorded actual Berlin street sounds for the background which give a real feeling of being out and about with the characters as the plot gathers speed. The incidental music, used to separate the chapters, is incredibly spooky and really adds to the atmosphere. And the distorted voice of the baddie is so well done that when he first appeared in Chapter 3 my hair quite literally began to stand on end! I started out listening on my beloved Kindle Fire but soon moved on to better speakers to get the full benefit of the sound quality.

As you can tell, I found this a great listening experience and for three-quarters of the book it was well on its way to 5 stars. The book started with a bang and by the third chapter I was completely hooked, listening in huge chunks (which isn’t usual for me with audio) and desperate to know what happened. It’s ambiguous for much of the story as to whether there’s a supernatural aspect to it, and I found some bits really creepy and atmospheric, enhanced by the music and sound. The plot is complicated but not too much so, and the three main characters, Stern, Carina and Simon, are all well-drawn and likeable. Stern’s personal demons, caused by the sudden death of his own baby son ten years earlier, are handled well – important to the story without overwhelming it. Unfortunately, and I’m really sad to say this, the story collapses completely in the last quarter. It’s as if Fitzek had written himself into a corner and couldn’t quite see how to get out. So suddenly we get well over an hour of explanation where characters just tell each other what’s been going on. All tension is lost along with a good deal of the credibility that had been so effectively built up in the rest of the book.

Sebastian Fitzek

Sebastian Fitzek

It’s so disappointing, because the whole thing had been just great up till that point and the acting and sound went on being great to the end. If I were just rating the book, it would get a maximum 3 stars, but the performances and production still make it well worth a listen in my opinion, so it gets 4. I really hope that Audible will continue to make audiobooks in this style though – it’s a real step forward in my opinion, and I can think of so many books that would be perfect for this treatment, especially crime and thrillers.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible Studios. It is due for release on 7th August and, as far as I know, will only be available initially as a download from Audible or via Amazon – neither a paper book (in English) nor an audio disc set is yet listed. I also can’t find any US links yet, so it looks like it’s only going to be available in the UK at present.

Audible UK Link
Amazon UK Link

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

the sun also risesMasculinity, machismo and matadors…

 

:D :D :D :D :)

When I started looking for the Great American Novel, I expected to be inundated with people telling me I must read Hemingway. Oddly, rather the reverse happened – the general consensus seemed to be I should skip him. So obviously I grabbed the first chance I could to find out why…

Written in 1926, Hemingway’s characters are part of the ‘lost generation’ – those young people so emotionally damaged by WW1 that they are left drifting and purposeless, leading lives of dissolute recklessness. We first meet our narrator, Jake Barnes, in Paris, where he works as a journalist. Jake and Lady Brett Ashley love one another, but Jake has been left impotent by a war injury, and Brett is not the kind of woman who could be happy in a relationship that didn’t offer her sexual fulfilment. So Brett embarks on a string of sexual adventures, usually with friends of Jake’s, while Jake drinks. And drinks. And drinks. Actually, so does Brett. And by about a third of the way through the book, I was toying with the idea of knocking back three bottles of wine, a couple of brandies, and an absinthe or two myself. (But then the ‘lost generation’ usually has that effect on me – privileged, feckless wasters living off Daddy’s money, and blaming their dissipated lifestyles on the war. Poor ex-soldiers, of course, just had to go home, get a job and get on with things – they couldn’t afford to get ‘lost’ in Paris or Spain. Poverty is such a great sat-nav.)

“This is a good place,” he said.
“There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.

When Paris begins to run low on alcohol, Jake and a loose group of friends and acquaintances, including Brett and her fiancé, make their way to Pamplona in Spain for the annual bull-fighting fiesta. There is a lot of alcohol available in Spain, of all different kinds, and this, together with the fact that every man in the party has either slept with Brett or wants to, leads to lots of macho posturing – not unlike the more formalised posturing that takes place between the matador and the bull. Surprisingly enough, Lady Brett seems to quite like matadors…

Painting by Miki de Goodaboom www.artmajeur.com

Painting by Miki de Goodaboom
http://www.artmajeur.com

Hemingway’s writing style is an odd mix of sometimes overly simplistic prose with occasional passages of real beauty. Some of the dialogue is mind-numbingly trite – repetitive and dull – and he gets fixated on details from time to time, like how much a bottle of wine cost or what each person ate. I tired very quickly of the endless descriptions of binge-drinking and drunken quarrelling. But some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting.

The bull who killed Vicente Gironés was named Bocanegra, was Number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.

Ernest Hemingway with friends (and alcohol), during the July 1925 trip to Spain that inspired The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway with friends (and alcohol), during the July 1925 trip to Spain that inspired The Sun Also Rises

The same patchiness applies to the characterisation. I’m not at all sure what he was trying to achieve with Lady Brett’s character – but I’m pretty sure he didn’t achieve it. She didn’t come over as a real person to me at all. Her permanent drunkenness and ridiculously promiscuous behaviour may have made many men want to sleep with her, but the idea that they all fell in love with her was a stretch too far. I felt as if she was a puppet rather than a character, her behaviour merely a device to provide reasons for strains and tensions to develop amongst the group of men.

I’m sure screeds have been written about the blatant anti-Semitism in the book and I must say I wasn’t overwhelmingly thrilled by his stereotyping of his Scottish character either. But honestly both characterisations seemed to me more like lazy regurgitations of racial caricatures than any kind of active racism, and it was the 1920s, so no doubt they seem more shocking to us now than they would have been then. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure that he wasn’t attempting to gently ridicule the prevailing anti-Semitism of his time – but if that was his intention, by leaving it ambiguous, again I feel he failed.

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'

Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

However, I feel we get to know Jake well and some of the others come over as fairly well-rounded. There is a good deal of subtlety in the way he slowly reveals Jake to us as the most resilient of them all – the one who is physically damaged, but with the most emotional strength in the end. The whole ‘there’s more than one way to be masculine’ message may seem obvious in retrospect but it’s actually fed through in a gradual and almost understated way, and I felt I only really saw what Hemingway was doing as I looked back at the book after finishing.

Everything was fresh and cool and damp in the early morning. Nurses in uniform and in peasant costume walked under the trees with children. The Spanish children were beautiful. Some bootlblacks sat together under a tree talking to a soldier. The soldier had only one arm. The tide was in and there was a good breeze and a surf on the beach.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

I’m going to confess that in the end the book impressed me considerably more than I expected. Despite my many criticisms, I found it an absorbing read that drew me into the world Hemingway was describing and made it a believable one; and my appreciation for it actually grew in the few days after I had finished reading it. I feel that it needs to be approached like an impressionist painting – when you’re close enough to see the detail it all looks a bit messy and it’s hard to make out the picture. But stand back a bit and the details recede – the constant descriptions of drunkenness, the repetitiveness, the banality of the dialogue – and the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 34…

Episode 34

 

I’ve decided the problem is not so much the length of my TBR as my attitude to it. So instead of wailing and gnashing my teeth, this week I’d like to invite you to…

 

CELEBRATE THE TBR!

 

114

 

114 lovely books, all sitting there waiting…just for me!

 

Big books, little books, crime books, thrillers, classics, fiction, factual! Mine, all mine!

HahahahahaHA!

Thousands of pages! HUNDREDS of thousands of words! Millions – nay! ZILLIONS of letters all beautifully sorted just for me!

HahahahahaHAHAHA!

* * * * *

(Oh dear, must get a move on before they come round with the medication again…)

Here’s just a few of the soon-to-be-reads…

* * * * *

Crime

 

treachery in bordeauxCourtesy of NetGalley, this is the first in a series of mysteries set in the wine industry in France. I have already read a later one, Grand Cru Heist, and enjoyed it so hoping this will be good too…

The Blurb saysIn modern-day Bordeaux, there are few wine estates still within the city limits. The prestigious grand cru Moniales Haut-Brion is one of them. When some barrels turn, world-renowned winemaker turned gentleman detective Benjamin Cooker starts asking questions. Is it negligence or sabotage? Who would want to target this esteemed vintner? Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien search the city and the vineyards for answers, giving readers an inside view of this famous wine region.

* * * * *

 

life or deathAgain courtesy of NetGalley, the newest thriller from Michael Robotham, due out next week in the UK. This isn’t part of his Joe O’Loughlin series apparently – it’s a standalone…

The Blurb saysWhy would a man escape from prison the day before he’s due to be released?

Audie Palmer has spent a decade in prison for an armed robbery in which four people died, including two of his gang. Five million dollars has never been recovered and everybody believes that Audie knows where the money is. For ten years he has been beaten, stabbed, throttled and threatened almost daily by fellow inmates and prison guards, who all want to answer this same question, but suddenly Audie vanishes, the day before he’s due to be released.

Everybody wants to find Audie, but he’s not running. Instead he’s trying to save a life . . . and not just his own.

* * * * *

Fiction

american pastoralThe next one for the Great American Novel Quest, this will be a re-read for me. I have a love/hate relationship with Roth, but I seem to recall loving this one. There is a description in it of how to make leather gloves that is so beautifully written I still think of it every time I see a woman wearing them…

The Blurb saysGood-looking, prosperous Swede, who has inherited his father’s glove factory in Newark, N.J., and married a former beauty queen, is not stupid, merely fulfilled. Is it this that gives him insufficient means to comprehend the Newark riots of 1967 or the transformation of his beloved daughter into a venomous teenage radical, a child capable of cold-blooded terrorism? Roth’s own means are more than sufficient. A writer who is unafraid to linger in the minds of furious men, he leads us fearlessly through this man’s grief, bewilderment and rage.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

 

The Ties that Bind by Erin Kelly

the ties that bindBrighton still rocks…

:D :D :D :D :D

Aspiring true crime writer Luke Considine is looking for the perfect case to form the basis of his first book. When he is cheated out of the story he has been working on and at the same time has a bad relationship break-up, he moves to Brighton on a whim, and there he comes across the perfect subject – Joss Grand, onetime gangster, now philanthropist and local legend. And to make his story even more interesting, the long-ago murder of Joss’s partner in crime remains unsolved. But though Joss may be old now, he still has an aura of danger and those who know him warn Luke to steer clear…

As Luke investigates, he stirs up old memories and soon finds his life in danger. Will he be able to get to the truth before it’s too late? And is the danger coming from more than one direction – if so, whom can he trust? The plot has all the elements of the standard thriller, but the quality of the characterisation and the strong sense of place lift it well above average.

Luke is a likeable and credible lead, and the breakdown of his relationship with his lover Jem is portrayed very believably. I found it refreshing that Kelly managed to include a gay relationship without allowing ‘the gay lifestyle’ to become the main focus of the book, as tends to happen all too often. Instead, as Jem becomes ever more out of control and threatening, Kelly concentrates on the psychology of him as a man, rather than as a gay man. And Luke stays realistic all the way through – he doesn’t suddenly turn into an all-action superhero in the last few chapters.

Brighton's iconic West Pier

Brighton’s iconic West Pier

The character of Joss is nicely ambiguous. Although he undoubtedly did some very bad things when he was a young man, he has lived a seemingly respectable life for many years, using his wealth to fund many projects around Brighton, so that he is now seen as a pillar of the community. But that wealth, though earned via legitimate enterprises, grew out of the dirty money that Joss made running protection rackets in the ’60s. So the question is one of redemption – can decades of good works wipe out the crimes of the past? That’s assuming that Joss is clean now – or could his legitimate businesses be hiding something darker? Old and ill though he is, there’s no doubt that Joss still enjoys knowing that people fear him…

Erin Kelly

Erin Kelly

The descriptions of Brighton, both present day and in the sense Kelly gives us of the past, are convincing. We see the touristy seaside town with its gaudy lights and seafront entertainments, but we get to see a darker underbelly too; especially in the Brighton of the ’50s and ’60s – Kelly directly alludes to Greene’s Brighton Rock, and the feeling of simmering violence amongst the Brighton gangsters is set well into the context of the time of the Kray twins’ rule in London’s East End.

All round, I found this an enjoyable and very well written thriller – good plot, strong descriptive writing and great characterisation. Highly recommended, and thanks again to Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books whose excellent review brought this book and author to my attention.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! John Carter

When two tribes go to war…

 

kinopoisk.ru

 

Having recently read and loved Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars – I was intrigued to see how Disney had dealt with it.

So in a departure from the norm, it’s a movie review for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * *

 

Disney does Edgar Rice Burroughs!

 

in

 

JOHN CARTER

 

Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch as Dejah Thoris and John Carter

Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch as Dejah Thoris and John Carter

Two Martian tribes are at war – the Heliumites and the Zodangans, who for ease we shall think of as the goodies and the baddies. But the baddies are being helped by a mysterious race of superbeings known as the Thern, who have given them the ability to harness the ninth ray of the sun and use it as a super weapon. As the goodies face certain defeat, the leader of the Zodangans offers to spare them from destruction if the Heliumite Princess, Dejah Thoris, agrees to be his bride.

Meantime, back on Earth, ex-Confederate Army Captain John Carter takes refuge from a horde of attacking Apache warriors in a mysterious cave, where he meets a passing Thern and is accidentally transported to Barsoom, which we Earthlings know as the Red Planet – Mars! Once there, he finds the lower gravity gives him superior strength and the ability to jump really high and really far. Captured by Tharks (14-ft tall, six-limbed, green, horned, pretty ugly), he falls in love with the thankfully human-looking Dejah Thoris and is gradually sucked into the ongoing war…

Tharks...

Tharks…

The plot of the film is a simplified version of the plot of the book, which in truth was already fairly simple. The scriptwriters have tried to make sense of some of the gaping plot holes in the book by introducing the Thern, thus providing an explanation for how John Carter got to Mars. They’ve also changed Dejah Thoris a bit to make her more acceptable to modern audiences. She already had a reasonably heroic role in the book but in the film she is kickass! Truly! And intelligent, gorgeous, scantily clad, interestingly tattooed and a bit of a flirt. A description that works equally well for John Carter, minus the tattoos…and possibly the intelligence.

Some people say women can't be warriors...but I bet they don't say it when Dejah's around...

Dejah Thoris in warrior mode…

However the writers (who somewhat amazingly include Michael Chabon) have got rid of most of the stuff about the society of the Tharks, which personally I felt was one of the more interesting features of the book. Oddly, though, they left little bits in but without much explanation, so that I wondered whether I’d have struggled to follow the plot (such as it is) if I hadn’t read the book. For instance, the big reveal about Tars Tarkas being Sola’s father really needed the background filled out to show why it was important – that is, that in Thark society, love between adults is taboo; eggs are laid and children brought up by the community rather than by biological parents.

Thark on a thoat...

Thark on a thoat…

Instead the film concentrates almost entirely on fighting and battles interspersed with the John Carter/Dejah Thoris love story. This works well in terms of the CGI – overall they do a good job of all the different creatures of Burroughs’ imagination* and the very Disney-style battles involve a lot of fun and exciting fighting and killing, while keeping it almost entirely gore-free – with the exception of the blue blood of the great White Ape, and that was really just splattered about for its humorous value. And obviously only the baddies die, and they all deserve it, so the feel-good factor is not disrupted.

(*Special mention must go to Woola – the dog-like creature. I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t go for the full ten legs, but they got his massive grin and cuddly personality. On the other hand (pun intended), they went for the simplest version possible of giving the Tharks an extra pair of arms, which wasn’t really how Burroughs described them. He said the extra limbs could operate as either arms or legs as circumstances required… I suspect either CGI or the special effects guys’ imaginations must still have limitations.)

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

Woola…four legs missing, but still smiling…

A fun adventure, as silly and inconsistent as the book but in different ways. I’m not sure I’d be nominating it for Oscars for the script or indeed the acting; and I suspect I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much if I hadn’t read the book. But it has lots of heroics, a good deal of humour, a nice little romance (despite my severe disappointment that they cut the bit about Dejah laying an egg) and the special effects looked pretty good to my untutored eye. Overall, the full two hours and a bit passed very entertainingly.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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.

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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…

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Crime

 

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.

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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.

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Factual

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.

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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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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.

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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…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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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! ;)

MartianWayByIsaacAsimov1950s_0014MartianWayByIsaacAsimov1950s_0028

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

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