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:D :D :D :D :)
Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house. The third-person narrative is told entirely from the viewpoint of Eleanor, who has recently lost the mother she has spent years caring for, and it’s not long before the reader becomes aware that Eleanor is a rather disturbed and fragile young woman. And, as a narrator, intensely unreliable.
“No,” Theodora said, and they heard the crash against the door across the hall. It was louder, it was deafening, it struck against the door next to them (did it move back and forth across the hall? did it go on feet along the carpet? did it lift a hand to the door?), and Eleanor threw herself away from the bed and ran to hold her hands against the door. “Go away,” she shouted wildly. “Go away, go away!”
The question is – is the house haunting Eleanor, or is Eleanor haunting the house? How much of what we are told can we believe? Shirley Jackson is great at suddenly shifting perspective and turning everything on its head, and in this one she uses Eleanor’s seeming descent into madness to confuse and misdirect. The book begins as almost a traditional gothic horror, only with a typical Jackson twist in that it is all taking place in summer with the sun shining, which I found reminiscent of how she subverted the gothic tradition in her later (and better, in my opinion) book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We have doors that close by themselves, strange noises in the night, blood-spattered rooms, half-seen creatures glanced sideways. We also have a twist on the old gothic servitor in the shape of the servants, the Dudleys, who provide a much-needed touch of humour with their lugubrious and sinister warnings. The house, we are told, was deliberately designed as a kind of trick with odd angles and slightly sloping floors, and with the rooms laid out almost as a labyrinth, leading in and out of each other, so that nothing is quite as would be expected. And this is how the story develops too – nothing feels quite linear about it; each time we think we know the characters, they suddenly shift slightly and we are thrown off kilter, perpetually unsettled.
“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God – whose hand was I holding?”
It’s in the middle section of the book that we realise that Eleanor’s viewpoint can’t be relied on, but she’s all we’ve got to go on. Eleanor has never felt that she was wanted anywhere and sees the summer at Hill House as a way to become different – to fit in. At first it seems she’s succeeding – she and the other young woman, Theodora, strike up an immediate intimacy and Eleanor even harbours hopes that Luke, the sole young man, is falling for her. Dr Montague becomes like a father figure to them all. But soon paranoia sets in – or is it real? – as Eleanor feels she’s being excluded from the group, treated differently – and frighteningly, the increasingly threatening disturbances in the house seem to be centred on her too. But as her relationships with the group spiral downwards, Eleanor has a growing feeling that, in some way, she belongs to the house.
It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?
Jackson is brilliant at creating atmosphere and there are parts of the book that are creepy in the extreme. She uses the power of suggestion to leave much of the work up to the reader – a bit like Room 101, Hill House is a place where each person will find his or her own greatest fears. She describes the terror but often leaves the cause to the imagination. There was a point midway where I could genuinely feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. For me, the end section fell away rather – as it became more confused as to what was real and what was Eleanor’s imagination, somehow the scare factor diminished. But it still remained an excellent and disturbing examination of madness – from the inside – and perfect reading material for the spooky season.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could.”
“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.
“No one lives any nearer than the town, No one else will come any nearer than that…In the night,” Mrs Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.
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Images are stills from the 1963 film of the book, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise.
The TBR saw a massive decrease of 1 this week down to 102. (Yay!) Still on track to go below 100 before Christmas – if only my iron willpower holds out. This will probably be the last TBR Thursday for a while, since November will be given over to the FF Awards for Book of the Year. Even I don’t know who’s going to win this year – which is a little worrying!
Meantime, another bundle of goodies to incite your envy or disdain…
The Blurb says “June 1918. A patrolling constable discovers the body of Georgina Cheney, wife of a naval commander, in the basement area of a house in Westminster. At first it is thought to be suicide or even a tragic accident. But as Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle of the A or Whitehall Division of the Metropolitan Police begins to investigate – ably assisted by Detective Sergeant Charles Marriott – they soon discover a different story. It is clear that the woman was murdered, and revelations about the victim’s previous life in Malta arouse Hardcastle’s interest.
But things are destined to get even more complicated for Hardcastle, when he is assigned two further murder cases by Detective Chief Inspector Frederick Wensley, head of the CID at New Scotland Yard. Could they be connected? This may be a puzzle too tricky even for Hardcastle to solve . . .”
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From Henery Press via NetGalley. I loved John Gaspard’s first book, The Ambitious Card – the only time an author has successfully carried out a magic trick on me! I finished my review with the fervent hope that he’d write another…
The Blurb says “Newly-single magician Eli Marks reluctantly attends his high school reunion against his better judgment, only to become entangled in two deadly encounters with his former classmates. The first is the fatal mugging of an old crush’s husband, followed by the suspicious deaths of the victim’s business associates.
At the same time, Eli also comes to the aid of a classmate-turned-movie-star who fears that attempting The Bullet Catch in an upcoming movie may be his last performance. As the bodies begin to pile up, Eli comes to the realization that juggling these murderous situations — while saving his own neck — may be the greatest trick he’s ever performed.“
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The Blurb says “November, AD 40. When a wealthy consul’s wife asks Corvinus to investigate the death of her uncle, killed by a block of falling masonry during renovations on his estate in the Vatican Hills, a sceptical Corvinus is inclined to agree with the general verdict of accidental death. But his investigations reveal clear evidence of foul play, as well as unearthing several skeletons among the closets of this well-to-do but highly dysfunctional family. Who could have wanted Lucius Surdinus dead? His vengeful ex-wife? His ambitious mistress? His disillusioned elder, or his estranged younger, son? Or does the key to the mystery lie in the dead man’s political past? But when Corvinus’s investigations draw him to the attention of the emperor, a dangerously unpredictable Caligula, his prospects of surviving long enough to solve the mystery look slim to say the least.”
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Thanks to Aurum Press. This one looks fascinating…and massive (600+ large pages of small font). So since there’s very little chance of me reviewing the contents before Christmas, I’ll just mention now that it’s a lovely book in hardback that would be great gift material for anyone interested in the history of the First World War. But I don’t think it will be a light read…
The Blurb says “One hundred years on, the First World War has not lost its power to clutch at the heart. But how much do we really know about the war that would shape the 20th Century? And, all the more poignantly, how much did people know at the time?
Today, someone fires a shot on the other side of the world and we read about it online a few seconds later. In 1914, with storm clouds gathering over Europe, wireless telephony was in its infancy. So newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph were, for the British public, their only access to official news about the progress of the war.
These reports, many of them eye-witness dispatches, written by correspondents of the Daily Telegraph, bring the First World War to life in an intriguing new way. At times, the effect is terrifying, as accounts of the Somme, Flanders and Gallipoli depict brave and glorious victories, and the distinction between truth and propaganda becomes alarmingly blurred. Some exude a sense of dramatic irony that is almost excruciating, as one catches glimpses of how little the ordinary British people were told during the war of the havoc that was being wrought in their name.
Poignant, passionate and shot-through with moments of bleak humour, The Telegraph Book of the First World War is a full account of the war by some of the country’s most brilliant and colourful correspondents, whose reportage shaped the way that the war would be understood for generations to come.”
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The Blurb says “Although originally published separately, Patrick Modiano’s three novellas form a single, compelling whole, haunted by the same gauzy sense of place and characters. Modiano draws on his own experiences, blended with the real or invented stories of others, to present a dreamlike autobiography that is also the biography of a place. Orphaned children, mysterious parents, forgotten friends, enigmatic strangers—each appears in this three-part love song to a Paris that no longer exists. In this superb English-language translation of Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin, Mark Polizzotti captures not only Modiano’s distinctive narrative voice but also the matchless grace and spare beauty of his prose.
Shadowed by the dark period of the Nazi Occupation, these novellas reveal Modiano’s fascination with the lost, obscure, or mysterious: a young person’s confusion over adult behavior; the repercussions of a chance encounter; the search for a missing father; the aftershock of a fatal affair. To read Modiano’s trilogy is to enter his world of uncertainties and the almost accidental way in which people find their fates.“
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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Amazon.
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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
:) :) :) :)
Helen Castor begins this retelling of the life of Joan the Maid by explaining that, although her story is better documented than most from this period, it isn’t always possible to take the sources at face value. Since her legend was being created while she was still alive, and since so much hung on the idea of which side in the war had the support of God, then an inevitable bias has to be expected in the various accounts of her actions and words. So Castor has set out to put Joan’s story into the context of the times, and to do that she starts fourteen years before Joan appears, taking us back to Agincourt, and then working forward.
This is a fairly short book, actually more history than biography. It’s well-written and therefore easy to read, and Castor explains the various alliances and enmities clearly – having very little previous knowledge of the period, I was able to follow the various shifting loyalties without too much difficulty, and undoubtedly feel better informed about the events and personalities of the time. She describes the background to the feud between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs which split the French resistance to the English claim to the throne. And she shows how the English policy towards any final peace was circumscribed by the infancy of the King (after Henry V’s death), with his regent in France, the Duke of Bedford, feeling unable to reach decisions to which young Henry VI might object when he came to power. (Unfortunately, from my perspective, she also thoroughly explained the Scottish involvement in the war – on the side of the Armagnac French and against the English, of course – which could briefly be summed up as ‘We came, we saw, we got slaughtered’. Oh well, at least we tried…)
By taking this approach, by the time of Joan’s arrival on the scene, Castor had built up enough of a picture of the near desperation of the Armagnac faction that it made it slightly less inexplicable why they would have been willing to give credence to this young girl, claiming to have been sent by God to lead an army and ensure the coronation of Charles VII. But only slightly. Though Castor does make clear the importance of religious symbolism and signs at the period, I felt that the crucial point of how exactly Joan got access to the French King remained a little vague. Castor tells us the events – when it happened, who accompanied her, etc., – but left me with no real feeling of why initially any of the important men around the King took her seriously. However, once having rather shimmied past that bit, Castor’s descriptions of Joan’s involvement in the war and subsequent capture and trial are very well told, with the various political pressures on all sides being clearly explained.
So as history the book works well, especially for someone like myself coming new to the period, though I did wonder if it was in depth enough to add much for people with a reasonable existing understanding of the people and events. I didn’t feel it worked quite so well as biography however. Perhaps there isn’t enough information available to make it possible, but I didn’t come away from it feeling that I really understood Joan as a person. There is little about her background prior to her arriving at Charles’ court, and after that, although the events are well described, somehow her personality didn’t seem to come through.
There only seem to be two possibilities about Joan – either she actually was God’s emissary on earth or she was mentally ill. Castor rather oddly doesn’t seem to take a view on that. On the one hand, I felt strongly that she was implicitly ruling out the possibility of Joan being visited by angels telling her that God was on France’s side, or more specifically on the side of the Armagnacs. But, on the other hand, she really gave no other interpretation. Not that I’m a great fan of retrospective diagnosis of mental illnesses, but I felt the possibility at least needed to be discussed. The result was that she remained a rather nebulous figure, to me at least.
Happily Castor doesn’t end the story with Joan’s death. She continues with the history of the war up to the point where the English were finally driven out of France – she doesn’t delve into it in depth but covers it well enough so that it provides a satisfactory overview. And she also continues Joan’s story after death, with the various reviews of her trial that eventually led to her being declared innocent of heresy. The epilogue tells the final chapter in her story – her canonisation as a saint in 1920.
Overall, I found this an interesting and informative read which, while it perhaps didn’t wholly satisfy me as a biography, worked very well as an introduction to the history of the period.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber Ltd.
You have been warned…
As the world continues to fill up with ever more horrifying technological devices designed to keep cats from… er… generously fertilising other people’s flower beds, Tommy & Tuppence have asked me to share their favourite horror story with you all – as a friendly warning – for this week’s…
The Cats of Ulthar by HP Lovecraft
In Ulthar, before ever the burgesses forbade the killing of cats, there dwelt an old cottar and his wife who delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbours. Why they did this I know not; save that many hate the voice of the cat in the night, and take it ill that cats should run stealthily about yards and gardens at twilight…
A tale of horror and revenge to chill the blood of all who have harboured unkind thoughts about their furry feline visitors, the story begins with the (wimpy) people of Ulthar living in fear that their precious moggies will wander onto the grounds of the cottar and his wife after dark – for it is unlikely that such an unfortunate beast will ever be seen again. But the villagers don’t confront the cottar because…
In truth, much as the owners of the cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees.
And so things stood, until one day some mysterious travellers arrived in the village, amongst them a young boy, orphaned by the plague, and with only his beloved kitten for pleasure and company. But one morning, the kitten couldn’t be found… and the (kindly but wimpy) villagers told the boy that his precious pet had no doubt been trapped and slain by the old man and his wife. (Ah, they didn’t believe in mollycoddling children back in the good old days…)
And when he heard these things his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer. He stretched out his arms towards the sun and prayed in a tongue no villager could understand…
And the clouds began to take the shape of strange beasts – ‘the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things’. And the mysterious strangers packed up their belongings and left the village, never to return. But that night the people of the village noticed that all the cats in the village had disappeared – every one. Some thought it was the strangers who had taken them, in revenge; but others thought the cottar and his wife were to blame.
However, when daybreak came the following day, all the cats had returned, looking sleek, contented and suspiciously well-fed…
…the refusal of all the cats to eat their portions of meat or drink their saucers of milk was exceedingly curious. And for two whole days the sleek, lazy cats of Ulthar would touch no food, but only doze by the fire or in the sun.
And gradually the villagers noticed that it had been some time since they saw the cottar or his wife – in fact not since that same night. And so the bravest of the wimps made their way to the cottage and…
Well, suffice it to say, nobody in Ulthar kills cats any more.
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This is a nice little horror story with a tongue-in-cheek moral. Not terrifying but creepily fun. Written in 1920, it’s one of his earlier stories which may account for why the style is not at all what I think of as Lovecraftian, except for some of the overblown language. No tunnels, no ancient buildings, and no fish-like aliens – and beautifully short. It didn’t scare me exactly…but then I’m always nice to cats! But I thought it was well-written and it’s made me realise that Lovecraft isn’t totally limited to the style for which he’s best known.
Want to read it? http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Cats_of_Ulthar
Now, you must excuse me while I put out some cream for Tommy & Tuppence and then go check on the neighbours…
Fretful Porpentine Rating: :shock: :shock:
Overall story rating: :D :D :D :D
Tommy & Tuppence’s rating: :evil: :evil: :evil: :evil: :evil:
Bravo, Mr Horowitz! Encore! Encore!!
:D :D :D :D :D
It was as if the world were ending here in a perpetual apocalypse of thundering water and spray rising like steam, the birds frightened away and the sun blocked out. The walls that enclosed this raging deluge were jagged and harsh and old as Rip van Winkle.
It is the year 1891, just after Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have fought their final battle at Reichenbach Falls. Our narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton man, in Europe on the trail of a criminal mastermind, one Clarence Devereux, who he believes is responsible for killing one of his colleagues. Devereux has decided to extend his operations beyond his native America and has come to London, and Chase believes he has been in contact with Professor Moriarty, so on hearing of Moriarty’s death he has rushed to Switzerland to discover whether he can find any clue to Devereux’s whereabouts. Here he meets Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, also over to investigate the happenings at the Reichenbach Falls and they quickly form an alliance to hunt Devereux down and to stop the wave of violent crime sweeping through London.
I enjoyed Horowitz’s first foray into the Holmesian world, The House of Silk, very much, feeling he got Watson’s voice more nearly than any other faux-Holmes I had read. But this one is truly outstanding – one of the best books I’ve read all year by a wide margin. When I saw that it was set during the period when Holmes was ‘dead’ and that Watson wasn’t to be the narrator, I was disappointed, but not for long. It’s a brilliantly clever device that allows Horowitz to work firmly within Holmes’ world but without the pitfalls of characterisation or tone that so often beset ‘continuation’ novels. I won’t tell you more about the plot, because almost anything I say could be a potential spoiler. I’ll merely say it’s fantastic – Horowitz played me like a fish with intellectual challenges and made me laugh at my own stupefaction. It’s fast-moving and complicated, but not in the way that makes the reader feel lost – Horowitz keeps us on top of the story all the way through – or at least we think we are!
It was formed of brick walls and vaulted ceilings with arches, dozens of them arranged opposite each other in two lines. Steel girders had been fixed in place above our heads with hooks suspended on the ends of rusting chains. The floor consisted of cobblestones, centuries old and heavily worn, with tramlines swerving and criss-crossing each other on their way into the bowels of the earth. Everything was gaslit, the lamps throwing a luminescent haze that hung suspended in mid-air, like a winter’s fog.
Chase is a great character who rapidly takes on the role of Watson to Athelney Jones’ Holmes. Jones, as Holmes geeks may recall, was the detective who appeared in The Sign of the Four, and has developed a complex about Watson’s unflattering portrait of him in that story. So he has devoted himself to mastering all of Holmes’ techniques, meaning that we get a lovely pastiche of Holmes within the story, which stops us missing the Master too much. And Chase writes just as wonderfully as Watson, so that side’s covered too. The story easily stands on its own – it’s not necessary to be a Holmes geek to follow it, but there are loads of references to the original stories which add immensely to the fun if you are. For example, we finally learn all about the mystery of the parsley in the butter…
There’s constant excitement, terrifying peril, touches of horror, brilliant descriptions of London and enough humour to keep the tone light. The writing is superb, totally within character and as good as Conan Doyle’s own. The tone feels completely right for a Holmes book and the world of the book is absolutely the one in which Holmes lived and worked. And the only word I can find for the climax is awesome! So clever I read the last part of the book with a huge grin on my face, out of sheer pleasure and admiration. And then metaphorically rose to my feet and offered Mr Horowitz a well-deserved standing ovation…
You won’t be surprised to learn that I think you should read this. It’s a very special thing for Holmes fans, but it’s a great historical crime thriller in its own right too. Magnificent!
:) :) :) :)
At the end of Silver: Return to Treasure Island, Jim and Natty had been shipwrecked on the coast of Texas in the year 1803. We rejoin them at the start of this one as they are trying to recover the bodies of their companions, when suddenly they are discovered by a scavenging party of Indians from a local tribe. Taken prisoner, they are held captive and know that they are doomed to die. Granted an opportunity to escape, they take it – and also take something that doesn’t belong to them; something so important that the leader of the tribe, Black Cloud, and his evil henchman will hunt them down to recover it…
Although this is a continuation of a continuation of Treasure Island, in fact, it has nothing to do with Robert Louis Stevenson’s original except for Jim and Natty being the children of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver respectively. Motion makes this fairly clear himself by metaphorically getting rid of Stevenson in the first chapter, along with the all-important silver from the original and the first follow-up. In one sense, this works, since I felt the tone of Silver was so far from the tone of Treasure Island anyway that it didn’t truly feel like a continuation, so better to draw a clear divide than to invite comparison. In another sense, it doesn’t quite work so well, because we are left with the same two rather unsatisfactory lead characters.
I’m completely conflicted about this book. Motion writes beautifully, as one would expect from a former Poet Laureate. When he’s talking about nature in particular – the wide open landscape, the animals, the birds – his prose is wonderful. And even when he’s writing action scenes, his technical skill shines through – his sudden changes of tense and shifts in style are incredibly effective at creating tension or drama. As Jim and Natty journey across the country, the various people they meet are very well drawn, many of them in a slightly caricatured way that reminded me a little of the secondary characters in a Dickens novel. His descriptions of the tragedy of the Native Americans following the arrival of the Europeans are moving without being overstated, as he shows the slow attrition of the tribes as they were driven from their lands and denied their traditional ways of life.
I woke in the air – swept up by the angels of heaven all beating their wings together and singing. Then not singing but whispering. Whistling. Cooing. Gurgling. Crooning. Because they were not angels any more, they were pigeons, the same as last night, and now leaving with their mess drizzling beneath them in a continual white rain, first with laborious flusterings and squabblings, then twisting and looping and swaying and swerving until they had formed a gigantic letter S which held its shape . . . and held its shape . . . before it slackened and became a smoke-cloud blowing towards the horizon.
On the other hand, the plot moves so slowly and I’m afraid I find both Jim and Natty deeply annoying. At risk of being drummed out of the feminist sisterhood here, this is primarily because Jim is the world’s foremost leading wimp and Natty has to perform the functions of the hero. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the woman to be a simpering miss, but then I don’t want the man to be a simpering miss either. And Jim is. He’s tortured by everything that happens to him and is completely passive throughout. He does nothing when it looks as if Natty might be going off with another man, and it never occurs to him to face up to Black Cloud rather than running and hiding. He leaves it to Natty to make all the big decisions, but then whinges when she does. And she – mean, moody, selfish, silent, but (of course) beautiful Natty – treats him appallingly at all times. Why does he love her? Why does she love him? Two books now, and I still don’t know…
The thing is though, that despite everything that annoys me about these, I know I’ll be just as keen to read the next one – and the ending makes it fairly clear that there is a next one in the pipeline. Personally, I feel Motion’s writing style would be much better suited to a different kind of story – something much more traditionally ‘literary’. He gets too moralistic and introspective about the rights and wrongs of the adventure aspects of the story – the tone just isn’t quite suited to the material. But still, I love the way he uses language, and his secondary characters, and his descriptions of nature…and so I’ll continue to put up with Jim and Natty if I must. See what I mean? Conflicted…
NB This book was provided for review by Random House Vintage.
The TBR is still going down. (Hurrah!) Currently standing at an almost respectable 103, it will hopefully dip back down to two figures within the next few weeks…if I can continue to withstand the temptation of all your lovely reviews, that is. So here’s another bumper crop of pre-Christmas treats on the list – though Christmas may have to be put back a couple of months to give me time to read them all…
It’s publication day for Anthony Horowitz’s second Holmes follow-on (though I’m not sure Holmes is actually in it), and it’s already arrived on my Kindle. I thought he caught Watson’s voice incredibly well in his first, The House of Silk, though I was slightly less enamoured with some aspects of the plot. Intrigued to see where he takes us in this one…
The Blurb says “Sherlock Holmes is dead. Days after Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty fall to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls, Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase arrives in Europe from New York. The death of Moriarty has created a poisonous vacuum which has been swiftly filled by a fiendish new criminal mastermind who has risen to take his place. Ably assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones of Scotland Yard, a devoted student of Holmes’s methods of investigation and deduction, Frederick Chase must forge a path through the darkest corners of the capital to shine light on this shadowy figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, a man determined to engulf London in a tide of murder and menace.“
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Now, I blame Cleo for this one. She’s always raving about Peter James, so when I was offered a copy of this from Pan MacMillan, I found it impossible to say no. Click to read her review on Cleopatra Loves Books – but be warned. Visiting Cleo’s blog can severely damage your TBR…
The Blurb says “When Red Westwood meets handsome, charming and rich Bryce Laurent through an online dating agency, there is an instant attraction. But as their love blossoms, the truth about his past, and his dark side, begins to emerge. Everything he has told Red about himself turns out to be a tissue of lies, and her infatuation with him gradually turns to terror.
Within a year, and under police protection, she evicts him from her flat and her life. But Red’s nightmare is only just beginning. For Bryce is obsessed with her, and he intends to destroy everything and everyone she has ever known and loved – and then her too…“
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The Blurb says “Jules Pretty’s travels take him among the Māori people along the coasts of the Pacific, into the mountains of China, and across petroglyph-rich deserts of Australia. He treks with nomads over the continent-wide steppes of Tuva in southern Siberia, walks and boats in the wildlife-rich inland swamps of southern Africa, and experiences the Arctic with ice fishermen in Finland. He explores the coasts and inland marshes of eastern England and Northern Ireland and accompanies Innu people across the taiga’s snowy forests and the lakes of the Labrador interior. Pretty concludes his global journey immersed in the discrete cultures and landscapes embedded within the American landscape: the small farms of the Amish, the swamps of the Cajuns in the deep South, and the deserts of California. From these accounts of people living close to the land and close to the edge emerges a larger story about sustainability and the future of the planet. Pretty addresses not only current threats to natural and cultural diversity but also the unsustainability of modern lifestyles typical of industrialized countries. In a very real sense, Pretty discovers, what we manage to preserve now may well save us later.”
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The Blurb says “In the middle of the 15th century, scribe Peter Schoeffer is dismayed to be instructed by his father to give up his beloved profession of illuminating texts in Paris. Instead he is to travel to Mainz in Germany to be apprenticed to Johann Gutenberg, an entrepreneur who has invented a new process for producing books – the printing press. Working in conditions of extreme secrecy, the men employed by Gutenberg daily face new challenges both artistic and physical as they strive to create the new books to the standard required by their master. In a time of huge turmoil in Europe and around the world, Gutenberg is relentless in pursuing his dream and wooing the powerful religious leaders whose support is critical. Peter’s resistance to the project slowly dissolves as he sees that, with the guidance of a scribe such as himself, the new Bibles could be as beautiful in their way as the old. Today we can see that beauty in some of our museums, but few know the astonishing tale of ambition, ruthlessness and triumph that lies behind it.“
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And on the subject of beautiful books, I am the lucky recipient of a hardback copy of this courtesy of The British Library. It is sumptuously illustrated – if the content lives up to the look and feel of this one, it will be a thing of pure joy…
The Blurb says ““There’s nowhere like London really you know,” says Ginger in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. From the innumerable books written about London or set in the city, it would seem countless other writers agree. This anthology features a broad collection of poems and scenes from novels that stretch from the fifteenth century to the present day. They range from Daniel Defoe extolling it as “the greatest, the finest, the richest city in the world,” and Rudyard Kipling declaring impatiently, “I am sick of London town,” to William Makepeace Thackeray moving among “the very greatest circles of the London fashion,” and Charles Dickens venturing into an “infernal gulf.”
Illustrated with evocative prints, drawings, and full-color artwork from British Library collections, the book explores London as never before. Experience London for the first time with Lord Byron’s Don Juan and James Berry in his Caribbean gear “beginning in the city.” Plunge into the multiracial whirlpool described in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and see the ever-changing city through the eyes of Tobias Smollett, John Galsworthy, and Angela Carter. From well-known texts to others that are less familiar, London: A Literary Anthology brings London to life through the words of many of the greatest writers in the English language.“
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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley, Goodreads or Amazon.
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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
:D :D :D :D :D
When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. The book is set in Tóibín’s own birth town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford just at the turn of the decade to the 1970s. This means it’s positioned between two of Tóibín’s earlier works: Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl sent abroad from the same town as an economic migrant in the 1950s, and The Blackwater Lightship, about three generations of women forced together by grief and trying to overcome old resentments. Although these books are entirely separate from this one in terms of story and characters, Tóibín makes reference to them both early on, and it would not be unreasonable, I feel, to see the three as a loose trilogy, building together to show us the changes in this small old-fashioned society over the decades, especially as they affected women. Brooklyn was set at a time when girls were still expected to conform to traditions upheld by their families and church in terms of their lives and marriages, while in The Blackwater Lightship, Helen has broken almost completely from this society and its traditions, though we see how they can still exert an emotional hold over her. Here, through Nora Webster, we see the midway point – the cusp of feminism if you like, arriving late in this small backwater, when women were beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by parents or husbands.
Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Nora is in her forties with two daughters almost grown and living away at school and college, and two younger sons, both deeply affected by the death of their father and by Nora’s withdrawal into grief. We see that the marriage was a traditional one, with Maurice as the breadwinner and the one who made the big decisions, while Nora fulfilled the role of housewife and mother and had no expectations of a wider life. Left to cope on her own after Maurice’s death, at first she is determined to maintain a continuity with the past and to hold her grief inside herself, hoping that a sense of normality will shield her sons from the worst feelings of loss. But as time passes, and as she is thrust back into the world through the economic need to work, Nora begins to feel the influence of the changes that are taking place in society.
Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.
My reaction to Tóibín’s writing of these women of the generation of Nora, and Eilis from Brooklyn, is a very personal one, mainly because his characters remind me so much of my own mother. The cultures of Ireland and the West of Scotland are so intertwined that I find the society he portrays wholly recognisable; and these strong post-war women who bore their sorrows within themselves, often in silence, are written with such integrity and understanding. As Nora gradually emerges from her first grief and begins, in a small way, to embrace life again, Tóibín subtly shows the guilt she feels, as if her enjoyment is a betrayal of her husband. And when, at this time of change, she finds she is drawn to things that Maurice would never have understood, such as developing a love for classical music and a desire to learn to sing, we see her struggle to accept her own right to make decisions about her life – a right she may never have considered had Maurice lived. Even making a decision to buy something for herself is so carefully weighed against the guilt that she may be being selfish, that her own wants shouldn’t matter.
Though the story is very focussed on Nora, through her Tóibín shows the impact of the wider events of the time. Maurice was the political one in the family, but now, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland worsening every day, Nora finds herself forming her own opinions and no longer being willing to nod quietly in acceptance of the views of the men in her family. Through her daughters, Tóibín shows how much freer the next generation of women felt, and how much more involved they would be in the world outside the home, both in careers and politics. For me the three books – from Eilis in Brooklyn, through Nora and her daughters, and on to Helen in The Blackwater Lightship – give a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. This one gets my highest recommendation.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK. Er…and Scribner. (What can I say? I requested it from both to be on the safe side and they both approved it. Oops!)
Gelatinous jellyfish in the sky…
Even the bravest amongst us must surely have shivered when the ghastly howl of the Hound of the Baskervilles echoed over the doom-laden moors. So who better than the master storyteller to lead us into a nightmare far above the clouds in this week’s…
Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I have seen the beauty and I have seen the horror of the heights – and greater beauty or greater horror than that is not within the ken of man.
First published in 1913, we are in the early days of flight, when brave aviators were exploring the previously unknown regions above the clouds. The story is taken from the pages of a notebook found amidst wreckage in a field in the south of England, but no trace was ever found of the man who wrote them – Mr Joyce-Armstrong, known to his friends as ‘a poet and a dreamer, as well as a mechanic and an inventor’. A skilled amateur aeronaut, he has been roused to suspicion by a number of mysterious deaths of other flyers…
And then there was Myrtle’s head. Do you really believe – does anybody really believe – that a man’s head could be driven clean into his body by the force of a fall?
He has a theory that, far above the clouds, at the extreme limit of where the most modern aeroplanes could reach, there lurks an unknown danger…
A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.
And so he sets off in his tiny monoplane to fly above thirty thousand feet into one of the zones where some of the mysterious deaths and disappearances have happened…
Every cord and strut was humming and vibrating like so many harp-strings, but it was glorious to see how, for all the beating and buffeting, she was still the conqueror of Nature and the mistress of the sky.
The journey is a long one as his ascent must be slow so that he can become accustomed to the rarefied air, and as he rises he describes the wonders of the clouds he is passing through and the earth beneath him. And finally, he reaches forty thousand feet and lo! There is indeed an air-jungle filled with beautiful mysterious creatures like giant jellyfish, changing colour as they float through the air. But they are not the only creatures that inhabit the jungle – there is a purple thing, with monstrous eyes and three bubble-like protuberances on its back…
The vague, goggling eyes which were turned always upon me were cold and merciless in their viscid hatred… As quick as a flash there shot out a long tentacle from this mass of floating blubber, and it fell as light and sinuous as a whip-lash across the front of my machine.
Pulling out his trusty shotgun, he fires on the beast…
…though, indeed, it was like attacking an elephant with a pea-shooter to imagine that any human weapon could cripple that mighty bulk.
Escaping, he returns to earth; but wishing to have something to prove that his story was true, he decides to make one more trip to catch one of the creatures…
OK, I admit it. This story made me chuckle more than shiver, but only because we know now that there are no such creatures in the sky…don’t we? But back in 1913, I’m sure it would have been considerably more effective. In terms of descriptive writing, it’s great – giving a real feel for the experience of early flying in a plane held together by string and prayer. The monsters have an almost Lovecraftian feel about them, as does the idea of the tale being found in a fragmentary journal. But of course it was written long before Lovecraft, so probably fairer to say that Lovecraft achieves a Doylian feel. There’s no mystery about how it will end, since we know from the beginning that the trip doesn’t go well, but that lack of tension is compensated for by the imagination that created these creatures and described them so well. It would be a fun story to read just as you’re taking off on your next budget flight…
Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock:
Overall story rating: :D :D :D :D
:D :D :D :D :D
Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz awakes in hospital to discover that he has lost all memory of the events that have put him there. He has been shot through the leg and was dragged half-dead from the Thames, the boat he was on drifting empty but with the blood of more than one person on the deck. His furious boss accuses him of having been involved in a rogue operation to pay ransom for the return of a missing child – young Mickey Carlyle, who went missing three years earlier and is presumed dead, with her supposed killer convicted and in prison. Ruiz knows that if he was indeed willing to help with the ransom payment, he must have had some reason for believing that Mickey is alive, so turns to his psychologist friend, Professor Joe O’Loughlin, for help in trying to retrieve his memories. And meantime, though he is suspended from duty, he is desperate to find Mickey, if she is still alive…
This is another excellent thriller from Michael Robotham, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite crime writers. Although the two main characters are the same as in the first in the series, The Suspect, Robotham has shifted the point of view from Joe O’Loughlin in the earlier one to Vincent Ruiz in this one. Still unfortunately written in the first person present tense, it seems to me that Robotham has improved at that technique between the two books, and this one avoided the occasional clumsiness that marred the last one. Changing the point of view means that we get to know much more about Ruiz in this one, finding out about his family background and the early tragedy that is still affecting him as he approaches retirement. It also means that we see O’Loughlin from a different perspective, getting a more rounded picture of how he appears to other people. I’ve only read one other in the series – no. 6, Watching You – and that is told mainly in the third person. It’s an interesting approach that means we keep the familiarity of the same characters while getting a fresh angle on them each time.
The plot is complex but credible, and though there are plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing, each one stays within the bound of believability. There’s plenty of action, and occasionally Ruiz perhaps strays just a little too much towards superhero status. Set in London, there’s a good sense of place and, as we are taken down beneath the city into the sewers and tunnels, Robotham uses his clearly thorough research lightly to create atmosphere and tension with some fine descriptive writing. But the real strength of the book is in the characterisation. Ruiz is the main focus of this one and, although he is carrying some heavy personal baggage, he is in no way a stereotypical angst-ridden maverick. He is a successful professional copper, well respected until the events at the start of the book – making it all the more intriguing to discover what has made him act so out of character. The other characters are well-rounded too – Mickey’s parents, the other officers involved in the investigation, Ruiz’s mother and of course Joe O’Loughlin himself.
Although this is a series, each of the books stands alone and there isn’t really a continuing story arc as such. So my recommendation is to grab any one you can get hold of and settle down for a thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m certainly looking forward to catching up with the rest of the series.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mulholland Books.
:) :) :) :)
Now in his eighties and still an active Labour Member of (the UK) Parliament, it seems to me as if Dennis Skinner has been around forever. Certainly he’s been there since Parliament was televised, sitting in his usual seat beside the passage and making his famous quips at the opposition speakers…and sometimes those from his own party too. He claims that he didn’t want to write this book of memoirs, but has finally given in to the requests of many people who have enjoyed his public speaking. Certainly the book’s progress to publication seems to have been a difficult one – it has been delayed and delayed till it reached the stage that I wondered whether it would ever actually appear. At first, Skinner was shown as the sole author, then for a while the pre-order details said that it was to be co-written by Kevin Maguire, a left-wing journalist – but this finished version has reverted back to being credited to Skinner alone.
All of which might help to explain why the book is, quite frankly, a bit messy. It’s a cross between a rather patchy memoir and a statement of Skinner’s political convictions, with occasional musings on other subjects, such as his love for London parks. That’s not to say it’s not interesting – it is. Well, I’ll narrow that down a little – it’s interesting if you happen to be a left-wing UK political nerd who remembers the miners’ strike and gets nostalgic over the thought of those halcyon days when we marched through the streets of wherever we happened to be at the time, shouting ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ Skinner is an unreconstructed socialist and proud of it. Following his father into the mines, he is of ‘good working-class stock’ (which was in fact the title the book was listed as at one stage of its production), and still sees himself very much as a class warrior. His hatred for the Conservatives is visceral and often expressed in terms not unlike a small boy calling nasty names. On the other hand, he is strangely unforthcoming about the changes in the Labour party over the decades – he surely must have hated and despised the New Labour ‘project’, but he keeps that pretty much under wraps, while making it clear he thinks it’s well past time for Labour to get back to its roots.
The thing is that politics has moved on so far from the seventies and eighties (whether for better or worse is for each person to decide for him/herself) and Skinner’s views now come over as so out-dated, as does his manner of expressing them. (It may – or may not – have been acceptable to call a woman politician ‘darling’ in the seventies, but not so much today.) I would have agreed with him politically about 80% of the time in the Thatcher era, but those days, and the society that existed then, are gone, and won’t be coming back. I felt at points as if I had accidentally stepped into a time-machine. Too much of the book is spent on him recounting his best insults – many of them were quite funny at the time (and many others were just childish), but I did start wondering if the tax-payers were paying for an MP or a comedian. However I felt that was more to do with the uneven structure of the book, than a real reflection on Skinner’s career. He doesn’t really say much about any of the committees he served on (I assume there were some) and the details he gives of the political highpoints of his career are too few and far between. He does go quite deeply into the miners’ strike, obviously with a very strong bias towards the miners, and that was interesting. But the book is too heavily weighted to the Thatcher era – he glosses over the last Labour administration and then gets into his stride again with a series of childish personal insults about the current batch of Tories. (It always amuses me how both sides think the other side behaves badly – and it amused me how hoity-toity Skinner, the arch-insulter, got when Cameron hurled a couple in his direction. Wouldn’t it be great to have a few adults in politics for a change?)
Overall, I found this in parts interesting, in parts annoying, and as a whole, too unstructured to be completely satisfying. I can’t imagine it appealing to many people outwith the Old Labour tradition, but for them I’m sure it will be an essential read, as it was for me. If for no other reason than that it gives us the chance to do the Time Warp again…
:D :D :D :)
Lars Martin Johansson, Chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, decides to have a final shot at solving the twenty-year old assassination of then Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. Pulling together a small team of his best detectives, he gets them to begin a review of the huge amount of paperwork relating to the investigation, trusting that fresh eyes might spot something previously overlooked. Meantime, Chief Inspector Bäckström, now sidelined to working in the Lost Property division, is determined to find a way to get the reward offered for solving the crime.
This is a rather strange book in that the assassination of Olof Palme is, of course, a real event, which has never been properly solved. Although one man was convicted of the murder, he was later released on appeal. While many still think him guilty, there are about a zillion other theories too – from rogue police officers to Kurdish terrorists – and all, from what Persson suggests, based on the thinnest of evidence or none at all. So from the start it was hard to see exactly where we were going to end up in this book – either Persson would have to stick with the facts, leading to an untidy unresolved ending, or he would have to invent a solution. I thought he might be going to use the opportunity to put forward his own pet theory (I’m guessing every Swede has one) but the book didn’t really give me that impression. Instead it read more like a kind of slow thriller and seemed to veer further from reality as it progressed. In fact, I found all the way through that I didn’t know which bits were fact and which were fiction, which meant that by the end I couldn’t really say I knew more about the real assassination than I did at the beginning (i.e., nothing). I suspect this would work much better for anyone who knows the ins and outs of the crime and investigation before they begin, but for me it all felt too confused and unclear. The more I read, the more unconvinced I became about the merit of using a real, unsolved case in this way, especially such a high profile and recent case.
Putting the concept to one side, then, and looking at the book purely as a crime thriller worked a little better for me. Johansson and his team are well drawn and their interactions have a convincing feel. We get to see them in their off-duty lives too, which makes them feel well rounded. This is a team of professionals who on the whole respect each other and work well together. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Bäckström – obviously supposed to be the comic relief, he is an ‘old-fashioned’ sexist, racist, drunken, corrupt copper – oh dear! Yes, occasionally he has a funny line, but really he is so stereotyped and one-dimensional as to be completely unbelievable, and I tired very quickly of his foul-mouthed, offensive remarks. Maybe they were funnier in Swedish. The whole strand relating to him made very little sense as far as I could see, and I felt the book would have been better and tighter without him in it.
The fictional investigation sees the detectives discussing many of the ‘tracks’ followed by the real investigators, plus, I assume, some made up stuff so that Persson could deliver his own version of events. While interesting, there is a good deal of repetition in these sections, not just of information, but often the same phrases being used time and again, all of which contributes to the book being seriously overlong. The translation is fine for the most part, but occasionally becomes clunky and a few times actually leaves the meaning somewhat unclear. Overall, the interest of the original case plus the good characterisation of the main team just about outweighed the annoying Bäckström and my mild irritation at not knowing where the line lay between fact and fiction. I’d guess that Persson fans will enjoy this but, although it works as a standalone, in hindsight perhaps it’s not the best of his books to start with.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.
No rest for the wicked…
The fretful porpentine has stirred from his summer sleep and is back to haunt our winter nightmares. Aye, the nichts are fair drawin’ in, and the cauld wind is blawin’ through the deid leaves wi’ a sound like auld bones rattlin’…
And where better to begin our journey into darkness than in a graveyard with a master of horror…
The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
The tale begins in the parlour of an inn, where sits Fettes, an ‘old drunken Scotchman’, getting steadily drunk on rum as he does every night. The locals call him ‘Doctor’ because he seems to have some medical knowledge, but his past is shrouded in mystery. Until one night another doctor turns up at the inn to treat a patient and Fettes recognises his name. They meet, and Dr Wolfe Macfarlane is clearly horrified to have encountered this old acquaintance. He tries to get rid of Fettes by offering him money…
‘Money!’ cried Fettes; ‘money from you! The money that I had from you is lying where I cast it in the rain.’
Macfarlane tries to brush past Fettes and get away from the inn but…
…even as he was passing Fettes clutched him by the arm and these words came in a whisper, and yet painfully distinct, ‘Have you seen it again?’
The great rich London doctor cried out aloud with a sharp, throttling cry; he dashed his questioner across the open space, and, with his hands over his head, fled out of the door…
The story then goes back to an earlier time when both these men were anatomy students in Edinburgh at the time of the Resurrection Men – the body-snatchers. Fettes is responsible for receiving the bodies for dissection by the anatomy classes and paying the men who brought them. For a time he dulls his conscience by choosing to believe that they are getting the bodies from graves, and sometimes he and Macfarlane go grave-robbing themselves when bodies are in short supply. But gradually he can no longer fool himself – some of the bodies are of people murdered for the money their corpses will bring.
And then one night Macfarlane brings a corpse of a man they both know… and Fettes, knowing that Macfarlane had cause to want the man dead, has to choose whether to obey his conscience or his avarice…
It was Macfarlane himself who made the first advance. He came up quietly behind and laid his hand gently but firmly on the other’s shoulder. ‘Richardson,’ said he, ‘may have the head.’
But murder victims do not always rest easy in their graves, and consciences cannot always be kept quiet. And on a dark night, when the two men set out to rob a newly dug grave, they will meet with a horror that will haunt them for the rest of their lives…
Even though the reader pretty much knows all the way through where this story is heading, Stevenson manages to create a truly chilling atmosphere of fear and tension. He doesn’t overdo the descriptions – just enough to set the scene and then leaves the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. Written in 1884, it’s set 60 years earlier at the time of the Burke and Hare murders and apparently much of the story is taken from fact. The build-up to the climax is truly spine-tingling – the darkness, the graveyard, the silence – and then the journey back to Edinburgh with the freshly dug corpse between them on the seat…oooh! The fretful porpentine was wide awake by the time we finished this one…
Still their unnatural burden bumped from side to side; and now the head would be laid, as if in confidence, upon their shoulders, and now the drenching sack-cloth would flap icily about their faces…
Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock:
Overall story rating: :D :D :D :D :D
* * * * * * *
PS For anyone who wasn’t around for this series last year the ‘fretful porpentine’ reference is from Hamlet’s ghostly father’s speech…
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
:D :D :D :D :D
Having previously only read Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which I loved, I was intrigued to see how her rather slow-burning style in those books would convert to short, contemporary fiction. I’m pleased to say the answer is very well indeed – Mantel shows she is a mistress of this format just as much as the novel. Although the ten stories in this book weren’t written specifically as a collection, there is a common theme that runs through them of women somewhat trapped in their lives, usually either by physical circumstances or by social constriction; and several of the stories feel quite autobiographical in tone, giving the impression that Mantel has perhaps drawn heavily on her own experiences.
Mary with her scrawny arms, her knee-caps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand, her own perhaps, had placed on her rat-tails a twisted white ribbon; by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly-tied parcel.
I was expecting beautiful writing and I was hoping for some moving, thought-provoking subject matter and the book has both in spades. What came as a surprise to me though was the rather wicked humour that appears in many of the stories – Mantel uses her keen observation of human nature to make us laugh out loud with the characters at some points, and at others traps us with a kind of wry cynicism into laughing at them. She brings an almost conspiratorial edge to some of the stories, where she and the reader know more than the narrator, allowing us to share a deliciously guilty feeling of superiority.
I enjoyed each of the stories, but here are just a couple that particularly stood out for me -
Harley Street is a story of a group of women working in a doctors’ practice in Harley Street (where the posh people in the UK go to have their hypochondria pampered). Told in the first person by a narrator who thinks she understands people but really misses the big things right under her nose, this humorous story, like many of the others, has a bittersweet edge. The three women are fundamentally alone and lonely and we see the ebb and flow of their attempts to connect with each other. In the end, though, the humour wins out and I found myself chuckling merrily as Mantel and I winked knowingly at each other behind the poor narrator’s back.
How Shall I Know You? is a brilliantly told story of a once successful author visiting literary societies in obscure places to give talks on her work. The descriptions of the shabby hotels, the aspiring writers thrusting their manuscripts at her, the questions she has answered a hundred times before, are so cringe-makingly funny they must be based on truth! But there is a much darker side to this story and in the end Mantel left this reader at least rather wishing she hadn’t found quite so much to laugh at in the narrator’s life. A fine example of how a couple of sentences can change the reader’s perception.
Not all the stories are as quirky as these. The first one, Sorry to Disturb, very autobiographical in feel, is a longer story of a woman living as an ex-pat in Jeddah and finding herself having to conform to the very different expectations of women in that society. Another, The Heart Fails Without Warning, is a dark and rather disturbing story of a young girl watching her anorexic sister starve herself close to the point of death.
The final story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, gives the collection its title, and is the only one written specifically for this collection, I believe. It seems to have raised a storm of criticism because of the subject matter and to be honest Mrs Thatcher is too recently dead for me to feel that it’s in the best taste (her children are, after all, still alive). However, it’s an interesting take on just how hated Mrs Thatcher was by a large minority in her day, and while personally I thought it was one of the weakest in the collection, it is still well-written and very readable.
Overall, as with any collection, some of the stories are stronger than others, and occasionally there’s a twist at the end which is just a little too neat. But overall this short book is a great read. The stories are varied enough that almost everyone is bound to find something to their taste, and the quality of the writing and characterisation is so good that it outweighs any weaknesses in the plots. Dare I say it? The perfect Christmas gift…
This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari uprising. I abandoned it at the halfway point – sometimes life really is too short. A fellow reviewer* described it as “Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good”. I think that’s a perfect description – and I found The Lowland pretty underwhelming…
There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it’s often not made clear what period we’re in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the ’60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).
But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover – at the point I abandoned it we still don’t know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance – we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist’s interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory – at great length.
The quality of the writing is fine – neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there’s no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories – well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all in her writing of The Goldfinch – Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be ‘densely rendered’ (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money’s worth. Personally, I’d prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the ‘Bengali-ness’ that he is apparently trying to portray – I guess therefore it’s understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.
The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn’t a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I’d have become a Marxist terrorist myself.
I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and I’ll say it again – I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while – there has to be something to contrast it with if it’s going to have an emotional impact.** Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn’t care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.
In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker, of course…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
* Amazon UK reviewer “Mister Hobgoblin”
** As an aside, I find it intriguing that the three authors I have criticised as portraying such a bleak mono-coloured view of India are all people who have left it to live elsewhere (Rohinton Mistry, Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri). On the other hand the two Indian authors whom I have hugely enjoyed (Aravind Adiga and Chandrahas Choudhury) both live and work there, as far as I know, and give a much more balanced and nuanced picture of the people and of life there. I rather wish someone would do a thesis on differing viewpoints of emigrants and residents…
The People’s Choice 4…The Result!
Excitingly, the voting has once again resulted in a tie for first place! The Professor and the Madman sounds like a great read. But since I’m up to my eyes in factual books at the moment and since the spooky season will soon be upon us, I’m giving the casting vote to…
The Blurb – First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
Thanks to all who voted, and to Cathy at 746 Books for the review that brought this book to my attention.
Now all I have to do is find time to read it…
And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…
Courtesy of NetGalley, heading away from British and American history for a bit…
The Blurb – We all know the story of Joan of Arc. A peasant girl who hears voices from God. A warrior leading an army to victory, in an age that believes women cannot fight. The Maid of Orleans, and the saviour of France. Burned at the stake as a heretic at the age of just nineteen. Five hundred years later, a saint. Her case was heard in court twice over. One trial, in 1431, condemned her; the other, twenty-five years after her death, cleared her name. In the transcripts, we hear first-hand testimony from Joan, her family and her friends: a rare survival from the medieval world. What could be more revealing? But all is not as simple as it seems, because this is a life told backwards, in hindsight – a story already shaped by the knowledge of what Joan would become.
In Joan of Arc: A History, Helen Castor tells this gripping story afresh: forwards, not backwards, setting this extraordinary girl within her extraordinary world where no one – not Joan herself, nor the people around her, princes, bishops, soldiers or peasants – knew what would happen next.
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The Blurb – Over the years, Ian Rankin has amassed an incredible portfolio of short stories. Published in crime magazines, composed for events, broadcast on radio, they all share the best qualities of his phenomenally popular Rebus novels.
Brought together for the first time, and including brand new material, this is the ultimate Rebus short-story collection and a must-have book for crime lovers and for Ian’s millions of fans alike.
No Rankin aficionado can go without it.
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From NetGalley again, towards the end of the dreariest year I can remember for new literary fiction, here’s hoping Colm Tóibín can lift the standard…
The Blurb – Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.
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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.
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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
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At the risk of sounding obnoxiously conceited, I’m going to start by saying this book isn’t really aimed at me. I have a pretty good knowledge and understanding of Scotland’s history in general and a reasonably in-depth amateur knowledge of some periods in particular. However I was intrigued to see how the ‘…for Dummies’ series would present history, having only used them in the past for more technical subjects, and I always find it’s good to start with a subject you know something about to get a feel for the quality and accuracy of the series.
This book covers the entire human history of Scotland from the Stone Age to the current day in just over 300 pages. It is therefore to be expected that it’s going to be a fairly quick romp and indeed it is. In fact, the first several sections irritated me quite a lot by their superficiality – not just the Stone Age, etc., but also the Romans, the Vikings and right on past the Bruce and Wallace era. The section on the Kings of Scotland between Bruce and the Union was a sprint – admittedly they did have a tendency to die young, but some of them only got a couple of pages. It’s not that these sections lacked facts; but they did lack much interpretation and I didn’t feel they were put into the context of the wider world particularly well. In this early part of the book, the author has also included lots of little jokey asides, often schoolboy humour about sexual mores, and he is a huge enthusiast for the exclamation mark!!!! I think there may be more exclamation marks in this book than in the whole of world literature put together!!!!
However, once we get to what we would think of as modern history – the last 300 years or so, the book becomes more in-depth with more analysis and a greater feeling of context. The ‘About the Author’ section tells us that this is the period in which Knox has done most of his work and I think that shows. Even here, though, there are some issues where I wondered if a reader would be left floundering for lack of information. For instance, the fueing system of land rents rates one sentence. I felt it would actually have been clearer to omit reference to it entirely than to explain it so inadequately, and there were many other examples like this. In general, however, these later sections give a much fuller picture of Scottish society and how it changed in response to the rise and fall of Empire and beyond.
The book is very much in the style of the ‘…for Dummies’ series, using icons and bullet-point lists to highlight information the author considers important for the reader to remember. This works reasonably well, though sometimes it felt a bit patronising. What worked less well were the grammatical errors and typos – they didn’t by any means make the book unreadable but there were too many of them in what is after all a scholarly work. Sometimes the lack of grammatical clarity led to errors in fact – for instance, on page 14 the author says Scotland was uninhabitable between the second century AD and the 13th century – a surprise, I imagine, to the people who lived there. What he meant was that it was uninhabitable for thousands of years at a much earlier period due to the Ice Age. The error is caused by a lack of clarity in the writing style, and again there are other examples of this. As so often, I found myself wondering if the editor had read the book.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the book because it does provide a basic introduction to Scottish history and that’s what it sets out to do. And certainly for modern history I felt it gave a good overview. But I felt the earlier sections were too superficial even as an introduction, there were too many areas that lacked clarity and as a result were confusing, and personally I disliked the author’s jokey style. I was also disappointed to see that there’s no bibliography included, so anyone wishing to read further is given no guidance on where to look next. So in conclusion I fear I can only give a lukewarm recommendation to this one overall, though I’d recommend it more strongly to someone who was primarily interested in the sections on modern history.
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.
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When a long-dead body is found on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh school, the case is handed to Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Calling on her friend and colleague, forensic anthropologist Dr River Wilde, for help in identifying the body, Karen soon finds that the victim is of Eastern European origin. So begins a case that is as much about the history of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s as it is about a murder investigation.
When Val McDermid is on form she’s one of the best of the current crime writers, and I’m pleased to say that she’s on form in this one. Personally I’m glad to see her getting away from the Tony Hill series, which in my opinion has gone on too long and has lost its way over the last few books. (In fact, I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read the last couple.) And, unlike her last foray into standalone thriller territory with the truly bad The Vanishing Point, this one is a return to her strengths as a police procedural with an intriguing and believable plot. Although much of the action takes place in Oxford and Croatia, Karen Pirie is based in Scotland and I enjoyed seeing McDermid return to her roots (which she also did very successfully recently in her take on Austen’s Northanger Abbey.) Karen is a likeable detective – neither drunken nor angst-ridden, she is in a stable supportive relationship with a man she loves, and seems to get on well with her colleagues, all of which is nicely refreshing.
As the investigation advances, Karen contacts an Oxford University professor, Maggie Blake, who was involved in a scheme to bring ‘underground universities’ to Croatia just before the war began. While there, Maggie had fallen in love with a Croatian army officer, so stayed on once the war began. Karen hopes she will be able to shed some light on the country at that time, and perhaps more specifically on why the Edinburgh victim may have been murdered. The book is told mainly in the third-person past-tense from Karen’s viewpoint, but there are sections between the chapters where Maggie tells the story of her time in Croatia and her return to Oxford after the war. There is another strand which links through the book of two detectives from the International War Crimes Tribunal, who are investigating a string of murders of suspected war criminals. Oddly, it’s these characters who provide a bit of much-needed humour to lift the book, despite their task – they are an ill-matched couple, fighting to keep their jobs, and their rather bumbling interactions with each other and Karen stop the book from becoming too oppressively dark.
But the main story is very dark indeed, as we are told of some of the atrocities that happened during that period. McDermid has clearly done her research thoroughly and, although obviously the events in the book are mainly fictional, they have a horrific ring of truth about them. While we’re mainly seeing the story from the Croatian viewpoint, McDermid briefly gives the Serbian side of the story too and, while she doesn’t attempt to justify, she makes sure the reader is aware of how complex the situation was – not quite as black and white as it is sometimes portrayed. Living through this period as I did, I must say I’m much clearer about what went on after reading this book than I ever was at the time.
The book isn’t without its flaws, the main one being that there is too small a cast of suspects and it’s therefore pretty easy to spot the solution fairly early on. This seems to be becoming a frequent problem in current crime-writing – the authors seem to be so concerned with cramming in a great deal of research sometimes at the expense of creating a complex mystery. However, taking the book as a whole, the quality of the writing and the depth of the story more than compensate for the weaknesses, and overall I found this an absorbing and satisfying read.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.
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The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.
In Gene’s memory, Finny is a kind of golden boy, an exceptional athlete and a natural leader who recognises no rules but his own. Gene loves and admires him and is proud to be counted as his closest friend. But in his heart he is also jealous that Finny is always the leader and Gene is merely one of his followers. Finny is the superior athlete and the more imaginative of the two; and the only way Gene can see to outdo him is in the academic side of things. But he knows for certain that Finny will be untouched even if Gene excels in his studies – partly because Finny doesn’t much care about classwork but, more importantly, because he is a truer, more honest friend than Gene, and will be pleased, rather than jealous, about his friend’s success. And feeling this – that Finny is untouchably superior and the better person – leaves Gene struggling to reconcile his love for Finny with the jealousy and irritation that this intense adolescent friendship brings him. And, more than that, he resents, but is unable to resist, being forced to follow Finny into dangerous activities – effortless to the athletic Finny but terrifying to Gene. And, one day, all of these feelings boil over for just one second – a second that will change both boys for ever…
In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left. Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax. Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there.
The boys’ knowledge that they will be enlisted into the Army as soon as their schooling finishes is at the heart of the story. The parallels between Gene’s moment of madness and the bigger madness of the war are obvious, but handled with a subtlety that prevents the reader from feeling lectured to. These privileged boys don’t question that they will go off to fight – their families and school have made sure they understand it is their duty. Knowles shows very well how the need to hide any weakness from their peers means that the boys whip up a kind of self-induced enthusiasm for the war and all things martial, leading in turn to the ascendency of the athletic over the academic. And the microcosm of this enclosed little society mirrors the wider world, goading itself on to ever greater sacrifices in the name of war.
No locker room could have more pungent air than Devon’s; sweat predominated, but it was richly mingled with smells of paraffin and singed rubber, of soaked wool and liniment, and for those who could interpret it, of exhaustion, lost hope and triumph and bodies battling against each other. I thought it anything but a bad smell. It was pre-eminently the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignance for any athlete, just as it has for any lover.
This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand – a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can’t even point to on a map.
Winter’s occupation seems to have conquered, overrun and destroyed everything, so that now there is no longer any resistance movement left in nature; all the juices are dead, every sprig of vitality snapped, and now winter itself, an old, corrupt, tired conqueror, loosens its grip on the desolation, recedes a little, grows careless in its watch; sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins to withdraw from the ruined countryside.
But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. Gene’s first-person narrative is achingly honest in its portrayal of his emotions. Told as a memory from a distance, Knowles manages the difficult task of keeping the adolescent Gene’s emotions feeling fresh and immediate, while colouring the whole book with a kind of nostalgic regret. Finny is seen at a remove – adult Gene recounting his memories of younger Gene’s feelings about him – and has an almost mythic quality, as if surrounded by a golden aura. It’s a beautiful evocation of how nostalgia and grief tend to lead to an idealisation of a person once loved. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.