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FictionFan Awards 2014 – Literary Fiction

Please rise…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Literary Fiction Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction – click to see awards

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

 

LITERARY FICTION

 

Regrettably, this has been the worst year I can remember for new literary fiction. In the entire year, only a handful of books achieved five-star status, and a couple of them already appeared in the FictionFan Shadow Booker Awards 2013. Of course, there might have been hundreds of brilliant books published that haven’t come my way, but I don’t get the impression from around the blogosphere that there are absolute must-reads out there that I’ve missed. Fortunately this dearth has been more than compensated for by the books I’ve read as part of the Great American Novel Quest, the vast majority of which have been superb – presumably that’s why they’re classics. As you will see, this year’s nominees reflect that…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the roadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m a little surprised to be including this bleak dystopian novel as a runner-up. It is the tale of a man and a boy travelling through a landscape devastated by some unspecified disaster – probably a nuclear winter. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about it, finding the writing style a little irritating, and feeling that the book thought it was more profound than it actually was. However I also found it “thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.” And indeed, it has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I find the images have become part of my literary landscape. It’s a book I find myself thinking about and referring to time and again, with the result that my opinion of it has continued to grow, to the extent that I would now count it as a great novel.

Click to see the full review

the road2

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Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

arzee the dwarfDespite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.

I loved Choudhury’s prose in this deliciously bittersweet comedy – there’s some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. This was truly an unexpected delight of a book and it still, ten months on, makes me smile each time I think of it.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the sun also risesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemigway

Another entry that surprises me, and for the same reasons as The Road – I have found this one has stayed in my mind and my appreciation of it has continued to grow. By all rights, I should have hated it – a macho tale of men being men, drunken quarrels, bullfighting and the ‘lost generation’ of feckless wasters. 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. In the end I found that the picture that eventually emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all. And, with the benefit of a little more distance, the book has settled into a permanent place as an unforgettable read, fully justifying its inclusion as one of the best books I’ve read this year…or perhaps ever.

Click to see the full review

Painting credited to 'Matador Painter'

Painting credited to ‘Matador Painter’

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Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora websterThe last literary fiction novel I read in the period covered by the awards and so nearly the winner. 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. 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. Set in time and place between two of Tóibín’s earlier books, Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship, it seems to me that the three can be seen as a loose trilogy, giving 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. The only book published this year to make the shortlist….

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST LITERARY FICTION

 

revolutionary road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

When I reviewed it, I described this book as a masterpiece, and I hold to that opinion. Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere.

A book that encapsulates a certain time and place, at a moment when the traditional American Dream was about to be shattered and made anew, when roles were changing in the family and in the workplace, when both men and women were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of living in a world where increasing technological advances were rendering the old ways obsolete – this comes close to rivalling The Great Gatsby as my favourite American novel of all time.

A worthy winner indeed – however since, due to being dead, Mr Yates is unlikely to be producing any new novels in the near future, the prize will be that I will read something from his back catalogue – A Special Providence, I think.

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

kate winslet in RR

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Two weeks today: Crime Fiction/Thrillers Award

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

the churchill factorBlood, toil, tears and sweat…

:D :D :D :D :D

Winston Churchill needs no introduction and, in the UK, nor does Boris Johnson, but perhaps he does elsewhere. Boris is one of those few people who are known to all by their first names – if you mention Boris over here, everyone will assume that it’s this Boris you mean unless you specify otherwise. A leading light in the Conservative Party, he has been the Mayor of London for the last six years and is strongly tipped in many quarters to be a future leader of the Party and possibly a future Prime Minister. This is pretty spectacular for a man who is best known for being exceptionally funny on panel games, having a silly hairstyle and being an upper-class buffoon who would fit in well in the Drones Club. But that public persona doesn’t quite hide the other facts about Boris, that he is a highly intelligent, extremely knowledgeable and articulate man, whose political ambitions reach to the very top. Prior to going into active politics he was a political journalist and editor so he knows how to write entertainingly and engagingly. You may already have guessed that I have a huge soft spot for Boris – it’s just unfortunate he’s as right-wing as Mrs Thatcher. But it’s that ability to camouflage his views under his larger-than-life personality that enables him to attract voters who wouldn’t normally vote for his party.

As for his amazing achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is conventional to treat this as a joke, an embarrassing attempt by the Swedes to make up for their neutrality in the war. Even relatively sympathetic historians such as Peter Clarke have dismissed the possibility that there was any merit involved. “Rarely can an author’s writings have received less attention than the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953,” he says. This is not just a little bit snooty, but surely untrue. Look at the list of Nobel winners in the last century – avant-garde Japanese playwrights, Marxist-Feminist Latin Americans, Polish exponents of the Concrete Poem. All of them are no doubt meritorious in their way but many of them are much less read than Churchill.

In this book, Boris sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. In fact, this reader couldn’t help feeling that Boris sees Churchill as something of a role model, and that his desire to understand how Churchill achieved all that he did is partly so that Boris can emulate him – hopefully not by becoming a great leader in another World War though! (Though I suspect Boris might be a little sorry he missed the last one…)

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

In each chapter, Boris looks at one aspect of Churchill’s life – his childhood, his writing, his early army career in the Boer War etc – and analyses it to see what we can draw from it in terms of what made Churchill tick. Over the years, Churchill has had as many detractors as admirers, and Boris takes their criticisms of him head on, dismissing them with his usual mix of bluster and brilliance. That’s not to say he brushes over the big mistakes in Churchill’s career, but he puts them into context and finds that he consistently acted in accordance with his own convictions. (If only we could say that about many of today’s politicians.) This didn’t always make him popular but, had popularity been his main aim, he probably wouldn’t have stood out so strongly against coming to some accommodation with Nazi Germany at the point where Britain stood isolated and close to defeat. Boris makes it clear that he believes that it was Churchill, and Churchill alone, who carried the argument in the Government for Britain to fight on, and who was crucial in persuading the US to finally become involved.

…if he was exhausting to work for, his colleagues nonetheless gave him loyalty and unstinting devotion. When he came back from New York in 1932 after nearly dying under the wheels of an on-coming car, he was presented with a Daimler. The Daimler had been organised by Brendan Bracken and financed by a whip-round of 140 friends and admirers. Can you think of any modern British politician with enough friends and admirers to get them a new Nissan Micra, let alone a Daimler?

Although there is a considerable amount in the book about WW2, as you would expect, there is just as much about Churchill’s achievements and failures both before and after. In a political career that stretched for over 60 years, he was involved to one degree or another in all of the major events in the UK, and indeed the world, from the 1900s to the 1960s – the Boer War, WW1, the establishment of Israel, the abdication of Edward VIII, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the formation of the Common Market (now European Union). Boris shows how he was often at first a lone voice, perceptive through his deep understanding of history and politics, with other people dismissing him until he was proved right (or occasionally wrong). He also shows how Churchill was capable of changing his mind over time and admitting to it – for example, over women, where their contribution to the war effort persuaded him they should be entitled to rights he had previously argued against. A conviction politician certainly, but not hog-tied by it.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

There’s so much in the book that I’ve missed out far more than I’ve included – Churchill’s writing, art, speech-making, personal bravery, etc., etc. It is however a surprisingly compact read considering the ground it covers. It’s not a full biography – it doesn’t set out to be. Boris has selected those events and episodes that he feels cast most light on the character of the man and what formed it – the Churchill Factor, as he calls it. It’s brilliantly written, as entertaining as it is informative and insightful, and I feel it casts nearly as much light on the character of the author as the subject. For anyone who still thinks Boris is the buffoon he plays so well, this might come as a real eye-opener. And for those of us who already know that, like the iceberg, the important bit of Boris is the bit you rarely see, this reminds us that we better decide soon if we really want to buy tickets for the Titanic.

There are Churchill nightclubs and bars and pubs – about twenty pubs in Britain bear his name and puglike visage, far more than bear the name of any other contemporary figure. Sometimes it is easy to understand the semiotic function of the name – you can see why a pub-owner might want to go for Churchill. He is the world’s greatest advertisement for the benefits of alcohol. But why is there a Churchill Escort Agency? And what do they offer, apart from blood, toil, tears and sweat?

Simon Shepherd

Simon Shepherd

As if two huge personalities aren’t enough for one book, I listened to the Audible audiobook version, which is beautifully narrated by another of the great loves of my life (yes, I know there’s a lot of them…), Simon Shepherd, who has one of the loveliest voices known to man (or woman) and the perfect rather plummy accent for this kind of book. It’s a great narration that does full justice to the book – held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. In fact, I found myself frequently doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing which normally only happens with the written word. Going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon has been a lot more fun than you might imagine…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

The Bullet Catch (Eli Marks 2) by John Gaspard

the bullet catchMagic, movies and murder…

:D :D :D :D :D

When stage magician Eli Marks is talked into attending his High School reunion by an old friend, Jake North, he suddenly finds himself entangled in two potentially deadly situations. An up-and-coming actor, Jake is in the middle of shooting a film about a magic trick that went wrong, resulting in the death of the magician. But Jake fears that someone is out to kill him and means to do so during the filming of the trick. So he asks Eli to come along as his magic consultant to make sure no-one can tamper with the trick. Then during the reunion Eli meets up with the girl he had a major crush on at school, the gorgeous Trish Henry. She showed no interest in him back then, but falls into conversation with him now and they spend the evening chatting. It’s something of a pity that she’s married – especially since her husband Dylan had a reputation at school of being one of the bad boys, and doesn’t seem to have improved with time. And when he’s murdered later that same night, Eli finds himself getting sucked into the investigation.

 

I loved Gaspard’s first book about Eli, The Ambitious Card, and ended my review with the fervent hope that we’d meet him again. I’m delighted to say this book is just as much fun. Eli is a truly likeable protagonist, intelligent and humorous, but with no pretensions to be a superhero. He’s currently single since Megan, his girlfriend from the last book, felt they were rushing things and suggested they take a break. He still wants things to work out with Megan but feels the pull of his old attraction to Trish, especially when she seems to be clinging to him as she tries to cope after her husband’s murder. Other old friends from the previous book put in appearances too. Eli is still living with his elderly uncle Harry, and their relationship is one of the things I like best about the series – it’s realistic and touching without being in any way mawkish, and their interactions provide much of the humour and warmth in the book. Harry’s group of elderly magician friends are fun to spend time with, as well as providing Eli with a great source of information about magic tricks of all kinds. And Franny the phone psychic is back in a minor role, still surprisingly spot-on with some of her predictions.

John Gaspard

John Gaspard

The plotting in this one is actually better than in the first, I think. The darker strand about Dylan’s murder is beautifully balanced by the more humorous strand about Jake and the film set. Gaspard has had real-life experience of directing low-budget films and clearly had fun sending the process up a little. There’s a whole bunch of slightly caricatured characters, from the harassed director to the embittered writer. And the book is laced with references to great classic films, making me want to go back and re-watch most of them. Overall, this is shaping up to be one of my favourite series – not quite light enough to be cosies, but warm and amusing, and great fun! I hope Mr Gaspard is hard at work on the next one…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

emma mccall smithNot with a bang but a whimper…

:(

I wouldn’t have thought it possible for any of these Austen Project books to reach lower depths than Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, but I fear this one does. After Val McDermid’s surprisingly enjoyable take on Northanger Abbey, I hoped the series might be capable of redemption – I was wrong. (Go ahead – say you told me so!) There are some mild spoilers ahead…

The first few pages are quite fun with lots of little jokes about class and McCall Smith’s hometown of Edinburgh. But it’s a false dawn – very quickly the book descends into a miserable and poorly written attempt to make Austen’s observations about class relevant to today’s society.

Helpful note for authors 1: You cannot make a historical thing relevant to today if it isn’t.

The characterisation is dreadful. Emma may have been unlikeable in the original, but one can see why she got away with it. Firstly, she is superficially pleasant and, secondly, she is socially superior to everyone she meets and they are conditioned by society to respect her. In this version, she’s simply a nasty, selfish, small-minded piece of work, to whom no-one in the real world would give the time of day. Her main belief seems to be that women should set out to catch a rich husband so that they don’t need to work – slightly different from Austen’s women who had no opportunity to work. Harriet, not the brightest candle in the chandelier in the original, is so thick in this one that it’s amazing she remembers to breathe. Mr Woodhouse, our selfish hypochondriac, is probably closest to the original, but I fear it doesn’t work in this one, since he is far from elderly and perfectly fit, meaning that he’s just annoying and repetitive, with no possibility of gaining sympathy from the reader.

Knightley’s barely in the book until near the end – McCall Smith obviously has his own reservations about the ‘grooming’ aspects of the original, so has simply removed him from Emma’s upbringing and reduced the age difference by several years. Instead he has been replaced by Miss Taylor – now a cross between Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee – as the sole influence in the revolting Emma’s upbringing. Not a recommendation to hire her to look after your own sprogs, if you want them to turn out…human. Frank and Jane, also hardly in it really, are awful – silly little people trying to make each other jealous for no good reason.

Nanny McPhee...or Miss Taylor?

Nanny McPhee…or Miss Taylor?

Helpful note for authors 2: Make at least one character likeable/believable.

I’ve mentioned that several of the characters are hardly in the book. This is because McCall Smith has decided to fill the first quarter of the book with descriptions of Emma’s upbringing and childhood, not to mention Mr Woodhouse’s entire life story. We get Isabella’s courtship with John Knightley, tons and tons of stuff about Miss Taylor, mainly so McCall Smith can continue his quips about Edinburgh, and the whole history of Emma’s education at school and university. What does this add to the story? Well, tedium, primarily. When Harriet and Mr Elton finally appear their whole story is dealt with in three or four meetings, culminating in what really comes close to an assault on Emma by a drunken Mr Elton. Should I mention the nude Harriet scene and the lesbian overtones? Nope, can’t bring myself to. But Mr Elton does provide an opportunity for McCall Smith to make what is clearly his favourite joke, that he drives a BMW Something-Something. I say favourite joke, because he repeats it an amazing nine times. Mind you, he repeats the joke about the English language students asking the way to the railway station an astonishing 22 times…

Helpful note for authors 3: If a joke isn’t very funny first time, it won’t get funnier with repetition.

Although only half the length of the original, the book feels twice as long. Each little bit of story is surrounded by pages and pages of repeated descriptions of Emma’s selfishness or Harriet’s stupidity or Mr Woodhouse’s obsession with germs. And in case we fall into the Harriet spectrum of intelligence, McCall Smith spells out his conclusions about Emma’s character all the way through, so we can be sure to keep up.

It had been an important summer for Emma, as it had been the summer during which moral insight came to her – something that may happen to all of us, if it happens at all, at very different stages of our lives.

Helpful note for authors 4: If you have to spell out your point, you’ve failed to make it.

Would I recommend this? Only to someone I really didn’t like…

* * * * * * *

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith

PS I will be going on to re-read the other Austens over the next year or so, but the Austen Project will have to limp along without me. If they really had to do this, they could have done it so much better, by truly transplanting the stories to the modern day and looking at some of the real issues for women in today’s society instead of pretending that we still face the same ones as Austen’s heroines. With the exception of McDermid, who admittedly had an easier task with the much lighter Northanger Abbey, this has done nothing to enhance the reputations of the authors involved to date – both of whom perform significantly better when writing their own stories in their own style.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Genre Fiction

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Genre Fiction Category.

In case any of you missed them last week (or have forgotten them – you mean you don’t memorise every word I say?), a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

 

This is a new category, created because I’ve read several things this year that don’t quite fall into any of the others. The Transwarp Tuesday! and Tuesday Terror!  features have led to me reading considerably more horror, sci-fi and fantasy than I have done for years, and I’ve also enjoyed a tiny foray into graphic novels. So, since I had to think of a catch-all title for all these bits of things, Genre Fiction it is. And I must say some of my most enjoyable reads this year have come from this new category. An almost impossible choice, especially with the ‘comparing apples with oranges’ effect of this mixed-bag category, and as I type this I’m still not totally sure who the winner will be…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the birdsThe Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

There are some true standouts in this collection of six stories, and if you don’t believe me, believe Alfred Hitchcock. As well as the title story, I loved The Apple Tree best, but the whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. From mountains to lakes, bright summer to freezing winter, frightening trees to terrifying birds, nothing can be taken at face value in du Maurier’s world. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

Click to see the full review

the birds

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p&p mangaPride and Prejudice (Manga Classics) by Jane Austen adapted by Stacy King

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. I adored it and I’m not alone, it seems – the book is through to the semi-finals in the Best Graphic Novels and Comics category of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 (not quite as prestigious as the FF Awards, but not bad…)

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

p&p manga 1

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the martian 2The Martian by Andy Weir

After an accident during a dust storm, Mark Watney finds himself alone on Mars. His colleagues in the Ares 3 expedition believed he was dead and were forced to evacuate the planet while they still could, leaving him to survive alone until a rescue attempt can be made. This is a fantastic adventure story set in the near future. It only just scrapes into the sci-fi category since all the science and equipment is pretty much stuff that’s available now – and though it’s chock full of science and technology, it’s presented in a way that makes it not just interesting but fun. Mark is a hero of the old school – he just decides to get on with things and doesn’t waste time angsting or philosophising. And he’s got a great sense of humour which keeps the whole thing deliciously light-hearted. It reminded me of the way old-time adventure stories were written – the Challenger books or the Quatermain stories mixed with a generous dash of HG Wells – but brought bang up to date in terms of language and setting. Superb entertainment!

Click to see the full review

mars and earth

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a princess of marsA Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Our hero John Carter is transported to Barsoom (Mars) and must save not only his own life but his beloved Princess, Dejah Thoris. A surprise hit – I truly expected to dislike this and ended up enjoying it so much I went on to read the first sequel and watch the movie. And I suspect I’ll be reading the later sequels too sometime. It’s silly beyond belief and, even making allowances for the fact that it was written in 1911, the ‘science’ aspects are…unique! But it’s hugely imaginative and a great old-fashioned heroic adventure yarn, from the days when men were men and damsels were perpetually in distress. The action never lets up from beginning to end, from one-to-one fights to the death, attacks by killer white apes, all the way up to full-scale wars complete with flying ships and half-crazed (eight-limbed) thoats. Great escapist fantasy, with action, humour and a little bit of romance – plus Woola the Calot! What more could a girl want? (And see? I didn’t even mention the naked people… ;) )

Click to see the full review

a princess art2

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the truth is a cave

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

 

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

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

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

This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Words, pictures and production values of the hardback combine to make this a dark and beautiful read – a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

DSCN0545

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Next week: Literary Fiction Award

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

the zig-zag girlAbracadabra…

:D :D :D :D :D

When the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

As a fan of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, I’ve always had two small reservations. The first is that they’re written in my pet-hate, first person, present tense, and the second is that because Ruth is not with the police, her links to the various crimes are often tenuous and a bit unbelievable. So it was a delight to me to see that this one stars a policeman and is written in the third person past. Griffiths tells us in the afterword that her grandfather was a music hall comedian and that her mother grew up in the world of theatrical digs and itinerant performers. The book is also based in Griffiths’ home town of Brighton. These things all come together to give the book a real feeling of authenticity, especially to the life of Max Mephisto, the co-hero, a top billing magician who is nevertheless aware that the old variety shows are beginning to lose their appeal.

The Zig Zag Girl trick  – I still can’t see how it’s done!

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. As they travel around England interviewing their old colleagues, we find out more about their war-time past and the tragedy that affected the whole unit. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, from the rather nasty mind-reader and comic Tony Mulholland, to the glamorous female assistant Ruby, who wants to become a magician in her own right. We also meet some of the old army men – shouldn’t every mystery story contain at least one retired Major? And the two leads, Edgar and Max, are very well-drawn and likeable.

Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths

The rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly – lives spent touring round the various seaside resorts, living in dingy bed and breakfasts run by theatrical landladies, and performing night after night in the grand old theatres at the ends of piers. Griffiths shows us Brighton as it’s on the cusp of changing from its old-fashioned respectability to becoming the more violent and dangerous place it became in the late ’50s and ’60s. Both place and time are done very well, with the shadow of the war still hanging over the characters and the world they inhabit. With an intriguing, complex plot, an interesting slant on a unique (and not entirely fictional) aspect of the war, some very enjoyable humour and a touch of romance, this is a great mystery of the traditional kind – and, for me at least, a real step up from Elly Griffiths’ already high standards. Is this the start of a new series? I hope so…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Sredni Vashtar by Saki

Beware the child…

 

Many moons ago when I first started my journey into horror, regular commenter BigSister (who coincidentally is my big sister) recommended a story that she described as “seriously scary”. So it seems like a good choice for this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Sredni Vashtar by Saki

 

sredni vashtar

Conradin is ten years old, an orphan under the care of his cousin, Mrs de Ropp. He is a sickly child, though the impression is quickly given that that has more to do with nurture than nature. Though she provides him with the basics…

Mrs. de Ropp would never, in her honestest moments, have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him “for his good” was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome.

In return, Conradin hates her. Deprived of everything that might be enjoyable in life, Conradin has found himself a little bolthole in the tool-shed in the dismal garden, where he keeps two treasures hidden – a hen which he loves and a polecat-ferret which he both fears and treasures. In his loneliness, Conradin lives within his imagination, and he has spun a story around the ferret that he has almost come to believe himself…

…one day, out of Heaven knows what material, he spun the beast a wonderful name, and from that moment it grew into a god and a religion…Every Thursday, in the dim and musty silence of the tool-shed, he worshipped with mystic and elaborate ceremonial before the wooden hutch where dwelt Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret.

Slowly Conradin develops rituals around his new god, making offerings at his shrine, especially when he feels grateful for something – such as when Mrs de Ropp is suffering from severe toothache. This escape into his imagination is the only thing in his life that Conradin cherishes.

But Mrs de Ropp soon notices that Conradin is disappearing more and more into the garden and sets out to discover what he does there. It’s not long before she discovers his hiding place in the tool-shed and, although in the gloom she fails to spot Sredni Vashtar in his hutch, she finds the boy’s beloved hen…

… and at breakfast one morning she announced that the Houdan hen had been sold and taken away overnight. With her short-sighted eyes she peered at Conradin, waiting for an outbreak of rage and sorrow, which she was ready to rebuke with a flow of excellent precepts and reasoning. But Conradin said nothing: there was nothing to be said. Something perhaps in his white set face gave her a momentary qualm…

Polecat3_cpt_Elliot_Smith

In his rage and sorrow, Conradin turns to his god, this time not to praise him, but to ask a boon. He doesn’t feel he needs to specify its nature, since surely his god will know, so he simply asks…

“Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.”

And, half-believing, he repeats this request each night. Until one day, having noticed that Conradin was still visiting the tool-shed regularly, Mrs de Ropp decides to investigate further. As she disappears inside, Conradin stands watching from a window in the house, and fervently repeats his prayer…

“Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.”

…then chants the hymn he has made for his idol…

Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful…

* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a scary one! Although it’s always fairly clear where the story is heading, Saki builds up an atmosphere of oppression and dread, and given that it’s only a few pages long, he packs in enough character development for us to hate Mrs de Ropp nearly as much as Conradin does. The horrific climax is beautifully played out off the page, with us working out the course of events from noises heard through a door. But it’s not so much what happens in the tool-shed as Conradin’s reaction to it that provides the chilling effect (and a generous dollop of blackish humour). I feel it may be a while before I can look at toast and butter in quite the same way again…

Good choice, BigSister! The Fretful Porpentine thanks you…

Want to read it? http://www.classichorrorstories.com/texts/sredni.txt

Or enjoy this fabulous reading as the wonderful Tom Baker brings out all the horror and humour in the story…

 

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

Overall story rating:                :D :D :D :D :D

Emma by Jane Austen

emma austenBig fish in a small pond…

:) :) :) :)

Emma Woodhouse is unusual amongst Austen heroines in being independently wealthy and therefore with no need to marry. When we meet her, she is twenty-one, still untouched by love, and determined to remain single. This is a small society with a tiny number of gentlefolk, so that everyone knows every detail of each other’s lives, and the main interest of the book is in the descriptions of the society – in this case showing the very limited and somewhat dull life of young gentlewomen in small towns where they are socially superior to all their neighbours. Emma lives with her elderly father and, as the book begins, has just lost the constant companionship of her long-time governess, Miss Taylor, who has married Mr Weston, another resident of the town. The only other person in the neighbourhood who matches the social standing of the Woodhouses is Mr Knightley, owner of the neighbouring estate and friend of Emma’s father. He has known Emma all her life and has taken it upon himself to guide her intellectual and emotional development since her early childhood.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

The plot, such as it is, is a simple comedy of manners. Although she still sees Mrs Weston nearly every day, Emma feels the loss of female companionship, so takes under her wing young Harriet Smith, the illegitimate daughter of a father of unknown identity. The small cast of characters is further enhanced by the arrival of Jane Fairfax, niece of the impoverished but voluble Miss Bates. Soon after, Mr Weston’s son Frank also comes to visit – after his mother’s death, Frank was adopted by his wealthy aunt so, despite his relationship to Mr Weston, he is a stranger in Highbury. These young people are to be the pawns in Emma’s matchmaking games, leading to many misunderstandings and much heartache all round before we reach the traditional Austen happy-ever-after.

* * * * * * *

Any regular reader of the blog will be aware of my ardent devotion to Jane Austen (not to mention my even more ardent devotion to Mr Darcy). So it might come as a surprise to know that I really don’t get along with Emma. Let me try to explain why.

NB There be mega-spoilers ahead…

Apparently before beginning to write Emma, Jane Austen said “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And this is the fundamental problem. The delicacy with which Austen normally handles the subtleties of class seems to have deserted her almost entirely in this one – Emma is an arrogant, self-satisfied snob who expects everyone to toady to her, not because of her own talents or character, but simply because she is the daughter of the richest man in town. And none of the other characters are much better.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

There’s the annoying Mr Woodhouse, a selfish hypochondriac, whom everyone kowtows to because he is rich. Frank, a selfish pleasure-seeker, whose behaviour to Jane and Emma shows a complete disregard for anyone else’s feelings, but still isn’t as bad as his unconcealed delight at the death of the wealthy aunt who brought him up. Jane, who has to be the most boring character in all of English literature. Harriet, who has fewer braincells than the average amoeba and about as much personality. (Why would Robert love her? It’s inconceivable…)

Then there’s Mr Knightley. He’s thirty-seven. Emma’s twenty-one. He has shown an interest in her since she was a child, so let’s say since he was twenty-four and she was eight or thereabouts. He has brought her up to be what he wants a woman to be, and now he’s going to marry her. I know middle-aged men married young girls back then, but young girls they had been involved in bringing up? Yes, Colonel Brandon and Marianne had a greater age difference, and yes, Mr Jarndyce was way too old for Esther, but at least they both met these girls once they were women. Colonel Brandon and Mr Jarndyce leave me a little uneasy, but Mr Knightley makes me positively queasy. And did, even when I was seventeen.

(Mr Elton and Mr Collins…or is it the other way round?)

And that just leaves us with Emma. Fans of the book may wish to look away now, because I’m going to say something you may find shocking – it is my belief that by the time she is fifty, Emma will have transmogrified into Lady Catherine de Bourgh. What is different about them other than that Emma is young and pretty? They both think themselves above the need to learn the skills that other young women have to master in order to secure a good marriage. They both think they have the right to interfere in the lives of the people around them because they consider themselves to be intellectually and socially superior. They both expect the local parson to suck up to them (is Mr Elton really significantly different to Mr Collins?). They both resent anyone who shows any kind of independent spirit or who outshines them at any skill. (Is Jane Fairfax not the closest the book has to my beloved Lizzie? Except Jane is insipid and dull, where Lizzie is strong and witty. And look at Emma’s reaction to her…)

Lady Catherine de Bourgh...or future Emma?

Lady Catherine de Bourgh…or future Emma?

All of this would be fine if Emma developed during the course of the book and learned from her mistakes, but she is still just as egotistical and condescending at the end as she is at the beginning. Thrilled to get rid of the now inconvenient Harriet to the farmer she once despised, but determined to drop her friendship as soon as she does because the connection will be too lowly for Emma’s exalted position. Still expecting Jane to toady to her despite Emma’s appalling behaviour to her throughout. Still as dismissive of Miss Bates as ever she was (one visit after the Box Hill incident can’t be seen as a serious attempt to make amends). If only Austen had made Emma suffer – cast her into poverty or broken her heart. But no, she gets everything she could possibly desire and is left basking in a glory that Austen seems to think is as deserved as I think it undeserved.

Emma and Mr Knightley lead the dance...

Emma and Mr Knightley lead the dance…

The book is as well written as all of Austen’s, and is therefore eminently readable. There is some humour, though not as much as in some of her other books, and her characterisation and depiction of society is as insightful as always – all of which explains my four-star rating. But the fact that in this book Austen openly upholds the strict class and wealth divisions in society makes me wonder what happened to her since she taught Mr Darcy not to look down on other people because of their position in society. Is this the same author who had Lizzie declare “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”? Is Miss Bates then not equal to Emma? Apparently not, and there is the main reason that for me Emma is not equal to Austen’s other books.

Please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong… ;)

Aah, that's better!

Aah, that’s better!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Factual

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories have changed slightly since last year to better reflect what I’ve been reading this year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

 

Last year, I split my factual reads into two categories – Science/Nature/Environment and History/Biography/Politics. This year I’ve read lots of history and politics, but very little popular science, so I’ve gone for a single category of Factual. This category contains many of the books I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. It’s a Golden Age for factual writing at the moment – both quantity and quality. Which means that the choice has been a very difficult one indeed…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the cave and the lightThe Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilisation by Arthur Herman

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy, politics, religion and science are all discussed,, showing how they linked and overlapped to influence the major periods and events of Western history – the fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! And yet, Herman’s writing style makes the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. Not the lightest read in the world, but great for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes. A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read, written so well that it read like a novel complete with drama and tension.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

roy jenkins2Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

An affectionate and well-researched biography of one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages thus also giving us a look at the wider political context. Jenkins did indeed live a well-rounded life – he was not just a highly successful politician but a very well-regarded biographer in his own right, of political figures such as Asquith and Churchill. But he also enjoyed the social side of life, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature. This huge book is well written and structured so that, despite its size, it is a flowing and accessible read. An excellent biography that does its subject full justice.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the scottish enlightenmentThe Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

Yes, two books from Arthur Herman made the runners-up list. I don’t think I’ve read a factual book about Scotland in the last year that hasn’t referenced this one. And not surprisingly – not only is it an excellently written history, it’s also extremely flattering about the Scots. Even our First Minister, Alex Salmond, was plugging it during the Independence debate. Although there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread via the Scottish diaspora, and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As accessible as The Cave and the Light (but considerably shorter), this book is certainly not just for Scots – in fact, there’s as much in it about the founding of America as about Scotland. A fascinating and enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

rebel yell

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

I can’t remember ever enjoying a biography more than this one. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Genre Fiction Award

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin

The Grand Old Man in shorts…

:D :D :D :D :D

the beat goes onLast year, after one of his friends died unexpectedly at a young age, Ian Rankin announced that he’d be taking a year or two off from novel writing to have a bit of a rest. I assume this collection of short stories has been issued to fill the void that many of us Rebus fans would have felt without a new book for the winter. And, since I haven’t read any of these before, it filled that void very satisfactorily.

There are 29 stories, ranging in length from a few pages to near-novella, but with most falling into the 20-40 minutes-to-read zone, so perfect bedside table material for late-night reading. There is also an interesting essay at the end where Rankin tells the story of how Rebus came into existence, which gives us some biographical snippets into how Rankin himself became a crime writer.

Normally, when reviewing a short story collection, I find myself commenting on the variable quality of the stories, but I really can’t say that with this one. I found each of the stories, short or long, to be pretty much equally good, and while they obviously don’t have the complexity or depth of the novels, they show all Rankin’s normal talents for plotting and characterisation, and are as well written as the books. In fact, because we know the main characters so well, Rankin doesn’t have to spend much time on developing them, allowing him to pack a lot of story into a compact space. A few of them have a Christmas or New Year theme, I guess because they were originally written for newspaper or magazine Christmas specials. And a couple make reference to stories from great Edinburgh writers of the past – Muriel Spark and Arthur Conan Doyle – giving a glimpse into Rankin’s own influences.

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin

Each story is entirely consistent with the Rebus we know, but sometimes angled so that we see a new facet of his character, or get a closer look at an old one. They are spread throughout his career, with the first story being the most recently written – a prequel more or less to his latest novel Saints of the Shadow Bible, when Rebus was a new detective learning the ropes – right through to his retirement (which we now know didn’t last long). The bulk, however, are set in the earlier period, so there’s more of Brian Holmes as his sidekick than of Siobhan Clarke, who only came into the series mid-way through. I found this particularly pleasurable since it’s a long time since I’ve read any of the older books and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with a younger Rebus. I was intrigued to realise that, although I tend to think back on the early Rebus as one of the drunken mavericks of his day who has since mellowed with age, in fact in comparison to a lot of today’s detectives he was actually both functional and professional throughout – clearly it’s the genre that’s shifted, rather than Rebus…or Rankin. I also felt there was more than a touch of William McIlvanney in the earlier stories, but that his influence seemed to fade as they went on, presumably as Rankin developed into his own equally strong style.

The stories include all kinds of mysteries, from shop-lifting to murder, and the occasional one is really more an observation of a particular aspect of Edinburgh life than a crime story. In total, they left me in no doubt that Rankin is just as much a master of the short story as the novel. I found this a completely satisfying collection, and one that I’m sure to dip in and out of many times again.

* * * * * * * *

Just for fun I tried the newish Whispersync feature for Kindle with this one – that is, that if you buy the Kindle book, you can add the Audible version at a reduced cost (or for ‘free’ if, like me, you have a bunch of Audible credits you haven’t yet used). Technically, it didn’t really sync on the Kindle Fire which was a disappointment – it meant that when switching from reading to listening I was always having to find my place. Not too much of a problem with short stories, but could be tedious in a full-length novel.

James Macpherson

James Macpherson

However, this particular Audible book is superbly narrated by James Macpherson who, you may remember, took over as the lead in Taggart after Mark McManus died. Not only is he an excellent narrator, but his voice and accent are ideally suited for the character of Rebus and as a skilled actor he also creates different personas for all the other many characters who appear in the stories. I thought it was a first rate recording, and thoroughly enjoyed splitting the book between reading and listening. It’s something I would do again – especially for short stories. A good narration can definitely add something to the original. On the audiobook version, too, the essay Rankin on Rebus is narrated by Ian Rankin himself, which made it a little bit extra-special (especially since he has a lovely voice too). I’d happily recommend the book, the audiobook or both to all Rebus fans out there, or even perhaps as an introduction for new readers to the grand old man of Tartan Noir.

Amazon UK Link
Audible on Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible on Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Horror of the Headless Horseman…

What could possibly be scarier than the idea of a headless horseman haunting a lonely valley in the dark of the night? Well, almost anything, as it turns out. This isn’t so much a ghost story as a gentle mockery of ghostly superstition – but it’s still an enjoyable read. So despite the lack of chill factor, it has still earned its place in this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irvine

 

Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor

Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor

The story begins by describing the valley of Sleepy Hollow, a drowsy, dreamy place, where the people believe in the many superstitions and ghostly stories that are passed down through the generations.

They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights and hear music and voices in the air…

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head.

Tales are told of how this creature has chased unwary travellers who take the road through the valley in darkness – tales believed by the new teacher, Ichabod Crane, a man whose favourite reading material is Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft. Ichabod is not the heroic type, in either character or appearance…

His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snip nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.

from the Disney version...

from the Disney version…

Although poor, Ichabod is not without ambition, and when he meets Katrina, the lovely but flirty daughter of a wealthy farmer, he is smitten by her charms…and even more so by the prospect of her inheriting all of her father’s wealth. Perhaps it’s because he’s always hungry that he sees Farmer van Tassel’s livestock in the way he does…

In his devouring mind’s eye he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce.

Unfortunately Katrina has another suitor, a ‘burly, roaring, roistering blade’, Brom Bones. Could it be that Katrina’s seeming preference for Ichabod is designed merely to make sure of the heart of this magnificent (and gorgeous) creature? Surely not! But, sad to tell, one evening when Ichabod’s hopes are highest (as is Brom’s jealousy) Katrina sends him away disappointed. It seems he is neither to have the girl nor the riches. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, as he makes his way home on his borrowed old horse he finds himself on the very spot where the Headless Horseman is known to roam…

In the dark shadow of the grove on the margin of the brook he beheld something huge, misshapen, black, and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

from the Scooby Doo version...

from the Scooby Doo version…

Kicking and beating his old, half-starved horse into a frenzy (he’s a real charmer, did I mention that?), Ichabod tries to race for safety…

“If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath…

* * * * * * *

After all the Hallowe’en chills, this is a lovely light little ghost-story, humorous and fun. Ichabod is just the type of person you’d hope would get his come-uppance at the hands of a spooky spectre, so the real hero of the story is the Headless Horseman, whoever he may be. There’s lots of lovely descriptive writing about the valley and farms, and the people are beautifully drawn – somewhere between real and caricature. It all has the feel of a kind of Hobbiton about it, where all the rustics are cheery and rosy-cheeked, and where even bad things aren’t really terribly bad after all. It won’t give you nightmares, but it will make you smile. And that’s not a bad thing either, is it?

from the Tim Burton version... Johnny Depp looking far, far too gorgeous and heroic to be Ichabod, but frankly, girls, who cares? Still great casting...

from the Tim Burton version…
Johnny Depp looking far, far too gorgeous and heroic to be Ichabod, but frankly, girls, who cares? Still great casting…

But golly! Casper Van Dien as Brom Bones isn't to be sneezed at either, eh? Decisions, decisions - poor Katrina! Lucky Katrina!

But gosh! Casper Van Dien as Brom Bones isn’t to be sneezed at either, eh? Decisions, decisions – poor Katrina! Lucky Katrina!

Fretful Porpentine Rating:      :shock:

Overall story rating:                :D :D :D :D

The Seventh Link by Margaret Mayhew

the seventh link“Strike hard, strike sure”

:) :) :) :)

Retired Colonel Hugh (second name annoyingly never given) lives in a cottage in the English village of Frog End. A widower, he lives alone except for Thursday, a cat which has adopted him, but he’s on friendly terms with his neighbours, especially Naomi from next door, who pops round most evenings for a drink. Apparently this book is part of a series about Hugh and I get the impression his village and neighbours feature more prominently in the earlier books. In this one, however, Hugh has been invited to stay with old friends who now run a Bed and Breakfast in Buckby, near an old RAF Bomber Command station. While he is there, there is to be a reunion of members of the Bomber crews, some of whom will also be staying at the B&B. At first everything goes well, but when a tragic death occurs, Hugh can’t help wondering if it wasn’t as accidental as the police seem to think…

Lancaster Bomber

Lancaster Bomber

This falls firmly into the category of ‘cosy’, situated in the type of English village that really only exists in the pages of Agatha Christie or in episodes of Midsomer Murders. It’s well written and the character of Hugh is rounded and sympathetic, and his conversations with his inquisitive but helpful neighbour Naomi give us the opportunity to get to know more about him and about life in the village.

In a note at the beginning, the author reminds readers that the crews of Bomber Command were somewhat forgotten after the war, and it’s only recently that a memorial has been erected to them. A good deal of this book is given over to filling in some of the history of this part of the war effort, told mainly through the reminiscences of the crew members. In fact, that aspect really crowds out the mystery element to a large degree – it felt that Mayhew’s real intent was to pay tribute to the bombers.

The unveiling of the memorial to RAF Bomber Command in Green Park, London

The unveiling of the memorial to RAF Bomber Command in Green Park, London

While I enjoyed the book overall, I had a feeling of time displacement all the way through. If the action is taking place in the near-present, which it seems to be from some of the references, that would mean that the youngest of these veterans would have to be in his mid-eighties, and they seemed an exceptionally sprightly bunch of octogenarians to me. The Colonel himself is described as having served in ‘post-war Colonial Singapore’ and yet he doesn’t come over as old enough for that either. I felt the book would have worked better if it had been clearly set in the 1990s. However, that aside, the war element of the book felt well-researched and as if it gave an accurate picture of what life may have been like for the Bomber crews. For my taste, the book was too heavily weighted towards the historical aspect at the expense of creating a good mystery plot, but overall I found it an entertaining read nonetheless.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Spooky Quotes Quiz!

For a bit of Hallowe’en fun, how many of these quotes can you identify? One point for the author, and an extra one if you can name the story. They’ve all appeared on previous Tuesday Terror! posts, so it should be dead easy… ;)

As a prize, if you get the required number of points, the fretful porpentine will not visit you in your dreams tonight. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal the required number. Good luck!

:shock: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock:

1. “And I lay close within the shelter of the lilies, and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; but the night waned, and he sat upon the rock.”

2. “They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.”

3. “The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.”

4. “He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as a pointed fork.”

5. “People write and talk lightly of blood running cold and hair standing up and things of that kind. Both sensations are too horrible to be trifled with. My heart stopped as though a knife had been driven through it, and Strickland turned as white as the tablecloth. The howl was repeated, and was answered by another howl far across the fields…”

Thrawn Janet by William Strang 1899

6. “Syne she turned round, an’ shawed her face; Mr Soulis had the same cauld grue as twice that day afore, an’ it was borne in upon him what folk said, that Janet was deid lang syne, an’ this was a bogle in her clay-cauld flesh. He drew back a pickle and he scanned her narrowly. She was tramp-trampin’ in the cla’es, croonin’ to hersel’; and eh! Gude guide us, but it was a fearsome face.”

7. “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.”

8. “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

9. “Naked and grass-stained, he was crawling along about five feet behind the mower, eating the cut grass. Green juice ran down his chin and dripped on to his pendulous belly. And every time the lawnmower whirled around a corner, he rose and did an odd, skipping jump before prostrating himself again.”

10. “I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of a reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into every-day life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.”

Click here to see the answers!

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseThings that go bump in the night…

: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!”

hill house

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?”

hill house 2

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?

eleanor

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.

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

Happy Hallowe’en!

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for the brilliant review that prompted me to read this. And you’ll find another great one over at the blog of my old mucker, Lady Fancifull.

Images are stills from the 1963 film of the book, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 42…

Episode 42

 

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…

Crime

 

hardcastles quartetCourtesy of NetGalley, an author I know nothing about. But the blurb took my fancy…

The Blurb saysJune 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 . . .”

 * * * * *

the bullet catchFrom 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 saysNewly-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.

* * * * *

finished businessNetGalley again, and another new-to-me author. A little bit of historical crime, plus Caligula…

The Blurb saysNovember, 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.”

* * * * *

Factual

 

the telegraph book of the first world warThanks 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 saysOne 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.”

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

suspended sentencesAnd NetGalley again. It always embarasses me when someone wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and I’ve never even heard of him. So time to get to know Patrick Modiano a little…

The Blurb saysAlthough 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.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

 

Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

joan of arcMore history than biography…

:) :) :) :)

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…)

Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty

Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty

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.

Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer

Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer

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.

Helen Castor

Helen Castor

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Cats of Ulthar by HP Lovecraft

You have been warned…

 

Tommy says: Why would anyone want to change us? We're perfect...

Go on…make our day!

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…

TUESDAY TERROR!

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…

the cats of ulthar

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.

* * * * * * *

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.

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

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:

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

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.

moriartyIt 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.

Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls - by Sidney Paget

Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls – by Sidney Paget

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.

Photo: Museum of London

Photo: Museum of London

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…

Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz

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!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The New World by Andrew Motion

the new worldConflicted…

:) :) :) :)

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.

Apache Encampment in the Texas Hill Country by George Nelson

Apache Encampment in the Texas Hill Country by George Nelson

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.

Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 41…

Episode 41

 

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…

Crime

 

moriartyIt’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 saysSherlock 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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want you deadNow, 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 saysWhen 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…

* * * * *

Factual

 

the edge of extinctionCourtesy of NetGalley. I haven’t come across too many environmental/wildlife books this year, so looking forward to this one…

The Blurb saysJules 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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Fiction

 

gutenberg's apprenticeFrom bookbridgr (sic) this time – a paper book! Do I still remember how to read them? But it seems rather appropriate that this book should be printed ‘properly’…

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.

 * * * * *

london a literary anthologyAnd 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.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley, Goodreads or Amazon.

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

 
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