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The TBR is sitting stubbornly at 96 and since I reckon it might take me till 2020 to finish The Luminaries I’m refusing to add to it this week despite the growing list of books you’ve tempted me with. So here are a few that are already on the list awaiting attention…
Courtesy of NetGalley…
The Blurb – It has taken nearly two years for the Warwickshire village of Radcote to put a spate of teenage suicides behind it. Then a young man is killed in a freak motorbike accident, and a suicide note is found among his belongings. A second homeless boy takes his own life, this time on the railway tracks. Is history about to repeat itself?
DI Lorraine Fisher has just arrived for a relaxing summer break with her sister. Soon she finds herself caught up in the resulting police enquiry. And when her nephew disappears she knows she must act quickly.
Are the recent deaths suicide – or murder? And is the nightmare beginning again?
The Blurb – Explore the Moon in this fascinating book and discover what we should expect from this seemingly familiar but strange new frontier. What startling discoveries are being uncovered on the Moon? What will these tell us about our place in the Universe? How can exploring the Moon benefit development on Earth?
The New Moon is the first complete story of the human lunar experience. Noted astronomer Arlin Crotts reveals the role of the Moon in Earth’s past and present, the stunning scientific discoveries made there from the Apollo era to today, and the possibility of making the lunar environment habitable for humans. Once a notion only in science fiction, the dream of colonizing the Moon is now approaching reality.
In the crisp early morning hours, the police are called to a suspected murder at a farm outside a small English village. A beautiful young woman has been found dead, blood all over the cottage she lived in. At the same time, police respond to a reported female suicide, where a car has fallen into a local quarry. As DCI Louisa Smith and her team gather the evidence, they discover a link between these two women, a link which has sealed their dreadful fate one cold night, under a silent moon.
Told in a unique way, using source documents that allow readers to interpret the evidence alongside DCI Louisa Smith and her team, Under a Silent Moon is an unsettling and compulsively readable novel that will keep you gripped until the very last page.
And a Re-Read…
The Blurb – If the Earth were not ensnared by the restrictions of time…
If a mind could be transferred into the body of another…
If forms of life could travel across the galaxies…
If human beings were not foolish enough to believe in only what they see…
If time were much more flexible and time travel a real possiblity…
In these brilliant and mesmerizing short stories John Wyndham makes all things seem possible, from changing the course of history to an encounter with an alternative ‘self’. The glimpses of future worlds are breathtaking in their clarity and confirm John Wyndham’s status as one of the most innovative writers of his time.
NB All blurbs are taken from NetGalley, Goodreads or Amazon.
So what do you think? Do any of these tickle your fancy?
R.I.P. Douglas Brodie…
:D :D :D :D :D
Douglas Brodie is back working at the newspaper and beginning to recover from the psychological after-effects of his recent involvement in the Nazi war-crime trials. But he still hasn’t learned how to avoid danger. So when Lady Gibson asks him for help, he finds himself unable to turn her down. Her husband, Sir Fraser Gibson, the Chairman of the Scottish Linen Bank, has been kidnapped, and Lady Gibson has decided to pay the ransom without involving the police. So Brodie sets off with a briefcase full of cash to make the rendezvous on her behalf. It doesn’t go according to plan though – Sir Fraser ends up dead and Brodie is charged with his murder. His advocate girlfriend, Sam Campbell is doing everything she can to have him released, but all the evidence is against him, and Brodie can’t stand the thought of months of imprisonment followed by a probable trip to the gallows. As the book begins, we see Sam and Brodie’s mother weeping together beside his grave…it appears Brodie has taken his own life…
As we’ve come to expect from Ferris, this is a great thriller firmly rooted in the post-war Glasgow of the late 1940s. Ferris brings the city of this period to life and his use of dialect is great – it gives a real flavour of the language of the time without being so broad that it would be hard for a non-Scot to understand. This time the story centres round corruption within the banking system just as the Marshall Plan is about to be agreed (which saw the US giving economic support to the European nations to aid their recovery after the devastation of the war). With the government desperate to avoid any scandal that could jeopardise the Plan, Brodie’s old paymasters in MI5 are up against a deadline to find out the truth about Sir Fraser’s death.
The plot is complex and, while it’s not quite as explosive and action-packed as the early books in the series, it’s very credible and Ferris keeps it moving at a good pace throughout. The characterisation has always been a strength in the Brodie books and this is no exception. Both Brodie and Sam continue to develop and readjust to life after their wartime experiences. Wullie McAllister, chief crime reporter, is back in action and the force of his personality is in no way diminished by the fact that he’s temporarily confined to a wheelchair. Lady Gibson is a fine femme fatale in a story that may not be completely noir but certainly has its roots there. And wee Airchie Higgins is a gem of a character – a crooked accountant who’s trying to go straight, he reminded me a lot of the incomparable Russell Hunter’s performance of Lonely in the old Callan series – a rather pathetic wee man with a skewed moral code, but you can’t help but feel a sneaking sympathy and liking for him nonetheless. Very well-written, Ferris has again mixed danger and excitement with just the right amount of humour to make this a hugely enjoyable read.
I’m devastated to see that the Douglas Brodie books are now being billed as The Glasgow Quartet, which suggests that this fourth one is to be Brodie’s last outing. But if so, then I’m delighted to say that Ferris has maintained the high standards of this series to the end. In fact, much though I enjoyed the first two, (The Hanging Shed and Bitter Water), I felt that with the third, Pilgrim Soul, Ferris took a huge risk by breaking away from the action thriller format that had brought him so much success to give us a book that was altogether darker and more disturbing, dealing as it did with the subject of Nazi war-crimes and what we would now think of as post-traumatic stress. Now that we have all four books, we can see how Brodie’s character has changed in the few years since the end of the war – at first an all-action man, careless to a degree of his own life and others; then having to face the source of his nightmares and realise the damage that he’d suffered in the war – and finally, in this excellent last instalment, asking himself whether he can find some kind of peace and redemption, and have a future worth living. Although each works as a standalone, I would strongly suggest reading them in order to see the skilful way that Ferris develops Brodie’s character throughout. A great series, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – highly recommended.
Since I started this little journey into horror, my recommendations from Amazon have taken a somewhat sinister turn. Last week they drew my attention to a new series of Kindle collections – the Penny Dreadful Multipacks. Each volume contains two or three stories and a little bonus or two. I selected Volume 3, which includes a bonus essay explaining the origins of the Penny Dreadful…
The term Penny Dreadful came to be applied to any sensational literature that came from the cheap Victorian printing presses rather than the more respected publishing houses. Or, indeed, to any kind of lurid matter from the time, including and not limited to… Dracula, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wagner the Wehr Wolf, Varney the Vampire, The String of Pearls [in which Sweeney Todd made his first appearance]…
So while a lot of the stories were apparently really dreadful, there were some future classics hiding in there too. Volume 3 contains The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Mysteries of Paris Vols. I – III by Eugene Sue (which is about the same length as War and Peace, so may never be read by this reader!), and the story I’ve selected for this week’s…
“Sir, he was Strange by name, and Strange by nature, and Strange to look at into the bargain.”
No. 3 Branch Line, The Compensation House was first published in Charles Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round, which I don’t think would have ever fallen into the Penny Dreadful category, so I guess it counts as one of the bonuses. And I suspect it intrigued the editors for the same reason as it did me – namely, the author Charles Collins was the brother of the infinitely more famous William Wilkie Collins, not to mention husband of Dickens’ daughter Kate.
What a vision of horror that was, in the great dark empty room, in a silence that was something more than negative, that ghastly figure frozen into stone by some unexplained terror! And the silence and the stillness! The very thunder had ceased now. My heart stood still with fear…
Mr Strange is a still a young man but is dying of an incurable lung disease. For years though, he has been tortured by a weird hatred of mirrors and will not allow one in his house. If he catches sight of his face in a mirror, he sometimes goes into a wild rage, destroying the mirror, while at other times he goes into a kind of catatonic trance, standing staring at his own reflection for hours with the utmost sadness and horror. Now that his death is approaching he has decided to tell his doctor and faithful servant what it is he sees when he looks in a mirror…and why…
‘Why, look there!’ he said, in a low, indistinct voice, pointing to his own image in the glass. ‘Whose face do you see there?’
‘Why, yours, of course.’ And then, after a moment, I added, ‘Whose do you see?’
He answered, like one in a trance, ‘His – only his – always his!’ He stood still a moment, and then, with a loud and terrific scream, repeated those words, ‘ALWAYS HIS, ALWAYS HIS,’…
This is quite a good little tale, not totally horrifying but certainly a bit chilling. Collins writes very well and builds a nice atmosphere of rather unsettling mystery. For much of the story, we don’t know whether there’s something supernatural going on or whether Mr Strange’s affliction is a product of his own mind. As the story progresses we discover that guilt has a part to play and that the story is one of a search for ultimate forgiveness and redemption. Since this was printed in the Christmas edition of a Dickens’ publication, I’m sure you can guess how that works out!
An enjoyable story – and the Penny Dreadful Multipacks look very interesting for anyone who has a taste for Victorian sensation stories (and a Kindle). The formatting is fine, there is an easy-to-navigate table of contents and there’s a good sprinkling of the original illustrations. I suspect I’ll be downloading a few more of these…
Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock: :shock:
Overall story rating: :) :) :) :)
Almost totes amazeballs!
:) :) :) :)
This may be the most disappointing thing I will read this year. After the abomination that was Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility, I was confident – oh, so confident – about the inevitable direness of Val McDermid’s entry for the Austen Project - Northanger Abbey. There I was – poison pen at the ready, sarcasm ready to drip like venom, scalpel sharpened to rip the very heart out of it – and dang me if it doesn’t turn out the book’s not too bad at all! In fact – and you’ll never know how much it hurts me to say this – it’s actually quite good fun.
To be fair, McDermid’s task was always going to be easier than Trollope’s. While Austen’s Sense & Sensibility is a serious book which casts a penetrating light on aspects of the society of her time that no longer exist in ours, Northanger Abbey is a much lighter concoction that deals with the eternal subjects of true and false love, and obsession with literary trends. So, while I remain unconvinced of the need or merit of updating Austen at all, this is probably the one that lends itself most easily to updating.
After an hour of being whirled and birled, of Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeants, of pas de bahs and dos a dos, they broke for refreshments. Cat was uncomfortably aware that she was sweating like an ill-conditioned pony and that Henry seemed positively cool by comparison.
Our heroine Cat Morland is fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been home-schooled by her mother in a Devon rectory. So when her well-off arty neighbours Andrew and Susie Allen invite her to come with them to the Edinburgh Festival, Cat is thrilled. And, as in the original, she’s even more thrilled when she is befriended by Bella Thorpe, never thinking that Bella may see her only as a way to get closer to Cat’s brother James. When tickets arrive for a Ball, Susie sends Cat off to get lessons in Scottish country dancing, where she meets the handsome, charming, mysterious and slightly exotic Henry Tilney, who also happens to be a superb dancer (slight pause while we all swoon, girls). All it would take for Henry to be perfect would be if he happened to live in a Gothic Abbey in the Borders and had some mysterious secret in his family…and what a coincidence! He does! And soon Cat is invited for a visit to Northanger Abbey, where she can indulge her romantic imagination to the full…
Before she could open the book, there was a clap of thunder so loud and so close that Cat cried out in terror. The room was abruptly plunged into darkness and a second deafening thunderclap vibrated through the air. Cat curled into a ball and moaned softly. What terrible powers had her discovery unleashed?
McDermid has stuck pretty closely to the original story but has made some changes to the characters and plot to make it fit better in a modern world. Cat isn’t quite as hero-worshipping as Catherine from the original – she’s very taken with Henry and ready to learn from him but she’s got plenty of character of her own. McDermid has solved the problem of modern technology by siting the Abbey in a reception blackspot, and has used the current obsession for vampire novels very amusingly as a replacement for the ‘horrid novels’ of the original. (I hoped they might be real books – Poltergeist Plague of Pabbay, Vampires on Vatersay – but alas! It appears not.) McDermid is a Scottish author, of course, so gives an authentic and wryly humorous flavour of the hugely popular Edinburgh Festival, often as noted for the peculiarity of some of the productions as for their quality. Naturally Cat is mainly interested in the Book Festival and I doubt there is anyone better qualified to write about that event than Val McDermid.
Cat had convinced herself that in spite of Henry Tilney’s failure to appear at the Book Festival grounds, he would surely attend the dramatic adaptation of last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For. Had they not touched on the subject of the fluency of women’s writing at Mrs Alexander’s dance class? Was this not the most sought-after ticket of the Fringe? And was not the Botanic Gardens the coolest of venues?
The book isn’t perfect and there are a few things that grated a bit. John Thorpe, a money-grasping buffoon in the original, appears to have turned into some kind of anti-Semitic fascist in this one, which seemed a little odd. The updating of the language has replaced Austen’s deliciously light wit with a heavy blunt instrument in too many places. And the big reveal at the end, as to why Henry’s father should suddenly have changed towards Cat, is the main disappointment of the book – McDermid’s choice of reason was sadly very typical of her and not at all within the spirit of the book, I felt – old or new version.
However, overall I have to admit that I enjoyed this quite a lot and, while it will never compete with the original for any true Austen fan, it is a light, fun read with enough of an edge to avoid being just throwaway chick-lit. So this grumpy and disappointed reviewer is left with nothing to do but congratulate Val McDermid on achieving the impossible – making me give a positive review to one of these hideous Austen Project books. I shall now go off into a dark corner and pout.
PS Do trendy young things really say things are ‘Totes amazeballs’? Both Trollope and McDermid seem to think so. It’s rare for me to be glad I’m no longer groovy…
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine.
A delectable delight!
:D :D :D :D :D
The first of Austen’s completed novels, Northanger Abbey was sold to a bookseller for £10 in 1803, but the bookseller then decided not to publish it. In 1816, her brother bought it back for the original price – the bookseller was unaware that the book was written by the same author who had by then achieved so much anonymous fame and success with Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility et al. It was finally published in 1818, six months or so after Austen’s death.
They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.
Northanger Abbey is the most deliciously light of all of Austen’s books, filled with humour as Austen pokes gentle fun at her own class and gender. Catherine Morland is our naïve 17-year-old heroine, leaving her country parsonage home for the first time to visit the bright lights of Bath in the company of her generous neighbours, the Allens. Starry-eyed and romantic, and with an obsessive love of the Gothic sensation fiction of the day, Catherine is ready to be thrilled by everything and everyone she meets.
It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.
Empty-headed Mrs Allen is a kind and generous hostess, but is not much of a guide to young Catherine except in the matter of clothes. At first, they know no-one and poor Catherine must watch as the excitement of Bath seems to be passing her by; but then she meets the lively and lovely Isabella and within hours they are inseparable friends – and surely only a cynic would suspect that Isabella’s sudden interest in Catherine could have anything to do with her desire to get closer to Catherine’s handsome brother, James. Even more exciting for Catherine, though, is her first meeting with Henry Tilney – good-looking, charming, wonderful dancer and son of the owner of Northanger Abbey, the very name of which sets Catherine’s Gothic-loving heart a-flutter. The scene is set for misunderstandings, upsets and drama as Catherine learns that not everyone and everything can be taken at face value.
She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can…
…I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.
The bulk of the book is a social commentary on marriage at a time and in a class where money and family connections were often more important than love in the finding of a suitable partner. But in this one it’s all much lighter than in her other works – Austen gently mocking the tradition in contemporary Gothic fiction that the heroine must go through all kinds of terrors and dangers before being rescued by her perfect hero. Henry has to rescue Catherine from nothing worse than the embarrassment of being left with no dancing partner in the Assembly Rooms. But that doesn’t stop the imagination of Catherine, fed by the sensation novels of the time, running away with her as she invents all kinds of horror stories around the Tilneys and their romantically Gothic home. And here we have proof that TBR lists were just as uncontrollable in Austen’s day…
“…and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am!—What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”
Mrs Radcliffe’s Udolpho and The Italian are still well known, of course, but the others were all real books of the time too and Northanger Abbey’s popularity has meant they have in recent years been brought back from obscurity and republished as the ‘Horrid Novels’.
Northanger Abbey perhaps doesn’t have quite the depth of the later books but it is highly entertaining, full of witty and well-observed social commentary. Catherine may not have the sparkling wit of Lizzie but she is a sweet and loveable heroine; and, while Henry may not have the smouldering magnificence of a Darcy, he’s a model of propriety, fun to be around (if Catherine doesn’t mind his occasional pomposity why should we?) and, most importantly, independently wealthy. A perfect match in a perfect little comedy of manners – a delectable delight!
* * * * * * * * *
This revew is dedicated to passionate Austen fan, Professor VJ Duke, as a special gift for his blog birthday. And here’s another…
Episode 21 – The People’s Choice – The Result!
Thank you to everyone who voted in last week’s poll to decide which book should be added to my TBR pile. I am delighted (and not a little surprised) to announce that the runaway winner with 50% of all votes cast is…
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
I will be reading and reviewing the book in the near(ish) future.
Thanks again to Margaret at Books Please for her review of this book!
* * * * * * *
Meantime the TBR pile has grown again this week – to 96. This is primarily because the thrill of getting down to 95 last week eroded my self-control and several of you managed to slip past my defences with enticing reviews and recommendations.
So with my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:
Some of This Week’s Additions…
The Blurb - London, 1937. Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life, so when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway and at last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. Soon Jack will see the last of the sun, the sea will freeze and escape will be impossible.
And Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark…
LF says: “Paver slowly ratchets up the endless darkness and a brooding malevolence in the limitless, icy wastes, where anything begins to be plausible, because imagination will make the impossible real. Oh there certainly are recountings and happenings to make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, but, for me, it is the confrontation with insidious thoughts and reflections which are the real chill.“
The Blurb – Nelson’s life is not turning out the way he hoped. His girlfriend is sleeping with another man, his brother has left their South American country, leaving Nelson to care for their widowed mother, and his acting career can’t seem to get off the ground. That is, until he lands a starring role in a touring revival of The Idiot President, a legendary play by Nelson’s hero, Henry Nunez, leader of the storied guerrilla theater troupe Diciembre. And that’s when the real trouble begins.
The tour takes Nelson out of the shelter of the city and across a landscape he’s never seen, which still bears the scars of the civil war. With each performance, Nelson grows closer to his fellow actors, becoming hopelessly entangled in their complicated lives, until, during one memorable performance, a long-buried betrayal surfaces to force the troupe into chaos.
Matt says: “This novel, by a talented young Peruvian immigrant to America, tells the story of a young man in an unnamed country that’s clearly Peru. A ten-page first chapter sets the stage in pitch-perfect prose, delivering the history of a leftist theater group long since disbanded, and its aging principals who will take Nelson along on one last tour of the political play one of them penned back when. If ever there was a book that sets out its contract with the reader in the first ten pages, and delivers on it in the next three hundred or so, this is it.“
The Blurb – In the tradition of ‘The Orchid Thief’, a compelling narrative set within the strange and genteel world of rare-book collecting: the true story of an infamous book thief, his victims, and the man determined to catch him.
Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey steals purely for the love of books. In an attempt to understand him better, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged herself into the world of book lust and discovered just how dangerous it can be.
Jilanne says: “I found Bartlett’s book to be as intriguing as The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. And although I’ll never be a true collector of rare editions, I do love the vicarious thrill, similar, as Bartlett’s points out, to the discovery of lost treasure. So go ahead and get lost in the world of fine libraries and leather-bound tomes with a few unscrupulous people who LOVE rare books and the things those books represent: class and intelligence and no small amount of reverence.“
NB All blurbs are taken from Goodreads.
See why I find it all so difficult? My TBR mountain is not my fault…it’s yours!
:D :D :D :D :D
When Stephen Briggs returns to the town of his childhood to visit his elderly mother, he is forced to remember the events of the day that shattered his life and family, and caused aftershocks that are still rippling through this small community. Back in 1982, his parents had bought Highfield, a dilapidated old house overlooking the town. Richard would leave his career in the Army and together he and Mary would convert the barns into holiday cottages for rent and then live as much as they could off the land. But these plans changed when a sudden fight over a tiny group of islands on the other side of the world became Britain’s last imperial war. Richard found himself en route for the Falklands, a small war but a brutal one – and one which affected profoundly many of the men who served.
As he’d wandered through the decaying rooms of Highfield, scenes from their time there had played out with such clarity; parts of his life he’d worked so hard to banish, to eradicate not just from his own mind but somehow from history itself. It amazed him how far this could be done, the pious occupation of the present, a refusal to acknowledge what had passed, to allow it oxygen, for in what real sense did it actually exist?
This book, like Vowler’s first, What Lies Within, is being marketed as some kind of psychological thriller, but this is not only misleading, it actually does the book an injustice, as I felt it did to the earlier book too. Although there is a crime at the heart of it, in fact the book is about the trauma of war and how the effects of the psychological damage done to active participants can ripple out through society and down through generations. The book is told from several viewpoints, though each in the third person, and in two timelines. The present day section tells of Stephen’s return to the town, and the memories it awakens in him that he has tried unsuccessfully to suppress. The other timeline takes us back to the early ‘80s where the viewpoint alternates between Stephen as a child, and each of his parents.
Vowler’s strength is in his characterisation and again I was struck in this book by how convincingly he can write about his female characters. Although the story is centred around Stephen and his father to some extent, Mary is the character who rang truest for me, both as a young wife and mother in the earlier strand, and now as an ageing and somewhat isolated woman in the present. She’s not a heroine – just an ordinary woman struggling to cope with a life that hasn’t turned out the way she planned.
Both the main male characters are very well-drawn too though, and the picture of the young soldiers going off to an unexpected war is very convincing. At that time, peace had been the norm for a longish time, and people had almost stopped thinking of the Army as a fighting machine – apart from occasional tours of duty in Ireland, the Army was a good ‘career’ where young men (primarily) could learn skills that would earn them a good job in civvy street. The Falklands War changed that perception and Vowler shows how this strange but significant little episode affected soldiers and civilians alike.
It was what you signed up for, the prospect of this eventuality – and for many this bestowed nobility on the profession, there being no higher honour than to breathe your last defending your country. But what did you know of such matters in your late teens, when deep down you believed you’d live for ever? What did you know of the politics at play, the bureaucrats who sent people to die?
The book starts off as quite slow-moving and it took me a while to feel involved. Partly this is because in the first section, with Stephen as an adult, it is clear that he knows what happened on that day in the past, and keeping that knowledge from the reader feels contrived and creates an emotional distance. However as the story slowly unfolds, both timelines grow in emotional depth and, despite having been heavily signalled from an early point in the book, the ending is both powerful and moving. Another excellent book from Vowler, confirming my view from his first that he’s an author to keep a close eye on. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.
Demons, spiders and weird serial killers…
Back to modern horror stories again and another dip into the enjoyable collection of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Vol.19. Tim Pratt has been nominated for several science fiction and fantasy awards including the Nebula and Mythopoeic, and in 2007 won the Hugo Award for his story Impossible Dreams. So his story From Around Here seems like a good candidate for this week’s…
I arrived on a ferry made of gull cries and good ocean fog, and stepped from the limnal world into Jack London Square, down by Oakland’s fine deep-water port. I walked, pre-dawn, letting my form coalesce from local expectations, filtered through my own habits and preferences…I was looking for the reek of the deeply crazy, the kind of living crack in a city that can swallow whole neighbourhoods and poison the well of human faith in a place utterly. The kind that could shatter lives on an afternoon spree or corrode them slowly over decades.
When Reva arrives in a neighbourhood in Oakland, he can sense that there is evil there, though on the surface it’s a contented place where folks look after their properties and get along. But though there’re plenty of people who belong in the street, there are also lots of newcomers and sometimes they don’t stay long – just up and disappear, leaving all their belongings behind. The good people of the street assume it’s just their unsettled lifestyle – but Reva thinks there’s something bad going on and he’s here to put a stop to it…
A good place, or it could have been, but there was a canker along one street, spiderwebbing out into the neighbourhoods nearby, blood and crying and death somewhere in the near past, and lurking in the likely future.
I found this a really well written and quirkily interesting little story. We know straight away that Reva isn’t quite human – the fact that this is his first day in his new body tells us that! But though we don’t find out exactly what he is till near the end, we know he’s a good guy – some kind of supernatural being who has appointed himself to rid good neighbourhoods of lurking evils. What we don’t know is what kind of evil he is facing in this street – human or…not. Reva has the power to see deep down into people’s souls, so long as they’re ‘from around here’ and is puzzled when he comes across one inhabitant he can’t read. But he is soon to discover that the evil in the street is greater than he thought…
[He] stood up, letting his human shape drop, revealing the shambling earthen thing underneath, the creature of the dark and deep who’d lived here, on this spot, for centuries. [He] was a local spirit, tied to this place, but he was an ugly one, who chose to live off pain instead of prosperity. He reached out to me with arms of darkness, endless limbs that stank of minerals and stale air.
Despite the presence of a serial killer and a horrifyingly demonic spirit, this is quite a jolly little tale with a good deal of humour. The violence against humans takes place off the page so it’s not a gory tale – in the end it’s a battle between ancient good and evil with the humans as pawns in the struggle. Though it’s not particularly scary, there is quite a lot of nice stuff in it about spiders, real and metaphorical, for those arachnophobes amongst us (special recommendation for BigSister there). I found it an imaginative and well-told tale, with rather a heart-warming message about neighbourliness and a search for a place to call home. In the little introduction that’s given at the beginning of each story, Pratt says he wanted the story to be about ‘yearning, and rootlessness, and nostalgia, and weird serial killers’. I’d say he achieved his aim remarkably well, and will certainly look out for more of his stories in future.
Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock:
Overall story rating: :D :D :D :D :)
Houston, we have a problem…
:D :D :D :D :)
On April 13, 1970, two bare wires created an electrical current that caused an oxygen tank to explode. Bad enough if this were to happen on Earth, but much worse when it happens on a small spacecraft hurtling towards the Moon. This is the story of what went wrong on Apollo 13 and how the flight controllers and astronauts managed to bring the badly damaged craft home.
Cooper’s writing style is plain but clear. He has had access to most of the people involved in the mission and gives an enthralling picture of these men retaining their professionalism under extreme stress, working as the ultimate team to bring their colleagues home. He gives a minute-by-minute account of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, when neither the astronauts nor mission control knew what had happened or how severe the damage might have been. At that stage, the thought was still that the planned moon landing might be possible, but as various systems began to fail, it became clear that the task would be to ensure the survival of the crew. Cooper shows the seat-of-the-pants planning that made this possible, as the scientists and engineers in mission control scrambled around inventing previously unthought-of solutions, using computer equipment that seems laughably inadequate to our modern eyes.
Meantime, he also shows us the astronauts becoming increasingly exhausted as the flight continued, and suffering dehydration as they rationed their drinking water to dangerous levels. We see the crew gradually finding it more and more difficult to carry out the instructions coming from mission control, with mistakes creeping in both in space and on the ground as the crisis went on. But Cooper also shows the patience and commitment of each team member, battling to find ways to overcome each new problem as it arose.
Cooper explains how the accident came about – that as the moon flights proceeded a certain level of over-confidence had crept in, meaning that pre-flight checks and simulations hadn’t been carried out quite as thoroughly as they perhaps should have been. And we are shown how the fickle public, already bored with moon landings, suddenly tuned back in in droves when the flight went wrong.
The over-whelming feeling that I got from the book was one of intense admiration, not just for the courage of the astronauts, thousand of miles away in a tiny inadequate-seeming craft, but for the mission controllers, truly like heroes from sci-fi, coming up with ideas and workarounds of which Geordie La Forge himself would have been proud. We all know the outcome, but I still found I was holding my breath as the crew plunged towards earth’s atmosphere with no-one knowing whether the heat-shield would hold.
There’s a lot of fairly basic science in the book, which Cooper explains simply enough for anyone to grasp. I’ve seen a couple of reviews criticising some aspects of the science – mainly misuse of terminology – but I wasn’t aware of that while reading, and don’t feel it was anything particularly significant. I thought Cooper got the balance just about right between the technical and the human in the telling of the story, and the shortish book contains no unnecessary padding. An informative and exciting read – recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.
Creepy and disturbing…
:D :D :D :D :D
I am the most important figure in Marnie’s life, but she doesn’t know it yet. I am the half-figure at the edge of her photographs and the shadow in the corner of her eye that vanishes each time she turns her head. I am the ghost that dances behind her closed lids and the darkness that blinks when she blinks. I am her nameless champion, her unheralded hero, and the conductor of her symphony. I am the one who watches.
Marnie’s husband disappeared a year ago, leaving a huge gambling debt to a violent gangster. Hennessy is insisting that the debt is now Marnie’s and he’s got his own ideas of how she should earn enough to pay it back. So although she doesn’t want to give up hope of her husband’s return, Marnie needs to have him declared dead so she can claim the insurance money and get Hennessy out of her life. But the reader knows that someone is watching Marnie – someone who doesn’t like it when anyone hurts her…
This is a creepy and disturbing psychological thriller that is much more complex than it looks at first sight. I haven’t read any of Robotham’s other novels, but I gather from the blurb that Marnie’s psychologist, Joe O’Loughlin, has appeared in earlier books. However, this works perfectly as a standalone, with enough information given on the recurring characters for the reader to get to know them and not so much referring back to previous books as to be annoying. When Marnie tells Joe about her need to have Daniel declared dead, Joe asks his friend, ex-detective Vincent Ruiz, to help. But when Ruiz starts investigating, he finds that there have been many odd events in Marnie’s past and begins to wonder if she knows more about Daniel’s disappearance than she’s letting on.
The book is very well-written and Robotham leads the reader on a twisting and twisted journey, full of ambiguity and false trails. The characterisation is particularly strong, and both Joe and Ruiz are attractive and enjoyable characters. Marnie is a complicated character, sometimes gaining the reader’s sympathy and support while at other times the reader joins with Ruiz in wondering if there’s another hidden side to her. There’s quite a lot of violence in the book, but it mainly happens ‘off-screen’ so adds to the chill factor without being too graphic. The story is told mainly in the third person (present tense, sadly, but aren’t they all?), but there are brief chapters intercut throughout, told in the first person from the watcher’s viewpoint. These add hugely to the tension in the book, which builds right from the beginning through to the drama of the ending. And throughout, nothing is necessarily quite what it seems…
Tense and chilling, the plot kept me guessing right to the end – the twists are done at just the right points to keep the pace up all the way through. There are aspects that stretch credulity but they’re handled well enough that they don’t jar. An effective and enjoyable thriller that will encourage me to look out for more of Robotham’s books in future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.
Episode 20 – The People’s Choice
The TBR pile continues to shrink – 95! Woo-hoo! But it’s had the unfortunate side-effect that I’m no longer capable of deciding amongst the tempting treats the blogosphere continues to offer. So, for a change, I’m turning the choice – and the responsibility – over to you. Are you up to the challenge? Here’s my shortlist – which one do you think deserves a coveted slot on my TBR? The winner will be announced next Thursday…
With my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:
The Blurb – When Olivia Brookes calls the police to report that her husband and children are missing, she believes she will never see them again. She has reason to fear the worst; this isn’t the first tragedy that Olivia has experienced. Now, two years later, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Douglas is called in to investigate this family again, but this time it’s Olivia who has disappeared. All the evidence suggests that she was here, in the family home, that morning. But her car is in the garage, and her purse is in her handbag – on the kitchen table.
The police want to issue a national appeal, but for some reason every single picture of this family has been removed from albums, from phones, from computers.
And then they find the blood…
Cleo says: “This book contains everything that a good psychological thriller should; there is a great puzzle to be solved, an uncertainty about which characters can be believed as Olivia and Robert explain some of their actions the result being that some of what I read literally gave me goose bumps as I couldn’t help but imagine myself in Olivia’s shoes. Be warned some of the scenes in this book will make your heart race!“
The Blurb – Inspector Singh’s expertise is required in China in his sixth adventure, as he battles political intrigue to get to the bottom of a very murky and complex crime Inspector Singh is on a mission to China, against his better judgment. The son of a bigwig at the Singapore Embassy has been bludgeoned to death in a back alley in Beijing. The Chinese security insist that he was the victim of a robbery gone wrong, but the young man’s mother demands that Singapore’s finest (in his own opinion) rides to the rescue. But solving a murder in a country that practices socialism “with Chinese characteristics” is a dangerous business, and it soon becomes apparent that getting to the bottom of this calamitous killing will be his toughest case yet.…
Margot says “In Beijing, Inspector Singh is an obvious foreigner. Through his eyes we get a look at the blend of ancient tradition, modern Chinese-style capitalism and some Maoist traditions too that contribute to Chinese culture. There’s also a hefty dose of pragmatism too, as ‘regular’ Chinese people manage their lives. And since Singh is not Chinese, and doesn’t speak that language, he’s a bit out of his element. And that adds a layer of tension to the story.“
The Blurb – Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious, and hypochondriac wife, Zeenie. But when Zeenie’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a “hired girl”, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read novel.
Margaret says: “even though Ethan Frome is a tragedy there is light to contrast the darkness, and there is love and hope set against repression and misery. It’s another book (like The Grass is Singing) where I hoped the ending would be a happy one, although I knew it couldn’t be. It’s a short book (just over 120 pages) and deceptively simple to read, but there is so much packed into it. I enjoyed it very much.“
The Blurb – The setting is a small, idyllic village at the foot of Norway’s Kollen Mountain, where neighbors know neighbors and children play happily in the streets. But when the body of a teenage girl is found by the lake at the mountaintop, the town’s tranquility is shattered forever. Annie was strong, intelligent, and loved by everyone. What went so terribly wrong? Doggedly, yet subtly, Inspector Sejer uncovers layer upon layer of distrust and lies beneath the town’s seemingly perfect facade.
Rebecca says: “Despite the sadness of the story, Sejer himself doesn’t seem overly gloomy, which is appealing in a protagonist. He feels empathy for the people he interviews not only because they were touched by the crimes at the center of the novel but because of their lives together in their small town. I’m glad I have several more novels in the series to get to soon.”
The Blurb – In the epigraph to this volume, Penelope Fitzgerald tells us: If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching,” and so we discover each story here to follow the arc of a search, just as each also contains a rescue. What is immediately apparent is that it will be impossible to guess the form this rescue will take or even who it is who’ll require it. Instead, the astonishingly talented Valerie Trueblood has imbued each story with its own depth and mystery, so rescue comes as a surprise to the reader, who is in intimate sympathy for the soul in extremity.
Kelly says: ““The Magic Pebble” and “The Stabbed Boy” just about broke my heart with their bits of tragedy; “The Blue Grotto,” a tale of a babysitter whose overnight charge has a 105-degree fever and requires a trip to the ER, terrified me; “Later or Never” (about a caretaker) and “Street of Dreams” (about a father shepherding his homeless family) were poignant vignettes; and the opening of “Who Is He That Will Harm You” reveals its events, little by little, until the full scene pops startlingly into your mind’s eye.“
NB All blurbs are taken from Goodreads.
So…which should I read? Choose just one or as many as you like – the book with most votes will be this week’s winner…
Hope you pick a good one! ;)
:) :) :) :)
Lucy Worsley has set out to trace the roots of the British obsession with murder – as consumers, rather than participants. She makes the case that the fascination with murder corresponded to the increasing urbanisation of Britain during the nineteenth century which, because neighbours no longer knew each other as they had done in a more rural age, meant that murders could be much harder to detect. And what could be more thrilling than knowing that a murderer might be on the loose? Combine that with the rise of affordable printed material, such as the Penny Dreadfuls that became available during the Victorian era, and suddenly the commercial potential of murder, real or fictional, was huge.
The book is light in tone and an easy, enjoyable read. Worsley also presented a companion TV series (which I didn’t watch) and the book is written in an episodic format, presumably to tie in with that. Much of the material will be familiar to anyone with an interest in crime fiction or true crime, but the format draws interesting parallels between the society of a given time and how that influenced the type of crime fiction that was being written. She takes us through the major real-life cases of the Victorian age, such as the Road Hill House murder or the Maria Manning case and shows how these were reflected both in stage melodrama and in the early crime fiction of Dickens, Wilkie Collins et al. We see how the rise of the police detective in real-life began to be mirrored in some fiction, while the early failures of the police to solve crimes left the door open for the rise of the fictional amateur sleuth. Of course, Worsley talks about Holmes and Watson in this context, but she also casts her net more widely to discuss sensation writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and early fictional female sleuths and how they reflected and to some degree challenged the Victorian view of women in general.
(Excerpt from the historical puppet show of the real-life Red Barn murder starring Bill Nighy and Diana Quick courtesy of the V&A)
As she moves into the twentieth century, Worsley largely pulls away from true crime to concentrate on the fictional. She discusses the Golden Age authors in some depth, giving almost mini-biographies of some of them, particularly Dorothy L Sayers. She argues (as others have done) that the Golden Age puzzle with its fairly defined rules developed as a response to the horrors of WW1 and fed into a society that wanted something a bit cosier than the blood-curdling melodramas of the past. She discusses how class and gender were represented in these novels, but keeps the tone light – though it’s clearly well-researched, this book never reads like an academic study.
After the Golden Age, Worsley rushes through hard-boiled fiction and today’s appetite for the noir and the serial-killer, but this last chapter is really just a post-script. Her position seems to be that the mystery novel declined as a form after the Second World War, to be replaced by the more violent thriller genre – true to an extent, but the huge market for cosies suggests to me that there’s a bigger appetite for ‘traditional’ murder mysteries still than I felt Worsley acknowledged. And there are still plenty of police procedurals that at heart are the descendants of the Golden Age, where clues and character are still more important than blood-soaked scenes of violence and torture. Thank goodness!
An interesting and enjoyable read, which I would suggest would be an ideal entry-level book for anyone looking to find out more about the history of crime fiction and its links with society.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ebury.
Six of the best…
If proof were needed that Daphne du Maurier knew how to tell a chilling tale, then the fact that Hitchcock chose to make three of her stories into films surely provides it. Rebecca and Jamaica Inn are both full-length novels but the third of the trio is based on the short story which provides the title for this collection. So what could be a more appropriate choice for…
The introduction to this edition tells us that Hitchcock did not claim that his film of The Birds was an exact reproduction of du Maurier’s story. “What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.” However, although Hitchcock moved the setting from Cornwall in England to Bodega Bay in California and created a character suitable for one of his famous blondes (in this case, Tippi Hedren), the suspense and horror all originate from du Maurier’s story.
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.
On a cold winter’s night, Nat Hocken is awoken by the sound of tapping at his window and discovers it’s a bird seemingly trying to get in. Then screams come from the children’s bedroom and when he rushes there, he finds hundreds of birds have come through the window and are attacking his son and daughter. He fights them off, but when he tells his neighbours about the attack the next day they don’t believe him – until reports start to come in over the radio that attacks have been taking place all over the country. No-one knows why the birds have suddenly started attacking and no-one knows how to stop them. Du Maurier creates a wonderfully terrifying atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia as Nat battles to protect his family, and as with the film both the reasons and the ending are left ambiguous, adding greatly to the horror.
* * * * * * * * *
Monte Verità – the tale of a mysterious sect which lures women away from their families, never to be seen again. Is there something supernatural about it, or is it a religious cult? And what happens when the villagers eventually decide they will destroy it?
The Little Photographer – a bored and lonely Marquise starts a casual affair with a local photographer, but when he begins to take it too seriously, she finds her marriage and lifestyle threatened. No supernatural threat in this one – this is a story of cruelty and guilt as we are taken inside the mind of the Marquise. Starting light, the story gradually gets darker and darker as we see the lengths to which desperation can drive people…
Kiss Me, Stranger – on going to the cinema one night, the narrator falls in love at first sight with the usherette. This is a very ambiguous story – the narrator believes the girl is flesh and blood, but the reader is left with the sneaking suspicion that she may be a ghost. Touching on the psychological aftermath of the war, this is another deceptively dark story with an ending that is guaranteed to surprise.
The Old Man – the story of an isolated family as seen through the eyes of an outside observer. As the story builds towards a seemingly inevitable tragedy, the narrator watches helplessly – unable to intervene because he doesn’t speak the same language as the family. An odd story, perhaps my least favourite of the collection, but nonetheless beautifully written and building up a truly chilling atmosphere.
…the old man turned like a flash of lightning and came down the other side of the lake towards the marshes, towards Boy. He looked terrible. I shall never forget his appearance. That magnificent head I had always admired now angry, evil; and he was cursing Boy as he came. I tell you, I heard him.
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.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.
IT’S A FRETFUL PORPENTINE!
Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock:
Overall story rating: :D :D :D :D :D
:) :) :) :)
This is the partly true, partly fictional story of Anna Storace, an English-born soprano who became the prima buffa in the Italian opera company at the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II. The book is steeped in the world of 18th century opera, written very convincingly by an author who has apparently formally studied and sung opera herself. She paints a believable picture of this small group of singers and musicians, somewhat cut off from the reality of the world outside and living intensely through their art, relying on patronage to give them the freedom to pursue their professions.
Anna was the daughter of an Italian violinist and an English mother and showed her talent from an early age. After training in London with the famous castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, she and her family moved to Italy so that she could pursue her career. Shotwell chooses to concentrate largely on Anna’s personal life, and this is the aspect of the book that strays a bit from historical fact. Following a failed love affair with a member of the buffa company, Anna makes a disastrous marriage to a man who is viciously cruel to her, beating her so badly that it becomes common knowledge despite Anna’s attempts to hide it. But it is when she meets Mozart that Anna finally falls passionately in love, and the bulk of the book is the story of their affair.
Anna had seen many virtuosi play. Wolfgang Mozart surpassed them all. He exhaled, and so many breathing notes unfurled from his unhesitating hands. He played as she had always wished to sing – how she imagined she might sing if she were not so excitable and striving, but selfless and assured, bound to music alone.
The book is very well written and I found the depiction of the lives of the musicians both credible and fascinating. Shotwell has clearly researched the period thoroughly and her knowledge of the technicalities of singing opera adds a great deal to her characterisation of Anna. The other main characters are just as well drawn – her brother, struggling to be accepted as a composer while being outshone by those around him, her fellow members of the buffa company jostling for position and advancement, and of course Mozart. Much of the fascination of the book comes from Shotwell’s descriptions of Mozart’s skill as both composer and pianist and the struggle for him to be accepted at a time when Italian composers were seen as the pinnacle of the profession. We also see him as a man who truly loves his wife and family and yet has become obsessed with the beautiful Anna and her voice – in real life, she was apparently the woman for whom he wrote the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.
I have a couple of caveats that prevent me from giving the book the full five stars. The first is a matter of personal taste only – the book was too much focussed on Anna’s love life for my preference. The second is a little more serious – Shotwell has chosen to deviate from the historical facts at a couple of points. It appears that there is no evidence that Anna and Mozart ever had an affair, though it has been suggested on occasion. But the inaccuracy that really grated with me was the suggestion that Anna’s first child was conceived before her marriage and that she had trapped her husband into marrying her while concealing that she was pregnant to another man. It appears that this is entirely untrue, and somehow it left me with the feeling that the Anna I had got to know, while believable in terms of the book, was more fictional than factual; and I found myself wondering, as I often do, why an author would choose to use real-life characters and then skew their stories, rather than just creating entirely fictional characters. And I came to the same cynical conclusion that I always do – the names of Storace and Mozart will undoubtedly sell more copies than two fictional names would.
She needn’t live if she couldn’t sing. Without singing she was nothing, had nothing, no personhood, no purpose, no knowledge, no mastery, nothing with which to make anyone happy. She was without use. And the longer she was without use, the longer she did nothing, the more pitiable she became.
Caveats aside, this is well worth reading for the richly detailed picture it paints of the musical world of its time. While it might perhaps appeal most to people with a love for opera, the strength of the setting and characterisation will make it an interesting and pleasurable read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ballantine.
“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”
:) :) :)
At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we left Huck Finn, now comfortably well-off, being ‘sivilised’ by the Widow Douglas. But when Huck’s Pap comes back, wanting to get his hands on Huck’s new-found wealth, Huck finds himself at his father’s mercy, locked up in their shanty and subjected to beatings. So he hatches a plan to escape. Meantime, Miss Watson’s slave Jim has decided to run away because he’s overheard Miss Watson say she’s going to sell him down to Orleans. When the two meet up they decide to throw in their lots with each other and set off down the Mississippi on a raft. This is the story of their adventures. (Please note there are some spoilers in this review on the basis that almost everyone will already know the story.)
“A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I rek’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why would a wise man want to live in de mids er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No – ‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take en buil’ a biler-factory; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factory when he want to res’.”
There was always going to come a point at least once in the Great American Novel Quest when I would hit a book that didn’t seem to me to live up to its reputation. Sadly, this is that book. I’m quite sure that if I had read it not knowing of its status, it would never have occurred to me to rank this as anything more than a fairly enjoyable adventure yarn – showing its age, certainly, but with a fair amount of satirical humour.
However, even reviewing it as an adventure, I found it compared unfavourably to its predecessor. The few chapters at the beginning are pretty much a reprise of Tom Sawyer, with the gang again getting together to play at being robbers, and much of the humour here is simply a repeat of the first novel. The next section – Huck’s cruel treatment at the hands of his father – is treated so lightly that it didn’t generate any real emotion in me; and Huck’s pretence at having being murdered in order to escape is again very similar to what happened in the previous book.
Once Jim and Huck get together, the story improves greatly for a while and the first section of their journey is the best bit of the book, as we see these two unlikely companions begin to form bonds of affection and loyalty. It’s here that Twain shows most clearly through Huck’s narration the acceptance of slavery as an almost unthinking norm in the society he’s portraying, and we get brief flashes of Jim as a real person when he tells about how he will be separated from his wife and children if he’s sold.
Then unfortunately the two con-artists – the Duke and the King – come on the scene and from there on the whole thing seems to lose any narrative drive. To be honest, while at first it seemed clear that Huck and Finn were heading north to the free States, after this mid-way point I had no clear idea what their plan was, if they had one. The book, like the raft, seems to drift aimlessly as we are given little humorous set-pieces at each of the towns they visit. But not humorous enough, I’m afraid, to compensate for the repetitiveness of the section nor for the overdrawn caricatures of these two characters.
“Well, some of the best authorities has done it. They couldn’t get the chain off, so they just cut their hand off and shoved. And a leg would be better still. But we got to let that go. There ain’t necessity enough in this case; and, besides, Jim’s a nigger, and wouldn’t understand the reasons for it, and how it’s the custom in Europe; so we’ll let it go.”
When Tom finally re-appears, the story picks up for a bit as he and Huck each take on false identities to fool Tom’s unsuspecting aunt. But then we get to the long-drawn out and frankly tedious final section where, instead of rescuing Jim, Tom goes off into another of his fantasies and stretches the whole thing out to an extent where I found I was beginning to skim whole chapters in a desperate bid to get to the end.
So as a novel, I’m afraid this would rate no more than 3 stars for me.
* * * * * * * * *
Trying to look at it a bit more deeply as a contender for Great American Novel status, the two things that are most often mentioned are the innovative use of dialect and the satirical look at attitudes towards slavery. Certainly, the dialect is done wonderfully well – Twain never misses a beat, and makes each voice not only distinct, but an unmistakeable indicator of the different class each character occupies. So Tom’s voice clearly shows he’s of a better class and level of education than Huck, while Jim and the other slaves share a dialect all of their own – a dialect that is recognisable from most of the early Hollywood films portraying slavery, such as Gone With the Wind. This made me wonder if the dialect was authentic, or a Twain creation that influenced later culture. Either way, it’s a virtuoso performance from Twain and certainly raises the artistic level of the novel. (Honestly, though, I found it irritating after a while – frequently having to re-read Jim’s dialogue to catch the meaning. Perhaps that’s my Britishness showing through.)
I found the slavery question more complex, oddly because Twain makes it seem so simple. He makes the tolerance of slavery a universal thing, accepted unquestioningly by everyone in the novel. I found this unconvincing – the book is set only a couple of decades before the Civil War, and surely there would have been more shades of grey over it, even in the South, by that period? Also, although he shows the basic inhumanity and emotional cruelty of one man owning another, somehow he also shows the owners as fundamentally good-natured and mostly quite kind to the slaves. I’m sure that was also true of some owners, but I’m equally sure there was a lot more physical cruelty and abuse than this novel suggests. It all seemed strangely sanitised, especially since the point was presumably to show the plain wrongness of the practice. And, while there’s no doubt every character in the book regardless of colour is displayed as, shall we say, intellectually challenged, the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result left me feeling quite uncomfortable. I really, really wanted Jim to tell Tom and Huck to grow up and stop messing him about, rather than to continue metaphorically wagging his tail at his masters, as he did even once he discovered that he had been a free man while Tom was indulging his own selfishness.
Hmm…I’m guessing you can tell I wasn’t convinced by this one…
Great American Novel Quest
So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
Bearing in mind when the book was written, and that the audience for it therefore didn’t share today’s sensibilities regarding race and equality, I’m assuming that the book perhaps did shed light on the evils of slavery for its contemporary readers, at a time when the post-war society wasn’t living up to the expectations of the proponents of the war. To be honest, I’m basing this assumption more on the book’s reputation than on anything I found in the text though. So, somewhat grudgingly – achieved.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
Must be superbly written.
Oh dear – I feel I’m going to offend most of America here and quite probably the rest of the world too but…no, I didn’t find this superbly written. The dialect, while hugely skilful, detracted on the whole from my enjoyment; and the plot was too straggly and unfocussed, particularly the several chapters at the end. The humour and satire simply weren’t enough to carry it. So…not achieved.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
I think this is arguable. While the book concentrated very much on the South, and was of course historical even at the time of writing, it was clearly written with reference to issues in the contemporary society. It seemed to me that Twain saw the issue of equality as one for the whole of the US and in that sense, it addresses the entire ‘American experience’. But does it capture it? I’m conflicted – but on the whole no, I’m not wholly convinced by Twain’s portrayal of this society so…not achieved.
* * * * * * * * *
So, donning my hard hat and cowering behind the settee, I hereby declare that not only is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not The Great American Novel, but for only achieving 3 GAN flags and 3 stars, it isn’t even A Great American Novel.
Please don’t hate me! Instead, convince me that I’m wrong…
Proud as Punch to announce that the TBR has fallen to its lowest level in months – 96! I hereby declare myself the Queen of Self-Control and am patting my own back while performing a happy dance…not easy, I can tell you. So before I do myself an injury, I’ll take a break and share a few of the upcoming highlights…
Courtesy of NetGalley:
“One afternoon, Commissario Guido Brunetti gets a frantic call from the director of a prestigious Venetian library. Someone has stolen pages out of several rare books. After a round of questioning, the case seems clear: the culprit must be the man who requested the volumes, an American professor from a Kansas university. The only problem—the man fled the library earlier that day, and after checking his credentials, the American professor doesn’t exist. As the investigation proceeds, the suspects multiply. And when a seemingly harmless theologian, who had spent years reading at the library turns up brutally murdered, Brunetti must question his expectations about what makes a man innocent, or guilty. “
“I believe, from what I can hear, that either my daughter or my wife has just been attacked. I don’t know the outcome. The house is silent.
Fourteen years ago two teenage lovers were brutally murdered in a patch of remote woodland. The prime suspect confessed to the crimes and was imprisoned.
Now, one family is still trying to put the memory of the killings behind them. But at their isolated hilltop house . . . the nightmare is about to return.“
“The successful 1776 revolt against British rule in North America has been hailed almost universally as a great step forward for humanity. But the Africans then residing in the colonies overwhelmingly sided with London. In this trailblazing book, Gerald Horne complements his earlier celebrated Negro Comrades of the Crown, by showing that in the prelude to 1776, the abolition of slavery seemed all but inevitable in London, delighting Africans as much as it outraged slaveholders, and sparking the colonial revolt. In the prelude to 1776, more and more Africans were joining the British military, and anti-slavery sentiments were deepening throughout Britain. And in the Caribbean, rebellious Africans were chasing Europeans to the mainland. Unlike their counterparts in London, the European colonists overwhelmingly associated enslaved Africans with subversion and hostility to the status quo. For European colonists, the major threat to security in North America was a foreign invasion combined with an insurrection of the enslaved. And as 1776 approached, London-imposed abolition throughout the colonies was a very real and threatening possibility—a possibility the founding fathers feared could bring the slave rebellions of Jamaica and Antigua to the thirteen colonies. To forestall it, they went to war.“
Roy Jenkins was a huge political figure in my youth. Though I never liked him (arrogant and pompous are the words which spring to mind), there’s no arguing that he was one of the most influential leaders of a generation…as well as being a major figure in the Labour party during the 60s and 70s, held responsible by some for the development of ‘the permissive society’, he was the major figure in the split that led to the formation of the SDLP, thus creating the conditions that led to Tony Blair and New Labour and which have subsequently allowed the Liberal Party to finally get their feet under the Cabinet table.
“On top of all this, Jenkins was a compulsive writer whose twenty-three books included best-selling biographies of Asquith, Gladstone and Churchill. As Chancellor of Oxford University he was the embodiment of the liberal establishment with a genius for friendship who knew and cultivated everyone who mattered in the overlapping worlds of politics, literature, diplomacy and academia; he also had many close women friends and enjoyed an unconventional private life. His biography is the story of an exceptionally well-filled and well-rounded life.“
“It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.
Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bus, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner.“
* * * * *
All blurbs are taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.
I have no idea when I’ll actually get time to read some of these massive tomes, but hey! At least I won’t be complaining about having nothing to read…
Whaddya think? Any of these take your fancy?
:D :D :D :)
As a theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku may not be the obvious choice to tackle the subject of the science of the brain, but he undoubtedly has a gift for writing about complex subjects in an accessible way. In this book he looks at the history of neuroscience, where we are now, and then spends a huge chunk of the book speculating about where the scientists may take us in the future.
He starts by describing the physical properties of the brain, explaining how over the last century or so scientists have discovered how the various parts interact with each other. He speculates in an informed way as to why the human brain should have evolved as it has, and defines the main difference between humans and other species as our ability to consider possible futures as a way to inform our decisions.
I call this the “space-time theory of consciousness,” because it emphasizes the idea that animals create a model of the world mainly in relation to space, and to one another, while humans go beyond and create a model of the world in relation to time, both forward and backward.
He then looks at some of the experimentation that is currently taking place, with major pushes from both the EU and the US to discover possible treatments for the growing problem of dementia caused by our ageing populations, together with other kinds of mental illness, which he suggests quite firmly are in the main caused by physical factors.
So far, so good. His writing style and enthusiasm for the subject make for an interesting and informative read, though his descriptions of much of the animal experimentation that is going on also left me feeling uncomfortable and conflicted. Although he continually emphasises the aim of treatment for illnesses and brings up the subject of ethics repeatedly, it seemed fairly clear that many of the scientists, Kaku included, are really interested in knowledge for knowledge sake, and don’t always have strong personal ethical constraints in how they pursue it. Frankenstein, it appears, is alive and well, and is being heavily subsidised by our governments. Let us hope he is also being subjected to close scrutiny…although, as Kaku makes clear, much of the research is going on in the name of ‘defence’ – never a field noted for its sensitivity and humanity.
Dr Nicolelis starts by connecting the motor cortex of rhesus monkeys to mechanical arms. These mechanical arms have sensors on them, which then send signals back to the brain by electrodes connected to the somatosensory cortex (which registers the sense of touch). The monkeys were given a reward after every successful trial; they learned how to use the apparatus within four to nine trials.
But what Kaku seems really interested in is the future, and here he goes into so much wild speculation that I found my credulity creaking at the seams. For a start, every speculation he comes up with seems to have its roots in an episode of Star Trek, which he mentions repeatedly throughout. Like him, I have a love for the series – unlike him, I don’t believe it’s a blueprint for the future. He moves rapidly through the remotely possible – creating a human-like robot such as, for instance, Commander Data – to inserting technology in our brains to allow us to read minds and act as one unit – à la the Borg – and on to one day uploading our consciousness into computers and living a disembodied and eternal life, possibly with holodeck-type avatars acting on our behalf. Uh-huh! (I’m guessing he’s read Frederik Pohl too.) At the point where he speculated that one day we will be able to send our consciousness out into space travelling on laser-beams and with the ability to assemble our own avatars on arrival, I was frankly chuckling. But in a horrified kind of way, because I think he actually means it. Fortunately, given that they’ve been working on robots for over half a century and so far have only achieved a not particularly effective vacuum cleaner, I feel I’m unlikely to live long enough to be forced to live forever as a computer programme. Phew!
More worrying than these far-distant speculations is the near-future idea that scientists will soon be able to ‘enhance’ our intelligence. Kaku’s rather casual view of this is that it’ll be OK if those with power and wealth are the first to have their brains enhanced, since a) they probably won’t misuse the advantage this confers (uh-huh! Though the idea of intelligent politicians is a novel and rather appealing idea, I admit…); and b) eventually, as with all things, the technology will soon become available to everyone. He bases this on things like medicine and computers gradually becoming available to all – I wondered if he was unaware or just didn’t care that, in fact, at least a fifth of the world’s population is still living at extreme poverty level without access to adequate health care and education – even in the rich US people still die for want of drugs that are available to the well-off. It all gave the impression that science is recklessly headed on a path without full consideration of where it may lead.
If skills can be implanted into the brain, it would have an immediate impact on the world economic system, since we wouldn’t have to waste so much human capital. (To some degree, the value of a certain skill may be devalued if memories can be uploaded into anyone, but this is compensated for by the fact that the number and quality of skilled workers vastly increase.)
Overall, I found the first half of the book interesting in knowing where the science stands at present, and in reminding me of the need to ensure that scientists are kept firmly under control. The speculative second-half was enjoyable but failed to convince me that most of it was more than the fantasy of sci-fi scriptwriters. And I’m rather glad about that, since it seems that Kaku and his fellow scientists are much more willing to consider the benefits of creating monsters than I am. An entertaining read, but not a wholly convincing one.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books.
The witch and the devil…
Although Robert Louis Stevenson is possibly best known for his adventure stories, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, he also wrote some great horror, not least the classic The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So his short story Thrawn Janet is the perfect candidate for this week’s…
Old Reverend Murdoch Soulis is minister of Balweary in the Vale of Dule. Outwardly severe and composed, his eye is ‘wild, scared and uncertain’ and he seems to see the terrors that may lie ahead in eternity. Once a year, on the 17th August, he preaches a sermon on ‘the devil as a roaring lion’ that terrifies all who hear it, frightening the children into fits. Both Reverend Soulis and the manse where he lives alone and untended are surrounded by an atmosphere of terror…and sometimes one of the older folk in the village can be persuaded to tell the old story that made them so…the tale of 17th August 1712…the tale of Thrawn Janet.
It was before the days o’ the moderates – weary fa’ them; but ill things are like guid – they baith come bit by bit, a pickle at a time; and there were folk even then that said the Lord had left the college professors to there ain devices, an’ the lads that went to study wi’ them wad hae done mair and better sittin’ in a peat-bog, like their forbears of the persecution, wi’ a Bible under their oxter and a speerit o’ prayer in their heart.
The beginning of this story is written in fairly standard English, but once the old villager takes over the narration it changes to a broad Scots dialect, much of which is now so archaic even I had some difficulties with the occasional word or phrase, so I feel a bit self-indulgent in picking it for this week’s horror slot. But this really is a classic horror story, based solidly in the witchcraft superstitions that lasted well into the eighteenth century in Scotland. Although the dialect makes the story a bit difficult to read, it’s worth the effort – it’s amazingly well written and really demands to be read aloud to get the full effect of the speech patterns and rhythms.
He lay an’ he tummled; the gude, caller bed that he got into brunt his very banes; whiles he slept, and whiles he waukened; whiles he heard the time o’ nicht, and whiles a tyke yowlin’ up the muir, as if somebody was deid; whiles he thocht he heard bogles claverin’ in his lug, an’ whiles he saw spunkies in the room. He behoved, he judged, to be sick; an’ sick he was – little he jaloosed the sickness.
When the new, young and naïve minister decides to ask Janet McClour to be his housekeeper, the women of the village are horrified since they believe she is a witch. But to refute their superstition, as he sees it, Soulis demands that Janet publicly renounce the devil and his works. Since the option is to be put to death, Janet does so…but next day she is struck with a mysterious affliction that twists her neck to one side as if she had been hanged – hence the name Thrawn (Twisted) Janet. The minister believes this is a result of the palsy, but the villagers suspect the devil’s work…
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.
Stevenson builds the atmosphere masterfully, showing how the minister, with all his book-learning, gradually begins to suspect that he is wrong and the villagers are right about the evil that seems to surround Janet. The climax is nicely terrifying, with some really horrifying images, though completely gore-free. This is about good and evil in the traditional sense – God and the devil battling for the soul of mankind. Definitely one to chill the spine! (But unless you’re an archaic Scot, you might want to get a version with a glossary…)
Fretful porpentine rating: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock:
Overall story rating: :D :D :D :D :D
:D :D :D :D :)
Four young people are sharing a small flat in Tokyo, each having drifted there in a casual, unplanned way. Forced into a kind of physical intimacy by this living arrangement, each remains emotionally isolated and, as we discover, damaged to varying degrees by their pasts. Naoki is the eldest and something of a big brother figure to the rest – he originally shared the flat with his girlfriend, who left him for an older man but still pops back to visit and stay in the flat on occasion. Mirai works hard and plays hard, spending her evenings getting drunk in gay bars. Kotomi stays home all day watching TV and waiting for her soap-star boyfriend to ring. Ryosuke is a student and as we meet him he has just fallen in love with the girlfriend of his older friend and mentor. Then one morning a fifth arrives, Satoru – no-one really knows who invited him but in this casual set-up he soon becomes accepted as another flatmate, even though no-one is quite sure who he is or what he does when he works late at night.
Although this is billed as a crime thriller, it really falls much more into the category of literary fiction. There is a crime element but it’s almost entirely in the background for most of the book. There’s not much plot as such – this is more an examination of the somewhat empty and alienated lives of these young people. Each section of the book is narrated by a different character, so we get to see what they each think of the others and also to find out a bit about what has brought them here and made them who they are.
Whenever I read Japanese fiction, I find it a strangely discombobulating experience – it always seems to reflect a society that is uneasy in its modernity, with a generation of young people who have thrown out the values of their elders but haven’t really found a way to replace them satisfactorily. There is always a sensation of drifting, of free-fall almost, and a kind of passivity that leaves me feeling as if there’s a dangerous void in the culture, waiting to be filled. But since I don’t know anything about Japan except through their fiction, I don’t know whether this is just a style of writing or whether it’s an accurate picture of the society.
I find Yoshida’s writing quite compelling and although I don’t always feel that I understand why his characters are as they are, I find them believable and fully rounded. The somewhat shocking ending of this one took me completely by surprise, and at first I felt almost as if the author hadn’t played fair with me. But a few days on I find the book is still running through my mind and I am seeing in retrospect what was hidden during the reading – which means that my appreciation for the ending has grown as I’ve gained a little distance from it.
Although this shares a translator, Philip Gabriel, with Yoshida’s first novel, I enjoyed the translation of this one much more. It is still Americanised but without the clumsy slang that irritated me so much in Villain.
On re-reading this review, I feel it isn’t giving a very clear picture of the book, and that’s actually a pretty accurate reflection of my feelings about it. I’m not sure I totally ‘got’ it (which happens to me a lot with Japanese fiction) but I am quite sure I found it a compelling and thought-provoking read. And I will most certainly be looking out for more of Yoshida’s work in future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
A massive leap up to 105 for the TBR this week. So much for all my good intentions! The problem is some books are just irresistible…
Courtesy of NetGalley:
“You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick –
But first you must travel to Victorian Yorkshire, and there, on a remote country estate, meet a brother and sister alone in the world and bound by tragedy. In time, you will enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of some of the richest, most powerful men in fin-de-siecle England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide. It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, one of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed.“
I loved Tom Vowler’s first book What Lies Within. Can he do it again…?
“When Stephen gets a phone call to say his mother isn’t well, he knows he must go to her straight away. But he dreads going back there. He has never been able to understand why his mother chose to stay in the town he grew up in, after everything that happened. One day’s tragic events years before had left no one living there untouched. Stephen’s own dark memories are still poisoning his life, as well as his marriage. Perhaps now is the time to go back and confront the place and the people of his shattered childhood. But will he ever be able to understand the crime that punctured their lives so brutally? How can a community move on from such a terrible legacy?“
A re-read in preparation:
“Decrepit castles, locked rooms, mysterious chests, cryptic notes, and tyrannical fathers give the story an uncanny air, but one with a decidedly satirical twist. The story’s unlikely heroine is Catherine Morland, a remarkably innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage. While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney, who invites her to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions. What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry’s mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey?“
Courtesy of Amazon Vine:
I couldn’t resist! It can’t possibly be worse than Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility…can it…?
“Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A homeschooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels?“
All blurbs are taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.
At least I’m sure to enjoy the Austen! Will you be reading any of these?
PS Due to life interfering with my reading time, I will be having a short bloggie break. Apologies in advance if I also don’t get around to visiting your blogs as often as usual for a short while. Back soon!