FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

😀😀😀🙂

the magnificent spilsburyIn 1910, 30-year-old spinster Bessie Mundy was desperate to find a husband. No easy task at a time when young men were heading to the colonies in droves, leaving a surplus of unmarried women behind. Poor Bessie wasn’t particularly attractive but she did have the advantage of having an inheritance. A cynic might think this was what attracted handsome, charismatic Henry Williams to her. And when, after making her will in her new husband’s favour, she subsequently died in her bathtub, a cynic might even think nefarious deeds were afoot. Unfortunately for the future wives of Williams, aka George Smith, the inquest jury weren’t cynical enough, and found her death to be accidental.

Crippen-scarMeanwhile, also in 1910, Bernard Spilsbury was beginning to make his name as a forensic pathologist in the Crippen case. Amidst the gloopy yuckiness that was all that remained of the corpse found in Crippen’s basement was a small scrap of skin, with what looked like scar tissue on it. Spilsbury used this to positively identify the corpse as Crippen’s missing wife Cora, and despite the best efforts of the defence, he was unshakeable in the witness box. Crippen hanged. Top defence barrister Edward Marshall Hall later claimed that, had he been defending Crippen, he’d have made a case in court that would have over-ridden Spilsbury’s evidence and got Crippen off.

These three men, Bernard Spilsbury, George Joseph Smith and Edward Marshall Hall would eventually face each other at the trial of Smith in what became known as the case of the Brides in the Bath.

The Brides in the Bath - Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty
The Brides in the Bath – Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty

Robins tells her tale well, widening out from the specifics to look at the society of the time. She discusses the place of women, still indoctrinated to see marriage as the only fulfilment even if they had enough money or skills to survive alone. With the relative shortage of men, which would only worsen when WW1 commenced, Robins shows how women would resort to advertising for husbands in the newspapers, often mentioning their financial worth as an incentive. If successful in finding a husband, she would then become almost entirely subordinate to him, regardless of his behaviour. Divorce was still scandalous and hard to obtain – in fact, Robins uses Marshall Hall’s suggestion of how he would have defended Crippen to show that often juries would be sympathetic to those who murdered intolerable spouses as the only way to be shot of them. Vulnerable women were easy prey for men like Smith, who preferred to inherit from his dearly departed wives rather than working for a living.

George Joseph Smith
George Joseph Smith

The other main strand is the growing importance of the expert witness in criminal trials, especially pathologists. Robins shows that it was sometimes as much a matter of how well the evidence was presented that could sway juries, since they often didn’t understand the technicalities of the science. Spilsbury was tall and good-looking with a commanding presence and an unshakeable confidence in his own expertise – a nightmare for defence lawyers to break. Again in the case of Smith, Robins cites Marshall Hall, who pointed out that, had Smith been rich, he’d have been able to hire expert witnesses of his own, but in the days before legal aid the field was left open to Spilsbury acting on behalf of the prosecution to give his evidence more or less unrefuted. Robins also shows that some of the evidence that Spilsbury gave as definite fact doesn’t stand up to subsequent advances in science. The courtroom takes on aspects of theatre with Marshall Hall and Spilsbury vying to win over the audience by the quality of their performance, with truth becoming something of a victim of the process.

Edward Marshall Hall
Edward Marshall Hall

So, much of interest in the book and Robins writes well, holding the reader’s attention even through some of the necessarily detailed (and occasionally gruesome) forensic stuff. However, there are a couple of weaknesses too, which stopped me from enjoying this one as thoroughly as I did her later book, The Curious Habits of Dr Adams. Firstly, a lot of the information that she gives us about Smith’s murders must, I think, have come from the records of the trial, so that, when the book actually gets to the trial, it becomes very repetitive of much that has gone before.

Bernard Spilsbury
Bernard Spilsbury

Secondly, and more importantly, Smith murdered three women in an identical way, shortly after marrying them. The sheer fact of a man losing three wives by drowning in bathtubs after they had made out wills in his favour was surely more than enough for reasonable doubt to disappear, without any need for forensic evidence. He had only got away with it for so long because no-one had connected the cases. Once connected, and with the judge ruling that evidence regarding all three deaths could be introduced into the trial regarding the murder of Bessie, it hardly required a brilliant prosecution to prove his guilt. The fact that the jury convicted after just 22 minutes of deliberation would seem to confirm that. Therefore, it seemed to me that Spilsbury’s evidence as to the specific manner of death, however interesting and however well presented, was actually incidental to the case. I rather wished Robins had chosen a different case where the conviction was more dependent on the scientific evidence, or where some doubt existed as to guilt.

The sensational trial gave people something to take their minds off the war...
The sensational trial gave people something to take their minds off the war…
Jane Robins
Jane Robins

Robins finishes with a brief run-through of Spilsbury’s subsequent life and career, and left me wishing this part has been expanded. It’s largely a matter of subjective opinion, but for me the book would have been improved by concentrating more on Spilsbury’s work in general than on this one specific case, which, however sensational, was from a detection point of view rather straightforward.

However, I still found enough in the social aspects of the time and the conduct of trials and use of expert witnesses to make this both an enjoyable and informative read, and I look forward to seeing where Robins heads next. A little bird (namely, Cleo) told me that’s she’s going to be writing a crime novel – an enticing prospect! But not due out until December 2017 – I shall be waiting impatiently…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 15
Book 15
the machine stops art

Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

“Man is the measure…”

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike Facebook? And seeing people walking along reading badly written, inane texts while there’s a rainbow in the sky above them? And the whole concept of having 5000 “friends” most of whom can’t even be bothered to “like” each other? Asking Google about everything instead of asking a person? Pressing option 1 only to be given a further five options? Listening to a robotic voice telling me to turn right instead of getting serendipitously lost? Having opinions fed to me 140 characters at a time? Sometimes I dream of it all just stopping…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

The Machine Stops
by EM Forster

EM Forster
EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it its filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading desk – that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

They never leave their rooms to find inspiration, so increasingly “ideas” are in short supply. Much of their time is spent asking their friends if they’ve had any new ideas today, but the answer is usually no. For entertainment, they prepare lectures to give to their friends – via the Machine, of course, not in person. And the lectures are short, since everyone is so busy dealing with incoming messages from friends that they can’t concentrate for long. Their friends know only how they look on a blurry viewscreen and how they sound through speakers, their voices competing with the constant hum of the Machine.

Sounds horrifyingly familiar, huh?

Hawkwind have released a new concept album based on the story
Hawkwind have released an album based on the story

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

But one day, Vashti’s son contacts her with an unusual request. He wants her to leave her room and travel by airship around the world to his room, to speak to him face to face. She finds the request distasteful, almost obscene, but he is her son. So eventually she makes the journey, ensuring as far as she can that her blinds on the airship are always drawn so that she is never subjected to the hideous sunshine, so much brighter than the ambient lighting provided by the Machine; and doesn’t see the empty, meaningless landscape with its mountains and oceans, or the disorientating stars.

“Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.”

When she arrives at Kuno’s room, he tells her that he has been outside and what he found there. He tries to convince her that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.

the machine stops art 2

* * * * *

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing. Sign out of Facebook, stop watching cat videos on youtube, turn off your computer – yes, even switch off your smartphone for an hour… if you still can… and read a story that will make you just a little reluctant to switch them all back on. Then go out and look at the stars…

* * * * *

the machine stops

Here’s a link, but it’s novelette length, about 12,000 words, so you may prefer to get one of the many versions available for e-readers for a £/$ or two. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony…😉 )

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

Chapel Springs Survival by Ane Mulligan

A visit with down-home folks…

😀😀😀😀

chapel springs survivalThe little Southern town of Chapel Springs is overrun by tourists because of the sudden success of Claire and Patsy’s gallery, The Painted Loon. Claire has been elected to the town council and wants to find a way to keep the visitors coming without disrupting the normal life of the town. Meantime, her family life is suddenly thrown into disarray when her youngest son announces he has married a girl he met online – a girl from Brazil who speaks no English. And her best friend’s husband is threatening to move to New York. But Claire has help to deal with her problems, in a strong group of women friends and her staunch faith in God.

OK, so this is billed on Amazon as Religious and Inspirational Women’s Fiction – not this old atheistic, kinda half-hearted feminist’s usual fare. Not by a long way! But it was edited by my blog buddy Susan P. so I couldn’t resist. And I actually quite enjoyed it, and not only because the grammar is perfect!😉

It’s a gentle, well-written story – more of a soap opera than anything else. The second book in the series, it took me a little bit of time to catch up with the backstory and work out how all the characters related to each other, but once past that stage the story flows along, nice and easy. The people are cosily nice – friends who are never annoying and are always there to support each other, husbands and wives who work through any little problems together, lots of home-spun wisdom, and cake, and hugs. Ah, if only life were so, how lovely it would be… if just a little dull, perhaps. (Oh, come on, allow me a little cynicism or my head might explode!) It’s kinda like just havin’ a leisurely visit with down-home folks. And if a little problem should arise, say, for instance, worry over whether one’s cake will rise, well, a quick prayer to God will soon sort that out! (And there was me thinking the answer was an oven thermometer…)

And it’s so good to know the Stepford Wives are alive and well! These women are happily inferior, thrilled to have caught a man, anxious to cook for him and clean up after him, and grateful for any little attention he might bestow on her. It’s so sweet! I love how Claire’s husband ‘does all the cooking’. Claire shops for the food, hauls it home, gets up at dawn to prepare all the vegetables, defrosts the meat, cleans the kitchen, gets out all the utensils and ingredients, heats up the stove, and then watches in grateful awe as he pops in for a couple of minutes, throws everything into a pan, then leaves her to stir it and serve it… then clean up afterwards. What a man!

Ane Mulligan
Ane Mulligan

But then Claire is lucky to have a man at all. As newly married Graham tells his loving new wife Lydia “Every available single man is overrun with women after a meal ticket”. She doesn’t divorce him. Nor does Patsy divorce Nathan when he suddenly, without consulting her or caring that her life and business are in Chapel Springs, decides he’s going to sell their house and move them both to New York. American women sure are different from Glaswegians.

I’m being tongue-in-cheek and totally unfair! In fact, I found this a lot of fun – a bit of escapism into a world I can’t really believe in but rather wish I could, with a bunch of women whose company I enjoyed. There are several plot-lines, all fairly light, and Mulligan keeps the story ticking along nicely. If it’s more your kind of thing than mine, I certainly recommend it as a well-written and relaxing comfort read.

(P.S. And just so you know I’m not totally mean, I gave Susan the choice as to whether I should post this or not and, like the good sport she is, she said ‘Go ahead!’)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Seeker by SG MacLean

They seek him here…

🙂🙂

the seekerOliver Cromwell has set himself up as de facto monarch of England, living in Charles Stuart’s palace surrounded by luxury. Surrounded also by plots and plotters, he has a spy network to look after his safety and that of the Commonwealth. Amongst them is Seeker, aka The Seeker. When a man apparently loyal to Cromwell is killed, it falls to Seeker aka The Seeker to find out whodunit and why.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I didn’t have a clue what was going on for most of this book. Maybe if I knew the history of Cromwell’s England in depth, it might have worked for me, but all the factions left me baffled. As did passing mentions of various religious sects – Ranters, Levellers, Seekers (of whom, amazingly, Seeker aka The Seeker appeared to have once been one). The book is well written and MacLean’s research is clearly extremely thorough, but I never got to grips with it and never felt any connection to the myriad of characters who flittered mysteriously across the pages, some of them going by more than one name. One minute we’re in London investigating a murder, next we’re in Oxford foiling some Royalist plot or other, but not the Royalist plot presumably that we’re still trying to foil in London, assuming that is a Royalist plot and not something to do with the slave trade, or maybe opium!

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts...
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts…

I stuck it out to 80% and then threw in the towel, realising that I couldn’t care less who did what to whom or why, and positively couldn’t spend any more of my ever-shrinking remaining life-span reading the rest. Part of my problem was that Seeker aka The Seeker (who, if you remember, used to be a Seeker) actually seemed to be the equivalent of the head of the Gestapo, quite happy to take anyone who threatened Cromwell to the Tower for a quick bit of torturing and then a disembowelment or perhaps a dismemberment. I found it hard to see him as a hero – not sure why! The fact that his love interest was the sister of a man, Elias aka The Sparrow, who was possibly a Leveller and maybe a Royalist, or perhaps a disaffected Roundhead who objected to Cromwell behaving like a King (it might have helped if I knew what Levellers were. I’m pretty sure they weren’t Seekers, though.)… *takes a deep breath* Where was I? Oh yes, so Elias is not a fan of Cromwell but while he languishes in the Tower, where Seeker aka The Seeker put him, awaiting almost certain horrible death, his sister manages to fall in love with S aka T.S. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

SG (aka Shona) MacLean
SG (aka Shona) MacLean

Meantime, there are Dutchmen and invisible Welshmen, and Scotsmen, including one called Zander Seaton, though whether or how he was connected to Alexander Seaton, the hero of MacLean’s other series (the one I understood and liked), I have frankly no idea. Or was he just there as a kind of self-referential in-joke? I don’t know. I simply don’t know!

So I gave up and flicked ahead, and discovered that even when I knew whodunit, I still didn’t care.

Having said all that, it paints a good picture of plots, secrecy and the murky goings-on in Cromwell’s London. And I’m quite sure it would work much better for someone familiar with that period of history, or perhaps someone with more ability/willingness than I to follow nineteen different strands simultaneously while admiring Seeker aka The Seeker. But sadly, not for me.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 14
Book 14

TBR Thursday 95…

Episode 95…

The TBR has gone up 4 to a new high of 184!! But the additions are all books that were on the wishlist so overall the situation remains stable. Oh, for goodness sake, at least try and look as if you believe me!

Here are a few that will be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

murder incCourtesy of NetGalley, this one sounds like it might be fun. A perfect excuse to dig out old Cagney and Edward G Robinson films…

The Blurb says: Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York focuses on the dramatic trials of a group of Brooklyn gangsters in 1940 and 1941. The media nicknamed the gangsters “Murder, Inc.,” and that nickname quickly became a kind of free-floating “meme,” linked at various times to criminals in general; to a record label; and even to a Bruce Springsteen song. The 1940-1941 trials inspired a wave of media coverage, several books and memoirs, and a sub-genre of the gangster film. The trials concluded with a notorious and unsolved murder mystery. Murder, Inc. narrates the life and times of the Brooklyn gang, and also relates their lives both to New York’s Roaring Twenties and Depression era gangs and to the wider “gangster” culture expressed especially in the film. At the same time, Murder, Inc., is a moral reflection on the gangsters; the gangbusters, like Fiorello La Guardia and Thomas Dewey, who opposed them; and popular culture’s fascination with “gangsterism.” It is especially this combination of crime story and moral reflection that makes Murder, Inc. unique.

* * * * *

Fiction

moby dickWell, I’ve put it off for as long as possible… or have I? Will I find another excuse to stick it back to the bottom of the heap? It’s on both my GAN Quest list and my Classics Club list, so I have to read it sometime. I suppose. Can you tell I’m just thrilled at the thought…?

The Blurb says:  “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imaginations in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

* * * * *

Crime

out of boundsCourtesy of NetGalley. I enjoyed McDermid’s last outing for DCI Karen Pirie, The Skeleton Road, especially since it’s good to see her setting a series in her native Scotland. So I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: When a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma, a routine DNA test reveals a connection to an unsolved murder from twenty-two years before. Finding the answer to the cold case should be straightforward. But it’s as twisted as the DNA helix itself.

Meanwhile, Karen finds herself irresistibly drawn to another mystery that she has no business investigating, a mystery that has its roots in a terrorist bombing two decades ago. And again, she finds that nothing is as it seems.

An enthralling, twisty read, Out of Bounds reaffirms Val McDermid’s place as one of the most dependable professionals in the mystery and thriller business.

* * * * *

Horror

thin airCourtesy of NetGalley – I suspect I may have an addiction problem. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter was deliciously scary so I’m hoping she can do it again… it’ll soon be time to wake the fretful porpentine from hibernation for the spooky season…

The Blurb says: In 1935, young medic Stephen Pearce travels to India to join an expedition with his brother, Kits. The elite team of five will climb Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain and one of mountaineering’s biggest killers. No one has scaled it before, and they are, quite literally, following in the footsteps of one of the most famous mountain disasters of all time – the 1907 Lyell Expedition.

Five men lost their lives back then, overcome by the atrocious weather, misfortune and ‘mountain sickness’ at such high altitudes. Lyell became a classic British hero when he published his memoir, Bloody, But Unbowed, which regaled his heroism in the face of extreme odds. It is this book that will guide this new group to get to the very top.

As the team prepare for the epic climb, Pearce’s unease about the expedition deepens. The only other survivor of the 1907 expedition, Charles Tennant, warns him off. He hints of dark things ahead and tells Pearce that, while five men lost their lives on the mountain, only four were laid to rest…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Dear reader, she murders the English language…

😦

jane steele 2Young Jane Steele’s favourite book is Jane Eyre and she sees some parallels between her own life and her heroine’s. Not yet an orphan when we first meet her, the suicide of her drug-addled mother soon allows her to achieve that status. Jane has been led to believe that Highgate House should be hers, left to her by her father. But her aunt is living there now and shows no intention of giving it up. And her cousin Edwin is a nasty piece of work who is sexually harassing her. So she kills him. Then she goes off to a school chosen by her wicked and now grieving aunt – a school much like Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall, but with added sexual harassment. While there, she kills a man, but he deserves it, so that’s okay. Then she goes off to London, where she meets with all kinds of men practising different forms of abuse or sexual harassment, so she kills them.

I’m afraid I just don’t get what it is that other people are liking about this book. It’s a simple stream of man-hate – if the genders were reversed I’m pretty sure there would be howls of outrage from some of the same people who are praising it. Every man who appears (up to the 44% mark when I abandoned it with huge relief) is some kind of sexual predator, paedophile or wife-beater, and it is therefore shown as amusing, even admirable, that they should be murdered. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but the humour wears very thin after the same premise is used several times – man appears, man abuses girl/woman, man is murdered.

But assuming that for some reason our society is okay with denigrating men on a wholesale basis, that still wouldn’t excuse the writing. If pastiching or referencing a great writer, then one has to be able to reproduce or equal that writer’s style – comparisons should and will be drawn, especially if large extracts of the original, skilled writer’s work are used to head up each chapter. The language in this has no feeling of authenticity, no elegance of style, is sprinkled with anachronistic phraseology and occasional Americanisms, and frequently contains words that are incorrect in the context or, indeed, just plain wrong. Would people put up with a professional pianist who kept hitting the wrong notes? Or a surgeon who removed the wrong organs? Then I simply don’t understand why readers are willing to put up with professional authors who use the wrong words.

Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order...
Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…

A couple of examples…

On the subject of her cousin Edwin, Jane muses: “Kin, kin, kin was ever his anthem: as if we were more than related, as if we were kindred.” I remain baffled as to what Faye thinks kindred means.

“Never having studied Latin previous, I congratulated myself when at the end of the hour, I was explaining the lesson to the perplexed circumference, and Miss Werwick forgot herself far enough to frown at this development.” I’m going to ignore “previous” because I think Faye’s using this incorrectly deliberately to try to give some kind of sense of outdated language. But perplexed circumference? I assume she means circle. Perhaps she thinks that because circles have circumferences then the words can be used interchangeably. Like milk and carton, perhaps, or chocolate and box.

Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye

I did think there was a certain irony to Faye introducing a character (an abusive male, obviously) whose major characteristic was his supposedly humorous incorrect use of words. Dickens can do that, because he is skilled with language. Unfortunately, here, it became difficult to differentiate between the character’s errors and the author’s. It’s odd, because in the only other book of Faye’s that I’ve read, her début in fact, I thought her writing was much better than in this. Perhaps it’s because she’s trying to emulate an outdated style of English English that doesn’t come naturally to her and is just not getting it quite right. I’m sure I wouldn’t get 19th century New York English right either (but then I wouldn’t publish a book written in it if I couldn’t).

However, given that the book has accumulated an astonishing number of 5-star reviews, it appears that the reading world doesn’t share my dislike for either misandry or poor writing. But I fear I can only recommend it to people who hate men and don’t mind having to guess what words the author meant to use…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 13
Book 13

Transwarp Tuesday! Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang translated by Ken Liu

A three-fold story…

I’m delighted to say that my pick for Best Short Story for this year’s Hugo Awards – the delightfully humorous Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer – actually won! That may be the first time ever I’ve picked a bookish winner. I really regret that I never got around to reviewing my pick for Best Novelette, since it won too! Better late than never, eh? This is an intriguing story from China that uses the freedom of speculative fiction as a means to look at some of the issues in present-day Beijing – and indeed in many other cities in our increasingly overcrowded world.

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
translated by Ken Liu

Hao Jingfang
Hao Jingfang

Lao Dao is a waste processing worker in crowded Beijing, in Third Space. We meet him as he hurrying to catch an old friend, before the Change begins.

People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.

Like all the people in Third Space, Lao Dao works long hours for low wages. Soon the daughter he has adopted will be old enough to go to kindergarten and Lao Dao worries about how he’ll find the money to make sure she can go to a good one. Now he’s been offered a small fortune to take a message to First Space – a journey that is prohibited to those in Third Space. So he’s looking for Peng Li, a man who has made that perilous journey before, to ask him how to get there. At first, Peng Li tries to talk him out of making the trip, but he sees that Lao Dao is determined, and he understands the lure of the money…

Then Peng Li explained the technique for entering First Space as the ground turned during the Change. He had to wait until the ground began to cleave and rise. Then, from the elevated edge, he had to swing over and scramble about fifty meters over the cross section until he reached the other side of the turning earth, climb over, and head east. There, he would find a bush that he could hold onto as the ground descended and closed up. He could then conceal himself in the bush.

And so Lao Dao sets off on his journey…

Crowded Beijing Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju
Crowded Beijing
Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju

* * * * *

The reason for Lao Dao’s trip is to take a message from a man in Second Space to a woman he has fallen in love with in First Space. But the story is pretty much incidental, Lao Dao’s journey a device which allows the author to describe this version of Beijing that he has created. The interest of the story is all in the description so I don’t think explaining the city is a spoiler in this instance, though if you want to read the story you might prefer to do that before you read on.

It’s available to read online – here’s the link.

The basic idea is that Beijing has become so overcrowded that it has been divided in a novel way. The people of Third Space are at the bottom of the social heap – the manual workers who do the dirty work that keeps the city operational. The city is theirs for 24 out of every 48 hours. At the end of their allotted time, the Change happens – the Third Space people pack themselves into their little pods and sleep, while the city physically folds itself into new shapes…

In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.

The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.

Then the Second Space people, the middle classes, get their turn, followed by another change to transform the bustling city into a quiet open haven for those at the top of society’s tree. The descriptions of the physical aspects of the change are excellent, but it’s the social dimension that really makes the story stand out. This isn’t really a story of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich, in quite the way you might expect. The Third Space people not only agreed to the system but they basically built the folding city. It seemed to be an answer to the problems of overcrowding and lack of resources, and all the people of the city have accepted it. The First Space people take their responsibilities to the other levels seriously, trying to manipulate the economic system so that everyone has employment and earns enough, if only barely, to survive.

Crowded Beijing
Crowded Beijing

It’s an intriguing concept, very well-written and beautifully translated by Ken Liu, himself a Hugo Award-winning author. Well worthy of the award, I think, and I’m glad that, despite the troubles the Hugo Award seems to have had with nominations this year, (as discussed in my previous post and in the comments on it), both these excellent stories have come through to win.

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

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Age of Aquarius…

😀😀😀😀😀

the girlsEvie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Childhood friendships fracturing as adolescence takes its toll and her parents each forming new relationships after their divorce, Evie feels alone and suddenly worthless, unwanted, almost invisible. When she sees the girls in the park, she is fascinated by everything about them; their air of wildness, defiance of social conventions, even their look of tattered grubbiness has a glamour in her eyes. So when one of the girls, Suzanne, seems to single her out for attention, Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The story is told by Evie from the present looking back. Right from the prologue we know that some of the girls will take part in a horrific multiple murder, but we don’t know the details and we don’t know how involved Evie will be until the end. In fact, though, the actual event is secondary – the book is about the psychology of cults, about how vulnerable people can find themselves being led to behave in ways that seem incomprehensible to onlookers, giving them an aura of almost demonic evil. As has been well trumpeted by the hype surrounding the book, it is loosely based on the Manson murders.

This is undoubtedly one of the books of the year for me. Cline’s writing style takes a little getting used to – while excellent, she perhaps strives a little too hard to be “literary”, especially at the beginning. But either her writing settles down after that or I got used to it – whichever, I soon found myself completely absorbed in Evie’s story. The characterisation is superb, of all the characters, but especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval.

The Manson "family"
The Manson “family”

Evie is at that age when she knows all about the adult world but isn’t part of it. She understands that the girls from the ranch are in some kind of sexual thrall to Russell, but Cline shows Evie as still being at that stage when girls are more interested in their relationships with other girls, when even boyfriends and sex are more about peer pressure and being in with the crowd than about real attraction, sexual or otherwise. She is a lonely, vulnerable child-woman, wanting to know what it’s all about, wanting to be one of the girls, wanting to do whatever it takes to be permitted to stay around Suzanne. Even when she is inevitably drawn into the sex aspects of the cult, for her agreeing to participate is more to do with her crush on Suzanne than any particular admiration for Russell. Intriguingly and, to me at least, convincingly, Cline emphasises that it’s the girls who set the bait to attract other girls into the cult. The cult leaders aren’t let off the hook – they are clearly shown as abusers, but Cline shows the subtlety with which they indoctrinate these vulnerable, often damaged girls – and indeed boys – to become willing victims at first, and later willing participants in the victimisation of others.

Although it’s only touched on lightly, Cline shows the impact the Vietnam war was having on young people at this time, with a growing division between the ‘patriotic’, rather conservative pro-war faction and the more hippy anti-war culture, with both sides always aware that young men drafted to the war might die or come back horrifically maimed. And, again subtly, she shows the ‘generation gap’ that in some ways grew out of this, with young people losing respect for authority of all kinds, including their parents, and parents in turn baffled by their children’s rejection of their values. This aspect of the book reminded me of Roth’s American Pastoral, though seen this time through the eyes of the child rather than the parent; and of the musical Hair and its divided reception – the serious points it made about the anti-Vietnam movement, the hippy counter-culture and the growing disconnect between the generations somewhat lost on an older generation that became fixated in shock over its on-stage nudity.

Age of Aquarius-790-xxx

In the present day, Evie is equally convincing as a damaged survivor of the cult. She is staying temporarily in the house of a friend, whose teenage son turns up unexpectedly with his girlfriend, Sasha. When Sasha learns that Evie was part of this infamous cult, her curiosity forces Evie to look back to those days and re-assess her own involvement. She sees some of her own vulnerability in Sasha, and also her own refusal to accept advice or guidance. We see Evie haunted still by the massacre, questioning her own level of culpability, her own willingness to step knowingly over moral boundaries in a bid to belong.

Emma Cline
Emma Cline

Overall, I found this a thoughtful and convincing look at how cults attract, especially in times of social unrest. It’s also a well-told and interesting story, though I feel the link to the Manson murders might actually work against it by raising expectations that it will be more sensationalist than it actually is. The massacre is foreshadowed throughout and the rather understated telling of it doesn’t lessen its impact, but the emphasis of the book is more on the psychological journey of the cult members to that point. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début – an author I’ll be watching keenly in the future.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 12
Book 12

Friday Frippery! Abandonment issues…

The ones that got away…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when I find a book a tad on the disappointing side, my reviews have a tendency to become, shall we say, a little grumpy. You should know, however, that the review you see is normally about the eighth draft, after I’ve worked hard to insert some kind of objective balance into the whole thing.

tom cruise judging gif

Occasionally, though, a book annoys me so much, I abandon it at too early a stage to justify a full review. But to get my blood pressure back down, I usually leave an instantaneous, unconsidered reaction on Goodreads to remind myself of what heinous crime against literature the author committed to cause my outrage. Much to my surprise, these blunt and brutal notes tend to attract ‘likes’ and comments – suggesting bookish disgruntlement may be more widespread than we think.

So I thought it might be fun to share a couple of them with you. No prizes, I’m afraid, for guessing the books or the authors… but I’m betting you might be able to work out one or two…

pooh book gif

* * * * *

Abandoned at 30% on the grounds of trying not to die from boredom. Another case of an author doing a ton of research, bunging it all down on paper and thinking that’s enough to make a novel. It isn’t. Let me save you reading the whole 700+ pages – spoiler alert! White man bad – destroys land, forest and indigenous way of life! There! Bet you’re as astonished at that major revelation as I am…

In fairness, other reviews suggest that eventually she widens it out to clarify that ALL men are bad…

* * * * *

Well enough written, but not for me. Turns out it’s some kind of YA fantasy – ‘cos, like, there’s just not enough of them in the world already…

* * * * *

peanuts writing 2

* * * * *

Anti-religious drivel combined with excessive foul language, sexual fantasising and filth – not for me. Abandoned at 44% – just at the point where the author gives us some profound insights into the toilet habits of our main character…

“Afterwards, he hoses down the inside of the toilet bowl with his urine to dislodge any skid marks.”

Almost poetry, isn’t it? I wonder how the great authors of the past ever managed to tell a story without letting us know about these crucial (despite being entirely irrelevant) details.

* * * * *

Utterly dreadful – a longwinded racist, bigoted diatribe by a man with neither the intelligence nor the culture to appreciate the opportunity his wealth brought him to broaden his narrow mind. And not even funny. Done with Twain now.

* * * * *

peanuts writing 1

* * * * *

Abandoned. I was already finding the book repetitive and a bit silly, but was willing to persevere till I hit the extended graphic oral sex scene at the 18% mark, which other reviews lead me to believe is the first of many. Not good enough otherwise to tempt me to read hundreds more pages of an elderly man’s sex fantasies. Note to self: Remember to stop getting books written by men over the age of 60 – it must be hormonal…

* * * * *

Now aren’t you glad you’re normally only subjected to the revised version?

Have a great Friday!😉

 

TBR Thursday 94…

Episode 94…

Oh, dear! The TBR has leapt up 4 to 180 this week! How did that happen?? A couple of NetGalley publishers did a clear-out, I think, and I suddenly got approved for two books I “wished” for ages ago, before I became the Mistress of Willpower you all know I now am. Then Amazon reduced the price of a couple that were in my wishlist, so they almost don’t really count, right? So, as you can tell, I am entirely innocent in the matter!

Still, here are a few that will be dropping off the TBR soonish…

Factual

henry VCourtesy of the wonderful Yale University Press, who are doing everything they can to fill the many, many gaps in my knowledge of history. Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

The Blurb says: Shakespeare’s centuries-old portrayal of Henry V established the king’s reputation as a warmongering monarch, a perception that has persisted ever since. But in this exciting, thoroughly researched volume a different view of Henry emerges: a multidimensional ruler of great piety, a hands-on governor who introduced a radically new conception of England’s European role in secular and ecclesiastical affairs, a composer of music, an art patron, and a dutiful king who fully appreciated his obligations toward those he ruled.

Historian Malcolm Vale draws on extensive primary archival evidence that includes many documents annotated or endorsed in Henry’s own hand. Focusing on a series of themes—the interaction between king and church, the rise of the English language as a medium of government and politics, the role of ceremony in Henry’s kingship, and more—Vale revises understandings of Henry V and his conduct of the everyday affairs of England, Normandy, and the kingdom of France.

* * * * *

Fiction

the schooldays of jesusCourtesy of NetGalley. I was really quite underwhelmed by Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, describing it as a hollow egg, with a thick shell of heavy symbolism but containing little profundity. But oddly, I couldn’t resist this new one – a follow-up. Perhaps it will fill in some of the blanks left by the last one. Perhaps. We’ll see…

The Blurb says: When you travel across the ocean on a boat, all your memories are washed away and you start a completely new life. That is how it is. There is no before. There is no history. The boat docks at the harbour and we climb down the gangplank and we are plunged into the here and now. Time begins.

Davíd is the small boy who is always asking questions. Simón and Inés take care of him in their new town Estrella. He is learning the language; he has begun to make friends. He has the big dog Bolívar to watch over him. But he’ll be seven soon and he should be at school. And so, Davíd is enrolled in the Academy of Dance. It’s here, in his new golden dancing slippers, that he learns how to call down the numbers from the sky. But it’s here too that he will make troubling discoveries about what grown-ups are capable of.

In this mesmerising allegorical tale, Coetzee deftly grapples with the big questions of growing up, of what it means to be a parent, the constant battle between intellect and emotion, and how we choose to live our lives.

* * * * *

Crime

the methods of sergeant cluffCourtesy of the British Library via MidasPR. I loved the recent reissue of Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, so am delighted to have got my hands on this one. A more modern crime classic than many of the BL series, set in Yorkshire in the ’60s, the book is again introduced by the criminally expert Martin Edwards… 

The Blurb says: It is a wet and windy night in the town of Gunnarshaw, on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. The body of young Jane Trundle, assistant in the chemist’s shop, is discovered lying face down on the cobblestones. Sergeant Caleb Cluff is not a man of many words, and neither does he play by the rules. He may exasperate his superiors, but he has the loyal support of his constable and he is the only CID man in the division. The case is his. Life in Gunnarshaw is tough, with its people caught up in a rigid network of social conventions. But as Cluff’s investigation deepens, Gunnarshaw’s veneer of hard-working respectability starts to crumble. Sparse, tense, and moodily evoking the unforgiving landscape, this classic crime novel keeps the reader guessing to the end.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Other news…

Exciting news about forthcoming books from bloggie friends! How am I ever supposed to get control of my TBR when I’m subjected to constant temptation???

First Lady of the KeysDue out 1st September 2016, from Lucy Brazier, better known as PorterGirl. This is a revised version of her earlier book, Secret Diary of PorterGirl. Lucy says…

“First Lady Of The Keys is a reworking of my debut novel, Secret Diary Of PorterGirl – so if you bought that one, you will probably feel a bit hard done by if you fork out for this one too. There are significant changes, however, and new characters (including a love interest for Deputy Head Porter) as this has been re-written to be the first in a series dedicated to the adventures of Old College. We even find out Deputy Head Porter’s actual name. Apparently characters have to have names. Pah.”

I did fork out for the first one, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the book has changed anyway. A love interest?!? Cor! Whatever will the Dean say??

The Blurb says: As one of the most ancient and esteemed establishments of the academic elite, Old College is in for something of a shock when it appoints its very first female Deputy Head Porter. She struggles to get to grips with this eccentric world, far removed from everyday life. PorterGirl, the proverbial square peg in the round hole, begins to wonder quite what she is doing here.

PorterGirl – First Lady Of The Keys is a touching, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, glimpse into a world that is usually reserved for the upper echelons of society. Whether she is chasing after naked students, drinking copious amounts of tea or getting embroiled in quaint, polite murders, Deputy Head Porter is never far from adventure.

* * * * *

past tenseDue out 1st November 2016, from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. This is the third novel in Margot’s Joel Williams series, but excitingly the first to be published on Kindle, making it much easier to get hold of for those of us on this side of the pond. A paper version will be available too, of course, for those who prefer it.

With its academic setting, and I’ve been promised that Joel Williams is neither an alcoholic nor an angst-ridden maverick with swearing issues, I’m very much looking forward to this one!

The Blurb says: A long-buried set of remains…a decades-old mystery

Past and present meet on the quiet campus of Tilton University when construction workers unearth a set of unidentified bones. For former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams, it’s a typical Final Exams week – until a set of bones is discovered on a construction site. When the remains are linked to a missing person case from 1974, Williams and the Tilton, Pennsylvania police go back to the past. And they uncover some truths that have been kept hidden for a long time…

How much do people really need to know?

It’s 1974, and twenty-year-old Bryan Roades is swept up in the excitement of the decade. He’s a reporter for the Tilton University newspaper, The Real Story, and is determined to have a career as an investigative journalist, just like his idols, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He plans to start with an exposé article about life on the campus of Tilton University. But does everything need to be exposed? And what are the consequences for people whose lives could be turned upside down if their stories are printed?  As it turns out, Bryan’s ambition carries a very high price. And someone is determined not to let the truth out.

* * * * *

Now, if you could all please stop writing books for a while, my TBR and I would be most grateful!

 

Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀😀😀😀😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

An unemotional study of grieving…

🙂🙂😐

laroseAs he does every year, Landreaux is hunting deer on his land. In the evening light, he raises his gun, fires and misses the deer. But in a tragic accident, his bullet hits Dusty, the young son of his neighbour, who is sitting in a nearby tree, killing him. In an agony of remorse, Landreaux and his wife participate in a Native American ceremony, which leads them to decide that the only way to make restitution is to give their own young son, LaRose, to the grieving family. At first, Dusty’s mother Nola agrees to this arrangement only out of bitterness, to cause Landreaux and Emmeline to feel some of the grief and loss she herself is going through, but soon Nola comes to dote on LaRose, clinging to him as she struggles to get over the death of her son. LaRose is a name that has been passed down the generations, and as well as the present day story, the reader is taken back in time to learn of the earlier LaRoses and, through them, of some of the history of the Native American culture over the last few centuries.

Sounds great, and this was one of my most anticipated books of the summer, having heard so many good things about Louise Erdrich’s writing. Unfortunately, I found the writing of this one cold, lacking any emotional depth despite the subject matter, an exercise in telling rather than showing. There is an attempt to build a level of suspense by leaving it a little unclear as to how culpable Landreaux was for the death of Dusty. Was it simply an unfortunate accident, or had Landreaux, a recovering alcoholic, perhaps been high on medication he had stolen from some of the elderly clients he cared for? But I’m afraid this isn’t enough to lift the basic story. In reality, it’s simply a lengthy, monotone account of the grief process of all the people involved in the event – parents, siblings and the wider community.

The story of the original LaRose is more interesting, casting some light on the culture clash in the early days of European settlement of America. There is a good deal of Native American mysticism in these passages, which somehow works fine in the context of the earlier time period, but feels totally out of place when it’s carried forward into the modern day. I do realise that my own rational prejudices are getting in the way, but being asked to accept that the current LaRose has some kind of supernatural gift, inherited from his ancestors, of leaving his body to commune with the dead was too much for me to swallow, I fear.

Putting that aside, the insights into Native American culture past and present are the most interesting parts of the book. Erdrich doesn’t romanticise it – she gives us a picture of relative poverty, not just in economic terms but in aspiration; a society where alcoholism and drug-taking are a kind of escape. She shows how some customs have survived but others have been forgotten, or revived after a period of suppression. She touches on intermarriage and how that has affected the culture; on the boarding schools where Native American children were sent to be assimilated into the European American culture; on how differently Native Americans have been treated through the generations in terms of rights – education, healthcare, etc. She avoids polemics, thankfully, and draws no conclusions – she simply paints the picture and leaves the reader to consider it.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

In the present day, however, which is the bulk of the book, we merely flick from person to person, seeing snapshots of their grief at different stages. The sections about the children are more interesting, too young at the time of the incident to feel Dusty’s loss in quite the same way as the adults, and coping more with the impact of it on their parents than on themselves. But the sections about the parents felt oddly bland, never inspiring in me any kind of real emotional reaction to what they were going through. There’s no real momentum, nothing we’re aiming towards except perhaps an end to grief and, in the end, it’s all tied up very neatly – too neatly. I often complain about books sagging in the middle – just for a change, I’m complaining that, though the middle third of this one was quite interesting, both the beginning and end sagged, and never inspired me to care about the characters. In truth, while it’s technically well written, my major response to it was a feeling of boredom and a desire to reach the end. And, when I did, I wasn’t convinced the journey had been worthwhile.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 10
Book 10

Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Angst-ridden middle-class thirty-somethings…

🙂🙂😐

truly madly guiltyClementine and Erika have had an uneasy friendship most of their lives. They are closer than many sisters, but there are tensions bubbling beneath the surface. One day, they and their husbands, Sam and Oliver, are invited to a barbecue at the home of neighbours, Vid and Tiffany. Something happens that changes all their relationships and throws them into emotional turmoil…

…unfortunately, Moriarty decides not to tell the reader what that something is for roughly half the book. Talk about annoying! When every character in the book knows what happened and refers to it constantly, without mentioning what it actually was, it leads to contrived dialogue, silly hints, a desperate attempt to build tension using the clumsiest of devices. But with the effect it has on them all, you know it has to be something utterly traumatic and devastating, or else it’s going to be a huge anti-climax when the reveal finally comes. Oh dear! Well, it would have been traumatic and upsetting, yes, but not to anything like the extent foreshadowed. Not unless people really have lost the ability to deal with anything at all without going into major howling angst mode – which from all these domestic thrillers I’m actually beginning to believe.

But this isn’t really a domestic thriller, though it’s being marketed that way and the failed attempt to build tension suggests it’s going to be. It’s actually more of a thirty-somethings relationship book, with six extremely tedious and tiresomely middle-class people all getting themselves into a major tizz over what happened that day at the barbecue. Just to keep adding the annoyance on, Moriarty holds back all kinds of other bits of information for ages too. For example, we know Erika’s mother has some kind of problem, but we’re not told what till the book is long underway, so we get all kinds of oblique conversations skirting round the subject. I paraphrase, but not by much: “You ought to go see your mother!” “Oh, is it bad, then?” “Yes, worse than usual.” “Oh, but I told her I wouldn’t be going for another six weeks.” “But I think you must. It’s happening again!” Just tell us, for heaven’s sake!

Meantime, Vid’s daughter is upset about something she did that day, but we don’t know what. Erika is sure there’s something she’s forgotten about that day, so naturally we don’t know what. Sam blames Clementine for what happened that day… Ugh!

Liane Moriarty
Liane Moriarty

Enough! I loved Little Lies, but I’m afraid this one isn’t in the same league. It’s not actually bad – Moriarty’s readable writing style and occasional humour prevent that, and the characters ring true in their bland unremarkableness. But truthfully I couldn’t find anything much to recommend it. I spent most of the time thinking about giving up and flicking forward to find out what happened that day, and when I finally made it to the end I rather wished I had. Had we been told what happened that day and then been shown the lead-up and consequences, it would have been a perfectly acceptable, if tediously middle-class, bit of “women’s fiction” with all the usual angsting over children and parenting that comes with that. But a blurb calling it “electrifying” and the attempt to turn it into a suspense novel leave it in a kind of limbo where it doesn’t really succeed as either.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 93…

Episode 93…

A massive drop in the TBR this week – down 1 to 176! This is clearly the start of a downward trend and I expect to be down to single figures quite soon. Unless something goes wrong with my willpower, but that’s highly unlikely, don’t you think?

Here are a few that will be moving onto the Reading section of my spreadsheet soon…

Factual

Sometimes, I can’t help but feel that there’s a malicious booksprite picking on me. Or perhaps I’m being punished for something I did in a past life – wrote a scathing review of Chaucer or something. It seemed like a safe idea, when creating the annual FictionFan Awards, to make the prize be a promise that I’d read the author’s next book. I mean, authors always stick to similar subjects, don’t they? So when SC Gwynne won the 2014 prize with Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I settled down to wait patiently for another fascinating slice of American history to come along. So imagine my… delight… when his next book turns out to be all about a particular pass in American football. All I know (or want to) about American football is that you don’t play it with your feet…

I am a Pats fan though - isn't Tom Brady gorgeous. He's our quarterstaff...er...master... QUARTERBACK, you know. Though I understand he's had a little trouble recently over the firmness of his balls...
I am a Pats fan though – isn’t Tom Brady gorgeous? He’s our quarterstaff…er…master… QUARTERBACK, you know. He’s not very good at applying his eyeliner though…

the perfect passCourtesy of NetGalley and another of my 20 Books. If SC Gwynne can make me enjoy this, forget the Booker – the man deserves the Nobel Peace Prize!

The Blurb says: Hal Mumme spent fourteen mostly losing seasons coaching football before inventing a potent passing offense strategy that would revolutionize the game. That transformation began at a tiny college called Iowa Wesleyan, where Mumme was head coach and Mike Leach his assistant. It was there that Mumme invented the purest and most extreme passing game in the 145-year history of football, where his quarterback once completed 61 of 86 passes (both national records). His teams played blazingly fast—faster than any team ever had before. They rarely punted on a fourth down (eh?), and routinely beat teams with ten or twenty times Iowa Wesleyan’s students. Mumme did it all with average athletes and without even a playbook.

In The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne explores Mumme’s genius and the stunning performance of his teams, as well as his leading role in changing football from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated sport. He also shares the history of a moment in American football when the game changed fundamentally and transformed itself into what tens of millions of Americans now watch on television every weekend. Whether you’re a casual or ravenous football fan (or… me?), this is a truly compelling story of American ingenuity, innovation, and how a set of revolutionary ideas made their way into the mainstream of sports culture that we celebrate today.

* * * * *

Fiction

dirt roadJames Kelman is Scotland’s only Booker prize winner, though not for this novel, of course. To my shame, I haven’t read any of his books (mainly because I think there’s a very good chance I’ll hate them due to his reputation for extreme sweariness). Time to find out… Courtesy of NetGalley…

The Blurb says: From the Booker Prizewinning James Kelman, comes a road trip through the American South. Murdo, a teenager obsessed with music, wishes for a life beyond the constraints of his Scottish island home and dreams of becoming his own man. Tom, battered by loss, stumbles backwards towards the future, terrified of losing his dignity, his control, his son and the last of his family life. Both are in search of something new as they set out on an expedition into the American South. On the road we discover whether the hopes of youth can conquer the fears of age. Dirt Road is a major novel exploring the brevity of life, the agonising demands of love and the lure of the open road.

It is also a beautiful book about the power of music and all that it can offer. From the understated serenity of Kelman’s prose emerges a devastating emotional power.

* * * * *

Sci-fi

from the dust returned 2The last of my 20 Books and it’ll be a miracle if I make it in time. I was blown away by Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Time to find out if that book was a one-off or if he can do it again…

The Blurb says: High on a hill by a forked tree, the House beckons its family homeward, and they come–travelers from the lyrical, lush imagination of Ray Bradbury.

From the Dust Returned chronicles a community of eternal beings: a mummified matriarch who speaks in dust; a sleeping daughter who lives through the eyes and ears of the creatures she visits in her dreams; an uncle with wings like sea-green sails. And there is also the mortal child Timothy, the foundling son who yearns to be like those he loves: to fly, to sleep in daytime, and to live forever. Instead, his task is to witness the family’s struggle with the startling possibility of its own end.

Bradbury is deservedly recognized as a master of lyricism and delicate mood. In this novel he weaves together individuals’ stories and the overarching family crisis into a softly whispered, seductive tale of longing and loss, death and life in the shadowy places.

* * * * *

Crime

4.50 from paddingtonFor the Agatha Christie Blogathon in September, a re-read of one of Agatha Christie’s finest books. It’s not too late to join in – if you’d like to participate, click on the logo on my sidebar to the right…

The Blurb says: Agatha Christie’s audacious mystery thriller, reissued with a striking new cover* designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers. (*New in the 1970s, that is, when I collected every one of the Fontana editions of Christie books with the fabulous cover designs by Tom Adams. They may be yellow, tatty and dog-eared from too many re-reads now, but there will always be a place for them on my bookshelves…)

For an instant the two trains ran together, side by side. In that frozen moment, Elspeth witnessed a murder. Helplessly, she stared out of her carriage window as a man remorselessly tightened his grip around a woman’s throat. The body crumpled. Then the other train drew away.

But who, apart from Miss Marple, would take her story seriously? After all, there were no suspects, no other witnesses… and no corpse.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History by John Grant

Giants’ shoulders…

😀😀😀😀😀

EurekaThis is a collection of mini biographies of some of the great scientists who have contributed to our current understanding of ourselves, our world and the universe we live in. In his introduction, John Grant points out that any selection is going to be subjective to a degree, but all the major names are here – Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc. – as well as several who are less well known, certainly to me. The book is aimed at teens and young adults, but frankly it works equally well for older adults like me, who have only a superficial knowledge of the history of science.

Each section follows roughly the same pattern. Grant quickly places the person in the overall timeline of scientific discovery, gives a short personal biography showing how they got involved in their particular area of science, and then explains their major achievements and, in some cases, their failures. The chapters vary in length, from a couple of pages for those people who made one specific contribution to science – like Edward Jenner, the man who discovered that cowpox could be used to create a vaccine for smallpox, leading eventually to its worldwide eradication (why didn’t I know about him?!) – to perhaps ten or so pages for those, like Newton or Einstein, who fundamentally changed the perception of the fields in which they worked. The book is structured chronologically, which allows Grant to show very clearly how each generation of scientists built on the work of those before them – in Newton’s words: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Grant’s writing style is clear and very approachable, never talking down to his audience, and with a good deal of humour laced through the book to prevent the science becoming too dry. He makes the science side clear enough on the whole for even the more scientifically challenged amongst us to understand, at least until we get to relativity and quantum thingummyjigs, at which point my eyes began to roll in my head and my tongue lolled out. However, that’s my normal reaction to these things, so I don’t hold Grant to blame – he almost got me to sorta understand why the whole E = mc2 thing was important, which is more than many science writers have done. And I briefly felt I’d grasped the Schrödinger’s cat thing too… but the moment passed. (I’ve always felt it would have been of more practical benefit if Schrödinger had explained how to get a cat in a box, myself…)

dilbert-quantum-computer

But the science is only part of it. The book is as much about the history of scientific research and gives an unvarnished glimpse at some of the jealousies and backstabbing that happen in that world as much as in any other. Grant shows how sometimes female scientists would be sidelined or have credit for their work taken by their male colleagues, often only being given recognition decades or even centuries after the event. To be fair, this happened to plenty of male scientists too, either because they were outside the snobby scientific community or simply from professional rivalries getting out of hand. Men heavily outnumber women in the book, but this is to be expected since, as Grant points out, until very recently (and still, in some parts of the world) science wasn’t considered a suitable occupation for the “gentler sex”. Hah! Tell that to Marie Curie, or Émilie du Châtelet! Mostly, though, the story is one of co-operation and collaboration, especially when the book brings us towards the present day.

Each chapter ends with a little summary of factlets, such as whether the scientist has had any comets, craters, prizes etc named after her/him, plus suggestions for further reading, and information about films or music that may have been based on or inspired by her/him. These sections, I should warn you, can be fatal to your to-be-read and to-be-watched piles…

John Grant
John Grant

John Grant and I are regular visitors to each others blogs – he blogs about movies over on Noirish under his blog name, realthog – and he kindly provided me with a copy of this book. So obviously you will have to consider whether there may be some bias in my review. But in truth, I think this is an excellent book, informative, well written and well presented, that gives an overview of the science and scientists which is easily digestible without feeling superficial. Science has changed since I was a girl (they’ve discovered the Earth isn’t flat, for a start) and scientific writers have realised they have to make the subject interesting if they want young people to be attracted into it. This book does that – Grant writes with a warm enthusiasm and respect for the work these scientists do, without ever setting them up as unapproachable objects of reverence. He includes not just the great theoreticians whose ideas about the workings of the universe may be quite hard for the layperson to really grasp, but also more practical scientists, making a difference to our day-to-day lives, in medical research, climatology, computing, etc.

I read it straight through and enjoyed getting a feeling for the timeline of science, but this would also work very well as a reference book to look up or remind oneself of what a particular scientist is noted for. Highly recommended for any young person from about 13 up, I’d say, and for any adult who would just like to know a bit more about the subject.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

PS John, I forgive you for the American spelling… but will Aberdeen??

Let’s have a heated debate! On women’s only literary prizes…

If women want to win literary prizes, then they should write great books…

 

(...where FF defies the prevailing mood of the blogosphere and then hides behind the settee to avoid the missiles...)
(Heated debates…in which FF defies the prevailing mood of the blogosphere and then hides behind the settee to avoid the missiles…)

I intensely dislike prizes that are specifically for women, unless there is an equivalent prize especially for men. It’s so pathetic… do we really feel we need to be patronised in this way in 2016? And, worse, patronised mainly by our fellow women!

Take tennis, for example. It is a biological fact that most men are bigger and stronger than most women and so it would be entirely unfair to expect women to compete against men at the top levels. Though I’m betting Serena could give most of them a good run for their money. (And talking of money, should women who only play three sets – usually two, in fact, 6-0, 6-1, or equally exciting – really get paid the same as men who play five set thrillers? But that’s a heated debate for another day…)

serena and rafa
OK, there are exceptions to every rule…

Back to books – yes, as I was saying, men’s bodies are usually bigger and stronger than women’s, so in sports competitions where physical strength is a factor, separation by gender is often justified. So, if women require special prizes for literature, is the logical inference, therefore, that men have more powerful brains too??? I think not, ladies!!! (Men, be very careful what you say – remember the Valkyries!)

This picture isn't sexist at all, is it...??
This picture isn’t sexist at all, is it…??

In Britain, the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, First Minister of Scotland and leader of Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) are all women. A woman is in charge of the IMF. Hillary Clinton has been nominated for the US Presidency. The glass ceiling is lying in shards on the ground (in the West). Yes, there’s still work to do at the other end of society in ensuring equal pay for work of equal worth, but girls are educated to the same level as boys, more women than men go to university, no-one bats an eyelid any longer at the idea of a female scientist or engineer, and Western societies on the whole work hard to ensure that pregnancy is no longer a career-ending disaster. You know what, my feminist sisters? We won! The remaining neanderthals will gradually die out as they find it harder and harder to find women willing to procreate with them!

neanderthal

So why exactly do women writers still think they need special treatment? Haven’t we been demanding a level playing field all along? If I left my entire estate (£6.83 at the last count) to endow an annual literary prize open to men only, wouldn’t you want to bean me with a placard, sisters? (Which, I have to point out, would be pretty tasteless of you, since obviously I’d be dead at the time…)

One argument put forward regularly for the continuance of women’s only prizes, like the Bailey’s, is that statistically books by men are more likely to be reviewed in the news media and literary press. I contend, however, that books by women are statistically far, far more likely to be reviewed, promoted and boosted by reviewers in the blogosphere, with some blogs specifically restricting themselves to women writers. If we want to even up one, let’s even up the other. What’s sauce for the goose, after all…! Or we could just assume that it all balances out in the end.

Balancing the books

Let’s look at a few facts. Since 1975, a year I chose because that’s when the Sex Discrimination Act became law in the UK, women make up 37% of Booker prize winners. Shorten that to the last ten years and the split is 50/50. This year’s judging panel comprises 3 men and 2 women, with one of the women chairing. Of the thirteen books on the 2016 longlist, six are by women. The longlist for the William McIlvanney prize for 2016 has 4 women out of the 10 contenders. Six out of the last ten winners of the Costa Book of the Year were women. The Amazon UK fiction bestseller list as at date of writing (7th August 2016) includes seven women amongst the top ten. JM Coetzee’s last book has 3024 ratings on Goodreads; Hilary Mantel’s last book has 5545. This is not because one is considered ‘better’ than the other since they are both rated overall at roughly 3.5 stars.

My opinion therefore is that prizes such as Bailey’s are outdated remnants of a fight that is over. Let’s stop whinging about how women writers are treated unfairly and instead celebrate the fact that women are doing spectacularly well across the literary board – in literary fiction, crime fiction, memoirs, etc., etc. Let’s start saying that since we are equal we don’t need special treatment. The winner of any literary prize should simply be the person who writes the best book.

If women want to win more prizes
then all they need to do is write more great books.

* * * * * *

Over to you! Agree or disagree, it won’t be a heated debate without you!😉

(The image at the top is of Mrs Merton, alter-ego of the late, great comedian Caroline Aherne, who made the phrase “Let’s have a heated debate” her own.)

Zero K by Don DeLillo

When the time comes…

😀😀😀😀🙂

zero kAs the book begins, the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, is travelling to an isolated region of the world, somewhere in or near Kazakhstan, where there is a secret facility, largely financed by his billionaire father, Ross. The facility specialises in cryogenics, freezing people at the point of death so that, at some time in the future when medical science has found the way to cure their ills, they can be brought back to life. Ross has asked Jeff to come now to say goodbye to his step-mother Artis, who is about to undergo the procedure. But, as Jeff is to discover, the facility offers more than a simple medical treatment – it has a whole staff of scientists, philosophers and others working on what this second life, which they call the Convergence, will be like.

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. For a good proportion of the beginning of the book, my cynical sneer was getting a great workout. The writing is excellent, with moments of brilliance, but the dialogue is entirely unnatural – these people speak in constant profundities. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as Jeff wanders alone through the silence of the facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. And soon my cynicism turned into a fascinated absorption in the imagery and in trying to work out the meanings behind it.

“What was it beyond a concentrated exercise in bewilderment?”

The thing is, I reckon there are a few things the book is definitely ‘about’, but many others that individual readers will create for themselves in the spaces DeLillo leaves deliberately unfilled. It is primarily a reflection on the importance of death in shaping the way we live our lives. Is death not essential if we are to define life? Would we still race to achieve if we were eternal? Is it the aloneness of dying that makes us fear it? And, if so, is there something almost comforting in the thought of dying with hundreds or thousands of others in some catastrophic event?

“They sit in lotus position or run through the streets. A burning man running through the streets. If I saw such a thing, firsthand, I would run with him. And if he ran screaming, I would scream with him. And when he collapsed, I would collapse.”

It’s an exploration of identity – is there a distinct, immutable ‘I’ within us or are we purely a construct of our experiences and those things we adopt or have pushed on us – our names, our nationalities, being born into wealth or poverty, even our bodies? If all these things are taken away from us, what is left? If we find our way to immortality through becoming some kind of cyberhumans, will that fundamentally change the ‘I’ that we were as fully human mortals? If we are alone, unheard and unseen by any other, do we exist at all, or do we need the reflection of ourselves that comes back to us from other people to really be?

All questions that have been asked before, of course, but DeLillo gives them fresh urgency by tying them in with some of our most worrying contemporary concerns. The images on the screens are sometimes of environmental disasters, sometimes of terror, and sometimes of war at its most brutal. The time is now or the very near future, but somehow the world in the book seems to have shifted a few degrees closer to catastrophe. He hints at religious fundamentalism, at the evils of globalisation with its huge disparities between rich and poor, at the wilful continuance of environmental destruction. We see child soldiers, and we see them die.

“Here you are, collected, convened. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? A way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”

There is also a mystical element to the new life being designed at the facility. It seems almost as if they are trying to find a way to create a new religion – an atheistic religion, with its own rituals and code; their attempt to produce physical immortality some kind of compensation for their lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife. But there are chilling aspects to this – will their attempts to reprogram the people with a new language and ethical code before they are reborn leave anything of the original ‘I’? Or will they in fact be forming a kind of extreme totalitarianism where cyberhumans are literally ‘made’ to obey?

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

DeLillo raises all these questions, and more, subtly, so that they arise out of Jeff’s attempts to make sense of what he’s seeing, rather than the reader feeling bludgeoned. Jeff is fascinated by trying to define the meanings of words and as the book goes on the words he focuses on become progressively harder to define, like the ideas behind them. The facility is also home to some weird and unsettling art with lifelike mannequins appearing in increasingly disturbing tableaux. The idea of a new language being created reminded me of the real case of Turkey changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin just after WW1, with the result that later generations have apparently largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history; and I wondered if in the new world of the Convergence, all that would be left of art would be these chilling visual images.

Don DeLillo Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Don DeLillo
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I’m guessing you realise by now that I found this book fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, though in truth I found it frustratingly obscure too. Surprisingly for such a nebulous read, it has an ending that I found both beautiful and satisfying, not providing answers exactly but perhaps suggesting that in the end the answers exist within us. I suspect this is a book that will be hated by some and loved by others, and indeed early reviews seem to be all over the place. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it, and am greatly looking forward to reading some of DeLillo’s earlier books.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 9
Book 9

Oliver Twisted (Ivy Meadows 3) by Cindy Brown

Please, sir, I want some more…

😀😀😀😀

oliver twistedIvy Meadows is an actress part of the time and a private detective the rest of it. So when her PI boss, her Uncle Bob, is hired to investigate a series of thefts aboard a cruise ship, Ivy puts both her talents to use – detecting when she’s not playing Nancy in the Dickens-themed cruise’s production of Oliver! At Sea! But things take a serious turn almost as soon as she steps on board, when she finds the body of the girl she was due to share a cabin with stuffed into the wardrobe. It’s not clear how she died, but Ivy and Bob suspect murder and that in some way her death may be tied in to the thefts.

This is a fun romp, with a very likeable lead character in the shape of Ivy. Her career as a detective is just beginning, so she’s not what you’d think of as slick at it. Her technique is mainly to blurt out questions at people and hope they don’t wonder why she’s asking! But she’s intelligent and perceptive, curious about people in general, and endearingly aware of her own deficiencies. Fortunately she’s also attractive, both physically and personality-wise, so she soon builds up some on-board friendships that help her with her enquiries, while adding to the general fun.

The Dickens theme is done well, without taking itself too seriously. The cruise ship sounds frighteningly realistic with Boz’s Buffet, the Drood Deck, and fancy-dress parties where everyone dresses up as Dickens characters. The actors double as ‘ambient’ characters when they’re not on stage, so that Oliver wanders around picking the pockets of guests, while Madame Defarge knits scarves and an Eastern European Bill Sykes is mean to our Nancy (when he’s not flirting with her).

I must admit that, as has become one of my regular whines, I felt the book was a bit too long for its content, especially in the first half. It seemed to take forever for the investigation element to get underway, and I had to suspend an awful lot of disbelief that no formal investigation of the death seemed to be taking place. But when a second death happens about halfway through, things hot up, and the plot is actually rather darker than it seems as if it’s going to be. However, the general feeling is one of a well-written cosy.

Cindy Brown
Cindy Brown

There’s lots of humour in the book, and I appreciated this more as the book progressed and I found Ivy had won me over. If murder and theft aren’t enough, she also has to contend with the fact that her Uncle Bob seems to have fallen for a woman whom Ivy suspects of being a fortune hunter or worse. Oh, and then there’s the little matter that no-one thought to warn her of when she took the job as Nancy – that part of her task would be to perform aerial acrobatics 40 feet above the stage! The production of Oliver! At Sea! is largely ‘borrowed’ from the musical Oliver, with some strategic changes – songs such as Gruel, Glorious Gruel have an eerie familiarity! There’s also a touch of romance, but this isn’t allowed to overwhelm the book.

A very enjoyable cosy, better written than many in that genre, with a decent plot and some great characters. I can only echo Oliver himself… “Please, sir, I want some more!” It’s apparently the third in the series, each of which has a theatre theme, and I’ll be adding the other two to my list for those days when only something light-hearted and fun will do.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 7
Book 8

TBR Thursday 92…

Episode 92…

On the one hand, the TBR hasn’t gone down this week. But on the other hand it hasn’t gone up either! Still 177. So I’m declaring that a major success! (Did I hear you laughing??)

Here are some more that will be falling off the edge of the pile soon…

Factual

the magnificent spilsburyFrom my 20 Books of Summer list. This one’s been on my list for ages, since I read and enjoyed the author’s later book, The Curious Habits of Dr Adams back in August 2013. Finally…

The Blurb says: In the dark opening months of the First World War, Britain became engrossed by ‘The Brides in the Bath’ trial. The horror of the killing fields of the Western Front was the backdrop to a murder story whose elements were of a different sort. This was evil of an everyday, insidious kind, played out in lodging houses in seaside towns, in the confines of married life, and brought to a horrendous climax in that most intimate of settings — the bathroom. The nation turned to a young forensic pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, to explain how it was that young women were suddenly expiring in their baths. This was the age of science. In fiction, Sherlock Holmes applied a scientific mind to solving crimes. In real-life, would Spilsbury be as infallible as the ‘great detective’?

* * * * *

Factual

sorrow of the earthCourtesy of NetGalley and only about novella length, which is highly unusual for a factual book. Actually I’m a bit baffled as to whether this is indeed factual, or whether it’s a fictionalised account. An “entertaining critique of human cruelty”?? Sounds a bit odd…

The Blurb says: How did Sitting Bull feel as he rode out into the ring of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show? The great warrior, veteran of Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee, reduced to re-enacting his defeat night after night, in front of whooping crowds. Buffalo Bill Cody’s world-famous spectacular of horse-riding and sharp-shooting toured all over North America and Europe, even performing for royalty such as Queen Victoria.

But there is another side to this tale: that of the Native America participants in the show, of their humiliation and of the simplification of their painful and complex stories for popular consumption. Vuillard’s short, incisive book is a fiercely intelligent and highly entertaining critique of human cruelty, colonialism and dumbing down.

* * * * *

Fiction

the kite runner2Another one that’s been on my list since 2013, and also on the 20 Books list. I loved And the Mountains Echoed and am just a tiny bit scared that this one can’t possibly live up to my ridiculously high expectations…

The Blurb says: The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.

* * * * *

Crime

a rising manNetgalley and 20 Books again! I must admit to being utterly intrigued by the idea of someone of Indian heritage, London birth, and a childhood spent in Glasgow writing a book about an Englishman in Calcutta during the Raj… gotta be pretty much the definition of post-postcolonial…!!

The Blurb says: The winner of the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition.

Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life or to deal with the ghosts which still haunt him, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo

Geeky, but in a good way…

😀😀😀😀😀

citizen kaneAs a casual and totally unknowledgeable movie watcher, I’ve never appreciated Citizen Kane as much as I feel I should. I’ve always been aware that the reason for this is that largely I watch films on a pretty superficial level, for the plot and acting, whereas often with these films that are designated as ‘great’ it’s as much for cinematography, innovative technique etc. So this looked like the perfect book to help me understand just what it is I’m missing about a film that is often cited as the greatest movie ever made.

In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He points out that there are a lot of myths around the film, many of them created by Welles himself for the fun of it. He proposes to debunk at least some of these myths (none of which I knew anyway) at the same time as getting to the truth behind the mythology. He recommends having the film set up ready to watch each scene as it’s discussed. I heartily agree with this advice – it added a lot to my understanding of the more technical side of the book to be able to see what Lebo was describing. I also watched the film all through to refresh my memory of it before I began reading, and that was useful too.

The "intimate" surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu
The “intimate” surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu

Lebo starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO. His notoriety following the famous War of the Worlds broadcast had made him hot property, with every studio wanting to sign him. RKO won the bidding war by offering him unprecedented artistic freedom to produce, write, direct and star in his own movies – all this when he was just 25. He was granted things previously unheard of, such as the right to determine the final cut. Hollywood was agog, and split between those who were pleased to see artistic control handed over in this way and those who resented the meteoric rise of this inexperienced and as yet untested young man. Lebo gives a good idea of how, at this time, Hollywood studios were throwing money at people they hoped would bring a good return.

Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it.

Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated inot various languages, with 'real' stories even though they mostly can't be read except in stills...
Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated into various languages, with ‘real’ stories even though they mostly can’t be read except in stills…

One of the bits I found most interesting was the creation of the script, over which there is apparently some debate about who should have had the major credit. By examining the various drafts, Lebo shows how the idea originated out of a kind of brainstorming between Welles and scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who then went on to produce a very lengthy and wordy script. Lebo then shows how Welles went about paring this down and down, partly for budgetary requirements, but mainly because he intended to use the camera to tell the story as much as the words. I found reading the original extracts and then watching the final version gave a real idea of how Welles’ directorial skills enabled him to keep the thing lean without losing the intrinsic essence of it.

Lebo also goes into huge detail on the cinematography of Gregg Toland, who was thrilled to be working for a director who wanted to try out new things. He made me aware of things my usual careless watching would never have let me notice, such as the, for then, unusual fact that the rooms have ceilings, or that many of the shots are filmed from unusually low angles, or that the focus is entirely different from many movies of that time by having everything in focus simultaneously.

How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor's paper at breakfast...
How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor’s paper at breakfast…

In similar vein, Lebo shows how budget restrictions led in part to the empty look of some of the sets, especially in the Thatcher archives scene and the Great Hall at Xanadu, giving the film a distinctive and unique look enhanced again by Welles choosing to put in echoes to emphasise and use rather than hide the vast bareness. And he contrasts that with the detail of, for example, the props in Susan’s various rooms all of which add to her character almost subliminally – the rather childish stencilling on the walls, the dolls on the bed and so on. These are just some examples – every aspect of the making of the film is covered in similar detail: music, special effects, editing, etc., etc.

In the final section, Lebo covers the controversy that nearly stopped the film from being released – the suggestion that it was based on the life of the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, whose organisation and supporters did everything they could to have it suppressed and very nearly succeeded. To be honest, initially I thought this would be the bit of the book that intrigued me most, but actually I found all the production stuff much more interesting.

To create poor Susan's opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice. (Herrman's music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely...)
To create poor Susan’s opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice.
(Herrmann’s music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely…)

So the burning question is – did it all make me like the film more? Well, I waited a few days and then watched it again. And… I fear not! I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. But… nope! It still just doesn’t do it for me. Oh well, never mind! I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness. I think we all know which category I fall into…

One last word: “Rosebud!”

citizen kane snow
Such a sweet child too. Ah, where did it all go wrong…?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

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Book 8
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