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Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

Bring back Jekyll and Hyde…

:| :|

jack of spadesAndrew J Rush is a middlingly successful writer of traditional style crime novels. But he has an alter-ego – under the pen name of Jack of Spades he writes grubby and graphic noir shockers. No-one knows about this secret – not even his wife and children. But when an elderly woman accuses him of plagiarism, Rush feels his whole reputation is threatened and, as he finds his life spiralling out of control, Jack comes more to the surface, tempting Rush to do things his respectable side would be horrified by.

One has to wonder why, when Robert Louis Stevenson had already made such a great job of writing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ms Oates felt that it would be a good idea to re-hash the story rather poorly. I’ve said this before about other books and writers, but if an author sets herself up to invite comparison, she really needs to make sure that her skills are up to the task. This is nothing more than a short piece of pulp fiction – psychologically weak, poor characterisation, unbelievable hole-filled plot and none of the insights on morality and society that give depth to the original. The horror that comes through so well in Jekyll and Hyde is entirely absent from this, partly because Oates seems unable to decide if she is going for horror or humour. While Oates writes reasonably well overall, there are some horrendously clanging awfulnesses in my proof copy which I seriously hoped would be edited out before the final version was published. A sneak peek at the Kindle sample, however, suggests sadly not…

…as the ax-blade crashed and sank into the splintering desk beside my head, missing my head by inches; by which time I’d fallen heavily onto the floor…

(Hmm! One has to assume he’d left his head on the desk when he fell on the floor – detached, one wonders, or just an exceptionally long neck…?)

Andrew J Rush is a man with an outsize ego whose level of success hasn’t reached the heights he would like. On the outside, he’s a happily married man who fits well in to the suburban life that he lives. But on the inside he’s a self-centred egotist with a well developed streak of misogyny, and a history of using other people’s ideas to his own advantage. It’s clear from early on that he enjoys the freedom to express the less pleasant aspects of his personality through his Jack of Spades books. He aspires to be the next Stephen King, only sleazier, and his obsession with King provides much of the humour, along with some barbed observations on the world of crime writing and publishing.

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

But I’m afraid the humour wears thin pretty quickly, leaving very little else to admire. The Andrew/Jack personality split never feels real and the novella doesn’t achieve the level of darkness I think it’s aiming for. There’s more to writing dark stories, even black comedies, than just tossing in a bit of violence every now and again. Given how he has treated her over many years, Andrew’s wife would undoubtedly have left him – Oates fails totally to provide her with a characterisation that would have made it seem reasonable for her to have stayed with him. And that’s the problem with the whole thing really – nothing rings true. It feels as if the work hasn’t been put in to create enough of a coherent and credible base to carry the reader along when the plot necessarily stretches belief towards the end.

A disappointment, I’m afraid, that leaves me unenthusiastic about trying any of her other books.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

20 Books of Summer 2015!

A TBR challenge for me…and a challenge for you…

 

20-books-of-summer-master-image

Cathy over at Cathy746 is hosting this challenge to read twenty books between 1st June and 4th September. (Did you know the name Cathy746 is because Cathy discovered she had 746!!! books on her TBR list? Makes me laugh every time…)

Normally I’d easily read 20 books in three months, but summer is always my slowest time for reading, mainly because of this chap…

rafael-nadals-sleeveless-shirts-7

…or sometimes this one…

andy murray

…and even occasionally this one…

novak

So I thought that joining the challenge might give me the impetus to fit some reading in around my drooling watching.

* * * * *

But rather than just listing the titles I plan to read, I thought we could play a little game instead… no, don’t groan! Really, it’ll be fun…

maniacal laughter

Today I’ll be giving you clues to the first ten books on my summer list, and the second ten will be revealed in two weeks time. No titles though! Instead here are ten author pics and ten short blurbs. How many can you match?

1 point if you can name the author in the pic, 1 point for guessing the book title from the blurb, and an extra point if you can match the author to the title.

Or, if you prefer, you can opt out of the game and get the full thirty points by sending me a massive box of chocolates. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? ;)

* * * * *

* * * * *

And now the blurbs…

 
Blurb AClassic sci-fi set in a post-apocalyptic world where one man must survive in a world of vampires.

Blurb BBrand new collection of short stories from the author who took us to the USSR in his earlier prize-winning collection and made us dream of Mars and triangles in his last full length novel.

Blurb CThe latest entry in a crime series that starred David Morrissey in the TV adaptation. A girl is missing and a man has been arrested, but our police detective hero believes they’ve got the wrong man…

Blurb DClassic Scottish literature – The adventures of David Balfour, a young orphan, as he journeys through the dangerous Scottish Highlands in an attempt to regain his rightful inheritance.

Blurb EA crime story, loosely based on the Bulger case, that examines what happens to children who kill when they are eventually released. Our heroine is the probation officer of one of the boys.

Blurb FCrime in Amsterdam. An evening in a restaurant turns very dark as two sets of parents show the lengths to which they’re willing to go to protect their teenage sons from the consequences of their actions.

Blurb GBritish crime by an Irish author. A new book in the series which stars my favourite young female detective and her male chauvinist pig (but oddly attractive) sidekick. Together they must investigate a fire that resulted in the death of a politician.

Blurb HBilled as a ghost story, but with a literary flavour. Set in 1937, this is the story of a young man, trapped in the Arctic as the long night of winter approaches and the sea begins to freeze – and he’s not alone…

Blurb INew crime thriller that’s being positively reviewed all round the blogosphere. What would you do if you picked up a book and discovered it was about you – and that it was revealing a secret you thought only you and one other person knew – and that other person is dead?

Blurb JOne for the Great American Novel Quest from a Pulitzer winning novelist. As a Presidential election hangs in the balance, and a post-nuclear-family Thanksgiving looms before him along with crises both marital and medical, Frank Bascombe discovers that what he terms the Permanent Period is fraught with unforeseen perils.

* * * * *

I must say I think this game is fiendishly difficult even for bookie people. I’m so glad you’re playing it and not me – enjoy!

(Because I think it’s too hard, you will find the answers listed at the bottom of the post – see? I’m quite kind really…)

Scores:

1 – 10                            Out in the qualifying rounds!
10 – 20                          Made the quarter-finals! Pretty good!
20 – 29                          Ooh! A semi-finalist! Well done!
30                                 Congratulations! You’ve won the Championship!

 

rafa winner 2013 2

(What? None of you won Rafa? Oh dear, I’ll just have to keep him then…)

* * * * *

Why not join in with Cathy’s challenge? Lots of good books will be read and lots of good reviews will be written… and no doubt we’ll all end up with even longer TBRs as a result.

*

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*

*

*

*

*

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Answers

Author 1 Blurb H – Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Author 2 Blurb E – Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall
Author 3 Blurb J – Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
Author 4 Blurb C – Time of Death by Mark Billingham
Author 5 Blurb B – Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus
Author 6 Blurb A – I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Author 7 Blurb D – Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Author 8 Blurb G – After the Fire by Jane Casey
Author 9 Blurb F – The Dinner by Herman Koch
Author 10 Blurb I – Disclaimer by Renée Knight

Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology selected by Christina Hardyment

Pleasures of the TableFood, glorious food…

:D :D :D :D

Another beautifully illustrated book published by the British Library, this makes a fine companion piece to London: A Literary Anthology, which I reviewed a few months back. This time the focus is on food, with extracts from many familiar and not-so-familiar authors. There is a mix of both poetry and prose, grouped together under headings such as: The Art of Hospitality, Love Bites, Childish Things, etc. In each section, the extracts go roughly from older to newer – for example, Dazzling All Beholders runs from Robert May writing in the 17th century to F Scott Fitzgerald in the 20th. As well as giant literary figures – Dickens, Flaubert, Proust and his famous madeleines (which frankly left me thinking ‘Meh! Is that what all the fuss is about really?), DH Lawrence, et al – there are food writers, such as Brillat-Savarin and Hannah Glasse.

“Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?”

Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers

Pickwick

Most of the extracts are fairly short – no more than a couple of pages, and to be honest I didn’t find them quite as mouth-watering on the whole as I was expecting. Often the pieces are more about things associated with food, rather than food itself – restaurants, dining rooms, dinner companions. The balance is very heavily weighted towards older writers, with very few, if any, contemporary writers making an appearance. I think the most recent extract is from about the 1930s. This may be for copyright reasons, at a guess, but it means that none of the exciting food writers of the last few decades are included, nor any modern literary writers.

“That is indeed an excellent suggestion,” said the Water Rat, and hurried off home. There he got out the luncheon basket, and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which laid down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Childish Things

Without a doubt my favourite section was Childish Things, taking me back to many books I loved. Ratty’s picnic from The Wind in the Willows, the Turkish Delight from Narnia, lashings of ginger beer courtesy of Enid Blyton, and Heidi’s first taste of toasted cheese – all great scenes that really have lived in my memory since childhood. There’s a section on fabulous feasting, with lists of enough dead animals to make a vegetarian faint, and I was glad to get from there to Simple Pleasures, on such delights as tea and hot, buttered toast. And Distant Times and Places brings us travellers’ tales, from Gulliver to Captain Scott.

Afterwards the tables were covered with meats, antelopes with their horns, peacocks with their feathers, whole sheep cooked in sweet wine, haunches of she-camels and buffaloes, hedgehogs with garum, fried grasshoppers, and preserved dormice. Large pieces of fat floated in the midst of saffron in bowls of Tamrapanni wood. Everything was running over with wine, truffles, and asafoetida. Pyramids of fruit were crumbling upon honeycombs, and they had not forgotten a few of those plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees…

Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô

Heidi

The book is beautifully illustrated, if not quite so lavishly as the London anthology. Most of the illustrations come from the British Library’s own collection, and they are often the specific original illustrations that match the text. Each extract is headed with a short introduction giving the date of writing, which I appreciated, having remarked on the lack of this information in the London book. The list of illustrations is at the back of the book, so requires flicking backwards and forwards if the reader wants to know more about them. The physical quality of the book is wonderful. The cover is gorgeous and pleasingly tactile, the pages are printed on high quality paper and the font and layout are clean and clear. A book that would make a great gift for any food-lover, the more adventurous of whom might want to try out some of the recipes in the final section. I’m not sure I want to eat Alexandre Dumas’ Arab Omelette (made from ostrich and flamenco eggs) but Emily Dickinson’s Gingerbread would go nicely with George Orwell’s Nice Cup of Tea…

Herring à la Rob Roy

Well wash and clean a red herring, wipe it dry and place it in a pie dish, having cut off the head, and split it in two up the back, put a gill or two of whisky over the herring, according to size, hold it on one side of the dish, so that it is covered with the spirit, set it alight, and when the flame goes out the fish is done.

Alexis Soyer in tribute to Sir Walter Scott

Feast

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Affair at the Bungalow by Agatha Christie

Never trust a woman…

 

Goodness! I realised that the surely undisputed Queen of Golden Age Crime hadn’t made an appearance in this little classic detective series yet – what an omission! So here we go with a Miss Marple special for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

The Affair at the Bungalow
by Agatha Christie

 

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

 

“I’ve thought of something,” said Jane Helier.

Her beautiful face was lit up with the confident smile of a child expecting approbation. It was a smile such as moved audiences nightly in London, and which had made the fortune of photographers.

This story comes from the collection The Thirteen Problems. The format of each of the stories is that a group of friends meet for dinner, and that each of them takes a turn at telling of some mystery they have come across in real life and challenging the others to solve it. On the evening that this story is told, the dinner is being hosted by Mrs Bantry. Amongst the guests is Jane Helier, a beautiful but somewhat dim-witted actress, and she tells the assembled company of a strange thing that once happened to her ‘friend’…

Everyone made encouraging but slightly hypocritical noises. Colonel Bantry, Mrs Bantry, Sir Henry Clithering, Dr Lloyd and old Miss Marple were one and all convinced that Jane’s ‘friend’ was Jane herself. She would have been quite incapable of remembering or taking an interest in anything affecting anyone else.

Margaret Rutherford as the most unlikely Miss Marple ever - but great fun!

Margaret Rutherford as the most unlikely Miss Marple ever – but great fun!

Jane tells of a time when she was appearing in theatre in a riverside town. One night, the local police ask her to come to the police station to identify a young man whom they are holding. Leslie Faulkener is an aspiring playwright and had been thrilled to receive a letter, purporting to be from Jane, inviting him to come and discuss a play he had sent to her. On turning up at the address specified – a bungalow in the same riverside town – the parlour-maid took him through to the drawing-room where a spurious ‘Jane Helier’ offered him a cocktail and began to talk about his play. The real Jane is somewhat huffed that he didn’t immediately see through the deception, but she comforts herself modestly with the reflection that…

Anyway, he described this woman as tall and fair with big blue eyes and very good-looking, so I suppose it must have been near enough.

Poor Leslie drank the cocktail and remembered nothing more until he woke up dazed and confused, lying in the road beside a hedge. Next thing he knows, he has been picked up by the police who tell him that he is suspected of burglary. It appears that the bungalow is the secret love-nest of a big city financier and a well-known actress, to whom Jane gives the pseudonym of Miss Mary Kerr, and that some priceless jewels have been stolen. The police had received a phone call, apparently from the mistress of the house, saying that Leslie had been seen leaving the bungalow via a window. However Miss Kerr later denies making the call and, when he sees the real Jane Helier, Leslie admits that she was not the woman he met in the house. The question is – who stole the jewels and why did they go to the trouble of creating this elaborate deception?

Julia McKenzie - great actress and a fine Miss Marple, but oh, how they messed up the stories...

Julia McKenzie – great actress and a fine Miss Marple, but oh, how they messed up the stories…

The various guests consider the case and come up with several suggestions, but none that fully explain all of the facts. Eventually they turn to Miss Marple, but even she confesses herself at a loss. Until, that is, a comment from Dr Lloyd puts her in mind of Mrs Pebmarsh, one of her famous village parallels…

“Mrs Pebmarsh? Who is Mrs Pebmarsh?”

“Well -” Miss Marple hesitated. “I don’t know that she really comes in. She’s a laundress. And she stole an opal pin that was pinned into a blouse and put it in another woman’s house.”

There! That makes it all perfectly clear, doesn’t it? No, the other guests didn’t think so either, but Miss Marple merely remarks cryptically that women must stick together, whispers a comment for Jane’s ear only, and takes her leave. When Jane tells Mrs Bantry the rest of the story later, it’s no surprise to learn that Miss Marple has worked the whole thing out. Which is more than I did!

* * * * *

This is a lovely little story, only about 20 or so pages but beautifully complicated and told with all of Christie’s usual skill. There’s lots of humour in it, mainly at the expense of the egotistical Jane Helier, but it’s affectionate humour. And for fans, an appearance by Mrs Bantry is always a special treat – she’s one of my favourite recurring characters in the Miss Marple stories, and in this one she’s on top form, coming up with at least half a dozen possible solutions, each one more far-fetched than the last. I’m not convinced it’s totally fair-play – the reader is given one fairly crucial piece of information only as the solution is revealed, but it would be possible to work out the who and how, if not the why. It doesn’t matter though – it’s light and fun and a pleasure to read, proving again that Agatha Christie was a mistress of the short story format just as much as the full-length novel.

Ahhh! Finally! The definitive Miss Marple... the late, great Joan Hickson

Ahhh! Finally! The definitive Miss Marple… the late, great Joan Hickson

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: :?: :?: :?: :?:

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

(No online link this week, I’m afraid – I couldn’t find a legal one. But the story is available as a Kindle single or as part of The Thirteen Problems collection.)

Judas Child by Carol O’Connell

judas childGreat… and not so great…

:D :D :D

When two children are abducted, at first it’s hoped that they’ve been kidnapped for ransom. But the crime is similar to another that was committed fifteen years earlier, resulting in the murder of a child and the imprisonment of a local priest. Now the police have to consider if the earlier investigation got the wrong man, and if the pattern repeats, they know that both little girls will be dead by Christmas.

There are bits of this book that are great and then there’s the rest which is… not so great. It gets off to an incredibly slow start. By a third of the way through there’s been no real investigation of any kind – just a ton of stuff about various child killings and a relentless concentration on the grief of all the parents and siblings of the victims. It manages the feat of being voyeuristic, rather tasteless and dull at the same time. Sub-plots abound but never actually go anywhere – I’m sure there’s something in there about corrupt politicians, the Mafia and truth-tests, but it’s so badly done, I had no idea what was going on with it or what purpose it served, except to pad the book out unnecessarily. I found it unlikely that the police would use the abduction of two young children as an excuse to mentally torture the mother of one of them to get information on corruption in local politics. But, assuming this to be the case, it makes it impossible for the reader to like the investigators, surely, and yet I think on the whole we’re supposed to.

The characterisation is fine, but every single character has a secret or a problem. Too much, too much! The FBI man who stalks his ex-girlfriend. The priest who’s struggling with his faith. The profiler who knows about dozens of unsolved child murders that no-one else ever seems to have heard of, and has a mysterious past of her own which is hinted at every time we meet her. The police officer haunted by the memory of the murder of his own twin sister (would he really be allowed on the case once a connection had been made between the two crimes? I doubt it). The headmaster who ‘buys’ gifted children for his school. The weak and pathetic fathers who can’t cope and the wise, strong mothers who can – I think Ms O’Connell’s feminist petticoat is showing. The tortured psychiatrist who everyone believes knows who is doing the killings, but won’t tell because it’s against his moral code – really? Too much!

But the book finally picks up when it goes to the missing girls – Gwen and Sadie. O’Connell’s characterisation of the children is excellent, although they feel two or three years older than the ten-year-olds they’re supposed to be. Sadie has always been the leader, with a streak of imaginative wickedness that leads her to play cruel tricks on people, such as pretending she is dead. But now her imagination is a useful tool in trying to find a way out of their desperate situation. Gwen is an interesting combination of weakness and strength – unlike Sadie, she knows her own limitations and gradually begins to put the brakes on Sadie’s wilder schemes. The power balance within their relationship shifts over the course of the book and this is done very well and believably. And at this stage of the book, the police are finally doing some proper investigatory work, so that side of it improves too. This whole central section is full of tension, even to the level of psychological horror at points, and very well written. And the pages fly as the girls’ story heads frantically to its thrillerish climax…

Carol O'Connell

Carol O’Connell

…which it’s important not to think too much about, or you might just notice that it’s silly. The thing is it doesn’t look silly at the time so it works brilliantly. But unfortunately the explanations that come after the climax stretch credulity way past breaking point – for this reader at least. It’s hard to say why without spoilers, but it’s not so much the twists that kill the credibility, but the fact that they make a nonsense of the sequence of earlier events. In fact, had one or two twists been left out this would have been a much better book. The shock value wears off quickly in the face of the tidying up O’Connell does at the end, giving too much time for the reader to recognise the problems they cause.

So, flawed and over complicated, but still a page-turner once past the slow start and worth reading for the excellent sections with Gwen and Sadie.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns

the settling earthRed ribbons…

:D :D :D :D :)

This short collection of ten interlinked stories tells of the experiences of the British women who came as settlers to Auckland in New Zealand in the late 19th century. From farmer’s wife to prostitute, baby-farmer to temperance campaigner, each story stands on its own. But there’s a red ribbon running through them, binding these women to each other even when they are unaware of it, their lives as linked as the stories about them. Themes run from story to story, of loneliness and belonging, of motherhood, of the gradual change from immigrant to settler.

The book starts with a new immigrant, a girl married off to an older man she barely knew, and uprooted from her life in England to live on an isolated farm in this new land. Through her, we see the strangeness of this new landscape and feel the nostalgia of the early settlers for the land they still think of as home. The second story takes us to her husband, but even in the rare circumstance that one of the stories focuses on a man, it’s still there primarily to cast light on the lives of the women. Burns portrays this as a very male-dominated society where women are still almost entirely subordinate. In fact the theme of prostitution runs strongly through the book, both overtly when we are taken inside the brothel, and more figuratively, when many of the women are defined by their value as sexual objects to men. The one weakness of the collection for me, in fact, is that all the men are portrayed very negatively – while Burns is not suggesting she is showing every aspect of this immigrant society, the slice she shows us is perhaps a little unbalanced.

Scottish_poster_advertising_emigration_to_New_Zealand

(Attempts to attract women to colonial New Zealand began early. In this 1839 poster advertising the first sailing of a shipload of Scottish settlers, single women are offered free passage. From the collection of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.)

Motherhood plays a major role in many of the stories, but not at all with a rosy glow around it. There is the prostitute who becomes pregnant and hopes against reason that the father will take responsibility. The woman who gives up her illegitimate child to a baby-farmer in order to marry another man. The baby-farmer, who takes in unwanted children for money, and then kills them, until one day a child steals through her defences. The childless widow, doing good works to keep her loneliness and longing at bay. The daughter, sexually brutalised by her mother’s new husband. But through it all, there is a sense of the strength of these women, surviving despite all that life throws at them.

The tone, however, is not irredeemably hopeless – it feels as though these women are on the cusp of change, that a new generation, native to this land as their mothers weren’t, may play a different role. Burns very subtly shows how attitudes change as people settle and communities form – the new immigrants filled with nostalgia for ‘home’, while the settlers are beginning to feel themselves to be New Zealanders and resenting newcomers making comparisons that are always to the detriment of the new country.

Parnell and Auckland Harbour c.1870 by John Barr Clarke Hoyte

Parnell and Auckland Harbour c.1870
by John Barr Clarke Hoyte

The final story is written by a Maori author, Shelly Davies, giving a different perspective. In truth, I’m not sure that this works well. It feels a little contrived – in fact, each time the Maoris were mentioned I couldn’t help feeling that the book was straying too far into ‘politically correct’ territory. There is a clear suggestion that Maori men treat their women far more respectfully than white men do theirs, and while there may be truth in this (I don’t know) the comparison feels a little too slick and overdrawn, and depends on acceptance that all white men behave as appallingly as the ones in these stories.

The quality of the writing is excellent, as is the depth of characterisation, especially given the limitations of length. The links between the stories are often loose but overall there is a kind of completion of a circle, taking us back almost to where we began. Individually I found most of the stories absorbing and intriguing, and some are intensely moving. But it’s when taken as a whole that the book has its full effect. Certainly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of the author’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the author via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 57…

Episode 57

 

The TBR remains steady at 135! And I’m still reading all the same books as I was reading this time last week – oops! Summer reading slump seems to have started early. Which is odd, since summer itself seems to have forgotten to arrive…

Anyway, here are a few that should make it to the top of the heap soon – a nice, light selection to fit round tennis season…

Factual

 

heath robinson's great warCourtesy of the Bodleian Library. I know about Heath Robinson’s crazy contraption cartoons but don’t think I’ve ever actually seen any. I thought this would a nice palate-cleanser after several recent weighty reads on WW1.

The Blurb says Heath Robinson (1872–1944) is Britain’s “Gadget King”—master of the art of creating madcap contraptions that made use of ropes, weights, and pulleys to perform relatively simple tasks, from wart removal to peeling potatoes. Although he trained as a painter and also worked as a book illustrator, Robinson developed his forte with drawings of gadgets that parodied the absurdities of modern life. A true cartoonist, Robinson had a way of getting at the heart of the matter while simultaneously satirizing it mercilessly. He became a household name in Britain, and his popularity continues today with plans to build a museum in London to share with a new generation the story of his life and work.

With Heath Robinson’s Great War, the cartoonist lampoons the German army and the hardships of war. What better antidote to the threat of popular German propaganda than drawings of the “Huns” disabling the British army not with mustard gas but laughing gas? In high demand among British civilians, Robinson’s WWI panels also provided respite to thousands of troops—many of whom sent the cartoonist letters suggesting future subjects or simply expressing their appreciation. 

 * * * * *

Crime

 

capital crimes london mysteriesCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve got a couple of these collection of detective stories edited by Martin Edwards coming up. I’ve already peeked into this one for a Tuesday ‘Tec post and it looks like it’ll be fun and interesting…

The Blurb says “With its fascinating mix of people – rich and poor, British and foreign, worthy and suspicious – London is a city where anything can happen. The possibilities for criminals and for the crime writer are endless. London has been home to many of fiction’s finest detectives, and the setting for mystery novels and short stories of the highest quality. Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment. Each story is introduced by the editor, Martin Edwards, who sheds light on the authors’ lives and the background to their writing. ”

* * * * *

Audio

 

the lion the witch and the wardrobeI always enjoy listening to books I know well, read by good narrators. All seven of the Narnia books are available in this series from Harper, each with a different narrator, including such stars as Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart and Kenneth Branagh! This first one is narrated by Michael York, another actor with a lovely voice. I’ll be listening in order of publication, rather than the chronology of the stories.

The Blurb says “It’s a magic wardrobe. There’s a wood inside it, and it’s snowing! Come and see,” begged Lucy.

Lucy has stumbled upon a marvellous land of fauns and centaurs, nymphs and talking animals. But soon she discovers that it is ruled by the cruel White Witch, and can only be freed by Aslan, the great Lion, and four children.

In the never-ending war between good and evil, The Chronicles of Narnia set the stage for battles of epic proportions. Some take place in vast fields, where the forces of light and darkness clash. But other battles occur within the small chambers of the heart and are equally decisive.

Journeys to the ends of the world, fantastic creatures, betrayals, heroic deeds, and friendships won and lost, all come together in an unforgettable world of magic. So let the adventures begin.

* * * * *

Crime

 

time of deathCourtesy of NetGalley. I read and enjoyed the first few of the Tom Thorne books and then lost track of the series. Time to renew an old acquaintance…

The Blurb saysThe astonishing thirteenth Tom Thorne novel is a story of kidnapping, the tabloid press, and a frightening case of mistaken identity.

Tom Thorne is on holiday with his girlfriend DS Helen Weeks, when two girls are abducted in Helen’s home town. When a body is discovered and a man is arrested, Helen recognizes the suspect’s wife as an old school-friend and returns home for the first time in twenty-five years to lend her support. As his partner faces up to a past she has tried desperately to forget and a media storm engulfs the town, Thorne becomes convinced that, despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, the police have got the wrong man. There is still an extremely clever and killer on the loose and a missing girl who Thorne believes might still be alive.”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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

Wednesday Witterings

A scientific experiment…

 

A recent blog conversation has led me to ponder one of the great mysteries of life, and I’m seeking your help in solving it.

 

A definite lefty!

A definite lefty!

 

You see, when I raise a quizzical eyebrow, I always raise the left one because it goes higher than the right one. I recently became aware of the remarkable fact that the same applies to Professor VJ Duke – his left eyebrow rises higher than his right too!

 

The definitive quizzical eyebrow surely...

The definitive quizzical eyebrow… and another lefty!

 

Now the astonishing thing about this is that I am right-handed and he is left-handed, and yet this does not appear to influence our eyebrow-raising lopsidedness in any way!

 

...but Ian Carmichael will always be the definitive Lord Peter to me...

I think we’re seeing a pattern…

 

Which leads me to wonder – are higher left eyebrows one of the constants of life? Are we, as humans, genetically designed to always be leftly quizzical? A sinister thought…

 

Not another one!

What a show-off!

 

So please help me by sparing a couple of minutes of your busy life to sit at your mirror and raise each eyebrow in turn. Then come back and complete the poll below. Your answer will be kept in strictest confidence and under no circumstances will it be revealed to insurance companies, cloning laboratories, taxidermists or Area 51…

 

* * * * * * *

 

Aha! A righty! But then he's also not human. I rest my case...

Aha! A righty! But then he’s also not human. I rest my case…

 

Thank you so much for your participation! ;)

 

Tuesday ’Tec! The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag by Dorothy L Sayers

Wimsey and the art of motorcycling…

 

I am about to commit bookish blasphemy, so sensitive crime fiction lovers may wish to look away now. I’ve never liked Lord Peter Wimsey. There! I’ve said it! But how could I possibly have a series on great ‘tecs and not include him? So, like the martyr I am, I have cautiously approached one of Ms Sayers’ short stories, and I freely admit to being much taken by the title. Will she win me over? All will be revealed in this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag

by Dorothy L Sayers

 

Dorothy L Sayers

Dorothy L Sayers

 

The Great North Road wound away like a flat, steel-grey ribbon. Up it, with the sun and wind behind them, two black specks moved swiftly. To the yokel in charge of the hay-wagon they were only two of “they dratted motor-cyclists”, as they barked and zoomed past him in rapid succession.

The two motor-cyclists continue to chase each other at ridiculous speeds up the Great North Road until eventually they are stopped by an officious policeman who takes their details and informs them they’ll be summonsed for speeding. Aggrieved, the first motor-cyclist, Walters, explains that he was merely trying to catch the other man, Simpkins, to return a bag that had fallen off his bike thirty miles back at Hatfield. Simpkins vehemently denies all knowledge of the bag. Our policeman isn’t terribly interested in this disagreement… until a passing A.A. man notices that the bag seems to be wet and horribly sticky in one corner…

The constable proved the split seam in silence, and then turned hurriedly round to wave away a couple of young women who had stopped to stare. The A.A. man peered curiously, and then started back with a sensation of sickness.
“Ow, Gawd!” he gasped. “It’s curly—it’s a woman’s.”

Suddenly the ownership of the bag takes on a new importance. So it’s unfortunate for Lord Peter Wimsey that it’s just at this moment he chooses to appear on the scene…

“Hullo, officer!” said a voice behind them. “What’s all the excitement? You haven’t seen a motor-cyclist go by with a little bag on his carrier, I suppose?”

I do love Edward Petherbridge and he made a fine Lord Peter...

I do love Edward Petherbridge and he made a fine Lord Peter…

On learning about the horror in the bag, Lord Peter hastily explains that it’s not his, though it looks like the one he has been pursuing. He explains that a similar bag, containing some jewellery, had been stolen from his car the day before…

I made enquiries through Scotland Yard, and was informed to-day that a bag of precisely similar appearance had been cloak-roomed yesterday afternoon at Paddington, main line. I hurried round there, and was told by the clerk that just before the police warning came through the bag had been claimed by a man in motor-cycling kit. A porter said he saw the man leave the station, and a loiterer observed him riding off on a motor-bicycle.

And so Lord Peter had joined the chase up the Great North Road. It’s now up to the police to decide which of the three men is telling the truth. Of course, they quickly eliminate Lord Peter from all suspicion, because… well, because he’s a Lord and speaks with a posh accent, primarily, but also because he has helped the police in the past. And he helps them again now by making a brilliant suggestion well beyond the intellectual capacities of the force’s finest…

“Well, look here,” said the man addressed as “my lord”, “I’ve got an idea for what it’s worth. Suppose, superintendent, you turn out as many of your men as you think adequate to keep an eye on three desperate criminals, and we all tool down to Hatfield together. I can take two in my ‘bus at a pinch, and no doubt you have a police car. If this thing did fall off the carrier, somebody beside Mr. Walters may have seen it fall.”

But even once it’s discovered which of the men took the bag from the cloakroom, there’s still another twist to come…

* * * * *

OK, I hate the snobbery in the Wimsey stories, however much disguised by humour. I hate the grovelling forelock-tugging attitude of all and sundry to the foppish Lord Peter. And I hate the portrayal of working-class people as loutish, mentally-challenged bumpkins, and their silly dialects. Oh, and I really hate Lord Peter’s mocking condescension to his social ‘inferiors’.

...but Ian Carmichael will always be the definitive Lord Peter to me...

…but Ian Carmichael will always be the definitive Lord Peter to me…

That said, I admit the story is well-written and full of humour. While it’s not a ‘fair play’ story since there’s no way to work out the solution before it’s given, the plot is clever and fun with a nice little twist in the tail. Lord Peter goes beyond deduction towards brilliant intuition at a couple of points, and the police are left trailing in his wake, but that’s fairly standard for detective stories of this era. There’s not much in the way of characterisation – the police are stereotypes, and it’s clearly aimed at readers of the novels who will already be familiar with Lord Peter’s history. But that doesn’t matter, since it’s not aiming to be more than a light entertainment, and it succeeds well on that level. I did enjoy it in the end, but not enough to want to subject myself to re-reading the novels, I fear. Apologies to all passionate Wimsey fans everywhere!

Want to find out what happened? Here’s a link to the story…

Or here’s a reading of it by the wonderful Ian Carmichael…

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: :?:

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

You by Zoran Drvenkar

you zoran drvenkarThe demon in the darkness…

:D :D :D :D :D

Back in 1995, a massive snowstorm brought traffic to a halt on the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. As people huddled in their cars overnight, trying to keep warm, The Traveler stepped out of his vehicle and worked his way along the line of cars, murdering the people inside. By the time the snowploughs got through, twenty-six people were dead and there was no trace of The Traveler. (Excuse spelling – the book goes with US English throughout.) In the present day, Ragnar Desche has found the frozen body of his brother Oskar and is out to get revenge against whoever killed him and stole the massive stash of heroin he was keeping for Ragnar. And four teenage girls are worrying about the fifth member of their little clique who has been missing for nearly a week…

If you only read one crime thriller this year, please make it this one! Grim and brutal, darker than black, and written almost entirely in the second-person present tense, so I should have hated it. But it’s brilliantly written, with language and imagery that would easily fit into the ‘literary’ category, and with a depth and range of characterisation that is rare in any kind of fiction. Although there’s no supernatural element to it, it feels strongly like a particularly savage fairy-tale. Fundamentally, it’s about evil…

And then in every darkness there dwells a demon who was born without a heart and eats other hearts to assuage his insatiable hunger. The demon hides in the shadows, you can find him in the corners of the mouth of a cruel child, and even if you close your eyes out of fear, he lurks behind your lids and stretches his fingers out for your heart.

Drvenkar used second person very effectively in his previous novel, Sorry, but only in short bursts. I doubted very much if he could pull it off as the primary viewpoint in a 500-page novel. But in fact he uses it wonderfully to put the reader deep inside each character, seeing through their eyes and feeling through their hearts. By my reckoning there are a total of thirteen viewpoints rotating throughout the book, and as each takes over the reader becomes that person. It seems to me that this could only possibly work if the characterisation is convincing and individual enough to ‘fool’ the reader’s brain into acceptance. Somehow Drvenkar manages this feat. At first when we don’t know the characters it can be confusing but as he develops each into a separate entity it becomes easy to know who ‘you’ are at any point, and for avoidance of doubt each section is clearly headed with the name of the particular ‘you’ you are at that moment. What I found amazing was that he could not only make me identify with the ‘yous’ who were the girls, but at different times he made me be a ruthless gangster, a psychopathic serial killer, and an even stranger one that I won’t reveal for sake of avoiding spoilers. Sometimes at the start of a chapter I felt I couldn’t accept being this other person, but within a page or two Drvenkar had pushed me inside their character and my cynicism had retreated in defeat.

Berlin noir...

Berlin noir…

I understand from the author bio in the book that Drvenkar has written extensively for the YA market before turning to dark, very adult thrillers. This shows through in his characterisation of the girls – I found them entirely believable, both in speech and in their actions. The rotating viewpoint lets us see all of the main characters from each other’s viewpoints as well as their own, and this makes them very rounded. But the second person perspective makes even the minor characters come to life. There’s also a narrative voice, for which he uses first person plural – this has the effect of making it feel like all of the other characters who are not currently ‘you’, or perhaps like an all-seeing Greek chorus commenting on the action. And he uses foreshadowing superbly to add an ever-increasing air of tension and menace…

Don’t worry, you don’t need to talk, you don’t need to think or, for a while, exist, we’ll find out everything about you anyway. Why you became a shadow, why you don’t want to exist anymore. Invisible. We’ll open a window into your life and let the light in, and we’ll shake you awake until you scream with fury. But there’s time for that, that comes later.

Zoran Drvenkar

Zoran Drvenkar

Sounds like it should be dreadful, doesn’t it? But it isn’t! His skill carries it off brilliantly, making this one of the best and most original thrillers I’ve read in years. The translation from the original German is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s flawless – it never feels like a translation, which is the highest praise I can give. I’ve deliberately said very little about the plot, because it’s so intricate that it would be almost impossible to avoid spoilers. The interest is in seeing how it all works, how all the various parts fit together. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning. It gets my highest recommendation.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Good Way to Go by Peter Helton

a good way to goThe body in the canal…

:D :D :D :D

DI Liam McLusky has returned to his job after a nine-week suspension, but is under warning from his boss that one step out of line will result in him being fired. But Liam is fundamentally a good cop so, despite the black cloud hanging over him, when a woman’s body is found in the canal he is put in charge of the case. A few days later another body is found, a man this time, and there are elements of the two murders that make Liam suspect they are linked, though he can’t see what the two victims have in common. Then a third man is abducted…

I recently enjoyed Peter’s Helton’s Indelible, a PI novel with a Golden Age feel about the setting, so I was intrigued to see how his style would work in the format of the police procedural. And I’m pleased to say the answer is – very well.

The book gets off to a good start with a nicely scary chapter about a woman sensing an intruder in her flat. It turns out this is part of a sub-plot about a sex-pest who is graduating from stealing underwear from clothesline to more serious offences, and this storyline runs in parallel with the murder mystery. We then meet Liam for the first time, in this book, at least – there have been earlier books, which I haven’t read, but this one works fine as a standalone. At this point Liam is still on suspension, is driving drunk and behaving like a stereotypical maverick, and my heart sank. However, I’m glad to say he improves on acquaintance – once he is back at work he proves to be a good detective and manages to remain sober. And although he has a string of failed relationships behind him, he hasn’t given up all hope of finding the right woman.

The main plot is complex enough to hold the reader’s interest throughout, even if it does require the odd bit of disbelief suspension. I admit I kinda guessed whodunit a good bit before the end, but not why, so it didn’t spoilt the suspense too much. And the sub-plot about the sex-pest is very well done, getting increasingly creepy and chilling as it goes along. Liam and his partner, DS James Austin, work as a good team and their interactions help to make both characters likeable and enjoyable. And oh joy! It’s written in the third person past tense!

Peter Helton

Peter Helton

I like Helton’s writing style. I could complain that the story was a bit over-padded, and I could have lived with fewer descriptions of Liam smoking, drinking coffee, eating chocolate bars etc. But, in contrast, the violence is gritty without being graphic, the dialogue is realistic without the constant use of bad language, there’s some humour that keeps the tone light, and the characterisation is very good throughout, and particularly of Liam himself. It all goes to show what a lottery crime writing is – I’d rate this book well above the average standard of most police procedurals out there, and better than many that have achieved a higher level of success. So if you’re in the market for a new author, here’s one I recommend.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 56…

Episode 56

 

The TBR is down 4 this week to 135! Am I on target to meet my New Year’s Resolution to reduce it to 70 by the end of the year? Hmm…

Here are a few forthcoming attractions – no fiction this week since I’ve just started the 800+ pages of Death and Mr Pickwick, which I suspect may take some time…

Factual

 

the rival queens

Courtesy of Weidenfield & Nicolson, this is subtitled “Catherine de’ Medici, her daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom”. Sounds fun!

The Blurb says Set in magnificent Renaissance France, this is the story of two remarkable women, a mother and daughter driven into opposition by a terrible betrayal that threatened to destroy the realm. Catherine de’ Medici was a ruthless pragmatist and powerbroker who dominated the throne for thirty years. Her youngest daughter Marguerite, the glamorous “Queen Margot,” was a passionate free spirit, the only adversary whom her mother could neither intimidate nor control. When Catherine forces the Catholic Marguerite to marry her Protestant cousin Henry of Navarre against her will, and then uses her opulent Parisian wedding as a means of luring his followers to their deaths, she creates not only savage conflict within France but also a potent rival within her own family.

Rich in detail and vivid prose, Goldstone’s narrative unfolds as a thrilling historical epic. Treacherous court politics, poisonings, inter-national espionage, and adultery form the background to a story that includes such celebrated figures as Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Nostradamus. The Rival Queens is a dangerous tale of love, betrayal, ambition, and the true nature of courage, the echoes of which still resonate.”

 * * * * *

Sci-Fi

 

children of duneWill the two horrid little kids be as weird as their Dad, Paul Muad’Dib? Will Alia still be in love with a walking corpse? Will Lady Jessica be worried about wrinkles now she’s a gran? All will be revealed as the great Dune readalong continues…

The Blurb says “The epic that began with the HUGO and NEBULA Award-winning classic DUNE continues …

The sand-blasted world of Arrakis has become green, watered and fertile. Old Paul Atreides, who led the desert Fremen to political and religious domination of the galaxy, is gone. But for the children of Dune, the very blossoming of their land contains the seeds of its own destruction. The altered climate is destroying the giant sandworms, and this in turn is disastrous for the planet’s economy.

Leto and Ghanima, Paul Atreides’s twin children and his heirs, can see possible solutions – but fanatics begin to challenge the rule of the all-powerful Atreides empire, and more than economic disaster threatens …”

* * * * *

Audio

 

amokCourtesy of Audible via MidasPR. I loved the half-narration/half dramatisation format of The Child, and this new production of another Sebastian Fitzek novel promises to be just as good… fabulous cast! (Adrian Lester! Yum-yum!) And Robert Glenister doing the narrating bit.

The Blurb says Based on Sebastian Fitzek’s best-selling novel Amok Spiel, Amok stars Rafe Spall (Prometheus and Life of Pi), Adrian Lester (Hustle and Merlin) and Natasha McElhone (Californication and The Truman Show). The thriller follows an intense hostage situation unfolding at a radio station where a crazed psychopath, Jan May (Adrian Lester), initiates a morbid mind-game. While the show is on air, he calls members of the public at random. If they pick up the phone with a certain phrase, a hostage is set free. If they don’t, a hostage is shot live on-air until the killer’s demands are met.

Struggling with her own personal demons, renowned criminal psychologist, Ira Samin (Natasha McElhone) is called upon by her former fling Olivier Götz (Rafe Spall) – leader of a Special Operations Command troop – to assist in the harrowing circumstances.A specialist in the field, Ira faces a seemingly futile negotiation, played out to millions of transfixed radio listeners.”

* * * * *

Crime

 

humber boy bCourtesy of NetGalley and highly recommended by Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books and by Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling. How could I resist?

The Blurb saysA child is killed after falling from the Humber Bridge. Despite fleeing the scene, two young brothers are found guilty and sent to prison. Upon their release they are granted one privilege only, their anonymity. Probation officer Cate Austin is responsible for Humber Boy B’s reintegration into society. But the general public’s anger is steadily growing, and those around her are wondering if the secret of his identity is one he actually deserves to keep. Cate’s loyalty is challenged when she begins to discover the truth of the crime. She must ask herself if a child is capable of premeditated murder. Or is there a greater evil at play?”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley, Goodreads, Amazon or publicity bumph.

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

John Knox by Jane Dawson

john knoxGod’s Watchman…

:D :D :D :D :D

In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She tells us that new material has recently been uncovered amongst the papers of Christopher Goodman, a fellow Reformed preacher and long-term friend of Knox. This material, she suggests, throws a different light on his personality, while changing some of the facts known about his life.

Dawson writes very well, with no unnecessary academic jargon, making the book an enjoyable read. In structure, it’s a straightforward biography following a linear timeline. Not having read any previous biographies of Knox, I’m not in a position to comment on whether the new material makes a significant difference to what was already known about him, but I certainly found that I learned a good deal, not just about Knox, but about the history of the Reformation in Scotland, England and Europe.

Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House by Thomas Hutchison Peddie

Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House
by Thomas Hutchison Peddie

Starting with his childhood, Dawson takes us through Knox’s early career as a priest within the Catholic Church and, as she does at all points, sets his story well within the context of the period. She discusses the importance of the Church in medieval society and gives the reader an overview of the political situation in Scotland and England at the time of the ‘Rough Wooing’, when Henry VIII was using military might to try to force a marriage between his son and the infant queen of Scotland. The legend, of course, is that the Scots and English were sworn enemies, but Dawson shows how those Scots who were moving towards Protestantism, including Knox, were in fact keen for an alliance with England, perhaps even a union. Therefore when France pitched in to keep Scotland Catholic, Knox found himself on the wrong side, and began an exile that would take him first to England and later to Geneva, becoming heavily involved in the development of Reformed religion in both locations.

Dawson suggests that these experiences influenced Knox deeply. He had been a disciple of George Wishart, martyred for his beliefs under Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, and on more than one occasion came close to achieving martyrdom himself. His hatred of Mary Tudor’s bloody persecution of English Protestants led him to expect the same in Scotland when the young Mary Stuart came to her throne. (I have to admit that if I’d had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.) It was around this time that Knox blew his First Blast, basing his case on the authority of the Old Testament, to declare that women were not fit to be rulers and should be opposed, even deposed if necessary. He had been warned by Calvin not to do this but, as always, Knox’s belief in his own unarguable rightness led him to disregard this advice.

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

Big mistake as it turned out, since Mary Tudor’s death brought Protestant Elizabeth to the throne. Thinking that he could now return to England to continue developing the Reformed Church there, Knox discovered to his surprise that for some odd reason Elizabeth had taken offence over the First Blast. It would have been a bit hard at that point for Knox to explain that it was only Catholic women who weren’t suited to rule, but anyway Dawson didn’t convince me that Knox’s First Blast was more political than misogynistic. Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree – many people like cats but they don’t necessarily consider them equals. Perhaps it’s a semantic debate – perhaps he should be described as a sexist old killjoy instead.

Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva Photo credit: Histoire

Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Photo credit: Histoire

Having blown his chances in England, Knox answered the call to return to Scotland, where he became embroiled in the Wars of the Congregation. For a brief period after this, he was able to set the Scottish Church up to run along the Reformed lines he had been planning for years, and he believed that by accepting this the Scottish people had made a covenant with God. But he soon became disillusioned when many prominent Protestants upheld Mary’s right to rule and even to attend Catholic Mass. During the long years of ups and downs that followed, he never ceased to preach and prophesy, and never changed his core beliefs regardless of pressure and threats, which I suppose makes him admirable if not particularly likeable. In his later years, he suffered from repeated bouts of depression, believing that the covenant had been broken and that retribution would surely follow. Not against him, obviously – just his (and therefore God’s) enemies. He saw himself as God’s Watchman, constantly striving to prevent deviation from the forms of worship he believed the Bible specified, thumping his pulpit and prophesying doom on all who strayed.

Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.

Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.

My superficial overview doesn’t do full justice to Dawson’s book. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations. Though I knew most of the historical ‘facts’ already, I certainly have a better understanding of the man, and of the Church he was so instrumental in creating. And while I can’t say I like him much better than I did, I at least accept that he acted always in conformance with his beliefs. An excellent biography and history combined – highly recommended.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sherlock Holmes: The Dark Mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlock holmes the dark mysteriesVampires, hounds and lunatics…

:D :D :D :D :D

This pocket-sized little book is published by the Collector’s Library and contains some of the darkest of the Holmes stories. There is an interesting introduction by David Stuart Davies, himself a writer of crime and ghost stories, and an authority on Holmes. Apparently he has also written six Holmes novels himself. He reminds us of Conan Doyle’s interest in things not of this world as a great advocate of Spiritualism, and has selected stories that show Conan Doyle’s flair for going close to the edge of the supernatural, though in the Holmes stories the solution is always ultimately based in the rational world.

The book kicks off with the long story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the most popular of all the Holmes tales. This is Conan Doyle’s writing at its finest, a thrilling tale with a dramatic setting amidst the mists and mires of Dartmoor, and a terrifying climax as Holmes and Watson finally face the hound that has been the curse of the Baskerville family for generations.

Hound drawing

Then there are seven of the short stories, all either with an element of the supernatural or with particularly dark and brutal storylines:

The Sussex Vampire – when a woman is found apparently sucking blood from her own baby and will give no explanation, her frantic husband applies to Holmes for help. What Holmes discovers reveals a very human darkness at the heart of this family, perhaps more frightening than had the woman truly been a vampire.

The Creeping Man – An elderly man who has fallen in love with a young woman starts exhibiting strange and frightening behaviour and seems to have acquired almost superhuman strength and agility. I must admit this is probably my least favourite of all the Holmes stories because it’s so far-fetched. That’s because the scientific explanation seems so ridiculous. However Davies points out that there were experiments of this nature going on in real life at the time, so the story probably seemed much more credible to contemporary readers.

The Veiled Lodger – there’s no detection in this one, as Holmes is simply the recipient of the secret behind the tragedy that befell the lodger of the title. Mrs Ronder and her husband were circus folk, lion-tamers… until it all went horribly and gruesomely wrong. Betrayal, brutality and cowardice are at the heart of this story – and it’s one example of Conan Doyle’s tendency to have Holmes leave punishment of wickedness to a higher power.

veiled lodger

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place – a Gothic tale of crypts and corpses, greed and deception, this has definite elements of the horror story about it. The credibility might be a bit over-stretched but Conan Doyle’s writing just about carries it off.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax – Lady Frances Carfax is alone and friendless, a perfect victim for any unscrupulous conman who wants to get hold of her property. Definitely a horror story this one, with a burial scene of Poe-like terror. And a very nice bit of detection too.

The Devil’s Foot – one evening, a man leaves his two brothers and his sister happily playing cards together. The next morning, the two men are stark, raving mad and the woman is dead, with a look of utter terror etched on her face. When I first read Holmes at around the age of ten, this story frightened the bejabers out of me, and I still find it the most truly horrifying of them all. The image of those grinning mad men being carted off to the asylum lives in my nightmares, and the scene where Holmes and Watson come close to losing their own senses is both scary and moving, as one of the rare occasions when Holmes reveals his deep affection for loyal old Watson.

The_Adventure_of_the_Devil's_Foot_03

The Cardboard Box – the last story in the book is another that planted itself firmly in my mind from first reading and refused to go away. A woman receives a box in the mail and when she opens it, she finds it contains two freshly cut human ears – but not from the same body! Betrayal and brutality again, combined with the demon drink, are the cause of this horror. But, just as a little piece of advice, if you ever want to send body parts through the post, make sure you have the right address…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The book itself is rather gorgeous. It’s only just over 4” by 6” so the pages are tiny, which explains why there are over 450 of them. The font is pretty small too, but very clear, and some of the original illustrations are included. Beneath the rather lovely sleeve, the cover itself is of dark red cloth with the title on the spine in gilt, and is beautifully tactile. With the finishing touches of gilt edged pages and a red ribbon bookmark, this would make a perfect gift, especially for someone just being introduced to the Holmes stories. Though even although I know the stories so well and have at least three copies of the full adventures, I still found this a little delight and enjoyed reading the stories grouped in this way. A most pleasing little volume.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collector’s Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

Middle-aged hanky-panky…

:) :) :|

the ghost fieldsWhen developers start to dig up a field prior to building houses on it, the work is brought to a sudden halt by the discovery of a buried WW2 plane, complete with partially mummified corpse. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in, and spots something the police have unaccountably missed – a bullet hole in the corpse’s forehead. Immediately knowing (psychically) that this wound was not caused during an airfight, she leaps to the conclusion that the man was the victim of murder.

When Elly Griffiths is on form, she’s one of my favourite writers, so it saddens me to say that she is most definitely not on form in this book. The fundamental problem with amateur detectives in contemporary novels is that it becomes increasingly difficult for authors to find ways to link them to crimes. Griffiths has got round that in this one by really pretty much ignoring the crime and detection element, and writing a rather tired middle-aged love triangle instead – actually a love star, to be more accurate, since there are a total of five middle-aged people all either getting up to hanky-panky or wishing they could, usually with people other than their partners. Fascinating if anyone still cares whether Ruth and Nelson will ever get together, but I lost interest in that strand about four books ago. Ruth really has to stop hankering over someone else’s husband and move on, and in the last book I thought she might actually be about to do so. Sadly not.

The plot is both thin and full of holes, and drags on for ever with Nelson doing absolutely nothing towards actually solving the mystery. It shouldn’t really be too hard either. Given that the victim was murdered during the war, then the killer must be either dead or in his late ’80s at the youngest – narrows the field of suspects somewhat, don’t you think? So since we know from the start by a quick arithmetical calculation that we can exclude almost every character from suspicion, there’s not much tension. Except perhaps the tension of wondering how long it will be before Nelson and Ruth suss out what’s staring the rest of us in the face. But their inability to work it out means that there’s time for another murder to be done, finally expanding the field of suspects and throwing open the possibility that Nelson could start interviews or look for clues or stake people out or… well, something! But no, he sends off for DNA tests and we all wait and wait for them to come back, while the characters fill in the time with some fairly passionless flirting.

Oh dear! I could mention that the reason the body is in the field is silly and contrived, or that to go along with the no detection there is also no archaeology to speak of. I could sigh over the fact that the book is written in the usual tedious present tense (third person) which really is not suited to a book that takes place over a period of months, and which feels even clumsier in this book than usual. Or I could mention that Ruth’s low self-esteem and constant self-criticism become increasingly tedious as the series wears on – another thing I thought she was beginning to get over in the last outing. Oh! It appears I just did mention them!

Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths

On the upside, Griffiths, as always, creates a good sense of place in this bleak Norfolk landscape, and her characterisation of Ruth is excellent, even if I find the character progressively more irritating. And while the bulk of the book is a drag with nothing much happening except love/lust affairs, the thrillerish ending is well written and enjoyable. But I’m afraid overall I think this is one for die-hard fans only – it’s getting hosts of 5-stars, so it must be working for some people. But I think this fan has stopped being die-hard – the standard in the series seems to oscillate wildly from brilliant to pretty poor, and in my opinion it’s time to draw it to a close and for Griffiths to move on to something different. Her last book, The Zig Zag Girl, not a Ruth Galloway one, was far superior to this in every way.

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

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The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum edited by Iain Hollingshead

the lunatics have taken over the asylumTo whom it may concern…

:D :D :D :D :D

As any Brit will know, The Daily Telegraph is one of our more right-wing newspapers. This book contains a collection culled from the Letters to the Editor section of the paper, submitted by the intelligent, the witty, the grumpy and the occasionally downright weird people who are part of the readership. The letters cover the period from the last general election in 2010 through our experiment in Conservative/Liberal coalition government, and give a great flavour of the issues and scandals that have exercised the minds of retired colonels and maiden aunts in the leafy suburbs of Conservative England. While I try not to discourage anyone from any good book, this one is really only for UK political geeks. Many of the entries are humorous, but a lot of them depend on the reader knowing the personalities and politics of contemporary Britain.

The selection is grouped under headings such as Goodbye Gordon, Chillaxing Conservatives, Swivel-eyed Loons, etc. If you don’t get these references, then I suggest the book is not for you. However, if you do, from whatever side of the political spectrum you hail, you will probably find this as entertaining as I did. There’s no doubt that Letters to the Editor has become a competitive sport in Britain with people vying to be the funniest or the most intelligent or the most condescending as their character dictates, and the result is some very fine humour, intentional or otherwise. The book is also a lighthearted reminder of some of the treasured political moments of the last five years – just the thing to read in the wake of the weirdest General Election results Britain has ever seen to remind us not to take it all so seriously. Buffoons exist on either side of the political divide, so at least while they’re wrecking the economy and destroying our society, we can be sure our politicians will always entertain us…

Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the coalition leaders 'you never promised me a rose garden...'

Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the coalition leaders
‘you never promised me a rose garden…’

To give a little flavour of the book, I’ve tried to select a few letters that don’t require an in-depth knowledge of the British political scene…

Sir – Dear Lord, I know that I don’t talk to you that much, but I note that you have recently taken away my favourite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favourite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favourite musician, Michael Jackson, and my favourite cricketer, Alec Bedser.

I just wanted to let you know that my favourite Prime Minister is Gordon Brown. Amen

David Say

 

On the TV Debates held before the 2010 election

Sir – The most astonishing fact is that Gordon Brown finished third out of three and his acolytes are relieved. I dread their ambitions for the country.

Kiran Solanki

Gordon Brown discovering that he had been recorded calling a member of the public 'a bigoted woman'... (source: bbc)

Gordon Brown discovering that he had been recorded calling an ‘elderly’ member of the public a ‘bigoted woman’…
(source: bbc)

Sir – I would think that Gillian Duffy, sixty-five, is probably more annoyed at being described as ‘elderly’ than a ‘bigot’.

Andrew J. Morrison (64 years and 355 days)

 

Sir – David Cameron wants to help us old people to downsize. I am already two inches shorter than I used to be, so I don’t need his help.

John de Lange

 

Sir – May I suggest that if the police are to use water cannons to disperse rioting students, they include some soap in the tank?

Finlay Mason

 

On the subject of gay marriage

Sir – Being a devoted husband, as well as a staunch and active member of the Conservative Party, I’d be grateful to learn what further changes it will adopt, especially in regard to monogamy. My wife could do with a bit more help around the house.

Robert Vincent

A great gift for the political nerd in your life – I would mention Christmas stockings but for fear that you might all lynch me…

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

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Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
APRIL

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite April reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

pureWhen I reviewed this, I only gave it 4 stars, but remarked that some of the images in it would stay with me for a long time. Indeed they have, and I’ve felt for some time that I did it an injustice and that it deserves the full 5 star status. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, it is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young man contracted to clear the overcrowded cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. The sense of time and place in the novel is truly remarkable, and the book allows us to see the build-up of Revolutionary ideas from the perspective of the ‘ordinary’ man. As Miller describes the malignant stench and rotting horrors of the cemetery, parallels can be drawn with the glimpses we get of the corrupt state and political system. My review does it no justice – this is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade.

 

2012

 

dare meA dark journey into the mind of adolescent girlhood, this book tells of the jealousies and tensions amongst a group of high-school cheerleaders. Abbott’s use of language is innovative, imaginative and often poetic. Throughout the book, she uses the physicality and danger of the cheer stunts to heighten the sense of tension and fear at the heart of the story, and changed my condescending Brit view of cheerleading for ever. When a new coach arrives to lead the cheerleading team, she will prove to be the catalyst for a dangerous reassessment and realignment of friendships that have lasted for years, and will eventually lead both reader and characters to some very dark places. The body is an important theme throughout – the punishment the girls put themselves through, the intimacy of their physical reliance on each other, the underlying sexuality and sensuality of these girls on the brink of womanhood. Dark and wonderful.

 

2013

 

and the mountains echoedA beautiful and very moving book from the pen of a master storyteller, this tells the tale of various members of one extended family affected by war and poverty in Afghanistan. Though many of the events of the book take place in Europe or America following characters driven abroad in the diaspora, Afghanistan remains at the heart of the novel, because it remains in the hearts of the unforgettable people who populate the pages. In structure, this feels almost like a series of short stories, but Hosseini brings them all together in the end in one perfect circle. Truth is, I sobbed my heart out over this book, starting at page 5 and not stopping till about two weeks after I’d finished it. And even now, I only have to think about the first chapter to find myself reaching for the Kleenex again. But alongside the sorrow and sadness, there is love and joy here, and a deep sense of hope…

 

2014

 

the birdsSix short stories from the mistress of supenseful terror, this collection starts with the story on which Hitchcock based his famous film The Birds. While he made some changes to it, mainly so he could find a role for one of his famous blondes, all of the tension and atmosphere comes from du Maurier. The other stories may not be so well known but they stand up very well to the title story. One of my favourites is The Apple Tree – a tale of a man who becomes obsessed with the belief that the tree in his garden bears an uncanny resemblance to his late unlamented wife. The whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

 

2015

 

the martian chronicles Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars. It’s episodic in nature and the Martian world that Bradbury creates doesn’t have quite the coherence of some fantasy worlds. But like all the best sci-fi, this book is fundamentally about humanity and Bradbury uses his created world to muse on, amongst other things, loneliness, community and the mid-20th century obsession with the inevitability of nuclear self-destruction. Many of the stories, especially the later ones, are beautifully written fantasies that are both moving and profound. It certainly deserves its reputation as one of the great classics of the genre but, in my opinion, it goes beyond genre – it is as well written and thought-provoking as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

 

* * * * *

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for April, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

And Kay has joined in too, over on kay’s reading life, but with a twist – she’s highlighting books from 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. Here’s the link…

Psycho by Robert Bloch

psychoMother love…

:D :D :D :D :D

Mary Crane, driving through a downpour with the $40,000 she has just stolen, takes a wrong turning and finds herself lost. But ahead she sees the welcome sight of the Bates Motel and decides to stop there for the night. The proprietor Norman Bates is alone there, except for his mother, since the new road that’s been built means not many guests ever show up at the motel any more. Poor Norman. Fat and unattractive, he has never dated a woman, and spends his lonely evenings reading books on psychology, trying to understand his relationship with his overbearing and cruel mother. That’s when he’s not reading about the occult, or poring over his collection of pornography. Poor Mary. Driven to theft by her desire to marry the man she loves, she is beginning to wonder if she’s made the right decision or if should she go back home and return the money. Poor Mother…

bates motel

Anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s film of Psycho knows that the real shock factor rests on two things – the shower scene, and the major twist at the end. I was intrigued to see whether knowing the twist would be such a spoiler that it would ruin the book for me, but I’m delighted to say that it didn’t at all. It seems the film stuck pretty closely to the book with just one or two changes, but the way Bloch wrote the passages relating to Norman and his mother were intriguing even though I knew how it all ends. In fact, I wondered at points if knowing the thing that I know, but can’t say for fear of spoiling it for anyone who doesn’t know, didn’t actually add an extra frisson of horror to the whole thing. I also wondered if I’d have been able to work out the twist, if I hadn’t already known what I know. You know?

psycho 1

The major difference is in the appearance and to some extent the personality of Norman. In the film Anthony Perkins as Norman is kind of creepily attractive and seems quite functional, both of which add somehow to the evilness of his character. The book version of Norman, though, paints him as a bit of a sad and unattractive loner with a drink problem, and we get enough glimpses of his relationship with his awful Mother to feel that it’s not entirely his fault that he’s turned out the way he has. Without the restrictions of film censorship, Bloch can tell us more clearly about Norman’s penchant for porn, a thing the film only hints at so subtly it’s easy to miss. His other obsession with reading psychology lets us know that he knows himself that his relationship with his mother is abnormal, and that he worries about it. And despite the fact that the shower scene in the film is shockingly gory, it pales in comparison to the brutality of the same scene in the book.

NormanBates.jpeg

The characterisation in general is excellent, with the emphasis very much on the psychology of the people involved. Mary (Marion in the film version) has a back story of sacrificing her youth to look after her elderly mother and make sure her sister Lila got through college. Now Mary feels time ticking by and desperately wants to marry her fiancé, Sam, sooner rather than putting it off for the couple of years Sam needs to get enough money together. Lila doesn’t have quite such a major role, being more or less the catalyst for Sam to go snooping round the hotel, but she’s still filled out reasonably well. Sam is more complex than I remember from the film. Having met Mary on a cruise and only really communicated with her by letter ever since, he’s pretty quick to accept that she could be guilty of theft, and to go on to wonder how well he really knew her at all. So it’s as much out of duty and to help Lila that he goes off detecting, rather than out of devoted love. Through Sam we also get a picture of small town life, both its restrictions and its sense of community, and this is very well done.

Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch

In the end, I enjoyed the book as much as the film but for different reasons. The film is scarier, but then I usually find films scarier than books, so that might just be me. But the book goes more deeply into the psychology of all the characters, making it much more substantial than a mere shocker. Bloch’s writing style suits the material well – spare, almost noir in places – and he’s very clever in the way he hides the truth from the reader until very near the end. Definitely recommended even if you’ve already seen the film.

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

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Transwarp Tuesday! The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The naked truth about Mars…

 

Yet another cliffhanger at the end of the second book in the series, The God of Mars, left me with no alternative but to return to Barsoom (Mars) for the third instalment in the adventures of John Carter. Will he ever manage to release Dejah Thoris from captivity? Is Woola alive or was he eaten by the hideous plant men? Are they still all running around naked???

All will be revealed in this week’s…

Transwarp Tuesday!

 

The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs

This review will include spoilers for books 1 & 2 in the series… but since they’re all basically the same it really shouldn’t matter too much…

Last time, we left poor Dejah Thoris trapped in a prison cell with her friend Thuvia and her deadliest enemy Phaidor. As the rotating cell disappeared from view, not to be seen again for a full Martian year, Thuvia had leapt in front of Dejah Thoris to shield her from the knife being wielded by Phaidor. Did Dejah Thoris survive? Did Thuvia survive? Did Phaidor survive? (Exciting, isn’t it?) Poor John Carter – left alone again to wait for his incomparable Princess, with only Woola the dog/cat-like calot for company.

My sweet little Woola...

My sweet little Woola…

He has quelled the forces of the false Gods of Mars and peace has been declared amongst the red, green, white and black races. But he suspects that some of the followers of the now dead goddess Issus are conspiring against him, in particular one man, Thurid. Following him one day, John Carter overhears Thurid conveniently reveal his dastardly plan to open the unopenable cell and steal the matchless Dejah Thoris for himself – for all men love her on sight. Admittedly, all women love John Carter on sight so it seems only fair. In fact, I should probably have mentioned that the three prisoners, Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor, are all in love with him – a cosy little gathering, eh?

Admittedly, one can see why...

Admittedly, one can see why…

Anyway, John Carter decides to follow Thurid and, after lots of feats of superhuman endurance and stuff like that, he catches up with Thurid just in time to see him make off with the girls and Phaidor’s Dad (who quite fancies Dejah Thoris for himself). Encouraged by the sight of Dejah Thoris’ unsurpassable beauty, John Carter joins up with Thuvia’s Dad, Thuvan Dinh, to follow them to the ends of the… er… Mars, if necessary. (Hold on! I’ve just noticed a major plot hole! Thuvan Dinh is not in love with Dejah Thoris! Must be a printer’s error, surely…)

Banth by Joe Jusko - he's just a big pussy cat really though...

Banth by Joe Jusko – he’s just a big pussy cat really though…

Accompanied as always by the lovely, loyal, ten-legged Woola, off they go to the wild frozen wastes of the North, from whence no man (or Thark, or Thern) has ever returned. Along the way, John Carter will have to escape from the lion-like banths who like nothing more than a tasty bit of live Martian for breakfast, and the giant hornet-like sith with its poisonous sting. And then he must face the horror of the Apts – giant creatures with four legs and two arms, complete with human-like hands, who prefer their Martians dead in the form of ripe carrion. But nothing is too great a danger for our heroic John Carter, in the throes of love for the unrivalled beauty that is Dejah Thoris, for as he tells us himself with his usual inspiring humility…

If your vocation be shoeing horses, or painting pictures, and you can do one or the other better than your fellows, then you are a fool if you are not proud of your ability. And so I am very proud that upon two planets no greater fighter has ever lived than John Carter, Prince of Helium.

The horrible carrion-eating Apt... no match for our John though!

The horrible carrion-eating Apt… no match for our John though!

And finally, they will encounter the yellow men of Barsoom (a disappointment – I was hoping for purple) and John Carter will have to battle as he never battled before to win his way through to his peerless Princess. (Well, OK – he’ll battle pretty much the same way as he has battled in every book, but he does have to use a different kind of weapon at one point – so that’s good.) For the evil ruler of the yellow men has fallen madly in love with the unmatched beauty of Dejah Thoris and will stop at nothing to gain her for himself!

Salensus Oll - evil leader of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris - obviously.

Salensus Oll – evil ruler of the yellow men and in love with Dejah Thoris – obviously.

(I know some of you will, like me, be deeply concerned about the possibility of fatal goosepimpling what with the whole nakedness thing combined with the frozen wastes thing. So I’m delighted to inform you that the yellow men wear clothes when they leave the confines of their artificially heated cities. How John Carter and Thuvan survive till they they get to the cities goes untold – one must assume they were carrying suitcases throughout the journey… or perhaps all that battling was enough to keep the circulation flowing. I’m also relieved to note that Dejah Thoris is apparently irresistibly beautiful even when clothed…)

Disney preferred  the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..

Disney preferred the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..

For a moment tense silence reigned in the nuptial-room. Then the fifty nobles rushed upon me. Furiously we fought, but the advantage was mine, for I stood upon a raised platform above them, and I fought for the most glorious woman of a glorious race, and I fought for a great love and for the mother of my boy.

And from behind my shoulder, in the silvery cadence of that dear voice, rose the brave battle anthem of Helium which the nation’s women sing as their men march out to victory.

And at the end of the inevitable war, will John Carter and the incomparably lovely Dejah Thoris finally be together? You shall have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

 

Great fun! All the books are fundamentally the same but each one has new twists of imagination and John Carter’s feats grow more ridiculous amazing every time. Silly they may be, but they keep me turning the pages and provide much chuckling along the way.  Will I read the next one? Oh, yes, I really think I must…

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

Falling in Love (Commissario Brunetti 24) by Donna Leon

falling in loveVissi d’amore…

:D :D :D :D :D

Famous opera star Flavia Petrelli is back at La Fenice in Venice to sing the lead in Tosca. But she has brought with her an unknown admirer who has been turning up at her performances in various cities and showering her with vast quantities of yellow roses. Although she has not been physically threatened, Flavia is finding the obsessiveness of this fan unsettling and when she returns to her apartment after a performance to find another bouquet propped against her door, her unease turns to fear. Over dinner with her old friend Commissario Guido Brunetti, she tells him what’s been going on. At first he’s not too worried, but when a young opera singer in whom Flavia had shown an interest is savagely attacked, he wonders if there’s a connection…

This is only my second Brunetti book although it’s the twenty-fourth in the series. Apparently Flavia appeared in the very first book but I didn’t find it a problem at all that I hadn’t read it. This one works perfectly well as a standalone.

Flavia’s friendship with Brunetti is a distant one, enough for them to be glad to meet and catch up, but not close enough for Brunetti to really know about her life. In fact, most of what he knows he’s gleaned from celebrity magazines. The first few chapters are told from Flavia’s point of view, giving what feels like an authentic picture of the life of an opera star, on stage and off. She has a family – two children and an ex-husband – but her career means she is often on the road, and we get a good feeling for the loneliness she sometimes feels once the glamour of her performance is over. She can be over-dramatic at times, to Brunetti’s annoyance, and this can mean that people think she’s exaggerating. But Brunetti soon comes to believe that her fears are well grounded.

(The descriptions of the opera are so good they almost convinced this opera-hater that I’d like to see Tosca performed. But then I listened to this and realised no, I really would rather stick hot knitting needles in my ears. Enjoy!)

These books have a slightly old-fashioned air about them – no bad thing, in my opinion. Brunetti’s family life is a happy one and the interludes with them add some lightness to the overall tone. The depiction of Venice feels as if it’s stuck in a time-warp from thirty or forty years ago but perhaps Venice really is that out of date. Sadly, I’ve never been there. However, the way the police operate comes over as distinctly amateurish at times, with them having to find out how to requisition CCTV footage, etc., and the idea that the only person who can use the computer properly is the Vice-Questore’s secretary is surely unbelievable. However, the tensions between the various officers give an indication of how much this society is still dependant on patronage rather than merit. And Brunetti himself is a thoughtful detective, relying on brain rather than brawn to solve his cases.

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

There is a slight whodunit element to the book but it’s more about the why than the who really. The plotting is excellent and the characterisation of the main players is very strong. The pace is fairly leisurely, rather like the pace of life in Venice itself, but it never flags in what is quite a short book. And as it heads towards the finale both pace and tension ratchet up. In the last book in the series, By Its Cover, I felt the ending let it down rather. Quite the reverse in this one! A true thriller ending, as dramatic as an opera itself, it had me racing through the last pages as it came to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Most enjoyable. I’m sure fans will love this one, and it would also be a good introduction for someone coming new to the series. If I ever get time, I’ll go back and read the twenty-two I’ve missed…

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

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