FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A story of Kabul…

😀😀😀😀🙂

the kite runner2Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Both boys are motherless: Amir’s mother died in childbirth, while Hassan’s mother ran away not long after he was born, leaving her husband to bring Hassan up alone. Amir is being educated, Hassan is illiterate and likely to remain that way. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

The first half of the book, which tells of the boys’ childhood and the event that changed their lives, is beautifully written, full of emotional truth. It is written in the first person from Amir’s point of view and he is a harsh judge of his younger self. He shows himself as weak and cowardly, traitorous even, while Hassan is all that is good and loyal and brave. Amir feels his father blames him for his mother’s death, and is jealous that Baba often seems to show as much fondness for Hassan as for himself.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

While Hassan is a little too good to be true, it feels as if this is deliberate – that Amir’s guilt over his own actions has led him into idealising his childhood friend. And the reverse of that is that Amir’s depiction of himself also has to be seen as being affected by the same guilt, so that while sometimes it’s hard to like him, it’s still easy to empathise – to remember that he was a child and to look at how both boys had the prejudices of their society instilled into them from birth. We also see how Amir is affected by the struggle to gain his father’s affection despite feeling that he could never be the kind of boy his father wants his son to be.

For me, the second half of the book didn’t completely match up to the excellent standards of the first. Amir and his father flee the wars and end up in America. There is a lengthy section about their experiences there, and perhaps I’m just a little tired of the “immigrant experience” storyline now; it seems to have been done too often over the last couple of decades, and I didn’t feel this one added much to either that subject or this story. It feels like something of a hiatus, and a little contrived – a device almost, to allow Amir to return later to Kabul, looking at it through fresh, adult eyes. And when he does go back to Kabul, to show the horrors of life under the Taliban, it begins to verge on the polemical.

     In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. “You want to know?” he sneered. “Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son’s eyes that this is the first time you’ve ever worn a pakol.” He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. “Am I close?”
     “Why are you saying these things?” I said.
     “Because you wanted to know,” he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”

Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini

This is a minor criticism though of what is, overall, a great book. I was thinking as I read the second half that it may well have affected me differently thirteen years ago when it was first published – I would have known far less about Afghanistan and almost nothing about the Taliban, and I suspect I would have found the book more shocking and gut-wrenching as a result. Now, if anything, the picture he paints seems a little muted – how easily we become conditioned to horror. Now the first half seems beautifully novelistic, but the second half feels almost journalistic, and the ending didn’t convince me nearly as much as the story of Amir and Hassan as children. I’m glad to have read it, though, and highly recommend it. I suspect it’s a book that will find its full impact again if and when we ever reach a point where this never-ending conflict is past and fading into history.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 96…

Episode 96…

I’ve been such a good girl since my last TBR post! I’m proud to say that the figure has dropped by a massive 7 taking it down to 177 (4 read, 3 abandoned!), and my splurge of reading (or abandoning) mediocre review copies over the summer has seriously put me off asking for more* until I get rid of most of the 38 still outstanding. Aren’t you proud of me? I’m feeling kinda smug…

(*This was written on Tuesday. Since then I accidentally requested 3 books from NG, was offered one by an author I previously enjoyed and was promised another by a publisher. Not feeling quite so smug now! But really they were all essential to my emotional well-being…)

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

True Crime

black-river-roadCourtesy of the publisher, Goose Lane. Debra Komar was recommended to me by the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink, so I was delighted when I managed to snaffle a review copy of her new release…

The Blurb says: In 1869, in the woods just outside of the bustling port city of Saint John, a group of teenaged berry pickers discovered several badly decomposed bodies. The authorities suspected foul play, but the identities of the victims were as mysterious as that of the perpetrator. From the twists and turns of a coroner’s inquest, an unlikely suspect emerged to stand trial for murder: John Munroe, a renowned architect, well-heeled family man, and pillar of the community.

Munroe was arguably the first in Canada’s fledgling judicial system to actively defend himself, and his lawyer’s strategy was as simple as it was revolutionary: Munroe’s wealth, education and exemplary character made him incapable of murder. The press, and Saint John’s elite, vocally supported Munroe, sparking a debate about character and murder that continues to this day. In re-examining a precedent-setting historical crime with fresh eyes, Komar addresses questions that still echo through the halls of justice more than a century later: Is everyone capable of murder, and should character be treated as evidence in homicide trials?

* * * * *

Crime

magpie-murdersCourtesy of NetGalley. Having loved Horowitz’s take on the world of Sherlock Holmes in both The House of Silk and Moriarty, I’m really excited to read his new crime venture…

The Blurb says:  When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She’s worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It’s just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway…

But Conway’s latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript there lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.

From Sunday Times bestseller Anthony Horowitz comes Magpie Murders, his deliciously dark take on the vintage crime novel, brought bang- up-to-date with a fiendish modern twist.

* * * * *

Factual

the-life-of-louis-xviCourtesy of NetGalley. After excursions into true crime and various types of geekery recently, some successful, some swiftly abandoned, time to get back to some “proper” history…

The Blurb says: Louis XVI of France, who was guillotined in 1793 during the Revolution and Reign of Terror, is commonly portrayed in fiction and film either as a weak and stupid despot in thrall to his beautiful, shallow wife, Marie Antoinette, or as a cruel and treasonous tyrant. Historian John Hardman disputes both these versions in a fascinating new biography of the ill-fated monarch. Based in part on new scholarship that has emerged over the past two decades, Hardman’s illuminating study describes a highly educated ruler who, though indecisive, possessed sharp political insight and a talent for foreign policy; who often saw the dangers ahead but could not or would not prevent them; and whose great misfortune was to be caught in the violent center of a major turning point in history.

* * * * *

Crime

echoes-of-sherlock-holmesCourtesy of NetGalley. There are some weel-kent names amongst the contributors to this anthology – John Connolly, Denise Mina, Anne Perry…

The Blurb says: In this follow-up to the acclaimed In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, expert Sherlockians Laurie King and Les Klinger put forth the question: What happens when great writers/creators who are not known as Sherlock Holmes devotees admit to being inspired by Conan Doyle stories? While some are highly-regarded mystery writers, others are best known for their work in the fields of fantasy or science fiction. All of these talented authors, however, share a great admiration for Arthur Conan Doyle and his greatest creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

To the editors’ great delight, these stories go in many directions. Some explore the spirit of Holmes himself; others tell of detectives themselves inspired by Holmes’s adventures or methods. A young boy becomes a detective; a young woman sharpens her investigative skills; an aging actress and a housemaid each find that they have unexpected talents. Other characters from the Holmes stories are explored, and even non-Holmesian tales by Conan Doyle are echoed. The variations are endless!

Although not a formal collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories—however some do fit that mold—instead these writers were asked to be inspired by the Conan Doyle canon. The results are breathtaking, for fans of Holmes and Watson as well as readers new to Doyle’s writing—indeed, for all readers who love exceptional storytelling.

(Breathtaking? I do hope the blurb writer isn’t hyperventilating…😉 )

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.ok

* * * * *

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

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

Play the next play…

😀😀😀😀😀

the perfect passThis is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed an “unstoppable” offense that would defeat even the biggest, strongest defenses; and of how that offense gradually spread throughout college football and into the professional leagues, changing the very nature of the game – the Air Raid offense.

Sometimes you just have to take the things life throws at you and run with them. When SC Gwynne won my Book of the Year award in 2014 for Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I gave him the usual prize – my promise to read his next book. Of course, I was assuming it would be another biography of a historical soldier or politician. Imagine my… delight when it turned out to be a book about a passing offense in American football! In my life I have watched one full game and a bit of another, and frankly thought it was a jolly silly game a game one has to have grown up with to fully appreciate. So the question was not so much whether I’d like this book as whether I’d even understand it!

Gwynne starts with a great description of Texas Tech putting the Air Raid offense into action in 2008. He then whisks us back in time to meet Hal Mumme at the beginning of his coaching career. He shows the uncertainty of life as a college coach in a nation obsessed with the game – a hero when leading his team to victory, but abused and reviled if they lose. Hal had always wanted to coach, despite the low pay and precariousness of the profession. His big idea was that he was going to make throwing the ball the centre of the game.

1929 - when men were men and football was war
1929 – when men were men and football was war

To explain why this idea was so radical, Gwynne gives a potted history of the rise of football. He shows it as arising out of a nostalgia for war – an opportunity for men to hone their manly aggression in peacetime. Therefore it was all about brute force in “the pile” in the middle of the field – meat on meat, as it was charmingly summed up. The more broken bones, busted skulls and fatal injuries the better – a real man’s game! Forward passing was initially prohibited, but when reformers began demanding that the game be made less dangerous, it was eventually legalised. However, it was rarely used, since in this beefy culture it was seen as “feminising” the game. In short, passing was for sissies. Games were all about bulldozing the opposition, and as a result were usually low-scoring and rather dull to watch. This chapter is so well-told and very funny in places, especially over the “manliness” aspects of it all.

Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.

Testing football helmets...
Testing football helmets…

Hal was convinced though that passing could be made to work, especially for teams without the brute power to win against bigger opponents using traditional plays. The bulk of the book is taken up with Hal’s long road to development of the Air Raid, learning from other coaches who used passing plays in their games, trying out new things with the various teams he worked with and, with his long-time coaching partner Mike Leach, gradually refining his system so that even fairly mediocre players could be taught it. It wasn’t just on the field that he changed things. Again the culture was to make the players prove their toughness in full contact training, often being injured before they even got to play, or being worked so hard in training sessions they would be on or past the point of collapse. Hal had his players do shorter sessions, focussed on passing rather than tackling, developing precision in throwing and tactics rather than beating each other to a pulp. His idea, which doesn’t sound as though it should have been revolutionary but apparently was, was that football should be fun!

Hal Mumme and Mike Leach
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach

And gradually, the no-hoper teams he initially worked with began to win games, and to win them spectacularly with huge scores. And dismissive traditionalist crowds began to see that the passing game was exciting (especially the fans of the winning teams – the losing fans perhaps weren’t quite so enthused). Slowly other coaches started to use Hal’s techniques until eventually passing became an accepted part of the game. Hal’s own career remained chequered and he never made it into the professional divisions, but his ideas did, and the final version of all his work, the Air Raid offense, has been used and adapted by the top teams.

Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of University of Kentucky Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP
Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of Kentucky Wildcats
Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP

One of Hal’s favourite sayings was, Play the next play. The words were a combination pep talk and theory of life, perfectly aligned with his coaching philosophy. The gist was, life, like football, is a headlong dive into the future. There is no past, at least not one you should worry too much about. If you lose, let it go. Don’t panic. If you win, don’t be too satisfied. Play the next play.

SC Gwynne
SC Gwynne

This isn’t a hugely long book, but even so I’ve only given a flavour of it. Gwynne’s writing brings the sport to life and he explains all the various plays clearly enough that even I felt I understood them. There are lots of diagrams to show the various offensive formations and how they’re designed to bamboozle the opposition defenses. Through it all, Gwynne’s respect for and warmth towards the game, its coaches and players, shines through, and the occasional humour and great descriptions of the games make the book entertaining as well as informative. A surprise hit for me, proving that a great writer can make almost any subject fascinating. I may even watch a few more games now…

(Since the game is American, I’ve gone along with the wrong American spellings of offence and defence throughout…😉 )

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

The Entertainer Blogger Award

I’ve been nominated…

…for The Entertainer Blogger Award by Anne at i’ve read this – thanks, Anne! Always happy to talk about myself and, let’s face it, the blog is cheaper than a therapist, so here goes…

THE RULES

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  2. Add these rules to your post.
  3. Answer all the questions below.
  4. Display the award picture in your post.
  5. Nominate 12* other bloggers who are funny, inspiring and most important of all ENTERTAINING!

the-entertainer-blogger-award

Q1. Why did you start a blog in the first place?

In the past, I’ve always said that it was a publisher who encouraged me to start a blog when she offered me a review copy of Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land on the basis of my Amazon reviews. So I did!

But I think we’ve all known each other long enough now for me to tell you the truth…

I am a beautiful princess and I’ve been captured by an evil ogre who keeps me locked in a tower and tries to win my affection with copious supplies of chocolate. But no matter how much chocolate I eat, he still looks like Donald Trump on a bad hair day, so it’s never gonna happen.

Trump! Trump! Trump!
Trump! Trump! Trump!

Fortunately handsome Prince Darcy from the neighbouring state is also madly in love with me and is planning a rescue attempt. The ogre allows me an internet connection but monitors everything I do, so I use the blog to send coded messages to my Prince. Whenever I post a 1 star review it means “Oh, Darcy, my heart is yours always!” 2 stars means “How I long to dance the cotillion with you, dear one!” 3 stars is code for “I dream of your beautiful kisscurl, my sweet Prince!” 4 is One day our love shall be sealed with many kisses, my beloved!” A 5 star review means “Oooooh…”

No! I better not tell you for fear the ogre might see. He gets so jealous, you see!

darcy gif

Q2. What is your favourite book?

I’ve answered this before too, so I refuse to say Bleak House again! So I’m going to change the question to…

Q2. What is your favourite book about chimpanzees?

And the answer is The High Mountains of Portugal!

chimp-gif

So… what’s your favourite book about chimpanzees?

Q3. What do you dislike the most?

All together now – FIRST PERSON PRESENT TENSE ANGST-RIDDEN MISERY-FESTS!

Or if the question doesn’t refer to books, then hmm… well, I really, really dislike when I offer my chocolates around and someone takes the coffee cream. Grrrrrrr!!!!

penguin-gif

Q4. What is your favourite food item from the mall?

Excuse me, I’m British! I think you mean shopping centre!

This question has me stumped, I admit. I avoid shopping centres like the plague whenever I can, and if I have to go to one my plan is always to get in and out in the shortest possible time, so I rarely eat there. But I do usually stop off at M&S on the way out and reward myself with some of their toffee meringues – yummy, scrummy and yumptious!!! Just as well I don’t go often really!

I think it's safe to say there are images of everything on t'Internet!
I think it’s safe to say there are images of everything on t’Internet!

Q5. What is your favourite pastime?

You think I’m going to say reading, don’t you? Well, perhaps you’re right…

… but it’s always possible that secretly I’m an extreme sports enthusiast who spends her evenings bungee jumping from the tops of skyscrapers, wearing a Wonder Woman outfit and a green feather boa. I guess you’ll never know…

wonder-woman-gif

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Since every blogger I know is entertaining, I nominate you all!

Thanks again, Anne – I had fun doing this!😀

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

Creatures of the night…

🙂🙂😐

from the dust returned 2Usually I give a short blurb at the beginning of my reviews, but I found it exceptionally hard with this one because basically the book isn’t really about anything discernible. Lots of creatures of the night and weird people with strange powers (maybe werewolves and vampires – I really have no idea) are en route to a family homecoming at the Elliot house in Illinois. While there, we will be told a few stories about some of them which seem to be almost entirely unlinked to each other but for the repeated appearance of a few of the characters.

I’m guessing you’ve already worked out that this book didn’t exactly thrill me. Fantasy is always a big ask for me, but at least most fantasy has some kind of story. The book apparently originated as short stories written over a long period of time which Bradbury then brought together in 2001, writing linking portions to try to give it some kind of coherent structure. This is the same way as Bradbury’s much earlier (by half a century) The Martian Chronicles evolved – a book I thought was truly wonderful despite the fragmentary feel of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well with this one. Firstly, with one or two exceptions, the separate stories aren’t terribly interesting; and, secondly, there doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching theme to outweigh the weakness of the linking.

The main residents of the house are a mummy known as One Thousand Times Great-Grandmère, Cecy, a girl who can dream herself into other people, Mother and Father (nope, got nothing to say about them at all) and a mortal boy, Timothy, who was taken in by the family when he was abandoned and now dreams of one day having wings like his Uncle Einar. Later Grandpère appears too – OTTG-G’s husband. Most of the stories involve one or other of these characters plus an array of other characters who tend to make only one appearance.

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

If there is a theme, I think it might be that Bradbury is regretting the passing of belief in tales of the supernatural – sometimes comparing it to the loss of childhood, sometimes suggesting a kind of connection with the growth of atheism. But I think I may be looking too hard. Perhaps we’re just supposed to enjoy it for what it is. And maybe people who like fantasy more than I do will indeed enjoy it. Some of the descriptive writing is great, though sometimes it becomes rather overblown. I enjoyed the stories that had more of a story, if that makes any sense – the one where Cecy inhabits a young woman’s body in order to experience falling in love, for instance; or the story about the ghost, fading because of people’s lack of belief in the supernatural, and the nurse who helps him on his journey to Scotland, where he hopes that superstition still thrives enough to save him. But others are really just a series of descriptions and odd little vignettes that left me searching for the elusive point.

I think it might have worked better had it just been left as a book of short stories – the attempt to link them actually highlighted the unevenness of quality and lack of depth of meaning. Nope, I’m afraid this just wasn’t my kind of thing. Ah, well!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 17
Book 17

Film of the Book: Murder, She Said (4.50 from Paddington)

Directed by George Pollock (1961)

murder-she-said-2

From the book review of 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie:

When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

murder-she-said-gallery

As soon as the delightful title music of Ron Goodwin starts up, it’s clear this is going to be a fun romping version of Agatha Christie’s story. Apparently Christie disliked these Margaret Rutherford adaptations, and I can see why. They are not what you would call faithful to the originals and Miss Marple is not the sedentary observer of human nature we all know and love. But for once I don’t care – the films are brilliant and just as entertaining as the books, if in a different way. Murder, She Said was the first of the four Miss Marple movies in which Rutherford starred and, despite some major changes, actually sticks fairly closely to the basic plot of the book. As the series went on the divergences from the books grew ever wider and the final movie, Murder Ahoy!, wasn’t even based on any of the books at all.

First of all, poor Elspeth McGillicuddy has been cut completely, as has housekeeper and assistant sleuth, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Now it’s Miss Marple herself who sees the murder through the train windows. When the police fail to find a body, Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) tries to persuade Miss Marple that she must have seen a couple… ahem… honeymooning, as he so delicately puts it. On Miss Marple pointing out in no uncertain terms that, spinster she may be, but she can still tell the difference between a bit of “honeymooning” and strangulation, Inspector Craddock subtly suggests that she must be dotty.

murder-she-said-inspector-craddock

So Miss Marple, after consulting her close friend Mr Stringer (who is played by Margaret Rutherford’s real-life husband Stringer Davis), decides that they should investigate themselves. After a lovely scene of these two rather, shall we say, mature people searching the railway tracks, Miss Marple gets herself employed as the new housemaid at Ackenthorpe Hall – Rutherford Hall in the book, and changed to prevent confusion over the coincidence of the house sharing the same name as the star of the film. Why they changed Crackenthorpe to Ackenthorpe defeats me though, as does the fact that Miss Marple apparently now lives in Milchester rather than St Mary Mead…

murder-she-said-railway-tracks

While the purist in me is shaking her head disapprovingly about these wholesale changes, I do understand them. Unlike Poirot, often Miss Marple doesn’t have a huge role in the books, tending to perform her miracles somewhat in the background of the action. She doesn’t really investigate as such – she merely listens and applies her knowledge of human nature to get to the truth. In this book, Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the central character with only occasional appearances from Miss Marple herself. But if you’ve booked the wonderful Margaret Rutherford to star in your movie, you want her pretty much in every scene, or else you might find yourself lynched by an angry mob of disgruntled Rutherford fans… including me! So this version of Miss Marple carries out all the investigative work herself, helped only a little by Inspector Craddock and the ever-faithful Mr Stringer.

murder-she-said-james-robertson-justice

The cast is a nice line-up of British character actors of the period, plus a few up-and-coming stars of the future in bit parts. James Robertson Justice guest-stars as grumpy old Mr Ackenthorpe, and his exchanges with new housemaid Jane are total comic joy. Muriel Pavlow is excellent as poor put-upon Emma, Mr Ackenthorpe’s daughter. The various Ackenthorpe brothers are an unpleasant bunch, as they are in the book too, and all played by well-known faces even if the names are less familiar to me – Thorley Walters, Conrad Phillips and Gerald Cross, with Ronald Howard as brother-in-law Brian Eastley. For reasons unknown (to me), an American actor, Arthur Kennedy, plays Dr Quimper and I must say I find his American accent a bit discombobulating amongst all these Brits. A youngish Richard Briers appears in a tiny role, and who should pop up as the daily cleaner at Ackenthorpe Hall but the woman who would later in her career become the definitive Miss Marple – our very own Joan Hickson! There’s a lovely bit where she gets chased by a goat…

murder-she-said-joan-hickson

In the book, I loved the interplay between the two boys, Alexander and his friend Stodders, and the various adults. Stodders has been ruthlessly done away with in the same mass culling that took Elspeth and Lucy. But Alexander is delightfully played by Ronnie Raymond. (Wondering whatever happened to him, I checked it out and IMDb informs me he quit acting and became an undertaker! I kinda wish I hadn’t checked now…) In the film, he’s an arrogant, cheeky little so-and-so who quite frankly would benefit from a swift kick up the pants, but Jane soon gets him onside and he becomes a kind of assistant sleuth. He and Rutherford work beautifully together and provide much of the film’s humour.

murder-she-said-alexander

Just to add to the general jollity, the film throws in some light-hearted mild horror elements – people hiding behind curtains, storms and thunder, lights going out at unfortunate moments, and a gardener of the scowling sinister variety. Because of the disappearance of Mrs McGillicuddy, the ending is changed (though the solution is not), and builds up to a tense face-off between Miss Marple and the murderer. As Inspector Craddock points out, she’s a very brave lady!

murder-she-said-torch

OK, OK, I know Christie fans are probably gnashing their teeth right now, but honestly, it’s so much fun! Try to forget that the real Miss Marple is unlikely to disguise herself in dungarees! Ignore the unlikeliness of her possibly having romantic inclinations towards dear Mr Stringer! Go along with the idea of her creeping about the grounds in the middle of the night with a torch, searching for corpses! In fact, just try to put out of your mind that it’s got anything to do with the book at all and enjoy it for what it is – a great British comedy thriller starring one of the finest comedy character actresses of all time. You surely won’t regret it…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It kinda breaks my heart to choose from these, so…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

4-50-from-paddington-2

THE BOOK!

murder-she-said-dvd

AND THE FILM!

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This post is part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. Do pop through to find links to all the great Poirot posts from yesterday, and check back with them over the next couple of days for links to today’s Miss Marple posts, and tomorrow’s posts on anything else Agatha Christie related.

AgathaChristie

20 Books of Summer 2016 Wrap-Up

Better Late Than Never!

20 books 2016

It’s a well-known fact that, here in Scotland, summer can be unpredictable, sometimes almost to the point of non-existence. So I don’t feel too badly about deciding to extend it into mid-September this year – the warm nights and constant rain of this pre-autumnal period being not significantly different from the weather we had in the peak summer months of July and August!

All of which is my excuse for finishing the 20 Books of Summer challenge, hosted by the lovely Cathy at 746 Books, two weeks late. Better late than never, eh? Considering I had to contend with the French Open, Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open and Brexit, I think I did well to read anything at all!

So how did it go? Well… I’ve learned that an almost constant diet of review copies becomes extremely tedious after a bit. With nothing but blurbs to go on, lots of books that sound great turn out not to be. I’m looking forward to getting back to my usual mix of some old, some new. On the upside, my desire to get back to some classics and well-loved authors has given my willpower a desperately needed boost – I haven’t requested anything from NetGalley for over three weeks! (I still have 42 outstanding review copies, admittedly…)

Here’s the summary then, in ascending order of enjoyability – click on the title to see the full review…

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😦

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – abandoned due to being plot-free and rather tedious polemics rather than fiction.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – badly written but, on the upside, it gave me an opportunity to use the word misandry.

* * * * *

😐😐

The Seeker by SG MacLean – I got lost amidst all the sects and plots in this historical novel set in the time of Oliver Cromwell.

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🙂🙂😐

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury – didn’t really work for me, sadly. Too unstructured and not enough substance. (Full review to follow.)

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott – a slight book about Alcott’s experiences as a nurse during the Civil War. Interesting as an insight into Alcott, but not much more than that.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich – a disappointingly unemotional description of grief with an almost invisible plot.

The Widow by Fiona Barton – somewhat tedious domestic thriller, with an investigation that’s full of glaring errors and omissions.

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😀😀😀🙂

Different Class by Joanne Harris – loved bits of this book set in a school, but less enamoured by other bits which crossed the credibility line. Well worth reading, though.

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins – well told true crime, but the lack of doubt over the guilt of the murderer prevented it from being fully absorbing.

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😀😀😀😀

Oliver Twisted by Cindy Brown – a fun cosy with an attractive lead character set on a cruise ship. Perfect for light summer reading.

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😀😀😀😀🙂

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – moving and beautifully written account of childhood in Kabul outweighs the weakness of the latter, adult, part of the story. (Full review to follow.)

Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell – an excellent look at the hipster scene of Greenwich Village in the 1950s, with a good plot and great characterisation.

Zero K by Don DeLillo – takes a cliché of science fiction – cryogenics – and turns it into an examination of death and identity, leaving plenty of room for the reader’s own interpretation.

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😀😀😀😀😀

Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo – about the making of the movie. Loved the book far more than the film – one for my fellow geeks!

Enigma by Robert Harris – excellent writing, brilliant scene-setting, strong plot about the WW2 codebreakers in Bletchley Park. A great book!

The Girls by Emma Cline – a super début about what attracts people to cults and makes them cross moral boundaries.

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne – another geek-fest, this time about the development of the Air Raid offense in American football. Oddly, I loved this! (Full review to follow.)

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee – great writing and great research bring 1919 colonial Calcutta to life in this crime novel. Another first-rate début. (Full review to follow.)

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan – a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore – a brilliant cold war thriller, seen from the perspective of the wife and family of the man caught up in a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring. Great stuff!

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D’you know, I’m glad I did this summary. I thought it hadn’t been a great summer of reading till I reminded myself of some of the fab books I’ve loved. Eleven 4, 4½ or 5 star reads – not bad at all! And my Book of the Summer is… (ooh, this is a nearly impossible choice)…

enigma 2
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Hope you got some great reading done too! What was the Book of Your Summer?

Different Class by Joanne Harris

Crisis measures…

😀😀😀🙂

different classSt Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys has been put under crisis measures after a scandal hit the school the previous year (in Gentleman & Players, apparently – a book I haven’t read). It’s 2005 and Classics master Roy Straitley is horrified at the changes being forced on this ancient and old-fashioned establishment, not least the introduction of girls into the Sixth Form. But things get worse when he meets the new headmaster and discovers him to be Harrington, an ex-pupil who was involved in events, as yet unspecified, that rocked the school back in 1981. Straitley neither likes nor trusts Harrington, and is convinced Harrington is trying to force him into retirement. But St Oswald’s has been Straitley’s life and he’s determined to stay and fight for the school’s traditions.

Most of the book is narrated by Straitley (first person, past tense) and his voice is excellent. There’s a lot of barbed humour in it as he mocks the political correctness and health-and-safety-ism that has infested all of our public services, but perhaps education worst of all. He shows quite clearly how hard it is for teachers to develop any kind of rapport with pupils without being at risk of being accused of inappropriateness or worse. And he shows that pupils are well aware of this and can use it as a weapon, subtly shifting the power balance in the classroom. Through Straitley’s eyes, we see the more ridiculous aspects of the new culture of managerialism that is imposed on “failing” schools – target-driven, goals-orientated and all the other hideous jargon that comes with that. I loved Straitley’s voice – his views are exaggerated, but just enough to make the thing deliciously humorous while still making some valid observations.

The other strand comes in the form of a diary written by an unnamed pupil, partly back in 1981 and partly in the present day (2005). This tells of three new boys who all started at St Oswald’s at the same time and therefore became rather unlikely friends. Each of these boys has a secret of some kind. The diarist gives them all nicknames, so that we’re not entirely sure who they are in the present day, but we know that one of them must be Harrington. This section is not nearly so successful. The boy’s voice didn’t convince me as that of a 14-year-old, nor did it change for the sections when he was writing as an adult. This, combined with the nicknames, meant I found myself frequently confused – not in that way when a skilled author leads one delightfully up various alleyways and dead-ends, but simply confused as to who was who and what time period we were in, finding I was frequently referring back to the chapter headings for clarification.

The plot follows the currently popular pattern of events in the past coming back to haunt the present, and there are elements of bullying and abuse in both sections. To be honest, I feel Harris handles this rather clumsily, seeming to ask the reader to take a somewhat lenient view of things that this reader doesn’t feel very lenient about – grooming, sexual abuse of children by teachers etc. Somehow I felt that Harris had got so involved in her mockery of current social trendiness that she took it a little far, towards subjects where the humour began to feel rather tasteless.

Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris

While I continued to enjoy Straitley’s voice all the way through, the book dragged quite a bit in the middle with nothing much happening to move things forward. And when the plot finally played out, it crossed the credibility line so often it began to feel too farcical to be taken seriously, and yet not quite humorous enough to be a black comedy.

Overall, I’m struggling to rate it. I did enjoy Harris’ writing and Straitley as a character, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing up to about half way. But I felt it became messy in the end, and my own political correctness got in the way of being happy at a resolution that I felt was morally murky at best. I felt that Harris wanted me to sympathise with characters whom I found increasingly unsympathetic. So in the end it gets 3½ stars from me – well worth reading, but didn’t quite live up to my early hopes for it.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 16
Book 16

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

24-carat Golden Age…

😀😀😀😀😀

4.50 from paddingtonWhen Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple. Miss Marple knows Mrs McGillicuddy is a sensible woman with no imagination, so believes that she saw exactly what she claims. Feeling too old and unfit to snoop around herself, Miss Marple asks Lucy Eyelesbarrow to hunt for the body and so Lucy takes a job at Rutherford Hall…

This book gets a little criticism for not really having many clues or much actual detection element in it. It’s never quite clear how Miss Marple arrives at the solution, other than her extensive knowledge of human nature. That’s not to say that the solution is unclear; it isn’t – it makes perfect sense. But the route to it isn’t as well defined as Christie’s usual.

But regardless, this is still one of my favourite Christie books. I love Miss Marple as a character, even more than M Poirot and his little grey cells, and she’s on top form in this one. She gives us some nice village parallels to shed light on the characters of the suspects; she twinkles affectionately at both young Inspector Craddock and Lucy; she does a bit of gentle match-making; and she gives us some classic Delphic pronouncements that leave the reader as beautifully baffled as the other characters.

Miss Marple put down her knitting and picked up The Times with a half-done crossword puzzle.
“I wish I had a dictionary here,” she murmured. “Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.”
“That’s Tokay,” said Lucy, looking back from the door. “But one’s a five-letter word and one’s a seven. What’s the clue?”
“Oh, it wasn’t in the crossword,” said Miss Marple vaguely. “It was in my head.”

For me, one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome. The dearly-departed’s relatives always take a stoic attitude to the death of their parents/spouses/siblings/children which, while it might not be altogether realistic, is certainly considerably more enjoyable than two hundred pages of descriptions of grieving, sobbing, wailing and general tooth-gnashing. In Christie novels, the emphasis is on entertainment – a mystery and a puzzle to solve, rather than an attempt to harrow the soul.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said
Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said

Apart from Miss Marple herself, there are two things that make this one particularly entertaining. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a great character – a strong, independent young woman, making a success of her life in this post-war world. With the difficulties of getting domestic servants, she has seen an opportunity for herself in being the ultimate housekeeper, and is hugely in demand by ladies everywhere who need help in running their homes. She can and does demand exorbitant wages and never stays anywhere for more than a few weeks, but during those weeks she makes life wonderfully carefree for her employers. So Emma Crackenthorpe of Rutherford Hall jumps at the chance to have her at a reduced rate for a while, to help out with her elderly old curmudgeon of a father and her assortment of brothers and brothers-in-law when they descend on the house en masse for a visit. And it’s not long before several of these men have recognised Lucy’s unique attractions…

Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version
Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version

Then there are the two boys, Alexander, the son of a deceased Crackenthorpe sister, and his friend Stodders, both visiting during the school holidays. These two remind me a little of Jennings and Derbyshire, (if you haven’t read the Jennings and Derbyshire books, you really must! Or listen to the audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry – joyous stuff!), or perhaps like terribly polite and well brought up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. No counselling for these children! No, indeed! When a corpse is discovered, they don’t get traumatised, they get out there looking for clues! In which pursuit they are aided and abetted by a bunch of adults who seem to think it’s quite normal, healthy even, for boys their age to be fascinated by all things murderous. When did we become the wussy, wimpy society of today, molly-coddling our children and trying to keep all of the world’s nastiness away from them?

“Please, sir, can we see the body?”
“No, you can’t,” said Inspector Bacon… “Have you ever seen a blonde woman wearing a light-coloured dyed squirrel coat anywhere about the place?”
“Well, I can’t remember exactly,” said Alexander astutely. “If I were to have a look…”
“Take ’em in, Sanders,” said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. “One’s only young once!”
“Oh, sir, thank you, sir.” Both boys were vociferous. “It’s very kind of you, sir.”

Oh, I’m sorry… let me jump off my soapbox and get back to the book…

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

Wonderfully entertaining, full of humour, great plot even if the clues aren’t quite fairplay, and a little bit of possible romance to spice things up. (For people who’ve already read it – in fact, the romantic sub-plot is one of the things I like most about the book – I still haven’t decided. Have you? I know which I hope for though. Now, isn’t that almost Marple-ishly Delphic?)

Miss Marple is one of the sleuths selected by Martin Edwards for his list of Ten Top Golden Age Detectives – an essential inclusion!

I shall be reviewing the Film of the Book this Saturday as part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. I do hope you’ll pop back – the event should be loads of fun!

classics club logo 2
This is Book 1 of my Classics Club list.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: Enigma

Directed by Michael Apted (2001)

Enigma poster

From the book review:

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

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review, I described the novel as a masterclass in how to write a book, so the film had a high standard to reach. Unfortunately, this is one case where making a direct comparison worked significantly to the detriment of the film.

The first thing I noticed was how brightly shot and coloured the movie is. England looks like a green and pleasant land. Normally I’d appreciate this kind of visual treat, but the book shows a much bleaker England, where everything is cold and grey, where three years of war have taken their toll on the land and environment as much as on the people, who are tired and undernourished. The film mentions briefly the lack of normal foodstuffs, but gives no real feeling for the deprivations people were undergoing. The same applies to the cold – with coal rationing meaning that even indoors heating was barely adequate. In the film, the sun shines constantly. As a result, the atmosphere that Harris creates in the book of a country struggling to survive, desperate for the supplies sent from the US on shipping convoys, never really materialises.

Dougray Scott, Saffron Borrows and Kate Winslett as Jericho, Claire and Hester
Dougray Scott, Saffron Burrows and Kate Winslett as Jericho, Claire and Hester

While both Dougray Scott and Kate Winslett give fine performances, neither of them convinced me as the characters from the book. Scott is too old to be a man so thrown by losing his first love that he has a breakdown. One wonders why he has never been in love before, and also why he would have been naive enough to fall so heavily for Claire or believe that she had fallen for him. Winslett, one of my favourite actresses, is way too beautiful to be Hester. I had an urgent desire to tell Apted that sticking a pair of specs on a beautiful woman does not make her plain – I thought we’d got past that stereotype around about the same time as we came out of rationing.

Of course, it was important in the film that Hester was beautiful because the decision had been made, in typical Hollywood style, to have Jericho and Hester fall in love, and women, as we know, can only attract a man by being beautiful – in Hollywood. I don’t know whether that’s more insulting to men or women, in truth. But it did make me laugh that as she evolved into the love interest, Hester wore her specs less and less till eventually they disappeared altogether. Apparently it’s still true that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!

enigma 1

Apart from the insertion of the love story, the film sticks pretty closely to the underlying plot of the book, though in a somewhat abridged form due to time constraints. However, there are some major changes towards the end in the way the story plays out. I could understand why this had been done – the climax of the book doesn’t have the level of action we’ve come to expect from movie thrillers – and it didn’t hugely affect the overall storyline. But it did lead to some clumsiness that again took away from the authenticity of the wartime atmosphere. Trying to avoid spoilers, the idea that Jericho could suddenly decide to drive hundreds of miles with no word of where he might have got strictly rationed petrol was nearly as ridiculous as the suggestion that the police could search a car and not notice a massive great machine hidden under the folded-down roof. I didn’t mind that they changed the way the story played out, but I was irritated by the fact that they didn’t make enough effort to keep it credible.

enigma 3

The abridgement of the story also led to an awful lot of plot explanation being done by the device of characters telling each other things they would already have known. At the beginning, Jericho kindly explains to the Americans how Enigma worked – considering they had been working on building their own code-breaking machines for months, this seemed a little unnecessary. And the code-breakers too kept explaining to each other how they went about their jobs. Again, possibly for time or budget constraints, some scenes that I felt would have worked brilliantly on screen simply didn’t appear and again were quickly glossed over with a line or two of dialogue – for example, the heroic retrieval from a sinking U-boat of the original codebooks that gave the codebreakers the information they needed to break the Enigma codes.

Specless!
Specless!

I know I’ve been highly critical of the film, but the criticisms are mainly in terms of comparison to the book. Without that comparison it’s an enjoyable movie, though it doesn’t have the same levels of atmosphere, depth and authenticity that made the book so exceptional and, where changes have been made, they’ve been made clumsily. One where I think the movie would actually have worked much better for me if I’d watched it before I’d read the book, and thus had lower expectations.

★ ★ ★ ★

So it will be no surprise to learn that…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

enigma 2

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

gone fishing

Did you know?

…that the venue for the US Open at Flushing Meadows is built on the site that apparently inspired the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?

 

See you soon!

Intimidating books?

The Classics Club – August Meme #ccmeme

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club meme for this month is asking a question that I find rather strange…

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?)

I don’t understand the concept of being intimidated by a book. For me, books I’ve read fall into two categories – ones I’ve enjoyed and ones I haven’t. Sure, there are sub-categories in there – it’s a spectrum that runs all the way from Wow! to Ugh! Occasionally, there’s even a book that I think is objectively bad, rather than that I just subjectively didn’t like it, but that’s rare.

That’s why I’ve always been happy to stick with the Amazon rating system that I initially used because that’s where I first posted reviews. It’s a beautifully simple system – 5 stars = I love it, 4 = I like it, 3 = It’s OK, 2 = I don’t like it, and 1 = I hate it. Totally subjective, not a hint of quality assessment in there. Of course, in my reviews I might rave about something that I feel makes a book intrinsically “good” – that it says something profound about the human condition, that it’s beautifully written, that it’s sparklingly entertaining. Or I may rant about something that makes it inherently “bad” – that the writing is sub-standard, that it peddles unacceptable ideas about race, gender etc.

But mostly, even when I’m praising a book to the skies or kicking it into the gutter, I know my opinion is purely subjective and that another reader is likely to feel very differently about it. That’s the joy of reading. I look on it as a collaboration between the author and the reader. Each reader will bring something different to the book and so will find something different between the lines. That amazingly original story I just read may seem like a derivative snorefest to someone who’s read more widely in a particular genre. Or that serial killer book that I find tiresomely stale may feel fresh and exciting to someone who hasn’t read as many of them. I can even accept (though it’s hard) that some weird people might like first person present tense misery-fest narratives! So long as you can accept that I rather like books about Martians…

So all of that is a long preamble to say that no book intimidates me! All of the books I haven’t read fall into two categories too – ones I think I’ll enjoy and ones I think I won’t. And I have no driven need to read any from the second category. Perhaps I’d have to if I was studying literature, but I’m not. I’m simply reading for pleasure and, since I’m unlikely to run out of books I think I’ll enjoy any time soon, I can quietly ignore the ones I expect to hate. No Finnegan’s Wake for me! I’m sorry, Mr Solzhenitsyn – my TBR will be untroubled by your books. Mr Eco, you had your chance and blew it. Mr McEwan, it’s not me, it’s you! Ms Woolf, stream your consciousness in someone else’s direction. Ah, Darcy, what a pleasure to see you! Come in, sit down and make yourself at home…

darcy sitting

Occasionally, I might read a book I suspect I’ll hate – Moby-Dick springs to mind – but even then I don’t feel in the slightest bit intimidated by it. Only three things can happen – I’ll be pleasantly surprised by it; I’ll hate it and quickly abandon it, thus removing it from my TBR for ever; or I’ll hate it so much I’ll have huge fun ripping it metaphorically to shreds! Win-win-win! In fact, now I think about it, Melville should really be the one feeling intimidated right now – he’s the one with something to prove…😉

Be afraid, Mr Melville...be very afraid!
Be afraid, Mr Melville…be very afraid!

My Classics Club list has 90 books on it, each of which I’m looking forward to. I may not love them all – I may even hate some of them. But none of them will ever have the power to make me hide quivering behind the sofa. I am steely-eyed and unafraid – a book-warrior! Go ahead, books, make my day…

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

What about you? Do you find any books intimidating?

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

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

😀😀😀🙂

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

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

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

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

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

George Joseph Smith
George Joseph Smith

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

Edward Marshall Hall
Edward Marshall Hall

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

Bernard Spilsbury
Bernard Spilsbury

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 15
Book 15
the machine stops art

Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

“Man is the measure…”

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

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

The Machine Stops
by EM Forster

EM Forster
EM Forster

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

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

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

Sounds horrifyingly familiar, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

the machine stops art 2

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

the machine stops

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

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

Chapel Springs Survival by Ane Mulligan

A visit with down-home folks…

😀😀😀😀

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

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

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

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

Ane Mulligan
Ane Mulligan

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Seeker by SG MacLean

They seek him here…

🙂🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 14
Book 14

TBR Thursday 95…

Episode 95…

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

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

Factual

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

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

* * * * *

Fiction

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

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

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

* * * * *

Crime

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Horror

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Dear reader, she murders the English language…

😦

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

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

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

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

A couple of examples…

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

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

Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye

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

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 13
Book 13

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

A three-fold story…

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

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
translated by Ken Liu

Hao Jingfang
Hao Jingfang

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

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

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

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

And so Lao Dao sets off on his journey…

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowded Beijing
Crowded Beijing

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

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

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Age of Aquarius…

😀😀😀😀😀

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

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

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

The Manson "family"
The Manson “family”

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

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

Age of Aquarius-790-xxx

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

Emma Cline
Emma Cline

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 12
Book 12

Friday Frippery! Abandonment issues…

The ones that got away…

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

tom cruise judging gif

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

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

pooh book gif

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

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

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

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peanuts writing 2

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

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

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

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

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peanuts writing 1

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

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

Have a great Friday!😉