FictionFan’s Book Reviews

Welcome to my blog! I hope you enjoy your visit.

I’m gradually compiling full indexes in the menu at the top of the page. Meantime, you can find a review by author, genre or title using the Find A Review drop-down box on the right, click on tags in the Tag Cloud, or browse my most recent reviews below.

I’d love for you to leave a comment either about a particular review or the blog in general.

Thank you for visiting.

Thomas More: A Very Brief History by John Guy

Very brief indeed…

🙂 🙂 😐

According to A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More was a man of principle, willing to sacrifice his life rather than compromise his beliefs. Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of him in Wolf Hall gives an alternative view, of a man who was happy to burn heretics, sarcastic and cruel to those around him, and something of a misogynist. In this truly very brief history, John Guy tries to reveal the real man behind the myths.

My existing knowledge was that More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor during Henry’s attempt to ditch Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn; that More drew the line when Henry decided to ditch the Catholic Church, too, and declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England; and that for his defiance, More was executed. Oh, and that he wrote a book called Utopia, which I haven’t read. And tortured and burned heretics, although of course he wasn’t alone in enjoying that sport.

Paul Scofield as More in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Sadly, once I had read this, I found that my existing knowledge hadn’t really expanded much at all. The book runs to 144 small pages, including notes, etc. I was reading the e-book, but at a guess I’d say 100-110 pages of text maximum, during which Guy romps through his life, discusses the writing and history of Utopia, talks about the portrayal of him in art following his death and in literature more recently, and finishes up with his route to sainthood. When I tell you that More dies at the 40% mark, you will be able to tell that the book doesn’t go into much depth regarding his life.

Guy always writes well and Thomas More has been a subject of study with him for many years, so there’s no doubt of the scholarship. But truthfully the biography section is so superficial as to be almost pointless, unless one literally knows nothing about More going in. (Which begs the question: why then would you be motivated to read the book in the first place?) And the rest reads like the epilogue to a biography – the kind of thing that historians put in as a last chapter to round the thing off.

Anton Lesser as More in Wolf Hall (2015)

Some of it is quite interesting, like the fact that Marx adopted Utopia as a socialist text and as a result there was a statue to commemorate More along with other great socialists in the USSR. Or that his sainthood only came through in 1935, by which time one would have hoped that the Catholic Church might have stopped sanctifying heretic-burners. (Mind you, Wikipedia tells me the Anglican Church recognised him as a martyr of the Reformation in 1980, so look out anyone who doesn’t conform to Anglicanism – the days of burning may not be as far behind us as we thought!) It is mildly amusing in a surreal kind of way that in 2000, Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians…

John Guy

Which brings me neatly to my conclusion – it grieves me to say it since I’ve been an admirer of John Guy’s work for years but, frankly, reading the Wikipedia page on More is just about as informative as this book. I guess very brief histories just aren’t my kind of thing. Guy wrote a longer biography of More some years ago (although still only 272 pages, according to Goodreads), so I may read that some day to see if it’s more satisfying.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 118…

Episode 118…

Hey! A massive drop in the TBR this week – down 2 to 194! Admittedly this is because I abandoned one (hundreds of pages of present tense – ugh! Just couldn’t take it…) and discovered a duplicate in the list. But it’s still a reduction, right? Right!! And outstanding review copies have also fallen 2 to 33 (yeah, OK, it’s the same 2, smartypants – I admit it). So there can be no doubt about it… I deserve a medal!

Here are a few that will soon reach the top of the pile…

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I don’t know much about the Lizzie Borden case except for the little rhyme – Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41“. So I’m intrigued to read this fictionalisation of the case, which is getting good reviews…

The Blurb says: In this riveting debut novel, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I never know whether to count Turow’s books as crime or fiction, but this one looks like a bit of a departure from his usual American courtroom thriller, so I’m going with fiction for the moment…

The Blurb says: At the age of fifty, former prosecutor Bill ten Boom has walked out on everything he thought was important to him: his law career, his wife, Kindle County, even his country. Still, when he is tapped by the International Criminal Court–an organization charged with prosecuting crimes against humanity–he feels drawn to what will become the most elusive case of his career. Over ten years ago, in the apocalyptic chaos following the Bosnian war, an entire Roma refugee camp vanished. Now for the first time, a witness has stepped forward: Ferko Rincic claims that armed men marched the camp’s Gypsy residents to a cave in the middle of the night-and then with a hand grenade set off an avalanche, burying 400 people alive. Only Ferko survived.

Boom’s task is to examine Ferko’s claims and determinine who might have massacred the Roma. His investigation takes him from the International Criminal Court’s base in Holland to the cities and villages of Bosnia and secret meetings in Washington, DC, as Boom sorts through a host of suspects, ranging from Serb paramilitaries, to organized crime gangs, to the US government itself, while also maneuvering among the alliances and treacheries of those connected to the case: Layton Merriwell, a disgraced US major general desperate to salvage his reputation; Sergeant Major Atilla Doby,a vital cog in American military operations near the camp at the time of the Roma’s disappearance; Laza Kajevic, the brutal former leader of the Bosnian Serbs; Esma Czarni, Ferko’s alluring barrister; and of course, Ferko himself, on whose testimony the entire case rests-and who may know more than he’s telling. 

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again! I loved Koethi Zan’s debut novel, The Never List, so I’ve been waiting impatiently for her second. I have high expectations, but the second book is notoriously difficult…

The Blurb says: SHE’D DO ANYTHING FOR HER HUSBAND.

Julie has the perfect life

A kind boyfriend, loving parents and good grades. She has everything ahead of her.

Cora’s life is a nightmare

A psychopath for a husband, a violent father and a terrible secret. There’s no way out.

But one night, their worlds collide

Locked in an isolated house together, they must work out what has happened – and who they can trust to set them free.

From the bestselling author of The Never List, this is a breath-taking new thriller about the wife of a kidnapper and her relationship with his last victim.

* * * * *

Crime on Audio

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. Having recently enjoyed my first venture into Maigret after many years, I leapt at the chance to listen to one of them on audio. The narrator is Gareth Armstrong, who sounds good on the sample…

The Blurb says: The thirty-seventh book in the new Penguin Maigret series. While keeping watch outside Mademoiselle Clément’s boarding house to await a suspect in a local bar robbery, a man named Janvier is shot in the chest. When Maigret, whose wife is away caring for her sister in Alsace, hears of the crime, he moves into the boarding house to solve the case. But the web quickly grows ever-more tangled, and Maigret must navigate generations-long secrets and a torrid affair to find his answers before it’s too late.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

Sister act…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A hot-air balloon is drifting over Northumberland, carrying the pilot and twelve sightseers. Jessica and her sister, Bella, now better known as Sister Maria Magdalena of Wynding Priory, are two of the party – a treat for Bella’s birthday. As they silently pass over an isolated farmhouse, Jessica sees a man killing a young woman – and then the man looks up and spots Jessica. By this time everyone in the balloon is watching the man. He only has one option – to kill them all…

No-one writes more entertaining thrillers than Sharon Bolton when she’s on top form – and yet again, she’s on top form with this standalone. We know from the prologue that the balloon crashes leaving only one survivor. The police soon identify her as Jessica Lane, but she has walked away from the crash and they can’t find her. They don’t know why she’s made no effort to contact the authorities – perhaps she’s badly hurt or concussed and confused. So the search is on. But the killer also knows there’s a survivor, and he’s determined to get to her first. But maybe she has reasons for not wanting to be found…

The thing is that you’d imagine that twelve corpses before we even get past the prologue might make this quite a harrowing read. But not at all! Bolton negotiates the difficult task of marrying together a serious plot with some delicious humour to keep the whole thing enjoyable. Bolton doesn’t ignore the grief that the survivor feels for the death of her sister, but the need to survive means she has to put it aside as much as possible and concentrate on getting to safety. The underlying story is actually quite dark and there is some gore, but Bolton doesn’t linger over it in too much detail. If you think too much about the plot, it does cross pretty far over the credibility line in several places, but Bolton doesn’t give you time to think about it – she races the story along, with some fine characterisation, some twists that are perfectly timed and believable within the context, and lots and lots of action.

The secret is in the writing. Once you reach the end and look back, it’s so much fun to see how cleverly Bolton has misled and misdirected all the way through – never cheating though! She never once says anything that is inconsistent with the solution – she just says it in such a way that you don’t spot it at the time. Delicious!

As a result, though, it’s not an easy one to write a review about since almost anything is a potential spoiler, so I won’t say any more about the plot. But I must mention the nuns, especially the wonderful Sister Belinda, who is my favourite character of the year so far! Bella and Jessica had been very close so Jessica is well known to the other nuns and a favourite amongst them. So the police feel it’s quite possible that if Jessica is confused, she might make for the convent as a place of safety. Sister Belinda is an avid watcher of old TV police dramas of The Sweeney variety in her recreation time, so she has a fabulously clichéd vocabulary picked up from these shows and is super excited to get the chance to put her ‘expertise’ to use during the investigation. She’s just so much fun…

The sound of running footsteps made them all start. Then the refectory door opened and the round, freckled face of Sister Belinda appeared. She was breathing heavily, and her veil was crooked, showing short tufts of red hair sprouting around her glowing face like unruly weeds in a parched garden.

“Excuse me, Mother, Sisters,” she said. “But there is a police car waiting at the gate and what looks like the Black Maria behind it. Also, another car approaching from the farm and a uniformed constable coming in via the beach path. It would appear that the filth have us surrounded.”

Loved this one! A perfect mix of dark and light, superbly clever plotting, constant action and hugely entertaining – you can expect to see Bolton appear yet again on my shortlist for Crime Book of the Year.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day.
….– The kooks, there are more of them all the time.
….– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman.
….Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats.
….I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.

* * * * * * * * *

….As for their commitment to ‘the people’, it was essentially abstract. They loved Man but were not so sure of individual men. M.V. Petrashevsky, the utopian theorist, summed it up when he proclaimed: ‘unable to find anything either in women or in men worthy of my adherence, I have turned to devote myself to the service of humanity’. In this idealized abstraction of ‘the people’ there was not a little of that snobbish contempt which aristocrats are inclined to nurture for the habits of the common man. How else can one explain the authoritarian attitudes of such revolutionaries as Bakunin, Speshnev, Tkachev, Plekhanov and Lenin, if not by their noble origins? It was as if they saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex need and ideals. Ironically, the interests of ‘the cause’ sometimes meant that the people’s conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm. ‘The worse, the better,’ as Chernyshevsky often said (meaning the worse things became, the better it was for the revolution).

* * * * * * * * *

….Before I realised it, I was crying. People might think I’m homesick, I thought, a hick lugging a huge bag around, sitting there blubbering. Embarrassed, I wiped away the tears, glancing nervously around me, but not a single person was looking at me.
….Right then it struck me: Tokyo was a more wonderful place than I’d ever imagined.
….I didn’t come to Tokyo for the upscale shopping or all the great places to have fun at. What I wanted was to melt into the crowds of people who didn’t know about my past, and vanish.
….More precisely, because I’d witnessed a murder, and the person who committed it had not been caught, what I wanted more than anything was to disappear from his radar forever.

* * * * * * * * *

….For in those days I had a firm belief, as many other strong boys have, of being born for a seaman. And indeed I had been in a boat nearly twice; but the second time mother found it out, and came and drew me back again; and after that she cried so badly, that I was forced to give my word to her to go no more without telling her.
….But Betty Muxworthy spoke her mind quite in a different way about it, the while she was wringing my hosen, and clattering to the drying horse.
….“Zailor, ees fai! ay and zarve un right. Her can’t kape out o’ the watter here, whur a’ must goo vor to vaind un, zame as a gurt to-ad squalloping, and mux up till I be wore out, I be, wi’ the very saight of ‘s braiches. How wil un ever baide aboard zhip, wi’ the watter zinging out under un, and comin’ up splash when the wind blow. Latt un goo, missus, latt un goo, zay I for wan, and old Davy wash his clouts for un.”

* * * * * * * * *

From The Valley of Fear:

….“You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?”
….“The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as…”
….“My blushes, Watson!” Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.
….“I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public.”
….“A touch! A distinct touch!” cried Holmes. “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself. But in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law – and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations – that’s the man! But so aloof is he from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable in his management and self-effacement, that for those very words that you have uttered he could hale you to a court and emerge with your year’s pension as a solatium for his wounded character.”

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

PS If anyone knows what “zame as a gurt to-ad squalloping” means, do tell!

Friday Frippery! Top Secret…

Everything you ever wanted to know about me, but were too afraid to ask…

The lovely Jessica over at The Bookworm Chronicles has kindly nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award – thanks, Jessica! 😀

Here are the rules…

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and link back to them.
  • Share 7-15 facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 9-15 bloggers you admire and contact them.

The first one is easy – thank you, Jessica! Much appreciated. 😀

The second one is harder – obviously I can’t tell you about my career as a Russian spy, nor reveal that secretly I’m Donald Trump’s hairdresser. You already know about my legendary iron willpower and my favourite hobby – chocolate-guzzling. But I think I’ve found a few facts that are quite revealing – perhaps TOO revealing! I shall let you decide…

* * * * * * * * *

1. My cat Tommy once won an award for being the Bravest Cat in Scotland, but he refused to attend the ceremony, so I had to accept it on his behalf in front of a bunch of newspaper photographers. Fifteen minutes of fame… except they all printed the picture of the Bravest Dog instead, because he showed up. There’s a life lesson there…

2. When I was four, I had my first boyfriend. His dad worked for Coca-Cola as a delivery driver, so he would bring me a free bottle of Coke every day. Then his dad changed jobs, so I chucked him.

3. I once had a picnic with a bunch of armed policemen beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At 3 a.m. With wine.

4. My second boyfriend had a rocking horse. I’d always wanted a rocking horse…

5. During a sports day at the school I worked at, I got caught on video teaching some of the boys how to make water bombs to splat the teachers.

6. I once spent an evening in the kitchen hunting a mouse the cats had brought in and released… while the cats sat on the sofa in the living room watching a DVD of David Attenborough’s Life of Birds.

7. I once worked for 3 weeks as a chalet maid at Butlins Holiday Camp in Clacton-on-Sea, before getting a major promotion to the hot-dog stand.

Hi-de-Hi!*

8. My third boyfriend lasted from about age 9 to 11, then we went to different schools. The next time we met, we were sixteen. I had just been to the dentist and my mouth was so numb I couldn’t speak clearly and was kinda dribbling. One could see he felt he’d had a lucky escape…

9. When my mother collapsed during a holiday in France and was taken to hospital, my French wasn’t good enough and the doctor couldn’t speak English, so I had to mime her medical history. The angina was fine, but the prolapsed uterus stretched my acting abilities to their limit…**

10. When I fell madly in love aged 12, I graffitied “I Love Ronnie” all over my pencil case and school bag. Then a couple of weeks later I fell out of love with Ronnie and in love with Ian – my mother refused to replace the bag and case. This is why I don’t have tattoos…

Aah! Darcy!

* * * * * * * * *

There! I think it’s safe to say you know everything about me now! As usual, I’m not going to nominate specific blogs, since you’re all lovely! So, to be fair, I think you really ought to reveal something about yourself in the comments below…

*For non-Brits and young people, this is not me! It’s Su Pollard, who played a chalet maid in an old sitcom called Hi-de-Hi…
**She was fine!

HAVE A GREAT EASTER! 😀

TBR Thursday 117…

Episode 117…

And still I have managed to avoid the Big 200! I seem to be working on a one in, one out basis at the moment, since for nearly a month now the TBR has remained stable at 196. There is some progress though – the number of outstanding review copies has dropped 2 to 35 – woohoo! That’s a good enough excuse for reward chocolate for me!!

Here are a few that I should get to soon…

Crime

Courtesy of Amazon Vine. I never got around to reading Laline Paull’s acclaimed first book, The Bees, though I really wanted to – still do. So I was pleased to be offered a copy of her new one – this time I have no excuse…

The Blurb says: It’s the day after tomorrow and the Arctic sea ice has melted. While global business carves up the new frontier, cruise ships race each other to ever-rarer wildlife sightings. The passengers of the Vanir have come seeking a polar bear. What they find is even more astonishing: a dead body.

It is Tom Harding, lost in an accident three years ago and now revealed by the melting ice of Midgard glacier. Tom had come to Midgard to help launch the new venture of his best friend of thirty years, Sean Cawson, a man whose business relies on discretion and powerful connections – and who was the last person to see him alive. Their friendship had been forged by a shared obsession with Arctic exploration. And although Tom’s need to save the world often clashed with Sean’s desire to conquer it, Sean has always believed that underneath it all, they shared the same goals.

But as the inquest into Tom’s death begins, the choices made by both men – in love and in life – are put on the stand. And when cracks appear in the foundations of Sean’s glamorous world, he is forced to question what price he has really paid for a seat at the establishment’s table. Just how deep do the lies go?

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I always love Tóibín’s Irish-set novels, but the book that introduced me to him was the wonderful The Testament of Mary. So I’m delighted to see him go back into antiquity again for this one…

The Blurb says: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.

In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in fours parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again! I loved Erin Kelly’s The Ties That Bind, so despite my legendary iron willpower I couldn’t resist her new one, especially after reading Cleo’s fabulous review

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1999, Kit and Laura travel to a festival in Cornwall to see a total eclipse of the sun. Kit is an eclipse chaser; Laura has never seen one before. Young and in love, they are certain this will be the first of many they’ll share. But in the hushed moments after the shadow passes, Laura interrupts a man and a woman. She knows that she saw something terrible. The man denies it. It is her word against his.

The victim seems grateful. Months later, she turns up on their doorstep like a lonely stray. But as her gratitude takes a twisted turn, Laura begins to wonder—did she trust the wrong person?

15 years later, Kit and Laura are living under assumed names and completely off the digital grid: no Facebook, only rudimentary cell phones, not in any directories. But as the truth catches up to them, they realize they can no longer keep the past in the past.

* * * * *

Crime on Audio

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. This falls somewhere between a short story and a novella in length – just over an hour in terms of listening. It’s been many years since I read the China Thrillers, so I’m intrigued to see Peter May resurrect the characters…

The Blurb says: Li Yan and Margaret Campbell return in a new story, years after the dramatic conclusion of Chinese Whispers.

‘I saw your missing girl at a ghost wedding last week. She was the bride.’

It has been a whirlwind few years for Li Yan and Margaret Campbell. Nowadays, both are busy juggling their huge professional workloads – Li as the newly promoted chief of Beijing’s serious crime squad and Campbell as lecturer at the University of Public Security – with the day-to-day raising of their young son, Li Jon.

When a desperate mother appeals to Campbell’s own maternal instincts, Li agrees to look into the disappearance of a 17-year-old Beijing girl, Jiang Meilin. Yet Li’s investigation soon turns from a favour into a full-scale murder enquiry. And when he receives an anonymous note, he learns Jiang Meilin’s death is tied to a dangerous underground trade and a dark marital rite from China’s past.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Narrated by Beata Pozniak, Mark Bramhall, Rustam Kasymov

Leningrad, 1937: in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation, a failed artist spends his days airbrushing enemies of the Soviet regime out of history, while retouching pictures of Stalin to ensure that he always looks great – in fact, getting younger by the year. The artist understands the danger of photographs, so when his brother is killed by the regime, he persuades his sister-in-law to destroy all pictures of him. But he begins to paint his brother’s face over those faces he has been tasked with removing, so that over time his brother appears in many pictures, even alongside Stalin. Then, as a small act of rebellion, he leaves a trace of a ballerina he has been told to erase – an act that will cost him dearly…

Kirovsk, 2013: a chorus of the women of this poisoned industrial town tell the story in first person plural of Galina, granddaughter of a ballerina who had been sent to Siberia after falling foul of Stalin’s regime. Galina’s beauty allows her to rise out of the poverty of her beginnings, becoming a beauty queen and marrying the 13th richest man in Russia. Along the way, she breaks the heart of her first love, and perhaps also her own…

Grozny, Chechnya, 2003: since the local museum burned down, the Deputy Director of Regional Art has been forced to take on the role of head of the tourist board – a difficult task in a city still scarred by war…

These are the three locations in which this collection of stories take place, over the period of the last century. Although each story is separate and could easily be read on its own (in fact, I believe some of them were first published as individual short stories in various papers and magazines) they are so beautifully interlinked that the eventual effect is to create something that really must be considered a novel. The central linking stories are those of Galina and her first love, Kolya, who later becomes a soldier in the war in Chechnya; and of a painting by the Chechen artist, Zakharov – the painter is real, the painting, as far as I can gather, is an invention of the author. The painting is repeatedly altered by the people into whose hands it falls over the decades, till it becomes a kind of metaphor, partly for the way history can be altered to suit the agenda of the historian, and partly of the different perceptions people can have of the same events.

Through the stories we gradually learn the history of Kirovsk through the people who have lived there. A small town founded to house the workers in the nearby apatite mines, everything is poisoned by the pollution from the mineworks – the air, the water, the people, a huge proportion of whom die young from cancer. A place so ugly that the wife of the local Communist Party boss had a forest created from metal and plastic to provide a little beauty (another invention, but made entirely believable in the context). A place where many of the present-day residents have links to those dissidents exiled to the north under Stalin’s regime. A place where being different has always been dangerous – where mothers believe the best gift they can give their daughters is to bring them up to be unremarkable.

Kirovsk

This book will undoubtedly appear in my Book of the Year round-up – the stories are so wonderful I really want to tell them all to you. The first story, Leopard – the one about the failed artist – blew me away with its power and deep humanity. It’s moving, frightening and funny all at the same time. The writing is incredible – there are sentences which made me cry at the beginning and had me laughing by the end, and vice versa. The pacing is perfect, slowly stripping the layers away to reveal, not the simple core of the character, but his entire complexity – the mix of fear and courage that have defined his actions and will determine his fate. Sobbed buckets, I did! And yet I laughed too, in places, and the ending left me with a mix of hope and despair – a belief that redemption is possible, but only remotely.

And this sets the tone for the rest. Some of the stories are tragic, some more uplifting, but none are monotone – each has moments of heartbreak and, not joy perhaps, but fellowship and humour, humanity breaking through in even the most inhumane circumstances. The characterisation is superb throughout – so many characters and all very different, but each ringing entirely true; no real heroes or villains, just people trying to get through their lives as best they can. Family is at the heart of it, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers, lovers. Marra’s sense of history is impeccable as we see the changes in society over the decades, and he matches it with changes to the language he uses in each different time period. In format, the book is designed like an old mixed cassette tape, with an A- and B-side, each consisting of four longer stories, and an “interval” in the middle, made up of short sections which explain the reason for the format and provide many of the links that eventually bring the thing together into one complete and immensely satisfying whole.

Anthony Marra

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, and the narration is wonderful – if you can take audiobooks, then I highly recommend listening to this one rather than, or as well as, reading it. Each of the narrators speaks with a Russian accent, and each deals brilliantly with the changes in tone between emotionalism and humour, not overplaying either but letting the words speak for themselves. I often struggle to concentrate on audiobooks, but not this one – it held my attention through every word, and despite the complexity of all the links I never found myself lost. It took me a while to attune to each voice – there are three narrators, two male and one female – but once I had, it seemed in each case as if no other voice could have spoken these words. A stunning performance of a stunning book – my highest recommendation for this one.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

In straining every nerve against heretics, More believed he was serving God and Henry equally. He failed to see that, at least where the king was concerned, he was standing on shifting sands. Erasmus, too, was unsympathetic. From his sanctuary in Basel, he fell into a state of denial over the reports he received of Thomas’s behaviour, refusing to believe that the author of Utopia could have taken this turn. Twice Erasmus claimed, inaccurately, that no heretic was put to death while More was lord chancellor. Thomas later put him straight. Writing his own epitaph a year or so after his resignation as lord chancellor, he said he had been ‘grievous to thieves, murderers and heretics’ and wanted all his friends to know as much. ‘I wrote that with deep feeling,’ he told Erasmus. ‘I find that breed of men absolutely loathsome, so much so, that unless they regain their senses, I want to be as hateful to them as anyone can possibly be.’

 * * * * * * * * *

In pursuit of his trophies, the bones or relics of the prehistoric, he had a grave enthusiasm which made you think of an owl pursuing mice. At the same time he prided himself, incongruously one might suppose, upon a more than ordinary knowledge of cocktails. He mixed, for his own benefit and that of his friends, extremely curious alcoholic solutions, which he drank or handed round with a sombre and imposing gravity. After swallowing a few of his own decoctions, he became paler, moister, more vague, until he finally subsided into a state of mental mildew, a dim shimmering on the verge of total obliteration. I suppose the cocktail aspect of Mr Tuffle was really due to a belated feeling of counterpoise, a rather pathetic desire to appear manly. A similar impulse, no doubt, induces curates to brag about the drinking of beer.

* * * * * * * * *

Later, Vera woke to splashing water. In the bathroom, she found her daughter on her knees before the toilet, holding her hair in a loose fist behind her head.

“You stupid child,” Vera said, dropping to her knee beside her. Lydia’s head flopped over the toilet seat. “You stupid child, what have you done?”

“I don’t know,” Lydia mumbled, letting the fistful of hair go slack.

Vera had an urge to shout, but she laid her daughter on the floor and made a pillow from the bath towel. A mother comforts. A mother cleans. A mother gives when any reasonable person would deny. Life might affix any number of labels to Vera – Russian, pensioner, widow, daughter. But when she looked to her washed-out reflection in the bathroom mirror, she saw only Lydia’s mother.

* * * * * * * * *

That was the summer I drifted through the city. Did I already say that? Everything I saw had a subtle but unmistakeable doubleness. Each pace was reminiscent of some previous pace, not just because I knew the streets well and had walked them before, though this was true, but because I’d already taken that particular pace. My present had somehow gone before me and was already irrevocably in my past. All the sounds I could hear, slightly amplified and somehow picked out or defined, were no more than echoes, their presence freakish, their availability to me as exotic as a radio signal from a long-ago war.

Each moment, as I lived it, had already been used up. I could not connect things together. They happened to me, they had already happened to me. The helix that spans from birth to death, the unbroken thread of habit and progress that makes a person a person, a self whole and entire, had become as discontinuous and insubstantial as a chain of smoke rings.

* * * * * * * * *

Various holy men and spiritualists had established themselves in the palaces of Russia’s great and good long before Rasputin came on to the scene. Their success cleared the way for him. He was presented at parties and soirées as a man of God, a sinner and repentant, who had been graced with extraordinary powers of clairvoyance and healing. His disgusting physical appearance merely added piquancy to his moral charms. Dressed in a peasant blouse and baggy trousers, his greasy black hair hung down to his shoulders, his beard was encrusted with old bits of food, and his hands and body were never washed. He carried a strong body odour, which many people compared to that of a goat. But it was his eyes that caught his audience’s attention. Their penetrating brilliance and hypnotic power made a lasting impression. Some people even claimed that Rasputin was able to make his pupils expand and contract at will.

* * * * * * * * *

(NB When quoting from audiobooks, I have to make assumptions about the spelling of names, punctuation of sentences, etc., so there may be some differences from the original text.)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The beast in man…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shipwrecked, Edward Prendick is rescued and finds himself on an island in the eastern Pacific Ocean, inhabited only by scientist Dr Moreau and his assistant Dr Montgomery – and some strange creatures that appear half-human and half-beast. As Prendick becomes more familiar with what Dr Moreau is doing on the island, he is horrified at the cruelty and danger of his experiments.

While there are some horrific images in this novella and some scenes of real animal cruelty, Wells doesn’t linger too much over them, and the book says so much about the world Wells was living in that, squeamish though I am, I found this a great, thought-provoking read. The hellishness of the images is important to the underlying points that Wells is making, and therefore in no way gratuitous.

Wells’ writing is brilliant, making this a tense and frightening adventure as well as a novel stuffed full of ideas. Like so many of the adventure writers of his time, Wells clearly understood that any book has to be first and foremost interesting and exciting, making the reader willing to turn the pages and absorb the deeper meanings without it beginning to feel like either a text book or a polemical rant. Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong.

But it’s what the book says about Wells’ society that lifts it to the status of a true classic, and since I find it impossible to discuss any of that without spoilers, I suggest anyone who wants to read the book stops reading my post at this point. In short, I highly recommend both the story and the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which contains an informative introduction written by Darryl Jones, who goes into the themes of the book much more deeply and knowledgeably than I’m about to.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr Moreau’s experiments are an extreme form of vivisection – an attempt to give animals the characteristics of humans, such as the ability to walk upright, to speak, and so on. To do this, he puts them through a process of unspeakable cruelty and, although Wells doesn’t go into a mass of detail, he makes it very clear what is happening and leaves the reader in no doubt of the appalling suffering of the beasts. Intriguingly, the book is not an anti-vivisection tract, however. Prendick, who seems to speak for Wells, accepts the necessity and benefits of vivisection, as he sees it. His objections to Moreau’s experiments are two-fold – firstly, that not enough consideration is given to minimising the suffering of the animals and, secondly, that Moreau’s experiments have no beneficial point – science for science’s sake, part of the tradition of “mad science” that was being explored in so many books of the period.

Again, as in The Time Machine, Wells is also looking at the questions raised by evolution. At first, Prendick thinks Moreau is experimenting on men to turn them into beasts, and is utterly horrified at what he clearly sees as blasphemous. On learning the truth, that beasts are being made human-like, he still feels disgust, but not to the same degree. The suggestion implicit in evolution, that man ascended from the beast and is, in fact, still no more than an animal, was clearly one that was still troubling society, particularly with its seeming contradiction of the idea of creation as told in the Bible. Moreau’s beasts are only part of the horror here, though. Wells also shows how quickly the shipwreck survivors descend to bestial behaviour in the face of starvation.

There are also hints in this theme about the question of separate races, a kind of hierarchy of superiority, with, of course, white people at the top. Black people are shown as at the bottom of the heap, closer to the ape, but Wells manages to disparage Jews too. Again, one has to allow for the time of writing, but these hints don’t sit well in a modern context. In his introduction, Darryl Jones clarifies that this ties in with the then prevalent theory of racial polygeny – the idea that there was more than one line of evolutionary descent, that all humans do not share common ancestry.

HG Wells

If Wells’ acceptance of evolution (and therefore implicit rejection of the Biblical creation story) wasn’t enough to upset religious leaders, then I imagine his own creation of a religion specifically designed to control and subjugate the beasts would have done it very effectively, especially based as it is on a kind of beast-ish bastardisation of the Commandments. It reminded me of Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the masses”, though whether that’s a connection Wells wished us to make I can’t say.

Jones also puts the book into a tradition of “island novel”, a form that was used as a way to study man isolated from the constraints of civilisation – Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island, etc. The island in this book is set very close in location to Galapagos, the island which, in legend at least, gave Darwin his first ideas about how evolution worked. When things break down on the island, Wells shows how quickly the creatures revert to their original beast, but the true horror is that, on his return to civilisation, Prendick’s eyes have been opened to such a degree to the evolutionary closeness of man and animal, that he can see only the innate beast in the behaviour of the people around him.

Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery. Not one I shall forget in a hurry, that’s for sure.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

Book 8 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

I, said the sparrow, with my little bow and arrow…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

The people who live in Regency Square in Cheltenham form a little community set somewhat apart from the rest of the town. They all socialise with each other, and there are all the rivalries and grievances that grow up in any group over time. So when someone shoots Captain Cotton with an arrow to the head through the open window of a neighbour’s house, there are plenty of suspects, since many of the residents are members of the local archery club, and Captain Cotton had annoyed several of his neighbours in one way or another. Unfortunately for the murderer, Superintendent Meredith is visiting a friend in the square at the time, and the local police quickly enlist his help…

…which is a wonder really, since on the basis of this he’s not terribly good at his job! Mind you, he’s better than the local chap, who seems almost entirely clueless. Things were different back then, of course, as can be seen when the police pick up the body, carry it across the square, and leave it unattended on the captain’s own bed till the inquest. The thing is that there’s a major plot point which is so blindingly obvious that the biggest mystery in the book is that it doesn’t even occur to the police till the book is nearly over – I won’t specify for fear of spoilers, even though I defy anyone not to spot it. And it’s not the only easy to spot clue – easy for the reader, that is, but seemingly impenetrable to our dogged but hopeless detectives. On the other hand, Meredith seems amazingly, almost supernaturally, perceptive when it comes to less important clues, making astounding leaps of intuition to arrive at the truth. The powers-that-be keep threatening to hand the whole thing over to the Yard, and I really felt they should do this pronto – intriguingly Meredith’s own superiors seemed willing to leave him seconded to the Cheltenham force for as long as possible necessary. One could see why…

However, there’s still a lot to like in the book. The characterisations of the various residents of the square are well done, even if they tend to be a little stereotyped. This is a typically upper middle class square, full of bankers and retired army officers and elderly spinsters. Some of the people are just what they seem, but some have secrets hidden behind their respectable façades which are gradually revealed as the book progresses. Bude creates the setting well and some of the secrets give it a slightly darker tone than it feels as if it’s going to have at first. And there’s lots of humour in it too, sometimes a bit clunky like when the local Inspector uses his young subordinate as the butt of his stupidity jokes (ironic, given the profundity of his own intellectual lapses!), but at other times light and fun, like the two elderly sisters and their dismay at not really knowing the correct etiquette for dealing with a murder investigation. The detectives get there in the end, of course, but more by luck than anything else.

Not one of the better of these British Library Crime Classics, in truth. I found it dragged quite a bit, mainly because it took the police so long to realise things that had been obvious for chapters. The quality of the writing and characterisation lifted it, but the whole detection aspect lacked any feeling of authenticity for me, and the murder method, while quite fun, struck me as overly contrived. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other John Bude I’ve read, Death on the Riviera, but it was still a reasonably enjoyable read overall. So a fairly half-hearted recommendation for this one, I’m afraid.

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

Can’t find an author pic, so you’ll just have to make do with this instead…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Degrees of Separation – From Donoghue to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…


This month’s starting book is Room by Emma Donoghue. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is a world outside.

This one has never appealed to me, despite the zillions of glowing reviews. The idea of spending a book inside the head of a five year old is my idea of hell, I fear. But the being held captive by a maniac theme reminds me of…


Koethi Zan’s The Never List, a dark and disturbing psychological thriller. When Sarah and her best friend Jennifer were growing up, they made a list of all the things they should never do if they wanted to stay safe in a world that they had already discovered could turn dangerous in an instant. But one night they forgot the most basic never of all – never get in the car

“There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone.”

This was a début that immediately put the author on my must-read list. Which happened again when I read another début…

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rendell. It’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her. But Rose herself may have secrets too – or else why would she be narrating the story from an institution…?

Keira Knightley has bought the films rights to The Other Typist apparently – I think she’d make a great Odalie…or maybe Rose!

Rendell brings the Prohibiton era to life and admits in her prologue that she took inspiration from her favourite book – a favourite of mine too…

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Set in the summer of 1922, the book portrays the brittleness of a society still quivering from the aftershocks of WW1 and looking fearfully towards an uncertain future. The hedonism and dazzling decadence of the “Roaring Twenties” is exposed as a thin veneer over a society riven by class division, old wealth and new, and showing the first signs of a breakdown in the old social order. And then, of course, there’s the stunning, evocative writing…

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

 

I thought Mia Farrow made the perfect Daisy, a picture of vulnerability but with an unbreakable core. She played a similar character, Jackie, in another film adaptation, though of a very different kind of book…

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I haven’t reviewed this one on the blog which tells me it’s well overdue for a re-read, since it’s one of Christie’s finest. The rich and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway is on honeymoon with her new husband Simon, cruising the Nile. But their idyll is about to be destroyed when Simon’s jealous ex-lover Jackie shows up. Jackie is the obvious suspect when Linnet is murdered, but she couldn’t have done it. It’s up to fellow holidaymaker Hercule Poirot to find out who did…

One of the major themes of Death on the Nile is betrayal, which made me think of…

Exposure by Helen Dunmore. When fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. The brilliance of this story about spies and traitors rests largely on its excellent charcaterisations and authentic setting. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children, where we see the story from the adults’ side.

While Giles is the name of a person in Exposure, it’s part of the name of a place in another great novel – Kingston St Giles, the setting for…


Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Modern follow-on novels notoriously usually make me spit and curse. But Faulks has got the overall tone completely right and the dialogue, especially between Bertie and Jeeves, is wonderful! Scarcely a false note, throughout. The plot is suitably convoluted, we meet some old friends and the special sunshine of Wodehouse’s world is back to warm us all again.

‘And what was his attitude towards Georgiana?’
Jeeves considered. One could almost hear the cogwheels of that great brain whirring as he selected the mot juste. It was a pity that, when it came, it was one with which I was unfamiliar.
‘I should say his attitude was complaisant, sir.’
‘Complacent, do you mean?’
‘I fancy either adjective might apply, sir.’
‘Hmm.’ While unsure of the difference, I was fairly certain neither was quite up to snuff.

My fave Jeeves and Wooster

 * * * * *

So Donoghue to Faulks, via captivity, débuts, the Prohibition era, Mia Farrow, betrayal and Giles!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

All Power to the Soviets!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written in three parts some years after the Revolution of 1917, Trotsky sets out to give a detailed history of the events of that year, combined with his analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment in time. He admits to his own bias, but claims that he has rigorously fact-checked, including only what can be verified in written records. In order to stop the book reading like an autobiography or memoir, he refers to himself in the third person throughout. I ended up with 24 A4 pages of notes on this 900-page book, so will be summarising and paraphrasing brutally to keep this review even close to a readable length. Given the complexity of the subject, it’s highly likely that a different reader would disagree with my interpretations or emphases.

Trotsky begins by giving a fascinating explanation of why revolutions arise, and how they differ from other forms of changes of government, even violent ones. His position is that the involvement of the masses is key – that a tipping point is reached when people suddenly feel they cannot tolerate the existing regime any longer. Therefore the masses create the demagogue to lead them once that point is reached, rather than the demagogue being the starting point. This section, and other sections where Trotsky talks in general terms on political theory, are excellent – intelligent, concise and clear; and the translation is remarkable, especially for such a complex subject. The translator, Max Eastman, knew Trotsky and was well aware of the events under discussion, which perhaps makes his translation transcend the literal.

Riot on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd July 4th 1917, when troops of the Provisional Government opened fire with machine guns.

Next Trotsky explains the historical background which brought Russia to the tipping point. His argument, in summary, is that for geographical and cultural reasons Russia was a backwards nation, politically and economically, so that, when it came under pressure from the encroaching Western powers to industrialise and modernise, it did so by jumping some of the steps that those more developed countries had already gone through. He calls this the law of combined development. This sudden industrialisation led to skewed figures in terms of the percentage of the population employed in huge industrial concerns – this new industrial class, the proletariat, forming an ideal environment for revolutionary ideas to ferment. And the increased poverty and suffering brought on by the lengthy war – an imperialist war – sped up the natural progression towards the revolutionary tipping point. At all stages, Trotsky’s argument is that the pressure for revolution came from the masses upwards, and that the Bolsheviks merely gave guidance to the process of insurrection through providing a Marxist-based political education to the workers.

Trotsky next speaks of the Romanovs and their supporters, and it’s here that any pretence of impartiality or balance disappears entirely. Trotsky’s words positively drip hatred and venom. He criticises their intelligence, understanding, lack of compassion, cruelty. He compares them to other monarchies overthrown in earlier revolutions, specifically the French and English, but ranging widely and knowledgeably over centuries of history. His anger and scorn come through in every word, and, while the various overthrown Kings are shown as weak and contemptible, he puts much of the blame on the Queens in virulent, misogynistic prose.

The whole establishment of the historical, political and philosophical background to the Revolution is excellent, so long as the reader keeps Trotsky’s bias firmly in mind at all times. The following sections then go into an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the period from February – the beginning of the 1917 insurrection – to October, when the Bolsheviks finally came to power. I found these parts much harder to follow, because Trotsky assumes a good deal of familiarity with the political stance of the many factions and personalities involved, and therefore often doesn’t explain them. I found I was constantly referring to the lists at the back of the book, which give brief summaries of each of the parties and explain the unfamiliar terms that appear frequently in the text. These lists are very good in that they are concise and focused, but I still found myself confused and glazing over at many points. As the book goes on (and on), I gradually grew to have a greater understanding of all these factions and their leaders, so that the last third was much clearer to me than the middle section when they are referred to first. If I had the strength of mind, I’m sure that a re-read of those middle chapters would be much easier, but on the whole, by the end, I felt I had gleaned enough to understand the overall progress of the Revolution even if some of the detail had passed over my head.

In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, mainly when talking of Stalin or the bourgeoisie, he is sarcastic and often quite humorous. The Romanovs and imperialists in general bring out his anger and contempt. These are all written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and, I admit, inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. I would find my critical faculties had switched off, and become suddenly aware of tears in my eyes – the power of the demagogue reaching beyond speech onto paper, indeed! These passages break up the more factual stuff, and remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing.

Trotsky addressing the Red Guard

By the time Trotsky was writing this, Lenin was of course dead, and Stalin had come to power. Trotsky appears to have three major aims in addition to recounting the history: firstly, to show that he himself played a crucial and central role in events; secondly, to prove that while he and Lenin may have disagreed on some practical issues, their political philosophies had been closely aligned; and thirdly, and leading on from the previous two, that Stalin’s attempt to re-write history must be exposed and repudiated. Stalin, Trotsky suggests, is deliberately changing history as it relates to Lenin and Trotsky, in order to justify his own policies – which, by extension, Trotsky believes are out of line with the Marxist-Leninist origins of the Revolution.

Again, he often assumes more understanding of the variations between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism than this poor reader has, and it began to feel like those endless nights down the pub in the ’70s when my fellow leftist unionists (usually the men) would start arguing over abstruse points of political ideology and calling each other names, generally after their fifth pint or so. It all seemed rather… trivial, though that feels like an inappropriate word given the many millions of people who have suffered and died under the yoke of these ideologies over decades. But Trotsky’s sycophancy over Lenin, self-aggrandisement, and sarcasm and spite towards Stalin ensured that any lingering affection I may have harboured for the idea of a socialist revolution dissipated long before I reached the end of the book. Power undoubtedly corrupts and I couldn’t quite see that the leadership of the USSR was much improvement over the admittedly hideous Romanovs in the end.

A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. It gets the full five-stars from me, though I freely admit the fifth one may be due purely to the euphoria I felt on finishing.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

Listen, nations! The revolution offers you peace. It will be accused of violating treaties. But of this it is proud. To break up the leagues of bloody predation is the greatest historic service. The Bolsheviks have dared to do it. They alone have dared. Pride surges up of its own accord. Eyes shine. All are on their feet. No one is smoking now. It seems as though no one breathes. The presidium, the delegates, the guests, the sentries, join in a hymn of insurrection and brotherhood. Suddenly, by common impulse – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child… The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? “Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”

* * * * * * * * *

The sound of running footsteps made them all start. Then the refectory door opened and the round, freckled face of Sister Belinda appeared. She was breathing heavily, and her veil was crooked, showing short tufts of red hair sprouting around her glowing face like unruly weeds in a parched garden.

“Excuse me, Mother, Sisters,” she said. “But there is a police car waiting at the gate and what looks like the Black Maria behind it. Also, another car approaching from the farm and a uniformed constable coming in via the beach path. It would appear that the filth have us surrounded.”

* * * * * * * * *

The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe – I have thought since – I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us. But in spite of the brilliant sunlight and the green fans of the trees waving in the soothing sea-breeze, the world was a confusion, blurred with drifting black and red phantasms, until I was out of earshot of the house in the chequered wall.

* * * * * * * * *

The Utopians dress simply and without ostentation: their clothes are made of undyed wool like the habits of Carthusian monks. And their society is unashamedly patriarchal. Wives act as servants to their husbands, children to their parents, and the young to their elders. Women are treated ‘equally’, but in reality are governed by their husbands. They also work harder – More seems oblivious to this point – since their duties include cooking and childcare as well as manual labour. Even in Utopia, it seems, working women have two jobs.

 * * * * * * * * *

My friend Ellingham has persuaded me to reveal to the public the astounding features of the Reisby case. As a study in criminal aberration it is, he tells me, of particular interest, while in singularity of horror and in perversity of ingenious method it is probably unique.

* * * * * * * * *

I shared a compartment on the night train back with a father travelling to Petersburg with his daughter for her orthodonture work. She’d stumped half the dentists in Moscow, the father explained with obvious delight. The spotlight of paternal pride is fickle and faint, but when it shines on you with its full wattage, it’s as warm as a near sun. My little prodigy. Three drunks flicked over the cabin window. I wanted to be loved as much as he loved his daughter’s bad teeth.

“Go on, show him,” he urged. She gave a great yawn. Her open mouth was a dolomite cavern. Only divine intercession or satanic bargaining could save her.

“Just a little bit crooked,” I said, then gave a wide “Aah” of my own. “Mine are a little crooked too.”

“Mine are in a dental textbook,” she declared. She had me there. Wouldn’t have been older than twelve, and already she’d accomplished more in her life than I had. Rotten little over-achiever!

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Rather be the Devil (Rebus 21) by Ian Rankin

Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

While Rebus is having dinner with his long-term girlfriend, forensic pathologist Deborah Quant, in the Caledonian Hotel, he tells her of a murder that took place there years ago, when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the hotel – a woman who, it appeared, was probably murdered by her lover, except that the lover had an alibi. The murder was never solved and, as he tells the story, Rebus’s interest in it revives. Time for a little amateur sleuthing! Meantime, gangster Darryl Christie has been beaten up and Siobhan is on the case. The obvious suspect is Big Ger Cafferty, the older gangster whom Darryl has pushed aside, but Cafferty hints to Rebus that there’s a Russian connection. (No, fear not, Comrade Trump isn’t in it!) Malcolm Fox has been moved to the Specialist Crime Division in Gartcosh. They are quietly looking into some of Darryl’s business interests and reckon the investigation into his beating will be a good opportunity to nose around his affairs, so Malcolm is sent back through to Edinburgh to liaise with Siobhan. And so the scene is set for another full-cast outing, all the detectives and gangsters gathered together one more time.

Ian Rankin

Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while will know that Rebus is up there at the top of my list of favourite detectives, and Ian Rankin can really do no wrong in my eyes. As always, the plotting is great, with the various strands crossing and interconnecting. The old murder story is a traditional whodunit, where alibis and motives are key, while the gangster story allows for plenty of action and a good, believable thriller ending. There’s lots of room for the regulars to interact with each other, which is always one of the major joys of the books – tension between Siobhan and Malcolm because she’s jealous of his move to Gartcosh, concern over Rebus’s health as he undergoes some tests, and Rebus and Big Ger continuing their roles as the elder statesmen of policing and crime, running rings around the young’uns as usual.

However, in truth, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a good deal of similarities to the last book. The rivalry among Darryl, Big Ger and their Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, has been rumbling through a few books now, and shows no signs of coming to a conclusion. In retirement, it’s harder to create reasons for Rebus to be involved, and the excuse of Big Ger only being willing to deal with him is becoming a little worn. I hate to say it because I love the old man so much, but I think it’s time to let Rebus go and allow Siobhan and Malcolm to take over as the lead characters. Either that, or Rankin should break his own rule and take us back in time to revisit Rebus as a younger man, when he was still on the force. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy this one – I did, thoroughly, and I’m sure other Rebus fans will too. But this and the last one have felt like encores, given as a treat to those who’ve watched the whole show and want a little bit more. And I think it would be better if Rebus left the stage while the audience is still applauding.

James Macpherson

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by James Macpherson whom some of you will remember as Chief Inspector Michael Jardine in the long-running STV series, Taggart. I’d listened to him narrate Rebus before, in the short story collection The Beat Goes On, so knew he’d be good. But actually he’s even better in this one – the length allows him to create different personalities for all the characters, and his range of Scottish accents and voices is fabulous. From posh Morningside gents to wee Glesca nyaffs, he can do them all brilliantly! He has a real understanding of the recurring characters, so his interpretation never jars. And his timing for the humour is perfect – he often made me laugh out loud. I heartily recommend his readings to any Rebus fans out there – I can’t imagine a better narrator for them, and fully intend to back track and listen to his readings of some of the older books.

For anyone coming new to the series, I’d definitely recommend starting much further back – this one depends to a large extent on familiarity with all the relationships amongst the regulars. But for existing Rebus fans, another thoroughly enjoyable book. Rankin writing and Macpherson narrating are a dream team – pure pleasure! Highly recommended.

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

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

Seeds of evil…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Brothers Neil and Calum work as foresters in Ardmore in the Scottish highlands. Calum is a simple-minded but happy soul, his twisted, hunched back making him clumsy on the ground, but once he is climbing in his beloved trees he is agile and sure-footed. Neil, the older brother, has devoted his life to looking after Calum, resenting every slight and insult that’s been directed at him far more than Calum himself. Now they have been sent to the estate of Lady Runcie-Campbell to gather cones from the trees in her woods, prior to the woods being chopped down as part of the war effort.

But Lady Runcie-Campbell’s gamekeeper, Duror, has taken a strong dislike to them, especially to Calum. Partly this is because Calum’s soft heart has led him to free animals caught in Duror’s traps, but mainly it’s an irrational horror of the stunted body and mind of the man, mirroring Duror’s own stunted life, which has turned out so differently from what he expected. Duror’s young wife whom he loved was struck by an unspecified illness three years after they wed, leaving her bedridden and obese. Now, twenty years on, she is needy and whiny, mainly because Duror makes it so plain that he can’t bear to spend time in her company. Duror has buried deep within himself his resentment at the unfairness of his life, as he sees it, but something about the little hunchback Calum has triggered his pent-up anger, turning him into a malevolent, bullying monster.

Hidden among the spruces at the edge of the ride, near enough to catch the smell of larch off the cones and to be struck by some of those thrown, stood Duror the gamekeeper, in an icy sweat of hatred, with his gun aimed all the time at the feeble-minded hunchback grovelling over the rabbit. To pull the trigger, requiring far less force than to break a rabbit’s neck, and then to hear simultaneously the clean report of the gun and the last obscene squeal of the killed dwarf would have been for him, he thought, release too, from the noose of disgust and despair drawn, these past few days, so much tighter.

The Second World War is happening in the background, so that this small community is missing young men. Lady Runcie-Campbell is only in charge because her husband is away in the army, and obviously, being a woman, she’s not very good at man management. (Well, it was written in 1955.) She’d prefer not to know about anything that might disrupt her perfect lifestyle or prick her conscience, like the atrocious conditions the cone-gatherers are expected to live in, so leaves everything she can up to Duror. She is always striving to become a better Christian and wants her children to grow up with true Christian values. On the other hand, she has been tasked by her husband to make sure their son grows up to be a true aristocrat, confident in his superior breeding and properly haughty to the hoi-polloi. Lady Runcie-Campbell’s own upbringing means she sees no problem in reconciling these things, but her son shows an irritating capacity to feel sympathy for the people she bullies and demeans.

The still is from a BBC Bitesize production for use in schools as a teaching aid.

As a Scottish classic, I tried hard to love this book, but failed, though I certainly didn’t hate it either. It has an air of impending doom from the first pages, a tragedy so well signalled that the end is never really in doubt. This can work, so long as the journey is interesting enough. Here, while the writing is skilled and often very powerful, the characters never came to life for me, each feeling like a representative of an aspect of humanity that Jenkins wanted to show, rather than a truly rounded individual. It comments a little on the changing social order of the time, when the lower classes were no longer prepared to accept without criticism the inequality in society, nor to obey without question the orders of their social superiors. But it does it in a way that I found rather obvious, without nuance. There’s a similar lack of subtlety in the direct comparison it draws between Duror’s irrational hatred of the hunchbacked Calum and the atrocities carried out by the Nazis. I feel the author should sometimes leave the reader to do some of the work.

He had read that the Germans were putting idiots and cripples to death in gas chambers. Outwardly, as everybody expected, he condemned such barbarity; inwardly, thinking of idiocy and crippledness not as abstractions but as embodied in the crouchbacked cone-gatherer, he had profoundly approved.

Robin Jenkins

Elsewhere, religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains. There’s an odd episode in the middle when the brothers visit the nearby town, where everyone is preternaturally nice to them, in too stark contrast to the evil that surrounds them in the woods. It reminded me a little in tone of Of Mice and Men – the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn to bathos if an author isn’t careful. Jenkins narrowly avoids bathos, but in the process he also loses the emotionalism, the light and shade, that might have lifted this book above being a simple allegory of good and evil. My lack of belief in the characters as people meant that the long-anticipated tragic ending left me disappointingly unmoved, despite my admiration for the prose.

Book 7 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 116… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…


Well, that’s pretty stupendous! The overall total has actually decreased by 1! So at the rate of 1 down every three months, I’ll be clear by… er… em… 2111! Hope they’re working hard on that immortality thing…

I see the review copies have leapt up again. I just cannot seem to control that addiction, even though there are loads of books languishing on the TBR I’d much rather read than most of the new releases I take for review. So my new system is that, before I click request on NetGalley or Amazon Vine, I ask myself “Would you really rather be reading this than Amitav Ghosh’s The Sea of Poppies (which has been on my Kindle since Feb ’14)?” Or if it’s a crime novel, “Would you really rather be reading this than Raven Black by Ann Cleeves (added Dec ’13)?” It’s actually working so far – my requests in March have dropped dramatically to 3, rather than the seven or eight I normally end up with each month. So I’m feeling pretty smug…

* * * * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been on quite a few journeys since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I’ve visited a few of the spots on the main journey – the places Phileas Fogg travelled through in the original book. First off, I had fun watching cricket in Bombay with Aravind Adiga in Selection Day. Then a slightly more harrowing journey across the Atlantic to Queenstown in Ireland aboard the Lusitania, courtesy of Erik Larsen’s Dead Wake. To recuperate, Victoria Blake allowed me to steep myself in a bit of art and culture on a time-travelling trip to 16th century and present-day Venice in Titian’s Boatman. Another sea journey, from Britain to Australia in Rachel Rhys’ A Dangerous Crossing – though at least the ship didn’t sink this time – with part of the journey being via the Indian Ocean. (I actually had another one lined up for this slot, so may swap them later.)

I also made some detours along the way. I helped John Bude solve a murder and break up a counterfeiting ring in Death on the Riviera. And then I got harrowed all over again in revolutionary Kiev with Mikhail Bulgakov and The White Guard. And harrowed yet again by The Accusation – Bandi’s collection of short stories set in North Korea under the totalitarian regime of Kim Il-sung.

So here’s how I’m doing on the main journey. To see all the detours so far, click here.

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express – Travels with My Aunt
  3. France – The Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice – Titian’s Boatman
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay – Selection Day
  12. Calcutta – A Rising Man
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea – A Dangerous Crossing
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific – Moby-Dick: Or, The White Whale
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – Three-Martini Lunch
  25. Atlantic Ocean
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland – Dead Wake
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

30 down, 50 to go!

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

Only two off my Classics Club list this quarter, making a total of 6 – still behind schedule, but I have several planned for the next couple of months.

5. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – 5-stars even though I didn’t rate it as one of his best. Because… Dickens!

6. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – and another 5! A true classic of suspense filled with wonderfully atmospheric descriptive writing.

6 down, 84 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Russian Revolution

Just a couple so far in my newest challenge, although I’m thrilled to say I will have defeated Trotsky any day now – perhaps even today! To see the full challenge, click here.

1. Animal Farm by George Orwell – an interesting and cautionary re-read in these days of “fake news” and “alternative facts” although I found I had some issues with Orwell’s message. Only 3 stars.

2. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov – on the other hand I was blown away by this one, set over a few days in Kiev at the height of the Revolution. No issues with this brilliantly written book – a definite 5-star.

* * * * * * *

Thanks for joining me on my reading journeys! 😀

Siren by Annemarie Neary

A soggy sandwich with a great filling…

🙂 🙂 😐

Twenty years ago, Róisín Burns had to flee her home in Northern Ireland after getting caught up in the Troubles. Now the IRA man she fled from, Lonergan, has reinvented himself as a politician, and Róisín has returned to take revenge, sort of. Or something.

This is another of the ubiquitous trend for books set part in the past and part in the present and, like so many of them, one part is much stronger than the other. The past section is set at the height of the Troubles, and Neary gives a convincing picture of a young girl trapped into doing the IRA’s bidding in a city where fear is a constant presence. The present is a silly thriller with absolutely no credibility whatsoever and drags interminably. In fact, had I not been reading this for Reading Ireland month, I would undoubtedly have abandoned it before I even got to the past, since it takes almost a third of the book to get there, apart from the brief prologue.

Róisín, now known as Sheen, has turned up on Lamb Island off the coast of Northern Ireland, where Lonergan now has a cottage. Sheen rents a little cottage too, isolated of course, just up the road from the resident nutter whom everyone assumes murdered the previous woman tenant. They don’t bother to tell Sheen this though, contenting themselves with warning the nutter, Boyle, to behave himself. He doesn’t. But he’s not the only bad man on the island – for such a small population it seems to attract more than its fair share of men willing to bump off lone women, for personal as well as political reasons. We spend an inordinate amount of time inside Boyle’s foul-mouthed and lustful head – ugh! (Constantly using “fucken” instead of “fucking” really doesn’t make it cute, by the way, especially when there’s no other attempt to reproduce Irish speech or accent.) Tedious in the extreme.

Then we go back to Belfast to what seems like the mid-’70s, though we’re not told exactly. The Troubles are at their height, with frequent beatings and bombings directed at both British soldiers and civilians fairly indiscriminately. This section feels almost as if it’s written by a different author. The city and its people are recreated with a real feeling of authenticity, and Neary raises a lot of intriguing questions about where moral responsibility begins and ends in a situation where the norms have disappeared and law and order have almost completely broken down. At first Róisín is tricked into helping the IRA, but after that she has to make choices – pay the consequences or continue down the path of terrorism, this time knowingly. Neary shows how grey that question becomes in a sharply divided society, where informers on either side are at extreme risk. She also touches on the question of how far the crimes of the past must be forgotten or forgiven in the pursuit of peace.

Annemarie Neary

And then sadly back to Lamb Island for a ridiculous thriller ending. The idea is ludicrous that a middle-aged woman with no combat experience or training would decide to take on members of the IRA whom she knows have no compunction about killing. And so unnecessary, since if Róisín simply wanted to destroy Lonergan, she could have sent an email to the police or the newspapers from the safety of her American home. But instead she comes back to Ireland to face Lonergan herself, to… I’m not really sure what… threaten him? Shame him? Neither tactic likely to work on an IRA terrorist, I’d have thought. And then it gets even sillier…

So a mixed bag. If Neary had stuck to telling the real story – the one in the past – this could have been an excellent book. Instead it’s like a sandwich with a great filling, but slapped between two thick pieces of soggy and underbaked bread. Maybe it’s time for authors to start telling one story again, instead of feeling obliged to stick in an extra timeline and a thriller ending – as all trends do, this one has seriously lost its novelty value. Sadly I see her new book follows the same double timeline format, so I think I’ll pass on that one.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

After the first few times, when things had gone wrong, there was no point denying it, the people who’d stayed in the farmhouse had been treated well. They’d been fed, kept warm and safe. After what they’d been through on the journey, the farmhouse really wasn’t that bad.

Warily the woman stepped forward, allowing Cat to take her arm and lead her into the next room, the one where they kept the medical equipment and the records. He breathed an invisible sigh of relief. He’d got quite good at keeping them calm and cooperative.

Of course, they all panicked when they saw the leather straps.

* * * * * * * * *

The dogs were uneasy. Although he spoke to them with more than customary friendliness, and handled them with unwonted gentleness, they still mistrusted him. They nuzzled into his hands, they thrust themselves against his legs, they gazed up at him with affection; but there was always a detectable droop of appeasement, as if they sensed what was in his mind and were afraid that it might at any moment goad him into maltreating them. He was more and more aware of their apprehension, and saw himself, in furious revenge, rising and snatching a switch from the wall, and thrashing them till their noses and eyes dripped faithful blood: they would suffer his maddest cruelty without retaliation. But as he saw himself thus berserk he sat in the box and continued to pat the cringing dogs and speak consolingly to them.

* * * * * * * * *

The oilmen have arrived from Beijing for a ceremonial signing-over of drilling rights. It’s a holiday for them, their translator told me last night at the Grozny Eternity Hotel, which is both the only five-star hotel and the only hotel in the Republic. I nodded solemnly; he needn’t explain. I came of age in the reign of Brezhnev, when young men would enter Civil Service academies hardy and robust, only to leave two years later anaemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyone. Still, Beijing must be grim if they’re vacationing in Chechnya.

* * * * * * * * *

All is changed and yet all remains as before. The revolution has shaken the country, deepened the split, frightened some, embittered others, but not yet wiped out a thing or replaced it. Imperial St Petersburg seems drowned in a sleepy lethargy rather than dead. The revolution has stuck little red flags in the hands of the cast-iron monuments of the monarchy. Great red streamers are hanging down the fronts of the government buildings. But the Winter Palace, the ministries, the headquarters, seem to be living a life entirely apart from those red banners, tolerably faded, moreover, by the autumn rains. The two-headed eagles with the sceptre of empire have been torn down where possible, but oftener draped or hastily painted over. They seem to be lurking there. All the old Russia is lurking, its jaw set in rage.

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

A great narration of a true classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-abc-murdersWhen Captain Hastings comes back on a trip to London from his new home in the Argentine, he hastens round to visit his old friend, Hercule Poirot. After they’ve done a bit of catching up, Poirot shows Hastings a bizarre letter he has received, warning that a crime will be committed on a certain date in Andover. When the day comes, so does news of a murder – Alice Ascher, the owner of a small newsagents, has been found dead, with a copy of the ABC railway guide lying beside her body. Poirot and Hastings head to Andover, and soon find that Mrs Ascher’s drunken husband had every reason to want her dead, and would surely be arrested for the crime were it not for the strange coincidence of the letter. Some weeks pass before Poirot receives a second letter, this time warning of a murder to take place in Bexhill and, sure enough, a body turns up on the due date, along with another copy of the ABC. Poirot is already suspicious that this murderer is working to an alphabetical plan; a suspicion that is confirmed when the third letter speaks of Churston…

This is a rather typical Agatha Christie story – typically brilliant, that is. It has everything that makes her books such a joy: intriguing clues, plenty of suspects all with strong motives, lots of red herrings and misdirection, and, of course, the hugely entertaining interplay between Poirot and Hastings. It is narrated by Hastings, partly in the first person for the sections where he was present himself, and the rest in the third person, which he tells us he reconstructed from accounts from Poirot and other people.

There are possible suspects for each of the crimes – relatives, lovers and so on – but Poirot must find the link that connects them all. Chief Inspector Japp is always happy to have help from his little Belgian friend, and some of the suspects get together to offer their assistance too, so that they can have justice for the dead and also get out from under the cloud of suspicion that is hovering over them.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

People sometimes sneer at Christie for working to a “formula” but I say, if a formula works so well, then why not? There are some things in this one that I feel are standard Christie, and they add as much to the enjoyment here as they do in so many of her other books. Her victims are carefully chosen so that we hope for justice for them, while not having to go through too much of the angst of grief. Poirot and Hastings spend much of their time interviewing people until Poirot’s little grey cells give him the solution, which he then reveals at a get-together of all the suspects. The tone is lightened by the warmth of Hastings’ narration – his occasional humour at Poirot’s expense never hiding the warm regard he feels for his friend. And although Poirot is obviously more intelligent than Inspector Japp, the police are never shown as bumbling incompetents. There is a general respect in the books that makes Christie’s world a pleasure to visit, and despite the similarities in tone and structure, the plots are different and original enough to make each book feel unique.

The plot of this one is beautifully complex and elegantly simple at the same time – a true Christie trait – so that when the solution finally comes, it seems both fiendishly clever and satisfyingly obvious. This is a major part of Christie’s success, I think – her “twists” are an untangling of a complicated knot, rather than the sudden introduction of some new layer of hitherto unsuspected silliness, as with so much contemporary crime. Her denouements don’t so much make one gasp with stunned disbelief as nod with satisfaction at the logical working out, and grin with pleasure at her cleverness in first hiding and then revealing her clues.

I listened to the Audible version of this, narrated by Hugh Fraser, whom Christie fans will recognise as the actor who played Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot in the long-running ITV series. Fraser does a marvellous job – he captures the tone of the books perfectly, bringing out the humour and the warmth of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings. He has a lovely speaking voice and, though he doesn’t “act” all the parts, he differentiates enough between the characters so that it’s easy to follow who’s speaking. Obviously, when he’s reading Hastings’ dialogue, he sounds just like Hastings. But remarkably, when Poirot is speaking, he sounds just like Suchet’s Poirot! I guess Fraser must have spent long enough listening to Suchet do it that he has mastered a faultless impersonation. It gives the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

hastings-and-poirot

So to conclude, one of Christie’s finest, enhanced by a fabulous narration – I promptly shot off back to Audible and used up all my spare credits on getting as many of Fraser’s Poirot readings as I could, and happily he has done loads of them. My highest recommendation for both book and reading – perfect entertainment!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

PS One thing that really bugs me is that the cover, which I otherwise love, has bullet holes on the letters. No-one gets shot in this story. FF’s Seventh Law: Cover artists should read the book before designing the cover.

Film of the Book: The Lady Vanishes (The Wheel Spins)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1938)

From the book review of The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White:

A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

It surprised me on re-watching the film just how different it is from the book on which it’s based. The basic premise remains the same, that Miss Froy disappears during the train journey and Iris sets out to find her, but the tone of the film is much lighter and Hitchcock has changed the emphasis in several places.

Firstly, Iris is not particularly likeable in the book. She starts out as one of a rude, noisy crowd in the hotel, alienating the other guests and being insufferably superior to all and sundry. She is travelling alone on the train because she has had a falling out with one of her friends who is annoyed because her husband was flirting with Iris. The Iris in the film is completely different. She’s still extrovert, but charmingly so, and clearly loved by her friends. She’s travelling home alone to marry a man her father has more or less chosen for her, out of a sense of duty.

Iris (Margaret Lockwood, centre) saying goodbye to her friends…

Hitchcock introduces the two other major characters in the hotel before the journey begins. Max the engineer from the book has morphed into Gilbert the musician and his first meeting with Iris is a typical rom-com instant antagonism scene, signalling the romance that will inevitably follow. They are more equal in the film, sparring partners at first, and it’s not long before their mutual attraction becomes obvious. Much more fun than the patronising male attitude Iris had to tolerate in the book.

Gilbert the musician (Michael Redgrave) with some comedy foreigners…

Miss Froy appears in the hotel in order to develop the motive for her disappearance – an entirely different motive than in the book. The change means that Miss Froy, like Iris, is an active participant in her own story rather than the passive and unwitting victim of the book. I’m intrigued that Hitchcock’s version of the female characters feels considerably more modern than the portrayal of them in the book. It feels as if there’s been a generational shift somehow, which is rather odd since there’s actually only a two year gap between them. But it does mean that White’s insightful picture of the subordination of women – the treatment of them as inferior, hysterical, and to be controlled by the men around them – is largely lost. Perhaps White’s portrayal is more English, and Hitchcock had one eye on the less socially restricted American audience?

Iris, Gilbert and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty)

In general, though, White’s story harks back to the past – the England of the dying days of Empire – while Hitchcock’s refers to the future, his changed motive and thriller ending clearly influenced by the coming war. The result is that, while White was being somewhat snarky about the self-proclaimed superiority of the English abroad, Hitchcock reverses this to show that, in a tight spot, the English will ultimately band together when any one of them is threatened, and show the old bulldog spirit in the face of danger. The one English character who doesn’t go along with this is seen as a coward and a weakling who gets his just desserts. In other words, White’s English characters think they’re superior to Johnny Foreigner, whereas Hitchcock’s actually are. I guess bolstering the national ego on the eve of war is forgiveable. (Fellow Scots, I thought about saying British all through this paragraph, but both film and book feel distinctly English rather than British to me.)

Banding together in the face of adversity…

The other major change that Hitchcock makes is to do away with the sections of the book that show Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved child – scenes which give the book an unexpected emotional depth. Instead, Hitchcock inserts some humorous scenes involving two additional characters – the delightful cricket fanatics and archetypal bluff Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott. (Apparently this pairing was so successful that the characters later appeared in other films and even got their own TV series, though by that time they were being played by different actors.)

Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) listen avidly to Miss Froy’s reminiscences…

The film also has a scene in the luggage compartment involving some magician’s props that is more or less slapstick. These changes alter the tone entirely, making the film much more humorous than the novel. And hugely enjoyable!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So it’s hard to pick a winner this time, since apart from the basic premise, they’re pretty much chalk and cheese. Great chalk and great cheese, though: the book darker, with a wicked edge to the occasional humour; the film frothier, funnier, as much comedy romance as thriller, and with a distinctly patriotic edge. I thoroughly enjoyed both, though for different reasons.

But if I really have to choose… after much swithering…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE FILM!

* * * * *