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Substance submerged by style…
A few days after returning from her honeymoon, Teresa leaves the room in the middle of dinner, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. Years later, in the present, as our narrator Juan is getting used to the changes brought about his own marriage, he becomes fascinated by the mystery of why Teresa killed herself. He has a personal connection – his father Ranz was married to Teresa at the time and later married her sister Juana, Juan’s mother. So Teresa would have been Juan’s aunt – though had she lived, of course she wouldn’t have been…
There are several themes going on in the book – the uncertainty of memory, the inability to forget something once heard, the increasing unknowableness of truth when stories are relayed from person to person. Both Juan and his wife Luisa are interpreters and the sections where Juan talks about listening and conveying meaning are fascinating. The title is a reference to Macbeth, specifically to Lady Macbeth’s reaction on being told of Duncan’s murder, illustrating a major theme – the complicity forced upon someone to whom a tale is told. Marías is also playing with the idea that events that are major in the present fade into insignificance as time passes, so that eventually all will be the same whether an event happened or didn’t. An interesting thought.
In fact, there are lots of interesting thoughts hidden in Marías’ prose – well hidden. This is yet another in what seems to be becoming my accidental theme of the year – stream of consciousness novels or, as I prefer to call them, badly punctuated. I admit this one is nowhere near as bad as Absalom! Absalom! But it’s up there with Mrs Dalloway for sure, although Marías does at least manage eventually to get to the end of his sentences without completely losing track of where he was heading. There is no doubt that this style of writing lends the prose an air of profundity which, once one breaks the sentences down into their constituent parts, often evaporates, as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.
Another recurring feature of the few stream of consciousness novels I have waded through (or not, as the case may be) is the constant repetitiveness that the authors tend to employ, as if somehow repeating a thing a few dozen times will make it more meaningful. Perhaps it does, if one likes this style of writing – for me, it simply makes it tedious. An idea that intrigues on first mention requires expansion rather than repetition to hold this reader’s interest, I fear.
To be fair, I hate this style in general, but I do think Marías does it much better than most. Much of what he has to say is perceptive, as for example in this quote about getting used to being married. (The style means any quote has to be a long one, so apologies.)
As with an illness, this “change of state” is unpredictable, it disrupts everything, or rather prevents things from going on as they did before: it means, for example, that after going out to supper or to the cinema, we can no longer go our separate ways, each to his or her own home, I can no longer drive up in my car or in a taxi to Luisa’s door and drop her off and then, once I’ve done so, drive off alone to my apartment along the half-empty, hosed-down streets, still thinking about her and about the future. Now that we’re married, when we leave the cinema our steps head off in the same direction (the echoes out of time with each other, because now there are four feet walking along), but not because I’ve chosen to accompany her or not even because I usually do so and it seems the correct and polite thing to do, but because our feet never hesitate outside on the damp pavement, they don’t deliberate or change their mind, there’s no room for regret or even choice: now there’s no doubt that we’re going to the same place, whether we want to or not this particular night, or perhaps it was only last night that I didn’t want to.
This is an example of both what I liked and didn’t about the book. It’s an interesting perspective and casts a good deal of light on Juan’s uncertainty about the married state, but the style drives me up the wall even though it’s one of the least waffly passages in the book.
In terms of substance, the book is pretty much plot free. There are several set-piece scenes, some of which are very well done and give an air of menace or perhaps impending doom, and illuminate Marías’ themes. But nothing much actually happens. And I must admit that by the time we finally got to the stage of discovering the reason for Teresa’s death, the thing had been so stretched out and the themes beaten into the reader’s head so often, that I couldn’t imagine anyone actually being surprised by it.
I’m sighing with frustration because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Written in normal prose, it would have made an excellent, thought-provoking novella or short novel. As it is, it’s overlong, repetitive and filled with unnecessary waffle, all of which diminishes rather than adding to its impact. I found I could only read it in short sessions because the style frankly bored me into a dwam, and I would discover I’d read several pages (approximately half a paragraph) without absorbing any of it. So, recommended to people who enjoy stream of consciousness writing and not recommended to people who don’t.
Make way for the soprano…
It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…
The Murdered Banker
by Augusto De Angelis
Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.
“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?”
“There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.”
A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful.
“Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”
Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…
I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.
“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”
Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.
But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.
There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.
* * * * *
Little Grey Cells rating:❓❓❓❓
Overall story rating: 😀😀😀
Another strong entry in the series…
Two women have been murdered – the mother brutally, the daughter left posed as if she were sleeping. Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is called in to review the case when another psychologist who had been working on it, an old student of his, reveals details of the crime to the press. It’s not clear from the differences between the two murders whether this is the work of a psychopathic killer or something more personal. But when another murder happens, linked to a series of vicious attacks, Joe begins to suspect that there’s a connection…
Meantime, Joe’s estranged wife, Julianne, has asked Joe to come and spend the summer with the family in their holiday cottage. Joe has never stopped hoping for a reconciliation so jumps at the chance, although he knows that Julianne won’t be happy that he’s got involved in another police investigation. It’s only as time passes that he will discover the reason for Julianne’s invitation.
The story is told from Joe’s perspective in the dreaded first person present tense, but at least Robotham is skilled enough to handle it well. The focus remains primarily on the investigation throughout, with Joe’s personal life forming a secondary strand.
Feeling responsible for his old student’s behaviour, Joe is driven to find the killer before there are any more victims, so he calls in his old friend Vincent Ruiz, now retired from the police, to help him investigate. They do so in the ‘old-fashioned’ way, by interviewing suspects and getting to know the background of the victims. The plotting is excellent as always – I didn’t guess the solution, but felt it made sense when revealed, though looking back I’m not sure there were enough clues for the reader to work it out.
However, as with so much modern crime fiction, the book is far too long for its content, meaning that it drags in places with the same ground being covered more than once, and it takes way too long for Joe and/or the police to work out the obvious connection between the victims. The old cliché of the protagonist’s family becoming targets is trotted out again – one can quite understand why Julianne gets a bit fed up with Joe taking on cases since every time the murderer ends up trying to kill one or all of them! In line with current trends, there’s the obligatory prologue from the mind of the killer, and in this case it’s pretty sleazy and a bit gruesome – to be honest, if this had been my first Robotham novel, I may well have abandoned it before chapter 1, but experience led me to expect, rightly, that the salacious elements wouldn’t be allowed to take over the whole book.
I also wasn’t keen on the personal story arc in this one, which becomes fairly traumatic. Robotham handles it sensitively and well, but nonetheless I’m not an enthusiast for this kind of wallowing in misery, soap opera approach to the protagonist’s life in contemporary crime.
Despite the clichéd elements, Robotham’s excellent writing always makes his books very readable and this one is no exception. Joe is an interesting and likeable protagonist, his battle with Parkinson’s disease always handled well, again never being allowed to dominate the story, and his working partnership with Ruiz is one of two equals with differing skills who respect each other. His relationships with his ex-wife and daughters always feel authentic too – he is at heart a family man, and although he and Julianne are separated, the family unit is still strong and both parents work together to give their daughters the support they need. The plot finally leads up to an exciting and scary thriller ending, but Joe never turns into an unbelievable superhero, so that it all feels perfectly credible.
So, for me, not quite the best, but still a strong entry in a series that is a long way above most contemporary crime. The plot works fine as a standalone, but to get the best out of the background story I’d recommend reading the books in order – unlike me! – starting with The Suspect.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.
The Regency world in a parallel universe…
Regency London 1810: Bow Street detective Stephen Lavender and his colleague Constable Ned Woods are called to a derelict building about to be demolished. A neighbour insists there’s a woman in the building, but when Lavender’s men search it, they find no one. The demolition proceeds and when the wall falls down, the corpse of a beautiful young woman is revealed beneath the floorboards. It’s not long until she is recognised as one of the actresses at the Sans Pareil theatre…
This is a light-hearted romp, as much a romance novel as a crime novel really. In the beginning it looks as though April Divine has been murdered during a botched attempt to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, but gradually the plot widens out to take in aspects of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with spy rings and secret documents a-plenty. The plotting is undoubtedly the best bit of the book, though it’s not a mystery as such – the reader learns and understands what’s going on at the same time as the detectives.
I look for a couple of things in historical crime fiction. Firstly, the detection element must be in line with the time it’s set in – no amazing foresight to 20th century science, for instance. Secondly, the time period must feel right – the characters should either fit in to the contemporary rules of society or they should be obviously misfits and seen as such by the other characters. Sadly this book fails fairly spectacularly on both of these requirements. I stuck it out for about 70% and then couldn’t take any more, so skipped ahead to the end… I was interested enough in the plot to want to know who the baddies were, hence my generous 1½-star rating.
The whole thing around the Bow Street runners felt completely inauthentic somehow. It’s not something I know anything much about, especially in this period, but I couldn’t believe in Lavender’s character. He is highly intelligent and well educated, mixing with the aristocracy on terms of near equality, and yet working as a policeman in 1810? And also mixing socially with the constables who are clearly way down the social ladder? Even the use of the word “detective” feels all wrong for that period. Dickens was still hesitant enough to be using quotation marks around the word decades later than this period, long after Bow Street had given way to Scotland Yard. The Oxford Dictionary dates it to mid-19th century. That piece of in-depth research took me roughly 30 seconds.
The female lead is Dona Magdalena, a Spanish lady who has fled the war and is living in near-penury in a run-down part of London. Despite her aristocratic background, she is the love interest for Lavender. This is just so wrong for the class-ridden British society of the time. She too mixes with both nobs and the hoi-polloi – I’m guessing the book must have been set in a parallel universe, because it simply couldn’t have happened in this one.
The book is stuffed full of anachronisms in manner, behaviour and speech. The aristocratic women are all feisty, independent types out there in the world earning their own living. The amount of public kissing and canoodling that goes on would have shocked Ms Austen’s heroines into fits of the vapours, and I get the impression that more than kissing went on during the bit I skipped. My question is – why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people? Surely the point of historical settings is to show us how different society was, not to pretend it’s the same but have them in horse-drawn cabs rather than cars? People talking about feeling “challenged” by their jobs, aristocrats offering to help out the hoi-polloi in the kitchen – ugh!
And, you know, if you’re going to talk dirty, at least get it anatomically correct. Propositioning Constable Woods, a good-hearted prostitute offers him a special deal for quantity…
“Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”
Er… three backs. And I hasten to add the only research I did for that one was to learn arithmetic.
Enough already. Not my kind of thing, and I fear I can’t recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction to feel well researched and authentic. But it’s probably fine as a light-hearted romance in Regency frocks.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.
Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 again this week – to 165! I knew it was the start of a trend! I shall be in single figures any time now, I’m convinced of it! So long as nothing unforeseen happens…
Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…
Courtesy of NetGalley, from the author of the brilliant The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (and the slightly less brilliant Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace)…
The Blurb says: In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbours they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When eventually she forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.
At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes’s case crystallised contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.
* * * * *
The Blurb says: As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
* * * * *
Recommended by the lovely Raven way back in 2013, it’s taken some time for this one to reach the top of the heap…
The Blurb says: New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin. Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.
But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.
But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?
* * * * *
The Blurb says: As snow falls on Baker Street, the wintry city is abuzz with rumour and excitement: the Malabar Rose – a fabled and frankly enormous ruby – has been sent as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the Marharajah of Marjoudh. An extraordinary condition is attached to the gift, though: the gem must be displayed at London’s sumptuous Blenheim Hotel to be admired by all. How can the safety of this priceless jewel be assured? The authorities wisely enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr Watson… but fortunately for them, they are also on the receiving end of help from Holmes’s redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Hudson and her able assistant, Flotsam the housemaid.
* * * * *
NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.
* * * * *
So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
Risen apes, fallen angels…
In a few short days in 1904, young Tomàs loses his lover, his child and his father to unexpected deaths. In the turmoil of emotions that follows, he begins to walk backwards everywhere he goes. People think this is his way of dealing with grief, but Tomàs sees it not as grieving but as objecting. Objecting to the unfairness of life and of God. Tomàs works in a museum and has come across an old journal written by a priest who lived amongst the slaves in one of Portugal’s African colonies centuries earlier. Father Ulissis was building something he referred to as ‘a gift’. Tomàs believes this gift ended up in a church in the High Mountains of Portugal, and decides to track it down…
So begins the first section of this three part novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache. This first section also has lots of humour as Tomàs sets off on his journey in a borrowed car – a newfangled thing in 1904 that causes consternation everywhere he goes, especially since his driving is reminiscent of Mr Toad’s.
Beneath the humour, though, Martel never lets us forget Tomàs’ grief, showing it with great empathy but never descending into mawkishness. The search for the gift has become an attempt for Tomàs to find some kind of catharsis. On the death of his beloved Dora, Tomàs found himself feeling that at such a time one must either accept or reject faith totally. His search is as much to find the answer to that question as the gift itself. The journey gradually darkens and takes on elements of the surreal before Tomàs reaches his destination, physical and emotional. The middle of this section drags a little, but the end makes up for the length of the journey.
If a job was left unfinished at the end of a day – the coop not repaired, a row of vegetables not weeded – we knew that one of us had sat down and wept. That’s the nature of grief: it’s a creature with many arms but few legs, and it staggers about, searching for support. Frayed chicken wire and a profusion of weeds became expressions of our loss. I can’t look at chicken wire now without thinking of my lost son. There’s something about the warp and weft of it, so thin yet strong, so porous yet solid, that reminds me of how we loved him. Later, because of our neglect, chickens died at the jaws of a fox that slipped into the coop, and the crop of vegetables was not so bountiful – but so it goes: a son dies and the earth becomes barren.
The second section is considerably more surreal. Normally surrealism and I don’t get along, but Martel’s storytelling is so beautiful my cynicism was swept away. Late one evening in 1938, Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist, is visited in his office by his wife, who has come primarily to discuss Christ’s miracles, which she does by comparing the gospels to the works of Agatha Christie. In the context of the book, this is not as off the wall as it sounds – well, it is! But her argument makes a kind of sense – she suggests that the importance of both is in the witnessing. When she leaves, another woman turns up, a woman from Tuizelo, who wants Eusebio to carry out an autopsy on her dead husband.
It’s always difficult to know how much to say in a review, and I’m not going to reveal any more about this section because the wonder of it is in the revelations that come about as it progresses. I found the whole section stunning. It flows superbly, and the fundamental ludicrousness of it is entirely dispelled by the excellence of the writing and the insight into love and grief. Quite beautiful.
They never look very big on the table, the bodies. It’s built to accommodate the largest frames, there’s that. And they’re naked. But it’s something else. That parcel of the being called the soul – weighing twenty-one grams, according to the experiments of the American doctor Duncan MacDougall – takes up a surprising amount of space, like a loud voice. In its absence, the body seems to shrink. That is, before the bloat of decomposition.
And yet still not as wonderful as the third section. It’s 1981 and Canadian Senator Peter Tovy is grieving the death of his wife. On a trip to Oklahoma, he visits the Institute for Primal Research, where he makes a sudden connection with a chimpanzee, Odo – the chimp looks straight into his eyes in a way people have avoided doing since his bereavement. He buys the chimp and the two of them set off to make a new life in Tuizelo, where Peter’s family originated.
It’s in the observation that this section excels. Odo is not anthropomorphised; in fact, if anything, it is Peter who tries to ape the lifestyle of the chimp. Their interactions are beautifully realised – Odo always projects an element of slight menace to Peter; although the chimp is happy to share his life with the human, he retains his fundamental wildness. In time the villagers, who initially feared him, begin to accept Odo as a unique presence within their community. Again I don’t want to reveal too much, except to say that links between this section and the others are gradually revealed, and the ending is a thing of perfect beauty that left me sobbing – not for sorrow, but for joy.
In Portugal the sunshine is often pearly, lambent, tickling, neighbourly. So too, in its own way, is the dark. There are dense, rich, and nourishing pockets of gloom to be found in the shadows of houses, in the courtyards of modest restaurants, on the hidden sides of large trees. During the night, these pockets spread, taking to the air like birds. The night, in Portugal, is a friend.
The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, but symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. I feel Mantel is suggesting that the two sides of the debate are not irreconcilable, and that faith itself is the thing that is required to reconcile them. Small miracles are possible, but we will only see them as that if we let reason take a back seat for a bit. Perhaps he’s also reminding us that religion and faith are not always the same thing. And ultimately it seems to me he is saying that just because we are risen apes doesn’t mean we couldn’t be fallen angels too. I did feel some aspects of the chimp symbolism might offend some Christians, but I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader.
But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation – one that has left some indelible images in my mind and will undoubtedly be in the running for my book of the year.
PS I have tried to avoid revealing too many details in this review. If you’re planning on reading the book, I strongly advise that you avoid the various press reviews, which seem to have been vying with each other to ruin it by giving details of the endings of each of the three sections. Fortunately I didn’t read any of them till after I’d finished the book, and thus had the joy of discovering it unspoiled.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.
HE’S BEHIND YOU!!
“…get us out of here, for God’s sake get us out of here quick!”
She was still staring wildly into the scrub. Her fear seeped into his spine. There was something there in the low trees, something terrible…
It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…
Woo! A non-stop thrill-fest indeed! The author jumps right into the story so that from the first paragraph the tension starts ratcheting up. John’s driving a Honda, not built for this terrain. The Man has taken Katie’s Land Cruiser – bigger and tougher. The only advantage John and Katie have is that their car is faster, so long as the road is good. But this road doesn’t sound good at all…
Neither of them have any idea why the Man wants to kill them. In fact, they can’t even be sure he’s a man – he’s huge and hairy and smells rancid, like decaying flesh. (I think I met him up the dancin’ once.) And he doesn’t seem to be in a very good mood. They don’t have time to speculate – all they can do is keep driving and hope they can put enough distance between them to get to safety before they’re caught. But they’re heading the wrong way – straight into the danger zone – and they can’t turn round because HE’S BEHIND THEM!!!
Brilliant stuff – pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Fortunately John knows cars and is a skilful driver. Once Katie gets over her initial terror, she pulls her weight too, and she knows more about the Outback than John. But neither of them is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. Phew! A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff! I’m off to lie down in a darkened room for a while now…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Text Publishing.
* * * * *
Yippee Ki Yay rating: 😮😮😮😮😮
Sweet and sour…
Not long after the end of WW2, London-based journalist Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea to follow up on the success of her humorous war-time columns. Coincidentally, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a man from the Channel Island of Guernsey, who has found her name and address in a second-hand volume of Charles Lamb, and asks for her help in finding more of his work, since the only bookshop on Guernsey closed during the German occupation of the island. He mentions the importance that the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in keeping up morale during the Occupation. Fascinated, Juliet asks for more details, and so starts a correspondence that gradually spreads to include more of the Guernsey residents. And after a time, Juliet realises that she wants her book to tell the story of the islanders and their Society…
The entire book is told in the form of letters, mostly between the Guernsey people and Juliet, but also including her existing friends and publishers. This technique works pretty well for the most part, though it does begin to feel a bit contrived, especially once Juliet decides to visit the island for herself. In the early part of the book, the tone is light, with a lot of humour, and Juliet’s letters give what feels like an authentic description of post-war London beginning to rebuild after the war – authentic, but with the tragedy carefully sanitised. The letters from Guernsey are equally light at first, as the islanders tell Juliet how the Society came about, and how they each found books that helped them in the dark days.
And the days for the islanders got very dark indeed under the German Occupation, as the food they farmed was taken by the occupiers, leaving them hungry to the point of near starvation, while other necessities became unobtainable with the islands being cut off from mainland Britain. The islanders tell about the sadness of the children being evacuated just before the Germans arrived, a separation that lasted till the war was over. And any infringement of the rules laid down by the Germans could lead to severe punishment, including being sent to the prison camps in Europe in the most serious cases.
The book is an odd combination of almost sickly sweetness combined with tales of terrible inhumanity and suffering. The characters are all too good to be true, dripping with 21st century political correctness, except for the baddies who are very bad. Not, as you may expect, the Germans, who when they’re not being cruel and vicious are all oddly nice, sensitive chaps – sending the islanders off to prison camps one minute and sharing their last potato with them the next. No, the real baddies are the ones who show what felt to me like more authentic 1940s attitudes – the ones who aren’t deeply sympathetic to women who had affairs with the German occupiers or had children out of wedlock, or who don’t think that homosexuality is a wonderful thing, etc. Whatever one might think of these attitudes, they ring truer to the time than the attitudes of tolerance and unselfish sweetness the authors give to the main characters. So that overall the Guernsey side of the story feels too fictional – inauthentic – even if the historical events are described accurately, as I assume they are. All the saccharin lessens the impact of the tougher stuff – an uneasy mix.
The characters are quirky, almost caricatures in some cases. The voices in the letters are all very similar, so that I constantly had to check the headings to see who was writing. There is a love story at the heart of the book which is quite enjoyable so long as your disbelief in the compatibility of the participants can be left to one side.
Overall, the humour and writing style make it entertaining enough to help the reader past the difficulties in character and credibility. I didn’t love it as much as the literally thousands of people who have given it glowing reviews, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it as a light, heart-warming read for those grey days when grim realism may not be what you’re looking for.
The sins of the mother…
Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.
Sarah and Emily Grimes have a disrupted childhood, moving from place to place as their feckless, alcoholic mother struggles to settle anywhere. Their father, who loves them, is mainly absent from their lives and they give him a kind of mythic quality, believing him to be a more important man than the reality suggests. The girls come to adulthood around the time of WW2, and their lives diverge. Sarah follows the conventional route of marriage and motherhood, while Emily has a succession of sexual relationships of varying depth and intensity, but never lasting long. In a sense, there’s a sibling rivalry going on, with each of the women somewhat envying the lifestyle of the other. But as the first line, quoted above, makes clear, both are destined to miserable existences.
I loved Revolutionary Road, declaring it almost the equal of Gatsby for what it had to say about the American Dream. That book was certainly not a happy one, but Yates’ insight into his characters and their society, combined with his starkly beautiful prose, made it a profoundly emotional and intelligent read. I came to this one, then, with high hopes and expectations.
To be honest, I’m not sure what Yates is trying to say in this one at all. Simplistically, the message seems to be that children from broken homes are doomed to misery, doomed to repeat the failures of their parents. He seems to be doing a compare and contrast exercise, conventional versus unconventional lifestyle, and concluding that whatever choices the sisters made, the end result would be the same – to die unhappy and unloved.
The writing is fine, plain and with no stylistic flourishes, but somehow I felt it lacked the penetrating beauty of the prose in Revolutionary Road. When reading a paper copy for review, I stick little post-it notes at passages I may want to quote, usually because I think they’re either beautiful or profound or, with luck, both. To my own surprise, when I finished this book, I found I hadn’t marked a single passage. The problem is not that it’s in any way badly written, it’s just rather unremarkable.
I also struggled to accept the characterisation. The main viewpoint is Emily’s, the unconventional sister. We follow her as she fails at one relationship after another, always because she seems to pair off with damaged men – the failed poet, the man who still loves his ex-wife, the man who has issues with his own sexual performance, etc. But I found that rather annoying and, dare I say it, a little misogynistic. Emily is intelligent, educated and successful in her career, but Yates makes it clear that this isn’t what a woman needs. She needs a successful relationship with a man, otherwise she will go to drink and the devil, probably ending up mad. Emily is doomed, however, never to find a decent man, though why this should be so is entirely unclear.
But meantime Sarah, who has gone the conventional route by marrying, has a husband who beats her – so she spirals into drink and despair, ending up in a psychiatric home. The same home as their mother – abandoned by her man – ended up in when she spiralled into drink and despair. (One wonders if they got a discount for quantity.) I’m pretty sure that Yates didn’t mean to imply that the only hope for women to escape the clutches of insanity is to marry well, but that leaves me wondering just exactly what he was trying to say.
I suspect the book may have been written at the height of the great ‘it’s all the parents’ fault’ craze, which people used as a method of absolving themselves of responsibility for their own actions; and, of course, at the height of the great psychiatry phase, when going to a ‘shrink’ was seen as the fashionable norm, rather than the exception, for the richer portion of society (a particularly American craze, that one – never took off to quite the same degree over here). In that sense, perhaps it does say something insightful about the time of writing, but it never felt wholly authentic to me.
I did find it very readable – the quality and flow of Yates’ writing ensured that. But when I got to the end, I felt I had simply spent time watching two sad and failed lives spelled out in great detail for no particular purpose, and without that sense of truth and insight that raised Revolutionary Road from commonplace misery to devastating tragedy.
Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 this week – to 167! So tchah! to all you gloaters who were trying to push me up to 200 – your nefarious schemes have failed!! (So far…)
Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…
A re-read from many years ago, by one of my favourite authors, this will take me on a journey on the Orient Express for the #AW80Books challenge…
The Blurb says: Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at what he supposes to be his mother’s funeral. Soon after, she persuades Henry to abandon Southwood, his dahlias and the Major next door to travel her way, Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay. Through Aunt Augusta, a veteran of Europe’s hotel bedrooms, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society: mixing with hippies, war criminals, CIA men; smoking pot, breaking all the currency regulations and eventually coming alive after a dull suburban life.
In Travels with my Aunt Graham Greene not only gives us intoxicating entertainment but also confronts us with some of the most perplexing of human dilemmas.
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Well, this is listed on Amazon as “Religious and Inspirational Women’s Fiction” so you may well wonder why it’s turned up on my TBR! Because it’s edited by our very own Susan P, regular commenter, fellow cat-lover and all round good chap… how could I resist? I’ll be keeping a close eye on the grammar…😉
The Blurb says: A mail-order bride, a town overrun with tourists, and illegal art ~ How on earth will Claire and Chapel Springs survive?
With the success of her Operation Marriage Revival, life is good for Claire Bennett. That is until the mayor’s brother blabs a secret: Claire’s nineteen-year-old son, Wes, has married a Brazilian mail order bride — one who is eight years older than him. When Claire tries to welcome her new daughter-in-law, she’s ridiculed, rebuffed, and rejected. Loving this girl is like hugging a prickly cactus. Will Claire and her family survive her son’s marriage? From the first sighting of a country music star in Claire’s gallery, The Painted Loon, to the visit of a Hollywood diva, Chapel Springs is inundated with stargazers, causing lifelong residents to flee the area. When her best friends, Patsy and Nathan, put their house on the market, Claire is forced to do something or lose the closest thing to a sister she’s got. With her son’s future at stake and the town looking to her to solve their problems, it’s Claire who needs a guardian angel.
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The Blurb says: From Yorkshire to the sleepy village of Thornton Lacey is only a morning’s drive, but for Detective-Sergeant Peter Pascoe, the distance will close off part of his life forever. Motoring down for a reunion with old friends, he arrives to find not a welcome but a grisly triple murder. Out of his jurisdiction, Pascoe is in an untenable position: one of his oldest friends is wanted for murder, his boss is ordering him back to Yorkshire, and his instincts are telling him that the local constabulary will never suspect that the crime’s true motive lies not in the obvious places…but in the unexplored zones of passion within a twisted heart.
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I think this is the last of my Christmas books – and I have the film to go with it! I’ve tried watching the film in the past but never made it all the way through – I’m hoping reading the book will help…
The Blurb says: Written when landing on the moon was still a dream, made into one of the most influential films of our century, brilliant, compulsive, prophetic, 2001: A Space Odyssey tackles the enduring theme of man’s place in the universe. On the moon an enigma is uncovered. So great are the implications that, for the first time, men are sent out deep into the solar system. But, before they can reach their destination, things begin to go wrong. Horribly wrong.
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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.
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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.
The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.
Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.
Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.
Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.
Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.
And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.
The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.
NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!
Directed by Terence Davies (2015)
From the book review:
The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing…
You can read the full book review by clicking here.
Apparently the making of the film has been a long-term labour of love for director Terence Davies, his first attempt to bring it to the screen having failed in 2003. It has been one of the films I’ve been most eager to see since I fell in love with the book all over again when I recently re-read it after a gap of many years. The book is a profound and deeply moving portrait of a rural society caught up in the changes brought about through modernisation and war at the beginning of the 20th century, culminating with the characters coming together to face an uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.
I wish I was about to rave about the film, but I’m not – well, not in a good way, at least. It’s the most disappointing adaptation I have seen on either big or small screen for years. The book is widely recognised as one of the most significant Scottish novels of the 20th century, and I hoped the film would faithfully reproduce the themes and culture that give it that deserved status.
Imagine my disappointment then to discover that Davies had decided to cast an English actress in the central role of Chris Guthrie – a 32-year-old English actress at that, to play a character who is a child at the start of the book and no more than mid-20s at its end. Agyness Deyn does her best in the role, and her accent is reasonably authentic sounding at points – enough to fool a non-Scottish audience anyway, I would think – but she is totally miscast. She is a former model – tall, fragile and delicate looking. Hardly what one expects an early 20th century Aberdeenshire farmer’s daughter to look like, I fear. However, there’s no doubt she looks good in her underclothes or naked, which is presumably why that’s how she appears for a goodly proportion of the time. But the young girl’s sexual awakening is handled in the book with a kind of harsh integrity which is lost completely by having a mature actress play the role.
Many of the other cast members are Scottish and some of the performances are excellent. Peter Mullan as Chris’ harsh and brutal father is entirely credible, and Kevin Guthrie does well with the character of Chris’ lover and husband, Ewan Tavendale – though Davies’ interpretation of Ewan’s character gives him an innocence and charm in the early days of their relationship that he doesn’t really possess in the book, making his later transformation about as realistic as Jekyll and Hyde. Daniela Nardini, one of our finest Scottish actresses, stands out as Chris’ mother – unfortunately, the character’s early death means this is a tiny role. And Ian Pirie works wonders with the severely reduced role that Davies leaves for Chae, one of the central characters in the book, perhaps as much its heart as Chris herself, but here sidelined to the periphery, as Davies converts the ensemble piece of the book to a narrow concentration on Chris’ early life and love for Ewan.
One of the central themes of the book is the loss of Scottish language and culture due to the anglicisation of the education system, forcing children to speak English rather than their native dialects. What an utterly odd directorial decision then for Davies to anglicise the speech in the film! He uses a rather annoying voiceover to explain all the bits of the book that he fails to portray on the screen, and mentions the question of anglicisation in that, so clearly he didn’t miss the point in the book. He gives as his reason that using authentic dialect would have made the film difficult for viewers unfamiliar with it – I suggest that’s why they invented subtitles. Would he make an Icelandic film in English too? Sadly, perhaps he would.
I won’t even bother to mention my horror at finding that much of the film was shot in New Zealand.
The real disappointment though is the narrowness of the focus of the film, it’s concentration almost entirely on Chris. The book also has Chris at its centre, but through her lets the reader see the whole community. It’s the discussions between the men that show the beginnings of the rise of socialism, the attitudes towards the war in this community so detached from the seat of power, the social strata and structures that must yield to change. Davies allows us about three minutes of this in one scene of the community getting together, with the result that when some of the men decide either to go or refuse to go to war, the viewer is left baffled by their motivation, unable to differentiate between cowardice and principled pacifism. And he takes the community completely out of the ending, leaving us with Chris standing alone – totally wrong and distorting the entire point of the book.
Perhaps it works as a standalone war-time love story for non-Scots. There is some lovely scenery and some of it is even Scottish, but it crawls along from one set-piece scene to another with the camera lingering far too long on overly staged tableaux, never flowing nor achieving a true portrayal of the characters or the culture. By all means, see the film, but please don’t think it is anything other than the palest reflection of the excellent book.
You won’t be surprised to learn that by a huge margin…
The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…
Three young men take off to Uganda for one last adventure holiday before they put their student days behind them and venture into the world of work. But Uganda is in the grip of civil unrest, with gangs of rebel soldiers, many of them children, making the country a dangerous place for Ugandans and visitors alike. Jack, Ben and David are horrified by some of the things they see and, when they get lost and are stopped at a rebel roadblock, they realise they’re in serious trouble.
Years later in the present, Jack Carrigan is a detective in the Met, tasked to investigate a horrific murder of a Ugandan student living in London. Still haunted by his own experiences in Uganda, Carrigan is reluctant to consider a possible political motive and tries to convince himself this is a straightforward sex crime. But his new partner, Geneva Miller, isn’t so sure – the girl had been researching one of the worst of the rebel groups and there are features of the murder that make Miller think there’s a connection.
Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I am excessively tired of current trends and clichés in modern crime novels, so let’s speed quickly by them. Carrigan is typically angst-ridden – in fact, so is Miller, to a lesser degree. Miller drinks too much. Each detective has a quirk – Carrigan, a coffee addiction with every cup described; and Miller, a rash brought on by stress, and this is kind of a stressful case, so she scratches. Constantly. (However, I’ve actually previously read Eleven Days, the second in the series, in which Carrigan seems to have got his coffee addiction under control and someone must have told Miller about antihistamines, so it’s good to know that these annoying traits disappear.) The book is unnecessarily gory – the murder methods are brutal and sickening in the extreme and told in far too much detail, enhanced by some added gruesomeness in the autopsy room. And vomiting. (No-one ever vomited in crime fiction prior to about 1990 – now they all do it. Or urinate/defecate with fear. What has happened to the human race? Can I really be the only person who doesn’t want to read about people losing control of their bodily functions? Harrow my soul, dear authors, not my stomach…)
Now for the positives. Sherez writes very well – way above average standard in contemporary crime writing. He has clearly done his research on the situation in Uganda thoroughly and that whole element of the book is completely convincing, adding a considerable amount of depth to what would otherwise be a fairly standard police procedural. The prologue, with the three students in Uganda, is very well done, building a great atmosphere of tension in a few pages and making the reader immediately care about the outcome. Although we are only taken back to Uganda occasionally throughout the book, this strand is the one that held my interest most and felt most authentic.
Both Carrigan and Miller are well-drawn characters, likeable despite their angst and quirkiness, and with plenty of room for future development. Carrigan is still mourning the death of his wife, and Miller’s marriage has just broken up, but neither of these elements is allowed to dominate the story. This is the first time Carrigan and Miller have worked together, and we see them developing a respect for each other that looks like it may in time blossom into friendship, or perhaps more. There’s a lot of office politics going on – too much for my taste – but it’s well done, even if there are parts of it which don’t quite come over as believable.
The main plot and investigation elements are interesting and convincingly written. The detectives play within the rules for the most part except, of course, for the obligatory police-officer-beats-up-suspect scenario. The writing slips a little when it goes into dialogue, with people expressing themselves with an eloquence that doesn’t ring true to their characters. Unfortunately the ending does the usual thing of throwing credibility away in order to achieve a dramatic dénouement.
I know I’ve been critical of several things in the book, but partly that’s down to my personal taste, and partly the preponderance of well-worn clichés is the kind of thing that often happens in the first of a series – sadly, may even be necessary for a first book to find a publisher in these days when what they seem to want is for every book to be identical to the last best-seller. Overall, I like Sherez’s writing style very much, though I do wish he would tone down the gore. The characterisation is very good, especially of the two central characters. And, as in Eleven Days, the quality of research shines through, with the secondary story providing a strong backdrop for the main action. Recommended, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the series develops in future.
Poetry by any other name…
I have shamelessly stolen this idea from Naomi at the wonderful Consumed by Ink , who was in turn inspired by Valerie at Books Can Save A Life. My book spines are virtual since so many of my books are.
Their poems turned out beautiful. Mine, on the other hand, turned out a bit… well… bitter and twisted! I’m really hoping that says more about the books I read than my personality… 😉
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Goodness! I think I need extra chocolate to cheer myself up now!
HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY!😀
OK, I’m obviously the victim of a conspiracy! The TBR has reached a ridiculous new high of 169! Given my iron willpower, I find this incomprehensible – it must be one of you. And if I ever find out which of you it is… well, it won’t be pretty, that’s all!
AND there’s been some shocking news that is going to increase the TBR even more dramatically in the near future…
Bloody Scotland 2016
A few weeks back the organisers of Bloody Scotland (the big Scottish crime fiction festival) asked for volunteers to read and rate the contenders for the Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year 2016. The idea is that they’ll have a pool of people who will each be given five books to read and rate on a scale of 1 to 10, then they’ll collate all the ratings to determine which books make the official longlist. I thought that sounded like a brilliant idea to get enthusiastic readers involved at the grassroots while still leaving it to a formal judging panel to make the final decision. So I applied… and have been accepted! The five books should arrive some time in late May, I think, though I don’t yet know whether we’ll be allowed to blog about them before the final decision is made. It should be fun!
Meantime, here are a few of the existing TBR that should make it to the top of the heap soon…
One of my favourite historians writing about one of my favourite queens, and about the period of her reign that I know least about. And I’m lucky enough to have been sent a copy for review by the publishers, Viking Books!
The Blurb says: A groundbreaking reconsideration of our favourite Tudor queen, Elizabeth is an intimate and surprising biography that shows her at the height of her power by the bestselling, Whitbread Award-winning author of My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots.
Elizabeth was crowned at twenty-five after a tempestuous childhood as a bastard and an outcast, but it was only when she reached fifty and all hopes of a royal marriage were dashed that she began to wield real power in her own right. For twenty-five years she had struggled to assert her authority over advisers who pressed her to marry and settle the succession; now, she was determined not only to reign but also to rule. In this magisterial biography of England’s most ambitious Tudor queen, John Guy introduces us to a woman who is refreshingly unfamiliar: at once powerful and vulnerable, willful and afraid. In these essential and misunderstood forgotten years, Elizabeth confronts challenges at home and abroad: war against the Catholic powers of France and Spain, revolt in Ireland, an economic crisis that triggered riots in the streets of London, and a conspiracy to place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on her throne.
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The Blurb says: First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s western novel about two brothers now includes an afterword by Annie Proulx. Phil and George are brothers, more than partners, joint owners of the biggest ranch in their Montana valley. Phil is the bright one, George the plodder. Phil is tall and angular; George is stocky and silent. Phil is a brilliant chess player, a voracious reader, an eloquent storyteller; George learns slowly, and devotes himself to the business. Phil is a vicious sadist, with a seething contempt for weakness to match his thirst for dominance; George has a gentle, loving soul. They sleep in the room they shared as boys, and so it has been for forty years. When George unexpectedly marries a young widow and brings her to live at the ranch, Phil begins a relentless campaign to destroy his brother’s new wife. But he reckons without an unlikely protector.
From its visceral first paragraph to its devastating twist of an ending, The Power of the Dog will hold you in its grip.
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Courtesy of NetGalley. Chosen because the publisher is Pushkin Vertigo, who seem to specialise in reissues of crime classics, a lot of them translations. I haven’t tried this author before, but have heard good things about him…
The Blurb says: A body is discovered in a Milan apartment, and Inspector De Vincenzi investigates. The apartment happens to belong to an old university friend of his, Aurigi. When the body turns out to be that of Aurigi’s banker, and a phial of prussic acid is discovered in the bathroom, suspicion falls on the apartment’s owner, and De Vincenzi is agonisingly torn between his sense of duty and his loyalty to an old comrade…
This intensely dramatic mystery from the father of the Italian crime novel, Augusto de Angelis, is the first to feature his most famous creation–Inspector De Vincenzi.
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NetGalley again (I’m on a mission to clear up some of my NG backlog). I picked this one after reading Orange Pekoe’s review. She says…
“Oh my, what an adrenalin rush! I never would have imagined detail about gear changes and road surfaces would have me enthralled. The only reason I didn’t read this in one sitting is because I had to take little breaks whenever the tension briefly subsided in order to calm my heart!”
The Blurb says: A young man driving from Sydney to Adelaide for work decides to take a short detour into the desert. He turns his hatchback on to a notoriously dangerous track that bisects uninhabited stone-covered flats. Out there, under the baking sun, people can die within hours. He’s not far along the road when a distraught young woman stumbles from the scrub and flags him down. A journalist from Sydney, she has just escaped the clutches of an inexplicable, terrifying creature. Now this desert-dwelling creature has her jeep. Her axe. And her scent…
From the author of the classic novel Wake In Fright comes a terrifying short novel, a chase into the outback, towards the devil lurking at its center.
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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.
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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
In 1889, Florence Maybrick was tried in Liverpool for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her husband, James. This deceptively small book tells the story of the crime and its aftermath. It’s well-laid out, with a clear linear structure divided into short chapters. Blake takes us from Florence and James’ first meeting and hasty marriage, hasty perhaps because each thought the other was a better financial catch than turned out to be the case, through their marital problems, James’ illness and death, and the legal aftermath of trial and appeals, and finishes with the story of what finally happened to Florence.
Victoria Blake is a regular visitor to the blog under her more casual name of Vicky Blake, so obviously you will have to assume that there may be some bias in my review. But I shall try to be as honest as I can – not difficult, since I thoroughly enjoyed this little book, finding it both interesting and well presented.
While these old murder cases are often interesting in themselves, what I most enjoy about them is what they tell us about the society of the time. This case has all kinds of fascinating angles and Blake explores and explains them thoroughly. Both Florence and James were suspected of having had affairs, but we see clearly the double standards that were in operation, with men being much more readily forgiven for this kind of transgression. Blake shows us how the growing newspaper industry first demonised Florence and then later took up her cause – all too familiar to readers of today’s tabloid journalism.
Although arsenic was known as a poison used for murder, it was also used for medicinal and even cosmetic purposes, and Blake shows how that confused the evidence. James was a bit of a hypochondriac, who took arsenic along with many other drugs on a regular basis. Florence claimed to use arsenic in a preparation for a facial lotion. And it was easily obtainable – even flypapers contained arsenic which could be released by soaking. So could the prosecution prove that James’ death was definitely murder? Could they even prove that arsenic was the cause of death? As in so many cases, then and now, both prosecution and defence could find expert witnesses giving opposing testimony on the evidence.
But the interest in this case is less on whether Florence did murder James or not, and more on what it showed about the justice system of the time. The judge had decided that Florence was guilty and his summing up left the jury with little option but to bring in that verdict, despite the fact that many people in the legal profession felt the case had not been proved satisfactorily. But at that time there was no right to appeal against a capital conviction. The only recourse was to petition the Home Secretary. The government, however, had to consider the loss of confidence in the justice system if they were to overturn the verdict of a jury and the sentence of a judge. The question of Florence’s guilt or innocence became lost as the establishment closed ranks around its own. And Blake shows how Queen Victoria’s own disgust at the idea of an adulterous wife put added pressure on the government not to show clemency.
An intriguing story and, despite having only 108 pages of text, the book is by no means too short to present all the arguments, due to the concise, clear writing and well-marshalled presentation of the facts and theories. Blake gives both sides equal weight, presenting the evidence of both prosecution and defence without bias. Only at the very end does she express her own opinion as to Florence’s guilt or innocence, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether she’s right.
The book itself is a pleasure – small but with excellent production values. The paper is good quality and there are over 20 plates, including photos of the main participants and locations, and some of the documents in the case. Many of the references in the book are to Home Office files and documents, appropriate for a book published under the auspices of the National Archive. This would be ideal gift material for anyone interested in true crime – I’m off to investigate the other titles in the series now…
Cat-sitting for a friend in Walsingham, one night Cathbad sees a woman in a blue robe standing in the graveyard behind the house. Being a druid with mystical tendencies, Cathbad thinks he’s had some kind of vision – until the next day the body of a young woman in night clothes and a blue dressing gown is found in a ditch. Harry Nelson and his team quickly discover she was a patient at a nearby rehab clinic and so their investigation is focused there. But then another murder takes place, this time of a woman priest attending a conference in the town. The two crimes have enough in common for Nelson to suspect that they are linked…
The Ghost Fields, Ruth Galloway’s last outing, left me disappointed and thinking that it was time for Griffiths to draw this series to a close. However, since the series has always been variable, some excellent, some pretty poor, I decided to stick around for one more book, to see whether Griffiths could find her old form. And there’s no doubt that the plot of this one is a considerable step-up from the last one. There is, at least, a mystery in this and some actual detective work.
However, all the usual problems remain. Firstly, it’s still written in third person present tense, and somehow it feels clunkier with every book. The ancient off-off non-love non-affair between Ruth and Nelson rumbles on, going nowhere as always. I spent a lot of time wondering what on earth either Ruth or Nelson’s wife could see in this rather neanderthal, bad-tempered, somewhat obnoxious man – nope, it’s a mystery! (In fact, Ruth herself is constantly objecting to his macho, hectoring style – what exactly is it about him that she’s supposed to love?) I know some people like this aspect of the books, but I’ve been hoping that Ruth would move on for about five books now – she seems increasingly pathetic as time goes on, constantly hankering after someone else’s husband.
The major problem is that there is a limit to how many police investigations credibly require help from an archaeologist. In this one, Griffiths makes no real attempt to bring Ruth in officially. Instead, one of the women priests attending the conference just happens to be an old friend of Ruth’s so, when she starts receiving threatening letters, of course she takes them to Ruth. Well, if you were being threatened, of course you’d go to an archaeologist you knew vaguely from University decades ago rather than to the police, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t? No, neither would I.
With Walsingham having a long history as a site of pilgrimage, there is a lot about religion in the book, Christianity in general and more specifically Anglo-Catholicism. Griffiths writes about religion as if it’s an odd thing to see priests or nuns on British streets – we may not be the most ultra-religious country in the world, but she makes it sound about as unlikely as seeing witchdoctors or aliens. Ruth is a hardened atheist, but from a very religious family, while Nelson was brought up by a strict Catholic mother, and yet neither of them seems to know basic things about Christian practices or history.
The plot is actually quite intriguing for most of the book, and when it concentrates on the murders and investigation it’s an enjoyable read. However, Griffiths then throws it all away at the end by making the whole dénouement dependant on a couple of the characters having sudden flashes of inspiration at just the right moment, based on absolutely nothing. And when all is explained, the whole thing is not just highly unlikely but pretty silly.
So, people who enjoy the ongoing Ruth-Nelson saga will probably enjoy this, but for me this series is well past its sell-by date, I’m afraid. I can only hope that Griffiths decides to concentrate on her new, excellent, Stephens and Mephisto series instead, send Nelson back to his poor wife (though does she deserve that?) and let Ruth retreat to academia where she belongs.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
she (Miss Rosa Coldfield) rattles on circuitously, circling round and round, in a circle; and yet, not round always, but in memory, sometimes backward, before the enemy thrashed her father and destroyed the Old South, destroying it in a destructive manner, while he watched the dust motes and wondered why she repeated herself endlessly without ever actually saying anything to the point, endlessly repeating the story of her sister, long dead, and Sutpen, repeatedly telling him (Quentin) about his (Sutpen’s) beard that was the only thing that differentiated him from the wild black men he brought with him when he came to destroy the honour of his or possibly her family, or possibly their families, or possibly not, for as she would undoubtedly come to say “It is important that this story never dies, so I’m going to reveal it to you in a code so obscure it will take, not just the rest of your life, but the lives of many academics, paid for by the taxes not just of ourselves but of those who conquered us and tamed the wild men, destroying something precious but perhaps a little immoral along the way, for some strange people in the North, you know, think that to chain wild men to a post is nearly as wicked as to beat horses for no reason other than to show how wicked the beater is, to decipher it or at least to convince themselves that they had deciphered it because otherwise would be to admit that yet again the Nobel Prize had been given to someone who fundamentally can’t write intelligibly, though of course in the wondrous worlds of academe and literary prizes intelligibility ranks low on the list of things a writer should achieve, which is not how it was…” and she broke off as her voice retreated not into silence exactly, but into silence nevertheless, a silence forced upon her and all her race by the men who conquered her or them or him and his family and their honour, and he said “Yessum” which was, one has to admit, as good an answer as any from one of the broken ghosts that inhabit this broken land, broken by conquerors who destroyed the honour of those whose only fault, if indeed fault it were, and who is to decide that question is still to be decided, was to tie wild men to posts and impregnate wild women, hardly a fault at all; though some may say that then naming the offspring with silly names like Clytemnestra may have been the most wicked thing of all and may even have been some small justification for the destruction of these once proud people, now wandering ghost-like through the past and present…
…with no calendar, dammit, to tell them where they might be supposed to be, which is to assume anyone cares, which brings me back to the point which I have unfortunately forgotten since my braincells began deteriorating at page 5 and the deterioration deteriorated so rapidly that by page 48 I had turned into a brainless mumbling mono-celled organism condemned to spend eternity going round in an endless circle of rambling, barely punctuated, incomprehensibly-structured prose, an endless circle of destruction, leaving me feeling like a ghost inhabiting a land which unfortunately the destroyers didn’t destroy thoroughly enough or they would have wiped out Miss Coldfield, Mr Compson, Mr Sutpen and all their pesky descendants and left Mr Faulkner with nothing to go round in endless circles about, so that when at some time in the future or perhaps the past FF asked for recommendations for the Great American Novel Quest, no-one, not one person, not even a ghost, would have suggested torturing herself half to death reading a pretentious, repetitive, repetitive book, which is to literature much as WWE is to sport, with its major claim to fame being that it contains the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language, thus getting into the Guinness Book of Records, surely more illustrious than the broken Nobel, though that record doesn’t specify intelligible, nor does it take account of the fact that Michael Chabon created a much longer, better constructed, and rather beautiful one in Telegraph Avenue, thus making this work even more redundant than it once was, this being the problem with all records, for who now remembers who held the record for the fastest mile before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mark, itself a record now broken, but one that was at least exciting at the time, which I suggest this one wasn’t; and if they did, if some ghost drifting in the motes of dust circling round the room of the woman who is doing a particularly bad Miss ‘Avisham impersonation, in her room where she lives with the blinds drawn, angsting about a 50-year-old jilting, had whispered “Read Absalom! Absalom!”, then FF would have known to say “No’m!” – but too late, alas, too late!
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I’m at page 72. 240 to go.
The TBR has stayed steady for the week at 165 – could this be the start of the downward trend that I’m sure must be just about to begin?? Hmm… depends how many years of my life I’m willing to devote to decrypting Faulkner, the man who makes Alphabetti Spaghetti look like well-crafted prose…
Here are a few books with normal sentences that make sense that I very much hope to get to soon…
Courtesy of NetGalley and my favourite factual publisher Yale University Press. This looks like a more in-depth academic book than I assumed when I requested it, and is yet another brick, but it should be interesting certainly, and hopefully enjoyable…
The Blurb says: Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a chemist’s expertise and a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both gruesome and sad.
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Courtesy of NetGalley again. I haven’t read anything by Yann Martel before, so time to try. I can’t in truth say the blurb convinces me I’ll like this one too much and it seems to be getting pretty mixed reviews, but we’ll see…
The Blurb says: In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomás discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that—if he can find it—would redefine history. Traveling in one of Europe’s earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure.
Thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomás’s quest.
Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he arrives with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion.
The High Mountains of Portugal—part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable—offers an exploration of love and loss.
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On the subject of poisoners, a true crime book from the pen of Victoria Blake, who regularly visits the blog under her more casual moniker of Vicky Blake. Looks most intriguing, and it’s actually physically a lovely little book…
The Blurb says: Florence Maybrick was a 19-year-old Alabama belle when she married cotton-broker James Maybrick in 1881. She was convicted of his murder in 1889 after arsenic was found in his corpse. However, it was never established whether she administered the poison, or whether Maybrick himself, a hypochondriac who used arsenic and other tonics, took the fatal dose. Her death sentence was commuted to imprisonment and she served 15 years before her reprieve in 1903. This ‘bloody history’ tells the compelling tale of a ruined marriage and its infidelities, examining the murder, trial and controversy through Home Office files held at the National Archives and features new photographs of Mrs. Maybrick. It concludes with a bizarre twist: James Maybrick became a Jack the Ripper suspect in 1992.
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NetGalley again – historical crime set in Regency London. I have no idea what to expect from this one, to be honest, never having come across the author before. I took a punt on it purely because I like the cover and the blurb. I’m pleased to see it’s getting very positive reviews though…
The Blurb says: On a cold February night in Regency London, a dark curtain falls on the Sans Pareil Theatre following the death of April Clare, a promising young actress, whose body is found in mysterious circumstances. Detective Stephen Lavender and his dependable deputy, Constable Woods, quickly discover that nothing is quite as it seems. As successive mysteries unfold, they soon realise that it is not only the actors from the Sans Pareil who are playing a part.
With the Napoleonic War looming dangerously across the Channel, this is a time of suspicion and treachery. Following the clues from the seedy back streets of Covent Garden up through the echelons of society, Lavender and Woods begin to fear that the case is much bigger than they’d dared imagine—and worse, that they are at risk of becoming mere players in a master criminal’s shadowy drama. It will take all of Lavender’s skill and wit, and help from the beautiful Magdalena, to bring the mystery of the Sans Pareil Theatre to a dramatic conclusion in the final act.
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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.
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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
When their city neighbourhood begins to change and all their elderly friends gradually retire to quieter places, or die, Odette and Martial decide it’s time to buy a little retirement home in a gated community. Odette is keen to move, Martial less so. The community is newly built and Odette and Martial are the first couple to move in. Early impressions are hampered by the constant rain while, until more people move in, the swimming pool and clubhouse remain closed. But there is a caretaker, though given his creepiness that’s a bit of a mixed blessing. However, things perk up a bit when another couple and then a single woman move in, and the clubhouse is finally opened complete with a social secretary to provide a bit of fun. Thrown together in this isolated place, all the residents quickly become friends. But then the gypsies arrive…
I’ve had a bit of a mixed journey with Pascal Garnier so far. I enjoyed Boxes, loved The A26, and sadly wasn’t very taken with this one at all. It follows the same kind of format as the others – set up the characters, put them in a slightly odd, isolated situation, then make some terrible things happen to them. The writing is as good as ever, the quirky characterisation is great and there’s the same vein of humour, growing increasingly blacker as the novella progresses. Perhaps I’ve just read them too closely together, but I felt this one was rather like painting by numbers.
The first bit of the book is great. The description of this couple trying to settle into their new lives rings very true. Martial in particular misses the busyness of his old home, where he knew everybody and only had to walk down the street to meet acquaintances. Now he finds it hard to find anything to fill his days. The story of their trip to the beach is a glorious piece of blackly comic writing – the wind at their back as they walk giving them a sensation of energy and vitality, till they have to turn and come back against the same wind whipping away their breath and leaving them shattered and exhausted. It’s a great picture of people trying to come to terms with the fact that ageing is taking its toll on what they’re physically able to do, and nicely satirical about all those pictures of happy, energetic retirees in the sunshine that populate brochures for these kinds of communities.
Unfortunately, when the horrors begin, they simply didn’t ring true for me. The actual events didn’t justify the paranoia and, avoiding spoilers, the character change of the person who does the deed was too sudden and not well enough supported. The whole thing also turned on a plot device that I couldn’t believe in – namely, that if the electricity got cut off the electric gates to the community couldn’t be opened manually. There is also a piece of totally unnecessary and gruesome animal cruelty, which never works for me. And finally, the ending depends on such a hugely unlikely coincidental event that it lost any remaining credibility.
I know many people have loved this as one of Garnier’s best, so I’m certainly willing to assume that the problems I encountered with it are a result of too recent comparison with the others I’ve read. Certainly his writing, aided by an excellent translation by Emily Boyce, is as good as ever and I did enjoy the early part of the novella a good deal. But the plot didn’t work for me this time round, I’m afraid. I have two other novellas of his on my Kindle, but I think I’ll leave a good long gap this time to try to avoid that feeling of sameness that I found with this one. Tricky, when I’m being rather negative, but I do still recommend this – I suspect with these novellas everyone will find they have different favourites, but all the ones I’ve read so far have been well worth the reading, especially if you’re more skilled at suspending disbelief than I am.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.