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.
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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 Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. This is a book that blew me away when I read it as part of the Great American Novel Quest a couple of years ago. It’s a book about failure – of individual hopes and dreams, of a marriage, of the American Dream.
Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.
The film can’t quite match the depth of the book, but it’s excellent nevertheless.
It stars Kate Winslet, which made me think of…
Robert Harris’ Enigma. A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this story is set amid the codebreakers of Bletchley Park during WW2. A great depiction of the almost intolerable pressure placed on the shoulders of these mainly young men at a time when the course of the whole war depended on their success.
The WW2 setting reminded me of…
Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The book from which the famous Hitchcock film was made but, unlike the film, the book is set in wartime France, with the first section taking place in Paris just as the war is beginning and the second part four years later in Marseilles as it is heading towards its end. This gives a feeling of disruption and displacement which is entirely missing from the film, set as it is in peacetime America. For once, despite my abiding love for Mr Hitchcock, on this occasion the victory goes to the book!
And thinking of Hitchcock reminded me of…
The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier. The title story is of course the one on which Hitchcock based his film of the same name, but my favourite story in this great little collection tells the tale of a recent (unnamed) widower, bereaved but not bereft. Frankly, he had found his wife Midge irritating for years. So he happily admits to himself, though not to the world, that her death from pneumonia was more of a relief than a loss. And suddenly he’s enjoying life again – until one day he looks out of his window and spots that one of his apple trees bears an uncanny resemblance to the hunched, drudging image of his late wife…
Up and down went the heavy axe, splitting and tearing at the tree. Off came the peeling bark, the great white strips of underwood, raw and stringy. Hack at it, blast at it, gouge at the tough tissue, throw the axe away, claw at the rubbery flesh with the bare hands. Not far enough yet, go on, go on.
The Color Master by Aimee Bender. The first story in this excellent collection of modern folk tales is called Appleless, and has undertones of the story of Eve and the fall from grace. The quality of the stories varies but the quality of the writing is so high that it easily carries the weaker ones in the collection.
“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”
One of the stories I particularly liked is The Devourings, which tells the story of a woman who married a troll. And that made me think of…
Stefan Spjut’s strange but rather wonderful The Shapeshifters. In many ways, this is a traditional crime novel set in modern Sweden – but in this version of Sweden trolls still exist in some of the more isolated places. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.
Thinking of crime novels set in Sweden reminded me of…
The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin. The bulk of the book is set in the present day, but there’s another strand that takes the reader back to time of the Great Terror in the Stalinist USSR, and it is this strand that lifts the book so far above average. This time of horrors is brilliantly depicted – no punches are pulled, and there are some scenes that are grim and dark indeed. Theorin doesn’t wallow, though, and at all times he puts a great deal of humanity into the story which, while it doesn’t mitigate the horrors, softens the edges a little, making it very moving at times.
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So Yates to Theorin via Kate Winslet, WW2, Alfred Hitchcock, apple trees, trolls, and Swedish crime.
Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.
See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…
My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.
Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…
Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.
There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.
I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)
The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.
But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…
So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
The Golden Age of factual writing continues this year, although my general reading slump means I’ve read considerably fewer than usual. Fortunately, even from this restricted pool there have been some corkers, each of which is worthy of the award. A difficult choice, especially since there’s always an element of comparing apples and oranges in this category, but in the end the judge’s decision was unanimous…
Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman
From the prologue of this biography, where Herman gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.
The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility, as Herman’s always do. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable.
For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from their house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.
This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. Summerscale tells the story of the crime and its aftermath – firstly, the trial and conviction of young Robert, and then following him through his later life to answer the question of whether there can be any kind of redemption in this life for someone who has committed such a horrific crime. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is an intriguing look at how children were treated in the justice system at the time, and at the regime within Broadmoor, the state hospital for the criminally insane.
The Murder of King James I by Alastair Bellany & Thomas Cogswell
Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.
I found the story the authors told fascinating. Although it’s more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, it’s very well written – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene.
Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey by Harlan Lebo
In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO.
Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it. It may not have made me enjoy the film more in the end, but I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness…
Yes, Herman makes his second appearance in the shortlist, and fourth overall appearance in the four years I’ve been doing these awards! I think that officially makes me a fan!
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.
The book is quite simply 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.
When the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building at Tilton Univerity in Pennsylvania, the building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist. He was preparing a story on women’s issues for the University newspaper, focusing on the Women’s Lib movement and how some of the debates of the time were impacting on the female students. Some of the people he approached, though, didn’t want to see their stories in print, but Bryan was more interested in the greater good (and his own advancement, perhaps) than in individuals’ rights to privacy. When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’…
This is Margot Kinberg’s third Joel Williams book, but the first I’ve read. Regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.
Joel Williams is an ex-police detective now working as a Professor in Criminal Justice in the fictional university town of Tilton, PA. He still has lots of contacts with his old colleagues in the police department and can’t resist using his inside knowledge of the University when a corpse turns up on campus. But he’s not one of these mavericks who works it all out on his own – we also see the police procedural side of the case through the two detectives who are investigating it, and Joel promptly hands over to them any information he finds. I like this way of handling the ‘amateur detective’ aspect – too often, the reasons for amateur involvement stretch credibility too far, and many authors fall into the cliché of having to make the police look stupid in order to make the amateur look good. But here Joel’s investigation enhances the police one rather than detracting from it.
As someone who is tired to death of the drunken, dysfunctional, angst-ridden detective of fiction, I also greatly appreciated Joel’s normality and stability. He has a job that he enjoys and is good at, he stays sober throughout and has a happy marriage. But he also has a curious mind, especially when it comes to crime, and an empathetic understanding of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation.
The small-town setting and the rather closed society of the University within it gives that feeling of everyone knowing everyone else’s business – a setting where privacy is harder to come by than in the anonymity of a big city, and is more treasured for that very reason. Kinberg uses this well to show how people feel threatened when it looks like things they’d rather stay secret might be about to come into the open. The time period adds to this too, and Kinberg makes excellent use of the changes we’ve seen in society over the intervening period – many of the things people were concerned about being revealed back in the ’70s don’t seem like such big scandals today, but could have destroyed careers and even lives back then. And as we learn more about the people Bryan was proposing to write about in his article, the pool of people who may have been willing to take drastic action to stop him grows…
In style, the book mirrors the Golden Age crime – a limited group of suspects, clues, red herrings, amateur detective, etc. And, of course, the second murder! But it also has strong elements of the police procedural, with the two detectives, Crandall and Zuniga, sharing almost equal billing with Joel. There’s a little too much grit in the story for it to fall into ‘cosy’ territory but, thankfully, it also steers clear of the gratuitously gruesome or graphic. I’m not sure how well it will work for people who enjoy the darker, more brutal side of crime fiction, but an intriguing and interesting story for those who prefer the traditional mystery novel. Just my kind of thing, in fact, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended – and well done, Margot!
NB I won a signed copy of the book in Margot’s competition. Aren’t I lucky? 😀
The preface explains that this book arises from a course run by the three authors at Princeton University – a course on the universe for non-science majors; indeed, for students who perhaps had never taken a science course before. My knowledge of science is pretty basic and my maths is, if anything, even dodgier. So although the idea of the book intrigued me, I feared it might be way over my head.
The book is divided into three sections, each written mainly by one of the authors with the occasional contribution from one of the others. The first section is Stars, Planets and Life with Tyson as the main author and a couple of chapters from Strauss. It starts brilliantly for the beginner, with an introduction to the very simplest stuff, like how long it takes for the Earth to revolve on its axis. At this early stage, Tyson assumes no prior knowledge and lays down some terminological groundwork for the more difficult stuff to come later. For example, he explains exactly what an Astronomical Unit is and that it is abbreviated to AU. He’s very funny, so that these chapters are entertaining as well as informative.
Each section takes the history of scientific discovery as a template for explaining what scientists know about the universe today and how they know it. All through the book, the authors are careful to credit those who came before, even when subsequent discoveries may have proved them wrong in some aspect. They show how even disproven theories contributed to the advances made by later scientists. There are a couple of chapters in this first section that are very heavy on maths and, truthfully, lost me so badly that I wondered whether there was much point in continuing. But I decided to struggle on and happily discovered that most of the book is perfectly accessible even to those of us whose eyes glaze over at any equation more complex than 2+2=4. On the other hand, there’s loads of very well explained maths in there for anyone whose mind works that way, or who wants to get a feel for whether they would like to study astrophysics at higher levels perhaps.
Tyson takes us through how scientists learned to measure distances between stars, how they work out their composition and age, and goes into considerable depth on the lifecycles of stars. It’s fascinating stuff and made me realise how often popular science books just tell the reader something and expect us to accept it. Not this one – every statement is backed up with detail of how we know these things and what they mean in the broader context of the universe. Throughout, the book is superbly illustrated, not just with pretty pictures (though most of them are) but with clear, beautifully designed and explained diagrams and charts that are hugely helpful in understanding the text and visualising things like size comparisons. This section finishes with a chapter on the search for planets that could support life, explaining exactly what scientists are looking for and why, and how they’re going about it.
Strauss takes over as the main author for the second section on Galaxies. He takes the reader through the history of how our own galaxy was first mapped and then the discoveries that led to scientists realising that the Milky Way is only a tiny part of the universe. This section has some fantastic images from the various exploratory missions like Hubble, but the really great thing is that Strauss explains in detail what we’re actually seeing – how to interpret the images rather than just admiring them. He then goes on to explain the discovery that (almost) all galaxies are moving away from each other, proving that the universe is expanding and enabling scientists to estimate its age and speculate as to its future. There is a fair amount of maths again in this section, but I found it easy to ignore for the most part while still grasping the concepts Strauss describes.
The final section is by Richard Gott and takes us from Einstein’s relativity back to the Big Bang and beyond. I hold my hands up – it’s at Einstein that my brain always closes down and I find myself overwhelmed with an urgent desire to giggle, somewhat hysterically. However, Gott actually explained the whole E = mc 2 thing well enough for me to more or less grasp, plus for the first time I now kinda understand why nuclear bombs work (not sure of the usefulness of that knowledge, but you never know when it might come in handy). His explanation of black holes and spaghettification is both humorous and clear.
He then takes us through all the stuff that sound more like Star Trek plots than science (to my limited mind) – cosmic strings, wormholes, time travel, superstring theory, inflation, etc. While I’ll never fully grasp this stuff and retain a large degree of cynicism about a lot of it, Gott’s explanations are great, and hugely enhanced by some of the best and clearest diagrams I’ve come across, including a spectacular six-page spread in full colour showing Gott’s own map of the universe. He finishes with some speculation about the beginnings of the universe and even what may have come before the Big Bang, and shows how these (crazy-sounding) ideas arise out of the most recent science, while making very clear which bits have been confirmed by observation missions and which haven’t yet. Fascinating stuff! His final plea is for Earth to look quickly at colonising Mars to increase our species’ chances of longterm survival.
The three authors discuss the book…
This is a great book, managing to be both hugely informative and entertaining – undoubtedly the best and most comprehensive of its kind that I’ve come across. It seems to me it is indeed suitable for a beginner so long as s/he has an enquiring mind and either the ability to understand the maths or the willingness to skim over those bits that are maths-heavy. Highly recommended, but do get the hardback rather than the Kindle – it’s beautifully designed and produced, and the illustrations are an essential aid to understanding the text.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press. All illustrations are from the book.
I’m delighted to say my reading slump appears to be finally over, and I powered through the books during my blogging break, with the result that there’s been a massive drop of 5 in the TBR since I last posted – down to 176! I’m still keeping strict control over NetGalley and publisher requests – the outstanding list of review copies has dropped 2 to 36. I’m feeling quite smug! I wonder how long that will last…
Oh, and I finished Moby-Dick!!! *turns double somersault and harpoons Melville out of sheer joie de vivre* Review soon!
Here are a few that will make it to the top of the heap soon. I’m still trying to clear as many review copies as possible before the end of the year…
Courtesy of Princeton University Press. I’m hoping this is as exciting as it sounds!
The Blurb says: Deep Life takes readers to uncharted regions deep beneath Earth’s crust in search of life in extreme environments and reveals how astonishing new discoveries by geomicrobiologists are helping the quest to find life in the solar system.
Tullis Onstott, named one of the 100 most influential people in America by Time magazine, provides an insider’s look at the pioneering fieldwork that is shining vital new light on Earth’s hidden biology–a thriving subterranean biosphere that scientists once thought to be impossible. Come along on epic descents two miles underground into South African gold mines to experience the challenges that Onstott and his team had to overcome. Join them in their search for microbes in the ancient seabed below the desert floor in the American Southwest, and travel deep beneath the frozen wastelands of the Arctic tundra to discover life as it could exist on Mars.
Blending cutting-edge science with thrilling scientific adventure, Deep Life features rare and unusual encounters with exotic life forms, including a bacterium living off radiation and a hermaphroditic troglodytic worm that has changed our understanding of how complex subsurface life can really be. This unforgettable book takes you to the absolute limits of life–the biotic fringe–where today’s scientists hope to discover the very origins of life itself.
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I don’t often get sent unsolicited review copies (which I’m quite glad about, since I always end up feeling obliged to read them). But Allison & Busby sent me a little batch a few months ago, none that are really in quite my usual style, but which each look quite intriguing of their kind. Might be fun to try something a bit different – this is the one that appeals most…
The Blurb says: London, 1926. Maisie Musgrave is thrilled to land a job at the fledgling British Broadcasting Corporation whose new and electrifying radio network is captivating the nation. Famous writers, scientists, politicians – the BBC is broadcasting them all, but behind the scenes Maisie is drawn into a battle of wills being fought by her two bosses. John Reith, the formidable Director-General and Hilda Matheson, the extraordinary Director of Talks Programming, envisage very different futures for radio. And when Maisie unearths a shocking conspiracy, she and Hilda join forces to make their voices heard both on and off the air . . .
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Courtesy of NetGalley. As cosy afternoon viewing, there’s nothing to beat six episodes of Murder, She Wrote one after the other! Will the books have the same relaxing, uplifting effect? I’ve often wondered – now’s the time to find out…
The Blurb says: Jessica is in Manhattan to attend the debut of a new designer. Formerly Sandy Black of Cabot Cove, the young man has reinvented himself as Xandr Ebon, and is introducing his evening wear collection to the public and—more important—to the industry’s powers-that-be: the stylists, the magazine editors, the buyers, and the wealthy clientele who can make or break him. At the show, the glitz and glamour are dazzling until a young model—a novice, taking her first walk down the runway—shockingly collapses and dies. Natural causes? Perhaps. But when another model is found dead, a famous cover girl and darling of the paparazzi, the fashion world gets nervous.
Two models. Two deaths. Their only connection? Xandr Ebon. Jessica’s crime-solving instincts are put to the test as she sorts through the egos, the conflicts of interest, the spiteful accusations, and the secrets, all the while keeping an amorous detective at arm’s length. But she’ll have to dig deep to uncover a killer. A designer’s career is on the line. And another model could perish in a New York minute.
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Courtesy of NetGalley. And to round off what must surely be the cosiest TBR post ever, another from the British Library Crime Classics series…
The Blurb says: When a counterfeit currency racket comes to light on the French Riviera, Detective Inspector Meredith is sent speeding southwards – out of the London murk to the warmth and glitter of the Mediterranean. Along with Inspector Blampignon – an amiable policeman from Nice – Meredith must trace the whereabouts of Chalky Cobbett, crook and forger.
Soon their interest centres on the Villa Paloma, the residence of Nesta Hedderwick, an eccentric Englishwoman, and her bohemian house guests – among them her niece, an artist, and a playboy. Before long, it becomes evident that more than one of the occupants of the Villa Paloma has something to hide, and the stage is set for murder.
This classic crime novel from 1952 evokes all the sunlit glamour of life on the Riviera, and combines deft plotting with a dash of humour. This is the first edition to have been published in more than sixty years and follows the rediscovery of Bude’s long-neglected detective writing by the British Library.
When Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…
Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.
I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.
The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.
The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.
I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.
For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…
All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.
The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.
There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:
Book of the Year 2016
For the winners!
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve read very little genre fiction this year – in fact, my reading in general is way down due to the depressing effect of world events combined with an excess of tennis watching. Fortunately the comparatively little I have read has had plenty of good stuff in it. This year I’ve also decided to include genre films in this category, since I’ve been reviewing films on the blog a little more, and genre films are often as good or better than the books (a thing I wouldn’t generally say about adaptations of literary or crime fiction). Most of the genre fiction I’ve read have been classics with just one or two new releases.
Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook
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…
This thriller with a horror element is 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. Neither of the main characters 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. A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff!
At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. But one man is convinced that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…
What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing.
Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…
The quality of imagination in this book is matched by the quality of the writing. It reads like a corrupted fairytale, reminding me of Shirley Jackson, with elements of John Wyndham thrown in to the mix. But these references don’t take away from the book’s own originality. There is an unsettling tone of horror under the seemingly bright surface, and the story gets progressively darker as it proceeds. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…
The first ever joint winner! The book and film were created jointly and intended to complement each other, and each adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of the other, so they can’t be separated.
A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…
Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around the mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”
Apparently Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur. Reading the book first turned watching the film into an fantastic experience, and next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.
It’s 1953, and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is investigating the death of a fortune-teller who drowned off the Brighton pier. It looks like an accident, but the possibilities of suicide and murder have to be ruled out. However, Edgar’s investigation is interrupted when he is called to London by General Petre to look into the mysterious death of Colonel Cartwright, who used to be one of Edgar’s superior officers during the war. General Petre has called on Max Mephisto to help too, since Max also worked with Colonel Cartwright, and there are aspects of the murder that suggest it may have something to do with the Magic Men – the outfit Max and Edgar were involved in, which used illusion to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies had greater defences than they actually did. It soon transpires that Colonel Cartwright was afraid that a plan was afoot to disrupt the coronation of the new young Queen, Elizabeth II, so Edgar and Max are under pressure to solve the case before that event takes place in a couple of weeks time.
I’ve enjoyed the previous books in this new series of Elly Griffiths’ a great deal, so had high hopes for this one. The Brighton setting just after the end of WW2 is brilliantly evoked, especially the rather seedy tone of the theatres and musical halls, and the performers who live a nomadic life around the various seaside towns of England, with, if they’re lucky, an occasional booking amidst the bright lights of London’s West End. Max is currently performing at the Theatre Royal in London, and has been tempted somewhat against his better judgement to appear on the new-fangled television – a medium he fears will lead to the final death of the already fading variety theatre. The TV show is scheduled to be shown on the evening of the Queen’s coronation.
Edgar meantime is still trying to pin Ruby down to setting a date for their wedding, but Ruby is not ready to give up her aspirations to become as great a stage magician as her father, Max. And Edgar’s colleague, Emma, is still harbouring feelings of unrequited love for him. Which is all a little annoying, since this book is set two years after the last one, and yet none of these characters seem to have moved on emotionally from how they were left then. Shades of the tedious Ruth/Nelson saga from Griffiths’ other series beginning to creep in, I fear. I wish Griffiths could either leave the romance out of her books, or else move it along – she seems to stick her characters into a situation and then leave them there forever. Hopefully she’ll resolve this triangle in the next book, or I’m afraid it will become as dull as poor old Ruth’s never-ending non-love story.
The plot of this one takes Edgar to America, which provides quite a bit of humour as Edgar tries to understand a society that feels very foreign to him. The picture Griffiths paints of America at that time feels very much based on movies of the period – it doesn’t give quite the same aura of authenticity as the Brighton scenes. But it adds an extra element of interest by expanding out from the rather restricted setting of an English seaside town.
For me, the plot of this one is too convoluted and loses credibility before it reaches the end. While it’s very well written and has a great dramatic ending, my disbelief was stretched well past breaking point before it got there. However, the recurring characters remain as enjoyable as ever, and as usual there are plenty of quirky new ones introduced to keep the interest level up. I also enjoyed the glimpse of the early days of television, when it was all still experimental and, of course, broadcast live, giving it plenty of potential for unexpected drama.
Overall, this isn’t my favourite of the series, but it’s still a good outing for Edgar, Max and the other recurring characters, and I look forward to seeing where they go next – with my fingers firmly crossed that they don’t remain stuck in their emotional ruts for too much longer.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump! FF heard the unmistakeable sound of the captain crossing the deck.
“Ahoy, FF, thou lazy dog! Whyest dost thou lyeth there on that… thing… whilst Ahab practiceth his best cod Shakespearian?? Whatest is that thing, anyway, in the name of the gods above in Heaven, or perhaps the devils beneath in Hell! Or vice-versa. If Gods exist. Eth.”
FF raised her sunglasses and perched them on her golden curls. “It’s a sun-lounger, sir. Don’t you like it? I ordered it from Amazon and they had a drone drop it off an hour ago. It’s very comfortable.”
Ahab stuck his bone leg in the socket he had had specially made for it and, swivelling madly like Zebedee on his spring, cried out, “Thou liest here in the sun imbibing the devil’s grog…”
“It’s a margarita,” murmured FF, sipping.
“… when there is work to be (or not to be) done! Hast thou seen the great white whale?”
“No, and I’m at 92% now. Strange, isn’t it?”
Ahab ceased to swivel and fixed her with his mad eye. “Eh? 92%? Thou speakest in strange riddles as of one who has seen things not of nature!”
“Well, the book’s called Moby-Dick: or, the White Whale so you’d kinda think the whale would actually be in it, wouldn’t you?” FF waved her Kindle at the infuriated captain. “But no. We’ve sailed every sea in the entire world and not a blessed sign of him yet. A cheat, I call it! Plenty of other whales though – big ones, little ones, lots and lots of dead ones. And as for gory! Well, let’s just say I know more than I ever wanted to about how to skin them and squeeze the oil out of their blubber.” She shuddered, and sipped her margarita. “Sir.”
Ahab shook his fist at the cloudless sky. “Thou wasteth time reading stupid books on thy infernal device when thou shouldst be aloft the main mast searching for the monster whom thou hast sworn a great oath to destroyeth!”
“To be fair, though, sir, that was during the first night party and you’d been pretty generous with the old gin before you asked. I’m not sure that really counts as a proper oath.”
“Thy honour grovels on its lowly belly acrost the mud in the deeps where lie littered the bodies of great heroes and the monsters they pursued to their doom! Queequeg the cannibal shalt not fail me, he with his skin tattooed with marks that would scare the devils themselves. Nor even the poor, crazed savage, Pip, whose little black hand is nearly as soft as that of a decent white boy!”
“That reminds me, sir, an e-mail came in from Head Office. They want you to confirm you’ve completed the online training course in cultural sensitivity.”
“Aarghh! Get thee up to the lookout afore I call on the Heavens to strike thee with the unnatural fire of the corpusants!”
“No can do, I’m afraid, sir. Health and safety. You’ll just have to rely on the sonar equipment.”
“Gah! Art thou a yellow-bellied poltroon?? Thou wilt know real danger when Ahab sends thee in the little boat to stick harpoons in the monstrous Leviathan!”
FF shuddered. “I fear that won’t be possible, sir. Whaling has been outlawed by international convention. These days we use electricity to light our lamps.”
Ahab leapt up and down so hard his bone leg began to splinter. “Outlawed?! Never! For here, on the great ocean, Ahab is all – the captain, the King, the God! And the great white whale shall die, die horribly, because Ahab sayeth so! Look! What ist that strange vessel that approacheth?”
“It’s Greenpeace, sir. They’re here to protect the whale. I Skyped them when I realised you were insane, sir.”
Ahab turned purple with rage, and shook both fists at FF. “Thou hast ruined my revenge! Truly, verily, and yea, ’tis true what they say! To allow a woman aboardeth a ship is folly, for they are cursed, and curseth those who saileth with them!” Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump!
“Silly old misogynist!” murmured FF, as she lay back on her lounger and opened the new Ian Rankin.
I have been nominated for the Liebster Award by the lovely Brontë at Brontë’s Page Turners! Thanks, Brontë!
Acknowledge the person who nominated you and display the award.
Answer eleven questions that the blogger gives you.
Give eleven random facts about yourself.
Nominate 11 blogs who you think deserve it.
Let the bloggers know you’ve nominated them.
Give your eleven questions to the nominees.
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What made you start blogging?
I was looking for a new hobby and someone suggested jogging. Fortunately I misheard…
I have to purchase every book I read. Do you?
No, not at all. Unlike the rest of my family who are notorious book hoarders, I really try to keep the number of books in the house down to a reasonable level. It doesn’t always work – I end up with piles of books all over the place, until I take a mad fit and cull them drastically. The only books I want to keep are books I firmly expect to re-read, and that’s a tiny sub-set of the overall number of books I read. I do keep some books for sentimental reasons, though – if they were given as a special gift, for example.
I have a spreadsheet of all of my books to guard against theft (aka borrowers not returning items) and other calamities. Do you?
Oddly, no, that’s never occurred to me, despite my profound love for spreadsheets. I don’t often lend or borrow books – I’m a hopeless returner myself, so I expect other people to be too. I do keep a spreadsheet of the TBR, but most of that is on Kindle.
I run yearly maintenance on my books, giving them a good airing and checking for damp. What lengths do you go to to care for your books?
Umm… I toss them in the bookshelves if there’s space (organised purely by heavy ones at the bottom, light at the top, for health and safety reasons) or build a pile on an available surface. And then I forget about them till I want to find one, or until I decide it’s time for a cull. (You all hate me now, don’t you?)
To paraphrase the poet Barry Manilow…Questions 2-4 show How Deep Is My Love for books. Can you tell me something that demonstrates How Deep Is Your Love for books?
Erm… *wriggles uncomfortably*… I read them? Nope, don’t sniff them, stroke them, sing to them or water them daily. They don’t have pet names or go to luxury bookeries when I go on holiday. If the cats chew the corners while I’m reading, that’s OK, because I love the cats more than the books.
Ooh…ooh…wait! I don’t write in them and think people who do should be put in the stocks and pelted with rotten tomatoes! Phew! That sounds a bit better! Can I still be a member of the bookosphere now?
Do you have a favourite song based on a book?
Oh dear! I’m sorry! I can’t think of a single song based on a book! Are there any? *rubs forehead frantically* Oooh, no… I mean, yes!! I do! How could I have forgotten?? Loads of them in fact. The entire The War of the Worlds concept album!!
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Give eleven random facts about yourself
(Goodness! I’ve totally failed to do the Versatile Blogger Award because it demands seven interesting things about myself, so what are the chance of me thinking up eleven! Hmm… *scratches head*)
I’m rotten at thinking up interesting facts about myself.
My first pet was a hamster called Jerry. I used to take him for walks.
I used to love John McEnroe because he was so rude, and now I disapprove of Nick Kyrgios because he’s so rude. Who says we don’t change as we age?
During a heated argument over the ridiculous claim that parallel lines meet in infinity, my irate maths teacher told me I’d either just have to accept it or create an entirely new system of maths. I’m still considering the latter option.
I love the marzipan you get on Christmas cakes and hate the marzipan you get in chocolates. Why is that?
Sometimes I baffle myself.
I can read upside down. The book upside down, that is, not me.
I can only tell left from right by checking which arm my vaccination mark is on.
I have no sense of direction (see random fact 8) so when I used to take my mother out for a run in the car, I would tell her it was a mystery tour, and then wherever we ended up I pretended that’s where I had been heading.
I used to be able to touch the tip of my nose with the tip of my tongue, but I can’t anymore. The question is – which got shorter? And how? (See random fact 6.)
I once put my real name into an anagram generator and it came up with two options – firstly, with my middle name: Banal Hive Earthling; and then without my middle name: Arabel La Thigh. I prefer the latter.
That was awful! That was great fun – thanks so much for nominating me, Brontë!😀
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As always, I am nominating anyone who wishes to participate because you all deserve an award!
Here are your questions should you choose to accept… (or answer in the comments)
What is an anagram of your name?
If you were only allowed one chocolate in the box, which would you take? (DON’T take the coffee cream!)
Cats are better than dogs. Discuss.
Complete this sentence – “I love…”
Do you think of dawn as late or early?
If you were a book, what book would you be?
Complete this sentence – “I hate…”
When you look out of your bedroom window, what do you see?
Which bookish/filmish/TV-ish character would you desert your spouse/partner/singleton-ness for without a moment’s hesitation?
What would you most like someone to invent?
Complete this sentence – “I’m so glad she didn’t ask about…”
I seem to be operating on a one in, one out, basis at the moment, since for the fourth week in a row, the TBR has remained static on 181, and the number of outstanding review copies stays the same at 38. And I’m still “reading” Moby-Dick! (i.e. It looks at me accusingly every time I open the Kindle, and occasionally I read a few pages hoping something will happen, only to find he’s still sneering at artists or boring on about how fish aren’t like dogs – seriously! An amazing revelation – guess there’s no more point in me throwing sticks into the river and shouting “fetch” then…)
Here are a few that may help to restore my joie de vivre. I’m trying to clear some of the NetGalley books that have been hanging around for too long, so some of these are ones where my enthusiasm wore off a bit after requesting them. But hopefully it will revive once I start reading…
The Blurb says: On 1st May 1915, the luxury ocean liner Lusitania sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool. Her passengers were anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone and its submarines were bringing terror to the Atlantic.
But the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, had faith in the gentlemanly terms of warfare that had, for a century, kept civilian ships safe from attack. He also knew that his ship was the fastest then in service and could outrun any threat. Germany was, however, intent on changing the rules, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. For this would be the ill-fated Lusitania’s final crossing . . .
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Courtesy of NetGalley. These British Library re-issues of forgotten classics have been a mixed bag – some great, some showing why they were forgotten. But they’re all interesting as an insight into how the genre has developed over the years…
The Blurb says: Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom – but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body. Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick – perhaps too quick – to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots...
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Courtesy of NetGalley. This could be a lot of fun, or it could be unbearably twee. Time will tell…
The Blurb says: Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President François Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him.
Daniel’s thrill at being in such close proximity to the most powerful man in the land persists even after the presidential party has gone, which is when he discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind.
After a few moments’ soul-searching, Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir of an extraordinary evening. It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow … different.
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Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve had a mixed reaction to the Garnier novellas I’ve read to date, so I’m approaching this with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension…
The Blurb says: A crime writer uses the modest advance on his latest novel to rent a house on the Normandy coast.
There should be little to distract him from his work besides walks on the windswept beach, but as he begins to tell the tale of forty-something Louis – who, after dispatching his own mother, goes on to relieve others of their burdensome elderly relations – events in his own life begin to overlap with the work of his imagination.
Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. I’ve often been tempted to join in when I’ve come across other bloggers’ posts, so since my on-going reading slump has led to a severe shortage of reviews, now seems like a good time! 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 Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I haven’t read it, but looking at the blurb tells me it’s the story “of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England”. People who have read it frequently describe it as disturbing. It made me think of…
Charles Lambert’s The Children’s Home. This is a book about a man living in isolation due to a horrific facial disfigurement, whose life is disrupted by the mysterious arrival of a group of children who turn up one by one as if from nowhere. In many ways the setting feels contemporary but as we learn more we discover that something terrible has happened to the world – something hugely destructive that has left people in fear and caused the rich to retreat behind heavily guarded walls.
It has the feel of a dark and corrupted fairy tale, which reminded me of…
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about two women living in a house where a horrific crime had been committed. The villagers are sure that the older sister, Constance, poisoned most of her family; while through Merricat, the younger sister’s, eyes we see how the women isolate themselves from the outside world. Merricat is a wonderful creation and I love how Jackson inverts the usual Gothic themes.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me. Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep? Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
The book reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the old witch tales, but seen from the perspective of the witch – I came to believe the castle may have been made of gingerbread.
Which made me think of…
Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology edited by Christina Hardyment which contains, amongst a feast of other goodies, Emily Dickinson’s recipe for Gingerbread. This anthology is filled with excerpts and quotes from literature, poetry and recipe books, and is gorgeously illustrated from the British Library’s own collection, often the specific illustrations that accompanied the original text.
My favourite section was Childish Things, which included an excerpt from the picnic in…
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. This is a book I have always loved and return to regularly. It’s not for the story of Mr Toad of Toad Hall that I love it, fun though that is. The chapters I love most are the ones that explore Ratty and Mole’s friendship, the sense of community amongst the heavily anthropomorphised animals (even as a child I knew that they were people really), the attractions of travel, the comfort of and longing for home.
Today, to him gazing South with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!
I credit this as the book that first made me appreciate not just the story in a book, but the wonder of beautiful writing for its own sake. And that made me think of…
John Banville’s The Blue Guitar. This book was my introduction to Banville. It tells the tale of narcissistic but loveable Olly Orme, who stole his friend’s wife and is hiding from the consequences. Many long-term fans felt this one didn’t have as much substance as some of his earlier books, but I was dazzled by the beauty and sparkling wit of the prose and the wonderfully entertaining, quirky character Banville created in Olly.
What I saw, with jarring clarity, was that there is no such thing as woman. Woman, I realised, is a thing of legend, a phantasm who flies through the world, settling here and there on this or that unsuspecting mortal female, whom she turns, briefly but momentously, into an object of yearning, veneration and terror.
Wonderful, quirky characters always lead me back to…
Dickens. His descriptions are never of the “he had black hair and piercing blue eyes” category. Instead he paints word pictures that show us the person’s innermost character etched in his physical appearance. Here he is in Martin Chuzzlewit, describing Scadder, a bit-part in the novel, but still Dickens takes the time to create something unique – a pocket-sketch that tells us not only what Scadder looks like but exactly what kind of man we’re dealing with…
He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them…
Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.
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So Ishiguro to Dickens via skewed societies, corrupted fairytales,
gingerbread recipes, scrumptious picnics, sumptuous prose
and wonderfully quirky characters.
There’s an unusual heatwave going on when Mahony arrives in Mulderigg, a “benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless”. But then everything about Mulderigg is unusual, not least the fact that dead people are wandering all through it. Ghosts, but very human ghosts, looking and acting much as they did when they were alive. Mahony has been in Mulderigg before, when he was a baby, though he has no memory of it. Now he’s back to look for his mother, Orla, and to find out why he ended up in an orphanage in Dublin. But most of the people of Mulderigg don’t seem to want to talk about Orla, and those who do have nothing good to say about her. The story they give is that she left the village and must have abandoned Mahony – but Mahony won’t accept this, and nor does Mrs Cauley, an old woman who used to be an actress and now fancies herself as something of a Miss Marple. This unlikely duo set out to discover the truth, with the dubious assistance of the dead…
The book starts with a strangely off-kilter prologue in which we see a brutal murder carried out, but told in language that reads more as if what we are witnessing is a scene of beauty. And this sets the tone for the whole thing really – the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant. It’s executed superbly for the most part, with a good deal of humour, some of it of the black variety. The setting is somewhere in rural Ireland – I’m not sure that we’re ever really told where – and the time is split between a “present” of 1976 and a past in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But the time is pretty irrelevant – this village doesn’t feel as if it exists in normal space and time. It has a Brigadoonish quality to it and, although there are references to the outside world, it seems almost cut off and entirely self-sufficient.
The plot, such as it is, is very stretched out and becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes along. After I’d reached the end, I was left with a whole slew of unanswered questions and a general feeling that the author had got so carried away with the creation of her setting and quirky bunch of characters that she’d lost interest somewhere along the line in the actual story. There’s no doubt Kidd brings this odd, mystical village to life, though I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it slipped from being Irish into Oirishness – I found myself thinking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet a leprechaun with a shillelagh at any corner, though I hasten to add that she stopped short of that. Personally, I could also have lived without the constant rather childish swearing and vulgarity – to have one fart joke is unfortunate, but to have several smacks of carelessness, or a need for dietetic advice. (FF’s Third Law)
I enjoyed the early part of the book a lot but gradually found that the style began to grate on me – somehow it feels overworked, every word polished and placed too carefully, giving the language itself precedence over the storytelling. The whimsical idea of the dead characters gains too much prominence in the end, so that every piece of dialogue or action is interspersed with endless descriptions of one or other of the ghosts doing something supposedly amusing in the background. And the extreme brutality of parts of the book feels like too great a contrast to the almost lyrical style in which they are told. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but one that I felt Kidd took too far, passing the point of acceptable shock to become distasteful.
Having said all that, I think this début shows more originality than anything I’ve read this year and the quality of the prose is extraordinary. It suffers a little, I feel, from a hangover from “creative writing” classes, but I’m certain Kidd has the talent to find a better balance between style and substance as her writing matures, and will learn the art of what to leave out. Despite my relatively low rating of 3½ stars, I would still recommend this one as an intriguing introduction to an author of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the years ahead, and one whom I’ll be keenly watching.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.
In her short introduction Stafford tells us of her life-long love for trees, and discusses the place they have held through the generations in myth and art. She points to the ambivalence of our attitude towards trees: our love, occasionally even worship, of them contrasting with our continuing destruction of forests. Some of the language she uses is lovely – evocative, lyrical even…
The oak branch is my golden bough, offering immediate safe conduct from one world to another. It transports me to a particular day and tree, and then on to other oaks and their places, some of these known personally, others vicariously through things I have been told, or through poems and stories, photographs and paintings. Sometimes it will take me full circle, from heroes to local histories, tales of magic and metamorphosis, panegyrics and protests, fables of planting and felling, and on through forests of wood carvings, masts, musical instruments, and furniture, until I am back in the same room, surrounded by familiar things. They are never quite the same.
The book then takes the format of a short chapter per species of tree. While many of the trees discussed grow in various places around the world, Stafford sticks for the most part to trees that are native to Britain. Each chapter tells us some facts about the species – its lifespan, how it propagates, etc. There are snippets from poems and literature, showing how the tree has been seen symbolically over time – again, largely British literature. Stafford discusses how the trees have been used by humanity – what uses the wood of a particular species has been put to, whether the tree produces food or has been used for medicinal purposes and so on. She looks at the impact of our activities on the environment and discusses threats to the species’ survival where relevant.
Some of the factlets are interesting; for example, that holly trees were around in the age of the dinosaurs, or that “In medieval Europe, the demand for longbows led to the destruction of European yew forests, in an early version of the arms trade – with all its ironies. Yew wood imported from French forests might well return home to launch deadly arrows at the very people who had felled it.” Stafford also mentions superstitions relating to particular trees, such as rowan trees being seen as giving protection from witches. And where species have great longevity, such as the yew, she tells of specific trees that have found their own place in history – or perhaps legend would be more accurate – like the yew tree at Fortingall in Perthshire, still surviving today, under which, it is said, the young Pontius Pilate played when visiting Britain with his father.
So there is plenty of interest in this book. However, apart from the introduction, it is written in a workmanlike style, almost like reading entries from a well written and researched encyclopaedia. The first line of the blurb claims it is “a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings.” I’d have to argue with the word “lyrical” – the lyricism that flares up briefly when Stafford talks of her own relationship to trees in the introduction disappears entirely once she begins to discuss the species separately. It’s fact-filled and clearly well researched, but impersonal and with little or no emotional content. The blurb also claims it is “beautifully illustrated” and again I fear I must disagree. It has many pencil drawings, but rarely of the trees under discussion. So there can be an entire chapter, such as the holly, for example, where there is no picture of a holly tree at all, nor even a drawing of one.
Unfortunately it was the promise of lyricism and beautiful illustrations that drew me to the book, meaning that I found it disappointing. I feel it’s a victim of misleading blurb syndrome – had it been described more accurately, my expectations would have been quite different going in – in truth, I probably wouldn’t have been attracted enough to read it. And yet it does what it does very well indeed – it provides a lot of interesting facts about trees and man’s relationship to them over the centuries. But for me nature writing is more about the beauty of the language and the author’s personal, emotional relationship with her subject, and I didn’t find that here. Hence my rather low and possibly unfair three star rating for a book that probably deserves more – the blurb in this case having led to a mismatch between book and reader.
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FF’s Second Law: Blurbs should accurately reflect the contents of the book to ensure they attract the right readers.
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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
As part of my ridiculous TBR spreadsheet, whenever I give a book 5 stars I add the author’s name to a list to remind me to read either one of their existing books or their next one, if they’re new authors or I’ve already read all of their previous books. Every now and again I check Amazon to see if there’s any sign of the next book coming along, and generally they duly appear within a year or two. But when I last checked, I realised some of these authors had been on the list for a long time with no sign of a new book. Where are they? Are they still writing?
Eleanor Catton won the Booker for The Luminaries, first published in August 2013. I loved it for her careful creation of a town that I came to feel as if I had actually visited. The book was monstrous in size and scope, so perhaps she’s working on another just as ambitious, but I can’t find anything on the web that tells me when we might see a new one appear.
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For several years, Gordon Ferris was publishing books pretty regularly, every year or two. But it’s well over two years since his last book Money Tree appeared in June 2014. At the time, this was billed as the start of a new series looking at some of the world’s contemporary concerns – a series of standalones but with an overarching theme under a series name of “Only Human”. But since then, nothing – and again I can’t see anything suggesting another book is on the way soon.
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Shuichi Yoshida’sParade, published in translation in March 2014, was billed as a crime book, but I felt it actually fell more into the category of literary fiction. The picture it paints of the lives of young people in Tokyo left me strangely discombobulated, as Japanese fiction often does – it’s a society that always seems in a kind of free-fall. I find Yoshida’s writing compelling, and his characters are always believable even when I don’t fully understand them. Perhaps his long absence is a translation issue rather than a writing one, but no sign of a new one on the horizon.
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Darran McCann’s début After the Lockout, published way back in February 2012, was an intriguing book set in Armagh in the period following the Easter Uprising. Though there was much of politics and religion in it, McCann managed to keep it at a very human level. He’s an author of whom I genuinely expected great things, but again he seems to have disappeared, at least in terms of publishing another novel.
* * * * *
I positively adored Chandrahas Choudhry’sArzee the Dwarf. Published in December 2009, it’s a deliciously bittersweet tale of one man trying to achieve his dreams in contemporary Bombay – a beautifully written depiction of this vibrant and contradictory city at odds with the picture of unrelieved misery so often given in Indian novels. Years after reading it, I still smile whenever I think of it. And I’m getting extremely impatient for another…
* * * * * * *
The good news is that, five long years after his wonderful Last Man in Tower, a new book has finally appeared from Aravind Adiga… Selection Day, which I will be reading just as soon as I can.
The Blurb says: Manju is fourteen. He knows he is good at cricket – if not as good as his elder brother Radha. He knows that he fears and resents his domineering and cricket-obsessed father, admires his brilliantly talented brother and is fascinated by CSI and curious and interesting scientific facts. But there are many things, about himself and about the world, that he doesn’t know . . . Everyone around him, it seems, has a clear idea of who Manju should be, except Manju himself.
But when Manju begins to get to know Radha’s great rival, a boy as privileged and confident as Manju is not, everything in Manju’s world begins to change and he is faced by decisions that will challenge both his sense of self and of the world around him.
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And here are a few more long-awaited ones that will be appearing soon (all publication dates are for the UK)…
Publication due 5th April 2017 from Kanae Minato, author of the dark and compelling Confessions…
The Blurb says:The tense, chilling story of four women haunted by a childhood trauma.
When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emili by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emili is found murdered hours later. Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emili’s body was discovered. Asako, Emili’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.
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Publication due 16th January 2017 from Rennie Airth, author of the Inspector Madden series set in post-war England…
The Blurb says: On a hot summer day in 1938, a beautiful actress is murdered on the grand Kent estate of Sir Jack Jessup, close friend of the Prince of Wales. An instant headline in the papers, the confession of a local troublemaker swiftly brings the case to a close, but in 1949, the reappearance of a jade necklace raises questions about the murder. Was the man convicted and executed the decade before truly guilty, or had he wrongly been sent to the gallows?
Inspector Madden is summoned out of retirement at the request of former Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair to re-open the case at Scotland Yard. Set in the aftermath of World War II, The Death of Kings is an atmospheric and captivating police procedural, and is a story of honor and justice that takes Madden through the idyllic English countryside, post-war streets of London, and into the criminal underworld of the Chinese Triads.
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Publication due 9th February 2017 from Koethi Zan, author of the dark and disturbing thriller The Never List…
The Blurb says… very little: You think she’ll help you. She won’t.
A page-turning thriller about the wife of a kidnapper and her relationship with his last victim. .
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Publication due 9th February 2017 from Hannah Kent, author of the stunning Burial Rites…
The Blurb says: Nóra Leahy has lost her daughter and her husband in the same year, and is now burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál. The boy cannot walk, or speak, and Nora, mistrustful of the tongues of gossips, has kept the child hidden from those who might see in his deformity evidence of otherworldly interference.
Unable to care for the child alone, Nóra hires a fourteen-year-old servant girl, Mary, who soon hears the whispers in the valley about the blasted creature causing grief to fall upon the widow’s house.
Alone, hedged in by rumour, Mary and her mistress seek out the only person in the valley who might be able to help Micheál. For although her neighbours are wary of her, it is said that old Nance Roche has the knowledge. That she consorts with Them, the Good People. And that only she can return those whom they have taken…
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So there’s still hope… if you can shed any light on if and when we might see new books from any of these authors, please do so in the comments. Are there any authors who’ve been on your own “avidly awaiting” list for too long?
It’s 1935. When the medic for a Himalayan expedition is injured, Dr Stephen Pearce is asked to stand in. His elder brother Kits is already part of the expedition. There’s always been a sibling rivalry between the two brothers and, although acknowledging that Kits is the better climber, Stephen determines that he too will make it to the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. The team of five men proposes to tackle the South-West Face, a route taken by the earlier Lyell expedition which ended in tragedy after they were struck by an avalanche. Only two survived – Lyell himself, and Charles Tennant who has been haunted ever since by his experiences on the mountain. And so they set off… but Stephen soon begins to feel haunted himself…
After Michelle Paver’s fabulous Dark Matter, my expectations for this chilly ghost story were high indeed. Perhaps that’s why I found this one a little disappointing. I know this is becoming one of my most regular rants, so I’m going to give it a scientific name – FF’s First Law: The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story. This is a short book in comparison to most, coming in at 240 pages, but nonetheless it is too long for the story it tells. The result is that the first half, more or less, is simply a long description of the trek to the mountain and the setting up of the first camps, with a narrator who finds everything either disappointing or horrible. (“Well, I never expected this. The glacier’s horrible.” “More bloody cairns. I do wish they’d use flags.” “I don’t care for the knoll.” “I can’t get used to how cramped it is in my tent.” “Just now, he called me over to admire a giant ‘flower’, its trumpet head a blotched greenish purple, and bowed, like a cobra about to strike. He says it’s a snake lily. I think it’s revolting.”) I assume all this negativity is designed to show us, firstly, that the environment is harsh and unwelcoming and, secondly, that his mental state is already precarious, but I quickly found I had an overwhelming urge to shove him off the mountain.
It’s very well-written and gives a real feel for what a climbing expedition of that era would have been like, so in that sense it’s interesting but, although there is some foreshadowing of events to come, the anticipated atmosphere of impending horror doesn’t really take off until past the halfway point. Then, after the main events which really only fill about a third of the book, there is a long and unnecessary wrap-up in which we learn more than we need to about what happens to some of the characters in their future.
The bit in the middle where the horror actually happens, though, is excellent, right up there with Dark Matter. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. As we learn more about the history of the previous expedition, the story turns dark and cold indeed, and Paver feeds us the information bit by bit, creating a rising feeling of dread that tingles the spine nicely. By this stage the expedition has reached about 22,000 feet and each of the men is feeling the effects of altitude, so that even the narrator is not sure if what he is experiencing might be a result of hallucination. Paver is excellent at using the extreme weather and physical danger to add to the psychological terror and paranoia that have taken hold of Stephen’s mind.
Thinking about it, the book might actually have worked better without the horror element though. The story of the dynamics within the group and their patronising air of superiority to the Sherpas and “coolies” who accompanied them is very well done, as is the description of the practicalities and difficulties of the climb. Kits’ and Stephen’s relationship is an interesting and credible picture of the rivalries that can happen between brothers, especially when, as in this case, the elder brother inherits enough wealth to allow him to pursue his dreams while the younger brother must earn a living. Paver is very strong on the nuances of class, as she was also in Dark Matter. But, for me at any rate, the anticipation of horror to come meant that much of this seemed extraneous in the context and merely served to slow things down.
I’m struggling to rate it. Somehow it falls between two genres and as a result doesn’t quite work as well as it might have done had it concentrated on either. But both writing and characterisation are excellent, it has an authentic feel to the descriptions of the expedition, and the horror when it comes is skilfully done. So, while it didn’t quite meet my hopes for it, I enjoyed it overall and would happily recommend it, especially to people who don’t mind a slow build-up to their fix of horror.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.
For this spookiest week of the year, where best to head but to that town whose name will be forever associated with witchcraft and devil-worship. Salem! Birthplace to Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself descended from one of the men who interrogated the Salem witches and helped send them to their death. So this story seems like a perfect choice for this week’s…
Young Goodman Brown
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Dearest heart,” whispered she, softly and rather sadly, when her lips were close to his ear, “prithee put off your journey until sunrise and sleep in your own bed to-night. A lone woman is troubled with such dreams and such thoughts that she’s afeard of herself sometimes. Pray tarry with me this night, dear husband, of all nights in the year.”
Young Goodman Brown resists this pathetic plea from Faith, his pretty, loving young wife, and heads off into the forest just outside the town. We soon learn that evil is afoot…
“Poor little Faith!” thought he, for his heart smote him. “What a wretch am I, to leave her on such an errand! She talks of dreams, too. Methought, as she spoke, there was trouble in her face, as if a dream had warned her what work is to be done to-night. But, no, no! ‘twould kill her to think it.”
He begins his journey through the dark and gloomy trees…
It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be passing through an unseen multitude.
Suddenly he sees a man sitting beneath a tree. They recognise each other, and it transpires the meeting is not by chance. They are both going to a meeting in the middle of the forest in the dead of night. (It doesn’t really bode well, does it? And it gets worse…) The older man, it appears, is the Devil himself, in human form…
But the only thing about him that could be fixed upon as remarkable was his staff, which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent. This, of course, must have been an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.
…and Goodman Brown is on his way to be taken into communion with those who worship him. But the Goodman is doubtful. He thinks of all the good people of the town and how hard it will be to look them in the eye on the morrow – and he thinks of his Faith, sweet, gentle creature, waiting anxiously for him to come home.
But the Devil tells him he will not be alone in the town, and reveals the sins of many of those Goodman Brown has looked up to all his life…
“…here are they all, in my worshipping assembly! This night it shall be granted you to know their secret deeds; how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered wanton words to the young maids of their households; how many a woman, eager for widow’s weeds, has given her husband a drink at bed-time, and let him sleep his last sleep in her bosom; how beardless youth have made haste to inherit their father’s wealth; and how fair damsels – blush not, sweet ones – have dug little graves in the garden, and bidden me, the sole guest, to an infant’s funeral.”
Still Goodman Brown holds out, the thought of Faith holding him firm in his resolve. But the Devil has more to tempt him with yet…
* * * * * * *
Well! This is a great little story, very well written and full of wickedness and evil. But the message! What exactly is the message? It appears that if one goes over to the dark-side one might be damned for eternity but otherwise everything will be quite jolly. But if one rejects the Devil and all his works, one is destined to be a miserable old so-and-so for the rest of one’s life and die in gloom and despondency! I was expecting it all to end either horrifically or with a big dose of uplift. Instead it’s totally depressing! Oh dear!
“Lo, there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”
Yeah, fine, Hawthorne, but you could have put up a bit of an argument, surely! I mean, he’s the Devil, for goodness sake! He’s bound to have a slightly skewed outlook on life!
Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do a bit of sinning. No point wasting any more time trying to be good…
(Having got that off my chest, actually I think it’s a great story – but have some medicinal chocolate on hand to aid recovery. That’s where I made my mistake!)
For Hallowe’en, here’s a true witch story to harrow your soul, set in Pollok where I grew up , which at the time of this tale was just outside Glasgow…
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‘Twas in the year 1676 that Sir George Maxwell, Laird of Nether Pollok, always zealous in pursuit of witches, took part in a witch trial in the town of Gourock.
Soon after, he was struck down with a mysterious sickness, a “hot and fiery distemper”, that caused the doctors to fear for his life. While he lay in his agony, a dumb girl who lived on his estate in Pollok was suddenly granted the power of speech. Janet Douglas was her name, and she was possessed of mysterious powers, as Sir George’s son, Sir John, later recounted…
For instance, when a chapter in the Greek New Testament was read, she made us understand by signs what the purposes were (for at that time she was dumb, whether really or counterfeitly it is hard to determine) and did exactly give an account to myself what we did at two miles distant from the place where she was, without any information given to her…
Now, this Janet declared that Sir George was under a witch’s curse and named the woman who had cursed him, one Janet Mathie, a widow-woman whose son had been accused of stealing fruit from Sir George’s orchard. Perhaps she feared Sir George would punish him harshly. Or perhaps the Devil was angry about Sir George’s actions against witches. When the widow’s house was searched, a wax doll was found with pins stuck in it sides, hidden in a wee hole behind the fireplace, and it had an awful resemblance to Sir George. The widow was held and the doll was destroyed, and Sir George seemed to recover.
But a few weeks later he fell stricken again. This time Janet Douglas named a man, John Stewart, eldest son of the Widow Mathie. A search was carried out and, sure enough, another effigy was found hidden beneath his pillow, this time made of clay, and with pins in it. He was arrested along with his little sister, Annabil, aged fourteen at the time, and three other women of the village. The child Annabil confessed to…
“…being present in her brother’s house the 4th of January, while the clay picture was formed, the black gentleman being present (which was the name she gave the devil) together with Bessie Weir, Margery Craig, Margaret Jackson, and her brother John.”
On the pins being removed from the clay, Sir George again recovered.
John Stewart and the others maintained their innocence until they were checked for devil’s marks, and were each found to have them.
So their guilt being certain, they confessed. Taken for trial, the first to give evidence was young Annabil Stewart, who…
“declared, that in harvest last, the devil, in the shape of a black man, came to her mother’s house and required the declarant [Annabil] to give herself up to him; and that the devil promised her that she should not want [for] anything that was good. Declares, that she, being enticed by her mother Janet Mathie, and Bessie Weir, who was officer to their several meetings, she put her hand to the crown of her head, and the other to the sole of her foot, and did give herself up to the devil.”
Only Janet Mathie refused to confess, despite the pleas of her children, and remained obdurate to the end, insisting that her accuser, Janet Douglas, had put the dolls there herself. But to no avail. Annabil was granted mercy for being no more than a child, but the others were sentenced to die.
The burning took place soon after, in Paisley. It was a fine sight with the tar barrels and the flames and the screaming and all, and people came from near and far to see justice carried out.
But was it all in vain? Barely a twelvemonth later Sir George was laid low for a third time, this time never to rise again as a living man. Was it God calling him home? Or was it the Devil having his revenge…?
Janet Douglas, the dumb girl who spoke, later left Scotland for the New World. Some say she made her home in Massachusetts, in the town of Salem…
* * * * * * *
Actually, nobody says she went to Salem except the playwright Anne Downie in her play based on the story, The Witches of Pollok, but it’s too lovely an idea to have left out. However, as far as is known, Janet Douglas made a habit of accusing people of witchcraft and later did indeed go to America, so it’s possible…
Downie has apparently also written a fictional account of the case in her book of the same name.
My version is based largely on the account of the trial given in A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire, from where all the quotes are taken. It’s available to read online at this link. I have somewhat modernised the language and spelling in the quotes.
The Characters in Costume Blogfest is being hosted jointly by Christina Wehner and Andrea at Into the Winter Lea, and seemed like a great opportunity to discuss one of my all-time favourite films, A Few Good Men (Dir: Rob Reiner, 1992).
The cynics amongst you are probably thinking this is simply an opportunity to post pics of the deliciously young Tom Cruise in his lovely white uniform. As if I’d ever be so shallow!
No, indeed! It has always seemed to me that the use of uniforms in the movie, both overtly as one of the major plot points, and more symbolically throughout, is as important in conveying the meaning of the film as are the spoken lines. Since this is a discussion of the film rather than a review, it will be heavily spoiler-filled, so if you haven’t watched it and want to, I’d suggest you do that before reading. But do come back afterwards!
(NB To get it out of the way straight off, I have no idea whether the uniforms in the film are authentic and accurate or not, and I frankly don’t care. As far as I’m concerned they are part of the storytelling, and if the director has taken some liberties with the truth or simply got things wrong, I’m fine with that.)
* * * * * * *
Briefly, the film tells the story of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a member of the US Navy’s JAG Corps, defending two marines who have been charged with murdering one of their colleagues. The plot hinges on whether they had been ordered to give the victim, Private William Santiago, a Code Red – a traditional form of internal disciplinary punishment recently outlawed. This is used as a basis to discuss codes of honour, attitudes to discipline within the armed forces, and the age old question of whether it is ever acceptable for soldiers to disobey orders given by an officer.
The first indication of the importance of uniform within the film is its absence. Every serving character in the film makes their first appearance in uniform – except Kaffee, who first appears in baseball kit. Daniel Kaffee is a young, recently qualified lawyer, intending to serve a few years in the JAG Corps because he feels his late father, himself a celebrated lawyer, would have wanted him to. He has no real loyalty to the Navy nor any desire to do more than plea-bargain his way through the cases he’s allocated. While others are proud of their uniforms, Kaffee gets out of his into civvies at every opportunity.
One of the major themes is the divide in attitude between the officers in the JAG Corps, who are part of the navy, and the marines, who see themselves as the real fighting men. This divide is almost a matter of mutual contempt. The JAG officers see the marines as outdated relics of a more brutal past (remember, this is towards the end of the Cold War, when peace had been the norm for decades and everyone anticipated that we’d keep heading in that direction). The marines see the navy in general as an inferior branch of the service, and the JAG officers in particular as bleeding heart liberals with no code of honour and no understanding of the realities of facing an armed enemy. (At that time, the Soviets were still in Cuba and the marines at Guantanamo were the US’ first line of defence in the Cold War.)
Lieutenant Kaffee: Have I done something to offend you?
Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland): No, I like all you Navy boys. Every time we go someplace to fight, you fellas always give us a ride.
When Kaffee and his colleagues JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) go to Cuba to start their investigation, Sam advises Kaffee to wear his white uniform because of the heat. Unlike the two men, who are first and foremost lawyers, JoAnne’s loyalty is to the service – she sees herself as an officer first and a lawyer second. JoAnne wears khaki. On arrival in Cuba, the two men are immediately told to don camouflage…
Corporal Barnes (Noah Wyle): I got some camouflage jackets in the Jeep, sirs. I suggest you both put them on. Kaffee: Camouflage jackets? Barnes: Yes, sir! We’ll be riding pretty close to the fence line. If the Cubans see an officer wearing white, they figure it might be someone they want to take a shot at.
The white uniforms are shown even more clearly as symbolising everything the marines despise about these non-fighting officers when the commanding officer of the marines, Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), demands that Kaffee show him the respect he feels is his due…
Colonel Jessup: You see, Danny, I can deal with the bullets and the bombs and the blood. I don’t want money and I don’t want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that faggotty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some fucking courtesy. You gotta ask me nicely.
Kaffee doesn’t fare much better with his clients. Disgusted that Kaffee wants them to take a deal, Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) tells him…
Lance Corporal Dawson: You’re such a coward. I can’t believe they let you wear a uniform.
The plot hinges on why Private Santiago didn’t pack on the day he died. He was apparently due to be transferred off base at dawn the following day for his own safety (having gone outwith the chain of command to report on a fellow marine), but Kaffee sees all his uniforms carefully hung up in his wardrobe. The realisation of the oddity of this comes to him when he later sees his own uniforms hung up in the same way. This leads to a courtroom scene where he demands to know from Colonel Jessup what clothes the Colonel packed when he came to Washington to testify. And it’s at this point that the trial begins to turn in Kaffee’s favour. So uniforms play an actual pivotal part in the story as well as being used symbolically.
Perhaps the most powerful use of uniform in the film, though, comes when Jessup’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Markinson (J. T. Walsh), is torn between loyalty and honour.
Lieutenant Colonel Markinson: I want you to know that I am proud neither of what I have done nor what I am doing.
As we hear his voice reading the last letter he wrote, to Santiago’s mother, we watch as he puts on his full dress uniform – the braided jacket, the belt, the shoes shiny as mirrors, the white gloves, the ceremonial sword, and finally his officer’s hat – then takes his service pistol and shoots himself in the mouth. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, showing how even at this extremity the uniform and all it symbolises is of ultimate importance to him.
Finally, in the course of the case, Kaffee too has learned the meaning of duty and honour, and learned to admire these men who live by a code that he has come to understand a little better. And in return, he has changed the contempt of the marines he defended into respect. The young man we first met in his baseball gear is last seen in full dress uniform, receiving the salute of his client, and returning it with none of his earlier cynicism for the traditions of the marines.
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A great film, in which I think the three major actors, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson, each give one of their best performances. And, you know, it has to be said… Tom does look awfully handsome in uniform…