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TBR Thursday 54…

The People’s Choice 7…The Result!

 

A dramatic fall in the TBR for the second week in a row – down 1 to 138! That is, until I add in the one you chose in last week’s People’s Choice – oops! Back to 139.

It was another exceptionally close vote with the top two neck and neck for a few days. But in the end, by one vote, the winner is…

mister pip

Yes, Mister Pip squeaked it! (I’m so sorry – I couldn’t resist! I shall turn myself into the Pun Police immediately…)

The BlurbOn a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.

So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to katenich at Blogging Around My Bookcase for the review that brought this book to my attention.

So now all I have to do is find time to read it…

*******

And here’s a few that I’m looking forward to reading soon…

Factual

 

Pleasures of the TableCourtesy of the British Library. I loved the BL’s London: A Literary Anthology, and this is similar in format – a gorgeous hardback filled with lush illustrations, I believe from the BL’s own collection. A feast for the senses…

The Blurb – This beautifully illustrated collection of food writing includes delectable scenes of cooking and feasting from novels and stories, poems that use food to tempt and seduce, and fine writing by and about great cooks. Napoleon famously declared that an army marched on its stomach; less familiar is the idea that great authors were as eager to feed their stomachs as their imaginations. Far-ranging in both time and place, this exploration of literary eating and great writing about food will amuse, surprise, and make the mouth water. The anthology begins with examples of hospitality, ranging from Chaucer’s convivial Franklin to Walter Scott’s bountiful breakfasts and dinner with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay. Next comes eating to impress – dazzling banquets from Flaubert to F. Scott Fitzgerald – and some great fictional love feasts (there is no doubt that in literature food and love go together rather better than love and marriage). Many of our most vivid memories of food in literature were laid down in childhood, and nostalgia is to the fore in such classic scenes as Pinocchio aching with hunger, Ratty and Mole picnicking, enchanted Turkish delight in Narnia, and a seaside picnic from Enid Blyton. A section on distant times and places ranges from seethed tortoise in ancient China to seal’s liver fried in penguin blubber as a treat for Captain Scott. Those who relish simplicity rather than excess will enjoy Sydney Smith’s delicate salad dressing and Hemingway’s appreciation of oysters.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

some luckCourtesy of NetGalley, here’s the review from the ever-fragrant Lady Fancifull which inspired me to read this one…

Lady Fancifull says“Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ is Volume 1 of a trilogy, examining a tumultuous 100 years from just after the end of the Great War to 2020. Smiley does this by taking an ordinary family from Iowa, from mixed European settler stock, and following them forward through the generations, as children grow and become parents, and those children grow, in a world which is endlessly, rapidly in change.

Like Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning A Thousand Acres, this first volume of the trilogy shows the author as a writer with a deep connection to rural place and landscape, and to the powerful hold than ‘land’ can exert. She effortlessly shows how a story can be both deeply and uniquely personal, familial, and how the personal is always shot through with the ripples, tugs, and in-roads which the wider world and its history makes in the lives of each unique individual, as we all come from place, and live through time.”

 * * * * *

Crime

 

a good way to goCourtesy of NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Helton’s effortless and entertaining writing style in Indelible, so am keen to see how it transfers to the police procedural format…

The Blurb – On his first day back at work following his suspension, DI McLusky finds himself in the midst of a major murder enquiry when a body is discovered in the canal at Netham Lock. Chained, weighted down, tied to a buoy by the neck, it has all the hallmarks of a premeditated, ritualistic killing. As he questions those who knew the victim in an attempt to uncover the dead woman’s secrets, McLusky’s investigations are disrupted by the discovery of a second body. Bound and gagged like the first – but there are differences. If McLusky could only work out what connects the victims, he would be one step closer to catching the killer – and preventing more deaths.

Meanwhile, his rival DI Kat Fairfield is pursuing a routine investigation which takes a decidedly sinister turn …

* * * * *

falling in loveCourtesy of NetGalley. After enjoying Donna Leon’s By Its Cover, I intended to go back and read some of the earlier books in the Commissario Brunetti series. Needless to say I haven’t done so, but couldn’t resist the new one anyway…

The Blurb – Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first novel in her beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti series, introduced readers to the glamorous and cutthroat world of opera and one of Italy’s finest living sopranos, Flavia Petrelli. Now Flavia has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca.

Brunetti and his wife, Paola, attend an early performance, and Flavia receives a standing ovation. Back in her dressing room, she finds bouquets of yellow roses – too many roses. Every surface of the room is covered with them. An anonymous fan has been showering Flavia with these beautiful gifts in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, Venice, but she no longer feels flattered. A few nights later, invited by Brunetti to dine at his in-laws’ palazzo, Flavia confesses her alarm at these excessive displays of adoration. And when a talented young Venetian singer who has caught Flavia’s attention is savagely attacked, Brunetti begins to think that Flavia’s fears are justified in ways neither of them imagined. He must enter in the psyche of an obsessive fan before Flavia, or anyone else, comes to harm.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

 

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

twenty trillion leagues under the seaMostly brilliant…

:D :D :D :D :)

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine’s design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

twenty trillion leagues 2

This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I’ve read in a long time, it’s a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I’m sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it’s something more than a pastiche.

twenty trillion leagues 1

And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other’s throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there’s a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur’s new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There’s much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter – not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.

Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn’t feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia’s pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne’s world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the ’50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn’t as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to trying some of Roberts’ other books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

capital crimes london mysteriesSkulduggery in the City…

 

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries is a collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards, published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. Many of the stories are by authors I’ve never heard of, much less read, but there are a few well-known names amongst them too. I’ll be reviewing the full collection at some point in the future, but here’s a little taster from the pen of one of the best thriller writers of his time, for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

 

Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace

This story was first published in 1925 as part of a 12-story collection entitled The Mind of Mr J G Reeder. Mild-mannered Mr Reeder works for the Public Prosecutor’s Department, and his fascination for all things criminal sometimes enables him to see through puzzles that leave the police baffled.

Rumours have been going round the City that Telfers Consolidated, an old family-run business, might be about to hit the rocks. Its founder is long-dead and the company is now in the hands of his grandson, Sidney Telfer, a weak young man with no head for business. Sidney’s secretary, Margaret Belman, is coincidentally a neighbour of Mr Reeder’s, though they only know each other as nodding acquaintances.

'The_Mind_of_Mr._J.G._Reader'

Miss Belman is a pretty young woman, who’s walking out with a respectable young man. So she is shocked when one day, out of the blue, her employer asks her to run away with him to South America. The next day, Sidney’s begs her to tell no-one of his proposition, promising that he would marry her as soon as some legal difficulties could be got over. Miss Belman finds no difficulty in turning him down flat, and you can understand why…

The room, with its stained-glass windows and luxurious furnishing, fitted Mr Telfer perfectly, for he was exquisitely arrayed. He was tall and so painfully thin that the abnormal smallness of his head was not at first apparent. As the girl came into the room he was sniffing delicately at a fine cambric handkerchief, and she thought that he was paler than she had ever seen him – and more repellent.

Later that same day, an employee of Telfers, a Mr Billingham, embezzles £150,000 from the firm, bringing it crashing down. Mr Billingham disappears and the best efforts of the police fail to trace him. Because of the size of the theft, the Public Prosecutor’s Department sends in Mr Reeder, but at first he is also at something of a loss. However, one day a few weeks later, Mr Reeder is indulging his hobby of watching criminal court cases, when a woman appears in the dock, accused of having stolen marble chips from a stonemason’s yard. At first intrigued by the strangeness of the crime, Mr Reeder becomes even more interested when it is revealed that the woman is Sidney Telfer’s housekeeper, who had also acted as guardian to Sidney after the death of his parents.

Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories

Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories

Mr Reeder lets his mind work over his favourite game of patience, and soon figures out the connection between the housekeeper, the stolen marble and the disappearance of Mr Billingham and the money. Have you? No, I didn’t either, and I’m not totally sure it would be possible to on the basis of the information the reader is given – but it’s a lovely puzzle with a nice old-fashioned feel to it, back in the days when fictional criminals came up with more imaginative methods of committing their crimes. The tone of the story has something of a similar feel to the more quirky of the Holmes stories, but is lighter, with one eye always on the humorous aspect. Although there’s a bit of a thrillerish ending, there’s never any real doubt that Mr Reeder will get everything sorted out. I enjoyed the writing style – I don’t know that it would work for novel length, but it made for a very entertaining short story.

“Put down that jug or I will blow your features into comparative chaos!” said Mr Reeder pedantically.

The characterisation is surprisingly good given how little room there is for development, and there’s a clear distinction between the baddies and the goodies. And while the solution to the puzzle is one of the more far-fetched I’ve come across, it works in the context and style of the story. I feel I may have to track down some more of Mr Reeder’s adventures…

* * * * *

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

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

GAN Quest: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

the amazing adventures of kavalier and klayMore is less…

:D :D :)

This is the story of two young men in New York, from the 1930s through to the post-war period, who team up to create a comic-book superhero, The Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a second-generation American Jew, street-smart and full of big ideas. His cousin Josef Kavalier has just escaped from his hometown of Prague, now under the control of the Nazis, and where the Jewish population is beginning to feel the weight of the jackboot. Sammy’s head is buzzing with comic-book stories and Joe can draw. When Sammy talks his boss into giving them a chance, The Escapist is created and the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has been touted as a Great American Novel. I must say both those things baffle me. There’s some good stuff in here – Chabon can write, there’s no doubt about that. But the book is at least a third too long, perhaps as much as half, and I felt much as I did about Telegraph Avenue, that underneath the wordy dazzle there isn’t much depth. And, unlike Telegraph Avenue, the quality of writing in this one varies from sublime to extremely dull, and just occasionally all the way to ridiculous (“with skin the color of boiled newspaper” – I considered boiling a newspaper just to find out what his skin looked like, but lost the will to live before I got around to it.)

Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the covers shown are from this series.

Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the illustrations are from this series.

The first sections, covering Joe’s escape from Prague and the two boys meeting and forming their partnership, are very enjoyable and I felt I was in for a real treat. However Chabon then drifts off into what is clearly an immensely well-researched history of the comic book industry, and falls into the trap of passing beyond interesting into info-dump territory. By the 25% mark I was seriously considering abandoning the book, but persevered to see if I could work out why it has garnered so many accolades. To be honest, I couldn’t.

There was a humming sound everywhere that he attributed first to the circulation of his own blood in his ears before he realised that it was the sound produced by Twenty-fifth Street itself, by a hundred sewing machines in a sweatshop overhead, exhaust grilles at the back of a warehouse, the trains rolling deep beneath the black surface of the street. Joe gave up trying to think like, trust, or believe in his cousin and just walked, head abuzz, toward the Hudson River, stunned by the novelty of exile.

Joe’s story, of trying to battle both American and Nazi officialdom to get his family out of Prague, should be an emotional one, but the impact of his various setbacks is engulfed by the sheer weight of words. As often happens when an author is wishing to make a point, Chabon uses Joe’s unfortunate family like puppets to show the whole range of abuses the Jews suffered under Nazi rule, from the early minor restrictions of liberty to their incarceration in concentration camps, though he stops short of taking us on into the full horrors of those places. But because everything bad that happens, happens to one of his relatives, it begins to feel unreal after a while, and since we never really get to know his family as individual characters in their own right, I found myself feeling detached from their plight. Joe’s own reactions to the increasing guilt and desperation he feels are much more moving, but Chabon stretches each stage out for too long, describing everything, physical or emotional, to within an inch of its life, robbing it of most of its effect.

the escapist 2

The best sections are those where Joe and Sammy are interacting with each other. Metaphorically speaking (which I try not to do whenever possible), Joe is The Escapist and Sammy is his boy sidekick. But despite this their relationship feels authentic – their mutual regard for each other is believable and gives the book its heart. It’s also via them that the most original parts of the book come through, in the descriptions of how they create and develop their comic book characters, and how Joe in particular, but with Sammy’s support, uses this medium to try to shame the US into entering the war against Nazism.

As he watched Joe stand, blazing, on the fire escape, Sammy felt an ache in his chest that turned out to be, as so often occurs when memory and desire conjoin with a transient effect of weather, the pang of creation. The desire he felt, watching Joe, was unquestionably physical, but in the sense that Sammy wanted to inhabit the body of his cousin, not possess it. It was, in part, a longing – common enough among the inventors of heroes – to be someone else; to be more than the result of two hundred regimens and scenarios and self-improvement campaigns that always ran afoul of his perennial inability to locate an actual self to be improved. Joe Kavalier had an air of competence, of faith in his own abilities, that Sammy, by means of constant effort over the whole of his life, had finally learned only to fake.

Unfortunately I found the love interests of both characters less believable. Sammy takes an inordinate amount of time to work out that he’s gay; one feels even in the 1940s he’d have had some idea of why he seems to be attracted to men; and, again, it feels as if Chabon is using Sammy’s homosexuality to make points about the society of the time rather than it being a real, integral part of the character. And Joe’s relationship with Rosa never feels as if it has any depth, somehow – in fact, Rosa, the template for Joe’s creation of the superheroine Luna Moth, feels like something of a caricature herself.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

There are too many points where the story feels contrived – where I found myself sighing over the obviousness of the twists. In contrast, occasional passages move beyond believability into near surreality, though never quite making it all the way there, leaving the story dangling in an awkward space between reality and fantasy. The metaphor of Joe as The Escapist is taken too far at some points, particularly in the strange and somewhat forced sequences relating to Joe’s war experiences. Too often I was aware of the author’s hand controlling the characters’ actions to serve his own purpose, making it difficult to get a true feeling of involvement in either the characters or the story.

So strengths and weaknesses – but, for me, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, and it felt like a mammoth struggle to reach the too tidy end. And when I had, I found that I felt the long journey hadn’t really been worthwhile.

 

Great American Novel Quest

 

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagPublished in 2000, this really falls into the category of historical novel, and I don’t feel that it’s saying anything much about the time of writing. I also feel that it’s too shallow even about the period in which it’s set – I think Chabon tries to tackle too much and as a result doesn’t explore any one aspect as deeply as he might. Not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagCertainly the comic book theme, both in actuality and as a metaphor, feels original. But so much of the book drags rather conventionally through stuff that has been covered so often before that I can’t find it in myself to call the book overall either original or innovative. So not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagIn parts it is superbly written, but it’s inconsistent, and some huge chunks of it are frankly dull. So again, I’m afraid, not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think you can guess it’s not going to achieve this one. To be fair, it’s not trying to – it’s focused on a specific group – first and second generation Jewish immigrants – and on a specific bit of culture – comic books, widening out a little into art and entertainment. So no, unlike American Pastoral, I don’t think Chabon’s themes can be seen as a microcosm of the ‘American experience’ – not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

Oh, dear! Only one flag and that one for being American! I’m afraid that this one doesn’t even rank as a great novel much less A Great American Novel. Well, that’s my opinion anyway – what’s yours?

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (Audiobook)

trigger warningMixed bag…

:D :D :D :)

This collection of short stories turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Ranging in length from a couple of minutes to an hour and a half (I was listening rather than reading), some of the shorter ones are so fragmentary as to be rather pointless, while a couple of the longer ones feel too long for their content. However there are some excellent stories in here too and, as I’d been told by so many people, Gaiman is a wonderful narrator.

As a fairly new convert to Gaiman’s work I was surprised to find that there are several stories in here that I had already come across elsewhere in other formats. This made me wonder how much new stuff there would be in the book for established fans, so it would probably be wise to check the contents list before purchasing.

There is a long introduction in which Gaiman explains the rationale for the collection. This may have been better if I’d been reading rather than listening, but on the audiobook it takes over an hour, most of which is made up of short introductions to each story explaining the inspiration for it. Some of these short introductions are as long as the stories themselves. I fear I clicked out of the introduction after 20 minutes – snippets of how a story came about because of something some bloke called Jimmy said down the pub one night failed to hold my attention. One of the drawbacks of audio is that it’s not possible to scan read sections like this, as I would with a paper or e-book.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

I found the first few stories quite disappointing to be honest. The title, cover and introduction had all led me to think that the stories would be dark and chilling, but a lot of them aren’t. And while I think Gaiman does dark and chilling exceptionally well, I was less enamoured of his musing on the writing process by using a metaphor of making a chair, for example. I also found, and this is down to personal preference, that, of the stories I knew, I had on the whole preferred them in written format. Both Down to the Sunless Sea and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains had worked brilliantly for me when I read them – the first as straight text and the second as a graphic novel – but didn’t have quite the same effect when listening, mainly because, although Gaiman’s narration was excellent, the voices didn’t gel with the ones I’d heard in my head. However, where I hadn’t read a story before, Click-Clack The Rattle Bag, for instance, then the narration often worked superbly.

These three stories were still amongst my favourites in the collection though, and here are another few that I particularly enjoyed:

Adventure story – a son sits with his elderly mother having tea and discussing his father, now deceased. In the course of the conversation his mother reveals the story of an adventure his father once had long ago as a young man. The adventure becomes progressively more fantastical, and the appeal comes from the matter-of-fact way the mother tells it and the son’s astonishment. Quite a short story this one, but cleverly done and enjoyable. I suspect the narration made this one work better than it would have on paper.

The Case of Death and Honey is a rather good spin on the Holmes stories, which provides an explanation for why the great man went off to keep bees at the end of his career. It’s set in China with Holmes on the trail of the answer to the ultimate mystery, and while it is somewhat far-fetched it’s well-written and interesting, and Gaiman’s Holmes feels quite authentic. This is another one I had already come across elsewhere – in the Oxcrimes collection published last year.

Nothing O’Clock is a Doctor Who story and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It fits perfectly into the Doctor Who style and Gaiman’s narration of the many characters gives a unique voice to each. The story is imaginative and nicely chilling, but of course with the traditional happy ending we expect the Doctor to provide.

So quite a lot of good things in here overall, but also some that I found rather dull or a bit lightweight. A mixed bag – I’d say most readers will find some things to like in the collection but, like me, may also find there’s quite a lot that leaves them a little underwhelmed.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible UK.

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

TBR Thursday 53 – The People’s Choice…

The People’s Choice 7…

 

The TBR has dipped to below 140!! OK, only to 139, but still!

So…time for another look at some of the great reviews around the blogosphere, and for you to help me choose which one of these books deserves to be added to my TBR. Steering clear of factual since I have about a million of them already waiting, but a good mix of fiction and crime, I think. And an extremely difficult choice.

So which one will you vote for? The winner will be announced next Thursday…

With my usual grateful thanks to all the reviewers who’ve intrigued and inspired me over the last few weeks, here are:

The Contenders…

 

the burning airThe BlurbThe MacBrides have always gone to Far Barn in Devon for Bonfire Night, but this year everything is different. Lydia, the matriarch, is dead; Sophie, the eldest daughter, is desperately trying to repair a crumbling marriage; and Felix, the youngest of the family, has brought a girlfriend with him for the first time. The girl, Kerry, seems odd in a way nobody can quite put their finger on – but when they leave her looking after Sophie’s baby daughter, and return to find both Kerry and the baby gone, they are forced to ask themselves if they have allowed a cuckoo into their nest…

Cleo says: “In many ways The Burning Air is a book about moral issues with degrees of guilt and innocence being far more important, certainly in the background to this story, than the absolutes of right and wrong. I prefer my reading matter not to be black and white and so I think this book will be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on how morally responsible the reader holds the perpetrator.

See the full review at Petrona Remembered where Cleo was guest reviewing

*******

mister pipThe BlurbOn a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.

So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.

katenich says: “This book left me with a lingering sense of loss and a burning desire to read Great Expectations. This is a book about the power of stories and the way great stories help us to understand the world.  It is also about what makes people part of a community, and how communities behave when they are under pressure. The final theme through the book is about how people can re-invent themselves, like young Pip, and the challenges of reconciling your new self with your old home – the migrant’s loss of belonging.”

See the full review at Blogging Around My Bookcase

*******

turn of the tideThe Blurb – Set in 16th Century Scotland Munro owes allegiance to the Cunninghames and to the Earl of Glencairn. Trapped in the 150-year-old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, he escapes the bloody aftermath of an ambush, but he cannot escape the disdain of the wife he sought to protect, or his own internal conflict. He battles with his conscience and with divided loyalties – to age-old obligations, to his wife and children, and, most dangerous of all, to a growing friendship with the rival Montgomerie clan. Intervening to diffuse a quarrel that flares between a Cunninghame cousin and Hugh Montgomerie, he succeeds only in antagonizing William, the arrogant and vicious Cunninghame heir. And antagonizing William is a dangerous game to play…

Margaret says: “I loved it. It’s historical fiction and it captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland. If you have ever wondered, as I have, what it must have been like to live in a Tower House in the Scottish Borders then this book spells it out so clearly. And it puts you firmly in the middle of the centuries old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, with all the drama of their battles, ambushes and schemes to further their standing with the young King James VI. It’s a tale of love, loyalty, tragedy and betrayal.

See the full review at Books Please

*******

notes on a scandalThe Blurb – Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George’s, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense–and ends up revealing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.

Gemma says: Notes on a Scandal is very well written novel; Heller’s prose is insightful, perfectly depicting these two very different women. The lines and passages on loneliness are highlights for me. She depicts Barbara excellently, deftly describing loneliness in language which immediately captures what Barbara is feeling. The novel reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita in the way that it’s written on a topic that’s uncomfortable to read about. Yet my overwhelming feeling after finishing the book and reflecting on it now is that it’s less about the affair between Sheba and the student, and more about the relationship between Barbara and Sheba.

See the full review at The Perfectionist Pen

*******

the twelveThe BlurbFormer paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims, twelve souls who shadow his every waking day and scream through every drunken night. Just as he reaches the edge of sanity they reveal their desire: vengeance on those who engineered their deaths. From the greedy politicians to the corrupt security forces, the street thugs to the complacent bystanders who let it happen, all must pay the price. When Fegan’s vendetta threatens to derail Northern Ireland’s peace process and destabilise its fledgling government, old comrades and enemies alike want him gone. David Campbell, a double agent lost between the forces of law and terror, takes the job. But he has his own reasons for eliminating Fegan; the secrets of a dirty war should stay buried, even if its ghosts do not. Set against the backdrop of a post-conflict Northern Ireland struggling with its past, The Twelve takes the reader from the back streets of the city, where violence and politics go hand-in-hand, to the country’s darkest heart.

Cathy says: The Twelve may read initially like a standard revenge thriller, but it is also an exploration of the corrupt underbelly of Northern Ireland politics and the price we have had to pay for an uneasy peace. Neville uses this political reality to give depth and detail to what could have simply been a genre piece and has produced a tight, taut gem of a book.”

See the full review at 746 Books

*******

NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

Yet again I love the sound of all of these so…over to you! Choose just one or as many as you like – the book with most votes will be this week’s winner…

Hope you pick a good one! ;)

Surprise party!!!

A castle somewhere in Scotland…

 

sofa 1

Right, everyone – he’s on his way! Get behind the sofa! Shhhhh! Manly-Man, this is no time to be disco-dancing! Fats Henry, please breathe in. Schwarzy, my sweetie pumpkin pie, you know I think your loon impersonations are cute and adorable but…NOT NOW!! Shhhhh! Here he comes. Ready…?

 

surprise

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY
PROFESSOR VJ DUKE!

Come on in, Prof. Grab yourself a glass of punch and some cashews, and relax while your friends give you birthday greetings with their…

PARTY PIECES

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Susan P at The Portugal Years

 

Are you ready, kids? AYE AYE, PROFESSOR
I can’t HEAR you! AYE AYE PROFESSOR!!!!
Who lives in a pickle under the sea?
Professor VJ!
Sly and slippery and clever is he
Professor VJ!
If Punchy Land nonsense you would see
Professor VJ!
Then climb up to the nearest tree
Professor VJ!
PROFESSOR VJ !!!
PROFESSOR VJ!!!
PROFESSOR VJ !!!!!!!!!

Happy birthday, Professor! Many happy returns of the day.

Susan P

(Apologies to Sponge Bob)

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Debbie at Musings by an ND Domer’s Mom

 

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From John W. Howell at Fiction Favorites

 

The Professor Duke

by John W. Howell © 2015

Born another time,
Creating life for goodness…
Punchy Lands for laughs.

 

 * * * * * * * * * * *

 

From The Lite Rider

 

Lite Rider

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From PorterGirl at Secret Diary of PorterGirl

 

When I heard about the Professor’s birthday party, I was mightily excited. This is an important occasion, I thought to myself, and no doubt I will be needing some new shoes in honour of it. In fact, new shoes seemed essential. Whilst shopping for the new shoes it occurred to me that I should really think of a suitable gift to present to the Professor on this auspicious day. Now, what does the Professor like? I thought to myself. He likes eating things, I concluded and immediately set about baking him a cherry cake. But I am sad to say that the cherry cake smelled so good that I could not stop myself from eating it. Feeling rather contrite, I resolved to replace the cherry cake with a sausage sandwich. He would be sure to like a sausage sandwich. But disaster struck a second time and Terry ate the sausage sandwich. Which is why I stand here before you today, Professor, with only my very best wishes and a winning smile with which to offer you for your birthday. Also this…

*performs an elaborate and unusual dance*.

Happy birthday, P.VJ!

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Walt Walker at waltbox

 

bannerfans_15120449 (1)

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Audrey Dawn at Oldest Daughter Redheaded Sister

 

Happy Birthday, Duke
Duke, the name that suits you
You, yes, you, the one I’m writing to
To wish, the happiest of birthdays.
Birthdays only come once a year
Year: the time it took me
Me, to wish you a Happy Birthday.
Birthday Boy, Duketh, is who you are
Are you wishing for anything at all?
All we need to determine, you see,
See, once we know, we’ll exhaust trying
Trying to attempt the perfect gift.
Gift, your wish, seems simple enough
Enough time with you we’ll never have
Have you felt how much you’re loved?
Loved by many and bits and bits more
More of you is all we wait to see
See how easily we reconvene.
Reconvene to the same familiar blog
Blog birthday parties are tops
Tops is who you have proven to be
Be another dadblame year older.
Older is what comes with waking up
Up for whatever, you’ve proven lots.
Lots of admiration on your special day
Day and night pals stopping by to say
Say to you, professor, Happy Birthday.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

More punch, Prof? And perhaps a slice of pie?

cherry pie

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From sonmi at Sonmi’s Cloud

 

The Professor is a man of many facets, abounding with enthusiasm, curiosity, exclamation marks and questions!!?? He has been a regular visitor here on the Cloud for a good while now and at no point have I actually had to release the hounds. He likes to wax lyrical on the subject of his impressive mighty weapon and waggles it about willy nilly at the drop of a hat when any ladies are within a radius of twenty feet, and only recently was a winner in the prestigious award ceremony ‘The Cloudies’, winning the award for the blogger…….

‘Most likely to be a serial killer on the sly, but you’d still take a chance and invite them round for afternoon tea award’.

He was presented with a Hannibal lecter mask made entirely out of dried pasta and a patchwork sheath for his laptop embroidered with the words “You don’t have to be a serial killer to work here, but I clearly am anyway”.
What more can I say? Lots actually but Fictionfan is about to open a trapdoor beneath my feet on the stage, so I’ll just say…

Happy Birthday Professor!! Have a marvellous, wild, wacky and wonderful day in and out of The Punchy Lands – best regards from sonmi and the Cloud.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From L. Marie at El Space

 

l marie's pic

 

Happy birthday, Professor. A little poem pour vous:

A little wish from me to
Say happy birthday to you.
May you have lots of joy and
A year so awesomely grand.

I’m so glad to have discovered the Punchy Lands! Thanks for the many laughs you’ve provided me.

L. Marie

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Desert Dweller at S S Hicks

 

There is an old Professor, who is actually quite young, ruling the Punchy Lands with dadblameittry, punchinnytry, humdingatry and overall ri-do-diculoutry. He is a fierce and ruthless warrior, a sword carrying wordsmith of punchy speaks, chumming around with the likes of Schwarz, Fats Henry and the tireless flirt, Amelia, who has bugs for eyelashes and makes FF delirious with jealousy (somewhere she is flouncing about). It is not a great secret that our Professor is a skilled and talented musician, dueling his guitar with the only worthy opponent – himself – but he is also a master contrarian, sweet and generous and kind. However, this would sicken him and I’m getting off script, because he prefers his edges to remain rough, as any good skilled warrior will tell you. He lifts crooked dumbbells, you see, and reads books full of garbledook. But this mysterious and reluctant ladies man is turning 85 (in PL years, of course). Schwarz will no doubt give him three rats and a heifer, Amelia will try and steal a kiss, the Salami clan will attempt to throw him from a cliff, but I, the Desert Dweller (DD), send a million wishes, or maybe just 5, for the happiest birthday to the most esteemed Professor alive! Chickit.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The Eternal Triangle

 

“So, Prof,” says FF, “now that the party pieces are over, perhaps you and I…”

“Hi, sweetie!” A piercing squeak breaks into the conversation, so high-pitched that bats for miles around raise their ears in astonished gardooblement.

“Oh…uuh…umm,” the Professor mumbles, his eyelid twitching involuntarily, “Hi, Amelia!”

Amelia!!!!

FF spins round so fast Einstein has to redo his calculations, and there, helping herself to punch from the buffet table, slinks a vile creature in a skintight venom-green mini-dress, fluttering her eyelashes so violently that PorterGirl (who’s only little) is blown clean across the room.

Artist's impression of Amelia

Artist’s impression of Amelia

FF flounces over, tartan ballgown swishing. “And what, madam, are you doing here? You weren’t invited!”

“I’ve come to give my Dukey-baby a great big birthday kiss!” Amelia simpers, giggling as she waggles her talons at the Professor. He glances down, perhaps regretting after all that he has chosen to wear his pulchritudinous pants…

FF growls ferociously. “Dadblameit! YOU…SHALL…NOT…PASS!! L. Marie, would you be so good as to hand me that dessert?” And, with all the skill of a Red Sox pitcher, FF splats the blancmange straight at the man-eating little minx. A direct hit!

splat

Amelia gasps and stumbles backwards, tipping over the buffet table. As she slides inelegantly to the floor, the punchbowl empties its contents neatly over her Medusa-like hairdo.

splosh

Gazing at the bedraggled heap at her feet, FF chuckles. “Now that’s what I call Punchy!”

And tripping lightly across the room (and accidentally across Amelia), FF takes the Professor’s arm, smiling sweetly. “As I was about to say, my dear C-W-W, shall we dance…?”

Artist's impression of the Prof and FF

Artist’s impression of the Prof and FF

* * * * * * * * * * *

NB If anyone missed the pre-party shenanigans, you’ll find them over at Portergirl’s…

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PROF!

 WITH LOVE

 FROM YOUR PUNCHY FAMILY!

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

Petrona Remembered…

 

The Shut Eye

Today’s review is appearing on the blog Petrona Remembered.

Petrona was the blog name of Maxine Clarke, a stalwart of the crime fiction blogging community until her death in 2012. I didn’t know her personally, but I hadn’t been blogging for long before I discovered how highly regarded she was both in the blogosphere and as one of Amazon UK’s top reviewers. It’s an honour therefore to contribute a review to the blog set up and run in her memory. I hope you’ll pop over to see my review and, while you’re there, you’ll find great recommendations from many other crime fiction bloggers, each of whom have selected a book that they think Maxine would have enjoyed. Don’t forget to follow – there’s a new recommendation from a different blogger every month.

Since the plot of my recommendation involves missing children, given my comments on last week’s review of The Winter Foundlings, you’ll also get to see how completely inconsistent I am when it comes to books – in the end, it’s all down to the quality of the writing… ;)

 

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer reviewed on Petrona Remembered

 

 

The Winter Foundlings (Alice Quentin 3) by Kate Rhodes

the winter foundlingsBaked beans and a bottle of plonk…

:) :) :|

Ten-year-old Ella Williams has been abducted and is being held prisoner. She’s the third girl to go missing – the previous two have been murdered, dressed in white dresses of the kind worn by inmates of the old Foundlings Hospital, and their bodies left in cardboard boxes. The murders mirror those of psychopathic killer Louis Kinsella, now a resident in Northwood – a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane – and each time a victim is killed, the killer sends a token to Kinsella. Time is running out for Ella, and it’s up to psychologist Alice Quentin to get inside Kinsella’s mind and find out what he knows before it’s too late.

This is the third in the Alice Quentin series, and I’ve enjoyed the previous ones. As before, Alice is a likeable protagonist and Rhodes is very strong at creating a sense of place. In this one, Alice has moved away from central London to take up a research post at Northwood. It is nearly Christmas and England is in the grip of a huge freeze, and Rhodes gives a very good sense of snow and ice adding difficulties to all parts of the investigation.

Unfortunately the plot doesn’t match up to the atmosphere. It’s so similar to The Silence of the Lambs that comparisons must be made, and they don’t work in this one’s favour. Kinsella is no Hannibal Lecter and Alice is a pale shadow of Clarice Starling. The story is split between Alice’s first person past tense narrative and Ella’s story, told as third person present tense. There’s really very little to the plot – psychopathic killer copycatting another one, investigation wears on with nothing much happening till the big (unbelievable) thriller ending. So the book is padded out with Alice’s social life – she keeps telling us she’s working every hour to save poor Ella (quietly freezing and starving away in the background) but she manages to fit in three parties, several nights in the pub and a couple of love interests – all this in the space of a couple of weeks. No wonder she’s emotionally drained.

Don, the detective in charge of the case and, of course, one of the love interests, has to be made to look incredibly stupid to explain why he doesn’t do basic things, like interview the staff at Northwood (his reason being they must have been vetted before they got the job, so they can’t possibly be doing anything wrong, can they?), or not searching places because the owners tell him there’s no need. It galls me somewhat when the police are made to look incompetent for no reason other than to string a story out.

Kate Rhodes

Kate Rhodes

And I’m afraid I also found the ages of the victims made the plot distasteful. Why it should feel worse to read about a five-year old child being cruelly abused and murdered than a twenty-year-old-girl, I’m not sure. I reckon we have it programmed into our genes that we owe more protection to the young, even when they’re fictional. But whatever the reason, it left a very unpleasant after-taste. Without wishing to get too psychobabbly, somehow descriptions of abuse and violence towards children in a book that is trying to say something meaningful about a serious subject are bearable. But when they’re done purely for ‘entertainment’, I don’t find them so. And this book falls into the latter category.

Personally, I think the serial killer motif has been done now, and child-killing serial killers especially so. But hey! As I usually do, I’ve had a look to see what other people are saying and the book is getting 5-star reviews all round, so I guess it must be me! There’s no doubt it’s well written in terms of characterisation and atmosphere, so I guess if this is the kind of thing you like, then you’ll like this.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 52…

Episode 52

 

Woohoo! The TBR is down 1 to 141! I might throw a party to celebrate!!

Here are some of the ones that are teetering on the edge of the cliff…

Factual

 

fortune's foolCourtesy of NetGalley. I was expecting there to be a rash of biographies of Abraham Lincoln this year given it’s the 150th anniversary of his death, but so far I haven’t spotted any major ones. So this looked like an interesting alternative…

The Blurb says “With a single shot from a pistol small enough to conceal in his hand, John Wilkes Booth catapulted into history on the night of April 14, 1865. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln stunned a nation that was just emerging from the chaos and calamity of the Civil War, and the president’s untimely death altered the trajectory of postwar history. But to those who knew Booth, the event was even more shocking-for no one could have imagined that this fantastically gifted actor and well-liked man could commit such an atrocity.

In Fortune’s Fool, Terry Alford provides the first comprehensive look at the life of an enigmatic figure whose life has been overshadowed by his final, infamous act. Tracing Booth’s story from his uncertain childhood in Maryland, characterized by a difficult relationship with his famous actor father, to his successful acting career on stages across the country, Alford offers a nuanced picture of Booth as a public figure, performer, and deeply troubled man. Despite the fame and success that attended Booth’s career–he was billed at one point as “the youngest star in the world”–he found himself consumed by the Confederate cause and the desire to help the South win its independence. Alford reveals the tormented path that led Booth to conclude, as the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, that the only way to revive the South and punish the North for the war would be to murder Lincoln–whatever the cost to himself or others. The textured and compelling narrative gives new depth to the familiar events at Ford’s Theatre and the aftermath that followed, culminating in Booth’s capture and death at the hands of Union soldiers 150 years ago.”

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

the settling earthCourtesy of the author via NetGalley. I very seldom accept review requests direct from authors, but this one appealed – the title, the cover, the blurb and it’s short! It’s also getting very good reviews…

The Blurb says Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.

Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.”

* * * * *

Crime

 

the defenceCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve seen so many great reviews of this one around the blogosphere so I’m hoping I’ll love it just as much…

The Blurb says Eddie Flynn used to be a con artist. Then he became a lawyer. Turned out the two weren’t that different. It’s been over a year since Eddie vowed never to set foot in a courtroom again. But now he doesn’t have a choice. Olek Volchek, the infamous head of the Russian mafia in New York, has strapped a bomb to Eddie’s back and kidnapped his ten-year-old daughter Amy. Eddie only has forty-eight hours to defend Volchek in an impossible murder trial – and win – if wants to save his daughter.

Under the scrutiny of the media and the FBI, Eddie must use his razor-sharp wit and every con-artist trick in the book to defend his ‘client’ and ensure Amy’s safety. With the timer on his back ticking away, can Eddie convince the jury of the impossible? Lose this case and he loses everything.”

* * * * *

the strangerCourtesy of NetGalley. Coben’s plots can be a bit cheesy sometimes, but his thrillers are usually fast-paced rollercoaster rides with likeable protagonists. Here’s hoping…

The Blurb says The Stranger appears out of nowhere, perhaps in a bar, or a parking lot, or at the grocery store. His identity is unknown. His motives are unclear. His information is undeniable. Then he whispers a few words in your ear and disappears, leaving you picking up the pieces of your shattered world.

Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, two wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream – a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life. Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corrine, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears as if it never existed at all. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corrine’s deception, and realises that if he doesn’t make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy he’s stumbled into will not only ruin lives – it will end them.

 * * * * *

 

Sci-Fi

 

the martian chroniclesNext up in my bid to read more sci-fi, a classic I’ve never read. I’ve been very impressed by the few short stories of Bradbury’s that I’ve read recently, so I have high hopes for this…

The Blurb saysThe Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s repeated attempts to colonize the red planet. The first men were few. Most succumbed to a disease they called the Great Loneliness when they saw their home planet dwindle to the size of a fist. They felt they had never been born. Those few that survived found no welcome on Mars. The shape-changing Martians thought they were native lunatics and duly locked them up.

But more rockets arrived from Earth, and more, piercing the hallucinations projected by the Martians. People brought their old prejudices with them – and their desires and fantasies, tainted dreams. These were soon inhabited by the strange native beings, with their caged flowers and birds of flame.”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

do androids dream...“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” Spock

:) :) :) :)

Here we are back in our dystopian world of mid-20th century nightmares, when man has destroyed the planet in yet another global nuclear conflict. Most of the remaining humans have been persuaded to emigrate to other worlds, bribed with the promise of their own android if they go. Back on earth, the remaining population lives with the constant fear of infertility or worse, as a result of the radiation that covers the planet’s surface. Most animals have died and it has become a status symbol to keep a live pet. But these are hard to come by and expensive so some people keep electric pets instead – so well designed they are indistinguishable from the real thing without close examination. On these pets, real or fake, people pour out their feelings of empathy, feelings boosted by the Empathy Box – a machine that brings all humanity together to share in the suffering of their religious prophet, William Mercer.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, hunting down androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and returned to Earth. Rick owns his own electric sheep, his live one having died. He dreams of one day having another live animal to care for. As the book begins, he has been given the task of destroying a group of six of the latest model androids, so convincing it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from humans. In fact the only test that works is one that measures lack of empathy – thus making this the characteristic that most defines humanity. If Rick manages to ‘retire’ all six androids, the bounty money will let him buy a real animal to cherish.

Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick

I’ve read this book three times now and each time I come away with the same feeling. It’s very readable, has some interesting ideas and the characterisation of Rick is excellent. But fundamentally the book makes no sense. There are so many inconsistencies in it that I always come out of it wondering what message exactly Dick was trying to send. The thing is I know what he was trying to say, because he explained it in interviews – he was saying that no matter how humanoid the androids appeared, they were still soulless and heartless, but that the very task of hunting and destroying such human-like beings puts Rick’s own humanity at risk. Unfortunately that doesn’t come out as the message in the book. I can’t help sympathising with the androids. They are created as superior beings then sold to be slaves (and Dick makes explicit reference to pre-Civil War slavery) performing domestic and agricultural chores. When they rebel, they are hunted down and killed. Humans on the other hand rely on machines not just to give them empathy but to control their moods. Seems to me that there’s very little left of humanity in the humans at all.

Mostly what the book provokes in me is a series of unanswered questions:

Why do the androids return to Earth knowing they will be hunted – why not go elsewhere when they escape?

Why have humans given up all their existing religions and taken up Mercerism? And what is the point of Mercerism? As religions go, it’s a particularly depressing one.

Why have some people decided to stay on Earth? There’s little prospect of it recovering in the foreseeable future, and they will eventually get sick and die.

Why are the humans so freaked about the androids – they don’t seem to do much harm except when enslaved or attacked. One of them has actually become an opera star – well, OK, soprano opera singers are a pestilence, I admit, but even so…

And the most basic question of all…

If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can’t be told apart from the real thing, then… why make them???

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner - the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS...

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner – the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS…

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the subsequent brilliant exploration of what it means to be human via the world’s greatest android, (no, not Marvin!), Commander Data. But I suspect Data owes his existence more to Asimov’s robots than Dick’s androids, and personally I think Asimov’s robots were the superior creation.

So while the book is an enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend because of its status as a classic of the genre, it’s lack of internal logic always prevents me from thinking of it as a truly great one.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Adventure of the Dancing Men

Cracking the code…

 

Since spring is almost upon us (that falls decidedly into the category of wishful thinking…), the fretful porpentine has gone into hibernation for a while to recover from the horrors of the winter. So, as well as the approaching return of Transwarp Tuesday!, it’s time for a new series. Don your deerstalker, take a swig from the bottle of hooch in your desk drawer, polish off your little grey cells, and join me for the first…

Tuesday Tec

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is busily showing off his deductive powers to Watson when they are interrupted by the arrival of a new client, Mr Hilton Cubitt. He tells them that there have been strange doings afoot at his manor house in Norfolk – mysterious pictures of dancing matchstick men have been appearing, first in letters sent to his wife, and now scrawled on doors and buildings around the grounds. Mr Cubitt is a good, old-fashioned Englishman, who would never be discombobulated by such childishness. But his wife Elsie is plainly terrified. She is American, and on the day before their marriage following a whirlwind romance, she extracted a promise from Mr Cubitt that he would never question her about her past. So our upright friend has come to Holmes for help to solve the mystery of the dancing men…

Dancing Men 1

Holmes bent over this grotesque frieze for some minutes, and then suddenly sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. His face was haggard with anxiety.

The Dancing Men (1984)

This may well be the story that really inspired my love of crime fiction, and quite probably influenced me to prefer clues and mysteries to mavericks and gore. It’s one of the many stories in which Holmes actually fails pretty dismally and I fear I can’t let him off the hook very easily – had he sent a telegram when he discovered the truth, all may have been well. However, the story would have been considerably duller and Conan Doyle never made the error of saving an innocent victim or two at the expense of telling an exciting yarn. Holmes, having failed to prevent the crime, sets himself grimly to solve the mystery and get vengeance for his client – a common feature of the stories. For Conan Doyle, it is always more important that the villain should get his just desserts, whether at human or divine hand, than that the crime should be prevented.

“I guess the very best case I can make for myself is the absolute naked truth.”

“It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,” cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.

 

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 2

I love pretty much all of the Holmes stories. They were variable, especially in terms of plotting, but Conan Doyle was such a master storyteller that he could make even the flimsiest plot enjoyable. In this one, the plot is good, but the main emphasis is less on the story or on finding clues than on the breaking of the code and, for me, that’s what makes it such a joy. Watson plays completely fair – we get all the messages at the same time as Holmes does, and the solution makes complete sense. So the reader can either read the story straight through, or do what I did (when I was about 11) and spend hours trying to break the code before reading the solution, Sadly, I now know the story too well to repeat that bit of fun, but there was a time when I was actually able to use the code to write my own secret messages!

So once you’ve read the story (click here) and memorised the code here’s a little bonus message just for you.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

* * * * *

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

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

It's a Poirot!

It’s a Poirot!

* * * * *

(NB The Little Grey Cells rating will measure the mystery element of a story. To get 5 cells and thus become a Poirot, the story must have a proper mystery and clues, and a solution that it’s possible for the reader to get to before the detective.)

Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

huck finn's americaLooking beneath the mythology…

:D :D :D :D :D

Not so long ago, I re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time since childhood, and came away from it puzzled as to why, firstly, it has such a reputation as a literary masterpiece and, secondly, and more importantly, it is seen as a great anti-slavery/anti-racist tract. My own feeling was that the portrayal of the slaves was hardly one that inspired me to think the book was in any way a clarion call for recognition of racial equality – I said “…the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result it left me feeling quite uncomfortable.” The blurb for Huck Finn’s America promised that Levy would be taking a fresh look at the book, arguing that “Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded.” As you can imagine, I was predisposed to find his arguments persuasive.

Andrew Levy is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, Indianapolis, and it’s clear that he knows his subject thoroughly. He also has the gift of writing in a style that is enjoyable and easily accessible to the non-academic reader. His position is that Huck Finn must be seen through the double prism of Twain’s own experiences and the questions that were exercising society at the time he was writing, so the book has elements of biography as well as literary criticism, and also takes an in-depth look at the cultural and political debates that were going on in the public arena.

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finn

The other main aspect of Huck Finn is, of course, childhood, and here Levy argues that, rather than being some great paean to the joys of a childhood freed from the constraints of education, it is actually a reflection of the concern of society around bad-boy culture. He looks at contemporaneous news reporting to show that there was a huge debate going on around adolescent criminality, and the state’s role in tackling this through education. There was concern that boys’ behaviour was being influenced by the pulp fiction of the day, that bad parenting was a contributing factor, and there was a split between those who believed that more regimentation in education was the cause or the cure. If this all sounds eerily familiar, Levy suggests that is partly Twain’s point – that history goes round in circles – nothing ever really changes because man’s nature remains the same.

And, in Levy’s opinion, Twain is saying something similar about race. He is making the point that emancipation had failed to achieve its aims at the time he was writing. Slavery may have been nominally abolished, but black men are being imprisoned in their thousands for minor criminality and then being hired out as labour for pennies. The Jim Crow laws are on the near horizon – segregation in the South is well under way. Levy suggests that the problematic last section of the book, where Tom keeps Jim imprisoned despite knowing that he is now a free man, should be seen as a satire on the status of black people nearly thirty years after emancipation.

Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).

Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).

However, while Levy accepts Twain’s anti-racist stance in this last section, he also shows convincingly that much of the rest of the portrayal of race in the book comes out of Twain’s nostalgic love for the minstrel shows of his youth. Thus Jim is not exactly a representative of ‘real’ black people, so much as the caricatured version of the blacked-up minstrels. Levy tells us that in the early days of minstrelsy, in Twain’s childhood, the shows were less racist than they became later, and often were in fact used as vehicles for some fairly liberal views. But he also makes it clear that Twain was trying to recapture the ‘fun’ of this form of entertainment. He suggests that this aspect of the book would have been recognisable to contemporary audiences but, because minstrelsy has now become such a taboo subject, is generally missed by readers today.

Tying these arguments together, the fact that contemporary audiences would have recognised Huck as a ‘bad boy’ would have made it much more acceptable to associate him with a black man – both were seen as low down on the social scale, primitive even, and quite probably criminal. Levy acknowledges Twain’s intellectual anti-racism in his later years, but suggests that he retained a nostalgia for the slave-holding world of his childhood and always continued to think of black people as being there to ‘serve’ him. Rather than a call for equality, Twain was using black culture to entertain white people, and only those from the Northern states at that. And again Levy makes the point that black culture is often adopted by white people in much the same way still – as Twain suggested, history is a circle.

Andrew Levy  Photo Credit: Randy Johnson

Andrew Levy
Photo: Randy Johnson

I found this a very well-written and interesting book. Already having doubts about the extravagant claims made for Twain’s anti-racist credentials, I admit that part of my enjoyment was because it gives a solidly researched and explained base to my own instinctive reservations about Huck Finn. That’s not to suggest that Levy is doing some kind of hatchet job on either Twain or Huck – he clearly greatly admires both the man and the book. But he has brushed aside some of the mythology that has grown up around it over the last century and put it firmly back into its own context. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J a novel“Equipoise of hate…”

:) :) :) :)

Set in a near-future society, this is superficially the story of two misfits who fall in love. But the society, a kind of benign dystopia, is one trying to find ways to prevent ‘what happened, if it happened’ from ever happening again. And whatever happened, happened as a result of anti-Semitism, which is the real subject of the book.

After what happened, all people have been given Jewish surnames, the study of history is strongly discouraged, art has been restricted to the inoffensive and unchallenging, and people are encouraged to go through a ritual of saying sorry, even when they can’t think of anything they need to be sorry about. All of this is designed to prevent the build-up of the kind of antagonism that led to what happened. Although the convention is to say ‘what happened, if it happened’, it’s pretty clear that something violently horrific did happen, but it happened mainly in the cities and our story is set in a small village on the coast, possibly of Cornwall, where probably no-one was directly involved. The problem is that the plan doesn’t seem to be working so well – husbands and wives are becoming violent towards each other, friends and acquaintances are brutalising each other, and murder is on the rise. And our two main protagonists, Kevern and Ailinn, feel out of place – Kevern irrationally, (perhaps), fearful each time he leaves home that someone will break in, and Ailinn haunted by dreams in which she plays the part of the whale constantly running from an undefined Ahab.

On account of their innate aggressiveness, songs of that sort were no longer played on the console. Not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.

This is an odd book that so very nearly works brilliantly, but just misses. The structure is unbalanced – the entire first half is filled with allusion and mystery with the reader struggling, somewhat like the characters, to work out what happened and why the society isn’t working. The second half clarifies everything, but almost becomes too clear – it begins to feel a bit like a political statement rather than a novel in parts. I found it a little problematic in that, in its desire to show the repeating horrors of anti-Semitism, it comes close to suggesting that there are only two types of people in the world – Jews and those who hate them. Anti-Gentilism? The suggestion seems to be that, in order to maintain an equilibrium in society, we must have someone to hate, and it’s easier to hate someone to whom we have already done wrong, hence the Jews are the eternal target. It is satirical, but somehow not quite satirical enough to justify the over-simplification of the message.

But the shouts and smell of smoke had a powerful effect on me. I don’t say they excited me, but they gave a sort of universality to what I was feeling. I am who I am because I am not them – well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness.

The quality of the prose is excellent, and in the early part Jacobson has a good deal of fun with today’s popular culture, from jazz being banned because improvisation should be discouraged, to artists being encouraged to paint only pretty landscapes. But the humour doesn’t always fit well with the overall tone, and the satire becomes rather unsubtle as the book progresses. The characterisation has a feeling of unreality about it – each one feels more like a representation of a part of this society rather than a real person. This works fine in the context of the book, but it prevents the reader from feeling much emotional involvement with the two lead characters. In fact, given the subject matter, the balance of the book is surprisingly weighted away from emotionalism towards a colder intellectualism – though this is not a bad thing, I feel.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

The ambiguity of the first half worked better for me than the more didactic second half. The government is invisible, represented only by those who spy on others. But there is a pervading feeling that everyone is being monitored and that even the smallest infractions of the new social code will be punished, though how is left deliberately vague – that very vagueness being the most sinister aspect of it. There are shades of Brave New World here, in the way the people are controlled via seemingly benign means to keep them happy; and of 1984, in the suppression and distortion of history and truth. Although ultimately this book doesn’t have quite the profundity or power of either of these, it’s still an interesting and thought-provoking read that deserves its place on last year’s Booker shortlist.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 51…

Episode 51

 

Well, I think the only answer might be to come up with a new system of counting, ‘cos yet again the TBR has reached a new height this week – 142!! Maybe I should only count books that begin with Z…

Here are some of the ones that are getting near to the top of the heap…

Fiction

 

stone mattressCourtesy of NetGalley. Another Folio Prize Nominee, this collection of short stories will be my first introduction to Margaret Atwood. I’m seriously hoping that by the time I’ve read it I’ll know what a stromatalite is…

The Blurb says “A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. An elderly lady with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly-formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. A woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. And a crime committed long-ago is revenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion year old stromatalite.

In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle – and also by herself, in her award-winning novel Alias Grace. In Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game.

 * * * * *

Crime

 

the maltese falconCourtesy of NetGalley, this was already on my TBR as part of the Great American Novel Quest. I’ve seen the film a million times but I don’t think I’ve ever read the book…

The Blurb says Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and when Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby’s trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a treasure worth killing for, before the Fat Man finds him?

* * * * *

Crime Audiobook

 

wolf winterCourtesy of Audible UK. Mixed reviews on this one, but somehow it appeals to me anyway – sounds nice and atmospheric, and since it snowed here a couple of days ago, it’s still the right time of year…

The Blurb says There are six homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain. A day’s journey away lies the empty town. It comes to life just once, in winter, when the church summons her people through the snows. Then even the oldest enemies will gather.

But now it is summer, and new settlers are come. It is their two young daughters who find the dead man not half an hour’s walk from their cottage. The father is away. And whether stubborn or stupid or scared for her girls, the mother will not let it rest.

To the wife who is not concerned when her husband does not come home for three days to the man who laughs when he hears his brother is dead to the priest who doesn’t care, she asks and asks her questions, digging at the secrets of the mountain. They say a wolf made those wounds. But what wild animal cuts a body so clean?”

* * * * *

Sci-Fi

 

twenty trillion leagues under the seaCourtesy of NetGalley. Trying to read some modern sci-fi/fantasy along with the classics, and this sounds like fun in a weird kind of way…

The Blurb says “It is 1958 and France’s first nuclear submarine, Plongeur, leaves port for the first of its sea trials. On board, gathered together for the first time, are one of the Navy’s most experienced captains and a tiny skeleton crew of sailors, engineers, and scientists. The Plongeur makes her first dive and goes down, and down and down. Out of control, the submarine plummets to a depth where the pressure will crush her hull, killing everyone on board, and beyond. The pressure builds, the hull protests, the crew prepare for death, the boat reaches the bottom of the sea and finds nothing. Her final dive continues, the pressure begins to relent, but the depth guage is useless. They have gone miles down. Hundreds of miles, thousands, and so it goes on. Onboard the crew succumb to madness, betrayal, religious mania, and murder. Has the Plongeur left the limits of our world and gone elsewhere?

 * * * * *

 

dune messiahAfter enjoying my recent re-read of Dune, time for the follow-up. I’ll be reading this alongside my blog buddy, Professor VJ Duke, who’s reading the Dune books for the first time, so that will add considerably to the fun!

The Blurb saysThis second installment explores new developments on the desert planet Arrakis, with its intricate social order and its strange threatening environment. Dune Messiah picks up the story of the man known as Muad’dib, heir to a power unimaginable, bringing to fruition an ambition of unparalleled scale: the centuries-old scheme to create a superbeing who reigns not in the heavens but among men. But the question is: Do all paths of glory lead to the grave?

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley, Goodreads or Audible.

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

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
FEBRUARY

SMILEYS

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

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

 

2011

 

newton and the counterfeiterI only reviewed one book in February 2011, but fortunately it was a good one, though not fiction. In fact, it was reading this book that started me reading the occasional popular science book – a thing I hadn’t done in years. The book tells the story of Newton’s time in charge of the Royal Mint, when he became obsessed with trying to trap the most famous counterfeiter of his time, William Chaloner. But the bits that interested me more were the sections relating to Newton’s scientific career, and particularly how he developed the methods of research that became the foundation of how science is still carried out today.

 

2012

 

the secret diary of adrian moleA special 30th Anniversary edition of Adrian Mole was issued in February 2012, and for a while everyone on Amazon Vine seemed to be discussing it and sharing quotes. This fictional diary of an angst-ridden teenager in love was a sensation when it was first issued, and I was delighted to find it had stood up well to the test of time. Written as a satirical look at suburban life in contemporary ’80s Britain under Thatcher, it now reads almost like a historical novel, and whisked me back to those days of flares, pimples and Lady Di. Still one of the funniest books out there!

 

 

2013

 

The Earthquake BirdSet in Japan, this excellent debut novel tells the story of Lucy, who becomes a suspect when her friend Lily is murdered. Damaged by events in her early life, Lucy has moved from her Yorkshire home to Japan to try to put the past and her family behind her.We meet her while she is being questioned by the police and refusing to answer them. Instead she tells us, the readers, her story.  Susanna Jones’ writing style is spare and well crafted, shot through with shafts of humour and irony, but gradually creating tension that builds throughout the book. But her greatest strength is in creating compelling, enigmatic central characters and Lucy is a fine example of this.

 

 

2014

 

revolutionary-roadSince I gave this book the FF Award for Literary Fiction in 2014, it could hardly not be my top pick for February. The story of failed people in a failed marriage living in a failed American Dream, this is one of the finest books I have ever read. The writing is superb, and the brilliant spotlight Yates shines on his characters leaves them no room to hide. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. I described it as masterpiece in my review – not a term I use lightly – and I still hold to that opinion.

 

2015

 

the way things wereSet in contemporary India, this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. When Skanda returns to India to attend the funeral rites for his father, it sets him off on a process of remembering and reassessing the recent history of his family, and through them India itself, from the 1970s to the present day. Beautifully written, this is a deeply political and thought-provoking book that manages the difficult feat of also being enjoyable.  An exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

 

* * * * *

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

Tuesday Terror! Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

Turn out the lights…

 

On Sunday night, for some reason I couldn’t sleep – a very rare occurrence for me. So I decided to listen to a bit of my current audiobook – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning – in the dead of night with the lights off. And this little story raised my hair and tingled my spine in the most delicious way, so it just has to be this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

 

trigger warning

 

The narrator is staying in his girlfriend’s new house – a rambling old pile with long corridors, creaky floors and dodgy electricity. His girlfriend has gone out to get a takeaway meal, leaving our narrator to look after her young brother. It’s the boy’s bed time, and he asks the narrator to walk up to his bedroom with him and tell him a story before he goes to sleep because, as he explains, he feels a bit scared in the old house and his bedroom is all the way up in the attic. He knows the narrator writes scary stories but says maybe he should tell a not-scary story instead.

spooky house

 

Now our narrator is just a young man himself, so he’s quite proud to have both his bravery and his story-telling skills appealed to in this way. So they leave the sitting-room and go into the corridor. The narrator clicks on the light switch…but nothing happens. Taking the boy’s hand, he sets off along the corridor and up the stairs, lit only by the pale light of the moon shining through the stairwell window. The narrator keeps up a brave face for the boy’s sake even though he’s feeling just a little spooked himself. And as they go, they chat about what story he should tell. The boy asks him if he knows the story of ‘Click-Clack the Rattle Bag’. No, our narrator replies, and so the boy begins to tell him…

Spooky_Moonlight_by_kiebitz

 

It’s only a short story but brilliantly effective, one of these ones that’s really enjoyably scary! The kind of story that a wicked adult might tell to a bunch of kids round a campfire late at night. But I’m going to tell you no more. I don’t think it would be half so much fun to read as to hear, so here’s the man himself reading it superbly. But don’t listen now! Wait until it’s dark, and you’re alone, and the wind is gently rattling through the branches of the trees outside…

 

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock: :shock:

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

 

It's a fretful porpentine!!

It’s a fretful porpentine!!

 

 

Money Tree by Gordon Ferris

money treeHi-Yo, Silver! Away!

:D :D :D :D :)

When journalist Ted Saddler writes an article suggesting that the People’s Bank in India is ripping off the poorest people in the country, he is approached by Erin, an executive with a big American bank, who suggests he’s been fed false information and should do a bit of digging. A former Pulitzer winner, Ted is now middle-aged, world-weary and happy to be a desk journalist, but something about Erin’s story intrigues him. When his boss decides he should go to India to follow the story, he soon finds his views changing, as he meets the head of the bank and some of the people it has helped. Meantime, at his request, Erin is working with a hacker friend of Ted to investigate the head of her own bank, who she believes is behind the attacks on the People’s Bank. Cut in with this main strand is the story of Anila, a young woman from a village where the people live hand to mouth, who decides to ask for a loan from the Bank to set up her own little business.

The book follows a fairly traditional thriller format of goodies against baddies leading to a spectacular climax, but the quality of Ferris’ writing lifts it well above average. There’s a strong political message in the book, about how the poor of the third world are pawns in the power games of their own politicians and the rich and influential institutions of the West. Western banks and the World Bank don’t come out of the story well – actually that’s an understatement. They’re shown as corrupt from the top down and run on the whole by maniacal, amoral power-junkies, while the People’s Bank is shown to be an altruistic venture run solely for the purpose of supporting micro-businesses to help the poor rise out of their destitution. To be honest, I thought this aspect was all a bit too clear-cut – in reality, the situation on both sides is considerably more complex than I felt Ferris showed. However, it’s difficult to fully explore a political argument within the context of a thriller so some degree of over-simplification is probably necessary.

If you're wondering why The Lone Ranger references, you'll need to read the book. Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!

If you’re wondering why The Lone Ranger references, you’ll need to read the book. Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!

The characterisation is excellent, despite being based on the cliché of the has-been journalist inspired by an attractive woman to take up the good fight. Both Ted and Erin are likeable and their growing appreciation for each other as the story progresses is well done. The story of Anila and the villagers is interesting and Ferris gives a real sense of life in a place left behind and almost destroyed by the march of so-called progress. We see Anila’s life both from her own perspective and also through the eyes of Ted and Erin, which gives a rounded picture of how different and almost incomprehensible the lives of each are to the other.

Gordon Ferris

Gordon Ferris

Since the heart of the book is in the highly technological banking industry, the action is as likely to involve IT shenanigans as guns (though guns feature too – fear not, my bloodthirsty friends!) and this gives the book a feeling of freshness and originality. Ted’s friend Oscar and his gang of hackers provide some light relief as they don their online personas and ride off to battle in the warzones of the dark net. The plot is not about the who – we know from the beginning who the baddies are. It’s about whether Ted and Erin will be able to bring the baddies down in time to save the People’s Bank – and themselves.

Overall, I feel the book starts a bit slowly but gradually builds up the pace till by the end it races along. The traditional thriller ending is enlivened by the technological element, which Ferris explains well enough for even the least nerdy person to follow. I understand from the bumph on the Amazon page that this is to be the first in a new ‘Only Human’ series from Gordon Ferris, which will be ‘fast paced stories tackling some of today’s global challenges’. I’ll certainly be signing up for the next adventure.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

a tale of two cities“Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop…”

:D :D :D :D :D

Set before and during ‘The Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, A Tale of Two Cities ranks amongst the finest of Charles Dickens’ works, even though it is in many ways quite different to his other great books. The humour and exuberant language is toned down; there is not the huge cast of peripheral caricatured characters; there are no major sub-plots. Instead there is a tightly-focused and exciting plot, a hero in Sidney Carton of much greater complexity than Dickens’ norm, and some of his most hard-hitting commentary on the effects of poverty and abuse, not just on those who suffer directly from it, but on society as a whole. While often Dickens’ books feel as if they have organically grown during the writing, with Dickens himself being as surprised as the reader by the direction they take, this one always feels to me as if he had planned it down to the last detail before he began. Nothing happens that isn’t relevant, and everything is explained completely in the end. And it has a purpose – one overwhelming theme: to show the possibility of redemption and resurrection, personal and political. That theme is what carries the reader through what must be the darkest of Dickens’ stories to the sense of hope that is inherent even in the tragedy of the ending.

“Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”

Dickens throws us into a state of menace right at the start of the novel, as Mr Lorry makes his way to Dover on the mail coach, the passengers and coachmen all in a state of extreme anxiety that the coach will be held up by highwaymen. This, together with the introductory chapter comparing the social inequalities and injustice in both England and France in the period, are an indication that Dickens is warning that the situation in England is not so very different to the conditions that led to the uprisings in France. This is one of the book’s strengths – Dickens doesn’t do the too frequent British thing of assuming that upheavals in foreign lands are somehow due to a form of moral inferiority. He makes it clear all the way through that the social problems in pre-Revolutionary France are paralleled in English society, and that the end result could very easily be the same.

tale-of-two-cities the mob

As always with Dickens though, the story is the thing. Unlike too many modern writers of misery, he recognised that the first thing an author has to do is entertain his audience. That way they might stick around long enough to hear the message. The story proper begins as Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille after a long imprisonment without trial, for reasons that only become known to the reader towards the end of the book. ‘Recalled to life’ through the love of the daughter he never knew he had, he returns to England where he regains his health and sanity. His beloved daughter Lucie falls in love with a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay, and the little family settles happily in a small house in London. But always Dickens keeps us aware of the approaching political hurricane that will soon sweep through France, and we know that somehow the family’s fate is tied to those events. When Charles Darnay is summoned to aid an old servant imprisoned for his loyalty to Darnay’s aristocratic family, the action moves to Paris…

“Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!”

With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.
***
“To me, women!” cried madame his wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.

Storming of the Bastille Jean-Pierre Houel

Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houel

It’s in Dickens’ depiction of Paris at this horrific moment in its history that he shows his genius, with some fantastic writing of the storming of the Bastille and the behaviour of the mob. With barely concealed anger he straddles both sides – showing the decades of cruelty and abuse meted out to the poor by pampered aristocrats, and the dehumanising effects of this, turning the Revolutionaries into savage monsters, akin to devils, when they come to power, wreaking vengeance even on the innocent. Though never sympathising with the viciousness on either side, he nonetheless brings the reader to feel pity amidst the revulsion for those caught up in these times – to understand how mobs become a force apart from the individuals within them. Madame Defarge is one of his greatest creations. The driving force behind the Revolutionary zeal to feed the guillotine, she is monstrous in her savagery, all the more so for being female. And yet we see the forces that have formed her and it is a hard heart indeed that can feel no trace of pity for her in the end – and for those who follow her. Dickens shows us how weak people can be in times of great turmoil, as neighbour betrays neighbour, and loyalty to a cause, or fear of it, trumps personal morality.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants.

But amidst all this horror and tumult, there is Sidney Carton. In love with Lucie but knowing that she could never love someone so deeply flawed as he, his unselfish devotion is brilliantly portrayed, without any of the wild exaggeration of character in which Dickens often indulges. Carton is believable and therefore the reader cares about him. The redemption of this weak drunkard, a wastrel who has thrown away the talents he was born with, is the heart of the plot, and central also to the wider message of the book – that through love, faith and sacrifice, resurrection is possible – for the person, but also for this deeply fractured society. Carton’s final scenes and last speech are beautifully written and intensely moving. I can’t think of another book where both the opening and closing lines are quoted so often that they have passed into cliché. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”)

french_revolution_guillotine

For me, Bleak House is the best, but this one has all the things that make Dickens great – the writing, the plotting, the social conscience – without the things that sometimes put new readers off – the caricatured comedy, the overblown descriptions, the saccharin romances. If anyone were to ask me where to start with Dickens, this would be the book I would recommend.

TBR Thursday 50…

The People’s Choice 6…The Result!

 

Ooh! After two books sitting as joint leaders for several days, someone snuck in at the last minute and cast a winning vote. (Not me, honest!) So by the shortest of heads – this week’s winner is…

the guernsey literary and potato peel society

The Blurb – It is 1946, in the thick of World War II, when American writer Juliet Ashton becomes the sudden recipient of letters from the inhabitants of Guernsey, the small island in the English Channel that has fallen under Nazi control. The letter writers have formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a way to gather without attracting the attention of their occupiers. Out of these letters, Juliet comes to know the lives, loves, and hardships of a wonderfully eccentric and vivid cast of characters, and their charming philosophies and anecdotes help her resolve her own romantic conundrum.

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Thanks to all who voted, and to Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books for the review that brought this book to my attention. Including this one, the TBR has gone back up to 138.

So now all I have to do is find time to read it…

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And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

 

gods of the morningCourtesy of NetGalley, a celebration of the natural world of the Scottish Highlands…

The Blurb – For more than three decades, John Lister-Kaye has been enraptured by the spectacular seasonal metamorphosis at Aigas, the world-renowned Highlands field centre. Over the years, the glen’s wildlife has come to infiltrate his soul, whether it is a warbling blackcap’s cascading refrains, whooper swans hauling winter along with them, pine martens causing havoc in the hen run, loyal resident tawny owls defending their territory from adolescents, or a regal roe buck strutting in the broom and gorse, suddenly gilded by a fiery ray of sunlight.

John Lister-Kaye has come to understand intimately the movements of these beloved creatures, but increasingly unpredictable weather patterns have caused sometimes subtle, sometimes seismic shifts in their behaviour. Gods of the Morning follows a year through the turning of the seasons at Aigas, exploring the habits of the Highland animals, and in particular the birds – his gods of the morning – for whom he has nourished a lifelong passion.

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Fiction

 

widows and orphansCourtesy of the publisher, Arcadia Books, this one will be a real leap in the dark…

The Blurb – The Francombe & Salter Mercury has served the residents of two South Coast resorts for over 150 years. Hit by both the economic decline and the advent of new technology, Duncan Neville, the latest member of his family to occupy the editor’s chair, is struggling to keep the paper afloat. Duncan’s personal life is also in confusion as he juggles the demands of his elderly mother, disaffected son, irritable ex-wife and devoted secretary. At the same time, Geoffrey Weedon, his childhood friend, turned greatest rival, unveils plans to rebuild the crumbling pier, which, while promising to revive the town’s fortunes, threaten its traditional ethos. Then Duncan meets Ellen, a recent divorcee, who has moved to Francombe with her two teenage children and romance quickly blossoms. After the foreign landscapes and theological dramas of Jubilate and The Breath of Night, Michael Arditti’s latest novel is a return to the home front in both subject and setting. Witty and poignant, Widows and Orphans casts an unflinching eye over the joys and adversities of contemporary life and paints a masterful portrait of a decent man fighting for his principles.

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Crime

 

the winter foundlingsCourtesy of NetGalley, I’m late to the party on this one. But I enjoyed the previous books in the series…

The Blurb – Psychologist Alice Quentin has been looking forward to a break from her hectic London life. She has vowed to stay clear of police work. The previous cases she helped the police with have left her scarred. So, when Alice is given the rare opportunity to study treatment methods at Northwood high-security hospital outside of London, she is eager to get to work. But then a young girl is discovered, dressed all in white, on the steps of the Foundling Museum. Four girls have recently gone missing in North London—this is the third to be found, dead. The fourth may still be alive, and Alice Quentin may be able to help. Britain’s most prolific child killer, Louis Kinsella, has been locked up in Northwood for over a decade. Yet, these recent kidnappings and murders are clearly connected to Kinsella’s earlier crimes. It seems that someone is continuing where he left off. So, when Detective Don Burns comes asking for Alice’s help, how can she refuse? Alice will do anything to help save a child—even if that means forming a relationship with a charismatic, ruthless murderer.

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arab jazzCourtesy of NetGalley. Two glowing reviews from Raven and Marina Sofia made this one irresistible…

The Blurb – Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse. The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm? In this his debut novel, Karim Miské demonstrates a masterful control of setting, as he moves seamlessly between the sensual streets of Paris and the synagogues of New York to reveal the truth behind a horrifying crime.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, NetGalley or publisher’s publicity bumph.

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

 

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