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The Last Refuge by Craig Robertson

the last refugeDamning it with faint praise…

:) :) :) :|

John Callum has moved to the Faroe Islands to get away from his past and make a new start for himself. At first things go fairly well – some of the Islanders are welcoming and he soon finds a place to stay and a job. But the nightmares from his past continue to haunt him. And one drunken night, he wakes up on a fish-slab in the harbour to find that he has a bloody knife in his pocket. Next day, he hears that a man has been stabbed to death – the jealous ex-lover of the girl with whom Callum has begun to fall in love. The worst thing is that Callum has no memory of what happened after he left the pub the night before, but he does know he’s been violent in the past – so even he isn’t certain that he’s not the murderer…

Where I’m struggling with crime novels these days is that, if I can’t like the main character, why would I want to spend time in his/her company? It used to be that the main protagonist was the good guy, or at least a likeable bad guy, and that therefore the reader was with him in the quest to find the culprit, right a wrong, clear his name, etc. This even applied to noir – damaged heroes like Laidlaw or Sam Spade were still ultimately on the side of the angels, however cynical or corrupt their actions might have been. Occasionally a real bad guy can be fun to read about if he’s presented cleverly and entertainingly – A Pleasure and a Calling, Summer House with Swimming Pool, etc. But Callum is just a violent drunk, who is on the side of himself alone. I wouldn’t spend ten minutes with him in real life, and I would hope that justice would catch up with him and that he’d spend a good long time in prison. No, this isn’t a spoiler for the main event – I am not implying that he either did or didn’t do this murder. But what we learn about his past and how we see him behave in the present leaves me feeling that he’s not fit to be wandering around free anyway.

Tórshavn old town, Faroe Islands "Tinganes 57" by Stig Nygaard

Tórshavn old town, Faroe Islands
“Tinganes 57” by Stig Nygaard

Which leads me to another thing that I find incomprehensible in contemporary crime. Given that Callum is a violent drunk with a shady past, living in a shack, suspected of murder, penniless and with no obvious future prospects, why are we supposed to believe that an intelligent, successful professional woman would be interested in him? If an author wants me to believe that, then he must be shown to be charming, fascinating, a great conversationalist, someone who saves kittens from being run over by trucks – something to make him seem attractive – but Callum is none of these things. We’re not talking about 17-year-olds here, where ‘bad boy’ syndrome might apply – we’re talking about mature, nearly middle-aged adults. But with Callum we are supposed to believe that not one, but two, women find him attractive – standards on the Faroe Islands must be pretty low.

Craig Robertson

Craig Robertson

Having got that out of my system, there are some positives. The descriptive writing is great – Robertson brings this isolated weather-beaten community to life. In fact, the writing overall is well above average standards for current crime fiction. From the start, when Robertson describes the flight over and Callum’s first impressions of the islands, I thought I was in for a real treat, and the sense of place that he creates kept me hooked even after I had grown to dislike Callum himself. While many of the characters are unlikeable, they are well-drawn and credible (if you exclude the women’s strange romantic proclivities). There is a good deal of laziness in the plotting at points – unlikely, even near-miraculous, things happen and the how of them is never explained. I’m not suggesting a mystical element, there’s none of that, thank goodness. Just “and then he escaped” type of thing, with no explanation of how. But while the plotting leaves much to be desired in terms of credibility, the story flows along and holds the interest for the most part.

So, despite the unlikeable protagonist and the plot problems, the quality of the writing and excellent sense of place still lifts it above the average contemporary crime novel. Though I appreciate I’m damning it with faint praise…

Book 13

Book 16

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 63…

Episode 63

 

What goes up must come down – that’s right, isn’t it? So when will my TBR start coming down??? 152… and still rising…

Oh well, at least there are some goodies coming up…

Fiction

 

the crossingCourtesy of Hodder & Stoughton. I loved Miller’s last book, Pure, and have waited four years for him to produce another. I must say the blurb of this doesn’t appeal to me terribly much but I’m hoping the quality of his writing will carry it…

The Blurb says “Who else has entered Tim’s life the way Maud did? This girl who fell past him, lay seemingly dead on the ground, then stood and walked. That was where it all began.

He wants her – wants to rescue her, to reach her. Yet there is nothing to suggest Maud has any need of him, that she is not already complete. A woman with a talent for survival, who works long hours and loves to sail – preferably on her own. A woman who, when a crisis comes, will turn to the sea for refuge, embarking on a voyage that will test her to the utmost, that will change everything …

From the Costa Award-winning author of Pure comes a viscerally honest, hypnotic portrait of modern love and motherhood, the lure of the sea and the ultimate unknowability of others. This pitch-perfect novel confirms Andrew Miller’s position as one of the finest writers of his generation.

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

the blue guitarCourtesy of NetGalley. Banville is one of those authors I feel I should have read, but haven’t…

The Blurb says “From John Banville, one of the world’s greatest writers, comes The Blue Guitar, a story of theft and the betrayal of friendship. Adultery is always put in terms of thieving. But we were happy together, simply happy. Oliver Orme used to be a painter, well known and well rewarded, but the muse has deserted him. He is also, as he confesses, a petty thief; he does not steal for gain, but for the thrill of it. HIs worst theft is Polly, the wife of his friend Marcus, with whom he has had an affair. When the affair is discovered, Oliver hides himself away in his childhood home. From here he tells the story of a year, from one autumn to the next. Many surprises and shocks await him, and by the end of his story, he will be forced to face himself and seek a road towards redemption.

* * * * *

Crime

 

the night ferryNetGalley again. I’m gradually working my way through Michael Robotham’s  books – so far they’ve all been great…

The Blurb says Ali Barba, a Sikh detective with the Metropolitan Police, is recovering from injuries sustained in the line of duty when she receives a letter from her estranged friend, Cate, imploring her to come to their high school reunion. Alarmed by the urgent tone of the note, and eager to make amends for her unforgivable past behavior, Ali goes to the reunion. Cate is pregnant, but before Ali has the chance to congratulate her, Cate hurriedly whispers, “They want to take my baby. You have to stop them.” It is the only hint of Cate’s troubles Ali manages to get. As they are leaving the reunion, Cate and her husband are run down by a car and killed. The mystery darkens when it is discovered that Cate had faked her pregnancy by tying a pillow underneath her dress.

All Ali has to go on is a file in Cate’s desk that contains two ultrasound pictures, letters from a fertility clinic, and various papers that seem to confirm the unborn baby’s existence. As she puts together the pieces, her search takes her to Amsterdam and into the company of some very unsavory people on both sides of the Channel who’ll do anything to thwart her investigation.

* * * * *

Sci-Fi

 

three moments of an explosionAnd NetGalley! Again, China Miéville is a name that’s being heard more and more often – time to find out why…

The Blurb says “In this extraordinary series of stories, defying definitions and literary stereotyping, he once again proves why he ‘is one of the most interesting and promising writers to appear in the last few years in any genre’ (Carlos Ruiz Zafon). In these stories, glistening icebergs float above urban horizons; a burning stag runs wild through the city; the ruins of industry emerge unsteadily from the sea; and the abandoned generations in a decayed space-elevator look not up at the stars but down at the Earth. Ranging from portraits of childhood to chilling ghost stories, from dystopian visions to poignant evocations of uncanny love, with beautiful prose and melancholy wit, this breath-taking collection poses searching questions of what it is to be human in an unquiet world. It is a humane and unsentimental investigation of our society, our world, and ourselves.”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads

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

1914 Goodbye to All That edited by Lavinia Greenlaw

1914 Goodbye to All ThatThe sum is less than its parts…

:D :D :D :)

In her short introduction to this collection of essays, Lavinia Greenlaw tells us that, a hundred years on from WW1, the contributors, all prominent writers, were asked to consider what it means to have your life and your identity as an artist shaped by conflict.

“They were asked to consider the loss of literary innocence or ideals, the discovery of new ones, the question of artistic freedom, and what it means to embrace new imperatives or to negotiate imposed expectations.”

The fundamental flaw is that, of course, none of the contributors’ artistic lives were affected by WW1. Some of them discuss aspects of that conflict, but without the ability to speak of any personal impact from it, while others have opted to discuss other more recent conflicts which have affected either them or their parents or grandparents. So from the beginning I fear the title looks like a rather shabby attempt to cash in on the centenary of the Great War, and some of the essays feel forced, as if the authors have been stretching to find ways to suggest that their own literary lives have been influenced by it.

As a concept, then, I feel the book fails. However some of the essays are still interesting, especially the ones from authors who chose to interpret the brief fairly broadly. On the other hand, some of them are pretty poor, and really contribute very little to the subject under discussion. For example, Ali Smith imagines herself in conversation with her dead father (also too young to have been in the war), remembers snatches of war poetry from school, and wallows in a level of bathos that must reach down to the bottom of the Atlantic; while Jeanette Winterson indulges herself in a little pro-Marxist polemic and an appeal for funding of the arts. NoViolet Bulawayo chooses to quote extensively from her own novel We Need New Names, which seemed a touch self-promotional, but perhaps she’s just not experienced enough yet to write in this format. I guess, having selected such big names, it may have been hard for the editor to exert some form of control, but the lack of it means the collection overall has no feeling of an over-arching structure.

* * * * *

Let’s move swiftly on to some of the better contributions…

Kamila Shamsie in Goodbye to Some of That discusses her own childhood and adolescence growing up in Karachi under coups and military dictatorship. She muses on how she transformed her own early memories of that period into what she calls her personal ‘Origin Story’, and that this influenced her to write exclusively about Karachi in her early works. She then discusses the thrill and terror of her first experiences of writing about other places and events outwith her own personal experience. The essay is very well written and addresses the question of how Shamsie’s literary life was affected by her own experience of conflict.

* * * * *

In A Visit to the Magician, Daniel Kehlmann tells of going to see a stage hypnotist (a subject that he had discussed in his book F: A Novel). While there, he realises that only those willing to be hypnotised can be, and finds himself suddenly comparing this to how people allow themselves to follow dictators. The essay is exceptionally well written – in a short space, he manages to say a lot about the German experience under Hitler (although Hitler is never mentioned),and more widely about a large proportion of humanity being keen to be like everyone else and to follow orders from those who set themselves up as leaders.

Now he’s sending the trio back into the audience, and he starts talking about freedom again. Anyone who can mould the world according to his own desires is free: he can see what he wants to see, hear what he wants to hear; his reality is the reality that suits him. Hypnosis thus teaches that you don’t have to be a slave to reality.

* * * * *

In In Search of Untold Stories, Elif Shafak talks of how in Turkey, not long after the end of WW1, they changed their alphabet from Arabic to Latin, and that as a result later generations have largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history. Apparently, the government went further – excising Arabic and Persian words from the language, and in the process losing much of the language’s nuance. This was something I didn’t know about, and found this real politicizing of language fascinating and thought-provoking.

* * * * *

Another who told me about a part of history I was unaware of is Xiaolu Guo in Coolies. She describes the recruitment of 100,000 Chinese coolies by the British and French to dig trenches during WW1. They were treated more or less as slave labour, given numbers by their masters who couldn’t (wouldn’t?) pronounce their names or distinguish them from each other, and thousands died, their graves marked with their number. While this is more a historical point than anything to do with literary impact, I found it interesting to see how WW1 is seen from a different perspective.

* * * * *

The essay that touched me most was The Community of Sealed Lips: Silence and Writing by Erwin Mortier, a Belgian writer. This is a beautifully written and moving account of the silences in his family – about his grandmother and great-uncle who collaborated with the Nazis. He discusses how those silences shaped how he thought and felt about language. Silence, he suggests, does not lead to forgetting, it just prevents a resolution.

Writing, I have learnt, is not intended to solve riddles. It is speaking and silence at the same time, my way of dealing with the community of sealed lips. Not by breaking them open, but by giving them a farewell kiss and making their silences audible.

* * * * *

While I think the collection failed in its aim overall, in fact failed to have a clearly defined aim, I’m glad to have read the essays I’ve highlighted, each of which individually would rate 4 or 5 stars from me. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the poorer ones brings my overall rating down to a rather more lukewarm 3½.

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday ’Tec! A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Love, cruelty, murder and revenge…

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a study in scarlet 3

 

The first story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published, A Study in Scarlet introduces us to his two most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson. So it’s a must for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Study in Scarlet

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Returning to London after being wounded in the war in Afghanistan, Watson soon finds that living in hotels is stretching his army pension to breaking point, so when he hears through a friend of a man who is looking for someone to share a set of rooms, he jumps at the chance. Holmes has some rather strange habits, like beating corpses with sticks to see if they bruise, for example, but otherwise he seems like a decent enough fellow. Watson notices that he has a steady stream of rather odd callers – everyone from police inspectors to pedlars. Out of politeness, Watson doesn’t ask what his new friend’s line of business is, though he wonders. One day, Watson reads an article that Holmes has marked in the newspaper – an article on the Science of Deduction and Analysis in which the writer claims that it is possible to tell a man’s profession from observation alone…

By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.

Watson scoffs at the article, with one of those turns of phrase that delight all of us who love him – “What ineffable twaddle!” he cries, only to be stunned when Holmes reveals himself as the author. But he’s even more stunned when a few minutes later Holmes proves that he can indeed tell the occupation of a man who arrives to deliver a message, from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard. Now Watson learns that Holmes works as a “consulting detective” and Gregson wants his help with a strange and brutal case of murder. A man has been found dead in an empty house, in a blood-bespattered room, although there is no wound on his body. Holmes and Watson arrive at the scene, and Watson is shocked by what he sees…

On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features… I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.

a study in scarlet 5

And so, the game’s afoot…

* * * * * * *

Like all of the long stories other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, this one is divided into two parts – Holmes’ investigation of the crime narrated by Watson, and a section giving the background to the crime, told in this case in the third-person. The motive for this crime originated in the newly-founded Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the 1850s, and the Mormons are portrayed in a distinctly unattractive light, especially on the questions of polygamy and violent coercion of anyone who strayed from the rules of the religion; so over the years the book has apparently been considered offensive in some quarters. The history of the Mormons is a subject about which I know nothing, so can’t make any judgements on the accuracy or otherwise of Conan Doyle’s depiction of them (though wikipedia tells me Conan Doyle himself admitted to a degree of exaggeration). But I can make judgements on the book’s enjoyability as a rollicking good story, and it passes with flying colours! Love, cruelty, murder and revenge – perfect!

There’s something about Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it perfect for the adventure yarn and if I could describe it accurately then everyone would be able to do it (and there wouldn’t be so many bad Holmes’ pastiches in the world). His language isn’t particularly poetic, but there’s an elegance in it and a strength, a lovely use of vocabulary, and a naturalness – it gives a sense of someone telling a story aloud around a fire on a dark night, as of course his stories often would have been. He has the ability to bring any scene to vivid life, whether it’s a blood-soaked room of horror, or the arid desert landscape crossed by the Mormons on the way to their new home…

Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there are scattered white objects that glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men.

The Mormon Trek to Utah

The Mormon Trek to Utah

In this first Holmes story Conan Doyle establishes his two characters, and it’s surprising how little they change really over time. Watson’s character as the loyal friend and brave lieutenant to his brilliant colleague is exactly as he remains throughout the series. There are some things that don’t quite gel with the later Holmes – the idea that he reads detective fiction, for example, and his own description of himself as lazy, with almost Mycroftian tendencies to let the investigation come to him. But these are minor, and the passage about detective fiction is there to allow Conan Doyle to tip his hat to Poe’s Dupin – though with his usual modesty Holmes doesn’t think much of his predecessor…

“Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.”

Ah, my dear Holmes! Those of us who have read all your adventures avidly again and again can’t help remembering that this is a trick you will play on poor Watson yourself in the future… but much more entertainingly than Dupin ever did!

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

A great story from a master storyteller, with added interest in seeing how the Holmes phenomenon began. One to read again and again and…

 

* * * * *

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

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

Book 15

Book 15

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

An excellent beginning…

:D :D :D :D :D

the redemption of alexander seaton 3A storm is raging in Banff in the north-east of Scotland as Alexander Seaton makes his way home from the inn so, when he sees a man staggering in the street, Alexander assumes he is the worse for drink and hurries on by to get out of the rain. When the man’s dead body is found the next day in the schoolroom where Alexander teaches, his feelings of guilt are compounded when his friend Charles Thom is arrested for the murder. Convinced of Charles’ innocence, Alexander sets out with his old friend and mentor, Dr Jaffray, to find out who really murdered Patrick Davidson.

The book is set in 1626, a time when an uneasy peace holds sway in Scotland. All those pesky 16th century Queens are dead and the crowns of Scotland and England are united, though not yet their parliaments. The Protestants are in the ascendancy and the Kirk has a stranglehold on religion and morality, but the Catholics are still plotting, and looking to the great Catholic countries of Europe for support. And witch-hunting is still at its peak, led and encouraged by the more rabid members of the hellfire-and-damnation Kirk, often culminating in public burnings. Happy days!

MacLean has caught the feel of this time-period just about perfectly in my opinion. She gives the impression of knowing the history inside-out and her characters ring true as people living in this time. Seaton and Jaffray are on the more enlightened side, though of course the actual Enlightenment is still some way off, but MacLean doesn’t fall into the trap of giving them anachronistically modern viewpoints. So, for example, while being horrified at the attitude of the mob to witch-burnings, they’re not quite ready to deny the possibility of witchcraft and consorting with the Devil.

Seaton is the first-person, past-tense narrator of the story and he is a great main character. Destined to be a minister in the Kirk, some event happened that led to his disgrace and he is now back in his home town working as an undermaster in the local school. While his one or two true friends have stood by him, many of the rest of the goodly people of the town treat him almost as a social outcast and his own feelings of guilt have brought him close to despair. The reader doesn’t find out what the event was until well on into the novel, but as Seaton gets involved in the investigation into Patrick Davidson’s death, he begins to feel again that his life may have some purpose beyond his failed calling to the ministry.

Shona MacLean

Shona MacLean

The plot is complex but entirely credible, leading the reader merrily up several false trails along the way. The quality of the writing is excellent and the characterisation throughout is very strong, not just of the main players but of the secondary characters too. And the wide-ranging nature of the plot allows MacLean to show something of the politics and religion of the time without ever resorting to information dump. There’s almost a feeling of a coming-of-age story to it, as the initially fairly naive Seaton begins to learn about some of the undercurrents in this seemingly so respectable society.

The plot and some of the occurrences make this far too strong to be considered a cosy, but it avoids graphic violence and gore, and is mercifully free of foul language and sex scenes. For the non-Scots out there, it’s also free of dialect – standard English throughout but for the very occasional specifically Scottish word, for which a short glossary is included at the back.

An excellent historical crime novel, well up there with the likes of Brother Cadfael, and the joy of it is it’s the first in a series. Highly recommended – the second one has already been added to my TBR.

Book 14

Book 14

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The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace

the case of the dotty dowagerOch aye, it’s no’ bad…

:D :D :D :)

Henry Twyst, Duke of Chellingworth, is worried. His mother, the dowager duchess, has phoned him in the middle of the night to say there’s a dead body in the dining room of the Dower House, but when he gets there, no corpse is to be found. At first, he assumes his mother must have dreamt it or worse, that she is beginning to lose her marbles, but when a blood-stained hat is found on the floor he begins to wonder. Since the local police don’t seem to be taking the matter seriously, he calls in the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency; their brief – to discover if the body really existed and, if so, who was it?

This is quite a fun cosy that is obviously intended to be the first of a series. The acronym WISE stands for Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England – the birth places of the four women who run the agency. It’s not really explained how the four came together – there’s a brief mention of them all having been involved in solving an earlier case but that’s all – but there’s plenty of potential for them to develop into a nicely mixed team, so long as Ace can avoid going too far down the road of using rather clumsy national stereotypes. Oddly she only stereotypes the Scot and the Englishwoman (Cockney, of course) – the Irish and Welsh contingent seem to escape. (I believe she is of Welsh origin herself, though now living in Canada, and perhaps she genuinely believes that Scots start every sentence with ‘Och’ and eat haggis every time they get the chance, and that Cockneys call everyone ‘doll’ and go into a decline if they can’t hear the Bow Bells. I suppose when you start life in a country where everyone is called Dai the Post and eats leeks three times a day it’s hard to avoid national stereotyping… ;) But I feel it was a real pity the Irishwoman never once got to say ‘begorrah’ or hit anyone with her shillelagh.) I am being facetiously unfair – the stereotyping is reasonably low-level and hopefully will disappear completely once the characters’ personalities are more fully developed in later books.

Cathy Ace

Cathy Ace

There are two linked crimes in the story – one is very original and quite fun and I won’t spoil it by giving any hints here. The other is the murder which, while it is eventually solved, is left unsatisfactorily explained – it feels as if it got lost along the way as the author got more interested in the other strand. The WISE women’s technique is basically to use their various people skills to get people to let things slip during chit-chat, though one of them is a computer expert who finds a lot of background information online. The chit-chat element is enjoyable and the women are well enough drawn so that we see each of their different personalities affecting how they approach their tasks. The online stuff is much less fun – lengthy typewritten reports full of information that it’s highly unlikely anyone could find online without hacking government websites, which would not be the WISE women’s style at all. I felt this was a way for the author to slip in information that she couldn’t quite see how to have her characters uncover in more credible, and interesting, ways.

Overall, then, there are some weaknesses in the plotting, but the characters are likeable and I suspect will become more so over time as the dynamics amongst them get the chance to develop more fully. And it fulfils well the main function of cosies – to be light and enjoyable to read. First books in series are often tricky since it takes time for characters to be introduced, and since this one has four main protagonists that problem is magnified in this case, but Ace pulled it off well enough that I will certainly be interested in seeing how the series develops. Och aye, I certainly will!

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

Book 13

Book 13

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 62…

Episode 62

 

151. 151. 151!!! No matter what I do that dratted TBR just keeps getting bigger! It’s not my fault – I think the cats log on to NetGalley when I’m asleep. Getting close to the end of the 20 Books of Summer Challenge now and might just do it! Though the US Open starts soon…


rafa gif

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

Factual

 

the year of learCourtesy of NetGalley. I love the sound of this one and am hoping it’s not too academic in style. Must watch the plays again in preparation – Macbeth is my favourite of all the Shakespeare plays…

The Blurb says Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro shows how the tumultuous events in England in 1606 affected Shakespeare and shaped the three great tragedies he wrote that year—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the years leading up to 1606, since the death of Queen Elizabeth and the arrival in England of her successor, King James of Scotland, Shakespeare’s great productivity had ebbed, and it may have seemed to some that his prolific genius was a thing of the past. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn—King Lear—then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. It was a memorable year in England as well—and a grim one, in the aftermath of a terrorist plot conceived by a small group of Catholic gentry that had been uncovered at the last hour. The foiled Gunpowder Plot would have blown up the king and royal family along with the nation’s political and religious leadership. The aborted plot renewed anti-Catholic sentiment and laid bare divisions in the kingdom. It was against this background that Shakespeare finished Lear, a play about a divided kingdom, then wrote a tragedy that turned on the murder of a Scottish king, Macbeth. He ended this astonishing year with a third masterpiece no less steeped in current events and concerns: Antony and Cleopatra.

The Year of Lear sheds light on these three great tragedies by placing them in the context of their times, while also allowing us greater insight into how Shakespeare was personally touched by such events as a terrible outbreak of plague and growing religious divisions. For anyone interested in Shakespeare, this is an indispensable book.”

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

Two Years Eight Months 2Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve never made it through a Rushdie novel, but I suspect that my tastes have changed enough since I last tried long, long ago to give this one a fair chance of success… it sounds brilliant!

The Blurb says “In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub–Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor’s office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious, wanton creatures known as the jinn, who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centuries ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world. Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia’s children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

the cone gatherers 2One of the 20 Books of Summer list. I don’t know much about it, but it appears on lists of “Best Scottish Fiction” quite regularly, so we shall see…

The Blurb says An immensely powerful examination of mankind’s propensity for both good and evil, inspired by the author’s wartime experience as a conscientious objector doing forestry work.

Calum and Neil are the cone-gatherers—two brothers at work in the forest of a large Scottish estate. But the harmony of their life together is shadowed by the obsessive hatred of Duror, the gamekeeper. Set during World War II yet removed from the destruction and bloodshed of the war, the brothers’ oblivious happiness becomes increasingly fragile as darker forces close in around them. Suspenseful, dark, and unforgettable, this is a towering work of fiction, a masterpiece of modern Scottish literature.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

Docherty 2I was blown away by McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, and this one comes with a personal recommendation from BigSister, my earliest reading guru, so can’t wait to get to it…

The Blurb saysWinner of the Whitbread prize, by one of Scotland’s greatest living novelists.

Tam Docherty’s youngest son, Conn, is born at the end of 1903 in a small working-class town in the west of Scotland. Tam will stop at nothing to make sure that life and the pits don’t swallow up his boy, the way it did him. Courageous and questioning, Docherty emerges as a leader of almost unshakable strength, but in a close-knit community tradition is a powerful opponent.

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads

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

Wednesday Witterings…

Pretty pictures…

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lord of the rings

Well, folks, I’ve got nothing today – run out of reviews! So since I spent last week re-watching the wonderful Lord of the Rings movies, I thought I’d share the joy by reminding you of the cast in pictorial form. Now I know that some suspicious people think I only post pictures of handsome men on this blog, but that would be so shallow of me! As you will see from this post, I recognise that Eowyn, Arwen and Galadriel are just as important to the story as any orc, and the three women who play them are fine actors/actresses* as well as being exceptionally beautiful women. I hope this post will finally quash the vicious rumour that I rig my posts to favour hunks men…

*delete whichever one you find offensive

* * * * * * * * *

The Fellowship of the Ring

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Gandalf Ian McKellen - a fine actor

Gandalf
Ian McKellen – a fine actor

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Boromir Sean Bean - a very fine actor indeed!

Boromir
Sean Bean – a very fine actor indeed!

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The Hobbits Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Astin Fine actors all!

The Hobbits
Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Astin
Fine actors all!

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Legolas Orlando Bloom - another very fine actor!

Legolas
Orlando Bloom – another very fine actor!

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Gimli John Rhys-Davies - a fine actor!

Gimli
John Rhys-Davies – a fine actor!

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Faramir David Wenham - he;s not in the Fellowship but he's a very fine actor!

Faramir
David Wenham – he’s not in the Fellowship but he’s a very fine actor!

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Aragorn Viggo Mortensen - a very, very, very fine actor indeed! Oh yes!

Aragorn
Viggo Mortensen – a very, very, very fine actor indeed! Oh yes! Very fine!! Indeed!!

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The Women

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There! That should prove once and for all that I’m completely unbiased!

Have a great Wednesday!

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

little black liesMore dead children…

:) :) :|

It’s three years since Catrin’s two sons were killed in a tragic accident – the result of a moment of carelessness by her best friend, Rachel. Catrin can’t forgive her and as the anniversary of the deaths approaches it seems as if she might be about to commit some drastic action. But meantime a toddler has gone missing – a rare occurrence in the sparsely populated Falklands Islands, but not unique. Two other children have disappeared in recent years and some people are beginning to wonder if they are linked. Despite her troubled state of mind, Catrin gets drawn into the search for the little boy…

This book gets off to a brilliant start. Bolton is always readable – a born storyteller. Her description of the harsh, bleak environment of the Falklands ten years after the war between Britain and Argentina creates an atmosphere ripe for tales of dread. And her characterisation of Catrin is great – this damaged, grief-stricken mother haunted by her dead sons and burning with the desire for revenge. As the book begins, Catrin is out in a boat at night and Bolton wonderfully contrasts the beauty of the stars reflecting in the water with the dangers of the unpredictable sea and the cold cruelty of Catrin’s thoughts. A truly atmospheric beginning.

Unfortunately, a great beginning doesn’t always make a great book. First off, I am heartily tired of every second crime book focussing on the murder and/or abuse of children. By all means, if an author is making a serious point about some aspect of society or the justice system, but not when it’s just for entertainment, as so many of them are, including this one. It’s not a subject that I find remotely entertaining. And as usual with these trends each new book feels it has to up the ante in order to harrow us just a little bit more than the last. I find it all a little sickening. So I admit that Bolton was always going to have to work extra hard to win me over. But, even putting my prejudice to one side, there are a couple of other aspects that left me feeling this book doesn’t reach Bolton’s usual standards.

Shipwrecks off the coast of the Falklands

Shipwrecks off the coast of the Falklands

The book is told in three voices – first Catrin’s, then Callum’s and finally Rachel’s. Callum is an ex-soldier who fought in the Falklands war and has now returned to live in the islands to try to overcome his demons. His voice and character didn’t ring true for me at all, I’m afraid. While it’s obviously true that some soldiers are left mentally scarred by their experiences, it’s become a stereotype now to have every ex-serviceman struggling with PTSD and so haunted by his experiences he is incapable of functioning normally. And I felt we had enough misery to contend with in Catrin’s grief without the need to relive Callum’s war experiences too. Especially since, in the third part, we also have to relive Rachel’s guilt along with her.

But it’s less that than the way Bolton portrays Callum’s maleness that bothers me. He thinks about women’s bodies all the time, seeing each purely in terms of her sexual attractiveness or lack of it, and fantasises about ‘shagging’ every woman he meets. He makes sexist remarks. He swears a lot. But the reader is supposed to be on his side, and to believe that intelligent women find him attractive. It all seemed a very lazy way to create a ‘male’ voice – again a stereotype and a pretty negative one at that.

Rachel’s voice didn’t fare much better for me either. Wracked with guilt, she is apparently dysfunctional to the point of borderline neglect of her children, but seems too self-aware of her own failings – almost wryly humorous about them at times. I found her unconvincing.

It’s pretty tasteless too, not only about the children, but there’s a particularly graphic and unnecessary whale scene that’s not for the squeamish either, and feels as if it’s only in there to harrow the reader still further – as if dead children aren’t enough. And the plot, which starts out brilliantly, eventually spirals downwards to a degree that stretches credulity so far as to become almost ridiculous. One unbelievable event follows another, then another, and so on, with the eventual equally unbelievable solution tacked on almost as an afterthought. The climax of the investigation in fact reads almost like a humorous farce – totally out of place given the subject matter. The book is still very readable for the most part – the quality and flow of Bolton’s writing, the sense of place and the first section in Catrin’s voice are all excellent, hence my rather generous 2½-star rating. But ultimately I found the flaws in this one outweighed its strengths.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

the shapeshiftersWeirdly wonderful…

:D :D :D :D :D

In 1978, a small boy and his mother are staying in a holiday cabin in the forests near Falun, in Sweden. All seems well until the mother accidentally kills a bat that was flying around her. She throws it into the undergrowth, but the next day, when she goes to the fridge, there is the dead bat lying crumpled on a shelf. Now some of the forest animals begin to behave strangely, sitting motionless staring at the house. The mother tells the boy to stay in but he wants to see them, so he runs out of the house into the forest – and is never seen again. His distraught mother claims that she saw him being taken by a giant…

In the present day, Susso visits an elderly woman who claims she has seen a strange little man watching her house and her grandson. Susso believes in trolls and is on a personal mission to prove that they still exist. Most of the reports she receives via her website are obviously false or hoaxes, but something about this woman convinces her to investigate further. Elsewhere, Seved is busily clearing up the havoc caused by the Old Ones who live in the barn – a sure sign they are getting restless…

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time – weirdly wonderful, that is. The world it is set in is undeniably the Sweden of today, but in some isolated places the creatures of myth and folklore still exist. It’s essential that the reader can accept this, because there’s no ambiguity about it, but Spjut’s matter-of-fact way of writing about them somehow makes the whole thing feel completely credible. But although their existence is established he leaves them beautifully undefined – the reader is never quite sure what exactly they are or whether they are fundamentally good or evil or perhaps, like humanity, a bit of both. They’re not all the same, either in appearance or behaviour, and there seems to be a kind of hierarchy amongst them. Although most humans remain unaware of them, some are very closely involved with them. And every now and then, a child goes missing.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

It’s the writing that makes it work. Spjut builds up a chilling atmosphere, largely by never quite telling the reader exactly what’s going on. Normally that would frustrate me wildly, but it works here because the reader is put in the same position of uncertainty as the humans. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. But despite that, fundamentally this is a crime novel with all the usual elements of an investigation into a missing child. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Stefan Spjut

Stefan Spjut

There’s a real air of horror running beneath the surface, though in fact there’s not too much in the way of explicit gruesomeness – it’s more the fear of not knowing what might happen. The beginning is decidedly creepy and sets up the tone for the rest of the book brilliantly. It takes a while to get to grips with who everyone is and how the various strands link, but gradually it all comes together. I admit there were bits in the middle that dragged slightly and felt a little repetitive at times, but the bulk of it kept me totally absorbed. And the last part is full of action building up to a really great ending that satisfies even though everything is far from being tied up neatly and tidily. So much is left unexplained, not in the way of careless loose ends, but more as if some things just are as they are and must be accepted.

If you can cope with the basic idea, then I highly recommend this as something very different from the normal run of things. 4 stars for the writing, plus one for being one of the most original books I’ve read in a while – I do hope there’s going to be a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Friday Frippery…

Darcy by any other name…

 

MarinaSofia this week upped the reviewing ante by producing a poem in lieu of a book review. Now, she has an unfair advantage by virtue of the fact that she is a poet, but nonetheless I feel the gauntlet has been thrown down.

So, never one to refuse a challenge, here goes…

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darcy and lizzie scorn

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There was a young woman from Longbourn
Who treated her suitor with much scorn
But when she saw his great house
She would fain be his spouse
The poor girl was really quite lovelorn.

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darcy pemberley

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Her sisters were terribly busy
Catching husbands, which left our poor Lizzie
On the shelf, until Darcy
Took her hand at a party*
And they danced till they both were quite dizzy.

* (well, you try and find a rhyme for Darcy, smartypants!)

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darcy dancing

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Now some people call this a romance
(Just ’cause they don’t like to dance)
But wait just a moment!
It’s deep social comment
And gets 5-stars from me! *happy trance*

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darcy kiss

.

:D :D :D :D :D

OK, your turn. Now…who’s going to do War and Peace…?

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* * * * * * *

PS If you’d like to see how it’s really done, do visit MarinaSofia’s blog, Finding Time to Write – a great place for poetry and reviews, plus she hunts down all the best locations for the readers and writers amongst us to lust after…

TBR Thursday 61…

The People’s Choice 8…The Result!

 

Ooh, last week’s poll was so close!! One raced ahead right from the beginning and then suddenly a late surge pushed another into a hairsbreadth of a lead! So exciting! In fact, it was such an epic battle it seems unfair for either of them to lose. So I hereby declare them both to be…

This Week’s Winners…

 

the blessing

The BlurbWith razor-sharp wit, Mitford blends a comedy of manners with culture shock as Grace Allingham, a naive English rose, marries Charles-Edouard de Valhubert, a French aristo who doesn’t believe in fidelity. Both are duped, meantime, by their son Sigismund — the Blessing of the title — a juvenile Machiavelli who mixes Gallic cunning with Saxon thoroughness to become one of Mitford’s most memorable characters. 

Thanks to Disha at Franklenstein for the review that brought this book to my attention.

 *******

snow blind

The BlurbSiglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.

Thanks to Raven at Raven Crime Reads for the review that brought this one to my attention.

*******

And thanks to all who voted! It wouldn’t be the People’s Choice without you!

Both books will now be added to my ever-expanding TBR (151!) – now all I have to do is find time to read them!

*******

Since I’m still desperately trying to finish all the fiction and crime already listed for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, just a couple of factuals that will reach the top of the heap soon…

Factual

 

edmund burkeThis one has been sitting unread on my Kindle for about two years. In fact, those of you who memorise everything I say (What? You don’t??) will be aware that this is its second appearance on a TBR post – but this time I really mean to read it!

The BlurbEdmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past three hundred years. A brilliant 18th-century Irish philosopher and statesman, Burke was a fierce champion of human rights and the Anglo-American constitutional tradition, and a lifelong campaigner against arbitrary power. Revered by great Americans including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Burke has been almost forgotten in recent years. But as politician and political philosopher Jesse Norman argues in this penetrating biography, we cannot understand modern politics without him.

Burke won admirers in the American colonies for recognizing their fierce spirit of liberty and for speaking out against British oppression, but his greatest triumph was seeing through the utopian aura of the French Revolution. In repudiating that revolution, Burke laid the basis for much of the robust conservative ideology that remains with us to this day: one that is adaptable and forward-thinking, but also mindful of the debt we owe to past generations and our duty to preserve and uphold the institutions we have inherited. He is the first conservative.

* * * * *

 

Atmosphere of HopeCourtesy of NetGalley, one can but hope the contents will be better than the cover…

The Blurb – The publication of this new book is timed for the lead-up to the Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015, which aims to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate from all the nations in the world. This book anticipates and will influence the debates.

Time is running out, but catastrophe is not inevitable. Around the world people are now living with the consequences of an altered climate—with intensified and more frequent storms, wildfires, droughts and floods. For some it’s already a question of survival. Drawing on the latest science, Flannery gives a snapshot of the trouble we are in and more crucially, proposes a new way forward, including rapidly progressing clean technologies and a “third way” of soft geo-engineering. Tim Flannery, with his inimitable style, makes this urgent issue compelling and accessible. This is a must-read for anyone interested in our global future.

(Why does that word “geo-engineering” bring on my nervous twitch?)

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or NetGalley.

* * * * *

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

 

In Another Light by Andrew Greig

in another light 2Timor mortis conturbat me…

:) :) :)

After a narrow escape from death as a result of a cyst in his brain, Eddie Mackay is obsessed with thoughts of his own mortality. While lying semi-conscious in hospital, he is ‘visited’ by his long-dead father who seems to want to tell him something. He learns from his mother that his father once had an affair in Penang, back in the late colonial days of the 1930s, and becomes engrossed in trying to find out more about this period of his father’s life. The book takes the form of two stories running in parallel – Eddie’s recuperation from his illness in Stromness on the Orkney Islands and his father’s story as a young doctor in Penang, with the links being provided by Eddie’s slow research into his father’s life. Both strands involve the complicated love affairs of father and son.

The writing is excellent and Greig brings both very different locations to life. The contrasts between the wild, windswept cold of an Orkney winter and the tropical heat and sudden rains of Penang are vivid and beautifully described. Each society is a small, enclosed one – Orkney by virtue of its island remoteness, and Penang where the colonials remain a separate group within the wider population – and each is a place where secrets are hard to keep, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Eddie, as the main focus of the novel, is particularly well drawn as a man struggling to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic experience, and trying to find something to give his life new meaning. Sandy, the father, is a little less well developed, and indeed this is true of most of the other characters, who seem sometimes to be ‘types’ rather than people. The characters in the Penang section in particular are a little too stereotypical, as if drawn from the fiction of the era rather than from life. But the Orkney side of the story works much better, giving a completely credible picture of a small society now expanded by incomers who both conform to and yet impact on the traditions of the place.

Stromness winter by Glenn McNaughton

Stromness winter by Glenn McNaughton

So, much to praise about the book. Unfortunately, I have a total antipathy to literary fiction that, however beautifully written, doesn’t have a decent plot, and I’m afraid this falls into that category. The Penang story is about Sandy’s love affair, and we are pretty much told how that ends before it begins. The Orkney story is about middle-aged Eddie’s sex-affair (to call it a love-affair would be stretching it) with Mica, the half-crazed woman he sleeps with on an occasional basis. The strand about Eddie’s research into his father’s past is rather pointless for the most part and ends with a totally contrived and unbelievable denouement. It feels as if it only exists as an excuse to link the two stories.

Andrew Greig

Andrew Greig

The book might have worked better if it was shorter, but it drags on for 500 pages, much of which is filled with repeated descriptions of the landscape, weather and culture of the two locations. I’m afraid 500 pages of slow-moving, upmarket romance is too much for me, unless it provides some insight into the ever-nebulous ‘human condition’, and I felt this doesn’t particularly. The question of Eddie’s fear of mortality is raised many times, but insufficiently examined to provide any feeling of real depth. As always, it’s a matter of personal taste. I’m hesitant to criticise too harshly because as I’ve said there’s much to admire, and many readers I’m sure will find the parallel romances sufficient to hold their attention, especially given the interesting locations. But for me fine writing, excellent descriptions and good characterisation are only part of what makes for great literary fiction – it must also have either a strong story or a profundity to it, or preferably both, and unfortunately I didn’t find enough of either in this one.

Book 12

Book 12

Amazon UK Link 
Amazon US Link

Bitter Fruits (DI Erica Martin 1) by Alice Clark-Platts

bitter fruitsSex, secrets and online bullying…

:D :D :D :D

When the body of first-year student Emily Brabents is found floating in the weir, it falls to recently promoted Detective Inspector Erica Martin to investigate. Having just transferred to the Durham force, Martin soon discovers what a huge part the prestigious University plays in this city, and the pressure is on to get a quick result before there’s too much bad publicity. But as Martin begins her investigation, she discovers that underneath the ancient traditions and academic reputation, Joyce College is awash with sex, secrets and online trolling. And pretty young Emily, desperate to be popular, has been at the centre of much of it, with sexually explicit photographs and videos of her appearing on Facebook, attracting the attention of every bully and troll in the College. But was she the victim of male manipulation that she at first sight would appear to be, or was she deliberately flaunting herself in some kind of skewed vision of feminism? Did the murder have something to do with the trolling or was there another motive – perhaps even something to do with her life outside University? When another student promptly confesses to the crime it looks as if everything will be tied up quickly, but DI Martin’s not convinced…

This is an excellent début novel. It’s primarily a police procedural, but one that focuses as much on the psychology of the culture that led to the crime as on who committed it. It’s hard hitting, and the storyline means that it is pretty sexually graphic, even salacious, at times – but only within the demands of the plot, so I didn’t feel it was gratuitous. Bit too much swearing for my taste, but what’s new there, eh? (One wonders if crime writers have to replace the f-key on their computers every ten thousand words or so…)

Durham University

Durham University

The story is told mainly from DI Martin’s viewpoint, though in the third person (past tense – yay!). She’s (and I can’t tell you how excited I am to say this) NOT a maverick! Instead, she’s an intelligent, dedicated officer who remains sober throughout, doesn’t break any laws (well, only one tiny one and she gets her knuckles duly rapped for it), doesn’t sleep with anyone except her partner, and doesn’t beat anyone up! I think I’m in love! Joking aside, she’s reasonably well developed in this one but there’s plenty of room for her character to grow in later books. We don’t see much of her outside work, but it’s clear her relationship is in difficulty, and at work she meets with the usual sexism, both of which did cause me to yawn just a little. But these aspects are merely touched on – the book concentrates almost entirely on the crime and the investigation, which I found deeply refreshing.

We also get to see the story from a different angle – through the journal of another student, Daniel Shepherd. Clark-Platts’ writing here is very skilful – Daniel’s voice is quite different to the main narrative. As an enthusiastic student of classic literature, he writes in a slightly overblown way – not enough to be annoying, but it gives him a very distinctive style of his own. He’s a bit of a loner, with a chip on his shoulder about the rich kids in the top colleges, to whom everything seems to come so easily. When the trolling of Emily begins, he at first provides a handy shoulder for her to cry on, but he soon feels he’d be willing to do almost anything to protect her.

Alice Clark-Platts

Alice Clark-Platts

The investigation element drags a bit in the middle with Martin putting off interviews with some of the major characters till later – clearly so there than can be a dramatic climax, but it didn’t feel wholly credible. But the first section is very strong as we get to know all the characters and begin to find out about what’s been happening in the college, and the ending is really great. Even when it becomes clear who the killer is, there’s real tension in working out the why of it all and seeing if Martin will be able to get some kind of justice for Emily. The whole psychology of it is the most interesting part and felt to me very real – not just the motivations of both Emily and the killer, but how an institution can develop a kind of sick culture that drags everyone into it, willing or not.

One of the most promising débuts I’ve read in crime fiction for a long time – I’m very much looking forward to meeting DI Martin again.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK – Michael Joseph.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – not due out till 1st September 2015

 

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye

losing israelHome is where the heart breaks…

:D :D :D :D

In this beautifully written and thoughtful book, the author, a British-born Jew, muses on her troubled relationship with the place she thinks of as ‘home’ – Israel. Her parents were kibbutzniks there, but emigrated to Britain before Donahaye’s birth. Donahaye made the first of her many visits to Israel at the age of ten, a visit that had a profound effect on her when she saw her mother blossom amongst the places and language of her youth, becoming someone other than the person Donahaye knew. This not altogether positive experience was followed by other trips during which Donahaye came to love and admire her mother’s country deeply, absorbing from her extended family the Zionist version of the history of the State of Israel as it has become mythologised by those who have lived, fought and died there since its foundation. For many years, Donahaye didn’t question this version of events.

Two sides to every story... Israeli soldiers in Gaza Photo:Israeli Defence Forces handout/Reuters

Two sides to every story…
Israeli soldiers in Gaza
Photo: Israeli Defence Forces handout/Reuters

However at the age of forty, on discovering that her grandfather had been involved in the driving out of the Arabs from their villages in 1947, Donahaye started a journey that led her to learn the other history of Israel – the one that talks about ethnic cleansing of the Arabs, that explains the refugee camps, that suggests that the Palestinian Arabs saw this land as home as much as the Jews, either of Palestine or from the diaspora, ever did, and had as much right to it. This book is the story of that journey, as Donahaye takes the reader through her gradual awakening to the full complexities of the history of this troubled region and her agonised process of reassessment of the country she still loves and feels inextricably drawn towards.

Two sides to every story... Members of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa brigade at the Qalandia checkpoint on the Separation Wall Photo: Al-Jazeera

Two sides to every story…
Members of the Palestinian al-Aqsa brigade at the Qalandia checkpoint on the Separation Wall
Photo: al-Jazeera

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first because, though not unflawed, it is in many ways an exceptional read, whichever side of the Zionist debate the reader might tend towards. The book is short, but in truth I felt it was also a little too long for its subject matter. The tone is unbrokenly melancholic and this made it quite a monotone read. There are too many divergences to describe bird-watching experiences, although these passages are often beautifully written and she frequently uses them as metaphors for the migrations of both Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

I also felt Donahaye must have been remarkably unaware of politics if she had managed to live for forty years without being conscious of the other side of the Palestinian question. I could perhaps have understood that more had she lived in Israel, where the atmosphere of constant threat from outside might encourage a national blindness to other viewpoints. But living in the UK where there are at least as many critics of Israel’s stance towards the Palestinian Arabs as supporters of it, then one would have to have no interest in the subject at all to remain ignorant of at least some of the arguments. While her investigations did uncover some small facts that are not generally known, the big picture that seemed to shock her so much is one that has been debated and argued over for decades. As such, I didn’t find that the book really added much to the debate – though perhaps it would in Israel, if it is an accurate picture Donahaye paints of it as almost a police state where anyone who tries to find out about its history is immediately suspect and subjected to state surveillance.

Photo: @Majdi Fathi/NUR Photo/Rex

Photo: @Majdi Fathi/NUR Photo/Rex

Bearing that in mind then, for me the chief interest in the book was in seeing how her discoveries affected her emotionally, as she gradually changed her mind about the unarguable rightness of the Israeli position. Torn between her love for the nation and her horror at finding out how the Palestinian Arabs had been treated by it, she describes her struggles eloquently, using some beautiful, almost poetic language, even if just occasionally I found that in her new-found awareness she was veering perhaps a little too far towards the maudlin end of liberal political correctness. She talks not just of the politics and history of Israel, but of the land itself – its beauty, its wildlife and the lack of water which, she suggests perceptively, may in the end be a crucial factor in determining how the future pans out. When she speaks of her family in Israel, we see how the fear and anxiety they live with daily affects their opinions and attitudes. She writes emotively of how her researches upset the elder members of her family, challenging the foundations of their loyalty to their nation.

Jasmine Donahaye

Jasmine Donahaye

The book is at its most profound, I feel, when she discusses the ways histories are made by those with a vested interest in ensuring their version is accepted. Renaming of Arab villages after they had been cleared of their occupants, to give them Hebrew names and to, in some cases, suggest links back to the Biblical era, is shown as a means both of legitimising the Israeli State and of obliterating the long history between that earlier time and the present and, with it, obliterating the suggestion of any other occupants having legitimate claims to the land. Donahaye describes how the older members of her family still tend to use the old Arab names that were current in their childhood, while young people are forgetting not only the old names, but the very fact that they ever existed. And, in parallel with this, she shows how easy, and perhaps necessary, it can be for the people on one side of a conflict to dehumanise those on the other.

An emotional exploration of one woman’s journey, this might not change the terms of the debate, but it certainly casts light on it. And is an eloquent testimony to the heart-rending that can be caused when the nation one loves acts in ways one finds hard to bear.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JULY

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.

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

 

2011

 

testament of a witchThis is the second in a series of historical crime novels set in the late 17th century just before the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment. On checking it appears that the next one has just been released, 4 years later. Douglas Watt is a ‘proper’ historian, so one assumes his day job must have got in the way. This works excellently as a standalone, though – well written, historically insightful and with a solid plot based on the concerns of the time – treasonable plots, religious division, superstition and witch-hunts. Through the two main characters, rationalist John MacKenzie and Presbyterian Davie Scougall, Watt sheds a good deal of light on the political, religious and cultural concerns of the times and foreshadows the move towards Enlightenment thinking in the following century. But he doesn’t let the history get in the way of the story-telling, as MacKenzie must try to prevent the daughter of a friend from being burned as a witch.  The descriptions of how witches were identified and dealt with are both fascinating and horrifying. A couple of chapters are written in Scots dialect but not broadly enough to cause problems for a non-Scottish reader to understand.

 

2012

 

shakespeare's restless worldThis set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.

MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told. If you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series, which is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself.

 

2013

 

burial rites

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

Beautiful, sometimes poetic, writing, excellent characterisation and a haunting and heartbreaking plot, but what lifts this to the top ranks of literary fiction is the atmospheric depiction of the life and landscape of this remote community in the cold and dark of an Icelandic winter. A fabulous book that I felt was cheated by not being included on the shortlist for that year’s Booker.

 

2014

 

the truth is a caveI described this book as stunning at the time and that still seems like the right word. A dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth – the story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Do click on the cover to see the review, where I included some pictures of the illustrations. As the story gets darker some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable. And the story itself is wonderfully haunting – one I remember very distinctly more than a year after reading it. I’ve read this in another collection without pictures, and it’s only about half as effective, so I strongly urge anyone who wants to read it to go for the graphic version – the paper one. A superb book.

 

2015

 

sunset song 2Considered to be one of the greatest Scottish novels of the 20th century, this first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, is a lament for the passing of a way of life. It tells the story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. As war approaches, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. But he also shows that the community was changing already, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. And as he brings his characters together once again after the war ends, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again. A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation.

TBR Thursday 60 – The People’s Choice…

The People’s Choice 8…

 

The TBR has reached a frightening 151! If that topples over, Tuppence may get brutally squished! So no room to add more… but still you all tempt me, day in, day out. Cruelty, I tell you!

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. (You may look on this as a way to add one more book to my list, but I see it more as a way to keep another four off it!) An extremely difficult choice, I think…

So which one will you vote for? Which of these tantalising books deserves a place? 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…

 

a tangled webbThe BlurbTwo feuding families will go to surprising lengths to secure a prized heirloom…

It all begins with Great Aunt Becky and her infamous prized possession: a legendary heirloom jug. After her death, everyone wants it. But the name of the new owner won’t be revealed for one year. In the next twelve months, scandals, quarrels and love affairs abound–with the jug at the center of it all. Then comes the night when Aunt Becky’s wishes will be revealed…and the family is in for the biggest surprise of all.

Rose says: “A Tangled Web is a much more grown up story than the Anne books. Aunty Becky dies and the story unfolds with a great many twists and turns. Creating this must have been like a spider weaving a web, with interlinked pieces all over the place until the very end, when all of the stories are satisfactorily resolved. A Tangled Web is one of my favourite books by LM Montgomery. It is sarcastic and witty and brilliant and it is extremely satisfying to get to the bottom of the mysteries, especially finding out why Joscelyn and Hugh’s marriage foundered. If you enjoyed the Anne books you should read this book.

See the full review at Rose Reads Novels

*******

snow blindThe Blurb – Siglufjörður: an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors – accessible only via a small mountain tunnel. Ari Thór Arason: a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik – with a past that he’s unable to leave behind. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.

Raven says: The book takes on the real feel of a locked room mystery, with a finite group of possible perpetrators of the violent crimes, in this case a severe physical assault and a suspicious death, and giving the reader a puzzling conundrum as we attempt to identify the guilty party or parties ourselves. Speaking as a crime reader, this is always one of the essential thrills of this nature of crime book, playing detective and navigating the red herrings along the way.”

See the full review at Raven Crime Reads

*******

london belongs to meThe Blurb – It is 1938 and the prospect of war hangs over every London inhabitant. But the city doesn’t stop. Everywhere people continue to work, drink, fall in love, fight and struggle to get on in life. At the lodging-house at No.10 Dulcimer Street, Kennington, the buttoned-up clerk Mr Josser returns home with the clock he has received as a retirement gift. The other residents include faded actress Connie; tinned food-loving Mr Puddy; widowed landlady Mrs Vizzard (whose head is turned by her new lodger, a self-styled ‘Professor of Spiritualism’); and flashy young mechanic Percy Boon, whose foray into stolen cars descends into something much, much worse …

Lady Fancifull says: “it fairly whirls absorbingly along, with a terrific mix of memorable, believable ‘characters’ – all pretty well ordinary working class Londoners. There is crime, – a central crime, and we know who did it, – there are romances, some of which are doomed to fail, others of which are more hopeful – there is seediness, there is deception, class-consciousness, socialism and fascism on the streets, penury, near-penury, greed, spiritualism, fake and possibly not quite  – and oodles of affection for London itself, for ordinary people living ordinary lives, and displaying all the wonderful combination of nobility, generosity and mean-mindedness which we all do, all-mashed up together.

See the full review at Lady Fancifull

*******

the blessingThe Blurb – With razor-sharp wit, Mitford blends a comedy of manners with culture shock as Grace Allingham, a naive English rose, marries Charles-Edouard de Valhubert, a French aristo who doesn’t believe in fidelity. Both are duped, meantime, by their son Sigismund — the Blessing of the title — a juvenile Machiavelli who mixes Gallic cunning with Saxon thoroughness to become one of Mitford’s most memorable characters.

Disha says: While Grace loses her patience with her skirt-chasing husband and separates from him, moving back to England – their son Sigi soon realises that he benefits more from having his parents apart and does everything in his power to keep it so. Full of wit and colourful characters, it is impossible not to be amazed by the clandestine goings-on of post-war European glitterati. In the end, in the war of elegance between the French and English, the English always win. But then of course, this is a book written in English by an English woman. But I’m sure she knew what she was talking about.

See the full review at Franklenstein

*******

this godforsaken placeThe BlurbThe year is 1885 and Abigail Peacock is resisting what seems to be an inevitable future—a sensible career as a teacher and marriage to the earnestly attentive local storeowner. But then she buys a rifle, and everything changes.

This Godforsaken Place is the absorbing tale of one tenacious woman’s journey set against the dramatic backdrop of the Canadian Wilderness and American Wild West. Told by four narrators—including Annie Oakley and Gabriel Dumont—Abigail’s story brings the high stakes of the New World into startling focus.

TJ @ MyBookStrings says: Armed with a gun, a charming horse, and a vague sense of newfound freedom, Abigail sets out to travel to the United States to find Buffalo Bill Cody and become friends with Annie Oakley. She accomplishes both and gets hired to be a helper in Bill’s Wild West Show, moving to New York City and even to England with the show. However, things become complicated when Shea Wyatt is accused of murder, and Abigail has to decide exactly how far she is willing to go to get justice.”

See the full review at My Book Strings

*******

NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

As usual 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 and added to my TBR…

.

Hope you pick a good one! ;)

The Tender Herb (Murray of Letho 6) by Lexie Conyngham

the tender herb 2Days of Empire…

:D :D :D :D

Charles Murray of Letho is on an extended visit to Italy when his manservant Robbins turns up unexpectedly. Robbins has received a letter from Mary, Murray’s former maid, asking for advice. Mary’s husband has been arrested for murder in Delhi, where his regiment is based, and Mary is convinced of his innocence. When Robbins asks for permission to go to Delhi to help out, Murray decides that he will go along too – partly out of loyalty to Mary, and partly because he is trying to escape from an enthusiastic mother, determined to trap him into marrying her rather dull daughter.

Have you ever had the experience of loving a book all the way through to the last few pages and then suddenly coming upon an ending that changes your entire opinion? I’ve enjoyed all of the Murray of Letho books. Set in early 19th century Scotland, each one has incorporated a decent murder mystery into an excellent account of an aspect of post-Enlightenment society, well researched and well written. This one is set primarily in India, but the India of Empire, so another important aspect of Scottish life at that time, when so many Scots were posted out there as either government officials or soldiers.

As always, Conyngham wears her research lightly – the descriptions of the journey to and then across India are vivid and ring true, but don’t overwhelm the quality of the characterisation, which is perhaps her main strength. The plots are sometimes the weaker part of the books and again that’s the case here – there’s a lot of bumbling around getting nowhere fast, followed by an unnaturally quick denouement. But it’s still strong enough to hold the book together and to give plenty of room for Conyngham to allow her characters to explore this new and rather exotic environment on behalf of the reader. We get a real feel for the difficulties of this huge journey – a long sea voyage followed by weeks of traversing the country on elephant-back with the huge entourage of native servants that was the norm for wealthy travellers in India. And the depiction of Delhi society, as seen through the eyes of the British there, is both interesting and believable.

Red Fort Palace in Delhi - at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.

Red Fort Palace in Delhi – at the time of the book, home to the British Resident.

The books fall between ‘cosy’ and ‘gritty’ – just where I like crime fiction, in fact. The cosier element is around the recurring characters, whom we’ve got to know and care about over the previous books – particularly Murray himself, of course, who’s an intelligent and attractive lead. There’s always a good deal of humour in the books which makes them a particularly enjoyable read, and in this one there’s a lovely romantic sub-plot, as Murray finally meets a young woman who may be his match in every way. The grittier side comes from the murder plot – in this case, the knifing of a clergyman outside the barracks. But it appears that the clergyman, along with many of the other characters, may have had secrets to hide, and there may have been more than one motive for his murder.

So, great descriptions, excellent characterisation, a nice little bit of romance, and a strong enough plot – it was all going so well and heading straight for 5 stars. But – and I accept this is a matter of personal opinion only and annoying since I can’t explain without spoilers – I hated the way it ended, to the extent that I’ve been left unsure as to whether I want to continue with the series now, and that has to be a serious mark against it. All I can say is that everything up to that point had led me to believe it was going to finish one way, which I would have found satisfactory, and then at the last moment the whole thing was turned on its head, and I found the eventual outcome neither desirable nor credible. 4 stars, then, but still with a strong recommendation to read the series, preferably in order from the beginning. And yes, despite my cryptic remarks over the ending of this one, and with just a little hesitation, I’d still recommend it too.

Book 11

Book 11

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

waiting for sunrise coverSpies and lies…

:D :D :D :D :D

When young actor Lysander Rief consults an eminent psychiatrist in pre-WW1 Vienna about a problem, Dr Bensimon introduces him to the concept of parallelism. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. As Lysander gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. And despite some dark moments, it continues to feel like that all the way through, as if Lysander is playing a role in one of the great spy thrillers of the past. There are scenes that reminded me of The Third Man, with shadowy figures hiding in alleyways, and the characters, with the exception of Lysander himself, feel like representations of fictional ‘types’ rather than real people – the mysterious femme fatale, the traitor, the manipulative spymaster, etc.

“Let’s say that the world is in essence neutral – flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It’s us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling, purpose and emotion. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want. In theory.”

Lysander’s little problem is of course sexual – this is a Boyd book, after all – arising from an excruciatingly embarrassing (but very funny) episode in his youth. Encouraged by Dr Bensimon, he keeps a journal which forms part of the narrative, allowing the reader to see the world through his eyes. Coincidentally, it’s at Dr Bensimon’s office that he first meets Hettie, the woman who will firstly help cure his problem, and then be instrumental in creating the situation that later forces him into the world of spying. And coincidentally, the man who will be his spymaster also first meets Lysander in the doctor’s waiting room. All of these coincidences, and the many others that follow, are hardly coincidental though. Even Lysander begins to wonder eventually why everyone he meets seems to be something other than they appear at first sight.

the-third-man-1

The book is about deception, self-deception and lies. And that deception extends to the reader too. There are elements of the plot that are almost farcical in their unlikeliness, and dark moments that are glossed over with such subtle humour that sometimes it takes a moment or two to decide just how seriously they should be taken. Looking at reviews of the book tells me some people have taken it completely seriously and are therefore complaining about credibility issues, especially with the ending. And they may be right. But my perception of the whole thing is that it’s a frothy construct, a parallel to the truly dark stories of wartime espionage, something imagined to shape the world in the way that Lysander wants. Having learned from Dr Bensimon how to obliterate unpleasant truths from his mind, it seems to me that the book extends this idea – so, bad things happen but Lysander, and the reader, choose not to dwell on them. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation.

Lysander had done his best to answer the questions seriously because he knew that Davison [the director of the play] had gone to Russia a year before, had met Stanislavski and had fallen under the sway of his new theories about acting and drama, and was convinced that all this extraneous material and information that one invented fleshed out the character and bolstered the text. Lysander felt like saying that if Shakespeare had wanted us to know that Angelo was well travelled or suffered from piles he would have dropped in a line or two in the play to that effect.

William Boyd

William Boyd

As always with Boyd, the writing is eminently readable – smooth, flowing, neither forced nor artificial, but with a lovely use of language. There is a lot about sex in the book, but it’s not at all graphic or icky (yes, I still haven’t got those scenes in Birdsong out of my head) – instead it takes the route of gentle mockery, highlighting the more ridiculous side of the act. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. Boyd is rarely laugh out loud funny, but I love the way he keeps a layer of gentle humour simmering beneath the surface, lightening the tone and keeping the reader slightly off-balance. He’s one of those authors who can be off-form from time to time, but when he’s on form, as he is in this one, there are few writers I enjoy more. Highly recommended.

Book 10

Book 10

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Secret Diary of PorterGirl by Lucy Brazier

secret diary of portergirlMurder and mayhem at Old College…

:D :D :D :D

When PorterGirl becomes the first female in 600 years to work as a porter in Old College, she’s expecting to face her share of old-fashioned prejudice and to have to learn all the quirky traditions of this venerable institution. But she soon finds there are dark secrets in the College’s history – secrets that even today some members of the Fellowship of the College are desperate to keep hidden. And, having an inquisitive nature and a background as a police officer, PorterGirl soon finds herself deeply embroiled in the shady goings-on that… er… go on behind these hallowed walls. As danger begins to dog her footsteps, it’s just as well there’s no shortage of tea and sausage sandwiches to keep her spirits up!

The Secret Diary of PorterGirl began life as a blog, and frequent visitors here will doubtless recognise PorterGirl as one of my delightfully witty regular commenters. I’ve been a follower and fan of Lucy’s blog for a long time now and was delighted to hear that she had compiled her blog stories into book form. Obviously, since we’re blog buddies and friends, you will have to assume some bias in this review, but I will try to be as honest as I can.

Lucy began her blog when, in real life, she left her job as a police officer and went to work at a college in one of our oldest and most prestigious Universities in the role of Deputy Head Porter. As with any ancient institution, the real ‘Old College’ is awash with traditions, some of them inspiring and others that seem a little more, shall we say, esoteric. Having always written for her own pleasure, Lucy began to blog about her experiences and, as the blog gained a following, gradually started to embellish the already strange truth of college life with some even stranger storylines of her own invention. The book is a compilation of the blog entries, though Lucy has made some changes to pull it together into a more structured form.

Maybe Old College looks something like this...

Maybe Old College looks something like this…

In the early chapters, the bloggy origins of the book show through as PorterGirl tells us about her first days in the new job, and introduces us to some of the characters who grow and develop as the book progresses. PorterGirl is one of life’s sunny enthusiasts with a keen observational eye for the humour in any situation and some of the set pieces are a delight. The inaugural meeting of the Committee for the Prevention of Drunken Behaviour, for example, held unfortunately on a day when PorterGirl is herself somewhat hungover, is comic joy as she listens with growing apprehension to the Fellowship’s plans for dealing with drunken students by having porters put them into the recovery position and attempt to ensure they remain conscious…

“What if the drunkard is a girl?” the Dean continues. “We can’t have our Porters wrestling drunk young ladies to the floor and forcing them to lie on their sides. Think of our reputation!”…

“I think” I say as politely as I can “that if the person is upright and able to physically fend us off they are not in need of urgent medical attention… I feel trying to force them onto the ground, male or female, will only inflame the situation.”

“That is one way of looking at it,” says Senior Tutor. “But I think it should be thought about. It would be easier to prod them repeatedly from the recovery position.”

As the plot begins to thicken, it takes on the tone of a somewhat spoofed Dan Brown story (though some might say Dan Brown’s books read like spoofs of Dan Brown books!), full of secret societies, mysterious symbols and ancient traditions. What stops it from becoming too much is the character of PorterGirl herself – level-headed and competent, she steers a path of relative sanity through the maze of strange happenings and odd behaviour of her increasingly caricatured characters. The humour stays strong throughout and as PorterGirl begins to develop affection for her colleagues, so does the reader. But there are also some quite touching scenes, such as PorterGirl’s burgeoning friendship with the elderly Professor K, and some well-written action scenes towards the end as PorterGirl gets close to the truth and begins to run into danger. These changes of tone add depth and contrast to the overall effect.

Lucy Brazier - with Deputy Head Porter's trademark bowler hat and wine!

Lucy Brazier – with Deputy Head Porter’s trademark bowler hat and wine!

Biased I may be, but I think this is a great début. The structure is a little unbalanced with the change from journal type early chapters on the role of the Deputy Head Porter to a full on mystery adventure in the second half, but this is due to the way the book originated and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment. Now that Lucy has established her characters and the world of Old College the possibilities are endless, and I look forward to seeing how her style develops in the future. Something to read when the world feels grey and a little laughter is required to brighten the day!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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