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Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JUNE

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 June reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

The BlackhouseI’ve been a long-term fan of Peter May’s since back in his China Thrillers days, but I felt that with the Lewis Trilogy he took a real step up to take his place as one of the very top crime writers in Britain today. The Blackhouse is the first book in the trilogy introducing us to DS Fin MacLeod, who is sent back to Lewis to investigate a murder that resembles one that took place earlier in his Edinburgh patch. Returning home after 20 years away, Fin is thrown into remembering and re-assessing his difficult childhood and adolescence. The book alternates between the present day and Fin’s past and it gradually emerges that the shadow of that past may be involved in the current investigation. This was one of the earlier examples of the double timeline that has now become almost obligatory in crime fiction, but it’s done much better than most, with both the current story and the past equally strong and coming together to a dark but satisfying conclusion. And the rest of the trilogy is even better…

 

2012

 

secret life of william shakespeareThis is a beautifully written novel, each word carefully crafted to draw the reader in to a world full of poetry and drama. Morgan fills the gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life by creating a character who is completely convincing and compelling – a man who questions his own existence except as he lives through his work. But much though I loved the story of Shakespeare and his London life, for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne Hathaway – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. We see Anne grow and develop as she tries to reconcile her pride in Will’s accomplishments with her sense of abandonment. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. A wonderful book that will appeal not only to Shakespeare fans but also to anyone who appreciates a superbly crafted tale filled with poetry, humanity and tenderness.

 

2013

 

feral“Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”

This book is a call for us to step back from nature conservation as we know it and give nature space to recover on her own. Monbiot suggests that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn’t arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer, but for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators we have driven to extinction in our islands. A cogently argued and inspiring book that made me look with fresh eyes at what our landscape has become, and imagine what it could be if we have the courage to hand back the controls to nature herself. Although he talks specifically about the UK, much of what he says is relevant to the whole ‘first world’.

 

2014

 

oxcrimesYou only have to look at the cover of this book to see some of the huge names who have contributed stories to this anthology in aid of Oxfam. In total, there are twenty-seven stories, most of them original, and the overall quality is exceptionally high. There are a few that are really quite short, but most of them are pretty substantial and a few of them star the detective for whom the author is famous. As well as straightforward crime/detection, there are examples of both horror and sci-fi with a crime element, and black humour puts in more than one appearance. Anthony Horowitz, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Neil Gaiman, Mark Billingham, Peter James… need I say more? To be honest, you’d need to be pretty much impossible to please if you didn’t enjoy at least some of these stories. Imaginative tales and great writing from top authors – the fact that it’s for a good cause is just an added bonus.

 

2015

 

the grapes of wrathFirst published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Starkly political, overly polemical, emotionally manipulative and tending towards bathos… but also hugely powerful, brilliantly written, immensely moving and just as relevant to today as to the time of writing. I can’t remember the last time a book made me this angry, both at the subject matter and at the author’s manipulation of the reader. Made me think, made me cry, made me want to throw my Kindle at the wall, bored me silly at some points, and left me so enraged it took me weeks to be able to write a (reasonably) coherent review. Not an easy read, or an enjoyable one… but a book that deserves to be read.

 * * * * *

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

TBR Thursday 59…

Episode 59

 

A massive decrease in the TBR this week – to 140. I’m powering through the books but developing a backlog for review. This is due to a combination of summer, tennis and general procrastination – all of which have meant I haven’t been visiting your blogs this week either, for which my apologies! Wimbledon is underway so I may not be around much for the next week or so, but should be back properly after that, revitalised and ready to serve up some backhanded reviews and slice a few more off the reading list. Hope I don’t hit any ballboys…

Vamos Rafa!

Vamos Rafa!

Meantime, a few that are rising to the top of the heap. A mixed bag this time – the only one I feel really confident about is the Ken Kalfus…

Fiction

 

coup de foudreThis book has been a long time in the publishing – I originally pre-ordered it in January 2014, and still no Kindle version available, and I’m not sure the hardback is out yet either over here, though it is in the US. However with Kalfus I’m sure it will have been worth the wait…

The Blurb says The third collection by the celebrated author of Thirst and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, Coup de Foudre is the groundbreaking work of literary invention Ken Kalfus’s fans have come to expect. The book is anchored by the biting title novella, a sometimes comic, ultimately tragic story about the president of an international lending institution accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a New York hotel. With irony and compassion, Kalfus skewers international political gridlock and the hypocrisies of acceptable sexual conduct. The stories in Coup de Foudre vary boldly in theme, setting, and tone, yet they each share Kalfus’s distinctive humor and intellect, inextricably bound with high literary ambition.

 * * * * *

 

skinCourtesy of NetGalley. I have no idea why I requested this! I must have been having a funny spell…it just doesn’t sound like my kind of thing at all. But maybe it’ll be great…

The Blurb says “Imagine a world where everyone is born with a ‘skin’ name. Without skin you cannot learn, you are not permitted to marry, and you grow up an outsider amongst your own people.This is no future dystopia. This is Celtic Britain.

It is AD 43. For the Caer Cad, ‘skin’ name determines lineage and identity. Ailia does not have skin; despite this, she is a remarkable young woman, intelligent, curious and brave. As a dark threat grows on the horizon – the aggressive expansion of the Roman Empire – Ailia must embark on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people, and their pagan way of life, from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced… and it is this unskinned girl who will come to hold the fate of her people in her hands.

SKIN is a standout, full-blooded debut which invokes the mesmerizing, genre-transcending magic of novels such as Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cavebear; it combines epic storytelling with a strikingly unique plot set during a fascinating period of Britain’s history.

* * * * *

Crime

 

little black liesCourtesy of NetGalley. I love Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, but I’m not so sure how I’ll feel about this standalone. However I think she’s a great storyteller, so hopefully she’ll carry me with her… (I’ve started it since I drafted this – hmm! Still not sure…)

The Blurb says What’s the worst thing your best friend could do to you?

Admittedly, it wasn’t murder. A moment’s carelessness, a tragic accident – and two children are dead. Yours. Living in a small island community, you can’t escape the woman who destroyed your life. Each chance encounter is an agonizing reminder of what you’ve lost – your family, your future, your sanity. How long before revenge becomes irresistible? With no reason to go on living, why shouldn’t you turn your darkest thoughts into deeds?

So now, what’s the worst thing you can do to your best friend?

* * * * *

the case of the dotty dowagerCourtesy of NetGalley. Given my growing aversion to ‘gritty’ modern crime fiction (i.e., police brutality, drunkenness and swearing), I’m hoping this title suggests something a bit more mystery and a bit less graphic…

The Blurb saysMeet the Women of the WISE Enquiries Agency. The first in a new series.

Henry Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is convinced his mother is losing her marbles. She claims to have seen a corpse on the dining-room floor, but all she has to prove it is a bloodied bobble hat. Worried enough to retain the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency one is Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English Henry wants the strange matter explained away. But the truth of what happened at the Chellingworth Estate, set in the rolling Welsh countryside near the quaint village of Anwen by Wye, is more complex, dangerous, and deadly, than anyone could have foreseen . . . ”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

So…what do you think?

Do any of these tempt you?

(Apart from Rafa, obviously…’cos he’s mine!)

The Dinner by Herman Koch

the dinnerWe need to talk about Michel…

:D :D :D :D

Paul and Claire meet for dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette quite often, and Paul usually finds them uncomfortable occasions, having a contempt born out of jealousy for his brother’s successful political career. But on this occasion, things are more tense than usual because the two families need to talk about an incident involving their children. When it becomes obvious they’re not going to agree on how to handle the situation, the tension begins to grow and the conventions of polite behaviour begin to fall apart. The question the book asks is – how far would you go to protect your children?

The book gets off to a flying start, with some great observational humour as Paul, the narrator, looks forward apprehensively to the evening ahead. Koch is great at ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ and we learn as much about Paul’s relationship with his wife and brother from reading between the lines as from what he actually says. But this is only the first layer of the onion – as the book progresses, outward appearances are stripped away until eventually each character is laid bare to us in all their prejudices and flaws. And a pretty unsavoury bunch they are, with Paul himself turning out to be far more complex than he gives us to believe at the beginning. The whole thing slowly becomes very dark, and though it’s clearly heading for a dramatic climax, it’s not at all obvious what that will be until it arrives.

I read Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The twisted morality and dark storyline mixed with some great black humour to make an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The focus was on the father and asked the same question – what would you do to protect your children? I’ve noticed that many people who read The Dinner first found Summer House a bit disappointing because it trod a similar path. Reading them in reverse, I found The Dinner a little disappointing for the same reason.

Herman Koch

Herman Koch

The Dinner is one of those books where it’s important to know as little as possible going in to get the full effect of the various surprises, so I’ll say no more about the plot. But there were a couple of other things that made me like it a little less than Summer House. Though there is some good observational humour in The Dinner, it doesn’t have quite the edge as in Summer House. In it, the humour is often cruel, but wickedly close to what we maybe all think but don’t say from time to time – and then feel appalled at ourselves for thinking it. In this one, I didn’t get that feeling of delicious recognition and guilt – the humour was more straightforward. But the big difference – and I’ll have to be a little oblique to avoid spoilers – is that there is some small degree of moral justification for the actions in Summer House, but absolutely none that I could accept in The Dinner. Therefore while I had some sympathy for some characters in Summer House, I had none at all for any of them in The Dinner.

But the mild disappointment in this one is only because of the comparison. In itself, this is a good dark psychological thriller, where the quality of the writing and characterisation helps to get the reader past the lack of credibility at some parts of the story – for most of the time. Personally, I found the ending asked me to suspend my disbelief a little too much, but this didn’t destroy my enjoyment of the book overall. The translation from the original Dutch is again by Sam Garrett, who does another very fine job with it. I’ll be interested to see where Koch’s dark imagination takes us in future…

Thanks to Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books whose great review persuaded me to read this one.

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer

Book 4 of my 20 Books of Summer

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

After the Fire (Maeve Kerrigan 6) by Jane Casey

Maeve goes maverick…

:) :) :) :)

after the fireA fire in a block of flats leaves three people dead and one little girl terribly injured. The fire inspectors suspect it may have been arson and, when it turns out that one of the victims was a much-hated politician who had no known reason to be in the building, it looks as though murder may have been the aim. But as Maeve Kerrigan and the team begin to investigate, they discover that many of the residents have secrets, and that there is more than one possible motive for the arson.

This is another strong entry in the Maeve Kerrigan series, with a complex and interesting plot and Casey’s trademark ‘fair play’ – the clues are all there, though the reader will probably only spot them after the solution is revealed. The setting of the block of flats allows Casey to develop several different story strands for the various residents, and she handles them with aplomb, making sure that each is brought to a satisfying conclusion. Two of the victims are women who have been trafficked into the sex trade; one is a lonely old woman, almost a prisoner in her flat because of the constantly-broken lift; another is in hiding with her young son from her abusive husband. Then there’s the extended family who seem to be under the thumb of their elderly matriarch, and who are suspiciously well-off considering none of them seem to have legitimate jobs. Maeve, working again in partnership with Josh Derwent, must try to discover which of them was the target, in case the ‘wrong’ people died and the intended victim might still be in danger.

The running sub-plot regarding Maeve’s stalker also continues in the background, and I fear in this storyline Maeve seems to be turning into a traditional maverick copper, willing to bend or break the rules and use – or instigate – violence even when it seems unnecessary. There’s also a lot more angst in this than in the earlier books, with Maeve’s personal life having taken a nose-dive. In fact, she doesn’t actually seem to have a personal life any more – not even the fun phone messages from her mother. But then, I accept I seem to be in a small minority – of reviewers, certainly, though I’m less sure about the wider group of readers – who prefer their detectives not to be more messed up and violent than the criminals.

For the most part, however, the book concentrates on the main plot regarding the fire, and is at its strongest when it does, with Maeve behaving as the competent, team-playing officer she has always been. Una Burt is now in charge, and she and Maeve are beginning to appreciate each other a little more now that they’re working more closely. Casey is always excellent at characterisation, and not just of the main characters. Each of the residents in the flats is well-drawn – she gives us enough information to make us care about them (or dislike them, as appropriate) without bogging us down in endlessly detailed backstories.

Jane Casey

Jane Casey

The Maeve/Josh relationship is developed further, becoming something that feels almost dark as Maeve leans more and more heavily on this bullying, sexist, macho man, who is the only person she confides in, and who seems to have appointed himself her guardian and watchdog, telling her how to run her life outside work as well as in. I’m not at all sure where Casey is heading with it (hopefully not towards romance!), but it’s intriguing, especially the way Maeve appears to be allowing him to control her. He seems as much of a stalker as her stalker at points, but at least this means he’s always at hand to rescue her from the difficulties she’s constantly getting herself into. In their lighter moments, however, the pair still provide the humour that lifts the tone of the book and keeps it an enjoyable read despite the darker and more maverick elements.

Overall, another strong outing that I am sure most fans will thoroughly enjoy. Because of the running storylines I would suggest that anyone new to the series should read them in order, starting with The Burning.

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer

Book 3 of my 20 Books of Summer

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 58…

Episode 58

 

I’m traumatised to report that, because of the addition of my selections for the 20 Books of Summer challenge, the TBR has leapt up to a dramatic 148 – the highest figure since measurements began! I’m further traumatised by the fact that I have no fewer than 18 books for review over the next three months, that I gaily didn’t include in my 20 list. What do you think my chances are of reading 38 books, reviewing them and watching Wimbledon between now and 4th September?

despair

Oh well… here’s a few I’ll get to some time…

Factual

 

being nixonCourtesy of NetGalley. All I know about Nixon is Watergate, and I’m still not totally clear what that was all about! So time to find out more…

The Blurb says The New York Times bestselling author of Ike’s Bluff and Sea of Thunder brings new life to one of American history’s most infamous, paradoxical, and enigmatic politicians: Richard Nixon. Dispensing with myths to achieve an intimate and evenhanded look at the actual man, Evan Thomas delivers the best single-volume biography of Nixon to date, a radical, unique portrait of a complicated figure who was both determinedly optimistic and tragically flawed.

What drove a painfully shy outcast in elite Washington society—a man so self-conscious he refused to make eye contact during meetings—to pursue power and public office? How did a president so attuned to the American political id that he won reelection in a historic landslide lack the self-awareness to recognize the gaping character flaws that would drive him from office and forever taint his legacy?

In Being Nixon, Evan Thomas peels away the layers of the complex, confounding figure who became America’s thirty-seventh president.

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

the shapeshiftersCourtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’m classifying this as fiction, but frankly that’s only because I don’t have a category for weird. Hoping it’s weirdly wonderful though… it seems to be dividing reviewers.

The Blurb says Summer 1978. A young boy disappears without a trace from a summer cabin. His mother claims that he was carried away by a giant. He is never found.

Twenty-five years later, another child goes missing. This time there’s a lead, a single photograph taken by Susso Myren. She has devoted her life to the search for trolls, legendary giants known as stallo who can control human thoughts and assume animal form. Convinced that trolls are real, she follows the trail of missing children to northern Sweden. But humans, some part stallo themselves, have been watching over the creatures for generations, and this hidden society of protectors won’t hesitate to close its deadly ranks.

Mixing folklore and history, suspense and the supernatural, The Shapeshifters is an extraordinary journey into a frozen land where myth bleeds into reality.

* * * * *

Crime

 

bitter fruitsCourtesy of NetGalley. I’m not sure why I requested this one – I have a sneaking feeling I just liked the cover. But it sounds like an interesting debut…

The Blurb says “Detective Inspector Erica Martin’s first case in the university city of Durham is Emily Brabents, a first-year student, who is found dead in the river.

DI Martin visits Joyce College, a cradle for the country’s future elite, and finds a close-knit community full of secrets, jealousy and obsession.

Her search reveals a vicious online trolling culture but could Emily, from the privileged and popular crowd, have been a victim? Should the sudden confession to the murder by the student president be believed?

And just who is the mysterious Daniel Shepherd whose name keeps appearing in the investigation…?

* * * * *

Crime

 

the voices beyondCourtesy of NetGalley. This is the fourth book in Theorin’s Oland Quartet – I haven’t read the other three, but I get the impression they can be read as standalones – linked by setting rather than plot. We shall see…

The Blurb saysSummer on the beautiful Swedish island of Öland. Visitors arrive in their thousands, ready to enjoy the calm and relaxation of this paradise. Amongst them is Jonas Kloss, excited at the prospect of staying with his aunt, uncle and older cousins. But it is not as he had hoped. One night he takes a boat out onto the moonlit sea. A ship looms out of the darkness and the horror he finds on board is unimaginable.

Fleeing for his life, Jonas arrives at the door of an elderly islander, Gerlof Davidsson. Once Gerlof has heard his tale of dead sailors and axe-wielding madmen, he realizes that this will be a summer like none other Öland has ever seen.

For one man – the Homecomer – this is a very special journey. He seeks revenge that he’s waited a lifetime to exact…

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill read by Steven Pacey

printer's devil courtVictoria sponge…

:) :) :|

A young medical student has taken rooms in Printer’s Devil Court in London, sharing them with three other medical men. One evening, the four men have a discussion as to whether the story of Lazarus could possibly have been true – is it scientifically possible to bring someone back from the dead? Two of the men hint that they have been carrying out experiments on the subject and ask Meredith and the fourth man if they would like to join in. The fourth man considers the whole idea to be blasphemous and refuses, but Meredith’s curiosity wins out, and he agrees to be a witness to the experiments – a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.

Susan Hill has written this very much in the style of a Victorian ghost story although it’s set in the 20th century. It feels very much like working to a recipe…

1 notebook revealing a terrible secret
1 creepy street name
4 medical students
2 or 3 graveyards to taste
2 corpses
1 late night adventure in a mortuary
1 man racked by conscience and haunted for the rest of his life

Mix all together with a wooden spoon until smooth, and bake for 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, the resulting cake is somewhat bland – a Victoria sponge without the jam perhaps. One feels that a vital ingredient has been forgotten…

1 generous splash of essence of horror

graveyard

The quality of the writing and storytelling is quite high – it’s just that it’s a story we’ve all heard so often in various forms and Hill brings nothing new to the recipe. I felt she was so busily ensuring that she got it to sound authentically Victorian, which she succeeds in doing very well, that she lost sight somewhat of the fact that a ghost story ought to be scary, and in order to be scary it must have some element of unpredictability. I kept hoping there was going to be a twist that would turn expectations on their head, but I’m afraid it ran along too smoothly from beginning to end without deviating from the obvious route. And there’s no added ingredient to make up for the lack of the scare factor – no great moral questions are raised, there’s no element of humour.

Susan Hill © Ben Graville

Susan Hill © Ben Graville

The most effective bits are the mortuary scene and the first graveyard scene, in both of which the quality of the writing does manage to create a chilling atmosphere, but from there on the story meanders on, not really going anywhere at all, until it reaches a completely anticlimactic end.

I listened to the audiobook version which has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. The narrator Steven Pacey does a good job with the material available, but I’m afraid that my spine remained untingled and my hair unraised.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible UK via Midas PR.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

capital crimes london mysteriesThe streets of London…

:D :D :D :D :D

From Sherlock Holmes to Lacey Flint, many of the detectives I have loved over the years have been based in London. And why not? One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world with a history stretching back for over a millennium, it has always been a contrast of bright lights and dark alleyways, extreme wealth and desperate poverty, and every one of its ancient streets is drenched in the blood of the victims of its horrid past. Visitors love nothing more than to shiver in the London Dungeon, to thrill to the stories of ancient beheadings in the Tower, to make a pilgrimage to those famous rooms in Baker Street. What river has been the escape route for more criminals and the final resting place for more victims than the Thames? Who can think of Whitechapel without their thoughts turning to the eviscerated victims of Jack the Ripper?

london fog

So what better venue for a collection of classic crime stories? In this book, Martin Edwards has selected 17 stories from the Golden Age of crime writing, some from names we are still familiar with – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Edgar Wallace – but many from authors who have since faded into obscurity. He has arranged them into rough chronological order, allowing us to see the gradual transition from the heyday of the amateur detective to the beginnings of the police procedural with which we’re more familiar today. The overall standard of the stories is variable, as in any collection, but I found most of them good or excellent, with only a couple that I felt really hadn’t stood the test of time. But even these added something to the collection in showing how trends were just as strong in early crime-writing as they are now. For example, I was underwhelmed by Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, starring deaf, lip-reading amateur detective Judith Lee, but was intrigued to note that there seemed to be a fashion around that time for detectives with a physical quirk, since a couple of stories later we meet Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carradine – not unlike our current obsession with autistic detectives, but happily without the angst (or drunkenness).

Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards

The influence of Holmes and Watson is clear in some of the partnerships between brilliant detectives and admiring narrators, (though I suppose I should grudgingly give the credit to Poe’s Dupin and his unnamed narrator really). R Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke in particular struck me as very Sherlockian, as did the aforementioned Max Carradine.

Many of the stories rely on intricate plots – ‘locked room’ mysteries, innovative murder methods, unbreakable alibis, etc. But others veer more strongly towards the psychological, using atmosphere to great effect to build suspense, and a couple of them could easily be classed as horror as much as crime. I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories as part of my Tuesday ‘Tec! slot – Edgar Wallace’s The Stealer of Marble and John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground – but to give you a fuller flavour of the collection, here are a few more that stood out for me…

The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – this revenge story is definitely more horror than detection, telling the tale of a husband avenging himself against the man who is having an affair with his wife. A truly horrifying ending! And a great way to kick off the collection.

The Tea Leaf by Robert Eustace and Edgar Jepson – two men enter a room in a Turkish Bath, argue loudly, and only one leaves alive. But no murder weapon is found on the survivor or in the room. How was the murder done, and who is the killer? A fine example of a ‘locked room’ mystery with a unique method of killing.

The Little House by HC Bailey – amateur detective Reggie Fortune is asked to look into the case of a missing kitten, but this soon becomes an extremely chilling look at a case of child cruelty. The writing style is a bit staccato but the story is powerful with a strong sense of anger and justice.

The Case of Lady Sannox

The Case of Lady Sannox

The Silver Mask by Hugh Walpole – the story of the collection for me, and I will definitely be looking for more of Walpole’s work. This tells of a middle-aged lady whose loneliness and maternal feelings are played on by an unscrupulous young man. The way Walpole describes the woman’s character is very true and touching, and I found the portrayal of the unintended carelessness of her friends and family quite moving. This is another with an atmosphere of terror which mounts all the way through to an ending that is full of dread. Brilliant stuff!

They Don’t Wear Labels by EM Delafield – an intriguing story told from the perspective of the landlady of a married couple living in her lodging house. The woman is suffering from ‘nerves’ and on one evening tells the landlady her husband is trying to murder her. But the husband is so nice to everyone, and seems so kind to his impossible wife – he couldn’t possibly be a murderer…could he? Another psychological study this, of how one can never tell by appearances.

* * * * *

All round, an excellent collection that I highly recommend to all crime aficionados, and I’m looking forward to reading Edward’s selection in the companion volume, Resorting to Murder.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, who publish the Kindle version. The paper version is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn” Robert Burns

:D :D :D :D :)

the grapes of wrathWhen Tom Joad returns to his parents’ farm after serving a prison sentence for murder, he finds it deserted. In the four years he has been gone, the land has turned to dust through a combination of drought and poor farming practices. The onset of the Great Depression has meant that the banks have taken over ownership of vast tracts of the land and, in pursuit of profit, are expelling the small tenant farmers to create massive one-crop farms, worked by machines rather than men. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Tom and his family join the exodus.

First published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression, and Steinbeck’s anger and disgust come through loudly in the power of his prose. A starkly political novel, it’s interesting that there is little or no reference to either the politicians or policies of the period. This adds to the feeling of the farmers being isolated, abandoned by their nation and utterly reliant on their own limited resources. It falls somewhere between a call to arms for the poor to unite to overthrow the forces of capitalism, and a warning to the powers that be that the result of driving people to the limits of desperation might be just such an outcome. I didn’t know Steinbeck’s own political stance before reading the book, but was unsurprised to read later that at this period he was involved in the Communist movement within the US.

A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I’ve read and it has left me with many indelible images. The writing is never less than excellent and is sometimes stunning, while the characterisation and brilliant use of dialect make the Joad family and the people they meet on their journey completely real. The story is a simple one, of man’s inhumanity to man – a story that has been told often, but rarely with such concentration and power. But it’s several weeks since I finished reading the book and I still haven’t quite decided what I think of it.

"Departure of the Joads" by Thomas Hart Benton 1939

“Departure of the Joads” by Thomas Hart Benton 1939

On the one hand, most of the first half of the book drags terribly as Steinbeck tells the story of the journey in minute, endless detail. I feel I could now get a job as a car mechanic working on 1930s models. I get the importance of the car to these families, but I don’t care whether bronze wire will wear away as the widget rubs against the doodah – I truly don’t. But the tedium and repetitiveness of parts of the book didn’t bother me as much as the heavy-handed and unnecessary polemical interludes, where Steinbeck spells out his message in case the reader has been too stupid to understand it. I’m guessing any reader who doesn’t ‘get’ it, will have given up the book long before Steinbeck gets to the political pamphlet chapters. Occasionally it stops feeling like a novel at all and becomes almost like a ranty student essay on the evils of capitalism. If he explained the process of supply and demand once, he must have explained it a hundred times – ironic really, since it is surely only needed once, if at all. And the constant misery! Again, yes, absolutely – the story is appalling, more so for being true, and of course we need to see the horrible impact of absolute poverty on people’s lives and humanity. But when authors feel they have to top up the human misery with the old ‘dead dog’ technique, I fear they cross the line between emotional truth and emotional trickery. Of Mice and Men was the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn into bathos, and decades later I feel exactly the same about this one. And then there’s the ending… but we’ll come to that…

“Preachin’s bein’ good to folks when they wanna kill ya for it. Las’ Christmus in McAlester [the jail], Salvation Army come an’ done us good. Three solid hours a cornet music, an’ we set there. They was bein’ nice to us. But if one of us tried to walk out, we’d a-drawed solitary. That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

On the other hand, the story is an important one that is as relevant today, sadly, as at the time of writing. Whether one agrees or not with Steinbeck’s call of Workers Unite! and class struggle as the solution to poverty and ongoing waves of mass migration, whether one believes that capitalism or socialism is the system most likely to bring a more fair and just society in the end, the vivid picture that he draws of humanity’s imperative struggle for survival in even the most hopeless of circumstances cannot fail to move and must surely stir the consciences of those of us whose present comfort depends on the poverty of others. I found myself drawing parallels with the current influx of people from Africa and Asia into Europe, and the issues surrounding illegal immigration in the US. But more than that, I discovered I was making comparisons to slavery and reflecting that at least, under that repellent system, the owners felt that they had to protect their ‘investment’, whereas these people belonged to no-one, had no intrinsic ‘economic value’ and were thus ultimately even more dispensable. An uncomfortable train of thought and a tribute to Steinbeck’s anger that he made me think it against everything I believe.

Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.

Sometimes the quality of the writing takes the book almost to the sublime. From the first chapter, with the unforgettable images of the windstorm and the dust and the dying corn, with the women watching to see if their men will break, he makes the land a character in its own right, as important as any Joad, and its death as moving as one of theirs. The story of the turtle’s indomitable spirit as it unwittingly spreads the seed that will allow nature to have its rebirth is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read. While I was never quite sure what message he was attempting to send with the biblical themes, they add a sense of eternality, of inevitability, to the struggle for a more just society. The sheer power and anger of the ‘Moses’ scene will stay with me forever, as will that ending – which I hated even while I recognised the force of its essential truthfulness, and which left me as angry about humanity being reduced to this as Steinbeck could possibly have desired. And just as angry about the emotional manipulation he used to achieve that effect.

Not a book that I can say I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but one that I am glad to have read and will not forget.

Elmer Hader's cover design

Elmer Hader’s cover design

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

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

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

us flagAchieved.

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

us flagAbsolutely, and furthermore an aspect of Western culture that we are still struggling with today. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI certainly think the socialist theme would have been innovative in its time and in fact still reads as innovative now, when the Cold War has been won and capitalism appears to have been the victor. (In fact, I am intrigued as to why a book with such a strong socialist message is so highly regarded in the ultra-capitalist US? Answers below, please.) Achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagHmm…it is superbly written, there’s no doubt about that, especially the descriptive writing about nature and the land, the biblical echoes in some of the language, and his wonderfully skilled use of dialect. However… there are also huge chunks of it that are simply dull and don’t add much. But I’m going to say achieved, since the excellent bits outweigh the dull bits.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI fear not. It isn’t trying to. But one of my criticisms of it is that it doesn’t expand out to set the experience of the ‘Okies’ into the wider context of society, thus giving a one-sided, polemical picture of the poor as fundamentally good and the rich as uniformly bad. A powerful but too simplistic message, though perhaps it wouldn’t have felt that way at the time.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4½ stars and four GAN flags, I hereby declare it A Great American Novel. But one I doubt I’ll ever read again…

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

dark matterI dare you…

:o :o :o :o :o

It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. Part scientific expedition, part adventure for the group of upper-class men who are arranging it, for Jack it is an escape and a possible way back into the scientific studies he had to abandon when his father died. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…

This is billed as a ghost story, and like the best of those it’s totally amibiguous, not to mention totally terrifying! Is there a malevolent presence haunting Gruhuken, or is it all a product of Jack’s mind? Since the story is told through his journal, his is the only perspective we have, and we see his mind being affected by the vastness of this empty landscape and the ever-deepening darkness. And the loneliness. And the silence. And the ice beginning to freeze his only escape route – the sea…

husky

Did I mention it’s terrifying? There was actually one point late at night where I thought ‘Nope! Not reading that till the sun’s shining tomorrow!’ And yet, what happens? Very little – no gore-fest, no clanking chains or shrieks (except mine), no werewolves, vampires or zombies. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, distorted perspectives, and mysterious legends of barbarous cruelty. And all added to some fabulous descriptive writing that puts the reader right into this cold, dark, threatening landscape where the only contact with the outside world is through the fragile valves of Jack’s wireless, and where help would take days to arrive, if at all.

The depiction of Jack’s growing loneliness is superb. At first resentful of his companions’ effortless social superiority, he gradually begins a tentative friendship with Gus, the leader of the group – a friendship that borders on hero-worship. And it’s for Gus’ sake that he tries to keep the failing expedition alive. As a natural loner, he thinks he’ll be fine on his own, but soon learns the difference between being alone in the midst of the teeming city streets of London and the total solitude of his new surroundings. Well, maybe total solitude – or maybe not. (Cue spooky music.)

arctic night

Any regular visitor will know of my aversion to first person present tense narratives. I’ve explained in the past that the reason I usually hate these is because they are used when they’re not appropriate or else they are handled clumsily. This book is an example of how FPPT should be used – Paver handles both person and tense brilliantly, slipping in and out of present and past at exactly the right moments and never once allowing herself to be trapped into a particular tense when it doesn’t suit the narrative. As a result, this achieves its aim of reading like a genuine contemporaneous journal, and should be a compulsory text in all creative writing classes. But only ones that are held in daylight because – did I mention it’s terrifying?

Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver

There are lots of other things I’d love to praise but really this is one where every incident adds to the overall effect so I’ll restrict myself to saying cryptically – loved all the stuff about Jack and the huskies, and loved the way Paver used human contact to increase the effect of the all-pervading loneliness. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t – do!

I dare you…

* * * * *

Thanks yet again to Lady Fancifull whose brilliant review talked me into this one. (Though I’m deeply concerned that she tried to get me to read it on a dark winter night with the snow whirling and the wind rattling the windows. I thought she liked me…)

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer

Book 2 of my 20 Books of Summer

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

20 Books of Summer 2015! – The second 10…

And an easier quiz this week…promise!

 

20-books-of-summer-master-image

Cathy over at Cathy746 is hosting this challenge to read twenty books between 1st June and 4th September. My first list was a random bunch of 10 taken from my existing TBR, but for the second batch I decided to go for a theme. So today’s question is…

What do these books have in common?

 

* * * * *

 

The Last Refuge by Craig Robertson – murder and nightmares on the Faroe Islands.

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott – love and war in the Jacobite Rebellions. Credited with being the first ever historical novel.

The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – an examination of good and evil and billed as a modern masterpiece.

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by SG MacLean – historical crime set in 17th century Banff.

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd – sex, scandal and spies in WW1 London and Vienna.

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – a woman torn between her passion for the land, her duty to her family and her love of books. The first book in Gibbon’s classic trilogy A Scot’s Quair.

In Another Light by Andrew Greig – love and scandal across generations in Penang and Orkney.

The Tender Herb by Lexie Conyngham – Book 6 in the Murray of Letho series. Historical crime this time set in Mughal India.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the first ever appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

Docherty by William McIlvanney – Winner of the Whitbread Prize, one man against tradition in a working-class town in the west of Scotland.

* * * * *

The prize for guessing correctly

a lovely plate of haggis and neeps and a wee dram of single malt.

haggis and whisky

The forfeit for guessing wrong

a deep-fried Mars Bar and a can of Irn Bru.

mars bar and irn bru

Enjoy!

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Khlevniuk jkt ks.inddGood ol’ Uncle Joe…

:) :) :) :)

Josef Stalin’s 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations. Khlevniuk claims that many previous biographies have given inaccurate portrayals of Stalin, either because of lack of information or because the biographers were apologists for the regime, or sometimes because they repeated inaccuracies from earlier sources that have passed into the historical mythology. Despite the huge amount of material, Khlevniuk makes the point that there is still much more not yet released by the Russian government. One bonus for historians is that, because Russia was somewhat backwards technologically, Stalin continued to communicate by letter rather than phone until well into the 1930s.

I give my usual disclaimer that I am not qualified to judge the historical accuracy of the book. It certainly appears well researched and gives a coherent and convincing picture of the period. Khlevniuk has used an unconventional structure that I think works quite well. The main chapters provide a linear history of the period, while between these are short interludes where Khlevniuk tells the story of the Stalin’s last hours as he lay dying, using this as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of his life, such as his relationships with his family and the other men at the top of the regime, his reading habits, his health issues, how he organised and controlled the security services, etc. These are not just interesting in themselves – they provide much-needed breaks from what might otherwise be a rather dry account of the facts and figures of his time in power.

The young Stalin Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX (3827290a)  Joseph stalin sitting at a table in 1918.  VARIOUS

The young Stalin 1918
Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX

Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia in 1879, Stalin was the son of a cobbler, but had a relatively privileged upbringing and education for someone of his class. As a student, he began to associate with the Bolsheviks, gradually rising to a position of prominence. Although he was initially a moderate, believing in a gradual evolution towards socialism, he was clearly a pragmatist, willing to change his views when politically expedient. So when the Revolution kicked off in 1917, he threw his lot in behind Lenin. During the war he had his first experiences as a military commander, at which he failed badly, and it was at this early period that he first developed his technique of ‘purging’ opponents that he would use with such brutality throughout his life.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin became even more ruthless in pursuit of power, eventually emerging as the de facto head of government, though the Socialist committee structures remained in place. He seems to have been bull-headed, forcing ahead with policies regardless of advice to the contrary, and completely uncaring about the consequences of them to the people. He appeared to hate the rural poor, considering them a ‘dying breed’, and they suffered worst throughout his dictatorship. But he would occasionally do an about-turn if circumstances required, using what we now think of as Orwellian techniques for distorting the past so that his inconsistencies would be hidden. These distortions of course make the later historian’s job more difficult in getting at the real truth, hence the ongoing debates around just how many people were imprisoned or died under the Stalinist regime – debates which may never be fully resolved.

Stalin poster

Khlevniuk looks in some depth at the Great Terror of 1937-8 when Stalin’s purges reached their peak. He tells us that it has been suggested that Stalin must have been going through a period of madness (it’s hard to imagine a completely sane brutal murdering dictator somehow, setting targets for the numbers of people each district must purge). But Khlevniuk suggests that the root of his paranoia lay in fear of the approaching war. Stalin remembered that the upheavals of the previous world war had created the conditions for civil war within Russia and wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of that in the next. This, he suggests, was also the reason that Stalin tried hard to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. However this led to him being unprepared for the German invasion, and as a result the country suffered massive losses of both men and territory in the first few years of the war, while famine, never far away during Stalin’s experiment in collectivisation, again reared its ugly and devastating head as the war ended.

Khlevniuk gives an overview of Stalin’s relationship with his unlikely war-time allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and describes his frustration at their delay in opening a second front to relieve some of the pressure on the hard-pressed USSR forces. It was at this time that Stalin was portrayed in the west as Uncle Joe, good ol’ friend and staunch ally, suggesting perhaps that the American and British governments were pretty good at Orwellian propagandising too. Of course, when the war ended, so did this uneasy relationship as the ‘Great’ Powers haggled over spheres of influence and political ideology.

'The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. NAM 236 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION

‘The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION

Stalin was to live another eight years after the war ended, during which time he continued his firm grasp on power by periodically purging anyone who looked as if they might be getting too powerful. Khlevniuk paints a picture of Stalin’s somewhat lonely death that would be rather sad if one didn’t feel he deserved it so much. The most powerful men in his government had secret plans already in place for after Stalin’s death, and quickly reversed some of his cruellest policies along with some of his extravagant vanity building projects. A rather pointless life in the end – so much suffering caused for very little permanent legacy. Such is the way of dictatorship, I suppose, and Khlevniuk ends with a timely warning against allowing history to repeat itself in modern Russia.

Oleg Khlevniuk Research Fellow, Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation (1994-present)

Oleg Khlevniuk
Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation

Overall, this is more a history of the Stalin era than a biography of the man. Despite its considerable length, the scope of the subject matter means that it is necessarily an overview of the period, rarely going into any specific area in great depth. And I found the same about the personalities – while Stalin himself is brought to life to a degree, I didn’t get much of a feeling for the people who surrounded him, while often the suffering of the people seemed reduced to a recital of facts and figures. It’s clearly very well researched and well written, but it veers towards a rather dry, academic telling of the story. I learned a good deal about the time, but in truth rather struggled to maintain my attention. One that I would recommend more perhaps for people with an existing interest in and knowledge of the period rather than for the casual reader like myself.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

If you’re interested in how the arts were dealt with in this era, you might enjoy Lady Fancifull’s fabulous post on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed at the height of the Terror in 1937. She compares different performances to show how it can be interpreted as either a piece of patriotic triumphalism or as an edgy, almost manic, commentary on the time. Brilliant!

Tuesday ’Tec! A Fairy in the Flat/A Pot of Tea by Agatha Christie

Dynamic duo…

 

Tommy says: Why would anyone want to change us? We're perfect...

Tommy and Tuppence say “We really must find a better photographer.”

Anyone who is the housemate of cats will know they don’t like to feel they’re in second place. So when my cats saw that I had featured Miss Marple on a recent Tuesday ’Tec post, they were most displeased. Frankly, my life has been a misery ever since, so to try to get back into their good books, I am today featuring their namesakes – the original Tommy and Tuppence – on this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Fairy in the Flat

by Agatha Christie

 

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford haven’t really become part of the public consciousness in the way that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have, but I think that’s an injustice. They are different from Agatha Christie’s other detectives in that, not only are they a married couple, but they age in real time. There are only four Tommy and Tuppence novels and a collection of short stories, Partners in Crime, from which these two stories are the opening chapters. The first novel, The Secret Adversary, takes place immediately after the First World War and involves a secret treaty and a missing woman. During it, Tommy is recruited to work for the Secret Service and Tommy and Tuppence fall in love. Partners in Crime is their next appearance – it’s six years later, Tommy is doing a desk job for the Secret Service and Tuppence, now his wife, is bored…

“I wish,” she said, “something would happen.”

When she goes on to explain that being fairly well off and married to Tommy isn’t quite as exciting as she anticipated, the rather offended Tommy offers to help…

“Shall I neglect you a little?” suggested Tommy. “Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.”

“Useless,” said Tuppence. “You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women, whereas you would never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men, Women are so much more thorough.”

“It’s only in modesty that men score top marks,” murmured her husband.

Fortunately for the sake of their marriage, at this point Mr Carter shows up. He’s Tommy’s boss in Intelligence and has a proposition to put to them. A detective agency run by the dodgy Mr Theodore Blunt needs a manager, Mr Blunt himself being under arrest. It’s important that the agency remains open because mysterious blue letters with a Russian stamp get addressed there, and the Secret Service are keen to intercept them. So Mr Carter suggests that Tommy should take the place of Mr Blunt and, knowing Tuppence from their previous adventures, he tells them…

“You can run the Agency as you please. I fancied” – his eyes twinkled a little – “that it might amuse Mrs Tommy to try her hand at detective work.”

James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation

James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation

* * * * *

A Pot of Tea

 

And indeed it does! An avid reader of detective fiction, Tuppence fancies herself an expert and is keen to try out the techniques of some of her favourite fictional sleuths, and so Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives! is born. The rest of the book is made up of short stories in each of which Tommy and Tuppence take on an investigation, while the Russian letter storyline runs in the background. A Pot of Tea is the first story.

At first business is slow. Tuppence objects to doing divorce work and oddly enough murderers and embezzlers seem a bit thin on the ground. Things begin to look up when a young man turns up looking for help to find the girl he loves, who has mysteriously disappeared. The young man looks like a toff (and behaves not unlike Bertie Wooster) and Tuppence is convinced that if they solve this case, it’ll be great publicity for the Agency. But getting a description of the missing girl from the lovestruck Lawrence St Vincent is not altogether straightforward…

“She’s got the most marvellous hair – sort of golden but very deep, like a jolly old sunset – that’s it, a jolly old sunset. You know, I never noticed things like sunsets until lately. Poetry too, there’s a lot more in poetry than I ever thought.”

“Red hair,” said Tuppence unemotionally, writing it down.

Will Tuppence find the girl? Will Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives! be a huge success? Will Tommy and Tuppence live happily ever after? You’ll have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as Tommy and Tuppence with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple in the much later, pretty awful ITV adaptation of By The Pricking of My Thumbs - great cast, shame about the script!

Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as Tommy and Tuppence with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple in the much later, pretty awful ITV adaptation of By The Pricking of My Thumbs – great cast, shame about the script!

Although the later novels take on a more serious tone (and in the case of By the Pricking of My Thumbs a distinctly creepy and sinister one), the Tommy and Tuppence stories are where Christie uses humour to best effect, in my opinion, especially in these early ones. The banter between the two is great fun, and Tuppence herself is a joy to spend time with. Impulsive, unpredictable and warm-hearted, she is always leading the rather more staid Tommy into tricky situations, but he adores her and, although he grumbles, he’s happy to follow. His skills as an ex-soldier and current member of the Secret Service mean he’s no slouch himself, especially when it comes to the action parts. They truly are a partnership, ably assisted by Albert, a young man they take under their wing, who acts at various times as their office boy, butler, confidant and friend.

Great fun – and the more of you who read them, the more likely my own little T&T are to forgive me…

 

* * * * *

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

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

No online version again this week – sorry! But these two introductory stories are available as a Kindle single…

a fairy in the flat

Amazon UK Link

(Sorry, not available in the US as far as I can see)

…or as part of the full collection…

partners in crime

Amazon UK Link        Amazon US Link

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

humber boy bWhen a child kills a child…

:D :D :D :D

Humber Boy B is an eighteen-year-old, now called Ben. Eight years earlier he and his older brother were convicted of killing another ten-year-old boy by throwing him off the Humber Bridge. Now Ben has been released and must learn to live in a world that he has never known except as a child. Because of the notoriety around the case, Ben has been given a new identity and has been sent far from his original home to live in Ipswich, where he will be under the charge of his probation officer, Cate Austin. But the mother of the victim, Noah, is horrified that he has been released and has set up a Facebook page pleading with the public for help in finding him. She says she’s not looking for revenge – she just wants to ask him the one question that was never answered – why did they kill her son?

I must admit I went into this thinking it was going to be a fairly hard-hitting look at the issues surrounding children who murder children and how they are dealt with by the justice system and by society. It turned out to be a much lighter read than that – while those issues were touched on, the book is really something of a mystery story as the events of the day of the murder are slowly revealed. Did Ben do it? If so, why? And if not, then what did happen that day? And the supplementary, thrillerish strand – will Ben’s new identity be revealed, and if so will he be at risk of a revenge attack?

I found the first part of the book a bit jarring because of my misconception about it. For example, the idea that his probation officer would get him a work placement in an aquarium is completely unrealistic (I sincerely hope!) – yeah, put the child-drowner somewhere with loads of kids and plenty of water. And the aquarium takes him on without doing Disclosure checks (a UK rule that says anyone working with children must have police checks done on them before they can be employed). But once I accepted that the book is primarily a straight mystery thriller rather than a realistic look at the justice system, I was able to put my disbelief back in its box and go along for the ride.

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer

The present-day story is told mainly from two viewpoints – Cate’s in the third person and a first person account from Ben. Between these are short chapters taking us back to the day of the crime, and it’s through these that we are shown the events that led up to Noah’s death. We also see some of Noah’s mum’s entries on the Facebook page with the responses from friends and anonymous contributors. Dugdall’s writing style is very good and the pacing works well, giving us plenty of time to get to know Ben and feel some empathy for him, before the tension starts ratcheting up towards the end. Cate is well-depicted too – a divorced mother who cares about her clients but has a professional outlook towards them. She’s a bit of a woolly liberal in her views (a ten-year-old can’t be held responsible, etc.) but there are other characters who put the spawn-of-the-devil-lock-him-up-and-throw-away-the-key side of the case, and Dugdall smartly doesn’t try to dictate what the reader should think on these issues, leaving us somewhere in the middle, where I felt reasonably comfortable.

Ruth Dugdall

Ruth Dugdall

My one real criticism of it is that Ben’s voice doesn’t ring true, which is a pity because otherwise this is an excellent portrayal of a young offender struggling to cope with the realities of living on the outside. Ben is an unnaturally well-educated child with a too articulate voice for someone who has been in a secure unit with the worst thugs in the country for most of his life, and who comes from an extremely deprived background prior to his imprisonment. “I jolt, eyes open and nod. To the side of reception is a tank, and inside are orange and black clown fish, prettily darting between lime green plant tentacles.” It’s difficult to have a first-person narrative for a character who ought to be relatively inarticulate, and I have to wonder why authors insist on doing it. If Ben’s part of the narrative had been done as third person, prettily darting clown fish wouldn’t have been a problem.

Overall, some bits of it really need to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, with realism tossed casually overboard whenever it might interfere with the plot, but nevertheless I found the second half in particular very readable, with the tension slowly building up to a strong thrilleresque ending. And it has enough depth to make it thought-provoking without getting too bogged down in the issues it raises. I look forward to seeing where Dugdall takes us on Cate’s next outing.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Amok by Sebastian Fitzek (Audible Studios Dramatisation)

amokDead or alive…

:D :D :D :)

A year before the story proper begins, Jan May is waiting for his girlfriend Leonie to arrive for dinner. He has decided this will be the evening he will propose and is confident of her answer. But his plans are destroyed when she phones him to say they will not be able to see each other again for an indefinite period, perhaps forever. “They will tell you that I’m dead – but I’m not, OK?” And at that moment the doorbell rings – and the police inform Jan that Leonie died in a car accident earlier that day. Despite all his protests, Jan has never seen or heard from Leonie since and is unable to convince anyone that she’s alive.

Adrian Lester

Adrian Lester

Criminal psychologist and police negotiator Ira Samin has never forgiven herself for failing to prevent her daughter Sarah’s suicide, and now Ira is planning to end her own life. But she has to put it on hold when her old police colleague and ex-lover Gertz persuades her to attend a developing situation at the local radio station. Jan May has taken several people hostage and is threatening to kill them unless Leonie is found. He’s on-air and has told the audience that he will phone a member of the public at random each hour – if they answer with the correct slogan, a hostage will be released, but if they don’t, then one will be killed. Ira will have to negotiate with him on-air and he’s only prepared to talk to her if she’s willing to tell him about her daughter’s death… and the situation becomes even more tense when Ira discovers that one of the hostages is her other daughter, Kitty…

Natascha McElhone

Natascha McElhone

I loved the half-narrated, half-dramatised format of Fitzek’s previous audiobook, The Child, though I was less enamoured with the actual story, so I was keen to listen to this one. And my reaction is pretty similar. The idea, of having a cast of top actors to perform the dialogue while still retaining the unabridged nature of the book by having a narrator for the in-between bits, is great – a real advance in thriller-type audiobooks, I think. As in the last one, Robert Glenister is the narrator and he does an excellent job. Jan May is played by the wonderful Adrian Lester, possibly best known for his role in Hustle, but a very fine stage actor too, and he gives a good performance here. I wasn’t so enamoured by Natascha McElhone as Ira, partly because her rather clipped and “actor-y” accent grated on me, but also her role didn’t give her the opportunity to show us any emotions other than misery and despair, which can become a little tedious after the first six hours or so. Rafe Spall, Peter Firth and Brendan Coyle each perform well as the three main supporting characters. The use of sound effects during the dramatised parts and the snips of weirdly discordant music to divide the chapters add a lot to the overall effect, making it feel more like a drama serial than a novel.

Robert Glenister

Robert Glenister

But – you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? – the story is far-fetched and relies too much on coincidence. I found it impossible after a while to keep my incredulity in check. I wondered if, in this particular case, the audio format maybe didn’t work as well as reading would have – I felt it might have been a fast-paced page-turner on paper, possibly leaving the reader no time to think about the unlikeliness of some of the events or to work out the various twists.

Sebastian Fitzek

Sebastian Fitzek

But when listening to audiobooks, the speed is pre-determined at a rate much slower (for me anyway) than reading, plus I don’t tend to listen in chunks as long as I would read for. I found that extra time stopped me from getting swept up in the action, and also allowed me to work out what the big twist was going to be by the time I was about halfway through the book, removing a lot of the tension from the second half. While The Child grabbed me and made me listen for longer chunks, doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing, this one didn’t have the same effect. However, much of that is a subjective criticism – someone who normally listens in longer blocks or can get as involved in the spoken word as the written might well find the action carries them along.

So overall, loved the format, enjoyed most of the performances, and really hope that Audible do more books in this way in the future. But in the end the story is the most important thing, and unfortunately it didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d hoped.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via Midas PR.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
MAY

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 May reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

last-man-in-towerUK3002011 was the first year I chose a ‘Book of the Year’ and this was the book. For me, the best fiction must shed some light on the society in which it’s set, provide memorable characters and tell us something about the ‘human condition’. This book does that in spades. Masterji, the last man of the title, has become one of those rare characters who have gained a permanent place in my fictional landscape. As the Vakola area of Bombay begins to come up in the world, the inhabitants of an apartment block are offered money by a developer to move out. One man, Masterji, a retired teacher, wants to stay. This is the story of how the promise of wealth changes and corrupts a community. But it’s also so much more than that. The author takes us into the lives of Masterji and his neighbours, letting us see their thoughts and dreams and fears. With humanity and humour he paints a picture of the friendships, favours and shared histories that bind a community together; and then shows how small envies and old grievances are magnified when that community is divided. A great book.

 

2012

 

bring up the bodiesWhen a book is as good as Wolf Hall, a sequel is sometimes as much to be dreaded as anticipated. Here, though, Mantel succeeds in giving us a second instalment that is worthy of the first. As Anne Boleyn fails to give Henry his much-wanted son, Cromwell finds himself facing a similar situation as his mentor Cardinal Wolsey had – to find a way to rid the King of one Queen and replace her with another. Ever mindful of Wolsey’s fate, Cromwell is determined to succeed where he failed; and to settle a few old scores along the way. In this book, Cromwell is still presented as urbane, intelligent, mannerly and a loving father. But we also get to see more of his dark side – the man who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends. As the Seymours seek to rise to power on the back of Henry’s longing for the quiet Jane, we are given a clear picture of how women were schooled and used as objects of barter. But in the end, the outstanding character in this sequel remains Cromwell who, in Mantel’s confident hands, has become one of those literary characters who will remain in the mind long after the book has been read.

 

2013

 

someone to watch over meWhen a residential unit for disabled people is burned down, all the residents are killed bar one. Jakob has Downs Syndrome and a grievance – he never wanted to be placed in the unit and he doesn’t like it there. It seems to be an open and shut case but, because of his disability, Jakob is sent to a secure psychiatric hospital rather than prison and it looks like he’ll stay there for life. At least, until one of the other inmates asks lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to try to get the case reopened. I’ve discovered over the last few years that I don’t really get on very well with male Nordic writers, but enjoy some of the female ones a good deal. Haven’t quite analysed why this should be, yet. Sigurdardóttir manages the difficult subject of disability in this book without ever becoming mawkish or sentimental, and there’s a beautifully creepy strand woven through the main plot, which adds an extra layer of tension. One day I’ll read the rest in the series…

 

2014

 

a princess of marsArriving naked on Barsoom (Mars), John Carter finds himself captured by huge six-limbed green Martians, also naked, repulsive to look at and vicious by nature. However, endowed with superior strength and agility by the low gravity on Mars, the brave Carter has soon killed enough of these creatures to win their admiration and to be made a chieftain among them. This comes in handy when he meets his true love, in the guise of a (naked) red Martian, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. She has been captured by the green Tharks and is soon to be tortured to death for their amusement. But Carter is entranced by the beauty and spirit of Dejah Thoris and sets out to save her and return her to her own (naked) people, the Heliumites. In truth, the ‘best’ book I read in May 2014 was The Road, but this one has given me so much fun in terms of reading, reviewing and chatting that it has to be the winner. I’ve since read two of the sequels and expect to return to Barsoom again…

 

2015

 

you zoran drvenkarGrim and brutal, darker than black, and written almost entirely in the second-person present tense, so I should have hated it. But it’s brilliantly written, with language and imagery that would easily fit into the ‘literary’ category, and with a depth and range of characterisation that is rare in any kind of fiction. Although there’s no supernatural element to it, it feels strongly like a particularly savage fairy-tale. Fundamentally, it’s about evil. Three strands – a gangster looking for the person who left his brother dead and stole a stash of drugs, a group of teenagers worrying about a missing friend, and a serial spree killer. The viewpoint revolves through thirteen characters with the reader being put inside each of their heads in turn. Drvenkar handles the complexity in a masterly fashion and the second half of the book in particular whirls the reader on towards a climax that is almost operatic in its high drama and totally satisfying inevitability. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning.

 * * * * *

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

Tuesday ’Tec! A Mystery of the Underground by John Oxenham

capital crimes london mysteriesMind the Gap!

 

We tend to think of the serial killer story as a fairly modern invention but this one was originally published in serial form (no pun intended!) in 1897 in Today, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K Jerome. I came across it in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards, and since the murders all happen on Tuesdays, it seems like a perfect entry for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Mystery of the Underground
by John Oxenham

 

John Oxenham  aka William Arthur Dunkerley

John Oxenham
aka William Arthur Dunkerley

As an underground train pulls into Charing Cross station one Tuesday evening, a woman is screaming wildly and trying desperately to get out of a first-class carriage. When the station inspector investigates, he discovers the body of a dead man slumped in the corner of the carriage, shot through the heart…

…they stopped and lifted him out of the carriage. The head fell back as they carried him awkwardly across the platform, and the crowd shrank away, silent and scared, at sight of the ghastly limpness and the stains of blood.

This is just the first. From then on, each Tuesday night a new murder is committed, always in the first-class, and with no indication of how the murderer is managing to shoot someone in a moving train, in a sealed compartment with no linking corridor. Our intrepid detective is Charles Lester, reporter on the Link, who chances to be in a neighbouring compartment when the second murder takes place…

The screams had ceased. The silence seemed even more pregnant. While the screams continued something was happening. With their cessation, it – whatever it was – had happened.

First on the scene, Lester meets the police officer in charge of the case, Detective-Sergeant Doane, and forms an informal partnership with him. More murders follow, with the same pattern to each, told to the reader as a series of extracts from Lester’s articles in the Link and extracts from other newspapers. As panic grows, people start to avoid the District Line on Tuesday evenings, though the stations along the line are filled with sensation seekers…

Throngs of people, waiting silently, in a damp fog, peering into carriage after carriage as the almost empty trains rolled slowly, like processions of funeral cars, in and out of the stations.

Charing Cross Station

Charing Cross Station

But, despite policemen being posted on the footplates and railway workers with torches lining the route, still the murders continue, as some brave or foolhardy souls continue to sit in solitary splendour in the first-class carriages rather than mix with the hoi-polloi in the crowded third-class ones.

The matter is really too gruesome for a jest, but Punch certainly hit the case off admirably in Bernard Partridge’s clever sketch of the young City man attracting all the attentions of all the beauties in the drawing-room by the simple assertion that he had travelled from town by the District Railway, in a first-class carriage, all by himself, while the season’s lions scowl at him from a distance, and twirl their moustaches, and growl in their neglected corners.

Eventually Lester suggests to Doane that he, Lester, should put himself forward as bait. Wearing a protective steel breast-plate, he will travel the line, with a policeman hidden on the seat opposite and two more lying on the roof of the carriage. As Doane later remarks somewhat laconically…

Journeying on one’s stomach, stern foremost, on top of the Underground train, is not a mode of locomotion that I can recommend.

Will the plan work? Or will Lester die a heroic but futile death? Will they ever know the reasons behind the crime? You’ll have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

Overcrowding was a problem then, as now...

Overcrowding was a problem then, as now…

I loved this story. It’s true sensation writing and Edwards tells us in the introduction that it led to a slump in passenger numbers in real life and protests from the Underground authorities. But there’s a lovely vein of humour running through it, and some nice social observations about the avid crowds hoping to see something horrible – a reaction to tragedy and horror that we’re still familiar with today. Oxenham also has a few digs at the class system – at people determined to be ‘first’-class even if it puts their lives at risk. He also speculates on the possible motive, and again there’s an eerie presentiment of present day concerns…

Is it against the Underground railway itself, as a system or a corporation, that this foul fiend is fighting? Or is it some lunatic registering in this gruesome fashion his protest against the influx of foreigners into English business life? – for it is a noticeable fact that three out of the four victims have been foreigners.

Unfortunately, the version in Capital Crimes has been abridged, presumably for space reasons, but the whole section on how Lester finds the killer is simply cut – replaced by a summary paragraph – and then we’re given the final part of the story revealing the motivation. I thought the abridgement was clumsily done, and it took away some of my enjoyment of the story. I can’t find an online version, but it is available as a Kindle book on Amazon – at an exorbitant price though, for a 46-page story. So I do highly recommend it if you can get hold of it, but not so much in the abridged form in this book. I will be adding Oxenham to my list of writers to explore…

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: :?: (but it’s really not trying to be a mystery)

Overall story rating:      :D :D :D :D (quite possibly five, had it been unabridged)

Persuasion by Jane Austen

persuasion coverThe pen in her hand…

:D :D :D :D :D

Eight years ago, Anne Elliot fell in love and became engaged to a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick had little money but, at a time when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, the prospects for advancement in his career were good. But Anne’s friend Lady Russell, who is something of a substitute mother figure to Anne since her own mother died some years earlier, persuaded her that a lengthy engagement with no guarantee that Frederick would make his fortune was unwise, and so Anne broke off with Frederick. She has never forgotten him though, even turning down another more eligible suitor. Now Captain Wentworth has returned from the wars a wealthy and successful man, while the Elliots are on the brink of financial ruin. But Captain Wentworth hasn’t forgotten the hurt that Anne caused him and despises her for her weakness in allowing herself to be persuaded. And his changed circumstances and gallant bearing make him an attractive catch for the other, younger, single women in the neighbourhood.

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn – that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness – that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.

This is the last novel that Jane Austen completed before her tragically early death, and Anne is her most mature heroine. At the age of twenty-seven, Anne is already sadly faded and has reached the age when her chances of achieving a good marriage are rapidly receding. Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father, is a member of the landed gentry, obsessed with his ancestry and his family’s social standing. Living well above his means, he has reduced the family fortune to such a low ebb that he has no option but to lease his house, Kellynch Hall, and take a much smaller place in Bath. The new tenants of Kellynch are Admiral Croft and his wife Sophy, who is Captain Wentworth’s sister. And so Anne and Frederick are thrown back into the same social circle…

persuasion covers

There is a tendency, not helped by a rash of chick-littish covers over the last few years, for Austen’s books to be looked upon as simple romances. Of course, on one level they are. On the surface, this is a Cinderella story. Anne is the downtrodden under-appreciated daughter, complete with two sisters who might be beautiful on the outside but are pretty ugly underneath. Anne has to be her own fairy godmother – her innate kindness and patient constancy the magic she must use to win her Prince.

Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.

But, as in every Austen novel, there’s so much more to it than that. Austen’s insight into the society of her own time catches every nuance of how status worked at a time when it was beginning to change. Completed in 1816, the book reflects the social upheavals of the long war, when military and naval officers had won both fortune and respect and were now looking to take their place in civilian life on an equal footing with the hereditary landowners – their wealth making up for any deficiencies in ancestry. Birth is still important in this society, but character is shown as the true hallmark of the gentleman. Austen’s very positive image of the naval officers might have been influenced by the fact that two of her own brothers were seamen, each rising to the rank of Admiral in later life.

persuasion illustration 3

In contrast, there’s a more biting edge to her observations on the snobbishness and toad-eating of the traditional squirearchy than in her earlier novels. Anne’s father and sisters may still feel their lineage entitles them to automatic respect, but Austen reserves her respect and that of the rest of her characters for the people who have achieved their status through their own actions. Not quite a meritocracy yet, and Austen makes no explicit reference to the recent upheavals of the American and French revolutions, nor to the beginnings of the industrial age, but even her rural society is clearly feeling the first breezes of the winds of change.

persuasion illustration 2

And there’s something similar going on in her portrayal of the status of women. Austen’s heroines always defied the convention of making loveless matches for wealth, but the early ones, even my beloved Lizzie, wanted most of all to find a man they could love and respect but who would give them a life not significantly different to that of their childhoods. They wanted a respectable establishment in a rural society, be it a minor one like Elinor’s rectory in Sense and Sensibility or a glittering prize like Lizzie’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Emma may be the ultimate example of this – her marriage simply added a husband to the family and house she grew up in and barely changed her position or lifestyle at all.

persuasion illustration 1

Anne Elliot is a different kind of heroine. She has had the benefit of eight years to think about what she wants from life and she knows it’s not the small and restricted world of Kellynch, or even Bath. She admires Admiral Croft’s wife for accompanying her husband as he sailed the world, and part of the attraction of Captain Wentworth is that he will expand her horizons beyond the tiny circle in which she and her family move. Austen’s rather barbed humour about the daily intercourse between the two families at Uppercross is an indication of how small this rural world really is, and of how friendships and relationships are determined by propinquity rather than shared tastes or interests. The senior Musgroves are intriguing in their relative relaxation about whom their daughters marry – they are more concerned with their children’s happiness than their social advancement. These were the days of the first feminist writers – Mary Wollstonecraft et al – and again, without direct reference, Austen provides hints that her world may be on the cusp of change. Marriage and wealth are still key for women, but Anne looks out at a different world and finds it an enticing prospect.

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Of course, I don’t want to pretend that this is a revolutionary or feminist tract. Anne’s story is still one of a woman subordinate first to her father and then to her husband and subject to persuasion to conform to society’s norms. She’s not a rebel, but her stubbornness in refusing to make a loveless match and her constancy in her love for Captain Wentworth make her a strong and appealing heroine. I wish I liked Captain Wentworth more – I think the way he runs away when Louisa is injured is unforgivable, and I really dislike how his interest in Anne is reawakened only once her youthful bloom begins to return in the bracing air of Lyme. But he recognises her true worth in the end, I suppose. He’ll never be Darcy though…

darcy and lizzie

Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

Bring back Jekyll and Hyde…

:| :|

jack of spadesAndrew J Rush is a middlingly successful writer of traditional style crime novels. But he has an alter-ego – under the pen name of Jack of Spades he writes grubby and graphic noir shockers. No-one knows about this secret – not even his wife and children. But when an elderly woman accuses him of plagiarism, Rush feels his whole reputation is threatened and, as he finds his life spiralling out of control, Jack comes more to the surface, tempting Rush to do things his respectable side would be horrified by.

One has to wonder why, when Robert Louis Stevenson had already made such a great job of writing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ms Oates felt that it would be a good idea to re-hash the story rather poorly. I’ve said this before about other books and writers, but if an author sets herself up to invite comparison, she really needs to make sure that her skills are up to the task. This is nothing more than a short piece of pulp fiction – psychologically weak, poor characterisation, unbelievable hole-filled plot and none of the insights on morality and society that give depth to the original. The horror that comes through so well in Jekyll and Hyde is entirely absent from this, partly because Oates seems unable to decide if she is going for horror or humour. While Oates writes reasonably well overall, there are some horrendously clanging awfulnesses in my proof copy which I seriously hoped would be edited out before the final version was published. A sneak peek at the Kindle sample, however, suggests sadly not…

…as the ax-blade crashed and sank into the splintering desk beside my head, missing my head by inches; by which time I’d fallen heavily onto the floor…

(Hmm! One has to assume he’d left his head on the desk when he fell on the floor – detached, one wonders, or just an exceptionally long neck…?)

Andrew J Rush is a man with an outsize ego whose level of success hasn’t reached the heights he would like. On the outside, he’s a happily married man who fits well in to the suburban life that he lives. But on the inside he’s a self-centred egotist with a well developed streak of misogyny, and a history of using other people’s ideas to his own advantage. It’s clear from early on that he enjoys the freedom to express the less pleasant aspects of his personality through his Jack of Spades books. He aspires to be the next Stephen King, only sleazier, and his obsession with King provides much of the humour, along with some barbed observations on the world of crime writing and publishing.

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

But I’m afraid the humour wears thin pretty quickly, leaving very little else to admire. The Andrew/Jack personality split never feels real and the novella doesn’t achieve the level of darkness I think it’s aiming for. There’s more to writing dark stories, even black comedies, than just tossing in a bit of violence every now and again. Given how he has treated her over many years, Andrew’s wife would undoubtedly have left him – Oates fails totally to provide her with a characterisation that would have made it seem reasonable for her to have stayed with him. And that’s the problem with the whole thing really – nothing rings true. It feels as if the work hasn’t been put in to create enough of a coherent and credible base to carry the reader along when the plot necessarily stretches belief towards the end.

A disappointment, I’m afraid, that leaves me unenthusiastic about trying any of her other books.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

20 Books of Summer 2015!

A TBR challenge for me…and a challenge for you…

 

20-books-of-summer-master-image

Cathy over at Cathy746 is hosting this challenge to read twenty books between 1st June and 4th September. (Did you know the name Cathy746 is because Cathy discovered she had 746!!! books on her TBR list? Makes me laugh every time…)

Normally I’d easily read 20 books in three months, but summer is always my slowest time for reading, mainly because of this chap…

rafael-nadals-sleeveless-shirts-7

…or sometimes this one…

andy murray

…and even occasionally this one…

novak

So I thought that joining the challenge might give me the impetus to fit some reading in around my drooling watching.

* * * * *

But rather than just listing the titles I plan to read, I thought we could play a little game instead… no, don’t groan! Really, it’ll be fun…

maniacal laughter

Today I’ll be giving you clues to the first ten books on my summer list, and the second ten will be revealed in two weeks time. No titles though! Instead here are ten author pics and ten short blurbs. How many can you match?

1 point if you can name the author in the pic, 1 point for guessing the book title from the blurb, and an extra point if you can match the author to the title.

Or, if you prefer, you can opt out of the game and get the full thirty points by sending me a massive box of chocolates. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? ;)

* * * * *

* * * * *

And now the blurbs…

 
Blurb AClassic sci-fi set in a post-apocalyptic world where one man must survive in a world of vampires.

Blurb BBrand new collection of short stories from the author who took us to the USSR in his earlier prize-winning collection and made us dream of Mars and triangles in his last full length novel.

Blurb CThe latest entry in a crime series that starred David Morrissey in the TV adaptation. A girl is missing and a man has been arrested, but our police detective hero believes they’ve got the wrong man…

Blurb DClassic Scottish literature – The adventures of David Balfour, a young orphan, as he journeys through the dangerous Scottish Highlands in an attempt to regain his rightful inheritance.

Blurb EA crime story, loosely based on the Bulger case, that examines what happens to children who kill when they are eventually released. Our heroine is the probation officer of one of the boys.

Blurb FCrime in Amsterdam. An evening in a restaurant turns very dark as two sets of parents show the lengths to which they’re willing to go to protect their teenage sons from the consequences of their actions.

Blurb GBritish crime by an Irish author. A new book in the series which stars my favourite young female detective and her male chauvinist pig (but oddly attractive) sidekick. Together they must investigate a fire that resulted in the death of a politician.

Blurb HBilled as a ghost story, but with a literary flavour. Set in 1937, this is the story of a young man, trapped in the Arctic as the long night of winter approaches and the sea begins to freeze – and he’s not alone…

Blurb INew crime thriller that’s being positively reviewed all round the blogosphere. What would you do if you picked up a book and discovered it was about you – and that it was revealing a secret you thought only you and one other person knew – and that other person is dead?

Blurb JOne for the Great American Novel Quest from a Pulitzer winning novelist. As a Presidential election hangs in the balance, and a post-nuclear-family Thanksgiving looms before him along with crises both marital and medical, Frank Bascombe discovers that what he terms the Permanent Period is fraught with unforeseen perils.

* * * * *

I must say I think this game is fiendishly difficult even for bookie people. I’m so glad you’re playing it and not me – enjoy!

(Because I think it’s too hard, you will find the answers listed at the bottom of the post – see? I’m quite kind really…)

Scores:

1 – 10                            Out in the qualifying rounds!
10 – 20                          Made the quarter-finals! Pretty good!
20 – 29                          Ooh! A semi-finalist! Well done!
30                                 Congratulations! You’ve won the Championship!

 

rafa winner 2013 2

(What? None of you won Rafa? Oh dear, I’ll just have to keep him then…)

* * * * *

Why not join in with Cathy’s challenge? Lots of good books will be read and lots of good reviews will be written… and no doubt we’ll all end up with even longer TBRs as a result.

*

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*

*

*

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Answers

Author 1 Blurb H – Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Author 2 Blurb E – Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall
Author 3 Blurb J – Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
Author 4 Blurb C – Time of Death by Mark Billingham
Author 5 Blurb B – Coup de Foudre by Ken Kalfus
Author 6 Blurb A – I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Author 7 Blurb D – Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Author 8 Blurb G – After the Fire by Jane Casey
Author 9 Blurb F – The Dinner by Herman Koch
Author 10 Blurb I – Disclaimer by Renée Knight

Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology selected by Christina Hardyment

Pleasures of the TableFood, glorious food…

:D :D :D :D

Another beautifully illustrated book published by the British Library, this makes a fine companion piece to London: A Literary Anthology, which I reviewed a few months back. This time the focus is on food, with extracts from many familiar and not-so-familiar authors. There is a mix of both poetry and prose, grouped together under headings such as: The Art of Hospitality, Love Bites, Childish Things, etc. In each section, the extracts go roughly from older to newer – for example, Dazzling All Beholders runs from Robert May writing in the 17th century to F Scott Fitzgerald in the 20th. As well as giant literary figures – Dickens, Flaubert, Proust and his famous madeleines (which frankly left me thinking ‘Meh! Is that what all the fuss is about really?), DH Lawrence, et al – there are food writers, such as Brillat-Savarin and Hannah Glasse.

“Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?”

Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers

Pickwick

Most of the extracts are fairly short – no more than a couple of pages, and to be honest I didn’t find them quite as mouth-watering on the whole as I was expecting. Often the pieces are more about things associated with food, rather than food itself – restaurants, dining rooms, dinner companions. The balance is very heavily weighted towards older writers, with very few, if any, contemporary writers making an appearance. I think the most recent extract is from about the 1930s. This may be for copyright reasons, at a guess, but it means that none of the exciting food writers of the last few decades are included, nor any modern literary writers.

“That is indeed an excellent suggestion,” said the Water Rat, and hurried off home. There he got out the luncheon basket, and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which laid down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Childish Things

Without a doubt my favourite section was Childish Things, taking me back to many books I loved. Ratty’s picnic from The Wind in the Willows, the Turkish Delight from Narnia, lashings of ginger beer courtesy of Enid Blyton, and Heidi’s first taste of toasted cheese – all great scenes that really have lived in my memory since childhood. There’s a section on fabulous feasting, with lists of enough dead animals to make a vegetarian faint, and I was glad to get from there to Simple Pleasures, on such delights as tea and hot, buttered toast. And Distant Times and Places brings us travellers’ tales, from Gulliver to Captain Scott.

Afterwards the tables were covered with meats, antelopes with their horns, peacocks with their feathers, whole sheep cooked in sweet wine, haunches of she-camels and buffaloes, hedgehogs with garum, fried grasshoppers, and preserved dormice. Large pieces of fat floated in the midst of saffron in bowls of Tamrapanni wood. Everything was running over with wine, truffles, and asafoetida. Pyramids of fruit were crumbling upon honeycombs, and they had not forgotten a few of those plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees…

Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô

Heidi

The book is beautifully illustrated, if not quite so lavishly as the London anthology. Most of the illustrations come from the British Library’s own collection, and they are often the specific original illustrations that match the text. Each extract is headed with a short introduction giving the date of writing, which I appreciated, having remarked on the lack of this information in the London book. The list of illustrations is at the back of the book, so requires flicking backwards and forwards if the reader wants to know more about them. The physical quality of the book is wonderful. The cover is gorgeous and pleasingly tactile, the pages are printed on high quality paper and the font and layout are clean and clear. A book that would make a great gift for any food-lover, the more adventurous of whom might want to try out some of the recipes in the final section. I’m not sure I want to eat Alexandre Dumas’ Arab Omelette (made from ostrich and flamenco eggs) but Emily Dickinson’s Gingerbread would go nicely with George Orwell’s Nice Cup of Tea…

Herring à la Rob Roy

Well wash and clean a red herring, wipe it dry and place it in a pie dish, having cut off the head, and split it in two up the back, put a gill or two of whisky over the herring, according to size, hold it on one side of the dish, so that it is covered with the spirit, set it alight, and when the flame goes out the fish is done.

Alexis Soyer in tribute to Sir Walter Scott

Feast

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

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