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FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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Three…

It’s my birthday!

 

Well, really it’s my blog’s birthday, which is much more important. Three years of books I loved, books I hated, bits of silliness and lots of chit-chat. Three years of desperately scratching my head trying to think up something original to say – or sometimes just something coherent! Three years of struggling to reduce the TBR while watching it grow ever longer. Three years of reading everyone else’s blogs and wondering how on earth you all seem to make it look so effortless! Three years that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed…

So, while I meander on about a few statistics, put your feet up and have a bit of cake…

third

 

* * * * * * *

According to Goodreads, in 2015 I read 122 books – a total of 40338 pages, or an average of 110 pages per day. Down a good bit on 2014 when I averaged 117 pages a day. Hmm… if my reading continues downwards at that rate, I’ll have given up entirely by 2031! I abandoned 7 books at too early a stage to review.

The breakdown of ratings for the year was…

5 stars (I love it)                       54

4 stars (I like it)                        42

3 stars (It’s OK)                       16

2 stars (I don’t like it)                 8

1 star    (I hate it)                       2

ratings chart

A similar pattern to 2014 overall, but slightly down on both 5-star and 1-star reads, and a few more in the middle range. I’m still not nearly as horrible to books as you all think I am, though…

* * * * * * *

The split of genres (bearing in mind that some books fall into more than one category)

genre split

Hmm… I knew I’d probably read less crime, given my distaste for the current trend of misery-fests, but I’m surprised at the reduction in lit-fic. And at the increase in horror! However, overall I’m still pretty happy with the split.

* * * * * * *

There’s a growing divide between what you, my valued regulars, like, and what the great anonymous world out there pops in to view. It continues to baffle me why some unlikely posts go on attracting visitors for years while others sink without trace within days. But sometimes I can make a guess…

Here are the top 5 based on views: –

Thrawn Janet – a Tuesday Terror! post from March 2014 which continues to clock up several views a day on average, despite being a story written mainly in archaic Scots. Baffling! I have to assume it’s on the syllabus of some online literature course or something. For ages I thought people must be searching for something else and ending up on this post by accident, but loads of them click the link to go through to the youtube reading, so it looks like it really is this story they’re interested in…

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – from July 2014. I’m pretty sure it’s the pics that bring people in on that one.

DSCN0538

The Terrible Twos! – last year’s birthday post. If you want a lot of views, post a picture of a gorgeous cake and say “Chocolate birthday cake” at least once in your post. There! That should guarantee plenty of views for this post…

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer – if the chocolate cake ruse doesn’t work, try being the first person in the world to give a glowing 5-star review to the book of a man whose proud mother is a popular politician in a country with a huge population, and with a massive following on Twitter…

Sherlock Holmes – The Dark Mysteries – nope! Absolutely no idea why this one gets several views a week, but it’s a steady stream…

The_Adventure_of_the_Devil's_Foot_03

 

* * * * * * *

But you, my dear regular visitors, go for entirely different stuff! The one thing you have in common with the search engines is that it’s still not my book reviews that get you ‘liking’ and chatting most. I’m delighted to say what you seem to enjoy are the same ones I do – what for the want of a better word I’ll call silly posts…

Here are a few I most enjoyed doing and then had huge fun all over again reading your comments…

Friday Frippery: If you can’t beat ’em…

Chapter 1 of my blockbuster misery-fest novel. I’m pretty sure some of you weren’t sure whether this one was supposed to be funny… ;)

* * *

Friday Frippery: Darcy by any other name…

Pride and Prejudice in limericks. You excelled yourselves in the comments…

darcy and lizzie gif

* * *

Wednesday Witterings – A triumph of hope over experience…

Oh, how you laughed at my bookish New Year’s Resolutions failures…

* * *

Butchering Books… The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

We all got nicely outraged over the OUP cutting a chapter – proving that ranting is so much fun!

* * *

Based on number of likes and comments, your favourite post was…

The trials of a book-blogger…or How Not to Write a Review of Lolita

Turns out almost nobody actually likes that ‘classic’ after all!

* * *

But my favourite post of the year was…

Wednesday Witterings: A scientific experiment…

I still giggle every time I think of people in four continents all raising and lowering their eyebrows simultaneously! I think we should form a team for the next Olympics…

david tennant

* * * * * * *

So thank you all so much for being part of the blog last year and for giving me so much entertainment!

Here goes for year 4…

TBR Thursday 73 – The People’s Choice…

The People’s Choice 9…

 

The TBR has gone up again!! How did that happen?! I’ve been so good, too! 162. But in my defence I did spend most of the last two weeks nocturnally watching tennis (end result, two Scottish champions and one Scottish defeated finalist – woohoo!!!) so reading took a bit of a back seat. Oddly, I seem to have been able to fit in adding more books to the pile, though…

Scottish Hall of Fame

 

Gordon Reid - winner of the Mens Wheelchair Singles

Gordon Reid – winner of the Mens Wheelchair Singles

Jamie Murray, winner of the Mens Doubles, with his partner Bruno Soares

Jamie Murray, (right), winner of the Mens Doubles, with his partner Bruno Soares

Andy Murray, defeated finalist, with winner, Novak Djokovic. (Whoever cleaned that tray really needs to have an eye-test...)

Andy Murray, defeated finalist, with winner, Novak Djokovic. (Whoever cleaned that tray really needs to have an eye-test…)

Anyway… it’s been ages since we last had a People’s Choice vote, but after your success with Snowblind, I feel it’s time for another look at some of the great reviews around the blogosphere, and for you to help me choose which one of these books deserves to be added to my TBR.  As always, an extremely difficult choice, I think…

So which one will you vote for? Which of these tantalising books deserves a place? The winner will be announced next Thursday…

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

The Contenders…

 

the secret riverThe Blurb – The Secret River is the story of Grenville’s ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people. William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia in 1806. The Secret River is the tale of Thornhill’s deep love for his small corner of the new world, and his slow realization that if he wants to settle there, he must ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers, and to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people.

Rose says: “Kate Grenville certainly doesn’t shy away from putting the settlers in the wrong, clearly showing the terrible ways the Aboriginal people were treated. This is very unusual in Australian fiction, as in a lot of it the reader wouldn’t even realise that anyone else even lived in Australia when the English arrived. I grew up less than a kilometre from a beach called Massacre Bay, and until I was an adult, did not learn that this name was given because (allegedly),  the Aboriginal men living in the area had been driven off the cliffs near this beach, while the women and children had been drowned in a nearby swamp…. To be an Aboriginal person when I was growing up was even worse than having a convict in the family.

The story of The Secret River is sad and depressing, but also fascinating because somehow, from all of the horror and violence during those early times, that is where the Australia that we have now came from.

See the full review at Rose Reads Novels

Another review of this book also caught my eye…

TJ says: “It really struck me how similar the settlement of Australia was to the settlement of America when looking only at the interaction between settlers and natives. I don’t know why that has never occurred to me. Ignoring the fact that one group left voluntarily and the other group was forced to leave, the mindset of all colonists was more or less the same: They considered themselves superior to the native population, completely missing the fact that they could learn from a different way of life. (At the very least, it would have made their own survival a little easier.) And sadly, in both cases, the settlers wreaked havoc among the native population.”

See the full review at My Book Strings

*******

in the shadow of the glacierThe Blurb – Trouble is brewing in the small, bucolic mountain town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. An American who came to Trafalgar as a Vietnam War draft dodger has left land and money to the town. But there’s a catch. The money must be used to build a garden to honor draft dodgers. This bequest has torn the close-knit, peaceful town apart. Then the body of a leading garden opponent is found in an alley, dead from a single blow to the head. Constable Molly Smith is assigned to assist veteran Detective Sergeant John Winters in the investigation.

Kay’s review is actually of a later book in the series. She says: I have loved this series and loved revisiting the characters, the small town charm, and the gorgeous  setting.  Molly is an interesting character and her life is filled with good friends, an eccentric mother, and co-workers that have all kinds of issues, both good and bad.  The cold case mystery is always a favorite of mine and I was caught up in the investigation of the missing man and also loved the personal aspects of these characters.  This author does a good job of giving us a mystery to solve and friends to hang out with.  The best parts of reading a series.”

See the full review at Kay’s Reading Life

*******

a month in the countryThe Blurb – In J. L. Carr’s deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter’s depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

Margaret says: “I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach…I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting… But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby.”

See the full review at BooksPlease

*******

the widowThe Blurb – The Widow is the story of two outcasts and their fatal encounter. One is the widow herself, Tati. Still young, she’s never had an easy time of it, but she’s not the kind to complain. Tati lives with her father-in-law on the family farm, putting up with his sexual attentions, working her fingers to the bone, improving the property and knowing all the time that her late husband’s sister is scheming to kick her out and take the house back. The other is a killer. Just out of prison and in search of a new life, Jean meets up with Tati, who hires him as a handyman and then takes him to bed. Things are looking up, at least until Jean falls hard for the girl next door.

JacquiWine says: “…circumstances and events conspire to force a dramatic denouement. This is a first-rate slice of noir from Simenon, just as dark and disturbing as its cover suggests. The style is spare yet very effective with the author carefully modulating the tension as the story unfolds. There is a palpable sense of foreboding from a fairly early stage in the narrative and if anything this feeling only grows as we move closer to the final chapters.”

See the full review at JacquiWine’s Journal

*******

a heart so whiteThe Blurb – A Heart so White begins as, in the middle of a family lunch, Teresa, just married, goes to the bathroom, unbuttons her blouse and shoots herself in the heart. What made her kill herself immediately after her honeymoon? Years later, this mystery fascinates the young newlywed Juan, whose father was married to Teresa before he married Juan’s mother. As Juan edges closer to the truth, he begins to question his own relationships, and whether he really wants to know what happened. Haunting and unsettling, A Heart So White is a breathtaking portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.

MarinaSofia says: In theory, he is everything that writing craft workshops warn us against; he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He moves from a personal point of view to a generalisation or something abstract within the same sentence, separated by nothing but a fragile comma. His characters are slippery and unknowable, enigmas to themselves and others. He has sentences that run on into whole paragraphs, half a page or more. He often repeats himself (or his characters do). And yet, somehow it all works (thanks also, no doubt, to Jull Costa’s outstanding translation). He is compulsively readable…”

See the full review at findingtimetowrite

*******

NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

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

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Hope you pick a good one! ;)

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

Paranoia doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

:D :D :D :D

i am no oneJeremy O’Keefe has returned to New York after spending a decade teaching at Oxford University. He’s glad to be back, especially since it means he’s able to spend time with his daughter, now grown and married. But a series of odd events begin to make him feel he’s under some kind of surveillance, though he doesn’t know by whom or why. Unless he’s imagining it all…

Flanery has chosen a very different voice for the first-person narrator of this book, and he sustains it beautifully. Almost stream of consciousness at times, Jeremy uses long run-on sentences, full of digressions and asides, but so skilfully constructed they always make it back to where they began without losing the reader along the way. Jeremy is unreliable, not so much – or perhaps not only – because he is trying to mislead the reader, but because he doesn’t really want to face up to his own weaknesses. But as he rambles on, frequently repeating himself and going over the same bits of his life again and again, each time the story he tells contains subtle changes, so that we gradually get to understand him better and, despite him, begin to be able to see between the gaps and put the true story together ourselves.

A feeling of unease develops from the beginning, when Jeremy waits for a student with whom he has arranged a meeting. She doesn’t turn up, and Jeremy later finds an e-mail exchange he apparently had with her postponing the meeting – an exchange of which he has no memory. When he recounts this incident to his daughter, he is surprised at how ready she is to consider that the problem lies in Jeremy’s own mental state. But paranoia does seem to be a feature of Jeremy’s personality, as does fear. His academic focus is on post-war surveillance methods, particularly in East Germany, and he also runs courses on how surveillance and voyeurism are portrayed in films. Perhaps all this is feeding into how he’s interpreting events. Certainly some of his suspicions about people seem little more than paranoia, but some of the odd things that happen (if we can trust his account of them) suggest there’s more to it than that. The uncertainty is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery zoomed onto my must-read list with his first novel Absolution and consolidated his position as one of my favourites with Fallen Land, a book that I presumptuously declared should be a contender for the title of Great American Novel for the 2000s. So my expectations for this one were high – probably too high. And in truth it didn’t quite meet those expectations. However, having given myself some time to mull it over before writing this review, I’ve concluded that it’s primarily the comparison with his previous books that has left me a little disappointed with this one.

Patrick Flanery (source:patrickflanery.com)

Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

It’s difficult to explain without spoilers why I felt a little let down by how the story played out, so I’ll have to be pretty oblique here – sorry! There are two main questions in the book – is Jeremy under surveillance, and if so, why? When the answers become clear, it also becomes obvious that Jeremy must have known certain things all along, which makes a bit of a nonsense of all the passages where the reader watched him puzzle over them. As an intelligent man, whether paranoid or mentally stable or not, he could not have known what he knew and yet not have understood the implications. So when all became clear, I found that credibility nosedived. However…

… as I thought about it more, I realised that Flanery had done something that I think in retrospect is rather clever, though I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional. (And, clever or not, intentional or not, it doesn’t remove the basic credibility problem.) The whole book reads as if it’s heading in the direction of criticism of our surveillance society – of those hard-won freedoms we have cheerfully and perhaps short-sightedly given up in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist episodes of the last couple of decades. This preconception of the ‘message’ of the book meant that, when it ended, my initial reaction was to say Flanery had failed to make his point. But when I thought more about it, I realised that he could have done that facile thing – given us the cliché of the blameless individual hounded by an over-powerful state – and we could all have tut-tutted merrily along in our liberal disapproval. But Flanery didn’t – instead he gave us something that left the moral stance much less clear; something that made me realise how far my own opinions have shifted in response to the repeated horrors of recent years. That yes, I do want to shelter behind state security services and, yes, I am willing to give up things I would once have considered sacrosanct in return for security. And that left me ruminating…

So, in the end, the depiction of Jeremy’s descent into paranoia and fear make it a tense read, and Flanery’s excellent use of language and voice make it an enjoyable one. And, although I don’t think this book works quite as well as his previous ones, it is still thought-provoking, raising important questions about security, surveillance and freedom in this new world we inhabit.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Mystery of Horne’s Copse by Anthony Berkeley

The reappearing corpse…

 

murder at the manorThe last time I reviewed an Anthony Berkeley short story, I wasn’t overly impressed. So, since I loved the one Martin Edwards has included in the latest of the British Library classic crime collections, Murder at the Manor, it seems only fair to redress the balance. Edwards tells us that Berkeley was praised by Agatha Christie, amongst others, for the intricacy of his plotting, and this story is a great example of that. So here goes for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

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The Mystery of Horne’s Copse

by Anthony Berkeley

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Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley

 

It is over two years ago now and I can begin to look at it in its proper perspective; but even still my mind retains some echo of the incredulity, the horror, the dreadful doubts as to my own sanity and the sheer, cold-sweating terror which followed that ill-omened 29th of May.

Hugh Chappell , our narrator, has been visiting the family of his new fiancée, Sylvia Rigby. During the evening, they discuss Hugh’s cousin, Frank, currently on holiday in Europe with his wife. Frank and Hugh have had a difficult relationship – Frank is next in line to Hugh’s estate, should Hugh die childless, and he’s also a bit of a bad lot, though he seems to have settled down a little since he married.

Later, when Hugh prepares to take his leave, he discovers his car has broken down so he decides to walk home, taking a shortcut through Horne’s Copse. It is a dark night but although Hugh can’t see the path, he knows the copse so well he has no fear of missing his way. But halfway through, his foot strikes against an obstacle lying across the path, causing him to stumble.

I struck a match and looked at it. I do not think I am a particularly nervous man, but I felt a creeping sensation in the back of my scalp as I stood staring down by the steady light of the match. The thing was a body – the body of a man; and it hardly took the ominous black hole in the centre of his forehead, its edges spangled with red dew, to tell me that he was very dead indeed.

Worse is to come! Peering closer, Hugh recognises the body as that of his cousin Frank. But that can’t be – Hugh received a postcard from him from Italy only that day. Rushing home, Hugh contacts the police and returns with them to the copse. But the body has gone along with all trace of it ever having existed! The police think Hugh’s hoaxing them, but Hugh’s doctor, who knows Hugh suffered from shell-shock during the war, fears he might have had a hallucination.

No more comes to light and gradually the matter fades into the background. Until some weeks later, Hugh’s car again has a problem, and he again walks through the copse at night. And again, at the very same place, he stumbles over a body – Frank! This time stabbed in the chest. Checking that he is definitely dead, Hugh rushes home, phones the police and his doctor, and then hurries back to the copse. But again, the corpse is gone!

spooky woods

By now, even Hugh is beginning to doubt his own sanity, so he and Sylvia take a long holiday. On their return, Hugh hopes his nerves will have stopped playing tricks on him. But the very next time he walks through the copse, he again comes across Frank’s dead body!

This time I stayed to make no examination. In utter panic I took to my heels and ran. Whither, or with what idea, I had no notion. My one feeling was to get away from the place and as soon and as quickly as possible.

Without really being aware of what he’s doing, Hugh gets on a train to London. When he gets there, the newsboys are calling out about a body found in the woods. This time, the corpse was found, and it is indeed Frank. The police suspect the whole thing is a ruse of Hugh’s to murder Frank and get off with a plea of insanity, while his doctor isn’t altogether convinced that he’s not insane. But fortunately, Hugh meets an old school-friend, amateur ‘tec Roger Sheringham, who is convinced that Hugh is the victim of a plot…

* * * * *

This is a great story. Originally published as a serial, it’s split into short chapters each with a cliffhanger ending, and is very well-written. The mysterious reappearance of the corpse gives the whole thing a rather creepy, chilling feel, especially when Hugh begins to doubt his own sanity. I did work out part of the plot, but it’s more complex than it looks at first sight, with a nice twist before the end. Reasonably fair play though, I feel. The characterisation of both Hugh and Sylvia is excellent, with Sylvia in particular a likeable and intelligent character, reminiscent in some ways of Agatha Christie’s Tuppence Beresford. Sheringham, whom I didn’t much like as a detective in the last story I read, is much less annoying in this one, and also takes a bit of a back seat, letting Hugh and Sylvia do the bulk of the legwork. It’s not simply about who murdered Frank – the real mystery is how and why the corpse kept reappearing…

Unfortunately, I can’t find an online version to link to, but Murder at the Manor is out now in paper format and for Kindle. I’ll be reviewing the full collection shortly, and this story will definitely be featuring as one of the highlights.

* * * * *

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

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Even the Dead (Quirke 7) by Benjamin Black

even the deadDisappointing…

:) :) :|

A young man is killed when his motorbike crashes into a tree. Quirke, a pathologist, is on sick leave, suffering from memory problems and attention lapses due to an injury he received some years earlier. But when his assistant begins to think that the young man’s death was not due to either accident or suicide, he asks Quirke to come in to check his conclusions. Quirke agrees – it looks like the death was a murder. The victim is Leon Corless, son of a Communist politician, and the police don’t know whether Leon has been killed for something he has done or to get at his father, a man notorious for annoying people.

I recently read and loved The Blue Guitar, written by the same author under his other name of John Banville, and wondered how his writing style would transfer to the crime novel. The answer, I fear, is not terribly well, at least not as far as this book, the seventh in the Quirke series, is concerned. To be fair, looking at other reviews suggests this is not having universal praise heaped on it by even fans of the series, so I probably picked the wrong one to start on.

The basic writing, as I expected, is excellent. But the balance is totally wrong between the crime and all of Quirke’s personal baggage, of which he has more than plenty. His daughter resents him for him having given her away at birth to his adopted brother and his wife to bring up. He has had many broken affairs, including with the aforesaid brother’s new wife. His daughter is going out with his assistant, with whom Quirke doesn’t get on. Quirke is a drinker, currently on the wagon, but with a history of going in and out of rehab. And so on and on. His memory problems, which we hear about at excessive length for the first half of the book, are completely forgotten in the second half. (Ha! Forgive the unintentional joke.)

The other thing that irritated me was that I had no real idea of when the book was supposed to be set. For a while I wasn’t even sure if it was before or after WW2 – eventually I decided after, but still couldn’t pin it down to ’40s, ’50s or possibly even ’60s. Presumably some indication was given in previous books, but in this one it’s all very vague. Again, other reviews from people familiar with the series tell me it’s the ’50s. Dublin also failed to come to life. Street names and locations are mentioned but I got no feel for the life of this vibrant city.

Benjamin Black

Benjamin Black

There were points when I actually forgot what the crime was, and writing this review two weeks after finishing the book, I’m struggling to recall much about it. The vast bulk of the book is grossly over-padded with filler and the solving of the crime is rushed into the last section. Coincidentally (without spoilers) Quirke, his family and friends all seem to have a personal link to one aspect of it or another, and it appears to relate back to crimes in previous books. And, just to put the icing on the cake, the whole evil Catholic church cliché gets yet another outing.

Add in a ridiculously unlikely love-at-first-sight affair, and all in all, this fairly short book felt very long indeed. In truth, I began to skip long passages of musings about life, the universe and everything, in the hopes that I might finally get to the promised thriller climax. Sadly, I found the ending as flat as a pancake. I’m sure this will work better for people who have been following the series and have an emotional investment in the recurring characters, but as a standalone it left me pretty unimpressed. I’m still looking forward to reading more Banville, but I think I’ll leave Benjamin Black on the shelf in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books (UK).

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Winston Churchill at The Telegraph ed. Dr. Warren Dockter

winston churchill at the telegraphDon’t mention the war!

:) :) :)

Before he became a politician, Churchill was both a serving soldier and a war correspondent, forging a relationship with the right-wing Telegraph newspaper that lasted on and off for the whole of his life. This book is an amalgamation of articles which appeared in the paper, either written by or about Churchill over his long career. Having thoroughly enjoyed another Telegraph publication last year, The Telegraph Book of the First World War, I had high expectations of this one, which sadly it didn’t wholly meet.

Some of the articles written by Churchill are outstanding. His description of the naval war in WW1 is lucid and revealing about the arguments over tactics between the politicians and Admiralty bigwigs. It’s a potted history of the whole thing, from the positioning of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow through to the U-boat war and the measures taken to combat it – the Dover barrage and the adoption of the system of convoys. As always in his writing, Churchill’s personality comes through – his criticisms of the Admiralty feel personal on occasion – but he is very good at making complicated issues clear for the less well informed reader.

Churchill in the uniform of the Fourth Queen's Own Hussars. Do you think that's a disgruntled cat in the background?

Churchill in the uniform of the Fourth Queen’s Own Hussars.
Do you think that’s a disgruntled cat in the background?

He also speaks intelligently and perceptively about the ‘dole’ – how National Insurance should be used, in his opinion, to support those people who are left without work for a period of time. Many of the arguments he was putting forward back in the middle of the last century are still being debated today and he was unusually perceptive at recognising that the future would probably lead to an ageing population with all the pressures that would place on the newly-formed Welfare State. It’s rather depressing to think that present-day politicians seem to have been taken by surprise by issues Churchill foresaw 60 or 70 years ago.

There is also a rather excellent section in the book on Churchill’s post-WW2 plea for the formation of a United States of Europe, where he envisions much of what has subsequently come to pass, and pretty much in the way he suggested. He felt that it was crucial for France, still reeling from the war, to reach out a hand of forgiveness to defeated Germany, and to forge unbreakable bonds between first the major and then the minor nations of Europe to prevent the never-ending wars that had brought the entire continent to its knees. He believed both the United Nations and a treaty between Europe and the US (subsequently NATO) would be crucial in ensuring peace and in providing a bulwark against the encroachment of communism in the form of the USSR. All familiar stuff to us now, but prescient and influential when he was writing.

Churchill the artist - The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell 1932

Churchill the artist – The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell 1932

So there’s plenty of good stuff in here. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest is either filler or not set well enough in context to make it informative without pre-existing background knowledge. Each section has a little introduction, but these don’t give enough information to explain the background to the following articles. Therefore, the bits I’ve picked out as excellent are the things that I already had some knowledge of. But when Churchill is talking about his time in India way back before WW1, for example, I was completely at a loss – I didn’t know who we were fighting or why, or who won, and I was none the wiser afterwards. Like the First World War book, this one has no notes, but while I felt in worked in that book by pushing the reader into the same position as the original readers of the newspaper, in this one it felt like a real weakness – the original readers would have been aware of the context in a way that most modern readers won’t be. I also found the articles about Churchill arriving at train stations, complete with descriptions of what he and his wife were wearing, or the articles about his pets(!), lacked much relevance or interest to all but the most dedicated Churchill enthusiast.

Churchill with Rufus the poodle

Churchill with Rufus the poodle

My other main complaint is that the book is by no means complete. We are told that Churchill wrote a series of fortnightly articles for the paper during the run-up to WW2. But we only get to read a couple of them. Had the bits about his budgerigar been left out, perhaps the space could have been filled with something more enlightening. Also, the way the book has been divided up into sections by subject means that the timeline jumps all over the place – one minute we’re in the 1940s and then suddenly we’re back in the 1910s. And oddly, WW2 seems to be almost entirely missing! I grant that Churchill probably didn’t have much time for article writing at that period; however, presumably the paper was reporting on the war and on Churchill’s role, but the mentions of it in this book are few and far between.

So, despite a few excellent articles, overall I found the book pretty disappointing. A missed opportunity – with more focused editing, a linear structure and fuller contextual information I feel this could have been done so much better. As it is, I can’t give it more than a lukewarm recommendation at best.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 3

Chapter 3

 

(If you missed Part 1 and want to catch up, click here. And for Part 2, click here.)

 

The Dancing Men (1984)

Lady McFan looked a little surprised at Houses’ request for chocolate cake but, with true Highland hospitality, she bustled off to the kitchen to speak to the cook.

“Chocolate cake, Houses?” I was baffled. “Are you peckish? Personally, after that meal of cullen skink, venison served with clapshot, and cranachan to finish, I can’t imagine being hungry again for a week!”

Houses merely smiled wolfishly and shook his head.

“You have all the same information as I, Witless. Surely you can see what’s happening here?”

“Well, Houses, applying your own famous precept that having eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, I do have a theory,” I said, rather proudly. “I suspect the culprits are the fairies at the bottom of the garden!”

cottingley fairies(The Cottingley Fairies)

Houses gazed at me for a long moment with what I could almost have mistaken for pity, and squeezed my shoulder gently.

“Well, you shall know all in time, my dear fellow. Meantime why not take a seat and write a description of the brilliance of my methods?”

I muttered indistinctly, fighting a sudden urge to use some improper language. Thank heavens my fine old English breeding stood me in good stead and enabled me to resist! I removed some books and a cat from an armchair and sat down. Not sharing my delicacy, the cat swore profusely.

Lady McFan returned bearing a huge chocolate cake on a silver salver. “Will this do, Mr Houses?” she inquired.

“Admirably, madam!”

Houses suddenly began to behave as if in the grip of madness. Had I not known he’d been staying clear of the opium dens for some weeks, I might even have suspected an onslaught of the midnight munchies. He took a slice of cake and began to chomp at it, while pacing furiously to and fro in front of the bookshelves. Back and forth he went, taking slice after slice and devouring them as if he were a fashion-plate model with bulimia! Crumbs sprayed disgustingly from his mouth and from the crumbling cake in his hands, leaving a trail over the room’s ancient tartan carpet. I was heartily ashamed of my friend and remonstrated severely, but he brushed me off with an incomprehensible and messy mumble. Lady McFan meantime contemplated the swift disappearance of her chocolate cake with a dismay that bordered on hysteria.

last slice

Finally, when the cake was almost gone, Houses ceased his restless pacing.

“Now, Effie, there is no more we can do this evening, so I suggest we lock this room and retire to our chambers for the night.”

“Don’t you want me to sit up with my trusty service revolver?” I asked, somewhat disappointedly.

“Would you really be willing to shoot a fairy?” responded Houses, with unanswerable logic and what I could almost have mistaken for a touch of sarcasm. We did as he said, checking that all three doors were securely fastened, and retired to bed.

We passed a quiet night, except for a brief period when the ghost of the Headless Lady began shrieking for her lost lover in the hallway. However, Tommy and Tuppence, the ferocious house cats, swiftly rounded her up and chased her into a corner, where they took turns in rolling her severed head around the floor until she promised to remain silent for the rest of the night.

The next morning, the three of us met in the hallway. Lady McFan unlocked the door of the drawing room and we entered. Her face paling, the Lady Laird gave a little scream and pointed to the side table. A brand new set of The Complete Works of Mark Twain lay there – surely the perpetrator of this madness had a streak of inhuman cruelty!

twain

Houses however paid no attention – he was busily peering at the carpet in front of the bookshelves. With a sudden cry, he leapt forward and pulled at a section of the shelving! It swung open, revealing a set of winding stairs leading up the floor above. He sprang up the steps, with Lady McFan and myself in swift pursuit. At the top of the stairs, there was a door. Houses flung it open and we entered the room. There was Wullie the Piper, with a pile of new books in his hand, about to head down the stairs to carry on with his nefarious scheme!

Houses and I wrestled with the bounder and felled him like a tree trunk being prepared for the caber-tossing competition.

Highland_Games_Caber_Toss

“You see, Effie,” Houses explained, once we had Wullie securely tied up and had set the cats to guard him, “I knew there must be another entrance to the room, so I spread some crumbs on the floor. As Wullie entered the room, the secret door in the bookshelves pushed the crumbs away, showing me where the door must be. As the illegitimate son of your father, Wullie hoped that he could drive you into an asylum or worse, and then come forward to claim the title and castle as his inheritance.”

Lady McFan looked shocked, so Houses suggested we return to the drawing room for a nice cup of tea. As we passed Wullie on the way to the stairs, Lady McFan accidentally kicked him hard on the shins, twice.

We arrived in the drawing room to find it occupied by a tall woman, whose general appearance of ethereal beauty was only a little marred by the chocolate cake crumbs on her chin. Lady McFan hastily introduced her to us as her dear cousin, Lady Fancyboots.

Lady Fancyboots walked over and embraced her cousin, saying “Happy Birthday, dear Effie! Had you forgotten?”

She handed over a parcel, which Lady McFan hastened to open. The Complete Works of Tolstoy! Poor Lady McFan was so overcome with gratitude she swooned quite away…

swooning

The End!

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle – Part 2

Chapter 2

 

(If you missed part 1 and want to catch up click here.)

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

“Welcome to my ancestral home, Mr Houses, and you, Dr Witless! I cannot tell you how relieved I am that you are finally here. Things have got worse since I wrote you – I’m at my wit’s end!”

We didn’t mention that we were equally relieved to discover that the Lady Laird spoke perfect English, but with a pleasant lilt that revealed her Highland origins. Ah, the benefits of a fine English education – even the most savage of peoples can be given a veneer of civilisation!

Having had supper, we were now settled in the grand drawing room of the castle, a large room with doors on three sides. Despite the generous size of the room, it was crowded – books covered every shelf and lay in tottering piles on every surface, and in heaps around the floor. It looked as if some effort had been made at an earlier period to organise them, but it was clear that the attempt had now been abandoned. Big books, little books, old books, new books, even some strange device that, on pressing a button, sprang to life and showed the page of a book on a glass slide! Some mysterious kind of telescopic instrument, I surmised.

Piles-of-books

Houses said “I deduce you are an avid reader, Lady McFan.”

“Please call me Effie, Mr Houses. Yes, indeed, I always have been since a young child.”

“Good Lord, Houses!” I cried in astonishment. “How in heaven’s name did you deduce that?”

Houses preened a little. “Oh, Witless, surely by now you know my methods. Effie here has the refined, glowing complexion and shining, intelligent eyes that only the true reader ever possesses. That, plus the piles of books.”

“How absurdly simple!” I cried, and for some reason a grimace crossed my friend’s face.

“Quite.” He turned to our client. “Now, Effie, please explain why you have asked us to come here. Very simply, if you don’t mind, since Dr Witless will be listening.”

“It’s the books, Mr Houses! The books!” And she proceeded to tell us her story. For many years, Lady McFan had been adding gradually to the collection of books she had inherited from her ancestors. She would acquire half a dozen or so, read them and add them to her shelves. But suddenly, several months ago, she noticed that the little pile of unread books seemed to be growing larger. And larger. And larger. It soon became impossible for her to read them quickly enough to shelve them before another pile would appear. Every night, she would count the books and every morning she would discover there were three or four more than the night before.

piles of books

“I don’t order them, Mr Houses, I’m sure I don’t! They just… appear! Oh, please help me! Every cupboard is full of books; I’ve had to put the horses up in a hotel so I could turn the stables into extra library space; the ghost of the Headless Lady has had to move out of the attic to make room for books, and is now wandering the Castle moaning and groaning day and night, and being downright depressing! I’ve even taken to locking all three doors to this room overnight, but still they arrive, always placed just here, on this side table. Am I mad, Mr Houses? Or can you find an explanation and put a stop to this horror?”

She sent a glance of such piteous pleading from her fine blue eyes that even the hardened heart of Houses must surely have been touched. If I weren’t a happily married man, I may well have proposed on the spot.

Houses sat back, closed his eyes and steepled his fingers. Lady McFan and I sat in breathless silence, waiting for that great brain to work its magic. Houses snored gently. I tactfully kicked his ankle. His gimlet eyes opened and pierced me like… well, like a gimlet.

Holmes

“Is there anyone else in the house overnight, Effie?” he inquired incisively.

“Only the servants, but they’ve all been with my family for generations and are members of the Clan. I trust them with my life. And Lady Fancyboots, my cousin and oldest friend, has been staying here for some months, having spent all her little inheritance on fine chocolate, and being now quite destitute, were it not for my exceeding generosity.”

“Your cousin, you say?”

“Yes, we’re the two last remaining members of the family, so have always been close, even though I inherited fabulous wealth and she only got £100 and Grannie McFan’s recipe for black bun. Some people may have been resentful, but not Lady Fancyboots! She has remained a staunch friend.”

“That portrait,” Houses indicated a full-length picture that hung above the mantel, of a fine-looking old gentleman in what I was beginning to realise must be the traditional dress for the savage natives of these wild regions.

Sean-Connery

“He is your father?”

Lady McFan assented.

“He bears a striking resemblance to Wullie the Piper, wouldn’t you agree, Witless?” remarked Houses.

Lady McFan blushed gently.

“All the clan are related to one another, Mr House. Furthermore, my father was…,” she cleared her throat delicately, “fond of Wullie’s mother, a maidservant here for many years before her death.”

A gleam had come into Houses’ eyes during this conversation, and he now rubbed his hands, chuckling. “Well, I have high hopes that we may be able to get to the root of your little trouble,” he said. “And now, could I trouble you for some chocolate cake?”

* * * * * * *

To be continued… (only one more, I promise!)

Meantime…

The Case of the Tottering TBR by Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

Chapter 1

.

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

Dense, black, billowing fog was swirling around Baker Street when I arrived in response to an urgent request from my old friend, Sherlock Houses. The great detective had clearly had considerably more than his customary three pipes. I hastily opened a window and inquired as to the cause of my summons.

“Elementary, my dear Witless. The game’s afoot! Kindly reach down the Bradshaw and look up the time of the next train to Kirkintilloch.”

“I’m afraid there is no train to Kirkintilloch. However, there’s a canal boat service. If we leave now, we should get there by next Thursday or thereabouts.”

“Then make haste, Witless! There’s not a moment to be lost!”

Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)

Forth and Clyde Canal at Kirkintilloch (the official Canal Capital of Scotland!)

Houses refused to say another word about the reason for our journey, declaring we should have the full story on our arrival from our client herself. Stopping only to send a brief telegram to my long-suffering wife, (a gentle, understanding woman who always did her best to appear as if she thoroughly enjoyed my frequent absences, often going so far as to telegraph Houses to ask if he needed me for anything), I packed my trusty service revolver, rubbed some embrocation into the old war wound in my leg – or was it my shoulder? Strange how I could never remember – and we hastily set off on our journey to the wilds of North England, which some of the natives still insisted on calling Scotland.

* * * * * * *

A week later, we stumbled weakly off the canal boat at our destination. It had been a long and tiring journey, during which Houses had enlivened the atmosphere with impromptu, unsolicited violin concerts, fascinating monologues on how to identify 600 different kinds of tobacco ash (which unfortunately, since the canal boat was a No Smoking zone, sent several of the passengers into a tooth-gnashing frenzy) and a little target practice with his revolver, inadvertently causing the boat to leak heavily and list to starboard. As always, Houses had made himself extremely popular, and the passengers and crew raised a hearty and prolonged cheer as we disembarked.

Kirkintilloch was a quaint old town built near the site of a Roman fort and looking as if it hadn’t changed much over the intervening centuries. The street names had a poetic ring that conjured up visions of rural loveliness – Cowgate, Industry Street, Gallowhill Road.

Cowgate, Kirkintilloch

Cowgate, Kirkintilloch

Our client lived outside the town, so we hailed a cab and Houses told the driver to make all speed to Culcreuch Castle, the home of our client.

“Lives may depend on it, man! Don’t spare the horse!”

“Och, hoots, dinna ye fash yersel’, sir! The castle’s been there sin’ the days that the auld chieftain o’ the Clan McFan caught the first haggis, an’ it’ll still be staunin’ when we’re a’ deid! Ay, it’s a sorry place noo, tho’, ye ken. They say that strange things happen there in the nicht – gey strange! An’ the puir Lady Laird is at her wit’s end wi’ it a’. Happen ye’ll be the gents she’s sent for frae doon Lunnon way?”

“I have no idea what you’re attempting to say, my good fellow. Drive on!”

We had a long winding journey of it, uphill most of the way, and dusk was falling over the rolling Campsie hills when we finally caught sight of the castle, nestling amongst the trees by the side of a picturesque lake. It was a beautiful setting, its air of peace and tranquillity belying the horror that was beginning to clutch at my heart.

Culcreuch Castle - once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan...

Culcreuch Castle – once upon a time home to the Chief of my own clan…

We came to a halt at the massive oaken doors, held open by an elderly man in a rather strange looking multi-coloured skirt. Perhaps there was to be a fancy dress-ball that evening, I speculated.

A horrible wailing, screeching sound suddenly caused us to clutch each other in momentary terror. Quickly recovering our stiff upper lips and manly demeanours, Houses and I pulled out our revolvers and prepared to deal with supernatural hounds, or possibly ghoulies and ghosties and lang-leggedy beasties, which the indispensable Bradshaw had informed us frequented these heathen parts.

“’Tis only Wullie the Piper, sir, tae let us ken that supper is ready,” the elderly man cried incomprehensibly.

wullie the piper

Another skirted man appeared round the side of the castle, wrestling with a horrible 5-legged beast, from which the ghastly sounds were emanating. At that moment, with a final scream of mournful agony, the creature seemed to breathe its last. It was a chilling start to our adventure…

 

* * * * * * *

To be continued… maybe…

(This story was suggested by my old mate, Lady Fancifull. So blame her!)

A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill

a clubbable woman 2A promising debut whose promise was fulfilled…

:D :D :D :D

Sam Connon had been a rising star destined one day to play rugby for England, when his career was thrown off track by an injury. Still fit to play, though not at the top levels, he was a stalwart of the local rugby team in Mid Yorkshire, and still turns out occasionally for the fourth team – the old-timers whose glory days are behind them. On this afternoon, he has had a kick in the head during a scrum, which has left him feeling woozy and sick. So when he returns home, he merely pops his head into the living-room to let his wife know he’s home and then goes straight to bed, where he falls into something approaching unconsciousness for several hours. His wife hadn’t acknowledged his greeting but that wasn’t too unusual – their marriage was rocky, at best. But when he comes downstairs again, he discovers she is dead, with a circular hole in the middle of her forehead…

This is the first book in the long-running Dalziel and Pascoe series – my favourite crime series of all time. I originally started, as so often, in the middle of the series and then backtracked to the earlier books. And I’m rather glad I did, because although this one is a good, solid police procedural it’s nowhere near the standard that Hill reached as the series evolved. Both Andy Dalziel and Pete Pascoe have some of the attributes that make them such a memorable pairing, but they’re not yet fully developed. Andy is as brash and uncouth as he will always be, without yet the depth of characterisation that reveals the intelligence, subtlety and loyalty to his junior colleagues that is seen in later books. Pete, still single, spends much of his time having a rather annoying internal monologue, partly about the attractions of the various women he meets in the course of the investigation, and partly about his resentment and reluctant admiration for his boorish boss.

Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as Dalziel and Pascoe in the BBC adaptation.

Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as Dalziel and Pascoe in the BBC adaptation.

The plotting is very good as, of course, is the writing. First published in 1970, the book shows its age in Hill’s depiction of most of the women as sexual temptresses – surprising for someone who went on to write one of the most intriguingly feminist characters in crime fiction in Elly, Pete’s future wife. I guess that as a debut writer, Hill may have been trying to conform to what was then the norm, whereas he soon became a leader in the field, showing the way in including strong female and even empathetic gay characters long before the trailing pack would have dared. However, Connon’s daughter Jenny feels almost like an embryonic Elly, giving a hint of his later style in depicting women as intelligent, witty and, above all, equal to his male characters. Jenny’s boyfriend, Anthony, is the first example of another ‘type’ that appears regularly throughout the series in different personas – decidedly straight men but with slightly effeminate traits, intellectual and rather urbane, with a love of words. I have always wondered how much these characters might have been autobiographical.

Reginald Hill

Reginald Hill

The plot is interesting and quite traditional in format – all of the action centres around the rugby club so there is a defined list of suspects all with various motives. Andy, as a leading figure both in the club and in Mid Yorks life, knows everybody and this gives him access to ‘inside information’. Pete worries that Andy is too close to the people involved and doesn’t yet know him well enough to be sure that he won’t let his actions and opinions be swayed by friendship. But true to his later characterisation, Andy believes in justice above all, though he might step outside the bounds occasionally to achieve it. And the solution when it comes gives hints of the complex morality of the criminals Hill will introduce us to in future years.

To be honest, if I were reading this for the first time with no knowledge of the series, I’d probably be saying it’s a promising debut, better written than most but fairly standard otherwise. And I might or might not have gone on to read the next one. So when I highly recommend it, as I am doing, it’s as the first step in what becomes something exceptional further down the line. A series to be read in its entirety, and though not essential to read them in order, best read that way to see how all three of them – Dalziel and Pascoe, and Hill himself – develop as the years go by.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Martin Luther by Scott H. Hendrix

The road to ‘true religion’…

:D :D :D :D

martin lutherIt’s nearly 500 years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by criticising the practices of the Roman Catholic church and refusing to accept the Pope as the sole arbiter of the meaning of the Bible. What started as a fairly straightforward dispute over the sale of indulgences grew into a theological war that first split the church and then splintered the Reformers themselves into different factions, arguing over some pretty esoteric points of interpretation of the gospels.

Scott H. Hendrix is Emeritus Professor of Reformation History, Princeton Theological Seminary, and tells us in the preface that he struggled during his teaching years to find a full and well-researched but readable biography of Luther to recommend to his students, so decided to write one. Unusually, the problem for Luther biographers is one of too much, rather than too little, information, making the biographer’s task one of deciding what is true and relevant. Although this isn’t the chunkiest biography in the world, its 290 pages plus notes give a thorough account both of Luther’s personal life, at least as much as is known about it, and of the various steps that led him from monk to leader of the Reformation. He explains the main points of Luther’s theological insights clearly enough for this atheist to understand, including the finer points where differences of interpretation arose amongst the Reformers. Hendrix also gives enough information about the prevailing political situation in Germany and further afield to put the Reformation into its historical context, particularly in explaining the level of protection Luther and his colleagues gained from the need of the Emperor to keep the various reformed Princes onside.

The book is in a fairly straightforward linear style, starting with a quick run through of what little is known about Luther’s early years, and then going into more depth once he became associated with the Reformers. Hendrix makes it clear that, though Luther is the one whose name became best known both at the time and to later generations, he worked closely with colleagues at all stages, and that much of what is attributed to Luther, such as the translation of the Bible into German, was in part a collaborative effort involving various scholars and theologians, a fact that Luther himself emphasised. However, Luther became the figurehead of the movement, and to a large degree the arbiter of the direction the early Reformation would take.

I am in my usual position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of the facts or of Hendrix’s interpretation of them, but the book is clearly well researched and it’s obvious that Hendrix knows his subject inside out. He takes a fairly neutral stance on Luther – at least it feels that way – being willing to give both praise and criticism.

Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner

Luther comes over as a man who genuinely believed that he was doing the work of God and who worked hard all his life to bring people to ‘true religion’. Of course, like all these people who think they are God’s chosen, he appeared to become more arrogant and self-satisfied as time went on, and made it clear that he believed that anyone who took a different approach was being influenced by Satan, a figure that to him was as real and nearly as powerful as God himself. In fact, in his later years, Hendrix gives the impression that Luther felt that Satan was out to get him – either true, or a real sign that he was letting his opinion of his own importance get a little out of control.

Luther also appears to have been what could be described as either pragmatic or hypocritical, depending on one’s viewpoint, changing direction on occasion to fit the prevailing political situation. For example, although against bigamy, he would cheerfully make an exception and find ways to justify it theologically when one of his powerful backers decided two wives were better than one. Apparently he also felt that it would be better if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn bigamously rather than divorcing Katherine of Aragorn. (One wonders if he would have felt Henry should also marry Jane, Anne, Catherine and Katherine simultaneously – that would have made for some fun dinner parties.) Luther’s views on violence were subject to similar changes over the years depending on who wanted to be violent to whom. (One odd side effect of the book was that my opinion of John Knox improved when I compared the two – miserable old misogynist though he was, Knox seems to have stuck rigidly to his beliefs in the face of all opposition, even when it meant he made dangerous enemies of some powerful people. While rigidity of opinion isn’t always a trait I admire, there’s something to be said for not reinterpreting one’s spiritual beliefs every time the wind changes direction.)

Hendrix also discusses Luther’s anti-semitism, but puts it into the context of the times when anti-semitism was almost universal in Europe. Luther advocated the burning of synagogues, but Hendrix clarifies that he did not call for the killing of Jews. Hence, Hendrix dismisses the Nazis’ later adoption of Luther as some kind of justification for their actions in the Holocaust, but it seems this has left a lasting stain on Luther, possibly even more in modern Germany than elsewhere.

Scott H. Hendrix

Scott H. Hendrix

Hendrix writes clearly and well, making the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. He rarely left me in a position of needing to look elsewhere for explanation of terms or ideas and while there are the usual notes at the back of the book, I was happily able to ignore them – always my desire when reading history and biography. Hendrix made one decision that really grated on me and that I’m baffled to understand – he decided to anglicise all the names. Thus Johann and Johannes become John, he drops the ‘von’ from von Staupitz, etc. I can’t accept that these names are hard for any reader and see no benefit in me now having no idea of the real names of many of the major players. It seems to me a hideous example of ‘dumbing down’ and is the main reason why I can only rate the book as four stars. Otherwise, this is a very good biography that sheds a lot of light on Luther without engulfing the casual reader in unnecessary information overload.

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

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TBR Thursday 72…

Episode 72

 

The New Year’s resolutions are beginning to crack already – despite reading three books this week, the TBR has gone up 1 to 160, suggesting someone must have added four books to the list. If I ever catch the culprit, there will be Big Trouble…

Here’s the next batch that should be rising to the top soon. Still no factual since I’m going to be reading Henry IV for the rest of my natural life, and possibly beyond…

Fiction

 

jekyll and hydeA nice little re-read to provide a welcome break from some of the weightier stuff on my list…

The Blurb says An intriguing combination of fantasy thriller and moral allegory, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde depicts the gripping struggle of two opposing personalities – one essentially good, the other evil – for the soul of one man. Its tingling suspense and intelligent and sensitive portrayal of man’s dual nature reveals Stevenson as a writer of great skill and originality, whose power to terrify and move us remains, over a century later, undiminished.

 * * * * *

 

a guide to berlinCourtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. Hmm… I requested this before I read Lolita and decided I hate Mr Nabokov. Somehow this one doesn’t appeal quite as much anymore, but we’ll see…

The Blurb says A Guide to Berlin is the name of a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1925, when he was a young man of 26, living in Berlin.

A group of six international travellers, two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian, meet in empty apartments in Berlin to share stories and memories. Each is enthralled in some way to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and each is finding their way in deep winter in a haunted city.

A moment of devastating violence shatters the group, and changes the direction of everyone’s story. Brave and brilliant, A Guide to Berlin traces the strength and fragility of our connections through biographies and secrets.

* * * * *

Sci-fi

 

caves of steelAnother re-read, this time of a sci-fi classic. There was a time when R. Daneel Olivaw was my ultimate hero. Sadly, I later dumped him in favour of Commander Data from Star Trek TNG. There’s something so appealing about the idea of men with off-switches…

The Blurb says “A millennium into the future two advancements have altered the course of human history:  the colonization of the galaxy and the creation of the positronic brain.  Isaac Asimov’s Robot novels chronicle the unlikely partnership between a New York City detective and a humanoid robot who must learn to work together.  Like most people left behind on an over-populated Earth, New York City police detective Elijah Baley had little love for either the arrogant Spacers or their robotic companions.  But when a prominent Spacer is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Baley is ordered to the Outer Worlds to help track down the killer.  The relationship between Elijah and his Spacer superiors, who distrusted all Earthmen, was strained from the start.  Then he learned that they had assigned him a partner:  R. Daneel Olivaw.  Worst of all was that the “R” stood for robot–and his positronic partner was made in the image and likeness of the murder victim!”

* * * * *

Crime

 

a dark redemptionI enjoyed Stav Sherez’ Eleven Days, with some reservations, and several people suggested I should read his earlier book – this one. It’s been on the TBR since January 2014, so it’s probably about time to read it!

The Blurb saysIn the first of a new series, DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller investigate the brutal rape and murder of a young Ugandan student. Plunged into an underworld of illegal immigrant communities, they discover that the murdered girl’s studies at a London College may have threatened to reveal things that some people will go to any lengths to keep secret.

A Dark Redemption explores a sinister case that will force DI Carrigan to face up to his past and DS Miller to confront what path she wants her future to follow.” 

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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

.

* * * * *

(Stop Press: The TBR seems to have gone up to 161 while I was writing this. What’s going on???)

Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson

snow blindThe place where nothing ever happens…

:D :D :D :D :)

Rookie cop Ari Thór Arason is so pleased to be offered a posting that he immediately accepts, even though it’s in the tiny town of Siglufjördur, so far north it’s closer to the Arctic than to Reykjavik. A place, so they say, where nothing ever happens. So when an elderly writer falls down a flight of stairs to his death everyone assumes it’s an accident, and when Ari Thór is reluctant to accept this, he is quickly warned off by his boss Tómas. But when a young woman is found unconscious in the snow and bleeding from a knife wound, even Tómas has to face up to the fact that crime has arrived in Siglufjördur.

This is described in the blurb as a ‘debut’, but I think it’s actually the second in a series although the first to be translated. There are references to what sounds like a previous story involving Ari Thór and his girlfriend Kristín, but this one works fine on its own and doesn’t give any major spoilers for the earlier book, should it ever appear.

The writing is excellent, and enhanced by a fine translation by Quentin Bates, who is himself a highly regarded crime writer. Jónasson slowly builds up a claustrophobic feeling to this small fishing community, approachable only by air or through a tunnel under the mountains, both of which routes become impossible as the winter snows deepen. Ari Thór finds himself feeling more and more cut off, emotionally as well as physically, especially since Kirstín hasn’t forgiven him for accepting the posting without discussing it with her. A newcomer to a place where families have to remain for generations before they are accepted as locals, Ari Thór finds himself in the position of an outsider in a community where everyone knows everything about their neighbours – or at least they think they do. But as Ari Thór continues to ask awkward questions, old scandals are disturbed and secrets begin to come to the surface.

Siglufjördur

Siglufjördur

The basic plot is very good. It’s a proper mystery, with motives and clues, and of course the isolated setting makes for a limited cast of suspects, especially since the death of the writer took place during a rehearsal of a play. Ari Thór is a good character, not in any way dysfunctional, but with enough of a past to make him interesting. And although he’s a policeman, his method of getting at the truth is based more on interviews and reading people than on DNA and autopsies. But despite the traditional feel of some aspects, the book doesn’t feel at all old-fashioned, since both the structure and the story are firmly modern. Some parts of the plot become clear relatively early, but there’s plenty still to be revealed as the book progresses, and the various strands are brought to credible and satisfying solutions.

It takes a while for the story to get going, and there are occasional dips in the pacing, mainly caused by Jónasson’s technique of giving the backstory of each character as he introduces them – sometimes more interesting and relevant than others, I found. And every now and then, the reader is suddenly given the solution to a little piece of the mystery without the characters doing anything to reveal it, which feels a little as if he hadn’t been able to see how to work it smoothly into the story. He also hit one of my pet hates when he would let Ari Thór learn something but not make the reader privy to it – done to keep up the tension, obviously, but again it feels as if he couldn’t always quite see how to give the clues but disguise them so the reader wouldn’t spot their significance.

Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson

However, these are all minor niggles and things that often show up in an author’s early books while they are still developing their skills. And the weaknesses are well outweighed by the book’s strengths – the excellent sense of place, strong characterisation, intriguing and credible plotting and high quality writing. I have already added his next book (or at least the next to be translated, though I believe it’s no.5 in the series! Why do they do that?!) to my wishlist and am looking forward to reading more of them, though I can’t help but feel that tiny Siglufjördur might end up being as dangerous a place to visit as Midsomer or Cabot Cove…

An interesting side-note – apparently Jónasson has translated many of Agatha Christie’s books into Icelandic. I wonder if that may be one reason why the plotting in this one is as strong and as mystery-based as it is…

This was a People’s Choice winner. Well done, People! You picked a good one! And thanks, Raven, for the review that originally drew it to my attention.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the a26The wounds of war…

:D :D :D :D :)

Brother and sister Bernard and Yolande have lived together all their lives. Yolande remains permanently holed up in their house, every door locked, every window covered, her only viewpoint on the world a small hole in one of the blinds. And for Yolande, the world she looks out on is still in the grip of WW2, a period that traumatised her so completely she has never recovered. Bernard has been the functional one, his job on the railway providing their income. He has given up his own chance of a personal life to look after his older sister. But now Bernard has been told that he is dying, and suddenly all the missed opportunities and disappointments of his life erupt into violence…

Given the novella length of this book, it packs a mighty punch. Ink-black noir, there are no gleams of light or humour to lift the tone. On the surface, Bernard and Yolande are a pair of extremely dysfunctional and disturbed siblings, each with their own streak of madness, and with the potential for violence simmering not far below the surface. The book has a thriller format, seen from the perspectives of the perpetrators of the various crimes that take place.

But it seems to me (though I may be over-analysing it) that the entire novella is a metaphor for a France still bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it in WW2 – the wounds of defeat, collaboration and betrayal – wounds that eventual victory may have covered, but with the thinnest of scar tissue, easily scratched away. The book was written in 1999, and is set perhaps a couple of decades before that, when many people were still alive who had lived through the war. And Garnier shows this couple as having been damaged even before the war began, much as France still reeled from the horrors inflicted upon its landscape and people in the First World War.

‘Row upon row, their white tunics stained with blood like that bastard of a butcher. “I kill you, you kill me.” And the more they killed, the more of them sprang up again, it was truly miraculous! That’s why there’ll never be an end to the war – anyway, it’s always been here, it’s that kind of country, there’s nothing else to do but go to war. The only thing that grows is white crosses.’

Verdun-17

Yolande had committed the crime of having an affair with a German soldier and had paid the price when her countrymen shaved her head to display her disgrace to the world. But Garnier’s description shows that this episode was as much to do with lust and cruelty as justice and patriotism. The world may have forgotten Yolande’s shame but she has never forgotten those who shamed her. There is the chance for Yolande to throw the past aside and go back out into the world, but she carries her prison with her in her mind. She’s not a weak woman, far from it. Her selfishness makes her monstrous and it’s hard to see her as having been a victim. She is a fact, a piece of history, a hidden scandal, France’s shame. And that unresolved shame is shown metaphorically to be still shuddering through the later generations.

Pascal Garnier

Pascal Garnier

Bernard has watched the woman he loved marry another man – a cruel, boorish man who treats her badly, and when he receives his death sentence his pent-up frustrations and anger boil over into a murderous spree. There are some shocking scenes of violence and horror, but they’re not written in an overly graphic way – Garnier is painting impressionistic images rather than drawing detailed pictures. His descriptions are full of craters and mud, and when he describes places he does it in terms of their association with battles and war, this modern landscape scarred still with reminders of France’s violent past. The A26, being built in the book, runs through or past many of the great battlefields of France and close to those of Belgium – Arras, the Somme, Ypres – and Garnier plays darkly with the conjunction of the digging of the road and the history of its bloody surroundings.

To say I enjoyed this would be a total misuse of the word. It is too dark, too upsetting, to enjoy. But it is powerful and gut-wrenching, with Garnier’s compelling writing enhanced by an excellent translation from Melanie Florence. I may have made it sound more metaphorical than it is, though that’s how it struck me. But it works too on the level of being an extremely dark thriller, leading up to an ending that shocked me and left me feeling completely conflicted as to the morality of the tale. Despite the awfulness of their actions, there was some part of me that empathised with each of the dreadful siblings, and that was the most unsettling aspect of all. As entertainment, I enjoyed Garnier’s Boxes more, but for me this one is the more powerful and meaningful, and therefore better, of the two.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

broken promiseEnd of Part One…

:| :|

When David Harwood visits his cousin Marla, he’s astonished to discover her nursing a baby that she claims is her own, because Marla’s baby died at birth, ten months ago, leaving her emotionally fragile and mentally unstable. She tells him a wild tale of how an angel brought the baby and asked her to take care of it. David’s worried enough by this story, but when he spots blood on the doorframe, he’s even more concerned. And when the mother of the baby is found, knifed to death, things look bleak indeed for Marla. So David, an unemployed journalist, agrees to see if he can find out the truth…

The book reminded me of losing at a game of snakes and ladders. It starts off very well – both writing and story flow along easily, David is a likeable character and at this early stage the plot seems intriguing. But then another plot is introduced, and another, and another… and suddenly I felt as if I was sliding down that pesky snake hoping for someone to throw the dice and get me back on the ladder. Sadly that didn’t happen. By a quarter of the way in at the most, the solution to the main plot is blindingly obvious – not just the who, but also the why and the how. So obvious I felt it must be a clever double-bluff, but it isn’t.

In the meantime, sub-plots keep developing exponentially. Barclay sets them up, always very interestingly – I have no quarrel at all with the quality of either his writing or characterisation, both of which are excellent throughout (though I could have lived without the tediously unimaginative and constant swearing). But then he forgets about them for ages, before suddenly bringing them back into the narrative, long after I’d either forgotten or lost interest in them, merely serving to slow down and break the flow of the main plot. At first, I thought they might all come together in some incredibly complex solution and looked forward to seeing how he’d achieve that. But it gradually becomes clear that, while there are some tenuous links between them, mostly they are completely separate strands. I still hoped they would be resolved or at least explained though – I don’t feel that’s too much to ask. It’s not as if the cover says “Part 1”…

Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay

…and yet, that’s precisely what this is. While the main plot is resolved (exactly as had been obvious for almost the entirety of the book), the other ones are left hanging, like the old Saturday Matinee cliffhangers… To Be Continued! But unlike them, we’d have to wait considerably longer than a week to find out what happened. If we care, that is. Personally I don’t. I don’t mind reading a trilogy, or even a Harry Potter-esque 7 book series, if someone tells me in advance that that’s what I’m about to read. But if they sell a book as a complete novel, then that’s what it should be. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here, but I’m not talking about the kind of continuing background story arc that happens in many series – these are actual unresolved plots, murders left unexplained, investigations left halfway through, etc.

I’m sorely tempted to give this 1 star but, despite my real annoyance at being left hanging, I enjoyed the writing style enough to consider reading one of his other novels some time. But I’ll check the reviews first to see if it has an ending. And less swearing.

And, in the meantime, I’ll only recommend this if you don’t mind knowing early on how the main plot will work out, and never finding out how the sub plots do.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

GAN Quest: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A tide in the affairs of women…

:D :D :D :D :)

their eyes were watching godWhen Janie walks back into town eighteen months after leaving with a man 12 years her junior, her former friends and neighbours gossip and snigger, assuming he has spent all her money and then left her for a younger woman. But Janie’s story is more complicated, a tragedy but also an awakening, her journey one of self-discovery.

I’ll start by saying that I think this is an excellent novel, fully earning its place as a contender for the title of Great American Novel. It has been analysed to death by people far more qualified than I over the years: adversely, on the whole, at the time of its original publication in 1937, and then positively, when it was resurrected in the ’70s by academics with an interest in female and black voices in American literature. I had never heard of the book until it was mentioned by several people when I asked for recommendations for GANs, and I assiduously avoided reading anything about it in advance so that I could enjoy the rare luxury of reading it without preconceptions.

Janie is 16 when we first meet her in the care of her grandmother, a slave who became pregnant to her owner just before abolition. Janie’s own birth was as a result of the rape of her mother by a teacher. The date isn’t given, but a quick calculation suggests that the bulk of the book takes place in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. This matters, because one of my major criticisms of the book is that it seems to be set quite apart from historical context. There is no mention of WW1, no suggestion that any of the men fought or, indeed, had an opinion on the rights or wrongs of fighting for the USA. My (shallow) understanding is that this was a time of great change for African Americans, when they began to demand that a country that expected them to fight and die for it should also give them rights as equal citizens, develop a true democracy that embraced all people equally. But Janie’s world indicates none of this, and I found myself therefore not being able to entirely accept it as a realistic picture of the time.

Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie - which even from the stills looks dreadful.

Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie – which even from the stills looks dreadful.

Instead, Janie’s contemporaries are shown as lazy, passive and unambitious on the whole, their aspirations beaten out of them by a world still run by and for the white elite. That I could accept more, though it seems in conflict with the idea of the development of the all-black town of Eatonville in which much of the story is placed. And Eatonville itself doesn’t ring wholly true – when Janie and her new husband arrive there, it is no more than a plot of land with a few shacks, but within a few years it seems to be a thriving success story, without any indication of where that success comes from. And again, there is no discussion of politics or the wider world – Eatonville seems to exist in happy isolation, and the people Janie meets there and on her travels live carefree lives, based around drinking, gambling and sex – a happy-go-lucky existence, with no thought for the future. The position of women is one of almost total subservience to their men – a style of life where sexism and domestic violence is accepted by all. I was surprised at how negative a picture a black author was creating of the black community at a time when the political struggle for equality was building to a crescendo.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

The reason I bring up these criticisms first is that, after I finished the book, I read the forewords and afterword in my copy, written by Edwidge Danticat, Mary Helen Washington and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and was rather stunned to discover that my criticisms echoed those of the male black writing community of the time, whose dismissal of the book was based pretty much on it not conforming to the political agenda of the black movement. The subsequent feminist critiques of the ’70s and later, it seems to me, dismiss these criticisms too easily, perhaps because they think that to accept them would weaken their own argument that the book is a seminal text in the finding of the black female voice in literature. I beg to disagree – with both parties: the lack of a political context is a weakness but not one that prevents the book from making an important contribution; and the fact that it gives women in black culture a voice does not negate the fact that it would have been a greater book had it addressed, or at least acknowledged, the contemporary political situation.

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day's bean-pickin'...

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day’s bean-pickin’…

Where the book excels is in its portrayal of Janie’s character – her finding of her own way despite the male dominance of the society she lives in. As a person of mixed racial ancestry, Janie’s light skin tone and unusual hair are used to great effect to show how indoctrinated the black psyche had become to accept the desirability of ‘white’ physical traits; showing within their community the same kind of prejudices heaped on them from outside it. Having been married off young to a much older man, Janie rebels and runs off with the good-looking and ambitious Joe to Eatonville, only to discover that Joe too believes that a woman is at her best in the kitchen and bedroom. We know from the beginning of the book that there is a third man in Janie’s story – the younger Tea Cake, for whom she has left her comfortable home in Eatonville and gone off to work the fields in the Florida Everglades. It is in the few months that she spends with Tea Cake that Janie finally discovers what it is to love and be loved equally.

Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward till he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

Although the structure of the book is that Janie is telling her story in retrospect to her friend Pheoby, this is a third person narrative for the most part, slipping into first occasionally as we are made directly privy to Janie’s thoughts. All of the speech is in dialect, which Hurston handles brilliantly, and although the non-dialogue parts are in a more standard form of English, she maintains speech patterns, tone and vocabulary throughout. The dialect is not so broad that it makes the book hard to read – it’s sustained so beautifully that it almost recedes into the background after the reader gets tuned into it. While I have criticised the portrayal of the society as negative, it’s also done with great skill, making it completely believable within the internal context of the book. The writing is lyrical at times, especially the section in the Florida Everglades where the land and weather come to play a huge part in the story. The book has its share of tragedy and horror, but Hurston offers compassion to her characters at all times, and she draws them subtly, so that there are few of them who can’t earn our empathy.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

I am aware that this review has taken on gargantuan proportions, but that’s a sign of the effect the book and the debate surrounding it had on me. I could write at length about my disappointment that fundamentally Janie’s search for herself seems too much to be a search for a man who will love her right. I could mention my anger at the way Hurston seems tacitly to endorse wife-beating so long as it’s done with love(!). I could wonder about the lack, not just of children, but of any mention of them. But instead, I’ll say that, despite my quite severe criticisms of it, I loved the book for the language and the compelling story-telling, and for making me think, and it’s one that I’m sure would deliver even more on a re-read.

* * * * * * *

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 flagYes, despite its lack of political context, it gives an excellent portrayal of this part of black culture.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, the examination of the place of women within this culture was clearly innovative for its time.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – the dialect and lyricism of the writing are undoubtedly excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

TBR Thursday 71…

Episode 71

 

There’s been a massive reduction in the TBR this week, due to me finishing several books all at the same time – down 3 to 159! I’m so proud of myself! Now if only I could find time to write all the reviews that are piling up…

Here’s the next batch that should be rising to the top soon…

Fiction

 

belovedNext up for the GAN Quest. I tried this book on audio a couple of years ago but found the narration, by Toni Morrison herself, almost monotone. It was great as a cure for insomnia but that’s not altogether a good thing when you’re listening to it while driving! I’m hoping the print version won’t have the same effect…

The Blurb says Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby.

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

 * * * * *

 

the noise of timeCourtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I have a rather chequered history with Barnes, sometimes thoroughly enjoying him and other times finding him rather cold and occasionally self-indulgent. Hopefully this one will fall into the ‘enjoy’ category…

The Blurb says In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.

So begins Julian Barnes’s first novel since his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending. A story about the collision of Art and Power, about human compromise, human cowardice and human courage, it is the work of a true master.

I’m hoping it was the blurb writer’s idea to capitalise ‘Art’ and ‘Power’ and not Barnes’…

* * * * *

Crime

 

green for dangerI’m planning to read one of the ‘oldest’ books on my TBR every month this year, and this is the one that has been languishing there longest – three years now! (Though there are several that have been sitting unread on my Kindle for even longer than that.) So better read it before the pages star to biodegrade…

The Blurb says Set in a military hospital during the blitz, this novel is one of Brand’s most intricately plotted detection puzzles, executed with her characteristic cleverness and gusto. When a patient dies under the anesthetic and later the presiding nurse is murdered, Inspector Cockrill finds himself with six suspects–three doctors and three nurses–and not a discernible motive among them.

I’m hoping it was the blurb writer’s idea to spell ‘anaesthetic’ ‘anesthetic’ and not Brand’s…

* * * * *

 

murder at the manorCourtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley comes another of the British Library collections of classic crime edited by Martin Edwards. I’ve already been dipping into this one, as you’ll know if you read this week’s Tuesday Terror! post…

The Blurb saysThe English country house is an iconic setting for some of the greatest British crime fiction. This new collection gathers together stories written over a span of about 65 years, during which British society, and life in country houses, was transformed out of all recognition. It includes fascinating and unfamiliar twists on the classic closed circle plot, in which the assorted guests at a country house party become suspects when a crime is committed. In the more sinister tales featured here, a gloomy mansion set in lonely grounds offers an eerie backdrop for dark deeds. Many distinguished writers are represented in this collection, including such great names of the genre as Anthony Berkeley, Nicholas Blake and G.K. Chesterton. Martin Edwards has also unearthed hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces: among them are a fine send-up of the country house murder; a suspenseful tale by the unaccountably neglected Ethel Lina White; and a story by the little-known Scottish writer J.J. Bell.” 

* * * * *

4 great covers this week, too, aren’t they?

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

* * * * *

Coffin Road by Peter May

coffin roadBack to the islands…

:D :D :D :D :D

A man is washed ashore, exhausted and with no idea of how he got there, or indeed where ‘there’ is. He has lost his memory, but is filled with a sense of dread as if something terrible has happened. As he staggers up the road, he is met by a neighbour who calls him by his name – Neal Maclean – and helps him to the cottage that is apparently his home. But when Neal begins to look for indications of who he is and what he’s doing in this remote cottage on a Hebridean island, he can find no information about himself – even his computer seems to contain no history. But his dog Bran is happy to have him back, and when his other neighbours, Sally and Jon, turn up for a prearranged drink, it appears Sally in particular is a close friend…

This book sees May returning to the Hebrides, this time on Harris rather than Lewis (same island – different ends). However there’s a different feel to this one – Neal is an incomer to the island and doesn’t really get involved much with the local community. The landscape, or rather seascape, plays a huge part though and, as always, May’s sense of place and descriptive writing bring it to life. The bulk of the book is written from Neal’s perspective as he struggles to work out what has happened to him. His sections are in first person present tense which, though still not to my taste, makes some kind of sense here, since Neal is effectively a man without a past, and happily May is skilled enough to avoid the clunkiness that often afflicts present tense writing. The rest of it is written in third person past.

Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris

Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris

From things that Sally and Jon tell him, Neal discovers he’s apparently writing a book on the story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared many years ago from the otherwise uninhabited Flannan Isles. But he can find no trace of the book, so takes a boat out to the Flannans to see if it triggers any memories. What he finds there shocks him – is it possible he has done something so dreadful that his mind just can’t accept it?

Meantime young Karen Fleming is in Edinburgh, still brooding over the unexplained suicide of her scientist father two years earlier. Carrying a load of guilt because the last words she said to him were angry and untrue, she is becoming determined to learn more about what caused him to end his life. But what she discovers will turn everything she thought she knew on its head, and put both her and Neal Maclean in deadly danger…

Peter May on Lewis

Peter May on Lewis

The writing is up to May’s usual excellent standard and both Neal and Karen are very well drawn, each flawed but likeable in their own way. Neal’s frustration at his memory loss gets even stronger when he fears he might have something to hide and he soon discovers that he’s in danger, but doesn’t know why or from whom. The only thing he has found in his cottage is a map of the island with the old Coffin Road highlighted – the road the islanders used to use to bring their dead for burial amongst the machair. Karen is an intelligent young girl, but headstrong and with the self-centredness of the adolescent. The more people tell her that looking for information about her father could be dangerous, the more determined she becomes. May handles her grief for her father well, letting us see how it has affected her without wallowing mawkishly in it. As the two strands come together towards an explosive finale, we also get to see the action from the perspective of Detective Sergeant George Gunn, whom dedicated fans will doubtless remember with affection from the Lewis trilogy.

The Coffin Road

The Coffin Road

This has much more of a standard thriller format than the last few of May’s books and reminded me in many ways of his early China thrillers. There’s a strong eco-message in the book, a theme May has addressed before, of the dangers of science being exploited for profit untempered by ethics. The plotting is very strong and it’s paced perfectly to keep it gripping all the way through. A couple of times when I thought it was pretty obvious what was about to happen, May showed me that I should know by now never to take him for granted. As always, May’s feel for this Hebridean landscape adds a great deal to the story, and in this one he uses the sea and wild weather of the islands to great effect. (I also enjoyed his brief detour to Balornock in Glasgow – revived happy memories of spending time there in my teen years!) Another great read from May that I think will please the newer fans who came to his work via the Lewis trilogy, while reminding the older fans of just what a good thriller writer he is. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Well by WW Jacobs

Ding, dong, bell…

 

murder at the manorWW Jacobs is best known for the truly terrifying tale of The Monkey’s Paw. When his name cropped up in Murder at the Manor, another of the British Library’s anthologies of classic crime, I assumed he must also have written detective stories. However the collection’s editor, Martin Edwards, explains that, though Jacobs is primarily a writer of macabre stories, this story has been included because it is a study of the consequences of crime.

Macabre indeed! A perfect story for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

The Well by WW Jacobs

.

WW Jacobs

WW Jacobs

.

Two men stood in the billiard-room of an old country house, talking. Play, which had been of a half-hearted nature, was over, and they sat at the open window, looking out over the park stretching away beneath them, conversing idly.

Jem Benson is soon to marry the woman he loves – Olive, a sweet young girl who idolises him. His friend Wilfred Carr is, as usual, short of money and as they chat in the billiard room he asks Jem to give him a loan, as he done often before. But Jem has had enough…

“Seriously, Jem, will you let me have the fifteen hundred?”
“No,” said the other, simply.
Carr went white. “It’s to save me from ruin,” he said, thickly.
“I’ve helped you till I’m tired,” said Benson, turning and regarding him, “and it is all to no good. If you’ve got into a mess, get out of it.”

But Carr won’t give up so easily. He knows something about Jem’s past, something that would make the idealistic Olive see him a new and unflattering light… and he can prove it…

His cousin reached forward suddenly, and catching him by the collar of his coat pinned him down on the table.
“Give me those letters,” he breathed, sticking his face close to Carr’s.
“They’re not here,” said Carr, struggling. “I’m not a fool. Let me go, or I’ll raise the price.”

And Carr walks out into the garden… and disappears. When his absence is noticed, Jem explains by saying they had a row over money and Jem sent him off…

“I don’t think we shall see him again.”

the well 2

* * * * *

The well, which had long ago fallen into disuse, was almost hidden by the thick tangle of undergrowth which ran riot at that corner of the old park. It was partly covered by the shrunken half of a lid, above which a rusty windlass creaked in company with the music of the pines when the wind blew strongly. The full light of the sun never reached it, and the ground surrounding it was moist and green when other parts of the park were gaping with the heat.

The following evening, Jem and Olive are strolling in the grounds when Olive takes it into her head to wander towards the old well. Jem does his best to dissuade her, but she likes to sit there on the edge of the well surveying the wilderness around it…

“I like this place,” said she, breaking a long silence, “it is so dismal –so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn’t dare to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me. Ugh!”

(Isn’t she just so sweet and innocent?) As they sit there, canoodling, not to put too fine a point on it, Olive wonders when they will next hear from Wilfred, asking Jem to help him out as usual. She is startled by the bitter way Jem responds…

“You don’t know much about him,” said the other, sharply. “He was not above blackmail; not above ruining the life of a friend to do himself a benefit. A loafer, a cur, and a liar!”

the well 3

At this moment, Olive suddenly leaps up with a cry! Jem asks her what the matter is…

“I was startled,” she said, slowly, putting her hands on his shoulder. “I suppose the words I used just now are ringing in my ears, but I fancied that somebody behind us whispered ‘Jem, help me out.'”

Shivering, Jem pleads with her to come away from the well, but she’s an obstinate little thing. Not content with making Jem stay near the well, she then girlishly proceeds to drop her valuable and irreplaceable bracelet down it…

“The one that was my mother’s,” said Olive. “Oh, we can get it back surely. We must have the water drained off.”
“Your bracelet!” repeated Benson, stupidly.
“Jem,” said the girl in terrified tones, “dear Jem, what is the matter?”
For the man she loved was standing regarding her with horror. The moon which touched it was not responsible for all the whiteness of the distorted face, and she shrank back in fear to the edge of the well.

Desperate, Jem promises he will retrieve the bracelet himself the next day. And sure enough, the next day he has himself lowered into the well…

The_Scream

* * * * *

This is a brilliant little story that had the porpentine and me fairly shrieking with terror! Jacobs knows exactly how to build up atmosphere and tension, and while there’s never any doubt about what happened to Wilfred, he still manages to produce a truly shocking ending! Admittedly, had I been Jem I’d have solved the issue by lending Wilf the money and tossing Olive down the well, but that wouldn’t have made for nearly such a fun story. It’s quite short – only about 4,000 words. Go on, you’re brave enough! If your hair turns white, you can always dye it! Here’s a link…

 

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

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

 

It's a fretful porpentine!!

It’s a fretful porpentine!!

.

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

the children's homeSuffer the little children…

:D :D :D :D :)

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

This book is brilliantly written. Mostly it’s in the third person and past tense, though there is a first person section when Morgan tells the story of his past. It reads like a kind of corrupted fairytale, perhaps Beauty and the Beast, and reminded me strongly of Shirley Jackson’s similar corruption of the old witch stories in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Not because of any similarity in story, but because of the unsettling tone of horror lurking beneath a seemingly bright surface.

Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850. Creepy, isn't she?

Female Austrian Wax Teaching Model 1850.
Creepy, isn’t she?

The house is filled with books and strange curiosities Morgan’s grandfather sent back from his many travels abroad, and the children seem fascinated by these, as if they hope to learn some secret from them. The children are unnaturally well-behaved, even the babies, and unlike adults can accept Morgan’s disfigurement without being repulsed or pitying him. When one of the children becomes ill, the local doctor pays a visit and befriends Morgan, telling him a little of the world outside Morgan’s walls. It’s through this that the reader gets an indication that something terrible has happened to the world – something hugely destructive that has left people in fear and caused the rich to retreat behind heavily guarded walls.

I’m not going to say any more about the story since the not knowing is most of what creates the tension and rising apprehension. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. There are strong shades of John Wyndham here – I was reminded not only of The Midwich Cuckoos, but also of Chocky and The Chrysalids to a degree. Again, that’s not to imply any lack of originality – Lambert takes similar themes as Wyndham but treats them quite differently. It’s unclear whether these children’s purpose is to do good or evil in the world – there is a driven amorality about them. They are here to do what they must do and that’s all. Should they be loved? Or feared? Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Charles Lambert

Charles Lambert

Lambert does not tie it all up neatly in the end – he leaves it beautifully vague allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. As a result, I expect it will be a different story for each reader – I was very aware that I was ‘writing’ my own interpretation of events under the author’s subtle guidance. After the horrors, is there any kind of redemption? Perhaps, perhaps not – it’s one that left me pondering and I still haven’t completely decided. Don’t let the horrors or the sci-fi elements put you off. This is a great read that packs a lot into its relatively short length of 224 pages – one of the most imaginative and original books I’ve read in a while. Highly recommended – I shall be looking out for more from this author.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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