FictionFan’s Book Reviews

Welcome to my blog! I hope you enjoy your visit.

I’m gradually compiling full indexes in the menu at the top of the page. Meantime, you can find a review by author, genre or title using the Find A Review drop-down box on the right, click on tags in the Tag Cloud, or browse my most recent reviews below.

I’d love for you to leave a comment either about a particular review or the blog in general.

Thank you for visiting.

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.

* * * * * * * * *

Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….At first the Immortalisation Commission was told by Dr Abrikosov that Lenin’s body could be preserved ‘for many, many years’ by refrigeration, if it was kept in the crypt, in a specially designed sarcophagus, at a carefully controlled temperature. But despite the most expensive and sophisticated freezing equipment bought from Germany, within two months there were already dark spots on Lenin’s face and torso and his eye sockets were deformed. The magnates were worried their plan would not work out, particularly as the weather was becoming warmer.
….Towards the end of March 1924 two prominent chemists, Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky, suggested re-embalming the body with a chemical mixture that they said ‘could last hundreds of years’. They had studied the ancient Egyptian techniques of mummification but they could do a lot better ‘and keep Vladimir Ilyich’s body looking natural’. They worked day and night whitening Lenin’s skin and devising the correct embalming fluid, under intense pressure, reporting directly to Stalin and Zinoviev. They experimented on several cadavers of fifty-ish-year-old men brought to them from morgues and scientific institutes in Moscow. After four months they found the correct formula of glycerin, alcohol, potassium acetate, quinine chlorate and another ingredient still strictly secret at the time of writing.

(FF says: I bet it’s beetroot soup…)

* * * * * * * * *

….It hadn’t taken the landlady very long to find out that her lodger had a queer kind of fear and dislike of women. When she was doing the staircase and landings she would often hear Mr Sleuth reading aloud to himself passages in the Bible that were very uncomplimentary to her sex. But Mrs. Bunting had no very great opinion of her sister woman, so that didn’t put her out. Besides, where one’s lodger is concerned, a dislike of women is better than – well, than the other thing.

* * * * * * * * *

….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

* * * * * * * * *

….When the client came out, I noticed the fake tan on her calves looked a bit streaky, which almost never happens. She either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t mind. She winked at Mum and said, ‘Enjoy tonight – look forward to hearing all about it.’
….Mum says everybody spills out all their news in the Powder Room. She thinks that it’s something to do with lying with a nice white towel under your head and a blanket over your legs and feet. She says everybody feels like a child tucked up safely in bed, mostly because when she raises them up their feet can’t touch the floor anymore and they are warm and safe and so they sing like canaries. They tell her all manner of very personal things. Her way to describe this is womb talk. Some nights she’ll pour herself a glass of wine and say, ‘oh my goodness I’ve had so much womb talk tonight if someone else says menopause or hysterectomy to me I’ll start mixing HRT with the Fakebake.’

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

Exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In order to tell the story of the Russian Revolution, Figes begins three decades earlier, in 1891, with the famine that could be seen as starting the journey towards revolution; and continues up to 1924, the year that the first dictator, Lenin, died. This is a huge work, massive in scope, meticulously researched and delivered with a level of clarity that makes it surprisingly easy to read and absorb, even for someone coming to the subject with no previous knowledge. It’s divided into four sections that thoroughly cover each period, looking at all the different parts of society and how they were affected at each point. It’s very well written, remains largely free of academic jargon and, to my joy, contains all the relevant information in the main body of the text, meaning no flicking backwards and forwards to notes. The notes at the back are mostly reserved simply to give information about the extensive sources Figes has used.

It was as if they saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex need and ideals. Ironically, the interests of ‘the cause’ sometimes meant that the people’s conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm. ‘The worse, the better,’ as Chernyshevsky often said (meaning the worse things became, the better it was for the revolution).

The first part describes society as it was at the point where revolutionary ideas were still in their infancy. Figes describes the Romanov dynasty in some depth – Nicholas II’s autocratic style of rule, the influence on him of Alexandra and, through her, Rasputin, and the methods of government that were in force, with all power still concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class of nobles. He shows what life was like for the peasants, still nasty, brutish and short, but with some more liberal landowners making efforts to provide education for the young. He takes us into the new industrial centres, beginning to suck people in from the villages including those newly educated peasants – places which appalling working and living conditions made ripe for the revolutionary ideas beginning to circulate via the intelligentsia. The church, which Figes suggests never had a solid grip even on the peasant classes, was weakened further as people moved to the cities where there weren’t enough churches to serve the rapidly expanding population. The army, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly out of date – Nicholas loved to parade his cavalry and to see his officers in smart uniforms, but wasn’t terribly interested in the less romantic motor vehicles and new weapons being incorporated into the armies of the bordering nations, west and east.

Nicholas II and his cavalry

Part 2 covers the period from 1891 to just before the revolution proper began. Again Figes ranges widely, often using the stories of individuals to add a human face to the political history. The famine of 1891, due largely to failures in policy, eventually forced the Tsar to appeal for voluntary groups to provide aid to the starving masses. The liberal intelligentsia dived enthusiastically into this, and thus began some of the organisations which would become political protest movements. But still Nicholas rejected reforms, leading to increasing radicalisation of the disaffected. The 1904 war against Japan, which Nicholas expected to win easily, highlighted the weakness of the army, while the eventual loss was a national humiliation which further undermined the monarchy. The 1905 revolution arose from all of these factors, further aggravated by the brutal force used to disperse protest marches. Although this revolution failed, Figes shows how it hardened attitudes and consolidated the various factions which would play major roles in the years to come. Figes explains these factions well, including their various policy aims, which is a great help in understanding the confusion of personalities and groups that feature in the events of 1917. And finally this section takes us up to the early years of WW1, showing the terrible losses and huge hardships suffered by soldiers and civilians.

As the column approached the Narva Gates it was suddenly charged by a squadron of cavalry. Some of the marchers scattered but others continued to advance towards the lines of infantry, whose rifles were pointing directly at them. Two warning salvoes were fired into the air, and then at close range a third volley was aimed at the unarmed crowd. People screamed and fell to the ground but the soldiers, now panicking themselves, continued to fire steadily into the mass of people. Forty people were killed and hundreds wounded as they tried to flee. [Father] Gapon was knocked down in the rush. But he got up and, staring in disbelief at the carnage around him, was heard to say over and over again: ‘There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar.’

The third section concentrates on the revolutionary year – from February 1917 to the signing of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. This is basically the period covered in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and while Trotsky’s massive account is obviously more detailed, this one has the huge advantage for the reader that Figes has done the groundwork of explaining all the different groupings and factions. So where Trotsky lost me a little in the mid-section, Figes manages to keep a level of clarity throughout the confusion of this year. It seems to me that Trotsky’s history must have been one of Figes’ major sources for this section, and the two accounts complement each other well, I found. In retrospect, I suspect it would have been better to read them the other way round though – this one first, then Trotsky. Figes gives what feels like a less biased account, not unnaturally, dismissing the idea of the coup as ‘bloodless’ and showing some of the horrors that took place, along with an almost complete breakdown of any kind of social order. He also discusses the issues of Lenin’s return on the ‘sealed train’ and German funding of the revolution, suggesting that the Germans did indeed provide gold but that Lenin and his comrades were not at any point acting as German agents.

Lenin gives a speech

Part 4 tells the complex tale of the Civil War that followed the revolution – the various factions within the Whites, all fighting for different aims, and thus never really consolidating as a unified force; the former Allies, primarily Britain, providing support for the Whites in an attempt to destroy the Bolsheviks; the growth of the Red Army under Trotsky’s leadership to huge numbers of men, but without sufficient equipment to keep them supplied; the forced conscription, massive brutality and violent anti-Semitism inflicted by both sides.  Figes then goes on to describe Lenin’s regime after the war, including the huge rise in bureaucracy that allowed the major players in the regime to begin to form their own fiefdoms and power bases. He also shows the country in a state of ruin, the cities depopulated, the villages racked by famine and starvation, until eventually Lenin was forced to turn back towards a form of capitalism, prompting accusations of betrayal by those who were still fanatical about the ideals of the revolution.

Some animals are more equal than others…
Starving Russian children in the Volga region circa 1921 to 1922

Figes concludes that the people brought about their own tragedy. The country’s social and economic backwardness and lack of real belief in democracy meant that they opened the door for what was essentially a return to tsarism in a different form. And he warns, prophetically when you remember this book was first published in 1996, that the fall of the USSR would not necessarily lead to an embracing of democracy in the former states, or in Russia itself.

The book is generously illustrated with over a hundred plates. Some are the usual portraits of the main players, but many show the ordinary people of the cities and villages and, often, the real horrors they endured. Some are indeed upsetting – the ones relating to torture or cannibalism for instance – and while I found those pictures, and Figes’ vivid and unsparing descriptions of the events behind them, hard to take, I didn’t feel either were gratuitous or sensationalised – they are an essential part of the historical record, and that’s the way in which Figes presents them.

Orlando Figes

This is an exceptional book – one of the best broad scope histories I’ve read. It’s brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject. It is an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read. My highest recommendation.

NB This beautifully produced, special centenary edition of the book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodley Head.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 125…

Episode 125…

It’s been a rollercoaster week for the old TBR this week! For a brief moment, it actually topped the dreaded 200 mark reaching 201, but a heroic effort on my part to read like billy-oh for days on end means it’s back down to a much more psychologically acceptable 197½ – phew! Admittedly outstanding review copies have increased 1 to 36, and I have about six unwritten reviews, but still… I reckon I deserve a reward…

Aaaah! Imagine what my reward will be once I’ve read these ones too…

Factual/Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley and one of my 20 Books of Summer, this is a companion piece to all the lovely British Library Crime Classics. Sounds great, and I can feel another challenge coming on…

The Blurb says: This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, the leading expert on classic crime discusses one hundred books ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train which highlight the entertaining plots, the literary achievements, and the social significance of vintage crime fiction. This book serves as a companion to the acclaimed British Library Crime Classics series but it tells a very diverse story. It presents the development of crime fiction-from Sherlock Holmes to the end of the golden age-in an accessible, informative and engaging style.

Readers who enjoy classic crime will make fascinating discoveries and learn about forgotten gems as well as bestselling authors. Even the most widely read connoisseurs will find books (and trivia) with which they are unfamiliar-as well as unexpected choices to debate. Classic crime is a richly varied and deeply pleasurable genre that is enjoying a world-wide renaissance as dozens of neglected novels and stories are resurrected for modern readers to enjoy. The overriding aim of this book is to provide a launch point that enables readers to embark on their own voyages of discovery.

* * * * *

Fiction

From the Scottish Fiction section of my Classics Club list. In truth I had never heard of this book or author until I started looking for Scottish classics, so it will be a leap into the dark…

The Blurb says: A ‘gowk storm’ is an untimely fall of snow in early Spring – a fitting symbol for the anguished story that unfolds. Nearly a hundred years ago, three girls were born to a minister and his wife in a remote Highland manse; the rigid patriarchal structure of the times is set against their approaching womanhood and growing awareness of life beyond the safety of home.

After the disposal by marriage of the eldest, the sisters’ lives reach a new level of intensity. Emmy, the middle sister, finds to her horror that she is falling in love with her best friend’s fiancée. The unfortunate couple become estranged and a tragic outcome seems inevitable in the brooding symbolism of this disturbing story.

The Gowk Storm, published in 1933, was one of many award-winning books written by Nancy Brysson Morrison.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Amazon Vine UK. Also one of my 20 Books, plus I’m hoping it might work for my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge too. I thoroughly enjoyed his last book, Rules of Civility, though this one sounds very different…

The Blurb says: On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.

While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.

* * * * *

Crime on Audio

I’m loving revisiting some old favourites on audio, in the company of some wonderful narrators. This is another read by Hugh Fraser, whose voice is up there in my list of Top 3 Most Gorgeous Voices in the History of the Universe. (Simon Shepherd and Derek Jacobi, in case you were wondering.)

The Blurb says: A dentist lies murdered at his Harley Street practice…

The dentist was found with a blackened hole below his right temple. A pistol lay on the floor near his outflung right hand. Later, one of his patients was found dead from a lethal dose of local anaesthetic. A clear case of murder and suicide. But why would a dentist commit a crime in the middle of a busy day of appointments?

A shoe buckle holds the key to the mystery. Now – in the words of the rhyme – can Poirot pick up the sticks and lay them straight?

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….‘My God!’ exclaimed the prince. From his standing position, he had a better view of the situation. I threw open my door, but before I could move, the man in saffron had stood up. He had wild eyes between dirty, matted hair, an unkempt beard and what looked like streaks of ash smeared vertically on his forehead. In his hand an object glinted and my insides turned to ice.
….‘Get down!’ I shouted to the prince while fumbling with the button on my holster, but he was like a rabbit hypnotised by a cobra. The attacker raised his revolver and fired. The first shot hit the car’s windscreen with a crack, shattering the glass. I turned to see Surrender-not desperately grabbing at the prince, trying to pull him down.
….All too late.
….As the next two shots rang out, I knew they would find their mark. Both hit the prince squarely in the chest. For a few seconds he just stood there, as though he really was divine and the bullets had passed straight through him. Then blotches of bright crimson blood began to soak through the silk of his tunic and he crumpled, like a paper cup in the monsoon.

* * * * * * * * *

Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….The public Lenin adopted a highly populist style of politics that would be recognisable – and imitated by many a rabble-rouser – a hundred years later, even in long-established, sophisticated democracies. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He was never a sparkling orator, as Kerensky and Trotsky were in their varying ways. But he was brilliant at presenting a case in direct, straightforward language that anyone could understand, and explaining how the world could be changed if only people would listen to him and his Bolsheviks… he argued that people had heard too much from experts. ‘Any worker will master any ministry in a few days, no special skill is needed…’

* * * * * * * * *

….His eyes were lifted meaningly to his listener’s face, and in a flash Loreto understood.
….‘Good God!’ he cried. ‘You were a friend of Lilian Hope! You have not been threatened by…’
….‘Yes,’ said Sir George, grimly. ‘I am the next on the list.’
….He drew a fairly large envelope from his breast pocket and extracted some folded papers. They were dingy and faintly yellow; one edge of the paper was jagged where it had been torn from the book, and Loreto immediately recognised these sheets as pages from Lilian Hope’s fatal diary.
….‘Poor Lilian!’ murmured the old man. ‘She was a wonderful creature, and I loved her once, though she never treated me too well. I had her picture – kept it for years, but my wife grew jealous. Poor Lilian! To think that she was in such poverty, and that she died in such a frame of mind!’

From: The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland

* * * * * * * * *

….She cooked or did laundry and then with the remaining soapy water washed the floors in the house. Or, calm and less flushed, she ironed and mended her own, his, and Katenka’s linen. Or, having finished with the cooking, laundry, and tidying up, she gave lessons to Katenka. Or, burying herself in textbooks, she occupied herself with her own polemical re-education, before going back to the newly reformed school as a teacher.
….The closer this woman and girl were to him, the less he dared to see them as family, the stricter was the prohibition imposed upon his way of thinking by his duty to his family and his pain at being unfaithful to them. In this limitation there was nothing offensive for Lara and Katenka. On the contrary, this non-family way of feeling contained a whole world of respect, excluding casualness and excessive familiarity.
….But this split was always tormenting and wounding, and Yuri Andreevich got used to it as one gets used to an unhealed, often reopening wound.

* * * * * * * * *

….The others went upstairs, a slow unwilling procession. If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and heavily panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners – no possible sliding panels – it was flooded with electric light – everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it. Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all. They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door…

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Ten little soldier boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ten people all arrive for a stay on Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon. Some have been employed by the new owners, others have been invited as guests, and all but Mr and Mrs Rogers, the butler and housekeeper, are unknown to each other. And talking of “unknown”, all they know of their hosts is that the letters of invite were signed by either Mr or Mrs U.N. Owen. But when they get there, they discover the island’s owners haven’t arrived yet. It’s a strange kind of house party, with all kinds of people from different backgrounds and walks of life – a retired judge, an old military man, a young playboy who likes to drive fast cars, a puritanical spinster, an adventurer with a murky past, a doctor, a young woman who has been hired as secretary to the owners, and an ex-policeman. After dinner on the first evening, they discover they all have one thing in common when a disembodied voice welcomes them to the island and tells them why they’ve been gathered there – they have each, in one way or another, been responsible for the death of another person and escaped punishment for it. Until now…

Undoubtedly one of Christie’s masterpieces of plotting, this is also one of her most chillingly suspenseful novels. As one by one the guests are bumped off, the tension increases exponentially among the rest. The book moves along at a rattling pace, but there’s still time for us to get to know the characters, and to learn about the crimes that have led to them being brought here. While no-one comes across as wholly innocent, Christie does a great job of showing how some could be considered more guilty than others – some of their “crimes” could be considered almost accidental, some have suffered guilt and remorse, while others are callous and cold, having committed their crimes for gain, or unfeeling monsters who have managed to justify the cruelty of their actions to their own moral satisfaction. For some of them, their stay on the island forces them to re-assess the past and begin to feel the guilt they have previously managed to suppress.

Christie is often disparaged for poor characterisation, but this book really confounds that criticism – not only are all these characters believable, but several of them are beautifully nuanced, and their actions and attitudes feel psychologically sound. One of the other aspects of Christie’s genius is that her victims generally are rather unpleasant people, so that the reader isn’t thrown into a state of grief when they get their come-uppance. No sobbing relatives, no wailing and gnashing of teeth, no rending of garments. This means that she can have umpteen murders and yet still make the books entertaining to read – a lesson that could be well learned by some of the purveyors of today’s misery-fests.

Instead what she gives us is impeccable plotting, entirely fairplay with all the real clues carefully hidden amongst the shoals of red herrings she strews in the reader’s path. In this one, the characters too are desperately trying to spot the clues – their lives depend on it. And as the group gets smaller and smaller, miraculously Christie still manages to misdirect all over the place! Though I was re-reading and therefore knew whodunit, I was still marvelling at her skill in never omitting relevant pieces of information and yet hiding them so well. It’s only when it’s all explained at the end – another thing Christie’s great at, never leaving loose ends hanging around – that her true plotting skill is revealed along with the identity of the murderer.

Quite brilliant, and I totally understand why this one is the favourite of so many Christie fans. The end (prior to the explanations) in particular is a fabulously tense bit of writing, so dark it almost counts as horror, and yet retaining entire credibility. My favourite is still The Moving Finger for sheer entertainment, but in terms of plotting, characterisation and suspense, I don’t think this one can be beaten.

I listened to the wonderful Hugh Fraser’s narration via Audible. Not only is his voice pure pleasure to listen to, he brings the various characters to life, giving each a subtly distinct persona that matches perfectly to Christie’s characterisation. And as the suspense grows, he manages perfectly to develop an atmosphere of rising dread without ever slipping into melodrama. A truly great performance – I’m loving revisiting the books in his company.

So, just in case I’ve left you in any doubt – my highest recommendation, book and narration both.

Audible UK
Audible US

Resistance – A BBC Radio Drama by Val McDermid

Public health warning…

🙂 🙂 😐

It’s summer festival season, and a crowd of thousands has descended on a farmer’s field for an open-air rock concert celebrating the solstice. There are all the usual food vendors offering varying degrees of quality and hygiene so it’s not too surprising when there’s an outbreak of what appears to be food poisoning. But although sufferers seem to recover within twenty-four hours, days or weeks later they begin to have relapses, developing skin lesions and eventually dying. And in the meantime, they’ve dispersed all over Britain and the world, spreading the infection…

The story is told by Zoe Meadows (Gina McKee), a journalist who happened to be on the spot at the concert when the first outbreak occurred. Though not infected herself, she sniffs a story and sets out to investigate how the infection began. Soon she begins to suspect a factory farm which uses particularly inhumane methods of housing its animals may be the source. Meantime, scientists are working round the clock to find a cure. Zoe makes contact with one of them, Aasmah, who explains that existing antibiotics aren’t strong enough to fight this disease. It has mutated to a point of being resistant to everything scientists have to throw at it.

Isn’t it odd how something that should work sometimes simply doesn’t? This has a great cast who all turn in top class performances, many of them with lovely, authentic Geordie accents (though not broad enough to be hard to understand). It’s written by Val McDermid which means that the script flows and sounds natural – the dialogue never feels stilted. The production values are great – listening through headphones made me feel I was in the middle of it as the sound shifted around me, the incidental music is suitably ominous and threatening, and the sound effects – dogs barking, street noises, etc. – are so convincing I several times found myself checking they were coming from the disc and not the real world. The science is totally credible and so is the eventual outcome – horrific but believable.

Gina McKee

And therein lies the problem. Perhaps there’s somebody out there who’s not aware that overuse of antibiotics has led to a situation where some bacteria have mutated to the point where they’ve developed resistance, leading to a cycle of ever stronger drugs, more mutations, and round and round we go, with no certainty that humanity will be the eventual winner. Maybe some people don’t know that they should stop pestering their doctors for antibiotics every time they have a sniffle. Maybe there are some doctors who are still too wimpy to say no to such patients. But, a little like this paragraph, this drama feels more like a public health warning than anything else. A well written and well performed public health warning, but still…

When it said at the end that it was “developed through the Wellcome Trust Experimental Stories scheme”, my suspicions were further aroused, since the Wellcome Trust is a scientific research charity. I donned my deerstalker, lit my pipe and turned to Google. And indeed – this is a series in which they encourage writers to dramatise matters of scientific concern in an attempt to inform and engage the public. Very worthy, but unfortunately that’s what it sounds like in the end. Because the basic plan is to show us how, if we don’t start behaving, we will all die. Die! Die, I tell you! True, but hardly entertaining.

An extract from the BBC’s webpage on the drama says:

Programme consultant Christopher Dowson, who is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Warwick and Trustee for the charity Antibiotic Research UK says: “This fantastic production presents in an emotionally engaging manner some of the important issues that have given rise to our current predicament – ever rising resistance and fewer effective antibiotics. My hope is that listeners will go on to ask ‘what can I do to be part of the solution?’.”

OK, fine, Professor Dowson, but just two points. Firstly, it started emotionally engaging but rapidly descended into being simply downright depressing. And secondly, it would have been great if it had suggested answers to the question “what can I do to be part of the solution?” rather than implying that there is no solution and no hope and that we’re all going to die. Die! Die, I tell you! And if that’s not bad enough, apparently we’re all going to come out in purple spots first!

Val McDermid

Maybe I’m being unfair. I did work in health care for many years, so maybe the antibiotics issue isn’t as widely known amongst the general public as I think. But even so, I suspect what most people will say at the end is “Well, that was depressing!” and head for the cake tin rather than becoming activists. Perhaps when it appeared on the radio it was accompanied by discussion programmes that may have answered the “what can I do?” question but as a standalone on disc it preaches without advising, offering despair unleavened by hope. A missed opportunity and, frankly, a bit of a waste of a great writer and an excellent cast.

NB This CD set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It’s a three disc set with a running time of 2 hours 30 minutes. It’s also available on Audible.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 124…

Episode 124…

Oh, my! The TBR has reached 199 – will I be able to reduce it before any other book arrives to tip me over the 200 cliff? It’s partly the tennis, but mainly it’s all these Russian books, fact and fiction. There seems to be something about Russia that makes every book massive. When you start looking forward to books about mathematicians as light relief, then you know there’s something wrong! On the upside, I haven’t requested any review copies at all in June so far – isn’t that impressive? Admittedly I also haven’t finished any, meaning the total of outstanding books for review is still 35…

Gratuitous pic of the best clay court player in the history of the universe…

Back to books! Here are a few more that I hope to get to soonish, including three of my 20 Books of Summer

Crime

This has been on my TBR ever since I read and enjoyed Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo back in September ’15. Given that it’s only novella length, I should really have been able to fit it in before now…

The Blurb says: Every Saturday evening, travelling salesman Fernand Ravinel returns to his wife, Mireille, who waits patiently for him at home. But Ferdinand has another lover, Lucienne, an ambitious doctor, and together the adulterers have devised a murderous plan. Drugging Mireille, the pair drown her in a bathtub, but in the morning, before the “accidental” death can be discovered, the corpse is gone–so begins the unraveling of Ferdinand’s plot, and his sanity…

This classic of French noir fiction was adapted for the screen by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques (The Devils), starring Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot, the film which in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

* * * * *

Factual

Courtesy of the publisher, the British Library. The book is actually to accompany an exhibition they’re holding about the Revolution which I won’t be able to attend. But the book itself sounds interesting, and at first glance looks very well illustrated. It doesn’t look it from the cover photo but it’s actually a largish, coffee-table book in terms of style, though the contents look far from superficial…

 The Blurb says: One hundred years ago events in Russia took the world by storm. In February 1917, in the middle of World War I and following months of protest and political unrest, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. Later that year a new political force, the socialist Bolshevik Party, seized power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. A bloody civil war and period of extraordinary hardship for Russians finally led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. This book accompanies a major exhibition that re-examines the Russian Revolution in light of recent research, focusing on the experiences of ordinary Russians living through extraordinary times. The Revolution was not a single event but a complex process of dramatic change. The story of the Revolution is told here through posters, maps, postcards, letters, newspapers and literature, photographs and personal accounts. Leading experts on Russian history reveal the Revolution as a utopian project that had traumatic consequences for people across Russia and beyond.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I must say that early reviews of this one have dampened my enthusiasm considerably. Unlike the blurb which makes it sound balanced and nuanced, reviews seem to suggest it’s actually another of the great Indian misery novels – you know, the ones that suggest everything about life there is horrible and hopeless. If so, I imagine it will quickly be thrown at the wall as my tolerance for these books lessens each time I read one. But we’ll see…

The Blurb says: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness transports us across a subcontinent on a journey of many years. It takes us deep into the lives of its gloriously rendered characters, each of them in search of a place of safety – in search of meaning, and of love.

In a graveyard outside the walls of Old Delhi, a resident unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet. On a concrete sidewalk, a baby suddenly appears, just after midnight. In a snowy valley, a bereaved father writes a letter to his five-year-old daughter about the people who came to her funeral. In a second-floor apartment, a lone woman chain-smokes as she reads through her old notebooks. At the Jannat Guest House, two people who have known each other all their lives sleep with their arms wrapped around each other, as though they have just met.

A braided narrative of astonishing force and originality, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once a love story and a provocation-a novel as inventive as it is emotionally engaging. It is told with a whisper, in a shout, through joyous tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Its heroes, both present and departed, have been broken by the world we live in-and then mended by love. For this reason, they will never surrender.

Humane and sensuous, beautifully told, this extraordinary novel demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again, and yet another that I was tempted to go for by Cleo’s great review. This sounds fascinating, especially since people in Glasgow still talked about Peter Manuel as a kind of bogeyman when I was growing up, even though he was hanged before I was born…

The Blurb says: A standalone psychological thriller from the acclaimed author of the Alex Morrow novels that exposes the dark hearts of the guilty…and the innocent.

The “trial of the century” in 1950’s Glasgow is over. Peter Manuel has been found guilty of a string of murders and is waiting to die by hanging. But every good crime story has a beginning. Manuel’s starts with the murder of William Watt’s family. Looking no further that Watt himself, the police are convinced he’s guilty. Desperate to clear his name, Watt turns to Manuel, a career criminal who claims to have information that will finger the real killer. As Watt seeks justice with the cagey Manuel’s help, everyone the pair meets has blood on their hands as they sell their version of the truth. The Long Drop is an explosive novel about guilt, innocence and the power of a good story to hide the difference.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

The London Breed by Benjamin Zephaniah

In light of events, today’s review seemed unsuitable, so instead I thought I’d share one of my favourite poems:

Benjamin Zephaniah – The London Breed from Johnny Fingers on Vimeo.

I love dis great polluted place
Where pop stars come to live their dreams
Here ravers come for drum and bass
And politicians plan their schemes,
The music of the world is here
Dis city can play any song
They came to here from everywhere
Tis they that made dis city strong.
A world of food displayed on streets
Where all the world can come and dine
On meals that end with bitter sweets
And cultures melt and intertwine,
Two hundred languages give voice
To fifteen thousand changing years
And all religions can rejoice
With exiled souls and pioneers.
I love dis overcrowded place
Where old buildings mark men and time
And new buildings all seem to race
Up to a cloudy dank skyline,
Too many cars mean dire air
Too many guns mean danger
Too many drugs means be aware
Of strange gifts from a stranger.
It’s so cool when the heat is on
And when it’s cool it’s so wicked
We just keep melting into one
Just like the tribes before us did,
I love dis concrete jungle still
With all its sirens and its speed
The people here united will
Create a kind of London breed.

* * * * *

With you in spirit, my London friends, on yet another awful day.

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….The Dean strides a little and pours himself another whisky. “Now, there is another thing, but I really shouldn’t be discussing it with the College servants.”
….“Alright then, Sir. I’ll be on my way.”
….“I intend to discuss it anyway. Sit down.”
….I obediently take a seat on the most humble looking pew I can find, an unsteady wicker affair placed near The Dean’s enormous fish tank. Quite why a man such as The Dean would keep tropical fish is a mystery. Whilst they are known for their calming properties, The Dean is a chap who is far happier being anything but calm. Maybe he shouts at them when there is no one else around.

* * * * * * * * *

Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

….Lenin instantly understood the importance of the words Bolshevik [majority] and Menshevik [minority]. He never gave up the name for the group that followed him, or the psychological advantage it won. For long periods over the next few years the Mensheviks in fact far outnumbered the Bolsheviks, in Russia and among the revolutionaries in exile, and they were the majority in a series of future votes at various congresses and conferences. Yet they still accepted the name that Lenin had given them and they referred to themselves as Mensheviks. It was their ‘brand’ and Lenin knew how to exploit it. ‘A name he knew was a programme, a distilled essence, more powerful in its impact upon the untutored mind than dozens of articles in learned journals,’ one of his comrades said. It was foolish of the Mensheviks to allow themselves to keep that name permanently. It showed how tactically inept they were. Martov was a decent, erudite, highly clever man but a hopeless politician, no match for Lenin. If Lenin had been the minority he would have changed the name at once to something else – True Iskrists, Real Marxists, Orthodox Marxists, Revolutionary Wing of Social Democracy – anything but ‘the Minority’.

* * * * * * * * *

….Julie had been wrong to get her hopes up. The Evil One had come back even more terrible than before. She didn’t know what he’d been up to while he was away but there was a row of badly done stitches over his ribs encrusted with blood. That couldn’t be healthy.
….Julie hoped it was some girl who fought back hard, did him some damage. If only she’d managed to kill him – but no woman could fight that brute and win. Perhaps someone’s boyfriend or father caught him in the act, ripped him off her, had a weapon.
….She was glad he was hurt, even if he’d taken it out on her this morning. Even if she had a busted lip and a bruised eye, and had to put her cheek against the floor, unable to move for what must have been two hours, it was worth it to savor his fresh wounds. She decided to imagine that whoever did that to him, did it for her. An act of revenge without even knowing it.

* * * * * * * * *

….The night was filled with soft, mysterious sounds. Close by in the corridor, water was dripping from a washstand, measuredly, with pauses. There was whispering somewhere behind a window. Somewhere, where the kitchen garden began, beds of cucumber were being watered, water was being poured from one bucket into another, with a clink of the chain drawing it from the well.
….It smelled of all the flowers in the world at once, as if the earth had lain unconscious during the day and was now coming to consciousness through all these scents. And from the countess’s centuries-old garden, so littered with windfallen twigs and branches that it had become impassable, there drifted, as tall as the trees, enormous as the wall of a big house, the dusty, thickety fragrance of an old linden coming into bloom.
….Shouts came from the street beyond the fence to the right. A soldier on leave was acting up there, doors slammed, snippets of some song beat their wings.

* * * * * * * * *

From the archives…

….I have never understood how any woman can want positive discrimination. In the 1970s the attitude was robust: give us equal opportunities and we will show that we are as good as the men. In the 1990s that became: we can’t manage without special measures to smooth our paths and we want advantages over the men in order to compete…The culture of whingeing grievance is silly and sad. It lets down women and is hardly worthy of the heirs to the suffragettes.

(Click for full review)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

Trouble at Totleigh Towers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When told that Stiffy Byng requires his presence at Totleigh Towers to perform a little task for her, Bertie issues a strong nolle prosequi. This young menace to society, Stiffy, while undoubtedly easy on the eye, is well known for landing her friends in hot water up to their chins. Plus Totleigh Towers is the home of Sir Watkyn Bassett who, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, is convinced that Bertie is a habitual thief. Only Jeeves’ brilliance in the past has prevented Bertie from serving time at His Majesty’s pleasure, and Bertie has no desire to risk another encounter with Sir Watkyn. But storm clouds are gathering. There is a rift in the lute of love between Madeline, daughter of Sir Watkyn, and Gussie Fink-Nottle, keeper of newts, over the issue of steak pies – Gussie would like to eat them while Madeline is insisting on him sticking to a vegetarian diet. In the past, Madeline has made it clear that, should she find it necessary to return Gussie to store, Bertie will be expected to fill the vacancy for prospective bridegroom. Madeline, as readers will recall, believes that every time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee bit star is born in the Milky Way, so one can readily understand why Bertie is so keen to see Madeline and Gussie reconciled. The only way to make sure of it is to go to Totleigh Towers after all…

….‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘as always, you have found the way. I’ll wire Miss Bassett and ask if I can come, and I’ll wire Aunt Dahlia that I can’t give her lunch as I’m leaving town, and I’ll tell Stiffy that whatever she has in mind she gets no service and co-operation from me. Yes, Jeeves, you’ve hit it! I’ll go to Totleigh, though the flesh creeps at the prospect. Pop Bassett will be there, Spode will be there, Stiffy will be there, the dog Bartholomew will be there. It makes one wonder why so much fuss has been made about those half-a-league half-a-league half-a-league-onward bimbos who rode into the Valley of Death. They weren’t going to find Pop Bassett at the other end. Ah well, let us hope for the best.’
….‘The only course to pursue, sir.’
….‘Stiff upper lip, Jeeves, what?’
….‘Indubitably, sir. That, if I may say so, is the spirit.’

PG Wodehouse

This is one of Wodehouse’s later novels, written in 1963 when he was in his eighties. While it’s still a lot of fun with all of his trademark lightness and charm, it doesn’t really compare to the books he was writing at his peak. In fact, the plot is largely a re-hash of elements that have appeared in previous books – Stiffy and the favour, stealing objets d’art from Sir Watkyn, Spode threatening to break the neck of anyone who upsets Madeline, etc., – and Wodehouse frequently refers back to those earlier episodes, going over what happened in them with the pretext of bringing new readers up to date. Wodehouse always carried plot elements and jokes from book to book, but each time changing them enough so that they achieved a feeling of being both fresh and familiar at the same time, like variations on a theme – the ultimate comfort reading, in fact. But in this one it feels more like repetition than variation. I hesitate to use the word stale – Wodehouse could never be that – but certainly not straight from the oven. However, I suspect that might only be obvious to people who have a good familiarity with the earlier Jeeves books.

….She was heading for the piano, and something told me that it was her intention to sing old folk songs, a pastime to which, as I have indicated, she devoted not a little of her leisure. She was particularly given to indulgence in this nuisance when her soul had been undergoing an upheaval and required soothing, as of course it probably did at this juncture.
….
My fears were realized. She sang two in rapid succession, and the thought that this sort of thing would be a permanent feature of our married life chilled me to the core.

Jonathan Cecil

There are some new elements in it, though, which lift it and make it still an enjoyable read . For example, Major Plank is a retired bastion of the Empire, giving Wodehouse the opportunity to poke some fun at the British attitudes to its colonies at the time – though the book was written in the ’60s, it’s set in the ’30s, I’d say. And, while Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia doesn’t appear in person, we have the fun of some of her phone conversations with her much-loved but exasperating nephew.

I listened to the audiobook version with Jonathan Cecil narrating and, as always, he does an excellent job, giving distinct voices to all the different characters and doing an excellent Bertie. Even though this isn’t one of the all-time bests, it’s still great, mood-enhancing entertainment, as are all of the Jeeves books.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Launch Day! The Vanishing Lord by Lucy Brazier

PorterGirl’s secrets revealed!

Lucy Brazier

Today is the day that one of my oldest and bestest blog buddies, Lucy Brazier, publishes the second book in her PorterGirl series, so I invited her along to answer some tough, penetrating questions that I think will help us to get deep inside her weird and wonderful mind. But first, a little about the books…

In real life, when Lucy became the first female Deputy Head Porter at one of Britain’s most ancient and prestigious colleges, she began writing about her experiences, which gradually turned into a humorous, fictionalised blog, and ultimately into what has become the PorterGirl series of novels. Being a huge lover of crime fiction, it’s not surprising Lucy decided to write in that genre, while anyone who has followed her blog will be equally unsurprised to know the emphasis is firmly on fairly rumbustious humour.

Previously…

First Lady of the Keys

(originally published as Secret Diary of Portergirlhere’s my review)

The Blurb says: ‘Porters are not the carriers of bags, they are the keepers of keys!’

As one of the most ancient and esteemed establishments of the academic elite, Old College is in for something of a shock when it appoints its very first female Deputy Head Porter. She struggles to get to grips with this eccentric world, far removed from everyday life. PorterGirl, the proverbial square peg in the round hole, begins to wonder quite what she is doing here.

First Lady Of The Keys is a touching, and at times laugh-out-loud funny, glimpse into a world that is usually reserved for the upper echelons of society. Whether she is chasing after naked students, drinking copious amounts of tea or getting embroiled in quaint, polite murders, Deputy Head Porter is never far from adventure.

Amazon UK Link                    Amazon US Link

* * * * *

Launching today!

The Vanishing Lord

The Blurb says: There’s nothing quite so annoying as having the police arrive when you are trying to cover up a crime that may or may not have happened. Lord Bernard has died unexpectedly. Is Deputy Head Porter being framed? Head Porter just wants to be kept out of the picture.

In this fast-paced whimsical British romp, a priceless work of art – the portrait of Old College founding father Lord Arthur Layton – has gone missing and with the death of Lord Bernard, the Master of arch rivals Hawkins College, there is nothing for it but for our heroine to don her trusty bowler hat and embark upon another eccentric investigation.

In this sequel to the début PorterGirl novel, First Lady of The Keys, Old College’s first and only female Porter must find the portrait or it will be her that is flat on the canvas and framed like a kipper. Tenacious detectives, ill-advised disguises, saucy medieval literature and Russian spies conspire to confuse matters further in this entertaining escapade.

Amazon UK Link                     Amazon US Link

* * * * *

Maybe Old College looks something like this…

Interview with Lucy

FF: I understand you were a police officer before becoming Deputy Head Porter. Is the rumour true that you changed jobs because the porters get better hats?

Lucy: The hats are actually very similar, although for style and comfort, the Porters’ hats have the edge. They aren’t reinforced so don’t offer quite so much protection from marauding murders, which are apparently much more prevalent in Old College than the mean streets outside the walls.

Deputy Head Porter

FF: What was the first hat you remember wearing?

Lucy: My mum has a photograph of me wearing my grandad’s flat cap when I was about two! And very pleased I look about it, too! Before you ask, this photograph no longer exists, anywhere, ever, at all. And mum if you are reading this – don’t you dare say any different!

(FF: Lucy’s mum, if you’re reading, there could be a month’s supply of chocolate for you in this…)

FF: Who are your major writing influences?

Lucy: Oscar Wilde is my absolute literary idol. A mere mortal such as myself cannot hope to scale those kinds of heights, but he did inspire my love of ‘purple prose’ and my predilection for using ten words where one will do. Terry Pratchett is also a big influence. I’ve never much liked fantasy, but his wry observations of life – from the smallest details to the big, ponderous questions – really struck a chord with me and his use of humour is always very clever. Agatha Christie’s beautiful renditions of quintessential British characters and settings have been a huge influence and I have to put a good word in for the mighty Anthony Horowitz, although when I read his work I feel I should chuck in my pen and stop embarrassing myself!

FF: Deputy Head Porter is reputed to make a jolly good cuppa. Please share your tea-making secrets…

Lucy: Never let the water boil completely, you want to bathe those lovely little tea leaves – not cook them! A teapot is always best, but perfectly acceptable tea can be made directly in the mug. I suggest a large mug, so the bag can stretch itself out and relax a bit. Let it sit for a few minutes then squeeze gently with a spoon against the side – two squeezes should be plenty. It doesn’t matter whether milk goes in first or last, my personal preference is last.

(FF: Ooh, controversial! Hordes of milk-firsters will be sharpening their pitchforks…)

FF: A second book suggests a series. Are you planning on more?

Lucy: Oh yes, there are plans for seven books. I have outlines for them all and a big, dramatic finale for the end. Also a very surprising ending for Deputy Head Porter that will have been obvious from the start, for those reading closely enough.

(FF: Intriguing!! Hmm…perhaps…)

FF: Your deep love for the delectable Captain Hastings is well known. So that begs the question… if Captain Hastings and Head Porter were captured by a tribe of cannibals and you could save only one, who should prepare himself to go in the cooking pot?

Lucy: Oooh – tough one! What a fiendish question. I’m afraid it will have to be Hastings – I need Head Porter for the next five books. Also Captain Hastings will probably taste a lot better.

(FF: I’m shocked! Save me a leg…)

Head Porter and Captain Hastings
(As played by Paul Butterworth and Hugh Fraser)

FF: Sausage sandwiches figure highly in Deputy Head Porter’s life. To me, as a Scot, sausage sandwiches are normally made with square sausages, but which is Deputy Head Porter’s sausage of choice? Brown sauce, ketchup or mustard? Or do you prefer your sausages bare?

Lucy: I’m not averse to a nice bit of Lorne sausage myself! Deputy Head Porter is indeed quite fanatical about sausages. A nice cumberland with a bit of brown sauce is ideal for breakfast, but mustard is preferred for a lunchtime sausage.

FF: Tell us a secret you’ve never before revealed about…

Deputy Head Porter – she has a phobia of nuns.

(FF: Like this one?)

The Dean – his real name is revealed in the new book!

The Master’s Cat – the cat really exists and is even more vicious in real life.

Head Porter – he has secret ambitions to become a rock star… this is explored in the third book. (FF: The mind boggles!!)

Lucy Brazier – Eeek! Okay, this is embarrassing, so don’t tell anyone. I genuinely get Morgan Freeman and Martin Freeman mixed up. I know they look nothing alike, I just struggle to remember which one is which. Also, the little toe on my right foot is shaped like a triangle!

(FF: Yes, one can see why that would be an easy mistake to make… *shakes head sadly*)

* * * * *

Thanks, Lucy! Very revealing – it’ll be a while before I can chat to you without the toe image floating into my mind. My copy of The Vanishing Lord arrived on my Kindle this morning – can’t wait to find out the Dean’s name!

Hope the launch is a huge success! 😀

TBR Thursday 123 and 20 Books of Summer Poll Result…

Episode 123…

Just a small increase in the TBR since my last post – up 1 to 196. Oh, excuse me one moment – the postman’s at the door…

Now, where was I? Oh yes, up 2 to 197. But that’s pretty good, since I’ve been a little distracted…

Here are a few that should help fill in the gaps between matches during this tennis season…

Crime

Courtesy of the publisher, Harvill Secker. I loved Mukherjee’s debut novel, A Rising Man, so this is one of my most anticipated books of the year. No pressure then…

The Blurb says: India, 1920. Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee of the Calcutta Police Force investigate the dramatic assassination of a Maharajah’s son.

The fabulously wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore is home to tigers, elephants, diamond mines and the beautiful Palace of the Sun. But when the heir to the throne is assassinated in the presence of Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant ‘Surrender-Not’ Banerjee, they discover a kingdom riven with suppressed conflict. Prince Adhir was a moderniser whose attitudes – and romantic relationship – may have upset the more religious elements of his country, while his brother – now in line to the throne – appears to be a feckless playboy.

As Wyndham and Banerjee desperately try to unravel the mystery behind the assassination, they become entangled in a dangerous world where those in power live by their own rules and those who cross their paths pay with their lives. They must find a murderer, before the murderer finds them…

* * * * *

Fiction

One that’s been on my TBR for far too long – ever since Cleo’s great review of it way back in April last year. I loved the film Heavenly Creatures, which tells the story of the real-life murder on which this book is more loosely based – a fascinating  and disturbing case in its own right, so I have high hopes of this one. It will be my first Beryl Bainbridge…

The Blurb says: Beryl Bainbridge’s evocation of childhood in a rundown northern holiday resort.

A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.

Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.

* * * * *

Crime on Audio

Having loved Hugh Fraser’s narration of The ABC Murders, I promptly used up all my spare Audible credits on as many of his versions of the Christie novels as I could lay my greedy little hands on. Time to revisit one of the real gems… 

The Blurb says: Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U.N. Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, former reckless driver Tony Marston is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide. The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but is preparing to strike again…and again. (See, even blurbs were shorter back in the Good Old Days…)

* * * * *

The 20th Book

Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poll to decide which book should take the 20th spot on my list for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge. It was very exciting, with three books staying neck and neck for a while, but eventually one pulled ahead into a clear lead…

And the winner is…

The Blurb says: On a foggy summer night, eleven people–ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter–depart Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs–the painter–and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members–including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot–the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.

Amid pulse-quickening suspense, the fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this stunning novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

The Malice of Waves and Above the Waterfall came equal second, so they will be my fall-back books in case of abandonment issues…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom Series 1) by Bernard Cornwell

A-raiding we will go…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Uhtred’s father is killed during a battle with the invading Danes, Uhtred is taken captive by the Viking Ragnar, who is amused and impressed by the courage the boy had shown in the fight. Ragnar treats him more as a son than a captive, though, and Uhtred, whose relationship with his own father was somewhat cold and distant, comes to love Ragnar, and quickly takes to the freedom of the Viking life, far from the tedious lessons in reading and Latin forced on him at home. But Uhtred knows that one day, when he is a man, he wants to regain the castle and land of his forefathers, which is currently being held by his uncle who in his absence has usurped him as Ealdorman of Bebbanburg.

The story takes place in the late 9th century, when the Danes were in the process of amassing territory and control throughout what would later become England. By the time Uhtred is old enough to become a full-fledged warrior, the Danes have control of three of the four old Kingdoms and only Wessex is still fully independent. But in Wessex, a young leader is set to become King – Alfred, a man very different from Ragnar and the Vikings, but with perhaps just as much steely determination under his pious exterior. Odin and Thor may be helping the Danes, but Alfred has a newer God on his side, one he believes in fervently. This will be a battle over competing religions as much as disputed territory. There’s quite a lot of humour around early religious practices, especially on the Christian side – at this point in his life, Uhtred finds the warrior-like Norse Gods much more appealing than the moralistic Christian one as presented by the ubiquitous priests, and loses no opportunity to shock and provoke them.

Eventually Uhtred will find himself torn between loyalty to Ragnar’s house or to his native countrymen, serving both in turn, and always with one eye on which side is most likely to help him regain Bebbanburg.

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in the BBC adaptation.
Ooh, I say! I’m sorry I missed it now…

I don’t read a lot of this type of sword and sandal epic so am no expert on the genre. But this one seems particularly well written to me and feels grounded pretty accurately in the history and attitudes of the time. There is a great deal of extreme violence, including a lot of rape and pillage and some pretty gory battle scenes, but Cornwell manages to achieve a sense of the true brutality of the time without lingering gratuitously on the details. The book is excellent on the depiction of Viking life – brutal and bloody – but they are not shown as the berserker savages they are sometimes portrayed as. These invading Danes are more than raiders – they want to settle the territory they have won, often maintaining control by allowing existing local lords to continue to rule as their clients.

In fact, Uhtred himself is the only one who comes across as any kind of berserker. He is no reluctant warrior – he revels and glories in the killing, and doesn’t much care which side he’s on. But he’s telling the tale in retrospect from when he is older and there is the occasional tiny hint that he may also have become wiser. Perhaps. In truth, I enjoyed Uhtred’s character but didn’t like him much. His lack of full commitment to either side makes him more credible, I think, than some of the single-minded heroes of fiction, but it doesn’t make him very admirable. And (this may be a girl thing) his crazed love of slicing bits off people at every opportunity didn’t endear him to me over much, fun though it was to read.

Bernard Cornwell

As he grows into manhood, Uhtred discovers women or, to be more accurate, the joys of sex. Again, happily, the details are largely left to the reader’s imagination. Cornwell doesn’t make a big feature of the lowly and subordinated place of women in this early society, but nor does he whitewash Uhtred into some kind of anachronistic 21st century “new man”. He makes it clear that rape was a commonplace of life, and that the Danes were not the only perpetrators. Women are objects, possessions, used either for sexual pleasure or as breeding machines, and often raped as a kind of declaration of victory in war. However, Cornwell manages to sneak a strong female character in, again not making her feel anachronistic, and there are hints that Uhtred may replace lust with love at some point as the series progresses.

This was my first introduction to this hugely prolific author and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Along with all the action, there’s lots of excellent descriptive writing – I especially enjoyed the sections relating to long-boats and sea battles, where Cornwell makes full use of the power and fury of sea and storms. I’ll happily read more of Uhtred’s adventures in the future, but I spotted that Cornwell’s newest book, due for release in October, is to be set in Elizabethan times amidst the playhouses and acting companies of Shakespeare and his ilk… and oooh! Now I’m torn…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Doctor Zhivago – Choosing the translation…

Here we go again – literal or liberal?

Months ago, in preparation for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, I bought a copy of the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago from Amazon. But, for reasons best known to themselves, they sent me a copy of the Max Hayward/Manya Harari translation instead. I’d probably not have been too fussed about this, except that I had also bought a copy of the audiobook to do a combined read/listen, so obviously it was important to have the same translation in each. So I acquired the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation too. (A sad footnote to this episode was when I discovered that the Audible audiobook, also listed as Pevear, is in fact the Hayward! It appears Amazon and Audible don’t really understand that different translations matter. They should be clearer now they’ve read my e-mails on the subject… 😉 )

So at the weekend I finally settled down to read. The Pevear/Volokhonsky is the most recent translation and my initial sketchy research had suggested they’re the go-to people for Russian translation at the moment. The Hayward/Harari is, I believe, the translation most people will be familiar with who read the book before 2010. I decided to read the first chapter of each and decide which I preferred. And that’s when it began to get complicated…

The Hayward/Harari seems to be generally recognised as a good but liberal translation, where they’ve kept the meaning but made changes to word order and vocabulary to make it read more naturally in English. Apparently they’ve also omitted the occasional bit and, from my own reading, have sometimes added a little extra to clarify something which might not be immediately obvious to a non-Russian. Pevear/Volokhonsky, however, is claimed to be a more literal translation, keeping not just the words but often the order, and striving to emulate the rhythms in the original. Here are some comparisons…

H/H – “There was a certain amount of unpleasantness, and there are certain consequences. For instance, I am banned from the civil service for quite a long time and I am forbidden to go to Moscow or Petersburg. But these are trifles.”

P/V – “There was some unpleasantness; it had its consequences. For instance, I can’t hold a government job for a long time. They won’t allow me in the capitals. But that’s all rubbish.”

In this one, H/H have clarified that the “capitals” are Moscow and St Petersburg. P/V have used “capitals” and then footnoted the explanation. On the one hand, this kind of thing makes H/H easier to read and simpler to understand on a superficial level. But on the other hand, it means that the reader is left unaware that the Russia of the time considered itself to have two capitals, an old (Moscow) and a new (St Petersburg), which, all my history reading of the last few months has led me to believe, is quite important to understanding the country and the revolution. P/V’s footnote clarifies this quite well. I’ve also never come across the term “civil service” in connection with government jobs in Russia – it’s a very British expression, I think.

P/V – A rain of clods drummed down as four shovels hastily filled the grave. Over it a small mound rose. A ten-year-old boy climbed onto it.

Only in the state of torpor and insensibility that usually comes at the end of a big funeral could it have seemed that the boy wanted to speak over his mother’s grave.

H/H – Clods of earth drummed on the lid like rain as the grave was filled hurriedly by four spades. A mound grew up on it and a ten-year-old boy climbed on top.

Only the numb and unfeeling condition which comes to people at the end of a big funeral could account for some of the mourners’ thinking that he wished to make an address over his mother’s grave.

Here, H/H have changed the structure of the sentences making them read more naturally and perhaps simplistically. P/V’s more literal translation follows the Russian structure, I assume, making it seem rather stilted and convoluted at points. On the other hand, I think P/V create a clearer image overall, and I prefer “torpor and insensibility” to “numb and unfeeling”.

Ooh, I say! Oops, I mean… Omar Sharif as the Doctor. Wonder if he does housecalls?

H/H – During the night the boy, Yura, was woken up by a knocking at the window. The dark cell was mysteriously lit up by a flickering whiteness. With nothing on but his shirt, he ran to the window and pressed his face against the cold glass.

Outside there was no trace of the road, the graveyard or the kitchen garden, nothing but the blizzard, the air smoking with snow. It was almost as if the snowstorm had caught sight of Yura and, conscious of its power to terrify, roared, howled and did everything possible to attract his attention, revelling in the effect it had on him. Turning over and over in the sky, length after length of whiteness unwound over the earth and shrouded it. The blizzard was alone on earth and knew no rival.

P/V – During the night, Yura was awakened by a tapping at the window. The dark cell was supernaturally lit up by a fluttering white light. In just his nightshirt, Yura ran to the window and pressed his face to the cold glass.

Beyond the window there was no road, no cemetery, no kitchen garden. A blizzard was raging outside; the air was smoky with snow. One might have thought the storm noticed Yura and, knowing how frightening it was, revelled in the impression it made on him. It whistled and howled and tried in every way possible to attract Yura’s attention. From the sky endless skeins of white cloth, turn after turn, fell on the earth, covering it in a winding sheet. The blizzard was alone in the world; nothing rivalled it.

This third example is a little more bothersome to me. I like both these passages and think both translations convey a vivid picture of the snowstorm – my preference is for P/V. But ‘mysterious’ and ‘supernatural’ have distinctly different definitions and I am left wondering which translation catches Pasternak’s meaning. I suspect ‘supernatural’ might be closer, since even this first chapter shows me that religious belief or lack of it is going to be something of a theme in the book. But, when I started looking for other opinions on the two translations, Ann Pasternak Slater (Boris’s niece) points out in this interesting Guardian article, that, when describing the moon in a later passage, P/V have chosen “blackish purple”, while H/H have gone for “crimson” which Slater, herself a Russian speaker, thinks is closer to the meaning in the original. So P/V’s literal translation may not always convey the author’s intention better than H/H’s liberal one. (Or, of course, Slater could be wrong – being a relative of the author doesn’t necessarily confer greater depth of understanding. And I can’t help feeling crimson moons are a little banal while blackish purple ones are dramatically poetic…)

Looks like the heating’s on the bung again…

My final example is the one that I find most discombobulating…

P/V – As they passed by the Gordons’ compartment, wrapping the corners of their shoulders in shawls and turning the narrowness of the corridor into a source of fresh coquetry, it seemed to Misha that they hissed, or, judging by their compressed lips, meant to hiss: “Ah, just imagine, such sensitivity! We’re special! We’re intelligentsia! We simply can’t!”

H/H – When, with a coquettish wriggle of their shoulders for which the narrow passage offered an excuse, they passed the Gordons’ compartment, it seemed to Misha that through their pursed lips they must be hissing: “Gracious, what sensitive plants! They think they’re a special creation! They’re intellectuals! All this is too much for them!”

It seems to me that, on the surface, these two translations mean entirely different things, though I think P/V’s translation actually leaves the meaning quite unclear (“we simply can’t” what?). H/H suggest fairly strongly that the women were being rather dismissively anti-Semitic towards the Jewish Gordons (or at least that Misha thought they were), while P/V reads as if they were boasting instead about their own superior aristocratic sensitivity. Either works, but what was Pasternak’s intention? Having read the H/H version, I can now see that the P/V version could also be read as a snide comment on the Gordons, but I don’t think it’s at all clear. I studied Russian a little at school and while I’m entirely unable to understand the text in its original form, I can just about tell the difference between “they” and “we”. When I look at the text in Russian it undoubtedly uses “we”. But I suspect H/H may have caught the actual meaning better, perhaps by interpreting some nuance of language or punctuation that P/V have too literally translated. But in truth I have no idea…

My Omar with Julie Christie. Huh! I bet she wouldn’t look half so beautiful without the hat…

I’ve decided to go with Pevear/Volokhonsky, because of that “capitals” thing, because overall I prefer their vocabulary choices, because the footnotes are good, and because they haven’t anglicised the Russian names quite so annoyingly as H/H (who use Nicky instead of Nika, for example). However, I’ll keep H/H to hand to help on those occasions that P/V leave the meaning unclear. But what do you think? Have you read either, or both, and if so what did you think of them? And if not, which do you think looks more enjoyable based on the examples?

Six Degrees of Separation – From Martin to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

This month’s starting book is Shopgirl by Steve Martin, a book I’ve not only not read, but have never heard of before! The blurb tells me…

Lonely, depressed, Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

Hmm… not for me, I think, though it sounds quite amusing. But any mention of evening gloves inevitably makes me think of the wonderful…

American Pastoral. Roth’s brilliant novel tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov and the collapse of the 1950s American Dream. Swede owns a factory where skilled craftspeople lovingly create luxury gloves for the fashionable, but his daughter is of a different generation – the Vietnam generation that blew the old certainties apart as surely as Swede’s daughter blew up the local Post Office…

“Those assumptions you live with. You’re still in your old man’s dream-world, Seymour, still up there with Lou Levov in glove heaven. A household tyrannized by gloves, bludgeoned by gloves, the only thing in life – ladies’ gloves! Does he still tell the great one about the woman who sells the gloves washing her hands in a sink between each color? Oh where oh where is that outmoded America, that decorous America where a woman had twenty-five pairs of gloves? Your kid blows your norms to kingdom come, Seymour, and you still think you know what life is!”

As part of my GAN Quest, American Pastoral was the first book to which I awarded the title of The Great American Novel. Only one other novel shares that honour so far…

Toni Morrison’s wonderful Beloved. This story of one woman’s escape from slavery to liberty and the sacrifices she makes along the way is full of anger and sorrow, and some of the most savagely beautiful writing I have read.

They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt who folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it; that another stroke of time would do it at last.

Oprah Winfrey as Sethe revealing the “tree” on her back

Much though we sometimes like to pretend, slavery isn’t a thing of the past though its forms may be a little different today. Which made me think of…

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham. The plot of this one is hard-hitting, involving illegal immigration, sex trafficking and forced commercial surrogacy. The trail takes police detective Alisha Barba to the sleaziest parts of Amsterdam, where she’s soon in trouble not just with the bad guys but with her superior officers back home. But she’s become too involved to pull back – too many lives are dependent on her, some of them very vulnerable. Robotham doesn’t hold back in the picture he gives of the exploitation of women trafficked as sex slaves from some of the war-torn places of the world and he has clearly done his research as thoroughly as always.

The book stars with Alisha attending a school reunion. Which made me think of another book that begins that way…

John Gaspard’s The Bullet Catch, the second in his excellent Eli Marks series. This is a series of murder mysteries with the hugely likeable stage magician Eli taking on the role of detective. A little too gritty to be cosy, these are nonetheless on the lighter side of crime fiction, filled with warmth and humour. Each book is named after a magic trick and Gaspard is brilliant at making the tricks come to life on the page while respecting the magicians’ code not to reveal how they’re done…

Another series set in the world of stage magic began with…

The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths, book 1 in her great Stephens and Mephisto series. Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto worked together during WW2 in a top-secret army unit dubbed the Magic Men, with the aim of misleading the enemy. Now, shortly after the war, Max has gone back to his old role of stage magician while Edgar has become a policeman in Brighton. When the various body parts of a beautiful young woman turn up in three boxes, it makes Edgar think of an old magic trick so he turns to his friend Max for help in solving the crime…

(The Zig-Zag Girl trick…)

Griffiths brings the post-war Brighton setting brilliantly to life. My last book is also set there…

Erin Kelly’s The Ties That Bind marries together two periods in the life of this ever-changing town – the ’50s and ’60s, when it was home to some seriously violent gangsters (the location, of course, for Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock), and today, when it has a brighter reputation as the UK’s gay capital and as the place where weary Londoners go to relax, soak up a little sea air, and party. Kelly shows that the town still hides a murky underbelly beneath the surface glitter though, in this well-written thriller with elements of redemption and revenge.

Brighton’s iconic West Pier

 * * * * *

So Martin to Kelly, via gloves, Great American Novels, slavery, school reunions, stage magicians and Brighton!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

TBR Thursday 122 – The 20 Books of Summer 2017 List and Poll

It’s that time again…!

Cathy at 746 Books is again hosting her 20 Books of Summer Challenge this year, and after much swithering I’ve decided I can’t resist the opportunity to make a list! The reason I was a bit reluctant is that, in the last two years, participating has left me with a huge backlog of review books and I feel as if I’ve been scrambling to catch up ever since. So I had a brainwave! (Which, I have to tell you, doesn’t happen often…)

I shall read twenty review copies!

I currently have 35 outstanding (tragically, it was only 34 when I started drafting this post…) – many new ones that will be being published over the next few months, and a smaller pile of old ones that have fallen by the wayside and frankly might never be read – my enthusiasm for some of them has waned. If I read twenty and restrict myself severely from adding more, I should in theory end the summer feeling more on top of the TBR and with the way clear to keep going with my various other challenges. Sounds like a plan, eh?

(Oh, shut up, Rabbie!)

Since some of the blurbs have already appeared on TBR posts and the rest will appear on future ones, I’m merely listing the titles and authors and linking them to Goodreads. I have nineteen scheduled so far and then need your help picking number 20…

The 19…

  1. The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale
  2. Miraculous Mysteries ed. Martin Edwards
  3. The Bishop’s Girl by Rebecca Burns
  4. Finding Fibonacci by Keith Devlin
  5. Based on a True Story by Delphine di Vigan
  6. You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann
  7. The Long Drop by Denise Mina
  8. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  9. Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths ed. Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia
  10. The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
  11. Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
  12. Continental Crimes ed. By Martin Edwards
  13. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
  14. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards
  15. The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
  16. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
  17. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
  18. Visions of Empire by Krishan Kumar
  19. The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

The Poll

OK, the ones left on my list of unread review copies are mostly older ones that I’ve been ignoring for ages in favour of newer, shinier baubles. So I’m asking for your help in choosing one and telling me why you think I should reignite my enthusiasm for it! Here are the contenders:-

On a foggy summer night, eleven people–ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter–depart Martha’s Vineyard headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the passengers disappear into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs–the painter–and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of a wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.
.

* * * * *

For five years Priest’s Island has guarded the mystery of Max Wheeler’s disappearance. In this isolated township on the edge of the Atlantic, there are no secrets — except what really happened to fourteen-year-old Max. Now Cal McGill has taken up the quest. A grieving father, a community riven by tragedy — and resentful of the suspicion — all make a powderkeg of secrets and vengeance ready to explode.

* * * * *

Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn’t take her news too well. She doesn’t want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her. It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life.

* * * * *

Ten years ago, fourteen-year-old Scarlett Rainsford vanished without a trace during a family holiday to Greece. Not being able to find Scarlett was one of the biggest regrets of DCI Louisa Smith’s career and when Scarlett is discovered back in her home town after all this time, Lou is determined to find out what happened to her and why she remained hidden for so long. Was she abducted or did she run away?

* * * * *

Les, a long-time sheriff nearing retirement, contends with the ravages of poverty and crystal meth in his small Appalachian town. Becky, a park ranger, arrives in this remote patch of North Carolina hoping to ease the anguish of a harrowing past. Searching for tranquility amid the verdant stillness, she finds solace in poetry and the splendor of the land. A vicious crime will plunge both sheriff and ranger into deep and murky waters…

* * * * *

Thanks in advance for voting! I shall announce the winner on my next TBR Thursday post.

And whatever your own reading plans are…

HAVE A GREAT SUMMER! 😀

Maigret Takes a Room by Georges Simenon

Street life…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following a robbery, the police are staking out a rooming-house where the suspect had been living in the hopes that he will return. But one evening, one of the police officers, Janvier, is shot outside the house. The police think it may have been the robbery suspect, Paulus, who shot him, so it’s even more vital now that they catch him. Maigret is on his own at the moment as his wife is away looking after her sick sister, so he decides to move into the rooming-house to be on the spot should Paulus return.

I enjoyed this one a lot. We know straight away that Janvier is still alive, so the plot isn’t quite as dark as it would have been had he been killed, but we still get to see the emotional impact of the shooting on Janvier’s wife. The rooming-house is run by the charming Mademoiselle Clément, a lady of middle years and twinkling eye, whose somewhat over-the-top personality provides a lot of fun and humour. As always, Simenon creates an authentic feel of Paris, and the rooming-house setting allows for there to be several characters, each with their own story. Maigret is at something of a loss without his wife though part of him is rather enjoying the adventure of living in the rooming-house, and he doesn’t seem averse to a little mild flirting with his landlady. He gradually chats to most of the people in the street, the shop and café owners as well as the neighbours, and while Maigret is gathering together clues that will lead to the solution, Simenon is building up an affectionate picture of life in one of the less fashionable streets of Paris.

Georges Simenon

I listened to the Audible version, narrated by Gareth Armstrong. He speaks more quickly than most narrators and I rather liked that and felt it suited the tone of the book – kept it going at a rattling pace. He gives different voices to the various characters, using English accents throughout and suiting them well to the class and position in society each holds. I prefer the use of English accents when “foreign” characters are supposed to be speaking in their own language – it sounds more natural than having the characters speak English in a faux foreign accent. His portrayal of Mlle Clément is a little caricatured, which works for her character and adds to the lightness in tone of the book. All-in-all, I think it’s an excellent narration.

The solution is more complex than it seems as if it’s going to be, and Maigret gets there by a nifty little piece of detective work. And the story behind the crime gives us a glimpse into darkness, so that in the end the tone is nicely balanced. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s smooth and flawless. Most enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of Maigret’s adventures, or listening to them.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.”
….“And what truth was that, sir?”
….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.”
….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us.
….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.

* * * * * * * * *

….One moment the sun had shone, then we were abruptly thrust into the devil’s playground as the squall hit us like a shield wall. The ship shuddered, water and wind and gloom smashing us in sudden turmoil and Heahengel swung to the blow, going broadside to the sea and nothing I could do would hold her straight, and I saw Leofric stagger across the deck as the stærbord side went under water. ‘Bail!’ I shouted desperately, ‘bail!’ And then with a noise like thunder, the great sail split into tatters that whipped off the yard, and the ship came slowly upright, but she was low in the water, and I was using all my strength to keep her coming round, creeping round, reversing our course so that I could put her bows into that turmoil of sea and wind, and the men were praying, making the sign of the cross, bailing water, and the remnants of the sail and the broken lines were mad things, ragged demons, and the sudden gale was howling like furies in the rigging and I thought how futile it would be to die at sea so soon after Ragnar had saved my life.

* * * * * * * * *

….‘We are slaves because we are unable to free ourselves,’ Herzen once wrote. If there was one lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution it was that the people had failed to emancipate themselves. They had failed to become their own political masters, to free themselves from emperors and become citizens. Kerensky’s speech of 1917, in which he claimed that the Russian people were perhaps no more than ‘rebellious slaves’, was to haunt the revolution in succeeding years. For while the people could destroy the old system, they could not rebuild a new one of their own. None of the democratic organizations established before October 1917 survived more than a few years of Bolshevik rule, at least not in their democratic form. By 1921, if not earlier, the revolution had come full circle, and a new autocracy had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old one.

* * * * * * * * *

….Across the room, near the window, there was a dressing table fitted with an oval three-piece mirror. The mirror was not quite closed; the upper edges of the glass glinted through the cracks like splinters of ice. In front of the mirror rose a small city of bottles: eau de Cologne, perfume sprays, lavender toilet water, a Bohemian glass goblet, facets glittering in the light… a crumpled pair of brown-lace gloves lay withering like cedar leaves.
….A couch and two chairs, a floor lamp, and a low, delicate table were arranged directly under the window. An embroidery frame, the beginnings of a pattern needled into the silk, was propped on the couch. The vogue for such things had passed long ago, but his mother loved all kinds of handicraft. The pattern seemed to be the wings of some gaudy bird, a parrot maybe, on a background of silver-gray. A pair of stockings lay in a heap next to the embroidery. The shocking embrace of sheer nylon and the imitation damask of the couch gave the room an air of agitation. She must have noticed a run on her way out and changed in a hurry.
….Only dazzling sky and a few fragments of cloud, hard and glossy as enamel in the light bouncing off the water, could be seen through the window.

(Nastiness Alert! Don’t be fooled by this quote – the book has subsequently been abandoned for being one of the nastiest little pieces of nastiness I’ve come across in a long time.)

* * * * * * * * *

From the archives…

….The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.

(Click for full review)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?