FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

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

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Now, thirty years after it all ended, the Slow seemed the most natural thing in the world. It felt quaint to imagine people reacting to it with shock.
….Hopper knew she was one of the last ‘before’ children: born four years before the planet’s rotation finally stopped. She was a rarity. There had been plenty born since, of course, but the birth rate had plummeted in those final years. The world had paused, waiting for the cataclysm, and those children already young had been treated like royalty – fed well, treated whenever possible, as if in premature apology for a spoiled planet their parents could not mend.
….But during those years, new children were perceived at best as an extravagance, at worst as a cruelty. Why bring a child into a world winding itself down? The chaos and shortages at the end of the Slow had kept the planet’s libido in check.

~The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

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….Mrs. Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs. Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed. A premonitory shiver went down the spine, a turn of the head, and there she was – tall, gaunt and usually disapproving. Her dresses were severe and tubular. She wore them with the air of a prison wardress. If Sam’s theatrical guests, in a general sense, be looked upon as Royalists, then Mrs. Dreed was without question the Roundhead in their midst.

~Death in White Pyjamas by John Bude

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….The divisiveness of the new ideologies could turn brothers into faceless strangers and trade unionists or shop owners into class enemies. Normal human instincts were overridden. In the tense spring of 1936, on his way to Madrid University, Julián Marías, a disciple of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, never forgot the hatred in the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down onto the pavement. ‘We’ve really had it,’ Marías said to himself. ‘When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.’

~The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

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….His wife replied very emotionally, “No man has ever seen either of my daughters since they stopped going to school when they were little girls.”
….He struck his hands together and shouted at her, “Not so fast…. Slow down. Do you think I have any doubts about that, woman? If I did, not even murder would satisfy me. I’m just talking about what will go through the minds of some people who don’t know us. ‘No man has ever seen either of my daughters…’ God’s will be done. Would you have wanted a man to see them? What a crazy prattler you are. I’m repeating what might be rumoured by fools. Yes… he’s an officer in the area. He walks along our streets morning and evening. So it’s not out of the question that people, if they learned he was marrying one of the girls, would suspect that he might have seen one of them. I would despise giving my daughter to someone if that meant stirring up doubts about my honour. No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to me… me… me… me…”

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

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….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

~Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

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So… are you tempted?

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

Downfall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of Ira Ringold, a Jew from Newark who becomes a big star on radio and then is destroyed in the period of the McCarthy witch-hunts. This is the story of a failed marriage; of toxic family relationships; of male adolescence and male role models and masculinity; of morality and its lack; of ageing; of literature; of anti-Semitism; of politics; of fanaticism; of hypocrisy; of betrayal. This is the story of a particular America in a particular time and place; a story that presages the America of today.

I Married a Communist is the second volume of what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral, which I declared to be The Great American Novel, and followed by The Human Stain. They are not a trilogy in the sense that the word tends to be used today – each of these stands complete on its own, connected only in the sense that the three together are Roth’s attempt to make sense of America at the end of the 20th century by looking back over the decades of the mid-century. In each the story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a barely disguised alter-ego of Roth himself.

When Murray Ringold, once Nathan’s English teacher and later friend, and now an old man, attends a summer school at the university where Zuckerman, himself now a man in his 60s, teaches, they spend the evenings together, and over the course of the week Murray tells Zuckerman the story of his younger brother, Ira. Nathan knew Ira too once, when Nathan was young and impressionable and Ira was at his peak as a star and as a man. Ira was a formative influence on the young boy, a second father figure, and for a time he was the most important person in Nathan’s life. But as Nathan grew up he grew away from Ira, so although he knew in broad outline what had happened to him, this is the first time he has heard Ira’s later story in detail. As Murray fills in the gaps of Ira’s earlier and later life, Zuckerman also tells the reader of the man he knew, looking back with the eyes of age and experience and reassessing his youthful judgement of the man.

The story is simple and we are told near the beginning how Ira’s downfall came about. At the height of his stardom he married Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage was disastrous, for which Ira placed the blame squarely on Eve’s grown-up daughter Sylphid and on Eve’s weakness in letting Sylphid domineer over her. Eve may have felt that Ira’s penchant for infidelity had something to do with it, though. When Ira leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir of their marriage in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. Part of what Murray will tell Nathan is how Ira reacted to his downfall and how the rest of his life played out.

But the story is to a large extent a vehicle for Zuckerman/Roth to dissect the various characters and the wider society. The question is not whether Ira was a communist – we know that he was – but why. He too, as Nathan with him, was influenced by an older man that he loved as a friend and mentor. But there’s a feeling that to him being a communist was an ego thing – something that separated him from the common herd, that allowed him to feel superior. Yes, he cared about those in society who were disadvantaged, but he also enjoyed the luxury and celebrity that came with his marriage to Eve even as he ranted against her and her friends. Nathan’s outgrowing of him is beautifully observed – as Nathan matures and goes off to college where he spends time with really educated and intelligent men, Ira diminishes in his eyes. Perhaps Ira’s tragedy is that he never outgrew his own mentor.

It has been claimed that Ira’s marriage to Eve is based on Roth’s own failed marriage to Claire Bloom, and that the book is a vicious response to Bloom’s memoirs in which she painted an unflattering picture of Roth. This may be so, but I don’t think it matters – it works at a literary level and in truth the reader – this reader, anyway – sympathises slightly more with Eve than with Ira, although both are weak and selfish. Through Eve, Roth goes into the question of Jewish self-hate – anti-Semitism practised by Jews themselves. I found this aspect fascinating – it was something I’d never considered before. Roth shows how this is a response to society’s anti-Semitism, where some Jews find it easier to try to hide their identity and join in rather than spend a lifetime battling prejudice. It made me think of African Americans “passing”, which in fact is the subject of The Human Stain.

Philip Roth
(Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Overall, this book doesn’t have quite the power or broad scope of American Pastoral. In some ways it feels more personal, as if it reflects Roth’s own life more intimately. The depiction of Nathan’s journey through adolescence feels lived – some at least of these reflections surely arise from Roth’s experiences as much as his alter-ego’s. Although Ira is the main focus, Zuckerman is very much central too, which isn’t really the case in American Pastoral. The young Nathan is an aspiring writer, allowing Roth to digress into his formative literary experiences, while the older Zuckerman is rather reclusive – an enigma left unsolved. It’s always dangerous to make direct links between fictional characters and their creators, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the literary aspects of Nathan’s development at least are drawn from Roth’s own, and they are full of interest and insight. I came away from it wishing that Murray Ringold, or Zuckerman, or Roth, had been my English teacher.

And I came away from the book wishing that Roth were here today to make sense for us of what has happened to bring America to its current state. This book goes some way to that, showing already the faultlines that have now become a gaping chasm into which the moderate centre seems to have fallen. A great writer, and an excellent book. It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a great American novel.

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Death in Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert

Blackmailers and boyfriend trouble…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Tony Keith meets his old schoolfriend Jeremy Freyne in a bazaar in India and they decide to travel home together. Tony is a lawyer who seems to take on sensitive international missions and has contacts with the Secret Service. Jeremy is a kind of adventurer – a man with no profession and no money who survives on his wits, hurrying from one madcap scheme to another. But now he’s decided it’s time to marry Hilary, so thinks it would only be gentlemanly to pop home to England and inform her. But when they arrive in England, Tony gets two urgent messages – one from his Secret Service contact and the other from Lady Nunn, Hilary’s stepmother, both requesting him to go to the Abbey where Lady Nunn lives to avert a horrible danger. Jeremy of course tags along since danger and Hilary are the two things he cares about most…

There has been a recent spate of suicides, all people who were rich and well-connected. The authorities have concluded that blackmailers are at work, ultimately driving their victims to despair, and they think that someone who lives at the Abbey or in the surrounding area is involved. This is what Tony’s contact wants him to look into, giving assistance to the man they already have on the spot – Arthur Dennis, who at first impression is a soft-spoken gentle sort of man but who turns out to have a steely resolve and muscles to match. When Jeremy finds out that Hilary has become engaged to Arthur he is determined to win her anyway, but both men are a bit gobsmacked when she then informs them that she intends to marry someone else instead, her cousin Ralph. So when Ralph turns up dead during a fancy dress party, the two men are determined to find out who killed them, to save themselves from suspicion and to restore Hilary’s rather dubious reputation.

Anthony Gilbert is a pseudonym used by Lucy Malleson, who also wrote Portrait of a Murderer, a book I enjoyed very much, under yet another name, Anne Meredith. This one unfortunately didn’t work so well for me. While the set up is quite interesting, the plot feels loose and untidy with quite a lot of intuitive leaping required by our intrepid heroes. But it’s really the characterisation that lets it down, I think, with none of them developing much depth and most of them being quite unappealing. Tony might as well not be there for all the impact he has on the plot. Jeremy is more fun, especially at the beginning when we learn about his wild ways, but he seems to fade rather into the background as the thing progresses.

Arthur – well, it’s an odd thing, but I often find women writers in those far off days (it was published in 1933) are far more forgiving of their male characters than male writers of the same era. Arthur frankly bullies and threatens Hilary and she admits to being frightened of him, but I think we’re supposed to find him attractive! When he orders her around as if she were a disobedient child and then grabs her so violently he bruises her arm, I rather went off him, I’m afraid. But Hilary is drawn as a wild child who needs a strong man to control her, and seems to accept that need herself, though she can’t decide which bullying tyrant to pick – there are so many! I’m sure none of this would have been problematic at the time – after all Cagney was shoving grapefruits in women’s faces to great acclaim in the cinema at roughly the same period – but it makes it feel rather more dated than most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently.

However, the working out of the plot is entertaining – not totally convinced it’s fair-play but then I rarely manage to work them out even when they are, and I certainly didn’t get close to guessing this one. The book also includes two bonus short stories, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise, and to be honest I enjoyed both of them more than the actual book! Overall, then, not one of my favourites from the BL Crime Classic series, but still an enjoyable enough way to while away a few hours.

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

Amazon UK Link
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TBR Thursday 229…

Episode 229

The relentless horror of the TBR continues to grow – up FIVE again, to 218. In my defence (I feel I use that phrase a lot these days…), three of them are unsolicited ones I received from publishers, all of which look interesting, so really, it’s not (all) my fault! I may have to put all the challenges to one side and have a month of reading review copies only to catch up.

Here are a few that should be exercising my brain soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

We had a runaway winner in last week’s poll, gaining nearly half of all votes cast! And it seems the appropriate choice since it’s the oldest on my TBR. Serena was the runner-up, closely followed by Bloodstream, with poor old JK Rowling trailing in well behind the rest of the field. Thanks to everyone who voted – I shall be reading and reviewing this one by the end of May…

The Blurb says: From the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Line of Beauty: a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth, and a family mystery, across generations.

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts – haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism – The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.

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Vintage Crime

Death in White Pyjamas & Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Courtesy of the British Library. A twofer! I’ve quite enjoyed the couple of John Budes I’ve read previously although he hasn’t so far become one of the stars of the BL collection for me. But he has two chances to convince me in this new volume… they both sound good! And such a great cover again…

The Blurb says: Two of John Bude’s finest Golden Age mysteries return to the limelight.

Death in White Pyjamas: A theatre-owner, a ‘slightly sinister’ producer, a burgeoning playwright and a cast of ego-driven actors have gathered at a country home to read through the promising script for Pigs in Porcelain. Before the production ever reaches the stage, one of their number is found murdered in the grounds wearing what mysteriously seems to be somebody else’s white pyjamas. Enter Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane to unravel this curious plot.

Death Knows No Calendar: Investigating a deadly shooting with no shooter in a locked artist’s studio, detective fiction enthusiast Major Tom Boddy has a long day ahead of him. With four colourful suspects to scrutinise, and not one but two ‘impossible’ elements of the crime to solve, this extremely rare and thoroughly entertaining mystery is long overdue its return to print. 

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Historical Fiction/Folklore

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Courtesy of riverrun at Quercus via NetGalley. Sounds utterly weird and way out of my comfort zone, but I adored Kehlmann’s F: A Novel and suspect if anyone can pull this off, he can…

The Blurb says: He’s a trickster, a player, a jester. His handshake’s like a pact with the devil, his smile like a crack in the clouds; he’s watching you now and he’s gone when you turn. Tyll Ulenspiegel is here!

In a village like every other village in Germany, a scrawny boy balances on a rope between two trees. He’s practising. He practises by the mill, by the blacksmiths; he practises in the forest at night, where the Cold Woman whispers and goblins roam. When he comes out, he will never be the same.

Tyll will escape the ordinary villages. In the mines he will defy death. On the battlefield he will run faster than cannonballs. In the courts he will trick the heads of state. As a travelling entertainer, his journey will take him across the land and into the heart of a never-ending war.

A prince’s doomed acceptance of the Bohemian throne has European armies lurching brutally for dominion and now the Winter King casts a sunless pall. Between the quests of fat counts, witch-hunters and scheming queens, Tyll dances his mocking fugue; exposing the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools.

With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time.

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Wodehouse on Audio

Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

Time to top up my happiness quotient with a little trip to Wodehouse world in the company of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves and the perfect narrator for these stories, Jonathan Cecil. I’ve already started listening to this and am remembering the reason the word “guffaw” was invented…  

The Blurb says: Trapped in rural Steeple Bumpleigh, a man less stalwart than Bertie Wooster would probably give way at the knees.

For among those present were Florence Craye, to whom Bertie had once been engaged and her new fiance ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright, who sees Bertie as a snake in the grass. And that biggest blot on the landscape, Edwin the Boy Scout, who is busy doing acts of kindness out of sheer malevolence.

All Bertie’s forebodings are fully justified. For in his efforts to oil the wheels of commerce, promote the course of true love and avoid the consequences of a vendetta, he becomes the prey of all and sundry. In fact only Jeeves can save him…

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Sins of the fathers…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1775, a group of elderly men gather in the Maypole, an ancient inn owned by John Willett, and tell a stranger about a murder that was committed nearby years before. The owner of the large house in the neighbourhood, Mr Harefield, was killed, apparently during a robbery, and some time later another body was found, identified as his servant, also murdered. The servant’s son, Barnaby Rudge, was later born an idiot, assumed to be so because of the shock his widow had suffered during her pregnancy. Now Barnaby is a happy young man, earning a little money by running messages and spending the rest of his time running wild in the countryside, revelling in the natural world which he loves. But Barnaby is gullible and easily influenced, which will one day lead him into serious trouble.

Skip forward five years to 1780, and trouble is abroad in the streets of London. Lord George Gordon is leading protests against the passing of an act that will remove some of the legal restrictions under which Catholics have suffered since the time of the Reformation. A weak man himself, Gordon is surrounded by unscrupulous men using him for their own ends. Some of his followers are men of true religious beliefs, bigoted certainly, but honourable in their own way. But many, many others are the detritus of the London streets – the drunks and thieves, the violent, the cruel. Others are the desperate – those whose argument with the government is nothing to do with religious questions about which they know little and care less. These are the poor and marginalised, those with no hope. Together these men and women will become that great fear of the establishment – the mob, wild, destructive and terrifying. And among them and affected by them are the characters we met in the Maypole, including young Barnaby Rudge…

Barnaby and his pet raven, Grip

Structurally this one is a bit of a mess. The two halves are each excellent in their own way but the sudden time shift halfway through, complete with a total change of central characters and tone, breaks the flow and loses the emotional involvement that was built up in the first section. Barnaby Rudge is also an unsatisfactory hero in that, being an idiot with no hope of improvement, there’s no romance for him nor does he get to be heroic. However, even a weaker Dickens novel is always enjoyable and this is no exception. My four star rating is a comparison to other Dickens’ novels – in comparison to almost every book out there, this is still head and shoulders above them.

Book 61 of 90

If I’d been Dickens, I’d have called it Dolly Varden – she pulls the two strands together more than most of the other characters. Daughter of locksmith Gabriel, Dolly is the major love interest of the character who appears to be the hero in the first half, Joe Willett, son of the owner of the Maypole. Young, flirtatious and silly, Dolly plays hard to get at the wrong moment and Joe takes the King’s shilling and goes off to fight those pesky American colonists who were having some kind of little rebellion round about then. Five years on, Dolly is still single, secretly hoping that one day Joe will return. But her beauty has made her a target for other men, including two who will play major roles in the second half of the book. Dickens often showed how vulnerable women were to unscrupulous men, but with Dolly he takes it a stage further. There is one scene in particular where she is the victim of what can only be described as a sexual assault, and later, in the riots, Dickens doesn’t hold back from showing how rape is one aspect of what happens when there’s a breakdown in social order. While it’s all done by hints and suggestion, very mild to our jaded modern eyes, I imagine it must have been pretty shocking to the original readership. Dolly is an intriguing Dickens heroine – unlike many of his drooping damsels, she’s a lot of fun, revelling in her beauty and the effect it has on men while still being kind-hearted and true. He allows her to grow and mature in those five years, which is not always the case with his heroines, and she’s a great mix of vulnerability and strength of character.

Dolly playing hard to get…

The first half is the fairly typical Dickens fare of various eccentric characters and young lovers and a mystery in the past, of the style of Oliver Twist or Martin Chuzzlewit, say. The second half is much more reminiscent of the later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. The mob scenes in this are just as horrifying, but the characters aren’t as unforgettably drawn as Sidney Carton or Madame Defarge. More than that, it seems as if Dickens is less sure of where his sympathies lie. The Gordon rioters are fighting to ensure that anti-Catholic laws remain in place, and clearly Dickens thinks this is abhorrent. But that means that he almost comes over as pro-Establishment, since on this occasion the Establishment are the ones wanting to do away with those laws. So while in Two Cities he’s against the mob but understanding of the poverty and inequality that drives them, here he gets a bit muddly – he clearly wants to suggest that it’s all because they’re poor and uneducated but has to also show that they’re religious fanatics, fighting not to better themselves but to keep others down. However, I thoroughly enjoyed Dennis the hangman, who is not only a typically Dickensian villain but is also based on the real-life hangman of the time, and gives Dickens an opportunity to show the gruesome barbarity of this form of social control.

The Maypole Inn

As always with Dickens there are far too many aspects to cover in a review without it becoming as long as one of his novels. Overall, this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form. I read the Oxford World’s Classics version – my first experience of a Dickens novel in their edition – and thoroughly enjoyed having the informative introduction and particularly the notes, which I found extremely helpful since this is an episode of history I knew little about. The book is also generously full of the original illustrations. I say it every time but I’m so glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Transwarp Tuesday! Beyond Time edited by Mike Ashley

The past is the future…

My heart sank a little when I started this collection of thirteen stories on the theme of time travel. Like Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager, time paradoxes tend to give me a headache, and the first couple of stories did nothing to relieve my anxiety, since both were rather mediocre. But they were followed by a little run of four star stories and then boom! The five star stories started coming thick and fast! These collections are always arranged more or less in chronological order and I suspect that when the early ones were written, the idea of time travel itself was so original that the writers didn’t feel the need to do much with it. By the time of the later stories, though, the writers were vying to give an original direction to a well-worn path, so there’s much more diversity in how they use the theme.

There’s the usual mix of well-known and lesser known authors, although since I’m not well read in science fiction all but three of them – HG Wells, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding and JB Priestley – were unknown names to me. Some of the stories are mildly humorous, some tend more towards horror. There’s less variation in length than in some collections, with most of the stories coming in around twenty to thirty pages, which I always find to be a great length for pre-bedtime reading.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

Friday the Nineteenth by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding – a story that is almost as much horror and almost as much psychological crime as it is science fiction. A husband wants to embark on an affair with his friend’s wife and she’s not unwilling. But somehow the day keeps repeating and only they are aware of it. Caught in a loop, they keep making the same assignation but never get to the point of keeping it, and we see how their guilt and selfishness begins to change how they feel. It’s very well told and manages to pack in a lot of suspense for such a short space.

Look After the Strange Girl by JB Priestley – a man slips back in time to an evening in 1902 and finds himself at a big party in the house which, in the present, houses the school he runs. There he meets a woman who seems to have been caught in the same time slip. It has elements of the tragedy of war, as the man knows the future of some of the people of the house, some of whom will die in France. It also gives a little comparison of the attitudes and habits of Edwardian women to modern women. Very well done, strange and mildly thought-provoking – quite a literary story.

Manna by Peter Phillips – this is a great story about two ghosts who were once monks and are doomed to haunt their old priory, which has now turned into a factory for making ‘Miracle Meal’ – a kind of food substance that is nutritionally perfect and tastes so wonderful it can be eaten for every meal. Remembering the hunger of their own time, they find a way to transport cans back to the 12th century, where this is seen as a real miracle. It’s well written, interesting and very amusing – the two mismatched ghosts themselves are a lot of fun.

Dial “0” for Operator by Robert Presslie – the last story in the book and a great one to finish with. An operator in the telephone exchange takes a call from a woman in distress. She tells him she’s in a phone box and there’s something outside – a kind of dark blob – that’s trying to get in. He promptly sends the police but when they get there the box is empty. However, the woman is still on the line and begs the operator not to hang up. The tension is great in this as gradually the operator realises the woman is speaking from a different time and there’s nothing he can do to help her except talk…

So from an uninspiring beginning this turned into a great collection, leaving me with a whole raft of new-to-me authors to investigate. Great stuff!

Little Green Men Rating:  :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Mugger (87th Precinct 2) by Ed McBain

Second book syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The detectives of the 87th Precinct are trying to catch a man who is mugging women in the streets of Isola, a district of the city that is clearly a fictionalised version of New York in which the series is set. The man is becoming more violent, often hitting the women even after he has stolen their valuables, and has the strange habit of finishing his assault by bowing and saying “Clifford thanks you, madam.” So far the detectives have little to go on, and the pressure ramps up when one girl, assumed to be Clifford’s latest victim, is found dead.

Having loved the first book in the series, Cop Hater, when I read it a couple of years ago, my expectations of this one were high. It is very readable, but suffers a bit from second book syndrome – McBain seems to be working out what to do with the characters he introduced us to in book 1, and there are so many detectives flitting in and out that it’s quite hard to keep track of who’s who. McBain’s plan was to have the series work as a kind of ensemble, with different detectives coming in and out of the spotlight in each story, and from my memory of reading several of the books long ago, he does succeed in this to a degree. But eventually he succumbed and made Steve Carella the recurring lead – the detective who was the main character in Cop Hater. Carella isn’t in this one, being off on his honeymoon, and his lack is felt.

As the story progresses, Patrolman Bert Kling comes to the fore. He was friends long ago with the brother-in-law of the dead girl, and the girl’s sister asks him to look into her murder. Although this is not the job of a patrolman, Bert feels obliged by friendship to try at least, and he also hopes that it might help him in his ambition to be promoted to detective.

The major problem with the story is that the solution is screamingly obvious. Maybe it wouldn’t have been back then – it’s always a problem to know with older books whether this was perhaps the first time a writer took a plot in this direction, but I fear it’s a plot we’ve all read too often now. My secondary problem was with the amount of violence in the book and its lack of credibility. My dad, who was a boxer, always used to scoff at Hollywood cowboy films where a man would be punched repeatedly in the face, hit over the head with a chair, be thrown over a bar and crash head-first into a wall lined with glasses and then get up, jump on his horse and gallop off after the bad guys, stopping only to kiss the heroine on his way out. While there are no horses nor indeed chairs in this book, the effect of the excessive violence and the characters’ reaction to it had the same effect on me. McBain seems to be using violence and police corruption to give the book its noir tone, whereas in Cop Hater he relied much more on creating an edgy atmosphere through great descriptions of the city.

So one for fans, but not one I would suggest as an introduction to the series for newcomers. The series ran for approximately ten thousand books – well, OK, over fifty – so there are plenty of others to choose from.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Friday Frippery! The Case of the Twelve Red Roses

from the lost files of Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

My notes show that it was a raw, foggy February morning in 1893 as I hurried to my old friend Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in Baker Street in response to his urgent summons. The sun had given up the attempt to penetrate the sooty vapours that were choking the city, leaving it in a deep gloom despite the early hour, and the street lamps still burned. I was glad to reach my destination.

“Good morning, Holmes,” I said, as I made my way quickly to the welcoming fire in his room.

Holmes started, disturbed from a deep reverie. “Ah, Watson,” he said, “what do you make of this?”

I took the item from him and laughed. “Well, Holmes, a dozen red roses is not an unusual thing to see on February 14th, but I admit I am astounded that you should indulge in such a romantic gesture! May I enquire who is to be the lucky recipient?”

Holmes shook his head. “That, Watson, is the question! No, no, happily I am immune to the epidemic of love which plagues London at this time of year. These were brought to me by our old friend Lestrade. They were found earlier this morning in Piccadilly Circus, lying beside the body of a dead man. I have high hopes that Lestrade is finally developing some skill in detection.”

I looked at him enquiringly, and he continued:

“The obvious inference is that the roses belonged to either the victim or the murderer, but for once Lestrade has looked beyond the obvious! The signature on the card is “Richard” and a check of the victim’s pockets showed that his name was George Marshall, discounting him as the purchaser of the flowers. However, he was killed by an arrow and, with an astuteness I would not have expected, Lestrade realised that the murderer would therefore have been some distance from his victim, hence it would be improbable for him to have dropped the roses beside the body.”

“But, then, who…”

“Exactly, Watson. Who, indeed? If not the giver of the roses, then surely the recipient must have been present when the crime was committed. Come, Watson! An excellent day for a hunt! Cherchez la femme, my dear fellow, cherchez la femme!”

Stopping only to throw on his greatcoat and muffler, Holmes rushed from the house and hailed a passing hansom cab. We bundled in and the cabbie asked the question I too wished to have answered: “Where to, sir?”

“Mademoiselle Millie’s in Covent Garden,” Holmes replied, adding quietly to me “the florist whose name is on the card.”

The flower shop was an oasis of colour and scent in the dreary city and Mademoiselle Millie herself was the brightest bloom of all, her copper hair and sparkling green eyes giving a promise of spring after the long winter. She was able to tell us immediately who had bought the roses.

“Yes, sir, that would be Mr Richard Hillson, the young lawyer from the firm across the street. He’s a regular, sir – always roses, and always the same message ‘To my darling Jessica, whom I hope one day to call my wife. All my love, Richard.’ So romantic, sir!”

There was something about the way she blushed when she said romantic that made my heart beat a little faster. I was sorry when Holmes rushed me out of the shop, but I made a mental vow to purchase flowers for my surgery more often in future. The lawyer’s office was only a few steps away. We entered a bright and pleasant room and were greeted immediately by a polite, well-dressed young clerk. It was clear this business was flourishing. On enquiring after Mr Hillson, the clerk asked us to wait for a moment while he checked if the lawyer was free.

“Mr Hillson will see you now, gentlemen,” he said, and leading us along a panelled corridor, showed us in to a well-appointed office. As Mr Hillson rose to shake hands, two things were immediately apparent: firstly, that the young lawyer was an exceptionally handsome fellow and, secondly, that he was in a condition of some distress. Despite his best endeavours, he was unable to disguise the tremor in his hands nor the shocked expression in his eyes.

“I am Sherlock Holmes and this is my colleague, Dr Watson,” my companion said. “We have come to discuss the matter of the twelve red roses you bought this morning.”

He got no further. Hillson gave a great groan and buried his face in his hands. “I did it, Mr Holmes,” he said. “I killed him!”

Holmes frowned slightly and there was a short silence. Then he said: “Tell me the whole tale, young man. Who was this man to you? Why did you kill him? And how?”

The lawyer took a deep breath and stammered out his story as best he could. In short, George Marshall was the half-brother of Jessica, the woman Hillson had adored since they first met four years ago. On the death of their father, George had become Jessica’s legal guardian, and had refused outright to agree to allow the young couple to wed so that he could retain control of her inheritance. Hillson had waited patiently since under the terms of her father’s will, George’s guardianship would end on Jessica’s twenty-fifth birthday, still three years in the future. But, said Hillson, during a chance meeting in Piccadilly Circus, his patience had finally broken and in a moment of insanity, he had killed George.

“How?” asked Holmes again.

The young man looked up at Holmes’ stern face and for the first time seemed to hesitate. “Why… why… I stabbed him, Mr Holmes. In the chest.”

“With what?” Holmes’ demeanour remained unrelenting.

“With… with a pocket knife.”

Suddenly Holmes threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Come, come, Mr Hillson! It is as well you have taken to the legal profession and not to the stage. Though I suspect your career will be cut short if you will insist on confessing to crimes you did not commit! Now, tell me the truth – what happened this morning?”

“I cannot tell you more than I have,” said the young man with an air of quiet desperation. “I killed him and I will say so in court!”

“Then if you will not tell me, I must seek the truth elsewhere. Come, Watson! We must pay a visit to Miss Jessica Marshall.”

“There is no need, Mr Holmes – I am here.” A young woman had slipped quietly into the room unnoticed as we talked. Her lovely face showed signs of recent tears, but as she walked towards Holmes, her look and bearing were quietly resolute. “Richard is telling an untruth, but you must forgive him for he does it for my sake. I know you will understand the foolish things men sometimes do to protect those they… love.” She blushed prettily as she spoke the word, and glanced up at Holmes with a look of honest trust.

“Well, well, Miss Marshall. He shall be forgiven if, between you, you now manage to give a true account of this morning’s affair,” Holmes said kindly, leading the young woman to a chair by the small fireplace. Hillson sat next to her and clasped her little gloved hand in his. “You must say nothing, my dear,” he said. “You must trust entirely to me to know what is best in this matter.”

Miss Marshall smiled gently and patted his hand. “Oh, Richard. If you trusted me more, you would not have felt the need to lie. I didn’t kill George, and I know you didn’t either, so there is nothing to fear.” Then turning to Holmes, she began her statement.

Hillson had asked her to meet him at Piccadilly Circus early that morning – their usual rendezvous each Valentine’s Day, when the young lover would give her roses and they would remake the vows they had first given each other so long ago. But this year, George had followed her, and just as she arrived at the centre of the Circus where workmen were installing a new fountain, he had overtaken her, and insisted that she come home with him immediately. When she refused, he grasped her arm so tightly that she cried out in pain and one of the workmen approached to enquire if she needed assistance. At that, George released his grip and Miss Marshall took the opportunity to run into an alleyway and hide. Some minutes later, she crept back to see if Hillson was at the appointed place, and was horrified to see George lying on the ground with blood seeping from beneath his cloaked body.

Hillson took over the story at that point. Arriving just at that moment, he first saw George lying dead in the street, then, dropping the roses in his shock, he glanced up and saw Miss Marshall in the entrance to the alley. Making an entirely erroneous and, in less fraught circumstances, unforgivable assumption, he hissed at her to run away quickly and meet him later at his office and, shocked too, she complied. Hillson then saw that the workmen had begun to notice that something was amiss, so he fled too, and knew no more.

“You have both been foolish beyond words,” said Holmes, but then his sternness dissipated as he chuckled. “However, if there is one day in the year when lovers must be forgiven their folly, this is surely it. I promise you are safe from the law, and may I be the first to congratulate you? There is no longer a bar to your marriage, and that will cure your absurd romanticism as nothing else will!” We left them, seated with their hands clasped and heads close together, still stunned but with new joy budding in their hearts.

“But, Holmes,” I said rather peevishly, as we hailed a cab outside, “who killed George Marshall? And why?”

Telling the driver to take us to Piccadilly Circus, Holmes laughed. “I shall not tell you – I shall show you!” he replied.

The new fountain was to be a fine addition to the Circus. Atop the structure would stand wingèd Eros, God of Love, pointing his bow down Shaftesbury Avenue in honour of the old Earl.

When we arrived, we saw that the workmen had raised the statue onto the base and were in the process of making it secure. Holmes approached them and asked to speak to the man who had come to Miss Marshall’s assistance that morning. “That was me, sir,” said a middle-aged man with full whiskers which could not quite hide the anxiety on his face.

“So, my good man,” said Holmes, “tell me how Eros’ arrow found its way into the chest of the unfortunate George Marshall.”

The man gasped. “But how could you possibly know that, sir? It was an accident pure and simple. As our young apprentice was fixing it onto the statue, it just… slipped from his hand and flew through the air. Such a tragedy, and the boy so young. We all agreed to remove the arrow from the poor gentleman’s chest and say nothing – poor people like us don’t find much pity once the law becomes involved. Oh, sir, can’t you save him? We all know your reputation as a man who is kind to those who meant no harm.”

“Well, well, I daresay I’ll be able to come up with a story that will satisfy the police. But tell the lad to be more careful in future!”

“I will, sir, and thank’ee! Thank’ee!”

“So, Watson,” Holmes said as we began our walk back to Baker Street, “it may not be quite as tradition suggests, but once again Eros’ arrow has been the means of bringing together two young lovers. The Gods work in mysterious ways…” And he set off at a brisk pace, chuckling.

* * * * *

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

TBR Thursday 228 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 228

As you know, I live in a constant state of war with my TBR and frankly it seems to be winning. So I’ve developed a new battle tactic and am recruiting you all as my crack regiment to help me defeat the enemy! 

The problem is that most of the new books I acquire are review copies or books for challenges and so they get priority. This means that books which don’t “need” to be read linger eternally in the deep recesses of my spreadsheet, getting a chance to escape only on the rare occasion I have a gap in my schedule. And of course it’s the longer books that tend to be left longest. 

So here’s the plan. Once a month or so, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! (If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again.) In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.

Are you ready? Then don your armour, leap on your warhorse, and get ready to fight the good fight!

Historical Fiction

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The oldest book on the TBR, added on 29th July 2012! 10,060 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.31 average rating. 564 pages.

The Blurb says: From the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Line of Beauty: a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth, and a family mystery, across generations.

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate – a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance – to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried – until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts – haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism – The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.

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Historical Fiction

Serena by Ron Rash

Added 13th September 2012. 32,849 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.53 average. 371 pages.

The Blurb says: The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

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Contemporary Fiction

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Added 27th September 2012. 291,491 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.30 average. 494 pages.

The Blurb says: When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils … Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

* * * * *

Thriller

Bloodstream by Tess Gerritson

Added 27th December 2012. 12,342 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.96 average. 516 pages. 

The Blurb says: A spine-tingling thriller from the bestselling author of the Rizzoli & Isles series.
The small resort of Tranquillity, Maine, seems like the perfect spot for Dr Claire Elliot to shelter her son, Noah, from the temptations of the city and the traumatic memory of his father’s death. Claire’s hopeful that she can earn the trust of the town as she builds a new practice. But her plans unravel when an outbreak of teenage violence, far more deadly than anything she has encountered in the city, erupts in the local school.

In trying to find a medical explanation for this murderous epidemic, Claire stumbles upon an insidious evil which has blighted the town’s past and threatens its future. Terrified that Noah too is at risk, she must prove her theory before everything she loves is destroyed.

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VOTE NOW!

 

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

Braised Pork by An Yu

Magic as metaphor…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred…

This is an oddly compelling novel, beautifully written in a rather understated way. Jia Jia’s dream water world, where the fish-man exists, takes us into magical realist territory – never my favourite place – but again this is somewhat underplayed so that it never begins to feel too much like fantasy. While the “magical” aspects of it are presented as real, they can also be easily read as a metaphor for depression or despair, and the question is whether Jia Jia will become lost in this other world or find her way back to seeing a possible future for herself in this one. The water world is intriguingly ambiguous as a place that is both frightening and yet oddly comforting, where the deeper one goes the less there is, until nothingness becomes the main feature.

I’m not sure I fully got all the nuances of the water world metaphor – my mind is too resolutely rational to easily sink into fantastical symbolism. I wondered whether it arises from Chinese or Tibetan superstition or is wholly a creation of the author, and don’t know the answer to that. But it’s a tribute to how well and subtly it’s done that I was able to go along with it, and even to feel that it added to rather than detracting from the “real” story.

Jia Jia’s marriage was a rather cold one. She had never felt her husband had a passionate love for her – younger than him and beautiful, she was something of a trophy bride and suitable to be a mother for his children. On her side, he, as a settled, wealthy man, represented security, but there are signs also that she felt restricted in the marriage. She is an artist but although her husband was willing for her to continue to paint as a hobby, he did not feel it was appropriate for his wife to try to sell her work. There is a suggestion that he was emotionally controlling and that Jia Jia had reached a point where she was second guessing her own actions with a view to ensuring she met his expectations rather than her own. So his death, shocking as it is, plunges her into a state of uncertainty rather than deep grief – her secure future gone, the children she had anticipated having with him gone too. However, this new loss has taken her back to another, much greater grief – the death of her mother when she was a young girl. As she tries to discover the meaning of the fish-man, she will also learn more about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s life and death.

An Yu

This is a short book, and every word counts. It has an easy flow that makes it very readable – I read it in a couple of sessions and was fully absorbed all the way through. The magical aspects are introduced so gradually that they don’t become fully apparent until around halfway through, and seem to arise very naturally from what we have come to understand of Jia Jia’s state of mind. The rather muted imagery of the water world makes it easier to accept and yet the images linger once the last page is turned. Along the way we get some insight into the position of educated women in contemporary urban China, at a kind of halfway point where they have gained some social freedom but are still often judged within the conventions of more restrictive traditional codes of behaviour. Jia Jia is beautifully complex, with the minor flaws we all have, and her emotional journey is entirely credible. I found myself fully invested in hoping she could find a new path, perhaps even a more fulfilling one.

An excellent début that has left me eager to see how An Yu develops as an author in what I expect to be a glittering future.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….On the evening of 30 April 1483, London was in holiday mood. The next day, it would erupt in the day-long street party that was the ‘maying’, which, with its associations of anarchy and sex, was one of the more eagerly anticipated feast days. In the early morning, Londoners would walk through the city gates out into the surrounding countryside, bathe their faces in dew, and return with garlands to adorn houses, doorways and churches in preparation of the day’s junketing. In the heart of the city, outside St Andrew Undershaft, stood the great corporate-sponsored maypole from which the church took its name. Each parish, too, had prepared its maypole, its feasts, bonfires, stages and ‘warlike shows’ of archery and gunfire, its batteries of drummers and its pageants that would sway through the streets. At the heart of each pageant were the ‘lord and lady of May’, the young May king and queen. Their procession, a triumph of ‘honour and glory’, marked spring’s conquest over winter whose discord and duplicity, ‘heaviness and trouble’, was replaced by universal peace, the spring flowers of ‘perfect charity’ and the buds of ‘truth and unity’. That year, London’s preparations acquired a particular intensity as, the next day, the city was due to welcome a real May king, the twelve-year-old boy whose choreographed arrival promised a new start for both the city and the country – Edward V.

~The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

* * * * *

….He was sitting on a bench, inertly watching the devastation wrought by Bendicò in the flowerbeds; every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes towards him as if asking for praise at labour done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation channel blocked. How human!
….“Good Bendicò, come here.” And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work.

~The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

* * * * *

….A voice came over the speaker system, replacing the electronic alarm.
….“This is not a test. Repeat, this is not a test.”
….They paused to look at each other, reading a fresh panic in eyes reflecting their own. Not a test! It had to be a test. Otherwise they’d just lost a thousand million pounds’ worth of tin and plastic. Lost it for how long? Hepton checked his watch. The system had been inoperative for over two minutes. That meant it was really serious. Another minute or so could spell disaster.
….Fagin, the operations manager, had appeared from nowhere and was sprinting from console to console as though taking part in some kind of party game. Two of the brass were in evidence too, looking as though they’d just stepped out of a meeting. They carried files under their arms and stood by the far door, knowing nothing of the system or how to be of help. That was typical. The people who held the purse strings and gave the orders knew nothing about anything.

~Westwind by Ian Rankin

* * * * *

….He had elevated lust to its most exalted type. It was for the sake of this lust alone that he had married the first time and then for the second. Over the course of time, his conjugal love was affected by calm new elements of affection and familiarity, but in essence it continued to be based on bodily desire. When an emotion is of this type, especially when it has acquired a renewed power and exuberant vitality, it cannot be content with only one form of expression. Thus he had shot off in pursuit of all the varieties of love and passion, like a wild bull. Whenever desire called, he answered, deliriously and enthusiastically. No woman was anything more than a body to him. All the same, he would not bow his head before that body unless he found it truly worthy of being seen, touched, smelled, tasted, and heard. It was lust, yes, but not bestial or blind.

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

* * * * *

….Gallivan suddenly put his hands flat on the table and leaned forward, staring beyond me down the Rhine. He said, softly: “There she is, Mr. Marle. There’s Castle Skull.”
….It was still far away, but our steamer seemed to sweep with incredible speed now. At first it was a domed blot with two thin towers, swimming in spectral dusk, disembodied high above the pines on the right. Now the river lay dead black. There were white streaks in the grey sky behind the towers, but the dark fleece of thunderheads crawled to blot them out. From the left bank, a few lights ruffled the inky water. It had grown very warm.
….Then Castle Skull grew in size, though it seemed even farther above our heads. Massive walls, battlemented and fully a hundred feet high, were built into the hillside. I bent over the rail and craned my neck to look up. In the centre of the walls, built so that the middle of the battlements constituted the teeth of the death’s head, reared the vast skull of stone. The light was too dim to make out details, but I saw the eyes. I saw the two towers on either side, horribly like ears; I saw the whole thin, rain-blacked, monstrous pile move slowly above our heads.

~Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

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So… are you tempted?

Echoes from the Dead (Öland Quartet 1) by Johan Theorin

Unburying the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Twenty years ago, in the midst of a dense fog on the Swedish island of Öland, a little boy disappeared and has never been found. Now his mother Julia lives in Gothenburg, depressed and drinking too much, unable to accept that her son is dead. The child’s grandfather, Gerlof, is an old man now, his mobility restricted by a kind of rheumatic syndrome that causes him terrible pain when it flares up. He still lives on Öland in an assisted living facility, and one day he receives an anonymous parcel in the mail containing a child’s sandal. With the help of Julia and some of his old friends, Gerlof sets out to finally discover the truth of what happened to little Jens. He suspects that a man called Nils Kant had something to do with it, but that can’t be since Nils died years before Jens disappeared. But still…

This falls into the thoughtful area of crime fiction rather than the action thriller. It concentrates as much on Julia’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of her son and on Gerlof’s efforts to make amends for the guilt he feels over not protecting his grandchild as it does on solving the mystery. The second strand, which is just as central, tells of Nils Kant’s life – the crimes he committed as a child and young man that led him to flee Öland. The two stories are told side by side in alternating sections, and both are equally interesting and absorbing. The major strengths of the book are the characterisation of these three people and the great sense of place Theorin creates, bringing the island of Öland vividly to life. The major weakness is common to most contemporary crime – the book is far too long for its content. It could lose a third of its length and be better for it.

The police gave up looking for Jens long ago, assuming that he must have wandered to the nearby shore in the fog and drowned in the sea. But when one of Gerlof’s friends dies – perhaps by accident, perhaps not – the local police officer Lennart Henriksson is willing to listen to Gerlof’s theories and soon a friendship grows up between him and Julia, born of shared feelings of loss. Lennart’s father had been murdered when he was a child and his sense of grief has never left him. He and Julia are able to offer some comfort to each other, and gradually their feelings towards each other deepen into affection and perhaps more.

Nils’ story takes us back to his childhood, when already the signs were there that he would grow up to be a danger to those around him. Selfish and lacking empathy, he commits one terrible act after another but for a while he’s protected by being the son of a wealthy woman who wields power locally through owning the business that provides much of the employment in the area. It is only when he finally does something that can’t be hidden or explained away that he is forced to flee, but he always wants to come back to the island, and to his mother, the only person he has ever really loved. We follow him through his long exile before learning whether he ever succeeds in returning. It’s an excellent portrayal of a severely damaged individual – Nils is undoubtedly monstrous but Theorin also manages to make him pitiable so that the reader’s horror at his actions is laced with a touch of sympathy. Nils’ moral compass is so badly broken it’s hard to condemn him as much as we would someone who knowingly chose to do evil things.

Johan Theorin

The island itself was once home to a vibrant fishing community, but times change and the small boats of the locals can no longer compete with the industrial fishing methods of the big companies on the mainland. Now Öland has become a summer resort for mainlanders – full of life during the summer months but quiet and almost deserted in the winter except for the one small town on the island and a few scattered elderly residents still clinging on to the homes they have always known. Theorin is equally good at describing the alvar – the barren landscape covered in grasses and shrubs where Nils spends his youth out hunting hares with his shotgun – or the village of Julia’s youth, now closed up for the winter with only two or three residents dotted around. He uses the emptiness and loneliness of the village to great effect in creating an air of danger and tension as Julia, living in Gerlof’s old boathouse, gets drawn deeper into the investigation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this despite the fact that, as I said earlier, it’s longer than it should be. I did have a good idea of the solution from fairly early on but it didn’t matter because the crime in the past took second place to the character studies and the events of the present. The tone is dark but both Julia and Gerlof are sympathetic characters which stops it from becoming too bleak. Having previously enjoyed the fourth book in the quartet (yeah, I know – backwards as usual) I’m looking forward to reading the other two.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

The man with two lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the body of a man is discovered in the Dumb River in a small town in East Anglia, stabbed through the chest, the local police have a problem. Torrential rain has caused the fenland district to flood and they are fully stretched helping residents and farmers get themselves and their animals to safety. Luckily Inspector Littlejohn of the Yard is in the area and he agrees to take on the murder investigation. The murdered man turns out to be Jim Lane, who runs a hoopla stall and travels around the south of England from fair to fair. A little investigation soon reveals that he has another identity too, though – James Teasdale, a married man from Yorkshire, whose wife and family believe he is a commercial traveller. Littlejohn must discover which of his lives has led to his death…

This is my favourite of the Bellairs novels I’ve read so far. Both settings are handled very well – the flooded fenlands and the hard-drinking, mostly working-class Yorkshire town. Teasdale has married “above” himself, and his selfish wife and her money-grabbing father never let him forget it, making sure that his daughters grow up to look down on him too. So Littlejohn understands why James has developed a second life as Jim the fairground man. Not only does it allow him to make more money than his failing arts and crafts shop in Yorkshire, but in this environment he has the respect of his fellows and is well-liked. Littlejohn rather wonders that he hasn’t broken all ties with his family, but James clearly feels a sense of duty towards them. However, now, as Jim, he has met another woman, one who admires and respects him, and James/Jim’s loyalties are torn.

There is a mystery here, but it’s not really laid out as a traditional whodunit, with lots of suspects with different motives and conflicting clues, and so on. Instead, it’s more of a police procedural, as we follow Littlejohn and his colleague Sergeant Cromwell painstakingly collecting information through interviewing people and putting this together with what the forensic evidence shows. This makes the characterisation particularly important, and it’s done very well. Written in the third person, we mostly see the story from the perspective of Littlejohn, occasionally shifting to Cromwell. Littlejohn seems better developed here for some reason – Bellairs allows us to see his uncertainty as to how to proceed at points, and his dependence on Cromwell as someone with whom to talk things over as well as being a skilled investigator in his own right. But all the secondary characters are very well drawn too – all James’ unlikeable snobbish relatives up in Yorkshire, and the much more sympathetic girlfriend and friends from his fairground life. The flooding adds an extra touch as we see the community come together to help each other, and the harassed local police trying to provide assistance to Littlejohn while dealing with matters that seem more immediately urgent.

George Bellairs

Up in Yorkshire, where the rain is also falling (it is Britain, after all), the hideous family give us quite a bit of humour at their expense, although Bellairs gradually allows both Littlejohn and the reader to see the rather tragic underside of their lives, brought on by themselves and their unjustifiable regard for their “position” admittedly, but nevertheless leaving them rather isolated from their community and even from each other. It’s an excellent, if rather cruel, portrait of selfishness.

At just two hundred pages, it neither outstays its welcome nor leaves the reader feeling short-changed – it’s the perfect length for its plot. Highly recommended, and I hope the BL keeps the Littlejohn novels coming…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 227…

Episode 227

Hurrah! The awful rise in the TBR has been reversed this week due to me finally finishing a few books – down three to 213! I’m sure success is finally within my sights…

Here are a few more I’ll be banging into soon…

Fiction

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

I’ve already been to Moscow for my Around the World challenge, but given the size of Russia and the fact that both Moscow and St Petersburg/Leningrad have been considered capital cities, sometimes simultaneously, with Moscow looking east while St Petersburg looked west, I wanted to visit both. Doctor Zhivago took me back to the Revolution; this one is set during WW2.  

The Blurb says: Leningrad, September 1941. Hitler orders the German forces to surround the city at the start of the most dangerous, desperate winter in its history. For two pairs of lovers – Anna and Andrei, Anna’s novelist father and banned actress Marina – the siege becomes a battle for survival. They will soon discover what it is like to be so hungry you boil shoe leather to make soup, so cold you burn furniture and books. But this is not just a struggle to exist, it is also a fight to keep the spark of hope alive…

The Siege is a brilliantly imagined novel of war and the wounds it inflicts on ordinary people’s lives, and a profoundly moving celebration of love, life and survival.

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Classic American Fiction

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

One from my Classics Club list. I must admit I’m dreading this one – the blurb and reviews make it sound quite awful. But I know many people love it so (despite the fact that many people also love Gone with the Wind and East of Eden, making me doubtful about whether many people were reading the same versions as me 😉 ) I’ll give it a go. If it surprises me, it can only be in a good way…

The Blurb says: Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine. 

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Historical Fiction

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Courtesy of John Murray Press via NetGalley. Hmm, this sounds good but early reviews have been very mixed. Still, maybe the many people who didn’t like it are Steinbeck fans, so there’s still hope…

The Blurb says: In 1815, a supervolcanic eruption led to the extraordinary ‘Year Without Summer’ in 1816: a massive climate disruption causing famine, poverty and riots. Lives, both ordinary and privileged, changed forever.

1815, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
Mount Tambora explodes in a cataclysmic eruption, killing thousands. Sent to investigate, ship surgeon Henry Hogg can barely believe his eyes. Once a paradise, the island is now solid ash, the surrounding sea turned to stone. But worse is yet to come: as the ash cloud rises and covers the sun, the seasons will fail.

1816.
In Switzerland, Mary Shelley finds dark inspiration. Confined inside by the unseasonable weather, thousands of famine refugees stream past her door. In Vermont, preacher Charles Whitlock begs his followers to keep faith as drought dries their wells and their livestock starve. In Britain, the ambitious and lovesick painter John Constable struggles to reconcile the idyllic England he paints with the misery that surrounds him. In the Fens, farm labourer Sarah Hobbs has had enough of going hungry while the farmers flaunt their wealth. And Hope Peter, returned from Napoleonic war, finds his family home demolished and a fence gone up in its place. He flees to London, where he falls in with a group of revolutionaries who speak of a better life, whatever the cost. As desperation sets in, Britain becomes racked with riots – rebellion is in the air.

The Year Without Summer is the story of the books written, the art made; of the journeys taken, of the love longed for and the lives lost during that fateful year. Six separate lives, connected only by an event many thousands of miles away. Few had heard of Tambora – but none could escape its effects.

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Science Fiction

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Courtesy of Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley. I don’t know anything about either book or author – I just took a fancy to try some contemporary sci-fi for a change…  

The Blurb says: The Last Day is set 40 years into the future after the planet’s rotation has slowed to a halt, resulting in half the earth facing the constant light of the sun while the other half lives in an endless, frozen night. The plot centres on a young scientist who is called back to London from the frozen Atlantic and begins to uncover a truth which could change the future of the human race.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Opposite and equal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of two men, residents of the drab little town of St Louis on the French side of the Swiss border. One, Georges Gorski, is a police inspector; the other, Manfred Baumann, is a loner who frequents the bar of the Restaurant de la Cloche – the restaurant where Adèle Bedeau worked before she disappeared. There is no real reason to assume that Baumann had anything to do with her disappearance, except for his strange behaviour and the lies that he tells. But is this a sign of guilt, or simply a symptom of his general social ineptitude? Gorski doesn’t even know whether there is anything to be guilty about – in the absence of a corpse or anything to indicate violence, it’s impossible to know if Adèle’s disappearance is a sign of a crime at all. But many years ago, as a rookie detective, Gorski failed to bring the murderer of another young girl to justice and this haunts him, so he is determined this time to ensure that the killer of Adèle (if she has been killed) will not escape.

This compelling book falls very definitely on the literary side of crime fiction while never feeling pretentious or overdone. The central mystery of Adèle’s disappearance is intriguing but is almost peripheral – the real meat of the story is in the slow reveal of the characters of the two men, detective and suspect: both brought up in this rather dead-end, grey town, both outwardly successful in their careers but both inwardly feeling that somehow they haven’t achieved their early ambitions, both haunted for different reasons by an event from many years earlier. The careful depiction of the town is so authentic that it feels as if it must exist and that the Restaurant de la Cloche is a real place where the regulars are real people who really gather each night to bicker over the news of the day.

There is a strange device employed whereby the book is credited to one Raymond Brunet, translated into English by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Because of Burnet’s success as an author, especially with his Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, a reader coming to it now realises this is an obvious fiction, although it is presented quite credibly and if I hadn’t heard of the author before I may well have fallen for it, not noticing the similarity in the names. (Having done my usual thing of reading the second book in this duology first – The Accident on the A35 – I knew going in how this aspect would be developed in the next book, but wondered what I’d have made of it if I’d read this one first. It may have struck me as an unnecessary and slightly pretentious device, so I do think it’s important to see these books as halves of a whole, although storywise each stands on its own as complete.)

Brunet, Burnet and Inspector Gorski all admit to the influence of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, the first two as writers and Gorski as having been inspired to become a detective by reading the books. I’ve read a few Maigret books but am not really well enough acquainted with his work to judge how well Burnet catches the tone, so I defer to better read reviewers who seem to feel he’s done it very well. The mood is noir, but as I said in my review of the other book, the drabness of St Louis makes it a faded noir – grey rather than black.

The writing is wonderful, both in the physical descriptions and in the depth of characterisation. Told in the third person we are nevertheless allowed deep inside the minds of the two men, and both are interesting. Despite a failing marriage and a stalled career, Gorski is basically a contented man who feels he has found his level. It may not be the level he once hoped he would reach and he may still harbour dreams that one day he’ll do something to impress people, but he’s comfortable in his own skin. The same is not true of Baumann. An outsider all his life, he thinks obsessively about how other people see him and as he feels suspicion surrounding him becomes almost paranoic, thinking that he’s being watched not just by the police but by the people of the town. He may be right – we see this through his eyes so we have only his impressions to go on. As the book progresses we learn more about the experiences that have formed Baumann, and I found myself having a great deal of sympathy for him while simultaneously finding him repellent. Truly an excellent creation – believable as the kind of man any of us may know and yet ultimately unknowable, even to himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Adèle disappears not just from St Louis but from the book. She is never developed as a character, deliberately, her only importance existing in her absence. Her mystery exists mostly in her blankness – one feels that if she had never disappeared, she would never have been noticed at all. There seem to be no grief-stricken relatives and her job at the restaurant is soon filled. Even her boyfriend barely knew her. And Gorski, though he tries not to admit it, is somewhat hopeful that she has indeed been killed, giving him the opportunity to make his mark and make things right with his conscience by finally solving a murder.

I’d be hard put to choose between the books in the duo – both are excellent individually and together they become something really quite special and, in my opinion, unique in crime writing. I recommend them both highly and hope that Burnet will continue to blur the boundaries of literary and genre fiction in his future work.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Measure of Malice edited by Martin Edwards

The clue’s in the clue…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another collection of vintage crime from the winning partnership of Martin Edwards and the British Library, this one contains fourteen stories sharing the theme of scientific detectives or clues. There’s a lot of imagination on display as the authors seek to find unique problems to put before their detectives – everything from Sherlock Holmes and his expert knowledge of cigar ash, to laryngoscopes, anaphylactic shock, new-fangled “contact glasses” and a different twist on identifying corpses from dental records. There’s a mix of well-known authors, authors who are becoming better known again thanks to the work of Edwards and the BL, and a couple I’ve not come across before.

And as always, there’s a considerable variation in quality. In total, I gave just 3 of the stories 5 stars, but another 5 rated as 4 stars. There were a couple I really felt weren’t up to a standard to make them worthy of inclusion, and all the others came in around the 3 star mark. The early collections in the BL Crime Classics series tended to have the settings as the theme – London, country houses, people on holiday, etc – while the more recent ones have focused on the type of mystery. It’s purely subjective, but I preferred the earlier themes – the settings allowed for a mix of motives and methods, whereas the later ones being centred on particular sub-genres of the sub-genre make the variety narrower, and often have the focus on alibis or clues rather than on the interactions of the characters. So it all depends on reader preference, as usual, and I suspect people who like this kind of story would rate some of the stories higher than I have.

Here’s a taste of a few that I enjoyed most:

The Boscombe Valley Mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – it seems to be becoming a tradition that these anthologies kick off with a Holmes story and this is a good one. A man is murdered and his son is suspected, but Holmes quickly discovers there may have been a third person on the scene. It all hinges on footprints, cigar ash, and the dying victim’s last words… “a rat”!

The Horror of Studley Grange by LT Meade and Clifford Halifax – Lady Studley asks Dr Halifax to come to the Grange because she’s worried about her husband’s health. But Dr Halifax is equally worried about Lady Studley who seems to be very ill. This turns into a decent horror story, complete with ghostly apparitions, but in a scientific mystery it won’t surprise you to know the horror is of human origin. The whodunit is a bit obvious, but the detection of the how and why aspects is fun and it’s very well told.

In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L Sayers – I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I vastly prefer Sayers in short story mode than in her novels, probably because she gets to the point more quickly and so there’s less time for Lord Peter Wimsey to become annoying. This one is a fun story that begins when Lord Peter is visiting his dentist, who has been asked to identify a burned corpse from his dental records. Of course, Lord Peter tags along which is just as well, since he spots something the experts have missed! It’s played for laughs with a lot of humour around the horrors of dentistry and in the description of the victim’s awful wife. Very enjoyable and of course well written.

Blood Sport by Edmund Crispin – this is very short but good fun nevertheless. A woman is shot and the local lord is suspected, since apparently he was getting up to hanky-panky with the victim, who was no better than she should be. But the detective spots a discrepancy around the cleaning of a gun which sends him off in a different direction. Reminded me that I really must read more Crispin.

As always it includes an informative general introduction from Martin Edwards, plus mini-biographies of each of the authors. So if scientific clues and detectives are your thing, then there’s plenty in this to enjoy.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Something to Answer For by PH Newby

The first Booker winner…

😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1956, and Townrow has returned to Port Said, a place he first visited when serving in the army in WW2. This time he’s there at the request of Ethel Khoury, the English widow of an Egyptian man who had befriended Townrow on his earlier visit. Mrs Khoury believes Elie, her husband, was murdered and wants Townrow to… well, actually I have no idea what she wanted Townrow to do, so, moving swiftly on…! Anyway, Townrow is a bit of a small-time crook and his plan is to con Mrs Khoury out of the possessions the wealthy Elie left her. But on his first night in Port Said, Townrow is attacked and is left with a head injury which makes his memories confused, and then Nasser, the President of Egypt, announces he is nationalising the Suez Canal – one of the last outposts of the dying British Empire. When the British and French decide they must retaliate to keep the Canal under Western control, the situation in Port Said will soon be as confused as the thoughts in Townrow’s head, though not quite as confused as this poor reader.

At the halfway point I would happily have thrown this in the bin except for the fact that I needed to fill the Suez Canal spot on my Around the World challenge and I couldn’t find any other books for it! It redeemed itself a little in the last quarter when finally Townrow begins to live in the present rather than in his jumbled thoughts and memories. It won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969, beating Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark amongst others. I imagine that lots of people decide to read the Booker Prize winners in order, get halfway through this one, and decide not to bother…

Sifting through the general incomprehensibility of it, Newby is satirising the British imperial mindset, and examining the effect of the Suez crisis on the British psyche, I think. It’s clearly aiming at humour some of the time, and even veers towards farce occasionally, but not very successfully – it’s too messy. Although not terribly moral himself, Townrow has a profound belief in the decency of the British in their dealings with their citizens, allies and colonial dependencies. The first sign of a crack in this belief is when he is accosted at the airport by a Jew from Hungary who insists that in 1942 the British deliberately failed to warn Hungarian Jews not to board the trains that would take them to the Nazi death camps. Townrow denies this could possibly have happened (did it? I don’t know), but the question remains in his fractured mind. Then when the British bomb Cairo after the annexation of the Canal, he is shocked to the core. This is not the way the Britain in which he believes would act, apparently. (I find that strange, because of all the things we did in the Empire era, was that really the worst? Perhaps it’s a time dilation thing – to Newby it was pretty much current affairs; to me it’s part of a long history.)

The underlying suggestion, I think, is that it was the Suez Crisis that changed the British attitude from hubristic imperialist pride to the kind of breast-beating shame that followed in the second half of the twentieth century. Again he may well be right, although I’d have thought the loss of India was a bigger milestone on that journey. To me what Suez represents is the British realisation that it no longer dominated the world, politically or militarily, and that America had become the new superpower. So shame, yes, but of our weakness in the present rather than of our actions in the past. But, and I freely admit I didn’t have a clue what Newby was trying to say most of the time, that wasn’t what I felt he was suggesting. However, I’m pretty sure Townrow’s head injury, confusion and loss of faith in British decency is symbolic of what Newby saw as the effects on the national psyche of the sudden collapse of the Empire after the war.

PH Newby

So all very interesting and just my kind of thing. Unfortunately, the rambling confusion of Townrow’s thoughts, the complete unreliability of his memory, the constant shifting back and forwards in time, all left me grinding my teeth in frustration. It should never be quite this hard to work out what an author is trying to say. But more than that, the way Townrow’s memories keep shifting means that there’s no plot to grab onto and no characterisation to give the book any form of emotional depth. Who are these people? Every time Townrow tells us about Mrs Khoury, for example, she is different than she was the last time. His mistress, Leah, shifts about from everything between being the tragic wife of a mentally ill husband to being some kind of sadistic dominatrix, and all points in-between. I didn’t have a clue who she really was even as I turned the last page, but I’m almost positive she was symbolic of… something. Townrow himself is rather better drawn, but unfortunately is entirely unlikeable – even his partial redemption rings false. And either Townrow or Newby, perhaps both, have an unhealthy habit of referring to women as bitches or sluts, and clearly one of them at least finds the most important aspect of any woman to be her breasts. Well, it was the ‘60s, I suppose.

Overall I found this far too vague and frustrating to be enjoyable. It does become clearer at the end, which raised it slightly from the 1-star rating it was heading towards, and made me regret that Newby hadn’t chosen to tell the story in a more straightforward way throughout. He clearly had interesting things to say, but the execution doesn’t match the ambition. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Caribbean Mystery (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie narrated by Joan Hickson

You can take the woman out of the village…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Marple’s kind nephew Raymond has sent her on a vacation to St Honoré to soak up some sunshine after she’s been unwell. She’s staying at the Golden Palm resort, filled with visitors from around the world though the plot sticks pretty much to the Brits and Americans. One visitor, Major Palgrave, likes to tell long rambling stories of his colonial days and Miss Marple makes the perfect audience. As a genteel lady of a certain age, she has perfected the art of making gentlemen believe she’s listening avidly while in reality she’s pursuing her own thoughts or counting the stitches in her knitting. But when Major Palgrave suddenly dies, Miss Marple is convinced that it’s connected to a story he was telling her about how he once met a murderer. If only she’d been paying more attention! Struggling to recall the details and also feeling a little out of her element so far from home, Miss Marple realises that she can still use village parallels even amongst these strangers – human nature, she finds, is the same everywhere…

While I don’t consider this to be one of Christie’s very best, it’s still a very entertaining mystery and the exotic setting gives it an added interest, although (like many tourists) Miss Marple never sets foot outside the resort so we get very little feel for what life for the real islanders may be like. Another of the residents is Mr Rafiel, an elderly invalid with a grumpy temper. At first inclined to dismiss Miss Marple as a gossipy old woman, he finds she stands up to him more than most people and comes to respect her insight, so that gradually they begin to work together to find the truth. The other residents, including Mr Rafiel’s staff, become the pool of suspects and Miss Marple knows that her only investigatory tool is the art of drawing people out through conversation. Happily people do love to gossip so she soon has plenty of background on the potential suspects, although she has to sift through conflicting stories to get to the truth.

Agatha Christie was long before political correctness, of course, and I see from other reviews that some people think her portrayal of the islanders is racist. I don’t, but that may be because of my age. It seems to me that Christie speaks as respectfully of the black characters as of the white – her dialect sounds a bit clunky, perhaps, and she comments, though not disparagingly, on different customs, but surely we can still do that, can’t we? Mind you, I’ve also seen reviews calling the Miss Marple books ageist – baffled – and sexist – baffled again. She was merely reflecting the society in which she lived. (I am glad I’ve lived most of my life in an era when people weren’t scrutinising every word and expression looking for reasons to be perpetually outraged. It must be so exhausting.)

This time I listened to the audiobook narrated by Joan Hickson, whose portrayal of Miss Marple I love. However, it must be said that she can’t do Caribbean accents at all and her islanders therefore come over as kind of caricatures and rather off-putting to modern ears. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been an issue when she recorded the book but I think modern listeners would expect something that sounded a little more authentic. This is one case where reluctantly I’d definitely recommend reading rather than listening.

Agatha Christie

An enjoyable book, particularly for readers who have been disappointed previously to find that Miss Marple doesn’t always have a big role in the books she’s in. In this one, she’s very definitely the central character and we’re given access to her inner thoughts, not just about the crime, but about ageing and about life in general. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always seen Miss Marple as Ms Christie’s alter-ego in these later books (it was published in 1964, when Christie would herself have been 74), and so I always feel we’re getting a bit of insight into her view of modern society – not always “woke”, I grant you, but always true to her age and time.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 226…

Episode 226

No! No, no, no!!! What’s happening to me??? After last week’s ginormous jump, I was so sure the TBR would drop this week, but… it’s up another FOUR to 216! Partly this is because I’m currently reading three longish books so haven’t finished one for days, and partly it’s because I’ve had a couple of unsolicited ones sent by publishers (which is always fun and gets me to read things I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise pick). Then there have been a couple of unmissable Kindle deals. So you see, it’s really not my fault! 

Here are a few I should get to soon…

Fiction

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Mahfouz is a Nobel Prize winner, which ought to be a recommendation but, given my experiences with fellow winners in the past, I view more as a warning. However, it does sound excellent. I’m only planning to read the first in the trilogy, Palace Walk, as a way to visit Egypt for my Around the World challenge. Hopefully I’ll love it enough to want to read the other two later… 

The Blurb says: The Nobel Prize—winning writer’s masterwork is the engrossing story of a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain’s occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The novels of The Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sons–the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination in Palace of Desire, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the aging patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician.

Throughout the trilogy, the family’s trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two World Wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humour, and remarkable insight, The Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.

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Classic English Fiction

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I read this a year or so ago and tragically kept putting off writing a review until it got to the point I no longer felt it was fresh enough in my mind to do so. Fortunately it’s short and I loved it, so it’s no hardship to read it again. This time I’ll take notes! One for the Classics Club. 

The Blurb says: Conrad’s narrator Marlow, a seaman and wanderer, recounts his physical and psychological journey in search of the infamous ivory trader Kurtz: dying, insane, and guilty of unspeakable atrocities. Travelling upriver to the heart of the African continent, he gradually becomes obsessed by this enigmatic, wraith-like figure. Marlow’s discovery of how Kurtz has gained his position of power over the local people involves him in a radical questioning, not only of his own nature and values, but also those of western civilisation. The inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning film Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness is a quintessentially modernist work exploring the limits of human experience and the nightmarish realities of imperialism.

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Thriller

Westwind by Ian Rankin

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. There appears to be a new trend of publishers digging out the early, out of print works of famous authors and re-publishing them, and this is one of those. Sometimes this turns up a hidden gem, other times one feels it would have been kinder to leave them buried in the past. We’ll see which category this one falls into…

The Blurb says: It always starts with a small lie. That’s how you stop noticing the bigger ones.

After his friend suspects something strange going on at the launch facility where they both work – and then goes missing – Martin Hepton doesn’t believe the official line of “long-term sick leave”…

Refusing to stop asking questions, he leaves his old life behind, aware that someone is shadowing his every move. The only hope he has is his ex-girlfriend Jill Watson – the only journalist who will believe his story.

But neither of them can believe the puzzle they’re piecing together – or just how shocking the secret is that everybody wants to stay hidden…

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Vintage Crime

Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr

Courtesy of the British Library. I absolutely loved It Walks by Night – the first Bencolin and Marle book – so am thrilled that the BL has now followed up with the second. The very title send shivers of pleasurable anticipation down my spine…

The Blurb says: That is the case. Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.

And so a dark shadow looms over the Rhineland where Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle have arrived from Paris. Entreated by the Belgian financier D’Aunay to investigate the gruesome and grimly theatrical death of actor Myron Alison, the pair find themselves at the imposing hilltop fortress Schloss Schädel, in which a small group of suspects are still assembled.

As thunder rolls in the distance, Bencolin and Marle enter a world steeped in macabre legends of murder and magic to catch the killer still walking the maze-like passages and towers of the keep.

This new edition of John Dickson Carrs spirited and deeply atmospheric early novel also features the rare Inspector Bencolin short story ‘The Fourth Suspect’.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?