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FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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The Stranger by Harlan Coben

the strangerThe corrosive power of secrets…

:D :D :D :D

Adam and Corinne are living the middle-class American Dream – nice house in suburbia, he a lawyer, she a teacher, two lovely, sporty, intelligent, well-behaved teenage sons. (Be honest, you really hope their life is about to be messed up, don’t you? Don’t worry…) One evening, a stranger approaches Adam in a bar and reveals to him a secret about Corinne that will rock their marriage to its foundations. At first, Adam is unwilling to believe it but a little online investigation convinces him of the truth of it. Now he must confront Corinne, not knowing that this will be the thing that causes their lives to spiral out of control…

When Harlan Coben is on top form, he’s my favourite thriller writer. He specialises in the ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and his books are always full of twists, making them compulsive reading. Though they always contain violence, it’s never graphic and he steers well away from sleaze. He’s also mastered the lost art of using adjectives that start with letters other than ‘f’, and his heroes don’t lose control of their bladders every time they get in danger. It could be argued that the books are a little old-fashioned in tone, but that works for me and, since they’re consistently best-sellers, it seems it works for a lot of other people too.

In this one, he’s not quite on his best form but it’s still very good. It gets off to a slow start, and it took me a while to warm up to Adam’s character. He seems too ready to believe the secret about his wife, and the secret didn’t seem to me to warrant quite the melodramatic reaction he has to it. However, he improves on acquaintance, becoming in the end possibly one of the most fully realised of Coben’s heroes. Once he recovers from his rather selfish response to the first shock, he begins to be more concerned about the effect on Corinne and the boys, gradually becoming more likeable so that it’s easy to be rooting for him by the time the danger reaches its peak.

The plot requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, as is par for the course for thrillers. It’s based on the use of technology and the security, or otherwise, of personal data. In the last few books, I’ve felt Coben’s main character has felt like a man of Coben’s age – mid-fifties – rather than the fictional age – usually around late thirties/early forties, and that’s the case in this book too. Adam’s ignorance of all things techie doesn’t ring true for a relatively young man in a professional career. However his naivety allows Coben to pace the various revelations as Adam finds out more about how to track people and information online, usually from his much more savvy teenage sons. As the book progresses, the plot gets more complex and more fun to read, though at points it gets perilously close to leaving the reader on the wrong side of the credulity line.

Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben

Well written and flowing, as his books always are, this one has a more thoughtful edge, looking at the dynamics of family life and the corrosive power of secrets. The depiction of Adam’s relationship with his sons feels realistic and, when danger strikes, Adam’s realisation that his love for his wife is stronger than he knew is done very convincingly. These aspects slow down the action, meaning this isn’t quite the thrill ride we’ve come to anticipate from Coben. And the ending is not at all what I expect in a Coben book, which I found disappointing even while recognising that it must be deeply annoying for authors when their fans expect them to churn out the same old, same old every time, while keeping it fresh! Fans can be so pesky!

Even when he’s not at his absolute best, Coben is still head and shoulders above most of the thriller writers out there, and this book is still far and away better than the average thriller, and something a little bit different from his usual style. Recommended.

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

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Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

dune messiahPower corrupts…

:D :D :D :D :D

(This is the second book in the Dune series, and therefore the review will contain spoilers for the first book, Dune. You have been warned!)

It’s twelve years since we left Paul Muad’dib at the end of Dune – twelve years in which his war against the Harkonnen and the Emperor has grown into a jihad resulting in the deaths of tens of billions and the destruction of several planets. Paul’s beginning to wonder if perhaps things might have gone a little too far. His power of prescience has made him an unwilling Messiah to his people, but the ability to see so many possible futures, none of them good, has left him desperate to find a way out that will stop the killing. Now married to the old Emperor’s daughter, poor Princess Irulan, Paul’s heart still belongs to his concubine, the Fremen woman Chani, and he is denying Irulan the child that she and the Bene Gesserit want to continue the bloodlines of these two important families. Driven to desperation by his cruelty, poor Irulan has reluctantly joined a conspiracy against him…

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

Art by Henrik Sahlstrom

In contrast to the first book which took a bit of time to get going, Dune Messiah leaps straight into the plot with a great introductory chapter, giving a brief summary of how the war went after the end of Dune and foreshadowing what’s to come – Paul’s downfall. It’s very definitely a sequel – all the world-building was done in Dune, so anyone trying to read this as a standalone would be totally lost. To my disappointment, Lady Jessica doesn’t put in an appearance, but Alia is now fifteen and plays a major role. Stilgar is still there as Paul’s loyal right-hand man, and Duncan Idaho makes a distinctly creepy return. And the Reverend Mother Gaius Mohiam is back in all her Bene Gesserit single-mindedness.

New characters are also introduced – Edric, the fish-like Guild Merchant, floating around in a tank filled with melange gas – the spice drug, and Scytale, the Face Dancer, able to change his appearance and even gender at will. Dune has now become the centre of Paul’s Empire, and the hub of the conspiracies that are going on around him. But what the conspirators don’t know, though the reader does, is that Paul has a plan of his own to bring an end to the jihad – a plan so complex and obscure that I’m still not sure what it was, but whatever it was, it was a bad one!!

Edric by Mark Zug

Edric by Mark Zug

The odd thing about this second book is that I really disliked just about everybody (except poor badly-treated Princess Irulan) but loved the book. Paul has turned into some kind of manically depressed dictator – it really seems pointless being able to see lots of possible futures if you always end up picking the most miserable one. I can’t help feeling if he’d got off the spice drug and cleaned up his act, he might have found that as Emperor of Pretty-Much-Everything he could have insisted on peace. Given that the book was written in the ’60s, surely he must have known that there were alternative drugs readily available on any college campus that would have had him happily emblazoning ‘Make Love, Not War’ on his troops’ uniforms? And it was so incredibly mean of him to marry poor Princess Irulan and then to refuse to… well, you know… make a baby with her. No wonder she was slipping contraceptives into Chani’s food and conspiring against Paul – what red-blooded girl wouldn’t in these circumstances? Personally, I reckon they should have ditched Paul and made her Empress! She couldn’t feasibly have done a worse job.

Poor sweet Princess Irulan

Poor sweet Princess Irulan

Of course, then she’d have had to deal with Alia who, you will recall from Dune, at the age of four was cheerfully stabbing enemy prisoners to death to recover their water for the tribe. Imagine what a fun adolescent she has turned into! She has now become the religious figurehead for the regime, much to the annoyance of the displaced Bene Gesserit, and is just of the age to fall in love, which she promptly does with the most spectacularly freakish man in the universe. To be fair, she at least seems to have realised that Paul’s gone nuts, which is more than either Chani or Stilgar seem to have spotted, both of them remaining downtrodden sycophants.

Sycophantic concubine Chani

Downtrodden sycophantic concubine Chani

There is a sense of fatalism about the book. For all his mental powers, Paul is unable to see a future that will allow him to stop the jihad while protecting the people he most loves. In the end, he must decide whether to put the welfare of his family above the greater good, and Herbert does an excellent job of showing his struggle. To the outside world, he is either Messiah or dictator, or both, and is as hated and feared as he is loved. Conspiracy and mistrust are all around him, each faction with its own reasons for resentment and its own differing aims. And perhaps there are possible futures that are hidden even from Paul.

Cute little Alia aged 4

Cute little Alia aged 4

But the stand-out character in this one is Alia. With powers as great as Paul’s, perhaps greater, she hasn’t yet acquired his fatalism and is ready to fight against what he sees as inevitable. Blessed or cursed while yet in the womb with the knowledge and life experiences of the whole host of Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers who came before her, she still has the normal struggles and desires of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. The portrayal of the society and women’s subordinate place in it remains as curiously outdated as in the original, but Alia transcends this, becoming a major power player in her own right. Even in her romance she undoubtedly takes the lead. Having a female character of such strength makes the book feel more modern and better balanced than Dune itself.

It’s not often the sequel is better than the original, but in my opinion this one is, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether the high standard of this one will be maintained in the third in the series, Children of Dune.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Detection from A to Z…

 

C. Auguste Dupin is credited with being the first fictional detective and was the influence for many later ones, not least my beloved Sherlock Holmes. So it seems only fair that he make an appearance in this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

 

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

This is the third and last of Poe’s Dupin stories, and also the shortest. The first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a gruesome, gory mystery with possibly the silliest murderer in detective fiction. The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s attempt to provide a solution to a true crime – the first time this had been done in the form of fiction. While I appreciated both stories for their originality and influential status, I found Dupin an annoying creation and wasn’t particularly enamoured of Poe’s writing style in these stories. So I came to the third one with reasonably low expectations, which Poe met in full.

The plot concerns a letter, stolen from an unamed lady, probably the Queen, the contents of which, if they were made public, would be damaging to the lady’s husband, probably the King. One evening, as Dupin and the narrator are sitting in Dupin’s library, they are interrupted by the arrival of the Prefect of the Parisian Police, known only as G (which brings me to my first annoyance – if telling a fictional story, why not give the man a fictional name and have done? If the intention is to make it seem as if it’s a true story, then by telling us his title Poe has already destroyed his anonymity). G tells Dupin that it is known who stole the letter, a government Minister, known only as D (sigh). D is now using the letter to blackmail the unnamed lady (let’s call her Q). G also says it is assumed that D must have the letter close at hand, so that he can make use of it or destroy it if need be. Dupin agrees with this assumption. G then describes the meticulous searches that have been carried out of D’s property, including taking furniture apart, lifting carpets and examining every inch of the place with microscopes – all while D is away from home and remarkably leaving no traces of the search for him to find. All to no avail. He asks for Dupin’s advice, and Dupin helpfully tells him to go back and search again. (At this point, had I been G, this would have turned into a murder mystery…)

c auguste dupin

A whole month later, G is back to say that the reward for the return of the letter has been doubled and that he, G, would cheerfully give 50,000 francs to anyone who could tell him how to find the letter. At this, Dupin tells him to write a cheque, and then hands over the letter. G rushes off happily to collect the reward and Dupin settles down to tell the narrator (N?) of his brilliant deductions.

This might all sound like a spoiler, but the story is actually about how Dupin came to his conclusion as to where the letter was hidden and the bulk of the story happens after he has handed it over to G. Dupin’s basic theory is that G, being fairly dim-witted, was assuming that D would hide the letter somewhere where G himself would have done so, rather than putting himself into D’s mind and considering what he would do. Dupin, being highly intelligent, is able to assess the intelligence of his adversary, thus enabling Dupin to work out where D would be most likely to hide it. It’s a lengthy explanation, with much talk of poets and mathematicians and how their minds work, and I fear I found it frankly dull. My second major annoyance, and I know this was typical of the time, is Poe’s dropping in of bits of Latin and French – even the last line is a quote in French, and I had to google the translation. Clearly Poe was only aiming his story at the highly educated of his time, since I can’t imagine your ‘ordinary’ reader having an in-depth knowledge of the works of Crébillon (who?).

the purloined letter 1

The influence on Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be clearer, but Conan Doyle is a much better story-teller and, for all his faults, Holmes is a much more likeable character. Poe’s narrator has no personality to speak of, nor even a name, while Watson makes up for any warmth that Holmes might lack.

Again I admire the originality and am grateful for anything that inspired the Holmes stories, but this one failed to engage or entertain me. Worth reading, I grudgingly suppose, for its place in the history of detective fiction… here it is.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: :?: :?:

Overall story rating:      :( :(

The Defence by Steve Cavanagh

the defenceTick, tick, tick…

:D :D :D :D

It’s been a year since lawyer Eddie Flynn last stepped into a courtroom, but he has no choice when the head of the Russian mafia makes him an offer he can’t refuse. With a bomb strapped to his back and his young daughter being held hostage, Eddie has to make sure Olek Volchek beats the murder rap he’s facing, or else. And he only has 48 hours to do it in.

Eddie used to be a conman before he became a lawyer, and found that the skills of his earlier profession translated well to his new career. But a year before the book begins, a case went badly wrong, and Eddie was plunged into a downward spiral of drunkenness that led to him losing his family. After undergoing rehab, he’s now dry(ish) and getting back on track, but the events of the past still haunt him. The sub-plot of the case that drove him away from the law runs in parallel with the main story and provides a bit of background to Eddie’s character.

The baddies are the stuff of caricature, evil monsters who will go to any lengths to protect themselves. Fortunately they’re also pretty thick, giving Eddie the chance to try to con his way out of the situation. An added bonus is that the judge, prosecutor and state witnesses are frankly rather sub-standard, allowing Eddie to manipulate them to help damage their own case. And it’s good that Eddie also happens to have the physical powers of a low-grade superhero, a common feature of the ‘ordinary’ guys who find themselves in the plots of thrillers. But Eddie is a likeable character, and the first-person past tense narrative allows us to follow his thought processes (though he occasionally keeps stuff back to help build the tension). Underneath his problems, he’s a good guy who loves his family and would do anything to save his daughter, and his chequered past has given him the kind of friends that come in useful when tackling the mafia. (I’d love to have a friend called Jimmy the Hat, wouldn’t you? Apparently he’s called that because he wears a hat! Who’d have thought it?)

Steve Cavanagh

Steve Cavanagh

This is described as a legal thriller and the publisher compares it to John Grisham, but I feel it would be more accurate to describe it simply as a thriller, since the legal side of it takes a back seat to the action-man stuff in the end, and I’d be more inclined to compare it to Harlan Coben in style. It’s marginally less believable than Santa Claus (sorry, kids!) but good fun – well-written, fast-paced and with plenty of twists to keep those pages turning, all leading up to an explosive climax. There’s a lot of violence, but it’s not graphically described, and thrillingly there’s pretty much zero foul language and no sex scenes! Who knew you could write a good book without those ingredients, eh? Overall it’s a very good debut that augurs well for the future, and I’ll certainly be looking out for Steve Cavanagh’s next book. Highly enjoyable!

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

Amazon UK Link
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Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
MARCH

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

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

 

2011

 

The BurningThis is the first in the Maeve Kerrigan series, though not Jane Casey’s first book. I loved Maeve as soon as we met her – an ambitious young police officer who gets on well with her colleagues and has a great sense of humour. Josh Derwent, who has grown into a major character as the series has progressed, is just one of the team in this book. The real male lead is the lovely Rob, and the budding romance between Maeve and him is handled beautifully. Ah, Rob! I’m worried that it’s all beginning to go horribly wrong between you and Maeve – can’t wait for the next book (After the Fire – due out on 18th June) to find out. Jane Casey has established herself as one of my must-read-on-publication-day-if-not-before authors, and it’s a double treat this year, since her third in the YA Jess Tennant series is due out in August.

 

2012

 

Charles Dickens Theatre CallowI adored this superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man’s life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens’ love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens’ own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Who better to write such a book than Simon Callow, who has played Dickens so superbly on stage in his one man show? An exuberant and boisterous biography, and a fitting tribute to the affection Callow has for the man and his works.

 

2013

 

fallen landIn this extraordinary book, Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results. Part terrifying psychological thriller/part wonderful literary novel, this book inspired me to start blogging so I could rave about it, won the FF Book of the Year Award for 2013, and my declaration that it should be nominated as the Great American Novel for this decade started off the GAN Quest! So it would be surprising if it didn’t appear as the best of March 2013, really, wouldn’t it? What do you mean you still haven’t read it? Why not???

 

2014

 

the martian coverAfter an accident during a dust storm, Mark Watney finds himself alone on Mars. His colleagues in the Ares 3 expedition believed he was dead and were forced to evacuate the planet while they still could. The communications system was broken in the storm so Mark can’t let anyone know he’s alive. And it’s four years till the next scheduled mission to Mars. I loved this book – more old-fashioned adventure story than sci-fi, really, with a wonderfully likeable protagonist, tons of humour, and a brilliantly depicted setting on the surface of Mars. Can’t wait for the film, nor to see what Andy Weir comes up with next…

 

2015

 

The Shut EyeBelinda Bauer is another of the more recent additions to my must-read list, and her latest novel lived up to my expectations. Little Daniel Buck ran out of his house one morning four months ago and has never been seen since. Edie Evans was older when she went missing several months earlier, nearly a teenager, but the signs are even more sinister in her case, since blood was found beside her broken and abandoned bicycle. Edie’s case still haunts DCI John Marvel, especially since he has convinced himself that she is still alive. Always well plotted, and with great characterisation, what I love most about Bauer’s books is the way she uses some pretty black humour to lift the tone of even the grimmest storylines. Clicking on the cover for this one will take you through to the Petrona Remembered blog, where my review can be found along with a host of great recommendations from other bloggers.

 

* * * * *

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

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

the maltese falconLights, camera, action…

:D :D :D :D :D

When luscious Miss Wonderly hires the detective firm of Spade and Archer to find her sister, who has run off with a man named Floyd Thursby, Sam Spade might not believe her story but he’s happy to accept the $200 dollars she pays them upfront. So is Miles Archer, though his interest is more in the lady’s lovely legs. The job turns out to be more than either partner bargains for though, when both Miles and then Floyd are shot dead. With Miss Wonderly begging for his help to protect her and find the Maltese Falcon of the title, Miles’ wife hoping his death means she and Sam can finally be together, and the police accusing him of murdering Floyd in revenge for Miles’ death, Spade is in trouble up to his neck. But nothing he can’t handle…

the maltese falcon 1

Did Dashiell Hammett invent noir? I don’t know, but Sam Spade is the earliest iconic noir detective, and the one that has spawned a zillion clones down the years. The book reads like a film, making it understandable why the film of the book works so well. Heavy on dialogue, the camera stays focused on Sam Spade at all times and yet we are never allowed inside his head. As he twists and lies and manoeuvres his way through the plot, the reader has no more idea than anyone else what his true intentions might be. Has he fallen for Miss Wonderly, aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy, or is he using her? Will he double-cross her and take the money offered by the mismatched baddies Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo? Or will he trick them all, and take the fabled golden bird for himself? It’s only as the end plays out that we discover whether Spade does have some kind of moral code hidden beneath his smooth chain-smoking exterior.

“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere.”

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

It’s a while since I watched the film, but it seems to me that the script stuck very closely to the book, and the casting was pretty much perfect. As a result, I could see the movie characters in my head while reading. It’s not just the dialogue that makes the book feel so filmic. Hammett describes every movement that Spade makes in minute detail, from the fight scenes to the rolling of his endless cigarettes, and it gave me the impression of an obsessive director’s notes on how he wanted his actors to play each scene. It also feels like a studio film – there’s very little description of the world outside and the San Francisco setting could really have been any city in America. It’s rare to have quite so little sense of place in a novel, and yet it works. Like a classy film-star, Spade is so compelling that the reader doesn’t need to have the background filled out, and the great supporting cast of eccentric characters provides all the necessary contrast to highlight Spade’s starring role.

Bogart_Mary_Astor_The_Maltese_Falcon_1941

I’ve seen lots of reviews comparing this book adversely to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My preference is for this one. I found The Big Sleep messy plotwise, and the atmospheric writing didn’t fully compensate for that. The plot of this one is tight and controlled, with each twist revealed at the perfect moment, and while the language may not be poetic, it sets a distinctive tone. The device of keeping the reader outside the thoughts of the characters works very effectively – ultimately the real mystery is nothing to do with the falcon, or even who killed Miles. It’s about what will Spade do – who is he? He’s neither likeable nor particularly admirable, but the enigma that surrounds his moral code makes him intriguing and fascinating. The book is, of course, horribly misogynistic and homophobic, but it was written nearly a century ago (1929) so I graciously forgive it, especially since Hammett manages to tell his gritty, twisted, violent tale without the need for any offensive language.

Gutman smiled benignly at him and said: “Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn’t be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but – well, by Gad! – if you lose a son it’s possible to get another – and there’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Orion have reissued this as part of a series they call ‘Read a Great Movie’ and I have to say that this, for me, was a perfect example of doing just that. I’ll be checking to see what else is in the series…

poster-maltese-falcon-the-1941_02

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

Amazon UK Link
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Tuesday ’Tec! Razor Edge by Anthony Berkeley

resorting to murderElementary, my dear Sheringham…

 

Like last week’s Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, Resorting to Murder is another anthology of crime stories edited by Martin Edwards, published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, this time with the theme of murders committed during summer holidays. According to the introduction to this story, Anthony Berkeley was pretty well known as one of the crime writers of the Golden Age. Personally I’ve never heard of him, either under that name, which he used when writing whodunits, or as Francis Iles, the name he used for novels about the psychology of crime. Roger Sheringham, the amateur detective in this story, appeared in several other stories, though this one was never published until 1994, and even then in a strictly limited edition. So time to see if it’s a forgotten treasure or just one that should have been left on the shelf, in this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

Razor Edge by Anthony Berkeley

 

Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley

Here, ladies and gentlemen, are the facts of the case. Your mission is to see if you can find the solution…

Roger Sheringham is spending the weekend with his old friend Major Drake, who just happens to be the Chief Constable of the seaside resort of Penhampton. A man is found drowned – not an uncommon occurrence in a place where the bathing is known to be dangerous. A distraught woman turns up at the police station and tells them that her husband, Edward Hutton, had gone bathing with another man, a fellow holidaymaker, Michael Barton. She subsequently identifies the corpse as her husband. Barton hasn’t been seen since, and all Mrs Hutton can say by way of description is that he had a long moustache. The police are confident it’s a tragic double drowning accident but, as you do when you have guests staying, Major Drake invites Sheringham to accompany him to the mortuary to look at the corpse. (Beats visiting the local museum, I suppose.)

Sheringham has a casual glance or two at the corpse and pretty much solves the whole thing on the spot, though in time-honoured fashion he keeps his conclusions to himself so that the police can show off their stupidity to the full. Here are the things Sheringham notices…

Clues

The man has a recent shaving cut on his lip.
The man’s chin is stubbly as if he hadn’t shaved that morning.
The man has scratches all over his back but none on the rest of his body.

From this, Sheringham deduces it’s a case of murder. Five points and a signed picture of Sheringham to anyone who can at this point tell me whodunit and how it was done. Oh, come on! Sheringham had the answer!

Had the man not been wearing a daring backless bathing suit, the murder may have gone unnoticed...

Had the man not been wearing a daring backless bathing suit, the murder may have gone unnoticed…

No? Oh, well, let’s assume that, like the police, you need a little extra help.

New clues found out in the course of the investigation

Barton owned a blue suit but wasn’t wearing it when he went bathing that day.
The blue suit is no longer in Barton’s tent.
There was a warrant out for the arrest of Hutton for dodgy sharedealing.
Mrs Hutton was seen the next day with a man in a blue suit.

Still not solved it? I guess you’ll just have to read the story then.

Oh, how did I do? Well, I admit I’d sussed out the whodunit from roughly page 2, and I worked out the why when the new clues came along. As to the how, well, I got about two-thirds of that bit, and frankly the other third was silly…

oh we do like...

Despite the fact that I’m making fun of it, the story isn’t too bad really, but neither is it particularly good. Because I haven’t read any of the other Sheringham stories I can’t say how it compares, but I found the writing pretty good and the characterisation pretty stereotyped. Sheringham himself is not so much a Holmesian incisive reasoner as an annoyingly smug, psychic know-it-all, and that’s just as well because the intellectually challenged police desperately needed help. While I like stories that give the reader the clues needed to work out the solution, they really have to be hidden a little better than they are in this one. I’m not sure it would encourage me to seek out more of Berkeley’s stories, but it whiled away a quarter of an hour pleasantly enough.

 

* * * * *

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

Overall story rating:      :D :D :)

Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye

gods of the morningA Highland year…

:D :D :D :D :)

In 1976, John Lister-Kaye bought an estate in the northern central Highlands of Scotland, and set up what is now Scotland’s premier field study centre, Aigas. Although a wide range of wildlife lives and is studied there, Lister-Kaye’s own main fascination is with the many varieties of birds that make their home there – his gods of the morning. In this book, he takes the reader through a year, showing the changes that come with each season, as different birds arrive, nest, breed and leave again. In the introduction, he talks about how he has noticed changes to nesting and breeding patterns over the years. He declares his reluctance to put the blame for these changes wholly at the door of climate change, but points to the growing unpredictability of weather patterns in recent years. His stated intention in this book is not to provide answers but rather, based on his personal observations, to pose some questions of his own.

Aigas Field Centre

Aigas Field Centre

Lister-Kaye is an established and respected nature writer and on the basis of this book it’s easy to see why. His knowledge of the natural world that surrounds him is matched by his passion for it, and his easy style and fine writing allow both to come through clearly to the reader. In truth, there isn’t much in here that adds to the debate on climate change and I wondered if perhaps nature writers currently feel they have to be seen to be talking about that, or be accused of burying their heads in the sand. In fact, the book is a fairly simple nature diary in structure, allowing Lister-Kaye to select topics that represent for him the progress of a natural year. For me, the suggestion of the climate change angle was something of a minor annoyance, since I kept waiting for it to be raised and, except for occasional references to changing migratory and breeding patterns, it really isn’t much. He makes much of the adverse impact of an early false spring followed by a big freeze in his chosen year, 2012/3, but points out himself that such anomalies have always happened.

…to do justice to nature, the nature of this mystical land of hills and glens, forests, lochs and rushing rivers, and to the confused seasons of what has proved to be a discomfiting and bizarre year, I need to start at a real transition, in late September when fidgets of swallows were gathering on telephone wires like chittering clothes-pegs; when the first tug of departure was fizzing in the blackcaps’ tiny brains; before moonlit frosts cantered rust through the bracken; before the chlorophyll finally bled from blushing leaves; even before the last osprey lifted and wheeled into its migration to Senegal or the Zambia. I need to start when the word was fresh on our lips, in the incipient, not-quite-sure-if-it’s-happened-yet autumn of 2012.

However, read purely for its description of the natural world of this fairly rugged part of the British Isles, the book is both informative and hugely enjoyable. The prose often heads towards lyrical without ever getting too overblown and, though he tells us a lot about the ‘science’ of nature, it’s done very lightly in passing, making it easy to absorb. The tone is personal, based on his own observations rather than textbook stuff, and is often interspersed with anecdotes about life in the field study centre or his own childhood. Like most naturalists, he combines a real passion for the creatures he observes with a hard-headed, non-sentimental approach, recognising that nature is indeed ‘red in tooth and claw’. But occasionally we see a bit of anger seep through at man’s behaviour towards nature, when for instance he describes the on-going poisoning of protected birds of prey, or the battery farming of thousands upon thousands of game birds, destined for slaughter by rich men (I considered saying ‘people’ but I think I’ll stick with ‘men’ in this case) who prefer to have the game fixed to ensure them a good ‘bag’.

John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat

John Lister-Kaye feeding a wildcat

Most of the book, though, is filled with delightfully told observations of the minutiae of life around the estate. His year runs from autumn 2012, and really gets underway in the second chapter as he shows the birds and animals preparing for winter – the red squirrels hiding their nuts, the woodmice moving indoors and making nests, the arrival of the geese, moving south from their Arctic summer. (I particularly enjoyed the bit about the geese, since my house happens to be beneath one of their migratory routes and twice a year for one or two days, the sky is dark with them passing and the noise could drown out a passing jumbo jet, except that happily no jumbo jets pass by here – it’s always one of the highlights of my own year, when I can be found standing in the garden gazing upwards in fascination at their squadron-like manoeuvres.) Also at this time of year, many birds are migrating away, and Lister-Kaye combines lovely descriptive writing with information on what triggers migrations, how they have been scientifically observed and some of the myths that have surrounded them in the past.

No sound in the world, not even the rough old music of the rooks, etches more deeply into my soul than the near-hysterical ‘wink-winking’ of pink-footed geese all crying together high overhead. It is a sound like none other. Sad, evocative, stirring and, for me, quintessentially wild, it arouses in me a yearning that seems to tug at the leash of our long separation from the natural world.

And this pattern of information and description continues as the long, harsh Highland winter rolls in with its short days, and we see the struggle for survival of those birds and animals that stay; then the welcome shortening of the nights bringing in the late spring, and moving on to the long days of summer when, this far north, darkness falls only briefly before the sun rises again.

Buzzard at Aigas Photo: rutlandjan via tripadvisor.co.uk

Buzzard at Aigas
Photo: rutlandjan via tripadvisor.co.uk

There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than reading or listening to a knowledgeable enthusiast telling of their passion, whatever it might be, and that’s what this book is. Whether telling us of the swan that couldn’t manage to take-off, or tales of his own beloved pet dogs, or of the nesting rooks he can see through the window while lying in his bath, this is a man talking about the things that bring him joy, and allowing the reader to share that joy with him. He doesn’t prettify nature but, even when its at its cruellest, he sees the glory in it. A most enjoyable trip to the Highlands with an expert guide.

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

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Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

stone mattressTelling tales…

:) :) :) :)

In her afterword, Margaret Atwood describes this book as a collection of nine ‘tales’, evoking “the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales”. She suggests that while the word ‘story’ can cover true life or realism, ‘tales’ can only be seen as fiction. Hmm…this seems like a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card to allow the author to make her characters dance to the puppeteer’s strings rather than attempting to invest them with a feeling of emotional truth, but then I’m not a huge fan of the trend towards mimicry of folk tales in general. Certainly the tales that worked best for me in this book were the ones where, regardless of the fantastical elements of the plots, the characters’ thoughts and reactions came over as ‘real’.

There’s a general theme through most of the tales, not so much of ageing itself, but of elderly people reviewing episodes in their youth and of the reader seeing how their lives were affected by them. Most of the time those episodes involve failed romantic or sexual relationships and, while as individual stories they are for the most part interesting, I found, as I often do with collections with such a strong theme running through, that it became a little repetitive and tedious after a while.

But she doesn’t care what he thinks about her legs as much as she used to. She says the clogs are comfortable, and that comfort trumps fashion as far as she’s concerned. Gavin has tried quoting Yeats to the effect that women must labour to be beautiful, but Reynolds – who used to be a passionate Yeats fan – is now of the opinion that Yeats is entitled to his point of view, but that was then and social attitudes were different, and in actual fact Yeats is dead.

The quality of the prose, however, is excellent and, taken alone, some of the stories are highly entertaining. Perhaps in line with Atwood’s desire for these to read like folk tales, there’s something of a detached feeling about the narrative voice in many of them – a glibness that takes on an almost sneering tone at times, leading, I found, to a distance between reader and character which effectively prevented me from feeling much emotional investment in their fates. To compensate, many of them are clever and imaginative, and some of the characterisation is excellent even when the emotional response to them is absent.

The collection kicks off with three linked tales, telling of a long-ago broken love affair from the perspective of the woman, the man and the ‘other woman’ respectively. The first of these, Alphinland, is one of the most successful in the book, with a beautifully-drawn picture of an elderly woman struggling to recover from the grief of losing her husband by a kind of active retreat into the world she creates in her own fantasy novels. Despite the fantastical elements to this tale, there is genuine warmth here as the central character faces up to the necessity of taking on tasks that had always been seen as the responsibility of her husband. Although there’s a lot of humour in them, the other two tales in the trio don’t work quite so well, as the fantastical elements that were done with a lot of subtlety in the first are handled more crudely, and what was left ambiguous is made a little too clear.

“Now I’m going to get the tea ready. If you don’t behave yourself when Naveena comes, you won’t get a cookie.” The cookie ploy is a joke, her attempt to lighten things up, but it’s faintly horrifying to him that the threat of being deprived of such a cookie hits home. No cookie! A wave of desolation sweeps through him. Also he’s drooling. Christ. Has it come down to this? Sitting up to beg for treats?

Other stories include a kind of mini-Frankenstein story told from the perspective of the youthful monster; a tale of a horror writer who resents sharing the royalties of his most successful story with friends from his youth, who have held him to a contract he signed long before he had ever published anything; a crooked furniture dealer who finds more than he bargained for when he buys a job-lot of storage units; and a black widow out for revenge on the man who raped her in her youth.

And two that I particularly enjoyed are:

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth – another tale of elderly women looking back, this time at the woman Zenia who stole a man from each of them in their youth, but this one stood out because of its sympathetic portrayal of the friendship between the three women, supporting each other as age takes its toll on them.

Torching the Dusties is the last story in the book. The premise is that young people, maddened by the economic mess left them by their elders, decide those elders should no longer be allowed to live on, eating up scarce resources. It’s told from the perspective of Wilma, a woman living in a retirement home, who is almost blind from macular degeneration and has the visual hallucinations that sometimes go with it. Despite its unlikeliness, Atwood manages to make the premise chillingly believable and as the story plays out, she doesn’t pull any punches. It’s always wise to leave the best to last, and this story went a long way to improving my opinion of the collection overall.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

I’m increasingly convinced that collections often detract from, rather than enhancing, the individual stories within them – it’s a rare writer who can produce enough originality to maintain a consistent standard and avoid repetition. I’m pretty sure I’d have been impressed by any of these stories had I come across them in an anthology of different authors but, collected as they are here, I found myself sighing a bit as the basic premise was recycled again and again. I admired the book more than I liked it in the end – the tales are skilfully told, but on the whole didn’t engage me emotionally, and I fear I haven’t been left with a burning desire to seek out more of Atwood’s work.

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

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TBR Thursday 54…

The People’s Choice 7…The Result!

 

A dramatic fall in the TBR for the second week in a row – down 1 to 138! That is, until I add in the one you chose in last week’s People’s Choice – oops! Back to 139.

It was another exceptionally close vote with the top two neck and neck for a few days. But in the end, by one vote, the winner is…

mister pip

Yes, Mister Pip squeaked it! (I’m so sorry – I couldn’t resist! I shall turn myself into the Pun Police immediately…)

The BlurbOn a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.

So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to katenich at Blogging Around My Bookcase for the review that brought this book to my attention.

So now all I have to do is find time to read it…

*******

And here’s a few that I’m looking forward to reading soon…

Factual

 

Pleasures of the TableCourtesy of the British Library. I loved the BL’s London: A Literary Anthology, and this is similar in format – a gorgeous hardback filled with lush illustrations, I believe from the BL’s own collection. A feast for the senses…

The Blurb – This beautifully illustrated collection of food writing includes delectable scenes of cooking and feasting from novels and stories, poems that use food to tempt and seduce, and fine writing by and about great cooks. Napoleon famously declared that an army marched on its stomach; less familiar is the idea that great authors were as eager to feed their stomachs as their imaginations. Far-ranging in both time and place, this exploration of literary eating and great writing about food will amuse, surprise, and make the mouth water. The anthology begins with examples of hospitality, ranging from Chaucer’s convivial Franklin to Walter Scott’s bountiful breakfasts and dinner with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay. Next comes eating to impress – dazzling banquets from Flaubert to F. Scott Fitzgerald – and some great fictional love feasts (there is no doubt that in literature food and love go together rather better than love and marriage). Many of our most vivid memories of food in literature were laid down in childhood, and nostalgia is to the fore in such classic scenes as Pinocchio aching with hunger, Ratty and Mole picnicking, enchanted Turkish delight in Narnia, and a seaside picnic from Enid Blyton. A section on distant times and places ranges from seethed tortoise in ancient China to seal’s liver fried in penguin blubber as a treat for Captain Scott. Those who relish simplicity rather than excess will enjoy Sydney Smith’s delicate salad dressing and Hemingway’s appreciation of oysters.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

some luckCourtesy of NetGalley, here’s the review from the ever-fragrant Lady Fancifull which inspired me to read this one…

Lady Fancifull says“Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ is Volume 1 of a trilogy, examining a tumultuous 100 years from just after the end of the Great War to 2020. Smiley does this by taking an ordinary family from Iowa, from mixed European settler stock, and following them forward through the generations, as children grow and become parents, and those children grow, in a world which is endlessly, rapidly in change.

Like Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning A Thousand Acres, this first volume of the trilogy shows the author as a writer with a deep connection to rural place and landscape, and to the powerful hold than ‘land’ can exert. She effortlessly shows how a story can be both deeply and uniquely personal, familial, and how the personal is always shot through with the ripples, tugs, and in-roads which the wider world and its history makes in the lives of each unique individual, as we all come from place, and live through time.”

 * * * * *

Crime

 

a good way to goCourtesy of NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Helton’s effortless and entertaining writing style in Indelible, so am keen to see how it transfers to the police procedural format…

The Blurb – On his first day back at work following his suspension, DI McLusky finds himself in the midst of a major murder enquiry when a body is discovered in the canal at Netham Lock. Chained, weighted down, tied to a buoy by the neck, it has all the hallmarks of a premeditated, ritualistic killing. As he questions those who knew the victim in an attempt to uncover the dead woman’s secrets, McLusky’s investigations are disrupted by the discovery of a second body. Bound and gagged like the first – but there are differences. If McLusky could only work out what connects the victims, he would be one step closer to catching the killer – and preventing more deaths.

Meanwhile, his rival DI Kat Fairfield is pursuing a routine investigation which takes a decidedly sinister turn …

* * * * *

falling in loveCourtesy of NetGalley. After enjoying Donna Leon’s By Its Cover, I intended to go back and read some of the earlier books in the Commissario Brunetti series. Needless to say I haven’t done so, but couldn’t resist the new one anyway…

The Blurb – Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first novel in her beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti series, introduced readers to the glamorous and cutthroat world of opera and one of Italy’s finest living sopranos, Flavia Petrelli. Now Flavia has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca.

Brunetti and his wife, Paola, attend an early performance, and Flavia receives a standing ovation. Back in her dressing room, she finds bouquets of yellow roses – too many roses. Every surface of the room is covered with them. An anonymous fan has been showering Flavia with these beautiful gifts in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, Venice, but she no longer feels flattered. A few nights later, invited by Brunetti to dine at his in-laws’ palazzo, Flavia confesses her alarm at these excessive displays of adoration. And when a talented young Venetian singer who has caught Flavia’s attention is savagely attacked, Brunetti begins to think that Flavia’s fears are justified in ways neither of them imagined. He must enter in the psyche of an obsessive fan before Flavia, or anyone else, comes to harm.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Amazon.

* * * * *

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

 

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts

twenty trillion leagues under the seaMostly brilliant…

:D :D :D :D :)

It’s June 1958, and French experimental submarine the Plongeur has taken off on her maiden voyage to test her new nuclear engines and her ability to dive to depths never before reached. The small crew is supplemented by the two Indian scientists responsible for the submarine’s design, and an observer, M. Lebret, who reports directly to the Minister for National Defence, Charles de Gaulle. It is soon enough after the war for resentments against those who supported the Vichy government still to be fresh, and Lebret was one such, so there are already tensions amongst those aboard. The first trial dive is a success, so the Captain gives the order to go deeper, down to the limits of the submarine’s capacity. But as they pass the one thousand five hundred metre mark, disaster strikes! Suddenly the crew lose control of the submarine, and it is locked in descent position. The dive goes on… past the point where the submarine should be crushed by the pressure… and on… and on…

twenty trillion leagues 2

This is a brilliant start to a novel that remains brilliant for about two-thirds of its length and then fades a little towards the end. Undoubtedly the most original sci-fi I’ve read in a long time, it’s a mash-up of references, both explicit and in style, not just to Jules Verne and the Captain Nemo stories, but to lots of early sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers, from Alice in Wonderland to Poe, and even to Dickens. And I’m sure a more knowledgeable sci-fi reader would pick up loads that I missed. Stylistically it reads like a book from the early twentieth century, Wells or Conan Doyle perhaps, but it has a surreal edge and a playfulness with the traditions that keeps the reader aware that it’s something more than a pastiche.

twenty trillion leagues 1

And the surreality grows as the adventure progresses and the Plongeur continues its dive to depths that should have taken it through the centre of the earth and out the other side. As it gradually becomes clear to those aboard that the normal rules of physics seem no longer to apply, their reactions range from panic to getting royally drunk to religious mania, while one or two are still willing to speculate that there might be a rational explanation. Arguments begin over what can be happening and what should be done, and the crew are soon at each other’s throats. And when it eventually becomes a little clearer where they might have ended up, there’s a Lovecraftian feel about the Plongeur’s new surroundings and the creatures it encounters there. The book contains 33 illustrations by Mahendra Singh, and even in the Kindle version they work well in adding to the ever-growing atmosphere of horror. There’s much science and philosophy in the book, especially around the nature of reality and God, and even a little politics, but this too all feels deliberately off-kilter – not quite in line with the real world and therefore not to be taken too seriously.

Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

I thought I might be hampered by not having read the original Captain Nemo stories, but for the most part I didn’t feel I was, though I suspect someone familiar with those would have got more of the references. There was only one point where I felt a little lost (when we were introduced to a character and were clearly supposed to recognise him from elsewhere) and a quick look at Wikipedia’s pages on Jules Verne and Captain Nemo was enough to get me back up to speed. The story moves through the Verne originals and on beyond where they finished. But Roberts is playing with Verne’s world rather than retelling it, just as he is playing with the real world and science of the ’50s too. In the last section he gets a bit overly philosophical and a little too clever, and also takes us into a sequence that drags a little, unlike the rapid pace of the earlier part of the book. But while I felt the ending wasn’t as strong as the rest, overall I found this an exciting ride, cleverly executed and full of imagination, and with a great mix of tension, humour and horror. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to trying some of Roberts’ other books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

capital crimes london mysteriesSkulduggery in the City…

 

Capital Crimes: London Mysteries is a collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards, published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. Many of the stories are by authors I’ve never heard of, much less read, but there are a few well-known names amongst them too. I’ll be reviewing the full collection at some point in the future, but here’s a little taster from the pen of one of the best thriller writers of his time, for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec

The Stealer of Marble by Edgar Wallace

 

Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace

This story was first published in 1925 as part of a 12-story collection entitled The Mind of Mr J G Reeder. Mild-mannered Mr Reeder works for the Public Prosecutor’s Department, and his fascination for all things criminal sometimes enables him to see through puzzles that leave the police baffled.

Rumours have been going round the City that Telfers Consolidated, an old family-run business, might be about to hit the rocks. Its founder is long-dead and the company is now in the hands of his grandson, Sidney Telfer, a weak young man with no head for business. Sidney’s secretary, Margaret Belman, is coincidentally a neighbour of Mr Reeder’s, though they only know each other as nodding acquaintances.

'The_Mind_of_Mr._J.G._Reader'

Miss Belman is a pretty young woman, who’s walking out with a respectable young man. So she is shocked when one day, out of the blue, her employer asks her to run away with him to South America. The next day, Sidney’s begs her to tell no-one of his proposition, promising that he would marry her as soon as some legal difficulties could be got over. Miss Belman finds no difficulty in turning him down flat, and you can understand why…

The room, with its stained-glass windows and luxurious furnishing, fitted Mr Telfer perfectly, for he was exquisitely arrayed. He was tall and so painfully thin that the abnormal smallness of his head was not at first apparent. As the girl came into the room he was sniffing delicately at a fine cambric handkerchief, and she thought that he was paler than she had ever seen him – and more repellent.

Later that same day, an employee of Telfers, a Mr Billingham, embezzles £150,000 from the firm, bringing it crashing down. Mr Billingham disappears and the best efforts of the police fail to trace him. Because of the size of the theft, the Public Prosecutor’s Department sends in Mr Reeder, but at first he is also at something of a loss. However, one day a few weeks later, Mr Reeder is indulging his hobby of watching criminal court cases, when a woman appears in the dock, accused of having stolen marble chips from a stonemason’s yard. At first intrigued by the strangeness of the crime, Mr Reeder becomes even more interested when it is revealed that the woman is Sidney Telfer’s housekeeper, who had also acted as guardian to Sidney after the death of his parents.

Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories

Hugh Burden as Mr Reeder in the 1969 Thames Television series based on the stories

Mr Reeder lets his mind work over his favourite game of patience, and soon figures out the connection between the housekeeper, the stolen marble and the disappearance of Mr Billingham and the money. Have you? No, I didn’t either, and I’m not totally sure it would be possible to on the basis of the information the reader is given – but it’s a lovely puzzle with a nice old-fashioned feel to it, back in the days when fictional criminals came up with more imaginative methods of committing their crimes. The tone of the story has something of a similar feel to the more quirky of the Holmes stories, but is lighter, with one eye always on the humorous aspect. Although there’s a bit of a thrillerish ending, there’s never any real doubt that Mr Reeder will get everything sorted out. I enjoyed the writing style – I don’t know that it would work for novel length, but it made for a very entertaining short story.

“Put down that jug or I will blow your features into comparative chaos!” said Mr Reeder pedantically.

The characterisation is surprisingly good given how little room there is for development, and there’s a clear distinction between the baddies and the goodies. And while the solution to the puzzle is one of the more far-fetched I’ve come across, it works in the context and style of the story. I feel I may have to track down some more of Mr Reeder’s adventures…

* * * * *

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

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

GAN Quest: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

the amazing adventures of kavalier and klayMore is less…

:D :D :)

This is the story of two young men in New York, from the 1930s through to the post-war period, who team up to create a comic-book superhero, The Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a second-generation American Jew, street-smart and full of big ideas. His cousin Josef Kavalier has just escaped from his hometown of Prague, now under the control of the Nazis, and where the Jewish population is beginning to feel the weight of the jackboot. Sammy’s head is buzzing with comic-book stories and Joe can draw. When Sammy talks his boss into giving them a chance, The Escapist is created and the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has been touted as a Great American Novel. I must say both those things baffle me. There’s some good stuff in here – Chabon can write, there’s no doubt about that. But the book is at least a third too long, perhaps as much as half, and I felt much as I did about Telegraph Avenue, that underneath the wordy dazzle there isn’t much depth. And, unlike Telegraph Avenue, the quality of writing in this one varies from sublime to extremely dull, and just occasionally all the way to ridiculous (“with skin the color of boiled newspaper” – I considered boiling a newspaper just to find out what his skin looked like, but lost the will to live before I got around to it.)

Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the covers shown are from this series.

Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the illustrations are from this series.

The first sections, covering Joe’s escape from Prague and the two boys meeting and forming their partnership, are very enjoyable and I felt I was in for a real treat. However Chabon then drifts off into what is clearly an immensely well-researched history of the comic book industry, and falls into the trap of passing beyond interesting into info-dump territory. By the 25% mark I was seriously considering abandoning the book, but persevered to see if I could work out why it has garnered so many accolades. To be honest, I couldn’t.

There was a humming sound everywhere that he attributed first to the circulation of his own blood in his ears before he realised that it was the sound produced by Twenty-fifth Street itself, by a hundred sewing machines in a sweatshop overhead, exhaust grilles at the back of a warehouse, the trains rolling deep beneath the black surface of the street. Joe gave up trying to think like, trust, or believe in his cousin and just walked, head abuzz, toward the Hudson River, stunned by the novelty of exile.

Joe’s story, of trying to battle both American and Nazi officialdom to get his family out of Prague, should be an emotional one, but the impact of his various setbacks is engulfed by the sheer weight of words. As often happens when an author is wishing to make a point, Chabon uses Joe’s unfortunate family like puppets to show the whole range of abuses the Jews suffered under Nazi rule, from the early minor restrictions of liberty to their incarceration in concentration camps, though he stops short of taking us on into the full horrors of those places. But because everything bad that happens, happens to one of his relatives, it begins to feel unreal after a while, and since we never really get to know his family as individual characters in their own right, I found myself feeling detached from their plight. Joe’s own reactions to the increasing guilt and desperation he feels are much more moving, but Chabon stretches each stage out for too long, describing everything, physical or emotional, to within an inch of its life, robbing it of most of its effect.

the escapist 2

The best sections are those where Joe and Sammy are interacting with each other. Metaphorically speaking (which I try not to do whenever possible), Joe is The Escapist and Sammy is his boy sidekick. But despite this their relationship feels authentic – their mutual regard for each other is believable and gives the book its heart. It’s also via them that the most original parts of the book come through, in the descriptions of how they create and develop their comic book characters, and how Joe in particular, but with Sammy’s support, uses this medium to try to shame the US into entering the war against Nazism.

As he watched Joe stand, blazing, on the fire escape, Sammy felt an ache in his chest that turned out to be, as so often occurs when memory and desire conjoin with a transient effect of weather, the pang of creation. The desire he felt, watching Joe, was unquestionably physical, but in the sense that Sammy wanted to inhabit the body of his cousin, not possess it. It was, in part, a longing – common enough among the inventors of heroes – to be someone else; to be more than the result of two hundred regimens and scenarios and self-improvement campaigns that always ran afoul of his perennial inability to locate an actual self to be improved. Joe Kavalier had an air of competence, of faith in his own abilities, that Sammy, by means of constant effort over the whole of his life, had finally learned only to fake.

Unfortunately I found the love interests of both characters less believable. Sammy takes an inordinate amount of time to work out that he’s gay; one feels even in the 1940s he’d have had some idea of why he seems to be attracted to men; and, again, it feels as if Chabon is using Sammy’s homosexuality to make points about the society of the time rather than it being a real, integral part of the character. And Joe’s relationship with Rosa never feels as if it has any depth, somehow – in fact, Rosa, the template for Joe’s creation of the superheroine Luna Moth, feels like something of a caricature herself.

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

There are too many points where the story feels contrived – where I found myself sighing over the obviousness of the twists. In contrast, occasional passages move beyond believability into near surreality, though never quite making it all the way there, leaving the story dangling in an awkward space between reality and fantasy. The metaphor of Joe as The Escapist is taken too far at some points, particularly in the strange and somewhat forced sequences relating to Joe’s war experiences. Too often I was aware of the author’s hand controlling the characters’ actions to serve his own purpose, making it difficult to get a true feeling of involvement in either the characters or the story.

So strengths and weaknesses – but, for me, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, and it felt like a mammoth struggle to reach the too tidy end. And when I had, I found that I felt the long journey hadn’t really been worthwhile.

 

Great American Novel Quest

 

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

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

us flagAchieved.

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

white_flagPublished in 2000, this really falls into the category of historical novel, and I don’t feel that it’s saying anything much about the time of writing. I also feel that it’s too shallow even about the period in which it’s set – I think Chabon tries to tackle too much and as a result doesn’t explore any one aspect as deeply as he might. Not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagCertainly the comic book theme, both in actuality and as a metaphor, feels original. But so much of the book drags rather conventionally through stuff that has been covered so often before that I can’t find it in myself to call the book overall either original or innovative. So not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagIn parts it is superbly written, but it’s inconsistent, and some huge chunks of it are frankly dull. So again, I’m afraid, not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think you can guess it’s not going to achieve this one. To be fair, it’s not trying to – it’s focused on a specific group – first and second generation Jewish immigrants – and on a specific bit of culture – comic books, widening out a little into art and entertainment. So no, unlike American Pastoral, I don’t think Chabon’s themes can be seen as a microcosm of the ‘American experience’ – not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

Oh, dear! Only one flag and that one for being American! I’m afraid that this one doesn’t even rank as a great novel much less A Great American Novel. Well, that’s my opinion anyway – what’s yours?

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (Audiobook)

trigger warningMixed bag…

:D :D :D :)

This collection of short stories turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Ranging in length from a couple of minutes to an hour and a half (I was listening rather than reading), some of the shorter ones are so fragmentary as to be rather pointless, while a couple of the longer ones feel too long for their content. However there are some excellent stories in here too and, as I’d been told by so many people, Gaiman is a wonderful narrator.

As a fairly new convert to Gaiman’s work I was surprised to find that there are several stories in here that I had already come across elsewhere in other formats. This made me wonder how much new stuff there would be in the book for established fans, so it would probably be wise to check the contents list before purchasing.

There is a long introduction in which Gaiman explains the rationale for the collection. This may have been better if I’d been reading rather than listening, but on the audiobook it takes over an hour, most of which is made up of short introductions to each story explaining the inspiration for it. Some of these short introductions are as long as the stories themselves. I fear I clicked out of the introduction after 20 minutes – snippets of how a story came about because of something some bloke called Jimmy said down the pub one night failed to hold my attention. One of the drawbacks of audio is that it’s not possible to scan read sections like this, as I would with a paper or e-book.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

I found the first few stories quite disappointing to be honest. The title, cover and introduction had all led me to think that the stories would be dark and chilling, but a lot of them aren’t. And while I think Gaiman does dark and chilling exceptionally well, I was less enamoured of his musing on the writing process by using a metaphor of making a chair, for example. I also found, and this is down to personal preference, that, of the stories I knew, I had on the whole preferred them in written format. Both Down to the Sunless Sea and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains had worked brilliantly for me when I read them – the first as straight text and the second as a graphic novel – but didn’t have quite the same effect when listening, mainly because, although Gaiman’s narration was excellent, the voices didn’t gel with the ones I’d heard in my head. However, where I hadn’t read a story before, Click-Clack The Rattle Bag, for instance, then the narration often worked superbly.

These three stories were still amongst my favourites in the collection though, and here are another few that I particularly enjoyed:

Adventure story – a son sits with his elderly mother having tea and discussing his father, now deceased. In the course of the conversation his mother reveals the story of an adventure his father once had long ago as a young man. The adventure becomes progressively more fantastical, and the appeal comes from the matter-of-fact way the mother tells it and the son’s astonishment. Quite a short story this one, but cleverly done and enjoyable. I suspect the narration made this one work better than it would have on paper.

The Case of Death and Honey is a rather good spin on the Holmes stories, which provides an explanation for why the great man went off to keep bees at the end of his career. It’s set in China with Holmes on the trail of the answer to the ultimate mystery, and while it is somewhat far-fetched it’s well-written and interesting, and Gaiman’s Holmes feels quite authentic. This is another one I had already come across elsewhere – in the Oxcrimes collection published last year.

Nothing O’Clock is a Doctor Who story and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It fits perfectly into the Doctor Who style and Gaiman’s narration of the many characters gives a unique voice to each. The story is imaginative and nicely chilling, but of course with the traditional happy ending we expect the Doctor to provide.

So quite a lot of good things in here overall, but also some that I found rather dull or a bit lightweight. A mixed bag – I’d say most readers will find some things to like in the collection but, like me, may also find there’s quite a lot that leaves them a little underwhelmed.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible UK.

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

TBR Thursday 53 – The People’s Choice…

The People’s Choice 7…

 

The TBR has dipped to below 140!! OK, only to 139, but still!

So…time for another look at some of the great reviews around the blogosphere, and for you to help me choose which one of these books deserves to be added to my TBR. Steering clear of factual since I have about a million of them already waiting, but a good mix of fiction and crime, I think. And an extremely difficult choice.

So which one will you vote for? The winner will be announced next Thursday…

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

The Contenders…

 

the burning airThe BlurbThe MacBrides have always gone to Far Barn in Devon for Bonfire Night, but this year everything is different. Lydia, the matriarch, is dead; Sophie, the eldest daughter, is desperately trying to repair a crumbling marriage; and Felix, the youngest of the family, has brought a girlfriend with him for the first time. The girl, Kerry, seems odd in a way nobody can quite put their finger on – but when they leave her looking after Sophie’s baby daughter, and return to find both Kerry and the baby gone, they are forced to ask themselves if they have allowed a cuckoo into their nest…

Cleo says: “In many ways The Burning Air is a book about moral issues with degrees of guilt and innocence being far more important, certainly in the background to this story, than the absolutes of right and wrong. I prefer my reading matter not to be black and white and so I think this book will be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on how morally responsible the reader holds the perpetrator.

See the full review at Petrona Remembered where Cleo was guest reviewing

*******

mister pipThe BlurbOn a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with most everyone else, only one white man chooses to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined schoolhouse and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations.

So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. As artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe.” Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.

katenich says: “This book left me with a lingering sense of loss and a burning desire to read Great Expectations. This is a book about the power of stories and the way great stories help us to understand the world.  It is also about what makes people part of a community, and how communities behave when they are under pressure. The final theme through the book is about how people can re-invent themselves, like young Pip, and the challenges of reconciling your new self with your old home – the migrant’s loss of belonging.”

See the full review at Blogging Around My Bookcase

*******

turn of the tideThe Blurb – Set in 16th Century Scotland Munro owes allegiance to the Cunninghames and to the Earl of Glencairn. Trapped in the 150-year-old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, he escapes the bloody aftermath of an ambush, but he cannot escape the disdain of the wife he sought to protect, or his own internal conflict. He battles with his conscience and with divided loyalties – to age-old obligations, to his wife and children, and, most dangerous of all, to a growing friendship with the rival Montgomerie clan. Intervening to diffuse a quarrel that flares between a Cunninghame cousin and Hugh Montgomerie, he succeeds only in antagonizing William, the arrogant and vicious Cunninghame heir. And antagonizing William is a dangerous game to play…

Margaret says: “I loved it. It’s historical fiction and it captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland. If you have ever wondered, as I have, what it must have been like to live in a Tower House in the Scottish Borders then this book spells it out so clearly. And it puts you firmly in the middle of the centuries old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, with all the drama of their battles, ambushes and schemes to further their standing with the young King James VI. It’s a tale of love, loyalty, tragedy and betrayal.

See the full review at Books Please

*******

notes on a scandalThe Blurb – Schoolteacher Barbara Covett has led a solitary life until Sheba Hart, the new art teacher at St. George’s, befriends her. But even as their relationship develops, so too does another: Sheba has begun an illicit affair with an underage male student. When the scandal turns into a media circus, Barbara decides to write an account in her friend’s defense–and ends up revealing not only Sheba’s secrets, but also her own.

Gemma says: Notes on a Scandal is very well written novel; Heller’s prose is insightful, perfectly depicting these two very different women. The lines and passages on loneliness are highlights for me. She depicts Barbara excellently, deftly describing loneliness in language which immediately captures what Barbara is feeling. The novel reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita in the way that it’s written on a topic that’s uncomfortable to read about. Yet my overwhelming feeling after finishing the book and reflecting on it now is that it’s less about the affair between Sheba and the student, and more about the relationship between Barbara and Sheba.

See the full review at The Perfectionist Pen

*******

the twelveThe BlurbFormer paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan is haunted by his victims, twelve souls who shadow his every waking day and scream through every drunken night. Just as he reaches the edge of sanity they reveal their desire: vengeance on those who engineered their deaths. From the greedy politicians to the corrupt security forces, the street thugs to the complacent bystanders who let it happen, all must pay the price. When Fegan’s vendetta threatens to derail Northern Ireland’s peace process and destabilise its fledgling government, old comrades and enemies alike want him gone. David Campbell, a double agent lost between the forces of law and terror, takes the job. But he has his own reasons for eliminating Fegan; the secrets of a dirty war should stay buried, even if its ghosts do not. Set against the backdrop of a post-conflict Northern Ireland struggling with its past, The Twelve takes the reader from the back streets of the city, where violence and politics go hand-in-hand, to the country’s darkest heart.

Cathy says: The Twelve may read initially like a standard revenge thriller, but it is also an exploration of the corrupt underbelly of Northern Ireland politics and the price we have had to pay for an uneasy peace. Neville uses this political reality to give depth and detail to what could have simply been a genre piece and has produced a tight, taut gem of a book.”

See the full review at 746 Books

*******

NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

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

Hope you pick a good one! ;)

Surprise party!!!

A castle somewhere in Scotland…

 

sofa 1

Right, everyone – he’s on his way! Get behind the sofa! Shhhhh! Manly-Man, this is no time to be disco-dancing! Fats Henry, please breathe in. Schwarzy, my sweetie pumpkin pie, you know I think your loon impersonations are cute and adorable but…NOT NOW!! Shhhhh! Here he comes. Ready…?

 

surprise

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY
PROFESSOR VJ DUKE!

Come on in, Prof. Grab yourself a glass of punch and some cashews, and relax while your friends give you birthday greetings with their…

PARTY PIECES

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Susan P at The Portugal Years

 

Are you ready, kids? AYE AYE, PROFESSOR
I can’t HEAR you! AYE AYE PROFESSOR!!!!
Who lives in a pickle under the sea?
Professor VJ!
Sly and slippery and clever is he
Professor VJ!
If Punchy Land nonsense you would see
Professor VJ!
Then climb up to the nearest tree
Professor VJ!
PROFESSOR VJ !!!
PROFESSOR VJ!!!
PROFESSOR VJ !!!!!!!!!

Happy birthday, Professor! Many happy returns of the day.

Susan P

(Apologies to Sponge Bob)

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Debbie at Musings by an ND Domer’s Mom

 

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From John W. Howell at Fiction Favorites

 

The Professor Duke

by John W. Howell © 2015

Born another time,
Creating life for goodness…
Punchy Lands for laughs.

 

 * * * * * * * * * * *

 

From The Lite Rider

 

Lite Rider

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From PorterGirl at Secret Diary of PorterGirl

 

When I heard about the Professor’s birthday party, I was mightily excited. This is an important occasion, I thought to myself, and no doubt I will be needing some new shoes in honour of it. In fact, new shoes seemed essential. Whilst shopping for the new shoes it occurred to me that I should really think of a suitable gift to present to the Professor on this auspicious day. Now, what does the Professor like? I thought to myself. He likes eating things, I concluded and immediately set about baking him a cherry cake. But I am sad to say that the cherry cake smelled so good that I could not stop myself from eating it. Feeling rather contrite, I resolved to replace the cherry cake with a sausage sandwich. He would be sure to like a sausage sandwich. But disaster struck a second time and Terry ate the sausage sandwich. Which is why I stand here before you today, Professor, with only my very best wishes and a winning smile with which to offer you for your birthday. Also this…

*performs an elaborate and unusual dance*.

Happy birthday, P.VJ!

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Walt Walker at waltbox

 

bannerfans_15120449 (1)

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Audrey Dawn at Oldest Daughter Redheaded Sister

 

Happy Birthday, Duke
Duke, the name that suits you
You, yes, you, the one I’m writing to
To wish, the happiest of birthdays.
Birthdays only come once a year
Year: the time it took me
Me, to wish you a Happy Birthday.
Birthday Boy, Duketh, is who you are
Are you wishing for anything at all?
All we need to determine, you see,
See, once we know, we’ll exhaust trying
Trying to attempt the perfect gift.
Gift, your wish, seems simple enough
Enough time with you we’ll never have
Have you felt how much you’re loved?
Loved by many and bits and bits more
More of you is all we wait to see
See how easily we reconvene.
Reconvene to the same familiar blog
Blog birthday parties are tops
Tops is who you have proven to be
Be another dadblame year older.
Older is what comes with waking up
Up for whatever, you’ve proven lots.
Lots of admiration on your special day
Day and night pals stopping by to say
Say to you, professor, Happy Birthday.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

More punch, Prof? And perhaps a slice of pie?

cherry pie

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From sonmi at Sonmi’s Cloud

 

The Professor is a man of many facets, abounding with enthusiasm, curiosity, exclamation marks and questions!!?? He has been a regular visitor here on the Cloud for a good while now and at no point have I actually had to release the hounds. He likes to wax lyrical on the subject of his impressive mighty weapon and waggles it about willy nilly at the drop of a hat when any ladies are within a radius of twenty feet, and only recently was a winner in the prestigious award ceremony ‘The Cloudies’, winning the award for the blogger…….

‘Most likely to be a serial killer on the sly, but you’d still take a chance and invite them round for afternoon tea award’.

He was presented with a Hannibal lecter mask made entirely out of dried pasta and a patchwork sheath for his laptop embroidered with the words “You don’t have to be a serial killer to work here, but I clearly am anyway”.
What more can I say? Lots actually but Fictionfan is about to open a trapdoor beneath my feet on the stage, so I’ll just say…

Happy Birthday Professor!! Have a marvellous, wild, wacky and wonderful day in and out of The Punchy Lands – best regards from sonmi and the Cloud.

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From L. Marie at El Space

 

l marie's pic

 

Happy birthday, Professor. A little poem pour vous:

A little wish from me to
Say happy birthday to you.
May you have lots of joy and
A year so awesomely grand.

I’m so glad to have discovered the Punchy Lands! Thanks for the many laughs you’ve provided me.

L. Marie

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

From Desert Dweller at S S Hicks

 

There is an old Professor, who is actually quite young, ruling the Punchy Lands with dadblameittry, punchinnytry, humdingatry and overall ri-do-diculoutry. He is a fierce and ruthless warrior, a sword carrying wordsmith of punchy speaks, chumming around with the likes of Schwarz, Fats Henry and the tireless flirt, Amelia, who has bugs for eyelashes and makes FF delirious with jealousy (somewhere she is flouncing about). It is not a great secret that our Professor is a skilled and talented musician, dueling his guitar with the only worthy opponent – himself – but he is also a master contrarian, sweet and generous and kind. However, this would sicken him and I’m getting off script, because he prefers his edges to remain rough, as any good skilled warrior will tell you. He lifts crooked dumbbells, you see, and reads books full of garbledook. But this mysterious and reluctant ladies man is turning 85 (in PL years, of course). Schwarz will no doubt give him three rats and a heifer, Amelia will try and steal a kiss, the Salami clan will attempt to throw him from a cliff, but I, the Desert Dweller (DD), send a million wishes, or maybe just 5, for the happiest birthday to the most esteemed Professor alive! Chickit.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The Eternal Triangle

 

“So, Prof,” says FF, “now that the party pieces are over, perhaps you and I…”

“Hi, sweetie!” A piercing squeak breaks into the conversation, so high-pitched that bats for miles around raise their ears in astonished gardooblement.

“Oh…uuh…umm,” the Professor mumbles, his eyelid twitching involuntarily, “Hi, Amelia!”

Amelia!!!!

FF spins round so fast Einstein has to redo his calculations, and there, helping herself to punch from the buffet table, slinks a vile creature in a skintight venom-green mini-dress, fluttering her eyelashes so violently that PorterGirl (who’s only little) is blown clean across the room.

Artist's impression of Amelia

Artist’s impression of Amelia

FF flounces over, tartan ballgown swishing. “And what, madam, are you doing here? You weren’t invited!”

“I’ve come to give my Dukey-baby a great big birthday kiss!” Amelia simpers, giggling as she waggles her talons at the Professor. He glances down, perhaps regretting after all that he has chosen to wear his pulchritudinous pants…

FF growls ferociously. “Dadblameit! YOU…SHALL…NOT…PASS!! L. Marie, would you be so good as to hand me that dessert?” And, with all the skill of a Red Sox pitcher, FF splats the blancmange straight at the man-eating little minx. A direct hit!

splat

Amelia gasps and stumbles backwards, tipping over the buffet table. As she slides inelegantly to the floor, the punchbowl empties its contents neatly over her Medusa-like hairdo.

splosh

Gazing at the bedraggled heap at her feet, FF chuckles. “Now that’s what I call Punchy!”

And tripping lightly across the room (and accidentally across Amelia), FF takes the Professor’s arm, smiling sweetly. “As I was about to say, my dear C-W-W, shall we dance…?”

Artist's impression of the Prof and FF

Artist’s impression of the Prof and FF

* * * * * * * * * * *

NB If anyone missed the pre-party shenanigans, you’ll find them over at Portergirl’s…

* * * * * * * * * * *

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PROF!

 WITH LOVE

 FROM YOUR PUNCHY FAMILY!

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

Petrona Remembered…

 

The Shut Eye

Today’s review is appearing on the blog Petrona Remembered.

Petrona was the blog name of Maxine Clarke, a stalwart of the crime fiction blogging community until her death in 2012. I didn’t know her personally, but I hadn’t been blogging for long before I discovered how highly regarded she was both in the blogosphere and as one of Amazon UK’s top reviewers. It’s an honour therefore to contribute a review to the blog set up and run in her memory. I hope you’ll pop over to see my review and, while you’re there, you’ll find great recommendations from many other crime fiction bloggers, each of whom have selected a book that they think Maxine would have enjoyed. Don’t forget to follow – there’s a new recommendation from a different blogger every month.

Since the plot of my recommendation involves missing children, given my comments on last week’s review of The Winter Foundlings, you’ll also get to see how completely inconsistent I am when it comes to books – in the end, it’s all down to the quality of the writing… ;)

 

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer reviewed on Petrona Remembered

 

 

The Winter Foundlings (Alice Quentin 3) by Kate Rhodes

the winter foundlingsBaked beans and a bottle of plonk…

:) :) :|

Ten-year-old Ella Williams has been abducted and is being held prisoner. She’s the third girl to go missing – the previous two have been murdered, dressed in white dresses of the kind worn by inmates of the old Foundlings Hospital, and their bodies left in cardboard boxes. The murders mirror those of psychopathic killer Louis Kinsella, now a resident in Northwood – a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane – and each time a victim is killed, the killer sends a token to Kinsella. Time is running out for Ella, and it’s up to psychologist Alice Quentin to get inside Kinsella’s mind and find out what he knows before it’s too late.

This is the third in the Alice Quentin series, and I’ve enjoyed the previous ones. As before, Alice is a likeable protagonist and Rhodes is very strong at creating a sense of place. In this one, Alice has moved away from central London to take up a research post at Northwood. It is nearly Christmas and England is in the grip of a huge freeze, and Rhodes gives a very good sense of snow and ice adding difficulties to all parts of the investigation.

Unfortunately the plot doesn’t match up to the atmosphere. It’s so similar to The Silence of the Lambs that comparisons must be made, and they don’t work in this one’s favour. Kinsella is no Hannibal Lecter and Alice is a pale shadow of Clarice Starling. The story is split between Alice’s first person past tense narrative and Ella’s story, told as third person present tense. There’s really very little to the plot – psychopathic killer copycatting another one, investigation wears on with nothing much happening till the big (unbelievable) thriller ending. So the book is padded out with Alice’s social life – she keeps telling us she’s working every hour to save poor Ella (quietly freezing and starving away in the background) but she manages to fit in three parties, several nights in the pub and a couple of love interests – all this in the space of a couple of weeks. No wonder she’s emotionally drained.

Don, the detective in charge of the case and, of course, one of the love interests, has to be made to look incredibly stupid to explain why he doesn’t do basic things, like interview the staff at Northwood (his reason being they must have been vetted before they got the job, so they can’t possibly be doing anything wrong, can they?), or not searching places because the owners tell him there’s no need. It galls me somewhat when the police are made to look incompetent for no reason other than to string a story out.

Kate Rhodes

Kate Rhodes

And I’m afraid I also found the ages of the victims made the plot distasteful. Why it should feel worse to read about a five-year old child being cruelly abused and murdered than a twenty-year-old-girl, I’m not sure. I reckon we have it programmed into our genes that we owe more protection to the young, even when they’re fictional. But whatever the reason, it left a very unpleasant after-taste. Without wishing to get too psychobabbly, somehow descriptions of abuse and violence towards children in a book that is trying to say something meaningful about a serious subject are bearable. But when they’re done purely for ‘entertainment’, I don’t find them so. And this book falls into the latter category.

Personally, I think the serial killer motif has been done now, and child-killing serial killers especially so. But hey! As I usually do, I’ve had a look to see what other people are saying and the book is getting 5-star reviews all round, so I guess it must be me! There’s no doubt it’s well written in terms of characterisation and atmosphere, so I guess if this is the kind of thing you like, then you’ll like this.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 52…

Episode 52

 

Woohoo! The TBR is down 1 to 141! I might throw a party to celebrate!!

Here are some of the ones that are teetering on the edge of the cliff…

Factual

 

fortune's foolCourtesy of NetGalley. I was expecting there to be a rash of biographies of Abraham Lincoln this year given it’s the 150th anniversary of his death, but so far I haven’t spotted any major ones. So this looked like an interesting alternative…

The Blurb says “With a single shot from a pistol small enough to conceal in his hand, John Wilkes Booth catapulted into history on the night of April 14, 1865. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln stunned a nation that was just emerging from the chaos and calamity of the Civil War, and the president’s untimely death altered the trajectory of postwar history. But to those who knew Booth, the event was even more shocking-for no one could have imagined that this fantastically gifted actor and well-liked man could commit such an atrocity.

In Fortune’s Fool, Terry Alford provides the first comprehensive look at the life of an enigmatic figure whose life has been overshadowed by his final, infamous act. Tracing Booth’s story from his uncertain childhood in Maryland, characterized by a difficult relationship with his famous actor father, to his successful acting career on stages across the country, Alford offers a nuanced picture of Booth as a public figure, performer, and deeply troubled man. Despite the fame and success that attended Booth’s career–he was billed at one point as “the youngest star in the world”–he found himself consumed by the Confederate cause and the desire to help the South win its independence. Alford reveals the tormented path that led Booth to conclude, as the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, that the only way to revive the South and punish the North for the war would be to murder Lincoln–whatever the cost to himself or others. The textured and compelling narrative gives new depth to the familiar events at Ford’s Theatre and the aftermath that followed, culminating in Booth’s capture and death at the hands of Union soldiers 150 years ago.”

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

the settling earthCourtesy of the author via NetGalley. I very seldom accept review requests direct from authors, but this one appealed – the title, the cover, the blurb and it’s short! It’s also getting very good reviews…

The Blurb says Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.

Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.”

* * * * *

Crime

 

the defenceCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve seen so many great reviews of this one around the blogosphere so I’m hoping I’ll love it just as much…

The Blurb says Eddie Flynn used to be a con artist. Then he became a lawyer. Turned out the two weren’t that different. It’s been over a year since Eddie vowed never to set foot in a courtroom again. But now he doesn’t have a choice. Olek Volchek, the infamous head of the Russian mafia in New York, has strapped a bomb to Eddie’s back and kidnapped his ten-year-old daughter Amy. Eddie only has forty-eight hours to defend Volchek in an impossible murder trial – and win – if wants to save his daughter.

Under the scrutiny of the media and the FBI, Eddie must use his razor-sharp wit and every con-artist trick in the book to defend his ‘client’ and ensure Amy’s safety. With the timer on his back ticking away, can Eddie convince the jury of the impossible? Lose this case and he loses everything.”

* * * * *

the strangerCourtesy of NetGalley. Coben’s plots can be a bit cheesy sometimes, but his thrillers are usually fast-paced rollercoaster rides with likeable protagonists. Here’s hoping…

The Blurb says The Stranger appears out of nowhere, perhaps in a bar, or a parking lot, or at the grocery store. His identity is unknown. His motives are unclear. His information is undeniable. Then he whispers a few words in your ear and disappears, leaving you picking up the pieces of your shattered world.

Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, two wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream – a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life. Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corrine, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears as if it never existed at all. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corrine’s deception, and realises that if he doesn’t make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy he’s stumbled into will not only ruin lives – it will end them.

 * * * * *

 

Sci-Fi

 

the martian chroniclesNext up in my bid to read more sci-fi, a classic I’ve never read. I’ve been very impressed by the few short stories of Bradbury’s that I’ve read recently, so I have high hopes for this…

The Blurb saysThe Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s repeated attempts to colonize the red planet. The first men were few. Most succumbed to a disease they called the Great Loneliness when they saw their home planet dwindle to the size of a fist. They felt they had never been born. Those few that survived found no welcome on Mars. The shape-changing Martians thought they were native lunatics and duly locked them up.

But more rockets arrived from Earth, and more, piercing the hallucinations projected by the Martians. People brought their old prejudices with them – and their desires and fantasies, tainted dreams. These were soon inhabited by the strange native beings, with their caged flowers and birds of flame.”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

do androids dream...“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” Spock

:) :) :) :)

Here we are back in our dystopian world of mid-20th century nightmares, when man has destroyed the planet in yet another global nuclear conflict. Most of the remaining humans have been persuaded to emigrate to other worlds, bribed with the promise of their own android if they go. Back on earth, the remaining population lives with the constant fear of infertility or worse, as a result of the radiation that covers the planet’s surface. Most animals have died and it has become a status symbol to keep a live pet. But these are hard to come by and expensive so some people keep electric pets instead – so well designed they are indistinguishable from the real thing without close examination. On these pets, real or fake, people pour out their feelings of empathy, feelings boosted by the Empathy Box – a machine that brings all humanity together to share in the suffering of their religious prophet, William Mercer.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, hunting down androids who have escaped from the offworld colonies and returned to Earth. Rick owns his own electric sheep, his live one having died. He dreams of one day having another live animal to care for. As the book begins, he has been given the task of destroying a group of six of the latest model androids, so convincing it’s almost impossible to tell them apart from humans. In fact the only test that works is one that measures lack of empathy – thus making this the characteristic that most defines humanity. If Rick manages to ‘retire’ all six androids, the bounty money will let him buy a real animal to cherish.

Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick

I’ve read this book three times now and each time I come away with the same feeling. It’s very readable, has some interesting ideas and the characterisation of Rick is excellent. But fundamentally the book makes no sense. There are so many inconsistencies in it that I always come out of it wondering what message exactly Dick was trying to send. The thing is I know what he was trying to say, because he explained it in interviews – he was saying that no matter how humanoid the androids appeared, they were still soulless and heartless, but that the very task of hunting and destroying such human-like beings puts Rick’s own humanity at risk. Unfortunately that doesn’t come out as the message in the book. I can’t help sympathising with the androids. They are created as superior beings then sold to be slaves (and Dick makes explicit reference to pre-Civil War slavery) performing domestic and agricultural chores. When they rebel, they are hunted down and killed. Humans on the other hand rely on machines not just to give them empathy but to control their moods. Seems to me that there’s very little left of humanity in the humans at all.

Mostly what the book provokes in me is a series of unanswered questions:

Why do the androids return to Earth knowing they will be hunted – why not go elsewhere when they escape?

Why have humans given up all their existing religions and taken up Mercerism? And what is the point of Mercerism? As religions go, it’s a particularly depressing one.

Why have some people decided to stay on Earth? There’s little prospect of it recovering in the foreseeable future, and they will eventually get sick and die.

Why are the humans so freaked about the androids – they don’t seem to do much harm except when enslaved or attacked. One of them has actually become an opera star – well, OK, soprano opera singers are a pestilence, I admit, but even so…

And the most basic question of all…

If humans are freaked by androids that are so human-like they can’t be told apart from the real thing, then… why make them???

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner - the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS...

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner – the film of the book, more or less. This photo is especially for the benefit of BUS…

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the subsequent brilliant exploration of what it means to be human via the world’s greatest android, (no, not Marvin!), Commander Data. But I suspect Data owes his existence more to Asimov’s robots than Dick’s androids, and personally I think Asimov’s robots were the superior creation.

So while the book is an enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend because of its status as a classic of the genre, it’s lack of internal logic always prevents me from thinking of it as a truly great one.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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