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FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J a novel“Equipoise of hate…”

:) :) :) :)

Set in a near-future society, this is superficially the story of two misfits who fall in love. But the society, a kind of benign dystopia, is one trying to find ways to prevent ‘what happened, if it happened’ from ever happening again. And whatever happened, happened as a result of anti-Semitism, which is the real subject of the book.

After what happened, all people have been given Jewish surnames, the study of history is strongly discouraged, art has been restricted to the inoffensive and unchallenging, and people are encouraged to go through a ritual of saying sorry, even when they can’t think of anything they need to be sorry about. All of this is designed to prevent the build-up of the kind of antagonism that led to what happened. Although the convention is to say ‘what happened, if it happened’, it’s pretty clear that something violently horrific did happen, but it happened mainly in the cities and our story is set in a small village on the coast, possibly of Cornwall, where probably no-one was directly involved. The problem is that the plan doesn’t seem to be working so well – husbands and wives are becoming violent towards each other, friends and acquaintances are brutalising each other, and murder is on the rise. And our two main protagonists, Kevern and Ailinn, feel out of place – Kevern irrationally, (perhaps), fearful each time he leaves home that someone will break in, and Ailinn haunted by dreams in which she plays the part of the whale constantly running from an undefined Ahab.

On account of their innate aggressiveness, songs of that sort were no longer played on the console. Not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.

This is an odd book that so very nearly works brilliantly, but just misses. The structure is unbalanced – the entire first half is filled with allusion and mystery with the reader struggling, somewhat like the characters, to work out what happened and why the society isn’t working. The second half clarifies everything, but almost becomes too clear – it begins to feel a bit like a political statement rather than a novel in parts. I found it a little problematic in that, in its desire to show the repeating horrors of anti-Semitism, it comes close to suggesting that there are only two types of people in the world – Jews and those who hate them. Anti-Gentilism? The suggestion seems to be that, in order to maintain an equilibrium in society, we must have someone to hate, and it’s easier to hate someone to whom we have already done wrong, hence the Jews are the eternal target. It is satirical, but somehow not quite satirical enough to justify the over-simplification of the message.

But the shouts and smell of smoke had a powerful effect on me. I don’t say they excited me, but they gave a sort of universality to what I was feeling. I am who I am because I am not them – well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness.

The quality of the prose is excellent, and in the early part Jacobson has a good deal of fun with today’s popular culture, from jazz being banned because improvisation should be discouraged, to artists being encouraged to paint only pretty landscapes. But the humour doesn’t always fit well with the overall tone, and the satire becomes rather unsubtle as the book progresses. The characterisation has a feeling of unreality about it – each one feels more like a representation of a part of this society rather than a real person. This works fine in the context of the book, but it prevents the reader from feeling much emotional involvement with the two lead characters. In fact, given the subject matter, the balance of the book is surprisingly weighted away from emotionalism towards a colder intellectualism – though this is not a bad thing, I feel.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

The ambiguity of the first half worked better for me than the more didactic second half. The government is invisible, represented only by those who spy on others. But there is a pervading feeling that everyone is being monitored and that even the smallest infractions of the new social code will be punished, though how is left deliberately vague – that very vagueness being the most sinister aspect of it. There are shades of Brave New World here, in the way the people are controlled via seemingly benign means to keep them happy; and of 1984, in the suppression and distortion of history and truth. Although ultimately this book doesn’t have quite the profundity or power of either of these, it’s still an interesting and thought-provoking read that deserves its place on last year’s Booker shortlist.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 51…

Episode 51

 

Well, I think the only answer might be to come up with a new system of counting, ‘cos yet again the TBR has reached a new height this week – 142!! Maybe I should only count books that begin with Z…

Here are some of the ones that are getting near to the top of the heap…

Fiction

 

stone mattressCourtesy of NetGalley. Another Folio Prize Nominee, this collection of short stories will be my first introduction to Margaret Atwood. I’m seriously hoping that by the time I’ve read it I’ll know what a stromatalite is…

The Blurb says “A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband. An elderly lady with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly-formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. A woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. And a crime committed long-ago is revenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion year old stromatalite.

In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle – and also by herself, in her award-winning novel Alias Grace. In Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game.

 * * * * *

Crime

 

the maltese falconCourtesy of NetGalley, this was already on my TBR as part of the Great American Novel Quest. I’ve seen the film a million times but I don’t think I’ve ever read the book…

The Blurb says Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and when Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby’s trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a treasure worth killing for, before the Fat Man finds him?

* * * * *

Crime Audiobook

 

wolf winterCourtesy of Audible UK. Mixed reviews on this one, but somehow it appeals to me anyway – sounds nice and atmospheric, and since it snowed here a couple of days ago, it’s still the right time of year…

The Blurb says There are six homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain. A day’s journey away lies the empty town. It comes to life just once, in winter, when the church summons her people through the snows. Then even the oldest enemies will gather.

But now it is summer, and new settlers are come. It is their two young daughters who find the dead man not half an hour’s walk from their cottage. The father is away. And whether stubborn or stupid or scared for her girls, the mother will not let it rest.

To the wife who is not concerned when her husband does not come home for three days to the man who laughs when he hears his brother is dead to the priest who doesn’t care, she asks and asks her questions, digging at the secrets of the mountain. They say a wolf made those wounds. But what wild animal cuts a body so clean?”

* * * * *

Sci-Fi

 

twenty trillion leagues under the seaCourtesy of NetGalley. Trying to read some modern sci-fi/fantasy along with the classics, and this sounds like fun in a weird kind of way…

The Blurb says “It is 1958 and France’s first nuclear submarine, Plongeur, leaves port for the first of its sea trials. On board, gathered together for the first time, are one of the Navy’s most experienced captains and a tiny skeleton crew of sailors, engineers, and scientists. The Plongeur makes her first dive and goes down, and down and down. Out of control, the submarine plummets to a depth where the pressure will crush her hull, killing everyone on board, and beyond. The pressure builds, the hull protests, the crew prepare for death, the boat reaches the bottom of the sea and finds nothing. Her final dive continues, the pressure begins to relent, but the depth guage is useless. They have gone miles down. Hundreds of miles, thousands, and so it goes on. Onboard the crew succumb to madness, betrayal, religious mania, and murder. Has the Plongeur left the limits of our world and gone elsewhere?

 * * * * *

 

dune messiahAfter enjoying my recent re-read of Dune, time for the follow-up. I’ll be reading this alongside my blog buddy, Professor VJ Duke, who’s reading the Dune books for the first time, so that will add considerably to the fun!

The Blurb saysThis second installment explores new developments on the desert planet Arrakis, with its intricate social order and its strange threatening environment. Dune Messiah picks up the story of the man known as Muad’dib, heir to a power unimaginable, bringing to fruition an ambition of unparalleled scale: the centuries-old scheme to create a superbeing who reigns not in the heavens but among men. But the question is: Do all paths of glory lead to the grave?

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley, Goodreads or Audible.

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

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
FEBRUARY

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

 

2011

 

newton and the counterfeiterI only reviewed one book in February 2011, but fortunately it was a good one, though not fiction. In fact, it was reading this book that started me reading the occasional popular science book – a thing I hadn’t done in years. The book tells the story of Newton’s time in charge of the Royal Mint, when he became obsessed with trying to trap the most famous counterfeiter of his time, William Chaloner. But the bits that interested me more were the sections relating to Newton’s scientific career, and particularly how he developed the methods of research that became the foundation of how science is still carried out today.

 

2012

 

the secret diary of adrian moleA special 30th Anniversary edition of Adrian Mole was issued in February 2012, and for a while everyone on Amazon Vine seemed to be discussing it and sharing quotes. This fictional diary of an angst-ridden teenager in love was a sensation when it was first issued, and I was delighted to find it had stood up well to the test of time. Written as a satirical look at suburban life in contemporary ’80s Britain under Thatcher, it now reads almost like a historical novel, and whisked me back to those days of flares, pimples and Lady Di. Still one of the funniest books out there!

 

 

2013

 

The Earthquake BirdSet in Japan, this excellent debut novel tells the story of Lucy, who becomes a suspect when her friend Lily is murdered. Damaged by events in her early life, Lucy has moved from her Yorkshire home to Japan to try to put the past and her family behind her.We meet her while she is being questioned by the police and refusing to answer them. Instead she tells us, the readers, her story.  Susanna Jones’ writing style is spare and well crafted, shot through with shafts of humour and irony, but gradually creating tension that builds throughout the book. But her greatest strength is in creating compelling, enigmatic central characters and Lucy is a fine example of this.

 

 

2014

 

revolutionary-roadSince I gave this book the FF Award for Literary Fiction in 2014, it could hardly not be my top pick for February. The story of failed people in a failed marriage living in a failed American Dream, this is one of the finest books I have ever read. The writing is superb, and the brilliant spotlight Yates shines on his characters leaves them no room to hide. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. I described it as masterpiece in my review – not a term I use lightly – and I still hold to that opinion.

 

2015

 

the way things wereSet in contemporary India, this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. When Skanda returns to India to attend the funeral rites for his father, it sets him off on a process of remembering and reassessing the recent history of his family, and through them India itself, from the 1970s to the present day. Beautifully written, this is a deeply political and thought-provoking book that manages the difficult feat of also being enjoyable.  An exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

 

* * * * *

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

Tuesday Terror! Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

Turn out the lights…

 

On Sunday night, for some reason I couldn’t sleep – a very rare occurrence for me. So I decided to listen to a bit of my current audiobook – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning – in the dead of night with the lights off. And this little story raised my hair and tingled my spine in the most delicious way, so it just has to be this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

 

trigger warning

 

The narrator is staying in his girlfriend’s new house – a rambling old pile with long corridors, creaky floors and dodgy electricity. His girlfriend has gone out to get a takeaway meal, leaving our narrator to look after her young brother. It’s the boy’s bed time, and he asks the narrator to walk up to his bedroom with him and tell him a story before he goes to sleep because, as he explains, he feels a bit scared in the old house and his bedroom is all the way up in the attic. He knows the narrator writes scary stories but says maybe he should tell a not-scary story instead.

spooky house

 

Now our narrator is just a young man himself, so he’s quite proud to have both his bravery and his story-telling skills appealed to in this way. So they leave the sitting-room and go into the corridor. The narrator clicks on the light switch…but nothing happens. Taking the boy’s hand, he sets off along the corridor and up the stairs, lit only by the pale light of the moon shining through the stairwell window. The narrator keeps up a brave face for the boy’s sake even though he’s feeling just a little spooked himself. And as they go, they chat about what story he should tell. The boy asks him if he knows the story of ‘Click-Clack the Rattle Bag’. No, our narrator replies, and so the boy begins to tell him…

Spooky_Moonlight_by_kiebitz

 

It’s only a short story but brilliantly effective, one of these ones that’s really enjoyably scary! The kind of story that a wicked adult might tell to a bunch of kids round a campfire late at night. But I’m going to tell you no more. I don’t think it would be half so much fun to read as to hear, so here’s the man himself reading it superbly. But don’t listen now! Wait until it’s dark, and you’re alone, and the wind is gently rattling through the branches of the trees outside…

 

 

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

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

 

It's a fretful porpentine!!

It’s a fretful porpentine!!

 

 

Money Tree by Gordon Ferris

money treeHi-Yo, Silver! Away!

:D :D :D :D :)

When journalist Ted Saddler writes an article suggesting that the People’s Bank in India is ripping off the poorest people in the country, he is approached by Erin, an executive with a big American bank, who suggests he’s been fed false information and should do a bit of digging. A former Pulitzer winner, Ted is now middle-aged, world-weary and happy to be a desk journalist, but something about Erin’s story intrigues him. When his boss decides he should go to India to follow the story, he soon finds his views changing, as he meets the head of the bank and some of the people it has helped. Meantime, at his request, Erin is working with a hacker friend of Ted to investigate the head of her own bank, who she believes is behind the attacks on the People’s Bank. Cut in with this main strand is the story of Anila, a young woman from a village where the people live hand to mouth, who decides to ask for a loan from the Bank to set up her own little business.

The book follows a fairly traditional thriller format of goodies against baddies leading to a spectacular climax, but the quality of Ferris’ writing lifts it well above average. There’s a strong political message in the book, about how the poor of the third world are pawns in the power games of their own politicians and the rich and influential institutions of the West. Western banks and the World Bank don’t come out of the story well – actually that’s an understatement. They’re shown as corrupt from the top down and run on the whole by maniacal, amoral power-junkies, while the People’s Bank is shown to be an altruistic venture run solely for the purpose of supporting micro-businesses to help the poor rise out of their destitution. To be honest, I thought this aspect was all a bit too clear-cut – in reality, the situation on both sides is considerably more complex than I felt Ferris showed. However, it’s difficult to fully explore a political argument within the context of a thriller so some degree of over-simplification is probably necessary.

If you're wondering why The Lone Ranger references, you'll need to read the book. Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!

If you’re wondering why The Lone Ranger references, you’ll need to read the book. Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!

The characterisation is excellent, despite being based on the cliché of the has-been journalist inspired by an attractive woman to take up the good fight. Both Ted and Erin are likeable and their growing appreciation for each other as the story progresses is well done. The story of Anila and the villagers is interesting and Ferris gives a real sense of life in a place left behind and almost destroyed by the march of so-called progress. We see Anila’s life both from her own perspective and also through the eyes of Ted and Erin, which gives a rounded picture of how different and almost incomprehensible the lives of each are to the other.

Gordon Ferris

Gordon Ferris

Since the heart of the book is in the highly technological banking industry, the action is as likely to involve IT shenanigans as guns (though guns feature too – fear not, my bloodthirsty friends!) and this gives the book a feeling of freshness and originality. Ted’s friend Oscar and his gang of hackers provide some light relief as they don their online personas and ride off to battle in the warzones of the dark net. The plot is not about the who – we know from the beginning who the baddies are. It’s about whether Ted and Erin will be able to bring the baddies down in time to save the People’s Bank – and themselves.

Overall, I feel the book starts a bit slowly but gradually builds up the pace till by the end it races along. The traditional thriller ending is enlivened by the technological element, which Ferris explains well enough for even the least nerdy person to follow. I understand from the bumph on the Amazon page that this is to be the first in a new ‘Only Human’ series from Gordon Ferris, which will be ‘fast paced stories tackling some of today’s global challenges’. I’ll certainly be signing up for the next adventure.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

a tale of two cities“Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop…”

:D :D :D :D :D

Set before and during ‘The Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, A Tale of Two Cities ranks amongst the finest of Charles Dickens’ works, even though it is in many ways quite different to his other great books. The humour and exuberant language is toned down; there is not the huge cast of peripheral caricatured characters; there are no major sub-plots. Instead there is a tightly-focused and exciting plot, a hero in Sidney Carton of much greater complexity than Dickens’ norm, and some of his most hard-hitting commentary on the effects of poverty and abuse, not just on those who suffer directly from it, but on society as a whole. While often Dickens’ books feel as if they have organically grown during the writing, with Dickens himself being as surprised as the reader by the direction they take, this one always feels to me as if he had planned it down to the last detail before he began. Nothing happens that isn’t relevant, and everything is explained completely in the end. And it has a purpose – one overwhelming theme: to show the possibility of redemption and resurrection, personal and political. That theme is what carries the reader through what must be the darkest of Dickens’ stories to the sense of hope that is inherent even in the tragedy of the ending.

“Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”

Dickens throws us into a state of menace right at the start of the novel, as Mr Lorry makes his way to Dover on the mail coach, the passengers and coachmen all in a state of extreme anxiety that the coach will be held up by highwaymen. This, together with the introductory chapter comparing the social inequalities and injustice in both England and France in the period, are an indication that Dickens is warning that the situation in England is not so very different to the conditions that led to the uprisings in France. This is one of the book’s strengths – Dickens doesn’t do the too frequent British thing of assuming that upheavals in foreign lands are somehow due to a form of moral inferiority. He makes it clear all the way through that the social problems in pre-Revolutionary France are paralleled in English society, and that the end result could very easily be the same.

tale-of-two-cities the mob

As always with Dickens though, the story is the thing. Unlike too many modern writers of misery, he recognised that the first thing an author has to do is entertain his audience. That way they might stick around long enough to hear the message. The story proper begins as Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille after a long imprisonment without trial, for reasons that only become known to the reader towards the end of the book. ‘Recalled to life’ through the love of the daughter he never knew he had, he returns to England where he regains his health and sanity. His beloved daughter Lucie falls in love with a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay, and the little family settles happily in a small house in London. But always Dickens keeps us aware of the approaching political hurricane that will soon sweep through France, and we know that somehow the family’s fate is tied to those events. When Charles Darnay is summoned to aid an old servant imprisoned for his loyalty to Darnay’s aristocratic family, the action moves to Paris…

“Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!”

With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.
***
“To me, women!” cried madame his wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.

Storming of the Bastille Jean-Pierre Houel

Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houel

It’s in Dickens’ depiction of Paris at this horrific moment in its history that he shows his genius, with some fantastic writing of the storming of the Bastille and the behaviour of the mob. With barely concealed anger he straddles both sides – showing the decades of cruelty and abuse meted out to the poor by pampered aristocrats, and the dehumanising effects of this, turning the Revolutionaries into savage monsters, akin to devils, when they come to power, wreaking vengeance even on the innocent. Though never sympathising with the viciousness on either side, he nonetheless brings the reader to feel pity amidst the revulsion for those caught up in these times – to understand how mobs become a force apart from the individuals within them. Madame Defarge is one of his greatest creations. The driving force behind the Revolutionary zeal to feed the guillotine, she is monstrous in her savagery, all the more so for being female. And yet we see the forces that have formed her and it is a hard heart indeed that can feel no trace of pity for her in the end – and for those who follow her. Dickens shows us how weak people can be in times of great turmoil, as neighbour betrays neighbour, and loyalty to a cause, or fear of it, trumps personal morality.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants.

But amidst all this horror and tumult, there is Sidney Carton. In love with Lucie but knowing that she could never love someone so deeply flawed as he, his unselfish devotion is brilliantly portrayed, without any of the wild exaggeration of character in which Dickens often indulges. Carton is believable and therefore the reader cares about him. The redemption of this weak drunkard, a wastrel who has thrown away the talents he was born with, is the heart of the plot, and central also to the wider message of the book – that through love, faith and sacrifice, resurrection is possible – for the person, but also for this deeply fractured society. Carton’s final scenes and last speech are beautifully written and intensely moving. I can’t think of another book where both the opening and closing lines are quoted so often that they have passed into cliché. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”)

french_revolution_guillotine

For me, Bleak House is the best, but this one has all the things that make Dickens great – the writing, the plotting, the social conscience – without the things that sometimes put new readers off – the caricatured comedy, the overblown descriptions, the saccharin romances. If anyone were to ask me where to start with Dickens, this would be the book I would recommend.

TBR Thursday 50…

The People’s Choice 6…The Result!

 

Ooh! After two books sitting as joint leaders for several days, someone snuck in at the last minute and cast a winning vote. (Not me, honest!) So by the shortest of heads – this week’s winner is…

the guernsey literary and potato peel society

The Blurb – It is 1946, in the thick of World War II, when American writer Juliet Ashton becomes the sudden recipient of letters from the inhabitants of Guernsey, the small island in the English Channel that has fallen under Nazi control. The letter writers have formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a way to gather without attracting the attention of their occupiers. Out of these letters, Juliet comes to know the lives, loves, and hardships of a wonderfully eccentric and vivid cast of characters, and their charming philosophies and anecdotes help her resolve her own romantic conundrum.

 *******

Thanks to all who voted, and to Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books for the review that brought this book to my attention. Including this one, the TBR has gone back up to 138.

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

*******

And here’s a few more that should be rising to the top of the pile soon…

Factual

 

gods of the morningCourtesy of NetGalley, a celebration of the natural world of the Scottish Highlands…

The Blurb – For more than three decades, John Lister-Kaye has been enraptured by the spectacular seasonal metamorphosis at Aigas, the world-renowned Highlands field centre. Over the years, the glen’s wildlife has come to infiltrate his soul, whether it is a warbling blackcap’s cascading refrains, whooper swans hauling winter along with them, pine martens causing havoc in the hen run, loyal resident tawny owls defending their territory from adolescents, or a regal roe buck strutting in the broom and gorse, suddenly gilded by a fiery ray of sunlight.

John Lister-Kaye has come to understand intimately the movements of these beloved creatures, but increasingly unpredictable weather patterns have caused sometimes subtle, sometimes seismic shifts in their behaviour. Gods of the Morning follows a year through the turning of the seasons at Aigas, exploring the habits of the Highland animals, and in particular the birds – his gods of the morning – for whom he has nourished a lifelong passion.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

widows and orphansCourtesy of the publisher, Arcadia Books, this one will be a real leap in the dark…

The Blurb – The Francombe & Salter Mercury has served the residents of two South Coast resorts for over 150 years. Hit by both the economic decline and the advent of new technology, Duncan Neville, the latest member of his family to occupy the editor’s chair, is struggling to keep the paper afloat. Duncan’s personal life is also in confusion as he juggles the demands of his elderly mother, disaffected son, irritable ex-wife and devoted secretary. At the same time, Geoffrey Weedon, his childhood friend, turned greatest rival, unveils plans to rebuild the crumbling pier, which, while promising to revive the town’s fortunes, threaten its traditional ethos. Then Duncan meets Ellen, a recent divorcee, who has moved to Francombe with her two teenage children and romance quickly blossoms. After the foreign landscapes and theological dramas of Jubilate and The Breath of Night, Michael Arditti’s latest novel is a return to the home front in both subject and setting. Witty and poignant, Widows and Orphans casts an unflinching eye over the joys and adversities of contemporary life and paints a masterful portrait of a decent man fighting for his principles.

 * * * * *

Crime

 

the winter foundlingsCourtesy of NetGalley, I’m late to the party on this one. But I enjoyed the previous books in the series…

The Blurb – Psychologist Alice Quentin has been looking forward to a break from her hectic London life. She has vowed to stay clear of police work. The previous cases she helped the police with have left her scarred. So, when Alice is given the rare opportunity to study treatment methods at Northwood high-security hospital outside of London, she is eager to get to work. But then a young girl is discovered, dressed all in white, on the steps of the Foundling Museum. Four girls have recently gone missing in North London—this is the third to be found, dead. The fourth may still be alive, and Alice Quentin may be able to help. Britain’s most prolific child killer, Louis Kinsella, has been locked up in Northwood for over a decade. Yet, these recent kidnappings and murders are clearly connected to Kinsella’s earlier crimes. It seems that someone is continuing where he left off. So, when Detective Don Burns comes asking for Alice’s help, how can she refuse? Alice will do anything to help save a child—even if that means forming a relationship with a charismatic, ruthless murderer.

* * * * *

arab jazzCourtesy of NetGalley. Two glowing reviews from Raven and Marina Sofia made this one irresistible…

The Blurb – Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse. The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm? In this his debut novel, Karim Miské demonstrates a masterful control of setting, as he moves seamlessly between the sensual streets of Paris and the synagogues of New York to reveal the truth behind a horrifying crime.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, NetGalley or publisher’s publicity bumph.

* * * * *

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

 

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

the 5th waveThank Heaven for Little Girls…

:D :D :D :D

An alien mothership hovers in the skies above Earth. But they’re not here to make new friends – it seems they’re intent on annihilating the human race. The first wave destroyed all technology leaving humanity almost defenceless, the second wave took out the coastal cities, the third wave released a virus that killed billions, the fourth wave remains almost entirely incomprehensible to me even though I’ve read the book… and no-one knows what the 5th wave will be. But fear not! The future of humanity is in the hands of a kickass teenage girl with a big gun, so I feel safe…

The book starts in the fourth wave with (oh, joy!) the first person present tense narrative of the aforesaid 16-year-old, Cassie, surviving alone in the woods after her parents have died, along with almost everyone else she knew. But her young brother was taken away, either by goodies or baddies – Cassie doesn’t know which – and she’s determined to find him. As she starts out on her journey, it’s Cassie who tells us the story of the alien invasion. Dark indeed though the story is, with some pretty horrific images, Cassie’s narrative is shot through with some much needed glimpses of humour which stop the book from becoming unbearably grim. Although she is firmly in the tradition of kickass heroines, she is nicely self-deprecating which makes her an enjoyable narrator.

We then swap to the story of Zombie, a 17-year-old boy who, like Cassie, has lost his entire family. Zombie has fallen in with a bunch of military people who are training the surviving children to be superkillers so that they can battle the aliens. (Why are they training the kids to do this rather than the adults? Because it’s a YA novel, silly! But I am deeply reassured to know that arming the 5-year-olds of today is an option, should we be invaded – in fact, I question why governments are not already doing this as a precautionary measure. I know I’d sleep sounder…) Zombie’s squad is struggling to get the points needed to graduate from training, until they are joined by Ringer, a super-kickass female who makes Cassie look quite cuddly in comparison…

Cassie meantime has fallen in with Evan, who nurses her back to health after she is injured. (Persons of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now. Here’s a little musical interlude to fill the time…)

Evan is hot! No, really, I mean it – he has chocolatey eyes and Cassie finds it difficult to concentrate on alien annihilation because she’s distracted by the ’roundness of his butt inside his jeans’. We have a lovely little interlude of teen romance here, complete with lusting semi-naked girl-in-the-bath scene and honourable male denial. Depending on your perspective, this whole section is either awfully sweet or sick-makingly nauseating. Guess which category I fell into? Fortunately I was distracted from the worst of it by my grumpy-old-woman disapproval over Cassie’s frequent use of bad language, mostly fairly mild, but still – rather than romantically washing her hair, I felt someone should wash her mouth out with soap.

(You can come back now!)

Just as I felt that I could take no more and should seek out sanctuary in the local old folks’ home, we return to the story proper, and oddly I was so much happier when we got back to kids shooting each other again. This final section is full of action and builds up to a strong tense finale. There’s enough emotional content to stop it being purely a shoot-em-up and, although the way is left very clear for the follow-up (it’s a trilogy, obviously – it’s YA fantasy, so it’s the law), the ending is quite satisfying in itself.

Rick Yancey

Rick Yancey

Overall, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting. I could have lived happily without the sex-without-actual-sex scenes and the swearing, but I probably would have felt differently about those had I been in the correct age group for the book. And the basic plot premise doesn’t stand up to inspection at all. These have to be the dumbest aliens I’ve ever encountered – one feels that a race of beings who can travel across the universe and unleash all these amazing horrors could have done something to annihilate the entire human race in a oner, but then that would have ruined the story. And, avoiding spoilers, all the stuff about why the kids were being turned into trained killers makes absolutely no sense at all. But the writing is good, the characterisation is strong, and Cassie in particular is a very likeable heroine (though I’m led to believe the males in the readership think Ringer’s the coolest). And the action stuff is well done – there’s lots of violence but it’s not overly glamourised, I felt. Although it’s geared towards a YA audience, it’s one that dystopian thriller fans of any age might enjoy, so long as their disbelief-suspension mechanism is in good working order.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 49…

The People’s Choice 6…

 

Dramatic news! The TBR has gone down!! By 2 – to 136…but it’s a start, right?

So…that means I can squeeze in one more book, but which one? So many choices around the blogosphere – so many great reviews! Which means it’s time for another People’s Choice Poll…

Last time it was all crime, so this time the shortlist is all fiction. So which one of these do you think most deserves a place on the TBR? 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 constant nymphThe BlurbTessa is the daughter of a brilliant bohemian composer, Albert Sanger, who with his “circus” of precocious children, slovenly mistress, and assortment of hangers-on, lives in a rambling chalet high in the Austrian Alps. The fourteen-year-old Tessa has fallen in love with Lewis Dodd, a gifted composer like her father. Confidently, she awaits maturity, for even his marriage to Tessa’s beautiful cousin Florence cannot shatter the loving bond between Lewis and his constant nymph.

heavenali says: “The Constant Nymph was Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, and probably her most successful and well known. I absolutely loved it, at once fully involving myself with the characters, as I became immersed in the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’. I think Margaret Kennedy might be an author whose work I will have to read much more of.

See the full review at heavenali

*******

the beesThe BlurbBorn into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden…

Claire says: “I know little about the bee world, but the environment the author creates is fascinating, intriguing and imaginative with references to monarchy, spiritual devotion, universal instinct and power. It also contains a subtle environmental reference, one that will be recognised by nature lovers everywhere, without compromising the essence of great storytelling.”

See the full review at Word by Word

*******

passingThe BlurbNella Larsen, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote two brilliant novels that interrogated issues of gender and race. In Passing, her second novel published in 1929, she examines the troubled friendship between two mixed-race women who can pass as white. One, Irene Redfield, marries a black man and lives in Harlem, while the other, Clare Kendry, marries a bigoted white man. Clare re-enters Irene’s life after an absence of many years, and stirs up painful questions about identity.

My Book Strings says: “Even without the “issue of race,” the toxic relationship between the two women would have made for a fascinating story. But, of course, race is at the very heart of it. It permeates every single aspect of life, and at times, I found it quite shocking to read about it…

See the full review at My Book Strings

*******

the willowsThe Blurb – Two friends are midway on a canoe trip down the Danube River. Throughout the story Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment—river, sun, wind—and imbues them with a powerful and ultimately threatening character. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which “moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.” American horror author H.P. Lovecraft considered this to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature.

The Bibliophile Chronicles says: “I absolutely love this book, I’ve read it before and it is no less creepy and wonderful the second time around. Personally I think that horror novels/films are most effective when you don’t actually see anything. That eerie sense of not knowing what is there seems to result in such a strong feeling of discomfort. That is very much at play in The Willows.

See the full review at The Bibliophile Chronicles

*******

the guernsey literary and potato peel societyThe BlurbIt is 1946, in the thick of World War II, when American writer Juliet Ashton becomes the sudden recipient of letters from the inhabitants of Guernsey, the small island in the English Channel that has fallen under Nazi control. The letter writers have formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a way to gather without attracting the attention of their occupiers. Out of these letters, Juliet comes to know the lives, loves, and hardships of a wonderfully eccentric and vivid cast of characters, and their charming philosophies and anecdotes help her resolve her own romantic conundrum.

Cleo says: The genius of this book is the perfect mix of horrific stories, those people who were deported, those who lived in fear along with the lack of food, but these are balanced out by some tender moments, with memories of bravery and humour and compassion, not least at the society’s meetings. There were some letters that took my breath away despite being familiar with the nature of the events that occurred.” (Cleo lives in the Channel Islands herself.)

See the full review at Cleopatra Loves Books

*******

NB All blurbs and covers are taken from Goodreads.

So…over to you! I love the sound of all of these so you can’t choose the wrong one! 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! ;)

Wednesday Witterings

Things I have never heard a reviewer say…

(Bitter ramblings provoked by a severe case of reviewer’s block…)

Like most of us, I read a fair number of book reviews on my travels around the blogosphere, agreeing with some of them and disagreeing with others, which is always a useful reminder of how subjective reading tastes are. Anyone who has read a few of my reviews, for example, will know that I grumble about first person present tense narratives on a regular basis, while recognising that other people enjoy them. But as I was trying desperately to think of something original to say in a recent review, I inadvertently achieved that state of empty-mindedness to which Zen masters have aspired for centuries, and into this vacuum unbidden popped the thought that there are some things I’ve never heard a reviewer say!

After hours (well, five minutes) of intense work aided only by copious supplies of coffee and chocolate cake, here’s my shortlist…

1. The plot was too believable…

2. I wish it had had more bad language in it…

no-foul-language

3. If only it had had a few more sub-plots to pad it out for another couple of hundred pages…

4. I wish the font had been smaller…

tiny font

5. It didn’t have enough descriptions of bodily functions…

6. It would have been better if the detective was an alcoholic…

Photo: drunkard.com

Picture: drunkard.com

7. I hate books written in the third person past tense…

8. I really enjoyed the foRmatting erro    rs

9.

10.

My cake was finished before I could complete 9 and 10, so please help by leaving your suggestions below. Or, in the unlikely event that you have used one of these phrases, tell us when – and why??? ;)

Tuesday Terror! Polaris by HP Lovecraft

Perchance to dream…

 

the haunter of the darkI’m going to do something quite rare – I’m going to admit that I made a mistake. The first time I read a collection of HP Lovecraft stories I mocked them, using HPL’s own favourite overblown adjectives to describe them as ranging from ‘loathsomely mediocre to hellishly poor’. That was two years ago and, while I still hold firm to the belief that mushrooms are not fundamentally scary and the moon cannot be described as fungoid, yet… those hideous, blasphemous, fish-frog aliens of Innsmouth linger in my mind, and I have often found my thoughts wandering through those ancient ruins that figure in so many of the tales, the remnants of long-forgotten, loathsomely hellish, alien cultures that have ruled the earth before us and may do so again…

So I admit it. I was wrong. HPL deserves his place amongst the greats and I accept that however laughable and, frankly, tedious some of his stories may be on the surface, he has the mysterious power to implant troubling, lingering images in the minds of his readers. So this short story, taken from the book The Haunter of the Dark, is the choice for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

Polaris by HP Lovecraft

 

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Each night, through the window of his chamber, our narrator watches the Pole Star, glowing with its uncanny light, as it…

…leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey. Sometimes, when it is cloudy, I can sleep.

But with sleep come dreams, and in his dream he sees a strange city under a horned waning moon…

Still and somnolent did it lie, on a strange plateau in a hollow betwixt strange peaks. Of ghastly marble were its walls and its towers, its columns, domes, and pavements. In the marble streets were marble pillars, the upper parts of which were carven into the images of grave bearded men. The air was warm and stirred not. And overhead, scarce ten degrees from the zenith, glowed that watching Pole Star.

polaris

And in the city he can make out people – men who walk abroad, talking wisely in a strange tongue that somehow he understands. On waking, he finds himself altered, with vague recollections of something he cannot define. Thereafter, on each cloudy night when he sleeps, he dreams of the city, until he comes to wish to be part of it, to speak to the men who converse there. And he begins to wonder whether the city is real…

I said to myself, “This is no dream, for by what means can I prove the greater reality of that other life in the house of stone and brick south of the sinister swamp and the cemetery on the low hillock, where the Pole Star peers into my north window each night?”

One night, as he listens to the men conversing in the city, he finds he has taken bodily form. But he is not a stranger to these men – they recognise him as one of them, and he knows their names and the name of the city, Olathoë, in the kingdom of Lomar. But the people are troubled, for that very night…

…had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns…the squat creatures were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour which held back our tall, grey-eyed men of Lomar from ruthless conquest.

Polaris565

Our narrator is a feeble man, without a warrior’s strength, but with keen sight, so he is sent to the watch-tower, and is to raise the alarm should he see the Inutos approach.

But as I stood in the tower’s topmost chamber, I beheld the horned waning moon, red and sinister, quivering through the vapours that hovered over the distant valley of Banof. And through an opening in the roof glittered the pale Pole Star, fluttering as if alive, and leering like a fiend and tempter.

And into his mind came a whispered rhyme…

“Slumber, watcher, till the spheres
Six and twenty thousand years
Have revolv’d, and I return
To the spot where now I burn.
Other stars anon shall rise
To the axis of the skies;
Stars that soothe and stars that bless
With a sweet forgetfulness:
Only when my round is o’er
Shall the past disturb thy door.”

And drowsiness overtook him, and he slept…

* * * * *

This is a great little story, and it’s actually enhanced by Lovecraft’s grandiose writing style – somehow it seems to match the setting of the dream city in a land from long ago. What I particularly like about it is that the ending is totally ambiguous, and either interpretation is disturbing. There is a racist element to the story, (as unfortunately there frequently is in Lovecraft’s writing), which is a real pity, since it would have been just as effective without it. But the man believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race (or perhaps culture), so it permeates his work, and it’s the reader’s choice, as with all these old writers, whether to make concessions to the time of writing – this one was written in 1918. I find with Lovecraft that the stories are so far from reality that the impact of the racism is somewhat lessened, but it can still be pretty off-putting. However, I’m still glad to have read this one, for the imaginative premise, the ambiguity of the ending and the quality of the writing.

If you’d like to know how the story ends (and it’s a very short one), here’s a link…

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

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

The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

the telegraph book of the first world warFrom our own correspondent…

:D :D :D :D :D

The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.

Between the two parapets of these adversaries, so near to each other, corpses lie, mud-caked, rotting, in their last tragic gesture – German corpses and Italian. The air of death is all around; a heaviness as of sepulchre pervades the life in the trench. A German lies on the parapet of the enemy’s trenches. He thrusts out his hands and his head from the trench. No one pulls him in or casts him forth. You see the spikes of helmets pass and repass this horror tranquilly. It is an indifference terrifying and splendid. Death has become a familiar. He is always there; he comes and goes, tapping this or that one on the shoulder, gathers all, and for those who fall is neither shuddering nor respect. A dead body is a companion who sleeps and will not waken.

13th February 1915

The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn’t spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.

This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn’t reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper – I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don’t know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I’d want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?

The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the courier – some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly – seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows very bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men’s hearts.

Tonight the guns are at work again, and the sky is flushed as the shells burst, over there where our men are fighting.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914 Photo: The Telegraph

British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914
Photo: The Telegraph

That’s not to suggest that the correspondents didn’t paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones – they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to ‘spin’ it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it’s the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas – when the Brits do it, it’s only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy – his courage, his gallantry – especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a ‘traditional’ war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.

At that moment neither in France nor in England had the question of gas as a weapon even been considered. It was, indeed, months after the Germans began the use of gas that Commissions were appointed in England and France to commence the study of the question, and more months again elapsed before we had prepared any gas at all. Finally, when we did start using gas, all we had were tear bombs, with which we tried to reply to much more dangerous gases sent over by the Germans.

The German reply to the Geneva Red Cross is thus the most cynical lie even the German Government has ever been guilty of. It is satisfactory, by the way, to learn from those who know that for a considerable time past the enemy is being paid back in his own coin, and that though late in this field of scientific barbarism we now have gases that are worse than any German gases.

25th September 1918

The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don’t just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered – not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there’s lots of stuff about the ‘home-front’ too – the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to ‘volunteer’, with the word ‘shirker’ being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.

The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914 Photo: The Telegraph

The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914
Photo: The Telegraph

The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time?

Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one’s bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

This is a massive book – 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It’s beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn’t always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

To my dearest love(s) on Valentine’s Day…

…aka FictionFan’s Fictional Fickleness…

 

Well, with such a choice on offer, why on earth would a girl stick to just one? Here are some of the many, many men to whom I’ve given my heart over the years…

* * * * *

Gilbert Blythe, Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery

 

My earliest true love was the utterly perfect Gilbert Blythe, a “tall boy with curly brown hair, roguish hazel eyes and a mouth twisted into a teasing smile.” (*swoons*) How Anne withstood him for so long, I’ll never understand…

gilbert blythe

“I have a dream,” he said slowly. “I persist in dreaming it, although it has often seemed to me that it could never come true. I dream of a home with a hearth-fire in it, a cat and dog, the footsteps of friends – and you!”

* * * * *

Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

 

If anyone is surprised to find Darcy on my list, welcome to the blog, newcomer!

fitzwilliam-darcy

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

OK, go ahead, Darcy, dearest! I’m all ears…

* * * * *

Bertie Wooster, The Inimitable Jeeves, PG Wodehouse

 

Bertie, I feel, would bring much jollity to a girl’s life, though it might be tricky to get him to the altar…

bertie-wooster

“Bertie, it is imperative that you marry.”
“But, dash it all…”
“Yes! You should be breeding children to…”
“No, really, I say, please!” I said, blushing richly. Aunt Agatha belongs to two or three of these women’s clubs, and she keeps forgetting she isn’t in the smoking-room.”

* * * * *

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

 

I’ve never fallen in love with any of Dickens’ heroes – they’re all too nauseatingly good! Dickens himself, on the other hand, is strangely attractive, despite building a wall in the middle of his bedroom as a hint to his wife that the marriage was in trouble… and yet no-one could dispute the man was a romantic…

charles dickens

If I may so express it, I was steeped in Dora. I was not merely over head and ears in love with her, but I was saturated through and through. Enough love might have been wrung out of me, metaphorically speaking, to drown anybody in; and yet there would have remained enough within me, and all over me, to pervade my entire existence.

* * * * *

Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

 

It’s a close tie between Aragorn and Faramir but if you think I’m going to pass up a chance to have Viggo Mortensen on the blog, you are mistaken.

Aragorn might marry Arwen Evenstar in the end, but everyone knows the true love story is Aragorn and Eowyn…

Viggo Mortensen in a scene from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, 2001.

Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Eowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair; fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, grey cloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt. For a moment still as stone she stood, then turning swiftly she was gone.

* * * * *

Mark Watney, The Martian, Andy Weir

 

Ah, Mark! Heroic, gorgeous, funny, heroic, intelligent, resourceful, heroic… and let’s face it, there wouldn’t be much competition…

the martian cover

If I could have anything, it would be a radio to ask NASA the safe path down the Ramp. Well, if I could have anything, it would be for the green-skinned yet beautiful Queen of Mars to rescue me so she can learn more about this Earth thing called “lovemaking”.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a woman. Just sayin’.

* * * * *

Dr Watson, The Sign of the Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Holmes might have the superior intellect but he’ll never be a match for Watson in the romance stakes…

dr watson

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

* * * * *

Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

 

All these men may have lived for love, but Gatsby is so romantic he died for it. Ah, Gatsby, I will love you forever…pretend I’m Daisy!

gatsby

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

* * * * *

So there you have it, a few of the men I truly love. Do tell who you would have included! And meantime…

Happy Valentine’s Day!

TBR Thursday 48…

Episode 48

 

Oh, dear! The TBR has risen to its highest ever level of 138! And since nearly every book I’m reading at the moment is about a million pages long I seem to be getting through fewer than ever. Oh well – could be worse. The chocolate factories could have gone on strike…

Anyway, if I ever get through my current batch, here are a few upcoming delights to tantalize or appal you…

Factual

 

the innocents abroadSince I’m just about to read Huck Finn’s America, I thought I’d follow it up with his travelogue of “Abroad”. Will he convince me he’s an “Innocent” though?

The Blurb says ‘Who could read the programme for the excursion without longing to make one of the party?’

So Mark Twain acclaims his voyage from New York City to Europe and the Holy Land in June 1867. His adventures produced “The Innocents Abroad”, a book so funny and provocative it made him an international star for the rest of his life. He was making his first responses to the Old World – to Paris, Milan, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Constantinople, Sebastopol, Balaklava, Damascus, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. For the first time he was seeing the great paintings and sculptures of the ‘Old Masters’. He responded with wonder and amazement, but also with exasperation, irritation, disbelief. Above all he displayed the great energy of his humour, more explosive for us now than for his beguiled contemporaries.

 * * * * *

Fiction

 

the amazing adventures of kavalier and klayPart of the Great American Novel Quest. I loved the writing of Telegraph Avenue but wasn’t so sure about its depth. How will this one stack up…?

The Blurb says Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America – the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. With exhilarating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.

* * * * *

Crime

 

The Shut EyeCourtesy of NetGalley. Love Belinda Bauer, so every new one is a much anticipated treat…

The Blurb says Five footprints are the only sign that Daniel Buck was ever here.

And now they are all his mother has left.

Every day, Anna Buck guards the little prints in the cement. Polishing them to a shine. Keeping them safe. Spiralling towards insanity. When a psychic offers hope, Anna grasps it.

Who wouldn’t? Maybe he can tell her what happened to her son…

But is this man what he claims to be? Is he a visionary? A shut eye? Or a cruel fake, preying on the vulnerable?

Or is he something far, far worse?

* * * * *

Sci-Fi Re-Read

 

do androids dream...In line with my resolution to read more sci-fi, I thought I’d ease into it with a re-read. My memories of this one are quite vague, but the blurb makes it sound much duller than I remember…

The Blurb says A final, apocalyptic, world war has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending the majority of mankind off-planet. Those who remain venerate all remaining examples of life, and owning an animal of your own is both a symbol of status and a necessity. For those who can’t afford an authentic animal, companies build incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep . . . even humans.

 * * * * *

Audiobook

 

trigger warningCourtesy of Audible UK. Everyone says Neil Gaiman is great at narrating his own stuff, so we shall see. This collection includes some old stuff and some new – but most of it will be new to me…

The Blurb saysGlobal phenomenon and Sunday Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman returns to dazzle, captivate, haunt, and entertain with this third collection of short fiction, following Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things, which includes a never-before published American Gods story, “Black Dog”. In this new volume, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath.”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

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

Second Life by SJ Watson

second lifeMisery loves company…

:) :) :|

Julia’s life is pretty good. She has a husband and son whom she loves and who love her. But her comfortable life is smashed into pieces when her beloved younger sister, Kate, is murdered in a seemingly random attack in an alley in Paris. When the weeks drag by and the police seem no nearer finding the murderer, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands. She has learned from Kate’s friend, Anna, that Kate had been using online sites to indulge in fantasy sex with strangers, and had sometimes met up with men she’d encountered there. So Julia decides to visit some of these sites herself to see if she can trace any of the men who knew Kate. Soon she has embroiled herself in a situation that threatens everything she holds dear, and she has to try to find a way out…

Oh dear! I’m sure there will be a million glowing reviews for this book, and it undoubtedly has some good points. But it’s yet another of these woeful misery-fests that have taken over bookworld recently – a first person present tense monologue from a narrator who is utterly miserable even before her sister is murdered, so you can imagine how cheery she is afterwards. There really ought to be some kind of rating system on the back of books to let people know in advance:

Sex – yes, lots and lots, both real and virtual, but not overly graphic
Foul language – occasional, but I’ve read far worse
Length – roughly twice as long as it needed to be
Humour – none, nada, not the slightest glimmer, not even unintentional
Misery – oh yes! Plenty! Enough to reduce the happiness quotient of the planet by at least 5%
Credibility – not much, and gets less as the book wears on

The first half of the book really drags with nothing much happening except Julia telling us how grief-stricken she is. A brutal edit of this section could have made a huge difference to the whole book. There were so many points where I really just didn’t want to go on with it – had it not been a review copy, I’d undoubtedly have given up. Not only is Julia dealing with her grief and her feelings of inadequacy as a parent to her adopted son, but she’s also a recovering alcoholic, so every few pages we are treated to her wishing she could have a drink and talking herself out of it. Am I really the only person in the world who is bored, bored, bored with reading about alcoholics? Especially when, as with this one, it had very little relevance to the plot.

The second half is much better once the plot finally begins to move. It’s still over-stuffed with Julia’s self-pitying whining, now also over the situation she has got herself into through her own stupidity. But the pace picks up and, so long as the reader can suspend disbelief, it builds quite a good momentum and some real tension towards the end. It’s not a plot to over-think since it is fundamentally silly, based on one ridiculous coincidence after another, but Watson writes well enough to keep the reader just about on-side. I imagine the ending will be divisive – personally, I was just rather glad to get to the end at all…

SJ Watson

SJ Watson

Overall, I’m reluctant to rate the book too low because, incomprehensible though it may be to me, I know there are lots of people who enjoy this kind of unremitting misery tale, and it’s as good as most of the ones I’ve read. My preference for a bit of light to contrast with the shade has undoubtedly coloured my view, as has my dislike for FPPT narratives. So while I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, I won’t wholeheartedly condemn it either. I really enjoyed Watson’s first outing in Before I Go to Sleep and, although I found this one disappointing, he still shows the writing style and skill in characterisation that made that one so enjoyable. Here’s hoping that now that the always tricky second novel is out of the way, he’ll come back with a bang in his next.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Friends of the Friends by Henry James

Nameless dread…

 

First published in London in 1896 as The Way It Came, Henry James changed the title in 1909 when the story was re-published in New York. It seemed about time that Henry James should make his first appearance, so here goes for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror

The Friends of the Friends by Henry James

 

Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Henry James by John Singer Sargent

An unnamed person is going through the papers of a recently deceased female unnamed person, when he (or possibly she) comes across a narrative written by the deceased UP about herself and two other unnamed persons, one male, one female. Still with me? Good…

The narrator of the narrative (i.e., the dead female UP), whom we will call the narrator, tells us first of the woman, whom we will call the woman. The woman’s claim to fame in society is that she saw an apparition of her father at the exact time that he died…

She rushed to him with a bewildered cry, “Papa, what is it?” but this was followed by an exhibition of still livelier feeling when on her movement he simply vanished, leaving the custodian and her relations, who were at her heels, to gather round her in dismay.

The narrator then meets a man (whom we will call the man) who by an astonishing coincidence had seen the apparition of his mother at the time she died. Immediately the narrator feels these two people should meet, and both show an interest in meeting the other. But for a variety of reasons, every time a meeting is planned something causes it to fall through…

…the accidents continued for years and became, for me and for others, a subject of hilarity with either party. They were droll enough at first; then they grew rather a bore.

The man is often called away on business, while the woman, separated from her abusive husband, lives a retired life in suburban Richmond. She rarely attends other people’s parties, but our narrator frequently attends hers…

…which consisted of her cousin, a cup of tea and the view. The tea was good; but the view was familiar, though perhaps not, like the cousin – a disagreeable old maid who had been of the group at the museum and with whom she now lived – offensively so.

Time passes, and still the two do not meet. After some years, the narrator and the man become engaged to be married, and this makes the narrator even more determined that her friend and her husband-to-be should meet. One afternoon, she arranges for them both to come to her house for tea but, suddenly thinking that their common experience (of seeing the apparitions, remember?) might attract them to each other, in a fit of jealousy, she tells the man she won’t be at home and not to come until dinner time. The woman still comes and waits for an hour for the man to show up, but of course he doesn’t.

victorian

That evening, the narrator admits to the man what she did, and agrees to go and apologise to the woman the following day. But when she gets to the woman’s house, she is met with some shocking news…

“At home, mum? She has left home for ever.”

I was extraordinarily startled by this announcement of the elderly parlour-maid. “She has gone away?”

“She’s dead, mum, please.” Then as I gasped at the horrible word: “She died last night.”

The narrator rushes to the man’s chambers to tell him this news, and to regret that they will now never meet. But the man tells her with great delight that the woman turned up in his chambers the previous evening. Although the woman didn’t speak, the man is convinced she was alive. However, the narrator is equally convinced she must have been dead or dying at the time. But either way, the real question is…

“What on earth did she come for?” He had now had a minute to think—to recover himself and judge of effects, so that if it was still with excited eyes he spoke he showed a conscious redness and made an inconsequent attempt to smile away the gravity of his words.

“She came just to see me. She came—after what had passed at your house—so that we should, after all, at last meet. The impulse seemed to me exquisite, and that was the way I took it.”

And from that point on she sees a change in the man, and feels him drawing away from her…

* * * * * * *

If you’d like to know how the story continues, here’s a link…

This isn’t really a scary story – it doesn’t set out to be – but it is unsettling. Very well written, the early passages are full of quite wickedly humorous jibes at society but the tone gradually becomes more serious as it goes on. Our narrator starts out sounding quite reliable but this changes when she starts to feel jealous – a feeling for which there is initially no foundation since the man and woman haven’t even met. So when her jealousy increases following the death of her friend, it’s unclear to the reader as to whether she has real cause for her feelings. Either there is something supernatural going on, or the narrator is losing her grip on commonsense, at least, if not sanity – whichever version the reader chooses to believe produces its own atmosphere of unease.

No gore, no clanking chains – instead, a story that achieves its disturbing effect quietly and gradually. A good one!

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

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

Dune by Frank Herbert

dune“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

:D :D :D :D :D

Duke Leto Atreides has been ordered by the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, to give up his comfortable home planet of Caladan and take over the administration of the almost barren planet Arrakis, whose vast sandy deserts give it its other name – Dune. Harsh though the environment of Dune may be, it is the only planet in the Empire which can produce melange, the spice drug, which extends the life of those who use it. The financial rewards of controlling Dune are immense, so the previous rulers, the Harkonnens, don’t intend to give up their claim, and it appears the Emperor may be secretly supporting the Harkonnens in their campaign to destroy Duke Leto. But Duke Leto has a son, Paul, the offspring of Duke Leto’s concubine, Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul is the result of generations of selective breeding, carefully controlled by the Bene Gesserit to produce the Kwizatz Haderach, a male Bene Gesserit with unprecedented mental powers, including the ability to see possible futures. And the spice drug melange is a crucial part of the process of bringing those powers to their full potential…

Written in 1965, Dune was the first real fantasy saga set on other worlds, and has remained in the fantasy/sci-fi bestseller lists ever since. It’s often compared to The Lord of the Rings for the completeness of its world-building, but the tone of it is much more ambiguous – the dividing lines between good and evil aren’t quite so clearly drawn. It’s a grappling for power and control, set in a society that has aspects of the mediaeval – lordly families wielding ultimate power over their peoples, where marriages are made for political advantage rather than love, and where torture and death are accepted as the norm.

Lovely Kyle MacLaclan as Paul-Muad'dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.

Lovely Kyle MacLachlan as Paul-Muad’dib in the 1984 David Lynch film.

The ecological themes in Dune reflect the beginnings of the anxieties over our own earth environment, which was just starting to become a matter of public concern in the ’60s. The importance of water on this desert planet is brilliantly portrayed, as Herbert shows how its scarcity has led to it becoming part of the mythology and even religion of the planet’s inhabitants. Everything revolves round water and customs reflect that – from water being the major currency to the ritual recovery of water from the bodies of the dead. The Fremen inhabitants of the planet are trying to make their planet more habitable by careful use and cultivation of what they already have, but Herbert, who had an interest in ecology in his real life, shows how changing one aspect of an environment must be carefully controlled to prevent the destruction of others.

Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!  (I've really got to watch this film again...soon!)

Yes, that is Sting playing nasty Feyd-Rautha and look! Capt Jean-Luc Picard himself appearing as Gurney Halleck!
(I’ve really got to watch this film again…soon!)

Much of the language of Dune is based on real-life Arabic languages – there is much talk of jihad, for example, and many of the names are Arabic in origin. I suspect this, combined with the desert landscape, might make the modern reader read things into the story that probably weren’t intended and certainly weren’t obvious to this reader when I first read the book sometime in the ’70s or ’80s. Our familiarity with the Middle East is so much greater now than it was then. However it’s fun to draw comparisons between spice and oil, and to see the struggle between the Fremen and their imperial overlords as a reflection of the wars of the last few decades. But in truth, the reader can only go so far down this route before the comparison begins to fall apart.

Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

The place of women in the Dune universe is not exactly a feminist’s delight, and seems pretty backwards looking even for the ’60s. Primarily breeding machines, even the Bene Gesserit wield their power through marriage and concubinage (yes, concubines!) and it’s a bit sad that their most urgent desire is to create a male, and therefore superior, Bene Gesserit. Often called witches by the men, and mistresses of the wierding ways, the Bene Gesserit nevertheless are feared and sometimes respected, so women do play an important, if not exactly heroic, role in the stories. And despite their inferior position in society, Herbert has created some memorable female characters, not least the Lady Jessica herself who gradually develops into something much more complex than simply the mother of the Kwizatz Haderach.

Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica.

Gorgeous Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica

Have I made this book sound impossibly boring? I hope not, because after a fairly slow start when the characters and worlds are introduced, there’s plenty of action. Treachery, intrigue, poisonings and battles, a little bit of romance, but not too much, the truly nasty Baron Harkonnen and his evil henchmen, and most of all Paul-Muad’dib and the heroic Fremen all make for a great adventure story. And the giant worms, the makers, are one of the all-time great creations of fantasy. Their role in the ecology of the planet and the way they are viewed by the Fremen, as something to be worshipped, feared and yet used, makes them central to the book. They are a force of nature that man, with all his technology, can’t defeat – indeed, mustn’t defeat, because without the worms Dune would lose the thing that gives it is unique importance. And they are terrifying in their destructive power, made worse somehow by the fact that they are driven by no intelligent purpose.

dune-sand-worm

There are several sequels to Dune, and while this one doesn’t quite end on a cliffhanger, the reader is left knowing there is much more to come. From memory the first couple of sequels are excellent, after which the series began to lose its edge somewhat – for me, at least. But I’m looking forward to re-reading the next one, Dune Messiah, in the not-too-distant future, and meantime would highly recommend Dune not just as an excellent read in itself, but as the book that has inspired so many of the later fantasy writers.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Ice Princess (Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck 1) by Camilla Läckberg

the ice princessLight and shade…

:D :D :D :D :D

Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka in Sweden to sort out the belongings of her parents who have recently died. But she is soon in the middle of the investigation into the death of her childhood friend, Alex, found frozen in her bathtub with her wrists slit. At first it looks like suicide, but it soon becomes clear that she was murdered. Alex and Erica had been very close as children but had grown apart as children do, and then Alex and her parents had left the town. So Erica feels personally involved in wanting to know what happened to Alex in the intervening years, and who would have a reason to kill her. The detective who’s investigating the case, Patrik Hedström, is another friend from childhood, but when they meet again after all these years their relationship quickly becomes something more than friendship.

This is the first book in the Patrik Hedström and Erica Falck series. I’d previously read a later one, The Stranger, and enjoyed it a lot, so wanted to go back and read the books in order. Quite often the first book in a series can be disappointing as so much time has to be given over to character development, and authors sometimes take a couple of books to really get into their stride. But I didn’t feel that at all in this case – this is an excellent debut, with a strong plot and with two main characters who very quickly become people the reader can like and care about.

Fjällbacka

Fjällbacka

Patrik and Erica’s new found feelings for each other are handled beautifully. There’s enough humour to stop it from being at all soppy and Läckberg makes the whole romance element quite straightforward – no bitter, vengeful ex-partner, no misunderstandings etc. The whole thing comes over as very natural and realistic and, because both characters are strong and attractive, the match feels like one that will last. I loved the way the viewpoint shifts between them so that we are able to see what each is thinking. At one point as Patrik is on his way to Erica’s, we see her rushing about desperately changing clothes and re-doing her make-up in an attempt to achieve that carelessly casual natural look – and when he arrives the view shifts to him, and we see him being completely fooled by it and thinking she’s one of these rare women who doesn’t need to try. Lovely!

Camilla Läckberg

Camilla Läckberg

By contrast, the plot concerning the reasons for Alex’s murder is quite dark, and there is a sub-plot concerning Erica’s sister who is in an abusive marriage, so there’s plenty of meat in the story. Although Erica does a little unofficial poking around, the bulk of the investigation is done as a police procedural. Fjällbacka is a tiny place, so the police aren’t used to dealing with murders, and apart from Patrik most of them would rather not have their routines disrupted. So Patrik more or less takes the case over, and we see him as a dedicated officer without any tediously maverick tendencies. On the downside, Patrik’s boss is drawn as the stereotypical incompetent bully in this book, though from memory that aspect seemed to be toned down quite a bit by the time of the later book that I read.

The translation by Steven T Murray is excellent – it doesn’t read like a translation at all, and none of the touches of humour get lost. Well written, with two likeable lead characters and a great mix of light and shade in the plot, this one has left me looking forward eagerly to catching up with the rest of the series.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Terrible Twos!

It’s my birthday!

 

Yes, today (or thereabouts) my blog turns two. Teething and colic are behind me, I’m getting pretty spiffy at that whole walking business, and I’ve mastered the most important words in the English language – Chocolate Cake!

And now that I’m two, I’m practising my tantrums, so you’d better bring a handy supply of sweets when you come visit this year!

Have a bit of (calorie-free) virtual cake while I give you some ever-so-exciting statistics…

cake
According to Goodreads, in 2014 I read 130 books with a total of 42,798 pages – roughly 117 pages per day. Slightly down on the previous year’s figure of 120 pages a day, but still ridiculously high. I abandoned 5 books at too early a stage to review or rate.

The rating breakdown was:

5 star                                       62
4 star                                       44
3 star                                       12
2 star                                        6
1 star                                        6

So my reputation for being hugely critical doesn’t really stack up, does it? Odd…

* * * * *

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

Crime                                                         57

Literary/Contemporary Fiction                      36

Factual                                                      20

Sci-Fi/Fantasy                                           15

Horror                                                         7

Way down on factual compared with 2013, slightly down on crime, and a big increase in sci-fi/fantasy and horror. Quite happy with that split overall.

* * * * *

It’s a funny old business this blogging, you know. The posts that take the least time and effort and yet bring in by far the most views from searches are the Tuesday Terrors! And most surprisingly the one that gets viewed from somewhere in the world nearly every day is Thrawn Janet. Can anyone explain why someone in, f’rinstance, Japan would be searching for a story written in old Scots? (And they do seem to be genuinely looking for it, ‘cos they often click through to the reading on youtube.)

Thrawn Janet by William Strang 1899

The 10 most viewed posts of the last year are

1.  Thrawn Janet – a Tuesday Terror! post
2.  Pride and Prejudice – the manga version
3.  The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – a graphic novel
4,  Carmilla: A Critical Edition (which was in last year’s top 5 too!) – more horror
5.  The Child – an audio dramatisation
6.  The Mysterious Affair of Styles – a tennis post
7.  Bet Your Life by Jane Casey – a book review – hurrah!
8.  Silence: A Fable – more Tuesday Terror!
9.  The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah – a ripping review
10. Shock News! – an announcement that I was taking a blogging break

So what does this little lot tell us? Well, mainly, that my ‘proper’ book reviews seem to be my least popular posts! Which would be a worry if it didn’t make me laugh so much…

* * * * *

(Special info for Lady Fancifull’s benefit – Rafa’s shorts have slipped down badly this year. The league tables, that is!)

rafael-nadals-sleeveless-shirts-7

* * * * *

Thanks to all of you who’ve visited, liked, commented, e-mailed, tweeted and facebooked over the last year. I appreciate every one of you – it’s you who make the blog fun and who inspire me on those nights when I realise it’s 2 a.m. and I haven’t written the next day’s post. Keep up the good work! ;)

* * * * *

And I’ll leave you with my favourite spam message of the year. This is genuine, and to make matters worse it came from a website calling itself bellyfatcombat.com.

What I wouldnt give to have a debate with you about this. You just say so many things that come from nowhere that Im quite sure Id have a fair shot. Your blog is great visually, I mean people wont be bored. But others who can see past the videos and the layout wont be so impressed together with your generic understanding of this topic.

Well, gee! Thanks! Just to cheer myself up after that damning critique…

Aah, that's better!

Aaaaah! The perfect birthday gift…

 

Here’s to next year!

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

the way things wereThe past is a foreign country…

:D :D :D :D :D

When Skanda’s father dies, it falls to Skanda to accompany his body back to India for the funeral rites. Though at first reluctant to go, once there, Skanda decides to stay on for a while, living in his parents long-empty flat in Delhi. The death of his father and the experience of meeting up with many of the people he knew in childhood leads him to remember and re-assess the recent history of his family, from the period of the Emergency in the mid-70s until the present day. Like his father, Skanda is a Sanskrit scholar, with a penchant for finding linguistic cognates – seeking out the shared roots of words across languages ancient and modern.

And yet – strange as it must seem – they had a corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality. To throw in the odd precious word or phrase of Hindustani, to upstage their social rivals with a little bit of exotica so obscure that no one could be expected to know it. India was their supreme affectation! They wore it to dinner, as it were; and, of course, the ways in which they were truly Indian – their blindness to dirt and poverty, their easy acceptance of cruelty – they concealed very well.

And this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. Skanda’s family comes from the rich English-speaking society of Lutyen’s Delhi, those who became such an integral part of colonial India that decades after Independence they still educate their children in English and look to Dickens and Shakespeare as their cultural classics. But through Skanda and his father Toby, Taseer suggests that this disconnect with Indian culture and heritage pre-dates Empire, that already India had forgotten or distorted its history and that this has fed into the divides within modern society. The fascination that Toby and Skanda have with Sanskrit and the ancient writings of India are openly symbolic of what seems like a cry for India to look past the turmoil of the last couple of centuries and to reclaim her pride in her own heritage as one of the great and influential cultures of the early world. The point is made that Skanda pursues his research into Sanskrit, not in India, where it is looked on as a kind of curiosity, but in America. (As someone who has banged on a good deal about the loss of national culture and heritage in my own country, I found this whole aspect of the book eerily familiar, especially the tendency, which I share, of blaming external sources, namely the British Empire, for the loss, when in fact it tends to be as much the aspirations of the educated of the society itself that allow this to happen.)

Rashtrapati Bhavan formerly known as Viceroy's House, New Delhi

Rashtrapati Bhavan formerly known as Viceroy’s House, New Delhi

But the book isn’t just about India’s past. It also looks at the politics of the present from the time of Mrs Gandhi to today. When reading Mistry’s A Fine Balance, I complained that the book concentrated so much on the poverty and misery of the underclasses that it failed to offer any answers or hope for the future. Taseer’s novel is in no way overly optimistic, but because it concentrates on a class that wields power and influence, the message is much more that India must and can choose its own future, not by rejection of its past, recent and ancient, but by understanding it and building on it. Taseer shows the rise of the new industrial class and, while they’re not necessarily shown in the most attractive light, they are a vivid contrast to the rather effete upperclass shown as clinging to the habits and values of the colonial period.

Here the murk has sunk deepest. Tonight, the British city, with its low domes and bungalows, is like a submerged necropolis. The rickshaws glide along its streets, with that stealthy sense of purpose with which single-beam submersibles in documentary films explore the ocean floor; the yellow streetlights, buried in the canopies of trees, have the nested glow, at once inviting and dangerous, of marine wonders behind screens of sharp coral; and, everywhere, the dense cold air, sulphurous and full of particles, closes over old wounds. Even where the scar tissue runs deepest, the line between the British city and the Muslim town to its north, where the escapees of one upheaval came to populate the abandoned places of another, the fog, easy and billowing, brings a feeling of continuity, at once even-handed and insensitive, like the blanketing hush of a first snow, like curfew in Srinagar.

That might all make the book sound unbearably dull, but in amongst all the politics and philosophising are a group of exceptionally well drawn and believable characters, whose story is interesting not just for what it tells us about India, but in itself. Skanda is to a large degree merely there to tell the story of his parents, Toby and Uma. Uma is without exception the most intriguing female character I have come across in Indian fiction and, for me, she is the heart of the book; and is in many ways the personification of this post-colonial class that Taseer is portraying. When I read Taseer’s earlier book, Noon, one of my reservations about it was that the women in the book were almost entirely background figures, so I was particularly pleased to see such a strong female figure front and centre in this one. Very much a flawed human, Uma is nevertheless the product of her society, and she has an independence of character that I found very refreshing. To some degree, she is still defined by the marriages that she makes, but she makes those choices for herself. The difficulties for women in what is still a male-dominated and very unequal society are not minimised, but through Uma we see the glimmerings of change.

Aatish Taseer (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Aatish Taseer
(Source: bbc.co.uk)

It’s always a pleasure when one marks an author as ‘one to watch’, as I did with Taseer after reading Noon, and then finds that promise fulfilled. This huge and ambitious book is full of profound insight, brilliant characterisation and beautiful language. It’s not unflawed – sometimes Taseer’s voice comes through too strongly, making his point rather than leaving the reader to find it, and the device of Skanda telling the story of his family’s past to his new girlfriend is clunky in places. But the quality of the prose and the depth of insight outweigh any weaknesses in the structure and make this an enlightening and deeply thought-provoking read. And though Taseer avoids giving any easy answers, I came away from the book with a sense of optimism; a feeling that perhaps the intellectual direction of India might be moving somewhat away from contemplation of its failures towards consideration of how to achieve a better, and inherently Indian, future. An exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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