FictionFan’s Book Reviews

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

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Thank you for visiting.

Bookish Newsweek…

2nd edition of the bookish “newspaper”

Click on the book titles for the full reviews.

BIG BEN SILENCED

There has been a major furore over the news that Big Ben, the bell in the clock tower in the Palace of Westminster, the home of the UK Parliament, is to be silenced for four years while repair work is carried out.

Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. In this biography of Burke’s life and thought, Norman shows the influence that Burke’s thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (no link, since I haven’t reviewed this one)

Dickens began his writing career as a journalist, sitting daily in the gallery of the Commons to cover the proceedings of Parliament. What he saw there influenced his views on Victorian society and after he left he apparently said he would never return because he could not bear to listen to another worthless speech. His semi-autobiographical hero David Copperfield was also a parliamentary journalist, and gives an indication of Dickens’ feelings on the experience…

Night after night, I record predictions that never come to pass, professions that are never fulfilled, explanations that are only meant to mystify.

Robert Powell as Richard Hannay clinging to the face of Big Ben in Don Sharp’s 1978 film of The 39 Steps by John Buchan – not that it actually happened in the book!

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UNIVERSITY CLEARANCE

This week A-level results came out – the final school exams. There has been the usual annual rush as young people scramble to get into the universities and courses of their choice. They should be careful which one they pick…

Past Tense by Margot Kinberg

Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University of Tilton in Pennsylvania. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist.When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’… until the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building. The building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Joel Williams, ex-cop and now college professor, investigates…

The Vanishing Lord by Lucy Brazier

When the famous portrait of the Old College’s founder Lord Layton disappears, Deputy Head Porter knows not to call the police – the college keeps its problems to itself. Unfortunately the police aren’t quite so au fait with the college’s rules, so when word leaks out, they come snooping around and soon begin to suspect that the wall of silence they’re being met with from the Dean and porters suggests they must know more about the alleged theft than they’re letting on. Meantime did the Master of neighbouring Hawkins College die a natural death or is he one in the long line of mysterious murders that afflict these ancient institutions? Deputy Head Porter, helped or hindered by her colleagues, must investigate in this humorous murder mystery.

Deputy Head Porter

Bitter Fruits by Alice Clark-Platts

When the body of first-year student Emily Brabents is found floating in the weir, it falls to recently promoted Detective Inspector Erica Martin to investigate. Having just transferred to the Durham force, Martin soon discovers what a huge part the prestigious University plays in this city, and the pressure is on to get a quick result before there’s too much bad publicity. But as Martin begins her investigation, she discovers that underneath the ancient traditions and academic reputation, Joyce College is awash with sex, secrets and online trolling. And pretty young Emily, desperate to be popular, has been at the centre of much of it, with sexually explicit photographs and videos of her appearing on Facebook, attracting the attention of every bully and troll in the College…

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THE BIG ECLIPSE

For the first time since 1918, a total eclipse of the sun has been visible all across the United States.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

Laura and Kit are newly in love. Kit is an eclipse-chaser, travelling the world to experience full solar eclipses as often as he can. So they’ve gone together to a festival at Lizard’s Point in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse – Laura’s first. Still on a high following this semi-mystical experience, as they make their way back to the festival site Laura comes across two people who at first she thinks are making love. But then she sees the girl’s face, frozen in shock, and reassesses what it is she’s actually seeing. Now she’s going to be the major witness in a rape trial. Fifteen years later, Laura and Kit are still together, awaiting the birth of their twins, but hiding from the world. The book tells the story of how the events after the eclipse have led them to this…

King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard

When Sir Henry Curtis’ brother George goes missing in Africa, Sir Henry and his friend, Captain Good, set out to find him. While they are en route to Natal, they meet up with Allan Quatermain, a famed local elephant hunter and adventurer. Sir Henry begs Quatermain to go with them to seek for the mines, in the hopes of finding his brother there; and, in return for a promise of a share in any treasure they find, Quatermain agrees. Along the way, Captain Good will use his trusty diary and a fortuitous total eclipse of the sun to save the lives of the travellers…

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SOLVING THE MYSTERY OF BIRDS’ NAVIGATION

Scientists think they have solved the mystery of how birds navigate over long distances – by instinctively being able to judge the distance between true north and polar north (or something like that).

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

On a cold winter’s night, Nat Hocken is awoken by the sound of tapping at his window and discovers it’s a bird seemingly trying to get in. Then screams come from the children’s bedroom and when he rushes there, he finds hundreds of birds have come through the window and are attacking his son and daughter. No-one knows why the birds have suddenly started attacking and no-one knows how to stop them. Du Maurier creates a wonderfully terrifying atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia as Nat battles to protect his family…

Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye

In 1976, John Lister-Kaye bought an estate in the northern central Highlands of Scotland, and set up what is now Scotland’s premier field study centre, Aigas. Although a wide range of wildlife lives and is studied there, Lister-Kaye’s own main fascination is with the many varieties of birds that make their home there – his gods of the morning. In this book, he takes the reader through a year, showing the changes that come with each season, as different birds arrive, nest, breed and leave again.

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

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The greatly loved singer, dancer and all-round entertainer Bruce Forsyth died this week at the age of 89, after a career spanning more than 70 years. No books for this one – instead a little sample of the fun he brought into our lives… your Brucie Bonus.

 

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You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

When pushy is an understatement…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have supported her every step of the way, making huge sacrifices of time and money to get her the best training, and organising the family’s lives around her needs. She’s worked with Coach T for years and has total confidence in him. Now she’s a couple of months away from competing to reach Senior Elite level. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Oh, how I love the way Megan Abbott writes about teenage girls! She takes us to the dark heart of them, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being.

The utterly delightful Olga Korbut who, aged 17, set the world alight in 1972
and started the drive towards the tiny frame required for female gymnasts.

In her last few books, Abbott has told her stories through the eyes of her girls, but in this one it is Katie, the mother, whose perspective we share, though the story is told in the third person. Katie and Eric have convinced themselves they are not like the other parents, driving their children to achieve their own dreams for them. They believe it is Devon, has always been Devon, who is utterly dedicated to her sport, and that they have simply supported her. But the reader is not so sure – pressure comes in different forms, and Devon surely knows how proud her parents are to have a child they repeatedly refer to as ‘exceptional’. Young Drew, Devon’s little brother, certainly knows that his needs always take a back-seat, but that’s how it’s always been and mostly he accepts it philosophically.

In Dare Me, Abbott showed the extreme lengths to which girls would go to get on the cheerleading team. Here she does the same with gymnastics, revealing the physical and psychological costs of reaching the elite levels. Not just building strength and muscle mass, to succeed these girls must remain small and undeveloped – boyish – which in many cases requires delayed puberty. Although it doesn’t play a major role in the book, Abbott hints at the methods to which some unscrupulous parents and coaches will go to achieve this. But she also tacitly suggests that the physical training itself might have this effect for the ‘lucky’ ones. And she takes us into the cruelty of the adolescent world, where other girls are blossoming with femininity, and where Devon’s tiny, muscly body and obsessive commitment is derided as freakish. (I suspect Abbott may be overegging the pudding a little, but it’s all chillingly credible, and I must admit I’ve had concerns myself over the years about these young children who compete at the highest levels, ending up often with their careers over before they’re barely adults but with a lifetime of pain and surgeries still to come.)

Abbott also shows the parents who form the community around the gym, dedicated to the point of obsession with having their child succeed. We see the support they give each other, but also the jealousies and spite over whose child is going to do best. And when things begin to go wrong, we see how quickly loyalty breaks down in the mad scramble to ensure that their own child’s prospects don’t suffer, whatever may be happening to the others in the group.

The amazing Nadia Comaneci, aged just 14, who
in the 1976 Montreal Olympics scored the first perfect ten.

The plot itself is dark indeed, and so well done that, although there are only a few possibilities, I still hadn’t decided exactly where it was heading before we got there. Although so much of the book is about extremes, it still feels entirely credible because Abbott develops the psychology of the characters so brilliantly. As things get ever murkier, Katie is forced to reassess how she has behaved as a parent, to both her children, and to find her way through a maze of morally ambiguous choices.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Anyone who has loved Abbot’s Dare Me or The End of Everything will almost certainly enjoy this one too. But this is written in an ‘adult’ voice, so if you have been put off in the past by her teen voices, then this one may work better for you. For me, I think this may be her best yet, and since I loved both those earlier ones, that’s high praise indeed. It kept me on the edge of my seat, reading well past midnight and on towards dawn, and the ending left me fully satisfied. One that will certainly appear in my crime book of the year shortlist…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

The perils of the prologue…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As the French Revolution is turning into terror over in Paris, Lizzie Fawkes is in Clifton in the south of England, where her husband is building an avenue of houses on the cliffs above the gorge. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a woman who has devoted her life to writing pamphlets promoting the rights of man and the emancipation of women. Lizzie’s husband, Diner, is of a more traditional cast, wanting and expecting Lizzie to find fulfilment in the role of housewife. He is older than Lizzie and was married before to a Frenchwoman, Lucie. Lizzie loves Diner and wants to make him happy, but she feels increasingly restricted by his demands that she doesn’t go out unaccompanied; and he seems jealous of everyone else she loves, especially her mother whom she adores. As Diner becomes ever more demanding, Lizzie begins to feel herself trapped…

I so wanted to love this book, especially since it turned out to be Helen Dunmore’s last. In a rather moving afterword, she explains that, although while she was writing it she didn’t know she was ill with the cancer that would kill her, she realised afterwards that the illness must already have been spreading through her. So it is poignant, though apparently coincidental, that one of the themes she wanted to examine in the book is that of how “the individual vanishes from the historical record”, especially women, whose lives were so often unrecorded and forgotten.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the book that prevent it from reaching the highest standards. Firstly, the idea of discussing the Terror in France via those wannabes who cheered the revolutionaries on from the safety of England means that there is never any sense of emotional involvement in the events going on over in Paris. This is further exacerbated by Dunmore telling us about those events through letters and newspaper articles rather than taking us there. Of course, this is how people in England would have received the news, so in that sense it’s an accurate portrayal. But it makes those passages feel more like a history lesson than part of a story.

The second, and for me the major, problem is that Dunmore begins the book with a short series of prologue-like chapters which basically reveal almost everything that is to follow. So we know from the beginning that the building boom will collapse when war begins and the houses Diner is building will be a victim of that. We know that Julia is soon to die and her writings will be lost and forgotten, leaving no trace of her in the historical record. And we know that a man will bury the corpse of a woman in the woods – and although we are not told which man and which woman, it becomes blindingly obvious almost as soon as the story gets underway. Suspense may not be an essential feature of all books, but I suggest there ought always to be at least some doubt about how things will play out. Of course, we don’t know exactly how it will end, but the bits that are left obscured are rather minor in comparison to those that are revealed too soon.

Helen Dunmore

There is no doubt about the quality of the writing, and the development of major and minor characters alike is excellent. I struggled with the idea that Lizzie would have given up a life of relative freedom to marry a man with such strict, traditional views on the role of women, but we all do stupid things for love when we’re young, I suppose. Dunmore’s portrayal of the stay-at-home revolutionaries rings true, as does her detailed description of life in Clifton at this moment in history. But I fear that detail itself gradually became my third issue with the book. Everything is described in far too much depth, from haggling over the purchase of a shawl to what to feed a baby whose mother can’t suckle it. Each bit is vaguely interesting in its own right, thoroughly researched and certainly well described, but it all builds up until I finally felt I was drowning in minutiae, with the story sinking alongside me. I’m not sure at what point creating an authentic background becomes information overload but, wherever the line is, for me this book crossed it. And I suspect that’s mainly because the prologue chapters had left me in little doubt of where the story was going so that I had no strong feeling of anticipation to drive me on.

So the book’s strengths lie in the quality of the writing and the authenticity of the setting and characterisation, and for these reasons it is still well worth reading. But sadly, the problems I had with it prevent me from giving it my wholehearted recommendation, much though I’d like to.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 131…

Episode 131…

Woohoo! The TBR has dropped down another 1 to 194! Admittedly this is mainly due to abandoning books rather than reading them – I’m spending so much time staring at the news like a rabbit at a snake that my reading is down to almost nil at the moment. As is my reviewing – I have such a backlog of unwritten reviews that I may have to disappear for a bit soon till I have something ready for posting.

Talking of abandoning things, I’ve finally abandoned the 20 Books of Summer challenge. Since I abandoned five out of the first ten books, I guess my list wasn’t as much fun as I anticipated, and I’m now so far behind on it I can’t be bothered even trying to catch up. I’ll still be reading the other books but… no deadlines! I hope my fellow participants are doing better!

Here are a few that should get to the top of the heap soon, if I ever get back to my normal reading patterns…

Factual

For the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, this is apparently a highly biased eye-witness accounts of events as recorded by a British journalist…

The Blurb says: This first-person chronicle by John Reed, a legendary journalist who was present at the flash point of the Russian Revolution in 1917, provides an intense and informative eyewitness account of one of the greatest events of the twentieth century.

Capturing the spirit of those heady days of excitement and idealism, Reed’s true-to-life account follows many of the prominent Bolshevik leaders, as well as vividly capturing the mood of the masses. Verbatim reports of speeches by leaders, and comments of bystanders — set against an idealized backdrop of the proletariat united with soldiers, sailors, and peasants — are balanced by passionate narratives describing the fall of the provisional government, the assault on the Winter Palace, and Lenin’s seizure of power.

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Sci-Fi

For the Classics Club. This is a re-read, but from so many years ago I have only the vaguest memory of it. If the blurb sounds like a million other sci-fi/fantasy books, that’s because they’ve all copied this one…

The Blurb says: For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future–to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire–both scientists and scholars–and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a fututre generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation.

But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun–or fight them and be destroyed.

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Crime

Another one for the Classics Club and another re-read. I don’t read much American police-based crime because the obsession with guns bores me – give me an obscure South American poison any day! (Well, not literally, you understand…!) But I remember enjoying this series long ago, so hope it might live up to my memories…

The Blurb says: As a cop with the city’s famed 87th Precinct, Steve Carella has seen it all. Or so he thinks. Because nothing can prepare him for the sight that greets him on a sweltering July night: fellow detective Mike Reardon’s dead body splayed across the sidewalk, his face blown away by a .45.

Days later, Reardon’s partner is found dead, a .45-caliber bullet buried deep in his chest. Only a fool would call it a coincidence, and Carella’s no fool. He chalks the whole ugly mess up to a grudge killing…until a third murder shoots that theory to hell. Armed with only a single clue, Carella delves deep into the city’s underbelly, launching a grim search for answers that will lead him from a notorious brothel to the lair of a beautiful, dangerous widow. He won’t stop until he finds the truth—or until the next bullet finds him.

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Adventure

Something a bit lighter for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. This comes high up on the Goodreads list of books set during those events…

The Blurb says: THE GOLDEN SABRE is a 1981 novel written by award-winning Australian author Jon Cleary. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, an American mining engineer and English governess flee across country.

In the Russia of 1917 Matthew Cabell, an American oil prospector, befriends a Russian Prince and Princess and their English governess. Their journey across Russia to the Caspian Sea, in the family Rolls Royce, is full of wild adventure and narrow escapes.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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

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One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Death at the dentist’s…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The thing is – if Hercule Poirot ever threatens to visit you, make an excuse and then flee to the other side of the world because no one is safe around that man! In this book he visits his dentist, Mr Morley, for a routine check-up. By the end of the morning, Mr Morley is dead. Later, one of his patients is found dead and another has gone missing. Let’s hope Poirot didn’t have a doctor’s appointment that afternoon!

At first, Inspector Japp thinks Mr Morley, who was found shot dead with a gun beside him, has been murdered, but when one of his patients dies later that day of an overdose of the Procaine used to numb his mouth, it’s assumed Mr Morley made a mistake and then in a fit of remorse killed himself. So the police investigation stops, but Poirot isn’t convinced and continues with his own investigation.

There had been quite a collection of notable patients at Mr Morley’s surgery that day. Mr Amberiotis is a Greek gentleman with a dubious reputation. Mr Barnes is retired from the Secret Services. Miss Sainsbury Seale has a chequered past, having been an actress in her youth and then having shockingly married a Hindu in India (well, it was shocking in 1940 when the book was written), before deserting him and returning home to England. Mr Blunt is a banker and pillar of the Establishment – the kind of man who is seen as giving stability to the country at a time when other European countries are falling into the hands of various flavours of dictatorships. There are also a couple of young men there – one the boyfriend of Mr Morley’s secretary, and the other the would-be boyfriend of Mr Blunt’s niece. Poirot begins by talking to each of these people about what they remember of that morning.

This one has a nicely convoluted plot which touches on some of the anxieties of a country facing war. Christie never gets overly political but she often works current concerns into her stories and it gives an interesting insight into the time of writing. Here, there’s a clear divide between the deep conservatism of the old guard in Britain, fighting to keep the old systems of politics and finance in place, and the younger people, some of whom have been affected by the socialist and revolutionary fervour churning through large parts of the world. While Christie appears to be firmly on the side of the old guard, she intriguingly recognises through her characters that this may be age related and that things may change whatever the Establishment does. She also neatly addresses the question of how far ethics may be bent in pursuance of a noble aim.

But of course that’s all just a side dish – the main course is a beautifully plotted murder mystery in which all the clues are given to make it possible to solve, if only the reader’s little grey cells operated as efficiently as Poirot’s. This reader’s didn’t. It was so long ago since I last read this one I couldn’t remember the solution, and found I was baffled all over again. Not only are the clues sprinkled throughout, but towards the end Poirot lists all the important ones in his thoughts – and yet still I couldn’t work it out. But when Poirot explains it all in one of his typical denouements, it all fits together perfectly and undoubtedly falls into the fair play category.

Agatha Christie

It’s a very thoughtful denouement, this one, where Poirot considers the future and finds it worrying – I suspect it would have resonated strongly with the concerns of the readers of the time. And frankly, given the current political situation around the world, it resonates just as strongly again now. As always, I get annoyed at how dismissive people sometimes are about the Golden Age writers in general and Christie in particular – they knew how to entertain but the best of them also reflected their society back to itself, just as the best crime writers continue to do today.

I listened to the Audible audiobook read by Hugh Fraser, who gives another excellent narration. I’ve mentioned in the past how good he is at bringing out the humour in some of Christie’s books. In this one, he does just as good a job of bringing out the slightly darker, more pensive tone of certain parts of the book. These audiobooks are a great way to freshen the books up for old fans – I’m thoroughly enjoying listening to them and look forward to revisiting the Christie/Fraser partnership again soon.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Bookish Newsweek…

Since I’ve spent the week gazing disbelievingly at the news instead of reading, I thought I’d try something a bit different – a bookish “newspaper”…

Click on the book titles for the full reviews.

INDIAN INDEPENDENCE

Seventy years ago today, India finally gained independence from the British Empire and was partitioned, thus bringing into being the new state of Pakistan. Happy Independence Day!

Gandhi and Churchill by Arthur Herman

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage. A definitive account of the long road towards independence and partition.

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Set in the Calcutta of 1919, this is first and foremost an excellent historical crime novel, but worked through the plot we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. The main character, Inspector Sam Wyndham of the colonial police force, is British, there to uphold the Raj. His sergeant, Surrender-Not Bannerjee gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

Set in the present day, 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. But Taseer suggests that India’s disconnect with its own 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. 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 finally be moving somewhat away from contemplation of its failures towards consideration of how to achieve a better, and inherently Indian, future.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

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WHITE SUPREMACISM IN THE US

No Western country is free of the taint of racism, but this week it is America which has had a sharp reminder that white supremacism has not yet been defeated.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776 by Gerald Horne

In a simplified nutshell, Gerald Horne’s argument in this book is that the Revolution was in large measure a response to the colonists’ fear of London’s drive towards abolition of slavery. Horne argues that slavery underpinned every aspect of the pre-1776 economy and as such was seen as crucial by the colonists, even while slave resistance was growing and slave revolts were becoming more common.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham

When two white men rape a young black girl, her father, Carl Lee Hailey, takes the law into his own hands. Grisham tells the story of the subsequent trial in a plot that widens out to look at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.

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ESCALATING TENSION OVER NORTH KOREA

It’s a strange old day when Kim Jong-un no longer seems like the maddest megalomaniac amongst world leaders…

Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

MacArthur was involved in most of the important military events of the first half of the 20th century, not least the Korean War which ended with the current partition, as two sides of the broken country stare at each other over the Demilitarized Zone – one backed by the might of the US, the other shielded by the power of China. This book explains how we got here…

The Accusation by Bandi

This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. They provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order.

The current tyrant, Kim Jong-un, and a few of his toys…

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The annual Edinburgh Festival is underway with its usual eclectic mix of weird and wonderful plays, performance artists, brilliance and awfulness.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

In McDermid’s humorous update of the Austen original, our heroine Cat Morland is fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been home-schooled by her mother in a Devon rectory. So when her well-off arty neighbours Andrew and Susie Allen invite her to come with them to the Edinburgh Festival, Cat is thrilled. Naturally Cat is mainly interested in the Book Festival and I doubt there is anyone better qualified to write about that event than Val McDermid.

Cat had convinced herself that in spite of Henry Tilney’s failure to appear at the Book Festival grounds, he would surely attend the dramatic adaptation of last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For. Had they not touched on the subject of the fluency of women’s writing at Mrs Alexander’s dance class? Was this not the most sought-after ticket of the Fringe? And was not the Botanic Gardens the coolest of venues?

Royal Botanical Gardens dressed up for the Festival

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This week’s front-page headline in the Kirkintilloch Herald is:

Flu vaccine coming to East Dunbartonshire Schools

Phew!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A particularly virulent strain of flu wipes out the population of most of the world within a few weeks. This is the story of before that event and twenty years after it. Just before the flu struck, famous actor Arthur Leander died of a heart attack during a performance of King Lear. The story is based around him and the people who were connected with him – either family, friends or people who were in the theatre that night. The future story has as its main character, Kristen – a child actress in Lear, now a young woman travelling with a band of fellow actors and musicians bringing Shakespeare to the small communities of survivors that have sprung up since the apocalypse.

Red Queen by Honey Brown

The time feels much like the present, but society has been destroyed by a lethal virus. The narrator, Shannon, is a young man living in isolation with his older brother, Rohan, in a well-stocked house prepared by their now-dead father for just such a contingency, since he always feared that one day disaster would strike humanity. It’s been months since they saw another person, but one day a young woman, Denny, appears at the farm and throws herself on their mercy. Suspicious at first, both men soon find themselves attracted to her, but it still seems as if Denny may be hiding a secret…

* * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

No books, but he deserves a section all to himself…

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She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

A study of evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Fernand Ravinel is a travelling salesman, often away from the home he shares with his wife, Mireille. This makes it easy for him to spend time with his lover, Lucienne. But, in time, the pair decide this isn’t enough – that Mireille has to be got rid of. And so they set out to murder her. Their plot at first looks like it’s going to be successful, but then a strange thing happens, and gradually everything starts to go wrong… and as it does so, Fernand’s mind begins to unravel.

This book comes with a request from the authors for readers to tell nothing about the plot so as not to spoil it for other readers, so I’ve restricted my little introduction to slightly less than is given in the publisher’s blurb. In essence, the book concentrates on Ravinel’s state of mind, showing how guilt and remorse soon knock him off his emotional balance, sending him on a spiral into delusion, depression and finally threatening even his sanity. But there’s also a mystery element that stops this being a simple character study – something strange is happening and, while Ravinel in his delusional state is willing to consider a supernatural element, the reader is left looking for a rational explanation.

Narcejac and Boileau

Unsurprisingly in a man who is plotting to murder his wife, Ravinel is not a sympathetic character. He’s self-obsessed, rather cold emotionally, seeming unable to truly love either of the women in his life, and he’s something of a hypochondriac. But although this makes it pretty much impossible to empathise with him, it still leaves him as a fascinating subject for a character study. Boileau-Narcejac use his weaknesses and character flaws brilliantly to create a compelling picture of a man driven to the edge of insanity. They are the authors who wrote Vertigo on which the Hitchcock film is based, and there are some similarities between the books. Both blur the line between villain and victim, concentrating on the effects on the central character’s mind as he is drawn into a plot that spirals out of his control, and both veer close to mild horror novel territory as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And both are dark, indeed.

For me, this one isn’t quite as strong as Vertigo. Mainly, this is because the solution seems pretty obvious from fairly early on which takes away some of the suspense. It still leaves it an intriguing and enjoyable read though, partly because it’s so well written and partly because it’s less clear how the story will be allowed to play out. As strange events lead Ravinel to become more disturbed, there’s a truly chilling effect – it’s easy to understand why he is so badly affected by them. Both the Boileau-Narcejac books I’ve read have been fundamentally about evil, but they seem to see weakness of character as an integral part of that evil, so that the books are less about the incidents and more about the psychological impact they have on the perpetrator.

I trust I’ve been vague enough to suit the authors and if you’re now wondering what on earth this review is going on about, I can only suggest you read the book! It has also been made into a film more than once, but the consensus seems to favour the 1955 Clouzot version, Les Diaboliques, which I am now looking forward to watching…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 12 of 90

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene read by Colin Firth

Greene’s God works in mysterious ways indeed…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Bendrix meets Henry in the park by chance one rainy night, it takes him back to the time, a couple of years earlier, when he was having an affair with Henry’s wife, Sarah. Now Bendrix is bitter – she left him and he has never really understood why. And Henry, unaware of their affair, now tells him that he thinks Sarah may be seeing someone else. All the old feelings brought to the surface, Bendrix feels he must know – did Sarah ever love him? Or was he just one in a long line of men…

This is a book of two halves for me, and so I must warn those who love it that I am going to be quite critical of it. I’m also going to go much further into spoiler territory than I normally do, so if you haven’t read the book and intend to, then you would be best to skip my review…

The first half of the book is quite wonderful. It’s a study of how jealousy and insecurity can lead someone to destroy the very love that is causing those emotions, and how easily a failed love can turn to bitterness, even hatred. Bendrix, the first person narrator, is arrogant and can be cruel, but he is also self-aware, which makes him tolerable if not likeable. The writing is fantastic from the very first sentences – lean and direct. Greene never tells us anything – he lets his characters speak for themselves, though we see them mostly through the filter of Bendrix’s jumble of emotions. Greene understands the vulnerability that comes with love, the weakness and insecurity that can cause us to seek excuses in advance for love’s failure, and, by doing so, create that failure through our own actions. There are occasional passages of pathos, done with a simplicity that makes them deeply moving without ever verging on the mawkish.

I listened to Colin Firth’s narration of the book and he does a superb job, making it feel both tense and intense. He doesn’t ‘act’ the dialogue, but uses the subtlest shifts in tone to convey the different characterisations. All the anger and bitterness is there on the surface, but he lets us hear the sorrow and love that still underlie those emotions. It’s not at all surprising that he won the Audie Award for Best Solo Narration for this in 2013.

Unfortunately the second half fell away sharply for me – and this is where spoiler territory begins.

Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr as Bendrix and Sarah in the 1955 movie directed by Edward Dmytryk

Many of Greene’s books reflect his own personal struggle with faith and his strange relationship with the Catholic Church, and this book is no exception. But whereas in other novels – The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory – I’ve found that both interesting and moving, in this one somehow it all feels forced and rather… OK, I’ve tried to think of a better word, but the one that suits is… silly. First we find the reason Sarah finished the relationship is because of a promise she made to a God she did not at that point believe in. I could accept that, just about.

But when, towards the end of the novel, Bendrix begins to think that she may be performing miracles from the great beyond, I choked. I hold my hands up – I’m a life-long atheist and that may have affected how I felt about it. But I actually don’t think it’s that – it seems to me the way Greene does it is crass, and I think I’d feel that way, perhaps even more so in fact, if I were a believer, particularly a Catholic. For one thing, we suddenly start being told by all and sundry what a ‘good’ woman she had been. In what way, I found myself asking? We know almost nothing about her except that she has been serially unfaithful to her husband throughout their marriage because he doesn’t provide her with sexual satisfaction. If she does good works or contributes to society in any positive way, we are not told so. And she has certainly never been devout. It seems to me this is a major failure in characterisation. This woman whom I thought I knew – a creature of emotion, a rather weak, shallow personality looking for episodes of love to fill her dull and rather pointless existence, is suddenly being lauded as a saint, in the literal sense of that word.

I could have accepted it had it only been Bendrix who was viewing her that way – love and grief do strange things to the memory and the mind, after all. But other people, even the priest, seem to be ready to beatify her within weeks of her death.

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the roles in Neil Jordan’s 1999 version

There’s another suggestion that sat uneasily with me too. We discover late on that Sarah had been baptised as a Catholic, though it happened when she was too young to remember so she lived her life unaware of it. It hovers not quite spoken that this is at the root of her later dalliance with religion and possibly also her posthumous miracle-working. Hmm! I’m not sure even the Catholic Church would think it works quite like that.

So, in short, what starts as a wonderfully truthful depiction of love, jealousy and grief, turns into a superficial and incredible account of some kind of miraculous conversion. My real problem with it is that I have been saying for many years that The Heart of the Matter is one of my favourite books, and have put it on my Classics Club list for a re-read – and now I’m scared to re-read it in case Scobie’s struggles with his faith strike me in the same way. In other words, perhaps it’s this book, or perhaps I’ve just become too cynical for this kind of shallow, sentimental mysticism.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 130…

Episode 130…

A tiny decrease this week – down 1 to 195. Still, at least it’s heading in the right direction. Better news is that the number of outstanding review copies is down to 29 from 36 the last time I reported it, so that undoubtedly means I deserve cake!

Here are a few that will be reaching the top of the pile soon…

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. It was the lovely Renee at It’s Book Talk who first tipped me off about this one, knowing my love of tennis, and she then followed up with a great review that made me even more enthusiastic to read it…

The Blurb says: Growing up in the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia, Anton Stratis is groomed to be one thing only: the #1 tennis player in the world. Trained relentlessly by his obsessive father, a former athlete who plans every minute of his son’s life, Anton both aspires to greatness and resents its all-consuming demands. Lonely and isolated—removed from school and socialization to focus on tennis—Anton explodes from nowhere onto the professional scene and soon becomes one of the top-ranked players in the world, with a coach, a trainer, and an entourage.

But as Anton struggles to find a balance between stardom and family, he begins to make compromises—first with himself, then with his health, and finally with the rules of tennis, a mix that will threaten to destroy everything he has worked for.

Trophy Son offers an inside look at the dangers of extraordinary pressure to achieve, whether in sports or any field, through the eyes of a young man defying his parents’ ambitions as he seeks a life of his own.

* * * * *

Crime

This is one I actually bought (*faints*) and it’s not even for one of my many challenges! Every review I’ve read of it has made me keener to read it. It was a runner-up for the Booker in 2016…

The Blurb says: A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? Will he hang for his crime?

Presented as a collection of documents discovered by the author, His Bloody Project opens with a series of police statements taken from the villagers of Culdie, Ross-shire. They offer conflicting impressions of the accused; one interviewee recalls Macrae as a gentle and quiet child, while another details him as evil and wicked. Chief among the papers is Roderick Macrae’s own memoirs, where he outlines the series of events leading up to the murder in eloquent and affectless prose. There follow medical reports, psychological evaluations, a courtroom transcript from the trial, and other documents that throw both Macrae’s motive and his sanity into question. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s multilayered narrative will keep the reader guessing to the very end.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season several years ago (pre-blog reviews) and have been meaning to read more of her stuff ever since – never got around to it, of course. So I couldn’t resist requesting this one…

The Blurb says: When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules–a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.

When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders–a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman–have stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes–and save himself in the process–before Lark’s long-simmering racial fault lines erupt. A rural noir suffused with the unique music, color, and nuance of East Texas, Bluebird, Bluebird is an exhilarating, timely novel about the collision of race and justice in America.

* * * * *

Crime on Audio

Following my recent enjoyable listens to some of Agatha Christie’s classics, here’s another – same author, but different narrator this time – the wonderful Joan Hickson. I’ve listened to one of her narrations before and she has the perfect voice for the Miss Marple books…

The Blurb says: The villagers of Chipping Cleghorn are agog with curiosity over an advertisement in the local gazette which reads: “A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.” A childish practical joke? Unable to resist the mysterious invitation, a crowd begins to gather at Little Paddocks at the appointed time when, without warning, the lights go out.

(I do love these tiny blurbs – just enough to intrigue…)

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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

* * * * *

Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Lock up your daughters…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our unnamed narrator (I shall call her Elsie, just because I can) has returned from boarding school for the summer and is excited about getting together with her closest friend, Harriet. The girls have been in trouble in the past, and this is the reason Elsie’s parents sent her away to school. It’s quickly apparent they intend to get into just as much trouble in the future – constantly seeking new experiences they can record in their diary, each experience must top the one before. They are at that age, thirteen or fourteen, when their fantasies run to men and sex. And with Harriet’s encouragement, Elsie has developed a fascination with an unhappily married middle-aged man whom they call ‘the Tsar’. She sets out to tempt him and he is open to being tempted, but we know from the beginning that things aren’t going to end well…

Please God (I could feel the Tsar’s hand on my shoulder) please God, send Harriet. Then I turned to face the tiger. So dingy he was with his sallow skin and thin hair brushed carefully back. For all his elegance, and graceful walk, the delicate way he moved his head, indefinably he lacked youth. Later I was to remember the stillness in the woods, the evening in an avenue of light between the tree trunks, and the Tsar with his hand on my shoulder. I did not know I loved him then, because as Harriet wrote later in the diary, we had a long way to go before we reached the point of love.

This is an intriguing look at the secret lives of adolescent girls, set in the ’50s, at a time when many parents still demanded obedience rather than offering guidance. Both sets of parents care about their daughters in their own ways but clearly have no idea how to handle them, so that Harriet and Elsie are left to navigate their own way through their burgeoning sexuality. The thing that makes the book so disturbing is that their thoughts and behaviour will be recognisable to any woman, since we all went through that difficult stage when our physical selves were maturing far more rapidly than our emotional selves. It’s also a reminder of how female friendships at that age can become obsessively close, to a point where they can take precedence over all other relationships, even family, and can develop their own secret codes of communication and behaviour. In the end, Harriet and Elsie go much further along the path of acting out their fantasies than most of us did (I hope!), but their first steps feel like ones any one of us might have taken, perhaps with similar consequences.

The book was famously inspired by the case in New Zealand where two teenage girls murdered the mother of one of them, but the story isn’t a slavish copy of that, so knowing the original case is not a spoiler for the book. It was also apparently Bainbridge’s first novel, though it was rejected at the time, and was only published much later once she had become an established name.

I haven’t read any of her later books, so can’t compare the quality of the writing, but I felt this one was a little patchy. Some of the writing is wonderful, but for such a short novel I still found the pacing rather slow, finding myself wishing it would hurry up and get to where it was going. Perhaps this was because I had more or less gathered the major points of the plot from the many, many reviews I’ve read of it, or perhaps it was because the end was so blatantly foreshadowed at the beginning – I’m not sure.

I had tried to explain to my mother that it was awful to go so early; that one looked so silly when the field was full of small children. I could not explain that when it was dark a new dignity would transform the fair into an oasis of excitement, so that it became a place of mystery and delight; peopled with soldiers from the camp and orange-faced girls wearing head scarves, who in strange regimented lines would sway back and forth across the field, facing each other defiantly, exchanging no words, bright-eyed under the needle stars. I could not explain how all at once the lines would meet and mingle performing a complicated rite of selection; orange girls and soldier boys pairing off slowly to drift to the far end of the field and struggle under the hedges filled with blackberries.

The characterisation of both girls is somewhat vague, but I felt that fitted well with the first-person narration. Elsie’s obsession with Harriet and desire to impress her is portrayed excellently, but Harriet herself remains something of an enigma because we only have Elsie’s account to go on. Elsie also hints that she, Elsie, is the submissive one in the relationship, but sometimes the reader is made to wonder if this is a true representation of their friendship, or some kind of deflection so that Elsie should be seen as the more innocent of the two.

Beryl Bainbridge

Times change and attitudes change with them. It may be harder for a modern reader, having lived through all the horror stories about paedophiles and grooming, to feel as sympathetic towards the Tsar as I suspect a reader was expected to feel when the book was published in the ’70s. It’s also less politically correct (though no less true) to see young teenage girls as potential temptresses, using their sexuality as a game, only half innocently, testing their new-found power over men. All of that rang true for me, though, however much we like to gloss over the sometimes dark complexities of teenage sexuality these days.

So while I wasn’t quite as blown away by this as I’d hoped, I think it’s a fine example of a story that becomes very dark while still retaining a chilling level of credibility. Recommended, and it will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Bainbridge’s work.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Grimly Glaswegian…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

William Watt wants to clear his name. His wife, sister-in-law and daughter have been brutally murdered in their home, and Watt is the chief suspect. But convicted rapist and burglar, Peter Manuel, recently released from prison, claims he knows who did the murders and can lead Watt to the murder weapon, a gun which has passed from hand to hand through the criminal underworld of Glasgow. So one December evening in 1957 the two men meet and spend a long night together drinking and trying to come to some kind of deal – a night during which the truth of the killings will be revealed.

This book is based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. A notorious rapist and brutal murderer, Manuel was a bogeyman in the Glasgow of my childhood, though he died before I was born. Adults spoke of him in hushed tones or sometimes threatened disobedient children that Peter Manuel would get them if they didn’t behave. In the old tradition, his story was turned into a rhyme that little girls sang while skipping ropes…

Mary had a little cat
She used to call it Daniel
Then she found it killed six mice
And now she calls it Manuel.

Despite this, I knew almost nothing about the actual crimes of which Manuel was convicted, so came to the book with no preconceptions, and made a heroic effort to avoid googling in advance. And although the blurb already seems to suggest what the outcome of the Watt case might be, it’s not nearly as clear cut as that – Mina does a wonderful job of obscuring and blurring the truth, so that I spent the whole time not quite sure how major parts of it would play out, and immediately had to rush off on finishing to find out how closely the story she tells had stuck to the facts. The answer is that she largely has, but has taken a few fictional liberties. These are just enough to mean the suspense element will work just as much for people who know the case as those who don’t, I think.

Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. Soon a Clean Air Act will outlaw coal-burning in town. Five square miles of the Victorian city will be ruled unfit for human habitation and torn down, redeveloped in concrete and glass and steel…Later, the black bedraggled survivors of this architectural cull will be sandblasted, their hard skin scoured off to reveal glittering yellow and burgundy sandstone. The exposed stone is porous though, it sucks in rain and splits when it freezes in the winter.

But this story is before all of that. This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild west, chaotic. This city is commerce unfettered. It centres around the docks and the river, and it is all function. It dresses like the Irishwomen: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.

Peter Manuel

But the story is only a part of what makes this wonderful book so special. Despite being in my pet-hate present tense, the writing is fantastic. The portrayal of Glasgow feels amazingly authentic – the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty; the buildings blackened by the soot of the industrial revolution before the big clean up that happened later in the century; the lifestyles of respectable people and criminals alike; the gangsters great and small; the perpetual almost tribal sectarianism between Protestant and Catholic that has marred so much of the city’s history; the relationships between married couples; the pubs as a male preserve; the edge of danger that comes from the ever present threat of violence – everything! It reminded me strongly of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books – less poetic perhaps, or at least less affectionately so. McIlvanney doesn’t beautify the city or hide its darkness, but nevertheless his books read like a love letter to it and its people – Mina’s depiction is harsher, colder perhaps, but still balanced and nuanced.

And sometimes the book is gut-wrenching in its emotional truth and power. The man giving evidence about the murder of his daughter when we are made privy to his thoughts behind the spoken evidence. The sudden use of war metaphors when a man who had served in WW2 comes across a scene of bloody brutality. It drew tears from me more than once, for the fierceness of its truthfulness and the power of the prose as much as for the tragedies in the story. And there are other passages where a different, gentler kind of truthfulness emerges – the mother torn between her love for her child and what she sees as her duty to God; the children left to run free in the streets in a way that would be almost unthinkable now.

They search the car. In the glovebox they find a tin of travel sweets. The lid lifts off with a white puff of magician’s smoke. Inside, translucent pink boiled sweeties are sunk into a nest of icing sugar. These are posh sweets.

Reverently, the boys take one each. They savour the flavour and this moment, when they are in a car, eating sweets with friends. In the future, when they are grown, they will all own cars because ordinary people will own cars in the future but this seems fantastical to them now. In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.

Denise Mina

The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…

It was Cleo’s great review that tempted me to read this wonderful book – thanks again, Cleo! I owe you one!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 5 of 20

Six Degrees of Separation – From Austen to…

Chain links…

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

This month’s starting book is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. What a pity! This means I’ll have to start with my obligatory Darcy pic instead of ending with it! Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to search for another hunk to fill the end spot… a tough job, but one I’m willing to undertake to bring you pleasure…

She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgement, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the story of a man falling in love with a fine pair of eyes and a woman falling in love with a big house full of servants – undoubtedly, the basis for a wonderful relationship. Thinking of relationships reminds me of…

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. This is a woeful tale of what can happen to a young girl when she goes off travelling but forgets to pack her paracetamol. It also provides a warning to us all never to declare undying love to a rich man whose mother controls the purse-strings, else we may end up the wife of a country curate…

Talking of country curates reminds me of…

Emma by Jane Austen – a terrifying tale of a middle-aged man who grooms a young girl to grow up as his ideal woman. Poor Emma is offered an escape route, when Mr Elton the curate offers to marry her, but alas! It is too late – her indoctrination is complete! A fine moral lesson to us all from the pen of Ms Austen…

Mr Elton…

We are given another, and perhaps even more important, moral lesson in…

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – An innocent young girl is trapped in an old abbey, with only spooky shadows, a potential murderer, a patronising young man who can dance unnaturally well, and a pile of pulp fiction to occupy her mind. Naturally, she picks the pulp fiction, starting a process that will rot her mind and eventually take her beyond hysteria to the brink of near insanity. The moral clearly is – don’t read books!

“…and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am!—What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”

And, most certainly, don’t read this one…!

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope – In a desire to save us all from the perils of reading fiction, Ms Trollope has written a book so majestically awful it is certain to put the unsuspecting reader off for life! A book that introduced me to two words that prove that the human race is already well on the way to total mental decline – amazeballs and shagbandit – it left me feeling that even emojis can sometimes be less offensive than the written word.

😉 😛 👿

He gave an almost imperceptible smirk. ‘The obigations of the heir…’
‘Oh my God,’ Marianne exclaimed. ‘Are you the heir to Allenham?’
He nodded.
‘So fortunate,’ Belle said dazedly.
Marianne’s eyes were shining.
‘So romantic,’ she said.

After this experience, I had to be persuaded to try reading another book, which brings me to…

Persuasion by Jane Austen – a tragic story of a young woman who dumps her lover and then is surprised that he takes her seriously and goes to war with the French (an extreme reaction, but quite romantic in its way. A bit unfair on the French though, perhaps.) The moral of this story is surely that we should grab the first offer we get, girls, for fear we might otherwise end up having to marry a curate…

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

A lesson taken to heart by the downtrodden heroine of our last book…

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – a story wherein a young girl is wrenched from her mother and forced to live with two ugly sisters – ugly on the inside that is. Poor little Fanny is destined to spend her days as a skivvy without so much as a pair of glass slippers to call her own. Until her fairy godmother (rather oddly named Edmund) waves her magic wand and suddenly Fanny gets to go to the ball after all…

There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.

* * * * *

And they all lived happily ever after!

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So Austen to Austen, via relationship advice, curates, moral lessons, don’t read books!, persuasion and grabbing a husband!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

Oh! And here’s your extra hunk…

Finding Fibonacci by Keith Devlin

The knowledge of all sums…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A few years ago, Keith Devlin published The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, which combined a biography of the famous mathematician with an explanation of what his fame rests on. This book is the story of researching and writing that book, also telling the little that is known about Fibonacci’s life and describing his arithmetical legacy.

It’s a strange little book. It reminded me of being left with bits of leftover wool after knitting an elaborate sweater and deciding to use them to make a matching scarf. It feels like an amalgam of all the things Devlin would have liked to have included in his first book, but didn’t think quite fitted. Knowing nothing whatsoever about Fibonacci, I found it reasonably interesting since it gave me the basics about his achievements, but I’m not sure of how much interest it would hold for anyone who already knows about him, or indeed, who has read Devlin’s earlier book. Devlin starts with an introduction in which he describes his own career as an “expositor” of math in print and on radio. He tell us he is known as the Math Guy in America (hence the misspelling of maths throughout 😉 ). This is partly why he is so interested in Fibonacci, since he too was an early expositor of arithmetic.

Example: 6X + Y = Z
If X = chocolate truffles and Y = FF, then find Z. Answer below.

Real name, Leonardo of Pisa, (Fibonacci was a nickname given to him by a much later mathematician), his fame rests mainly on his major work, Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation), which explained the Hindu-Arabic number system (the use of numerals 1-9). Prior to this, arithmetic in the west had relied on an elaborate finger-counting system or the use of the abacus, both of which required a high level of skill. The system of using numerals was easier to learn and also provided a written record, hence an audit trail. Although Leonardo was not the first man to introduce this system to Europe, his book appeared just at a point where trade was about to take off exponentially in the region, so became hugely important and influential. Leonardo also wrote a follow-up book that included many worked practical examples, so that it could be used as a basis for learning how to use arithmetic even by people who weren’t interested in understanding the underlying principles. This was hand-copied thousands of times and was translated into many different regional languages and with the examples converted into local currencies, making it the most important text for spreading the use of arithmetic throughout Europe and beyond.

Monument of Leonardo da Pisa (Fibonacci), by Giovanni Paganucci, completed in 1863, in the Camposanto di Pisa

Devlin intersperses this information about Fibonacci with descriptions of how he, Devlin, went about researching his earlier book. This is sometimes interesting – Devlin writes well when, for example, he re-imagines the Pisa of Leonardo’s time: a trading hub, with sea-transported goods being brought into the town via the river Arno. But there are also parts where my interest level fell away almost entirely – for example, when he gives immensely detailed accounts of visits to libraries to look at ancient manuscripts, and includes blow-by-blow accounts of conversations with librarians about opening times, etc. Leonardo’s work was almost forgotten for centuries till a few researchers brought him back to prominence, and Devlin gives the story of them and their researches too. Again, these accounts varied in interest level, but overall I felt Devlin was trying too hard to make it seem more exciting than it either was or, indeed, needed to be.

Keith Devlin

When it comes to the arithmetical stuff, Devlin explains things simply enough for my decidedly non-mathematical brain to cope with. He gives some of Leonardo’s worked examples, which taught me two things: 1) I’ve forgotten what little algebra I ever knew and 2) thank goodness for Excel. However, I was pleased to see I can still usually get to the right answer eventually with my own elaborate finger-counting method (which also involves sticking out the tip of my tongue – a widely-recognised technique which oddly both Fibonacci and Devlin overlook), so this will undoubtedly be a handy skill after the apocalypse…

In the end, I suspect I might have been better reading Devlin’s earlier book rather than this one – the meat of the story for me was Leonardo’s achievements, and the rest felt a little extraneous. However, I certainly got enough out of it to make it a worthwhile and informative read overall, and the other aspects of it may appeal more to people who are intrigued to see how a biographer goes about his research process.

Answer: Z = 0
(*throws out empty chocolate box*)

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

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Book 4 of 20

TBR Thursday 129…

Episode 129…

Now, before I tell you this week’s figure, I just need you to understand that it’s not my fault! You see, all this week Amazon have been reducing the price of books that have been on my wishlist for ages, so what was I to do? Really, it would have been foolish and irresponsible not to buy them… wouldn’t it? Plus, think of all the authors, editors, publishers, etc., who have benefited. In fact, in these tough times, it’s pretty much a duty to boost the economy, so it could be argued that I’m performing a valuable public service every time I add to the TBR. But please, don’t thank me!

Yes, you’re right – it’s gone up again. To 196, which isn’t too bad considering… er… considering… well, considering it’s Thursday! See? It all makes perfect sense, when you think about it. And if you don’t believe me, I’ll get my new spokesperson to explain it…

The three fiction books on this week’s post are from my 20 Books of Summer list, although two of them weren’t on it originally. I mentioned last week that I’ve abandoned three four books so far, so these two are replacements. So far I’ve read eight and reviewed three… hmm!

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I loved Rushdie’s last book, Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights, but still haven’t got around to reading any of his earlier stuff. And now he has a new one, which sounds fabulous…

The Blurb says: A modern American epic set against the panorama of contemporary politics and culture—a hurtling, page-turning mystery that is equal parts The Great Gatsby and The Bonfire of the Vanities.

On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an enigmatic billionaire from foreign shores takes up residence in the architectural jewel of “the Gardens,” a cloistered community in New York’s Greenwich Village. The neighborhood is a bubble within a bubble, and the residents are immediately intrigued by the eccentric newcomer and his family. Along with his improbable name, untraceable accent, and unmistakable whiff of danger, Nero Golden has brought along his three adult sons: agoraphobic, alcoholic Petya, whose rambling soliloquies are the curse of a tortured mind; Apu, the flamboyant artist, sexually and spiritually omnivorous, famous on twenty blocks; and D, at twenty-two the baby of the family, harboring an explosive secret even from himself. There is no mother, no wife; at least not until Vasilisa, a sleek Russian expat, snags the septuagenarian Nero, becoming the queen to his king—a queen in want of an heir.

Our guide to the Goldens’ world is their neighbor René, an ambitious young filmmaker. As research for a movie about the Goldens, he ingratiates himself into their household. Seduced by their mystique, he is inevitably implicated in their quarrels, their infidelities, and, indeed, their crimes. Meanwhile, like a bad joke, a certain comic-book villain embarks upon a crass presidential run that turns New York upside-down.

Set against the strange and exuberant backdrop of current American culture and politics, The Golden House also marks Salman Rushdie’s triumphant and exciting return to realism. The result is a modern epic of love and terrorism, loss and reinvention—a powerful, timely story told with the daring and panache that make Salman Rushdie the standard-bearer of our dark new age.

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Crime

This was the runner-up in my poll for the 20 Books list, so has now sneaked on as the first replacement. Which I’m glad about, because I really do want to read it…

The Blurb says: For five years Priest’s Island has guarded the secret of Max Wheeler’s disappearance. Each anniversary the boy’s family gathers at the scene to mourn his loss and to commission a new inquiry into the mystery. So far a retired chief constable, a private detective, a forensic archaeologist and a former intelligence officer have failed to uncover what happened to fourteen-year-old Max. Now Cal McGill, an oceanographer with expertise in tracking bodies at sea, has taken up the quest and finds himself caught between a father hell-bent on vengeance, a family riven by tragedy and a community resentful at being accused of murder. As Cal goes about his investigation he discovers an island that provokes dangerous passions in everyone that sets foot on it. And he has a nagging worry: if Max was murdered why shouldn’t it happen again?

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. Having loved Horowitz’s last few books, especially the magnificent Magpie Murders, I cannot wait to read this, so I’m delighted to be able to slot it in as the second 20 Books replacement…

The Blurb says: A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funeral.

A very private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own.

A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control.

What do they have in common?

Unexpected death, an unsolved mystery and a trail of bloody clues lie at the heart of Anthony Horowitz’s page-turning new thriller.

SPREAD THE WORD. THE WORD IS MURDER.

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Factual

Courtesy of the publisher, this one was recommended to me by Karissa at realizinggrace  as part of the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. Although it’s not specifically about the Revolution, it is a record of an aspect of life under the Soviet regime that is rarely considered in mainstream histories. All the publishers that I’ve begged books from for this challenge have been great, but Penguin Classics have been particularly generous, so my grateful thanks go to them…

The Blurb says: In the late 1970s, Svetlana Alexievich set out to write her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, when she realized that she grew up surrounded by women who had fought in the Second World War but whose stories were absent from official narratives. Travelling thousands of miles, she spent years interviewing hundreds of Soviet women – captains, tank drivers, snipers, pilots, nurses and doctors – who had experienced the war on the front lines, on the home front and in occupied territories. As it brings to light their most harrowing memories, this symphony of voices reveals a different side of war, a new range of feelings, smells and colours.

After completing the manuscript in 1983, Alexievich was not allowed to publish it because it went against the state-sanctioned history of the war. With the dawn of Perestroika, a heavily censored edition came out in 1985 and it became a huge bestseller in the Soviet Union – the first in five books that have established her as the conscience of the twentieth century.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, NetGalley or Amazon UK.

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

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The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison

A Scottish classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the tale of three sisters, daughters of the minister in a parish in the Highlands of Scotland. Our narrator is the youngest of the three, Lisbet, who over the course of the couple of years of the book’s story grows from a girl only half comprehending her elder sisters’ early forays into the world of romantic love, into a young woman on whom the two older girls come to depend for support. The date is unspecified, I believe, but the book was published in 1933 and it reads as if the story is set somewhere in the decade or two before that, at a time when young girls had more freedom than Austen’s heroines, for example, but were still confined by lack of opportunity and girded round by social restrictions, breaches of which would inevitably lead to scandal and ruin.

I mention Austen in my little introduction because the comparison was running in my head throughout most of my reading of the book. Like Austen, this is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but, also like her, it’s much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. Since this is Scotland, the book also shows the stranglehold of Protestant intolerance that has blighted the country since Knox, and the anti-Catholic discrimination that goes hand-in-hand with that.

The dominie could read from a snail on a blade of grass or the flight of a bird every whim of the weather. He would tell us it was not going to thunder because he had noticed a trout jumping in the loch or that we must expect rain for he had seen a craikie heron ‘take to the hill’. There were other things he told us of as he helped us over dykes or went in front to guide us through boggy places: how death and the eddying fairies came from the pale west, and the white chancy south brought summer and long life, giants and ill-luck strode from the black north, and only good could come out of the sacred east.

The writing is superb and, to continue the Austen comparison a little further, the characterisation of these young girls is beautifully done. None of them is perfect – each has her flaws and idiosyncrasies. The two eldest, Julia and Emmy, are a little like Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility – Julia’s strong feelings masked by her outward calm, and with the intellect and strength of character to overcome the slings and arrows of her fortune; Emmy driven by emotion, unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept society’s restrictions. Lisbet is clear-sighted about her sisters, and about herself. Although she is young during the events of the book, it is written as if by her older self looking back, giving her narration a feeling of more maturity and insight than her younger self may have had at the time. Lisbet is also profoundly affected by her physical surroundings, describing the landscape and weather in lush passages of great beauty, full of colour and a sense almost of mysticism.

A pale green light poured down from the wintry sky, as though this earth were lit by chance rays from some other world. Grey sheep silently ate split turnips in the brown fields. The snow had melted in the low lands, leaving everything sad dun shades, and only streaked the mountains, where it lay like the skeletons of huge, prehistoric animals. The shouldering outline of the mountains cut against the horizon, their detail of burn, crag and ravine lost in the immensity of their shadowed bulk. It was as though, in those transient windless seconds between dawn and daylight, the world had resolved itself again into the contours and substances that composed it before man trod on its earth and drank in its air.

But despite all my comparisons, there are elements that make the book very different in tone from Austen. Although there are plenty of moments where we see the touching love and loyalty among the sisters, there is little of the wit and humour displayed in most of Austen’s works. This book is darker, with a tone of pathos and impending tragedy created by the subtlest hints of foreshadowing. I don’t want to tell any of the story because its gradual unfolding is one of the book’s great strengths. But there isn’t that feeling of certainty that all misunderstandings and obstacles will be cleared away in time for a happy ending for all of these girls. And, dare I say, the eventual outcomes have something more of the ring of truth about them as a result.

‘There’s plenty of time for my breakfast and your wedding,’ he informed her, ‘as I’m sure Drake would tell you. You know, our whole lives consist of this kind of thing – seeing things out of proportion. Think of the furore and fever we worked ourselves into last year over something that now leaves us quite cold.’

‘I hope it will take more than a year for my marriage to leave me cold,’ Julia rejoined.

‘You never know,’ he replied lugubriously, ‘for after all love is merely seeing the loved one hopelessly out of proportion. Then, you’ll find, you’ll both waken up one day to the fact that the other is quite ordinary and is peopling the world in hundreds. That’s why I never married,’ he added complacently, ‘ I always knew I would be the first to waken up.’

The vast majority of the book is written in standard English, with just some Scottish dialect in the dialogue of one or two characters. However there is a sprinkling of Scottish words throughout, some of which have faded into complete obscurity now, but many of which are still used by older Scots. The meanings of most of them are clear by their context, but I was a little disappointed that my Canongate Classics edition has neither a glossary nor footnotes – not that they are essential, but to add to the interest for non-Scots and younger Scots alike. I would also warn forcibly not to read the introduction by Edwin Morgan before reading the book – he gives away the entire plot (and frankly adds little depth to the understanding of the book).

I was not, however, disappointed in any way by the book itself. In my opinion, it’s easily of the quality of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s much better known Sunset Song and, in fact, I think I enjoyed it even more. I am sorry it seems to have sunk into relative obscurity. The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic, and deserves a much wider readership than it has.

The carriage moved forward. We turned the bend in the road where we used to stand to see if any one were coming. I heard the immeasurable murmur of the loch, like a far-away wave that never breaks upon the shore, and the cry of a curlew. All the world’s sorrow, all the world’s pain, and none of its regret, lay throbbing in that cry.

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Book 11 of 90

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Some, no doubt, would simply dismiss it as a by-product of barbarism. Given Russia’s long, heartless winters, its familiarity with famine, its rough sense of justice, and so on, and so on, it was perfectly natural for its gentry to adopt an act of definitive violence as the means of resolving disputes, But in the Count’s considered opinion, the reason that duelling prevailed among Russian gentlemen stemmed from nothing more than their passion for the glorious and grandiose.
….True, duels were fought by convention at dawn in isolated locations to ensure the privacy of the gentlemen involved. But were they fought behind ash heaps or in scrapyards? Of course not! They were fought in a clearing among the birch trees with a dusting of snow. Or on the banks of a winding rivulet. Or at the edge of a family estate where the breezes shake the blossoms from the trees… That is, they were fought in settings that one might have expected to see in the second act of an opera.

* * * * * * * * *

….‘What an exquisite bracelet! May I look at it?’
….It was these simple but ecstatic words, spoken with Madame Lawrence’s charming foreign accent, which had begun the tragedy. The three women had stopped to admire the always admirable view from the little quay, and they were leaning over the rails when Kitty unclasped the bracelet for the inspection of the widow. The next instant there was a plop, an affrighted exclamation from Madame Lawrence in her native tongue, and the bracelet was engulfed before the very eyes of all three.
….The three looked at each other non-plussed. Then they looked around, but not a single person was in sight. Then, for some reason which, doubtless, psychology can explain, they stared hard at the water, though the water there was just as black and foul as it is everywhere else in the canal system of Bruges.
….‘Surely you’ve not dropped it!’ Eve Fincastle exclaimed in a voice of horror. Yet she knew positively that Madame Lawrence had.

From A Bracelet at Bruges by Arnold Bennett

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….Have I been too kind to empire? Perhaps. But there are plenty of works lambasting empires, ferociously portraying their dark and often brutal side. I have tried to show them in a different light. I have tried to suggest that they have been ways of dealing with some of the most difficult and challenging problems of modern states, how to manage difference and diversity. That that may not have been their initial goal, that empires arose for a variety of reasons, is not the point. The fact is that in acquiring and governing empires, the ruling peoples found themselves faced with a series of tasks that they had to solve on pain of the quick dissolution of their states. What I find striking is less the mistakes and occasional brutalities of empire than a remarkable record of success, one that nation-states would be lucky to match.

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….Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up to Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practising medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line than ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

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From the archives…

….“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

The Comfort of Others by Kay Langdale

Light and shade…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Eleven-year-old Max is dictating a story to a Dictaphone his mother gave him, inspired by a visiting author who told his class that writers are people who ‘notice things’. The story he is telling is of his life, and of the summer in which the book is set. Max lives with his single mother and has never known his father. As a result, he and his mother have been very close, but now she’s found a new boyfriend and suddenly has less time for Max. To make things worse, the boyfriend clearly sees Max as a nuisance. Max is feeling rather unhappy and lonely.

Opposite lives Minnie and her older sister Clara, two elderly spinsters still occupying the big house their parents lived in, back before they sold all their land to allow a housing estate to be built – the housing estate Max lives in. Now they’re poor and struggling to keep the house in good repair. Minnie is also rather lonely. Her window faces Max’s and they often notice each other, and when she sees him begin to dictate his story, it occurs to her that maybe she should write her story too, in an attempt to finally come to terms with some dark episodes in her past. As the summer progresses, these two people strike up an unlikely friendship…

This is not a book I would have chosen to read, but I was sent two unsolicited copies of it by the publisher, so felt I ought to at least give it a try. So I’m as surprised as anyone to discover it’s been one of the books of the summer so far for me. It’s very well written and the characterisation is great. The journal format of both sections means it slips in and out of present and past tense, but always appropriately to the story being told at the time. Young Max’s voice doesn’t always ring quite true for an eleven-year-old, but his observations of his mother and his own feelings about the changes that are happening around him feel completely authentic for a rather reserved and quiet boy of that age. Minnie is also excellent and through her we get taken back to the past – ’60s, I think – at a time when the rigid class system in Britain was beginning to break down.

Max’s story is quite light – although he’s going through a difficult patch, Langdale doesn’t over-egg the pudding by forcing him to go through major traumas or by making his mother and her boyfriend actively cruel to him. They’re just a bit neglectful of his feelings and maybe a bit dismissive of his needs, but there’s never any doubt that his mother loves him. She’s a beautician who works in a room of their house, and a lot of Max’s observations about her and her clients are very funny. Minnie becomes a kind of surrogate aunt to him, offering him tea and sympathy when he needs it.

Kay Langdale

Minnie’s story on the other hand gets very dark indeed at points. In fact, there is one jarring note for me with the book, and I can’t go into detail without spoilers – but there is one particularly upsetting scene which I feel is more detailed than necessary and is too grim for the general tone of the book. It’s crucial to the story, so it’s not its inclusion that bothered me – rather that it is written too graphically. Otherwise, though, Minnie’s part of the book gives it depth and an adult voice, and the two stories together provide an excellent balance of light and shade.

Made me laugh, made me cry, and left me smiling – what more could you ask for really? Definitely a surprise hit and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone who likes a well written, character driven story.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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Book 3 of 20

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann

Spooky but short…

😀 😀 😀

Our narrator is a screenwriter who had a big success with his last film – a light buddy movie. Now he’s under pressure to come up with a script for a follow-up and he’s struggling. So he takes his wife and young daughter to an isolated house in the mountains of Germany where he hopes he’ll be able to write. But the house seems to have been built on some kind of nexus that distorts space and reality, and people have disappeared from it before…

This is a pretty standard scary story, made fun by the quality of the writing and the elements of humour. Our narrator is not exactly likeable – he likes to think of himself pretentiously as an artist although his successful screenplay seems to have been nothing more than a bit of fluff, as his wife is kind enough to point out. He might also not be reliable – he’s under stress, his marriage is rocky and it’s possible these things are causing him to imagine things. But it’s also possible that strange things really are happening – he believes they are anyway. And as the book progresses, the strange things become increasingly spooky, creating a real spine-tingling atmosphere of mild horror. It’s entirely gore and violence free, and largely incomprehensible being loosely based on quantum thingamajigs or something, but there are some lovely moments of real suspense. Kehlmann also plays with many of the clichés of horror – the isolated house, strange villagers giving omens of doom in curious dialects, and so on.

Daniel Kehlmann

Overall it’s a highly entertaining horror story, but no more than that. It’s also very short – by my reckoning probably 80 pages or so (I was reading on Kindle). I’d think of it more as a longish short story than even a novella. And yet it’s being marketed and priced as if it were a novel. If I read this in an anthology I’d be giving it 5 stars for sure. But if I’d paid full book price for it, I’d be feeling extremely short-changed round about now. I’m not sure what the publisher is thinking of really. So I enjoyed it, but can’t recommend it as one to purchase until it’s priced as what it is – a single short story. However, if you stumble across it on offer anywhere, then it’s well worth a read.

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

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Book 2 of 20

TBR Thursday 128…

Episode 128…

Woohoo! Down two this week, to 194! The dreaded 200 is receding into the distance! However, I have to confess to having a couple of NetGalley requests outstanding so it could go back up any time. But I’ll celebrate while I can…

The first three of this week’s choices are from my 20 Books of Summer list. Which I must admit is all going horribly wrong. I’ve abandoned three and have only read seven so far, and have only reviewed one. There’s still plenty of time though. Isn’t there?

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Megan Abbott’s last three books, all of which were told from the perspective of young girls. This one seems to be from the perspective of a mother of a teenage girl, so I’m intrigued to see whether this voice works just as well for me…

The Blurb says: Katie and Eric Knox have dedicated their lives to their fifteen-year-old daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful. But when a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community just weeks before an all-important competition, everything the Knoxes have worked so hard for feels suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, revealing hidden plots and allegiances, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself drawn, irresistibly, to the crime itself, and the dark corners it threatens to illuminate. From a writer with “exceptional gifts for making nerves jangle and skin crawl,” (Janet Maslin) You Will Know Me is a breathless rollercoaster of a novel about the desperate limits of desire, jealousy, and ambition.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley, this one is actually making its second appearance on my TBR. It was a People’s Choice pollwinner a long time ago, and then I went off the idea after reading several reviews that suggest it’s pretty harrowing. However, it turned up again on NetGalley recently, so I thought I should at least try it…

The Blurb says: One man is dead.

But thousands are his victims.

Can a single murder avenge that of many?

When Christopher Drayton’s body is found at the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs, Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are called to investigate his death. But as the secrets of his role in the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre surface, the harrowing significance of the case makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with far more deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?

In this striking debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan has written a compelling and provocative mystery exploring the complexities of identity, loss, and redemption.

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. This one has been lingering unread on my Kindle for the best part of a year and I don’t know why, since I really like the sound of it. I also have the audiobook, read by Aidan Kelly, so am intending to do a joint read/listen…

The Blurb says: After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.

Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.

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Fiction on Audio

One of my Classics Club re-reads, so I decided to try the audiobook, narrated by Sissy Spacek, this time. However, I have the paper copy on stand-by just in case…

The Blurb says: Beautifully narrated by actress Sissy Spacek, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning literary masterpiece is unforgettable. Capturing an ephemeral moment in Southern history, it explores uncomfortable truths about justice and the human condition.

‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the ’30s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice. But the weight of history will tolerate only so much.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an antiracist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, NetGalley or Audible.

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

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Film of the Book: The Lodger

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1927)

From the book review of The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes:

London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

Well, what a little gem this one turned out to be! Written in 1913, it’s clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders but with enough changes to make it an original story in its own right. It’s the perspective that makes it so unique – the Buntings are just an ordinary respectable little family struggling to keep their heads above water, who suddenly find themselves wondering if their lodger could possibly be living a double life as The Avenger.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

This is a silent movie, Hitchcock’s third as director but first real success, and the film that set him on the path of psychological suspense movies. It shows all the signs of his later interest in twisted psychologies, innovative techniques – and blondes. And in taking the basic premise of someone else’s story and then changing it almost out of all recognition…

In the book, the victims are drunken women who, to some extent in the mores of the time, bring their misfortunes on themselves. Hitchcock immediately changes this to beautiful blondes, and makes Daisy Bunting, the quiet, respectable daughter in the book, into a glamorous blonde mannequin (a model for clothes). This allows him to do a bit of innocent titillation by taking us backstage at her girly show and letting us glimpse lots of young beauties in states of semi-undress. It also elevates Daisy to centre stage from the rather small role she plays in the book by making her a potential victim of the Avenger.

The Buntings in the film are a happy little family with no mention of money worries, taking away in one stroke much of the reason for Mrs Bunting’s moral dilemma as to whether she should report her suspicions of her new lodger to the police. Joe the policeman is still in love with Daisy and, at first, she with him. Joe is unfortunately rather ham, and looks considerably more sinister and crazed than the lodger – I’d have had him arrested just on the grounds that he looks as if he ought to be a murderer!

Malcolm Keen as the policeman Joe Chandler – I’m still convinced he’s probably a murderer…

Ivor Novello as Mr Sleuth the lodger, though, looks beautiful and sinister and tortured. I fell in love with him within about a minute and a half, so could quite understand when Daisy found him irresistibly attractive too. Poor Joe! I bet he preferred the book. As the film goes on, it diverges further and further from the book so that by the time it ends, it really has very little to do with the original in terms of plot.

Ivor Novello as Mr Sleuth… or is he The Avenger?

As so often with Hitchcock, though, the movie is still superb in its own right. I’m no film expert as you know, but some of his techniques feel very modern for the time: the use of flashing words to introduce the concept of the blonde victims and the girly shows; the way he shows the latest news being spread via newspapers (in scenes that reminded me somewhat of the later Citizen Kane) and radio – an interesting update from the book which, 14 years earlier, doesn’t mention radio at all; and a brilliant and completely Hitchcockian (is that a word?) moment when we see the Buntings listen to their lodger pace back and forth in his room above theirs – and then Hitchcock lets us see him pacing from below, filmed through a glass floor. The scene cards (yeah, I don’t know the technical term for those…) look more modern than is usual in silent films too – they are in colour for a start, often flash, and have a kind of jazz age style about them somehow.

Although Hitchcock changes the plot and loses some of the psychological depth as a result, he does a brilliant job with the creepiness and suspense, and again it’s not at all clear whether the lodger is the Avenger until late on. Peril a-plenty stalks our poor Daisy, while Joe does some seriously jealous tooth-gnashing. Mrs Bunting, as the worried mother and landlady, is the stand-out performance for me, though I was impressed by most of the cast, especially the women. Ivor Novello’s performance is variable – sometimes he feels a little ham too, like poor Joe, but at other times he’s so good at being a tortured soul that it’s easy to understand why the women especially so badly want him to be innocent.

Marie Ault as Mrs Bunting with her lodger…

The film was restored by the British Film Institute in 2012 and given a new score by Nitin Sawhney. The restoration is great – the film is pure pleasure to watch, and I wouldn’t often say that about a film of this age. I found the score less successful overall. Sometimes it adds greatly to the atmosphere of the film, but at others it sounds rather incongruous – too modern and not always quite in synch with the action. Halfway through, the orchestral music gives way to a sung love song which, while fine on its own account, simply seems out of place.

Lucky June Tripp as Daisy Bunting. He can’t be a murderer! Can he??

Nearly a century on, I still found the film remarkably watchable, enjoyable and effectively scary, and I heartily recommend it even to people who, like me, normally avoid silent films. (There’s a very good quality copy on youtube, though perhaps illegally – I don’t know. Here’s the link, the decision is yours.) The trailer below gives a good idea of the style of the film and a snippet of the new score…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Although I enjoyed the film hugely, the changes to the plot means it doesn’t quite have the psychological depth of the book, so if I reluctantly have to choose, then…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

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