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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Well, suddenly my reading has dropped to almost non-existent this week, due to a whole variety of (too boring to mention) factors. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week. Given that, I’m delighted that the TBR has stayed stationary – at 196! My Queen of Willpower crown is still shining…
Here are a few that will rise to the top of the pile soon…
Courtesy of Amazon Vine. Having loved the Oxford World’s Classic edition of The Time Machine recently, I was delighted to be offered this companion volume, especially since this one is on my Classics Club list…
The Blurb says: “The creatures I had seen were not men, had never been men. They were animals, humanised animals…”
A shipwrecked Edward Prendick finds himself stranded on a remote Noble island, the guest of a notorious scientist, Doctor Moreau. Disturbed by the cries of animals in pain, and by his encounters with half-bestial creatures, Edward slowly realises his danger and the extremes of the Doctor’s experiments.
Saturated in pain and disgust, suffused with grotesque and often unbearable images of torture and bodily mutilation, The Island of Doctor Moreau is unquestionably a shocking novel. It is also a serious, and highly knowledgeable, philosophical engagement with Wells’s times, with their climate of scientific openness and advancement, but also their anxieties about the ethical nature of scientific discoveries, and their implications for religion. Darryl Jones’s introduction places the book in both its scientific and literary context; with the Origin of Species and Gulliver’s Travels, and argues that The Island of Doctor Moreau is, like all of Wells’s best fiction, is fundamentally a novel of ideas.
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Courtesy of NetGalley. I enjoyed Kanae Minato’s Confessions very much, so have been looking forward to this one being released…
The Blurb says: The tense, chilling story of four women haunted by a childhood trauma.
When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emili by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emili is found murdered hours later. Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emili’s body was discovered. Asako, Emili’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder.
Like Confessions, Kanae Minato’s award-winning, internationally bestselling debut novel, Penance is a dark and voice-driven tale of revenge and psychological trauma that will leave readers breathless.
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Courtesy of NetGalley again. (You can tell my plan to cut down on review copies is really working, cant’ you?) Another one I’ve been waiting on for a very long time, since 2011 in fact when I loved his Gods Without Men…
The Blurb says: Two twenty-something New Yorkers: Seth, awkward and shy, and Carter, the trust fund hipster. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Rising fast on the New York producing scene, they stumble across an old blues song long forgotten by history — and everything starts to unravel. Carter is drawn far down a path that allows no return, and Seth has no choice but to follow his friend into the darkness.
Trapped in a game they don’t understand, Hari Kunzru’s characters move unsteadily across the chessboard, caught between black and white, performer and audience, righteous and forsaken. But we have been here before, oh so many times over, and the game always ends the same way…
Electrifying, subversive and wildly original, White Tears is a ghost story and a love story, a story about lost innocence and historical guilt. This unmissable novel penetrates the heart of a nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge and exploitation, and holding a mirror up to the true nature of America today.
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And yes, you’ve guessed – NetGalley again! I still haven’t managed to backtrack on this series since jumping in at number 7, but now here’s number 8 arriving and I couldn’t resist…
The Blurb says: What if all your secrets were put online? Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister with learning difficulties when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her online, drawing her into a trap she may not escape alive. Who would you turn to? Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile source on the wrong side of the law. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything. What would you be capable of? Thrown together by a common enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they have more in common than they realise – and might be each other’s only hope.
When a horrific murder is carried out, there’s only one witness, 7-year-old Margrét, but she’s too shocked to tell her tale. So it’s decided to ask the Children’s House to help out – a place that specialises in helping traumatised children. Meantime the police are searching through the murder victim’s background to try to find any reason for her murder, but Elísa seems to have been normal in every possible way: happy marriage, a group of long-time friends, good at her job, and generally popular. And the next victim – because of course there’s a next one – seems equally unlikely. Margrét’s testimony seems to be the only hope…
This is the beginning of a new series for Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, based around Freyja, the psychologist in charge of the Children’s House, and Huldar, the detective in charge of the case. I’m not sure if both will appear in future books or just Freya, but they definitely share the billing in this one. The book is written in third person, past tense throughout. The crime seems to have its roots in the past but we learn about it through events in the present. Personally, I’m thrilled to see a crime book returning to this more traditional format of storytelling – the single time period flows more naturally than chopping backwards and forwards, the third person allows the author to range more widely across the characters without being restricted by what a first person narrator can know, and the past tense is so much more natural and appropriate that I really can’t understand why there’s such an insistence on using present tense. (I have never once seen anyone complain about a book being written in the past tense, have you?) I’m hoping maybe trends are finally shifting again…
As often happens with the first of a series, this one starts off pretty slowly, with much filling in of the backgrounds of the main characters – perhaps a little too much. There are places where it drags a bit and I found myself wishing that the plot would move along a little faster. However, I like both Freyja and Huldar as lead characters. Neither of them are perfect, but nor are they angst-ridden weirdos or drunks. They are both professionals who take their jobs seriously. Freyja clearly cares deeply about the children who pass through her care, but she’s professional enough not to get too emotionally involved to do her job well. This is Huldar’s first time in charge of an investigation, and we see him do his best to keep his team working well together, even though they get progressively more snappy with each other as the pressure mounts and time passes with no real leads appearing.
My one real complaint is that the murders are particularly horrific, and though in fact Sigurdardóttir only lingers over the detail of the first one, she writes so effectively that I found the images that she was putting in my head were too graphic for me, and unnecessarily so. The story is strong enough to stand without the gruesomeness, so that it felt pretty gratuitous to me.
The plotting, however, is great! Twisty, credible (apart from the murder methods), and full of some lovely misdirection – nope, I didn’t get there until it was revealed at the end, but on looking back, the clues are all there, so no ‘cheating’. It is a whodunit to a degree, but it’s actually more about the why of the crime – once the motive is clear, so is the culprit. We see events unfold from various perspectives – Freyja and Huldar, of course, but also through the victims’ eyes, as baffled as we are as to why this is happening to them. And then there’s Karl, a young student and radio ham who has come across a strange station emitting strings of numbers that somehow seem to be connected to both him and the victims. The sections relating to Karl provide both the central mystery and some great characterisation of him and his friends, as they find themselves drawn into something they don’t understand.
Sigurdardóttir’s writing is as excellent as always, and the translation by Victoria Cribb is first class – had I not known it was a translation, I would have assumed it was written in English. The rather slow start and the too graphic murders meant that for most of the read it was heading for a solid four stars from me, but the strength of the last hundred pages or so lifted it – I found myself totally absorbed and the skill of the lead-up to the eventual solution both satisfied and impressed me. So I’m going with 4½, and will certainly be looking out for the next in what I hope will turn out to be a fine series, especially if Sigurdardóttir can rein in her imagination just a little on the gruesome front…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.
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. When his niece decided to defect to the West, he asked her to take the stories with her, but she wisely said she would instead send for them once she reached safety. She later enlisted the help of a human rights worker to have them smuggled out of the country.
The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.
The quality of the stories is distinctly variable, with some of them being too polemical to make for good fiction. They are often worthy but obvious, occasionally over-wrought, and not always very well-written. However, some of them, especially the middle ones, reach a higher level, full of power and emotion. But the interest of this collection is not so much the literary side of it, but the glimpse it gives us of what it’s like to live under this regime which seems, if anything, to be getting even more extreme with each passing year.
Here’s a flavour of a couple of the ones that most impressed me:
Life of a Swift Steed – this tells the story of a man who believed in the revolution in its early days, and to celebrate the beginnings of this new world, planted an elm tree, around which he gradually created a fable that he passed on to the children in his area. As the tree grew to maturity, he believed, so would the socialist state. Everyone would eat meat and white rice, and wear silk. He clung to the fable even when reality turned out to be vastly different. But now he’s old and poor, the weather is freezing and there is no fuel. And the state wants to chop down the tree to make way for power lines. This one is very well written, and makes its point through emotion rather than overt polemics – I found it a moving read, reminding us that these regimes arise out of hopes and dreams, making their subsequent distortion into totalitarianism even more tragic.
So Near, Yet So Far – a man has received news that his mother is dying, but the state will not give him the travel permit he needs to visit her for one last time. Having spent his life obeying every dictate of the regime – doing his military service, then being told where he should live, what he should work at, etc. – he is finally provoked into breaking the rules, and tries to make the journey illicitly. As the rather trite title suggests, he gets heartbreakingly close to his mother’s village when he is caught. The punishment is harsh, but it’s the guilt and shame that cause him most pain. The feeling of utter helplessness of the individual caught up in an uncaring and faceless system is very well done, and again makes this story a deeply emotional and powerful one.
So there’s plenty here to make the book worth reading for its content as well as its origins. Like many collections, I found reading the stories one after the other meant that they gradually began to acquire a sameness which made the later ones lose power. Had I not been reading for review, I would have left longer gaps between reading each one, to avoid this effect. But 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. An interesting little collection, the importance of which transcends the stories themselves.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.
Days after the outbreak of WW2, a ship arrives in Australia, and a passenger in handcuffs is escorted off by the police. A local reporter tries to snatch an interview, to find out if the rumour is true that someone aboard the ship was killed…
After this great prologue that hints at much but tells us nothing that will spoil the story, we are whisked back to the beginning of the voyage. Lily Shepherd has left her home in England to go to work in Australia as a domestic servant. She’s trying to escape from the memory of something bad that happened, though at first the reader doesn’t know what this is, other than that it involved a man she had been in love with. She is on an assisted passage organised by the Church of England along with six other young women, all chaperoned by an older woman employed by the Church.
Lily meets the two girls with whom she’ll be sharing a cabin, and then later is introduced to the other passengers who have been placed at the same table with her in the dining room for the duration of the voyage. They’re a varied group, all of different classes and backgrounds – people whose paths wouldn’t cross socially in the normal course of things. But thrust into the sudden intimacy of having to live and eat together, barriers break down and unlikely friendships are quickly formed. Isolated from both past and future in this bubble, Lily soon finds that life on board becomes all-consuming, and begins to forget that when they arrive at journey’s end, all the passengers will revert to their own class and concerns, and that, as a domestic servant, she will be beneath the notice of most of them.
There is a young man at Lily’s table to whom she quickly becomes attracted – Edward, who is going to Australia for the sake of his health, having recently recovered from TB. His sister, Helena, is going with him and Lily is soon on friendly terms with them both, and has reason to think that her attraction to Edward is mutual. But their quiet life in tourist class is disrupted by the arrival of a glamorous couple from the first class deck, Max and Eliza, who promptly suck Lily and her new friends into their little circle. There is an air of scandal about Max and Eliza, though the gossip about them is vague, but it’s soon obvious that Edward has become infatuated. And while Eliza flirts with Edward, Max begins to show attention to Lily…
Rachel Rhys also writes psychological thrillers as Tammy Cohen, and I’ve had a mixed reaction to her in the past, partly because of my weariness with that genre. I much prefer her in this incarnation – although there is a crime here, this is more historical fiction in style. Her writing and characterisation are excellent, and she brings the claustrophobic atmosphere of forced intimacy aboard the ship brilliantly to life. When the voyage begins, the spectre of war is hanging over Europe but there is still hope that Germany might pull back from the brink. Rhys works this uncertainty through the plot, with some eager for war and some running from it. There are Jewish passengers aboard, fleeing from their homes to escape Nazi persecution, and we see the various reactions to them from sympathy to outright anti-Semitism.
But the main story is personal rather than political, as Lily gradually discovers that she’s not the only passenger who is trying to leave the past behind. The story is told in the third person, but as secrets are revealed, we see it all from Lily’s rather naive perspective. She is a level-headed, intelligent young woman though from a fairly sheltered background, and Rhys manages the tricky task of making her likeable and empathetic, while allowing the reader to see her flaws and weaknesses. The various on-board relationships take on an intensity in the confined setting, and soon little resentments become magnified until these sudden friendships begin to crack under the strain. Truthfully, I’d kinda guessed the big secret fairly early on but it didn’t matter – Rhys still managed to create a real atmosphere of tension and apprehension as she led the way to the shocking climax.
For all of us in book blog world, the book has another special treat. One of the characters is called after our very own Cleo, who bid for and won this honour in a charity auction – check out her post on it. Fictional Cleo did make me chuckle since I couldn’t help imagining the real Cleo in the character. It would have been worth reading it for that reason alone, and I freely admit that’s why I got the book. But I’m glad I did – it’s an excellent book with strong characterisation, a great sense of place and time, an intriguing plot and a dramatic but credible denouement. I’ll be looking out for more from Rachel Rhys in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld via Amazon Vine.
It’s 10-year-old Rose Morley’s first trip on an aeroplane so she’s excited, despite the fact that the reason for the trip is to go to Paris where her mother has had an accident and is in hospital. With her are her father, Peter, and her elderly and rather ill grandfather, Andrew Crowther, whose manservant and general carer Weatherup is with him too. Before they take off, they get a telegram to say Rose’s mother will be fine after all, so they can enjoy the journey with no fear. But when they arrive in Paris, it turns out that grandfather Andrew is not sleeping as they had all thought – he’s dead. And it’s soon discovered that he’s been murdered.
This is an interesting take on the crime novel, and innovative for its time. We may have seen crimes from the perspective of the murderer fairly often now, but apparently this was one of the first when it was published in 1934. Following the rather brilliantly described flight to Paris, at a time when planes were still held together by little more than chewing-gum and prayer, the book flashes back a few weeks in time and we meet Charles Swinburn, nephew of the murdered man. It’s from Charles’ perspective that the story unfolds from there on.
Charles had inherited his uncle’s successful manufacturing business but the depression of the 1930s has brought him near bankruptcy. Unfortunately, he’s also fallen hopelessly in love with the beautiful but mercenary Una, who makes no secret of the fact that she will only marry a rich man. So when his attempts to raise a loan meet with failure, Charles begins to imagine how convenient it would be if his rich uncle would die so that Charles can get his hands on the inheritance he’s been promised. The reader then follows along as Charles decides to turn this dream into reality.
I found the first section of the book fairly slow. Crofts describes Charles’ business difficulties in great and convincing detail, with much talk of profit margins and wage bills and so on. It’s actually quite fascinating, giving a very real picture of a struggling business in a harsh economic climate, but since I spent a goodly proportion of my life working in business finance, it all began to feel like I was reading financial reports, and I found myself inadvertently formulating business plans in my head to save the company. I’m sure it wouldn’t have that effect on normal people though… 😉
However, once Charles decides to do the deed, I became totally hooked. It carries that same level of detail over into the planning of the crime, and I should warn you all that I now know lots of incredibly useful stuff should I ever decide someone needs to be murdered – just sayin’. In the planning stage, it’s almost an intellectual exercise for Charles and he goes about it quite coldly. But in the aftermath of the crime, we see the effect it has on him – not guilt, exactly, but a kind of creeping horror at the thought of what he’s done. And when Inspector French arrives on the scene to investigate, we see Charles swaying between confidence that he’s pulled off the perfect crime, and terror that he may have missed some detail that will give him away. I won’t give any more away, but there are a couple of complications along the way that ratchet up the tension and the horror.
There’s a final short section, an afterword almost, when we see the investigation from Inspector French’s perspective. To be honest, this bit felt redundant to me – I felt it would have been more effective had it finished before that part. I suspect it may only have been added because French was Crofts’ recurring detective, and perhaps Crofts thought existing fans would have felt short-changed if his part in the story didn’t get told.
So, a slow start and an unnecessary section at the end, but the bulk of the book – the planning, the crime itself, and the investigation as seen through Charles’ eyes – is excellent. I like Crofts’ writing style – it’s quite plain and straightforward, but the quality of the plotting still enables him to make this a tense read. The question obviously is not who did the crime, but will he be caught? And, like Charles, I found myself desperately trying to see if he’d left any loopholes. In fact, it was a bit worrying how well Crofts managed to put me inside Charles’ head – I wouldn’t say I was on his side, exactly, but I was undoubtedly more ambivalent than I should have been. The format leads to some duplication as we see the same events from different angles and perspectives, but this was a small weakness in what I otherwise thought was a very well crafted and original novel. Highly recommended – another winner from the British Library Crime Classics series. Keep ’em coming!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
Hurrah! The TBR has plummeted massively this week- down 2 to 196!! This is a result of my legendary iron self-control – I don’t know why you ever doubted me! And furthermore, I’ve reached the last third of Trotsky! I’ll miss the old codger, you know – he’s quite funny… sometimes even intentionally…
Here are some I should get to soon…
First up, the winner of theClassics Clubspin is Lorna Doone, so somehow I need to fit it in, in time to review it by the 1st May. *gulp* Of course, it’s one of the longer ones on my list…
The Blurb says: First published in 1869, Lorna Doone is the story of John Ridd, a farmer who finds love amid the religious and social turmoil of seventeenth-century England. He is just a boy when his father is slain by the Doones, a lawless clan inhabiting wild Exmoor on the border of Somerset and Devon. Seized by curiosity and a sense of adventure, he makes his way to the valley of the Doones, where he is discovered by the beautiful Lorna. In time their childish fantasies blossom into mature love—a bond that will inspire John to rescue his beloved from the ravages of a stormy winter, rekindling a conflict with his archrival, Carver Doone, that climaxes in heartrending violence. Beloved for its portrait of star-crossed lovers and its surpassing descriptions of the English countryside, Lorna Doone is R. D. Blackmore’s enduring masterpiece.
Courtesy of NetGalley. I’m not sure what appealed to me most about this – the words “John Guy”, my favourite Tudor historian, or the words “Very Brief” in the subtitle, most welcome as a little palate cleanser between the tomes of Russian history I’m continuing to accumulate!
The Blurb says: ‘If the English people were to be set a test to justify their history and civilization by the example of one man, then it is Sir Thomas More whom they would perhaps choose.’ So commented The Times in 1978 on the 500th anniversary of More’s birth. Twenty-two years later, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of politicians and people in public life, on the basis of his ‘constant fidelity to legitimate authority and . . . his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice’.
In this fresh assessment of More’s life and legacy, John Guy considers the factors that have given rise to such claims concerning More’s significance. Who was the real Thomas More? Was he the saintly, self-possessed hero of conscience of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons or was he the fanatical, heretic-hunting torturer of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Which of these images of More has the greater historical veracity? And why does this man continue to fascinate, inspire and provoke us today?
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Courtesy of NetGalley again. My addiction to these British Library Crime Classics re-issues continues unabated. Doesn’t Dorothy L Sayers sound like a total stuck-up book snob in this quote? And yet, oddly, she also sounds just like me… 😉
The Blurb says: John Farringdale, with his cousin Eric Foster, visits the famous archaeologist Tolgen Reisby. At Scarweather – Reisby’s lonely house on the windswept northern coast of England – Eric is quickly attracted to Reisby’s much younger wife, and matters soon take a dangerous turn. Fifteen years later, the final scene of the drama is enacted. This unorthodox novel from 1934 is by a gifted crime writer who, wrote Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘handles his characters like a “real” novelist and the English language like a “real” writer – merits which are still, unhappily, rarer than they should be in the ranks of the murder specialists.’
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Sherlock Holmes on Audio
WOW!! Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. Stephen Fry narrating the complete Sherlock Holmes stories, including the long ones? How could I possibly resist that?? Over 70 hours of listening pleasure to dip in and out of. I shall start with The Valley of Fear, I think, since it’s also on my Classics Club list. Stephen Fry is up against Derek Jacobi though – until now my favourite Holmes narrator. Will Jacobi be knocked off the top spot??
The Blurb says: “…it was reading the Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy that first turned me on to the power of writing and storytelling.” (Stephen Fry)
Ever since he made his first appearance in A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has enthralled and delighted millions of fans throughout the world. Now Audible is proud to present Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, read by Stephen Fry. A lifelong fan of Doyle’s detective fiction, Fry has narrated the complete works of Sherlock Holmes – four novels and five collections of short stories. And, exclusively for Audible, Stephen has written and narrated nine insightful, intimate and deeply personal introductions to each title.
He writes: “Popular fiction offers different kinds of superheroes to save the world by restoring order to the chaos, confusion and criminality of our times. Heroes with remarkable gifts are as in vogue now as they have been since they first appeared, perhaps even more in vogue. But although the very first one was launched in serial published form just like his masked and body-suited successors, it was not in DC or Marvel comic books that he made his appearance; rather it was in the sedate and respectable pages of Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual in the mid-Victorian year 1887.”
Stephen Fry is an English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, comedian, television presenter, film director and all round national treasure. He is the acclaimed narrator of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter audiobooks and most recently recorded The Tales of Max Carrados for Audible Studios. Stephen has contributed columns and articles to newspapers and magazines, appears frequently on radio and has written four novels and three volumes of autobiography.
(This review contains mild spoilerish bits, so if you haven’t yet read the book, do it now and then pop back… 😉 )
We first meet our unnamed narrator when she is in Monte Carlo, working as the paid companion to an elderly American lady, Mrs Van Hopper. Still more girl than woman, the narrator is shy and unsophisticated, not bothering much about the clothes she wears or the style of her hair. Mrs Van Hopper scrapes an acquaintance with Maxim de Winter, a rich and handsome Englishman staying in the hotel alone because, as Mrs Van Hopper informs the narrator, his wife recently died in a tragic sailing accident. Our girl is rather dazzled by this man of the world who so easily deals with all the little social problems she finds so difficult, and he in turn seems to like her quietness and unadorned simplicity. Within a few weeks, Maxim proposes and finally, thank goodness, our narrator has a name – the second Mrs de Winter.
(FF’s Sixth Law: Unnamed narrators should never be used by authors who would like people to review their books.)
The book begins, of course, with one of the most famous opening lines in literature – “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” The ensuing dream sequence acts as a prologue and warning of what is to follow, and straight away du Maurier builds up an atmosphere full of unease. As Mrs de W2 in imagination moves towards the house, she describes the lush vegetation taking back the once cultivated grounds and gardens, now growing out of control. There’s an earthiness and sensuality to the descriptions, and a sense of growth and decay – a kind of raw, malignant vitality that seems to represent the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, while being a stark contrast to the rather sexless childlike personality of Mrs de W2. It’s a magnificent start to the book, setting the mood superbly for what is to follow.
I saw that the garden had obeyed the jungle law, even as the woods had done. The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about their roots as though conscious of their spurious origin. A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.
The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything. Beautiful and vibrant, no-one who knew Rebecca remained untouched – it seems to Mrs de W2 that everyone adored her, some to the point of obsession. Even Mrs de W2’s beloved dog Jasper was Rebecca’s dog first. Gradually Mrs de W2 begins to think that Maxim made a mistake in marrying her – that he’s still in love with Rebecca. And then one day, a storm leads to the discovery of Rebecca’s lost boat, and suddenly everything Mrs de W2 thinks she knows about Rebecca and her husband is turned on its head…
All three of the female characters in the book are brilliantly drawn; dead Rebecca, her glittering exterior hiding a more complex personality underneath, whom we only get to know through other people’s memories of her; the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose grief for her first mistress makes her cold and cruel to the point of madness to the woman who has replaced her; and Mrs de W2 herself, a woman who seems to exist only to serve as an adjunct to people who need a doormat, moving from being the paid companion of a peevish and demanding elderly lady to becoming the unpaid companion of a peevish and bullying middle-aged man. I couldn’t help but wonder if life with Mrs Van Hopper wouldn’t have been more fun in the end…
Oh, I do apologise to Maxim fans! The first time I read the book many years ago, I’m sure I fell a little in love with Maxim myself. This time round, I wanted to slap him with the proverbial wet fish. He treats Mrs de W2 as just slightly lower down the social pecking order than Jasper the dog for most of the book. Granted, she kinda asks for it but she’s only young. Too young, Maxim – too, too young for a man of your age! Patting a woman on the head, physically or metaphorically, is never a good idea – if you behaved like that to Rebecca no wonder she turned out as she did! Couldn’t you have reassured Mrs de W2 – told her you loved her, maybe even called her by her name occasionally? Why were your tender little feelings so much more important than hers? Your behaviour at the party was a piece of shameful bullying and a man of your age should have shown more understanding, and a bit of kindness. And, you know what? Last time I forgave you for what you did. But not this time! You behaved abominably and you should have paid a higher price! And don’t think you can wheedle your way back into my affections just by looking like Laurence Olivier…
Clearly my attitude to men who treat women like doormats has changed somewhat over the years! More seriously, though, the book gives a great picture of the relative positions of the genders at the time, especially how Rebecca’s unconventional behaviour, which would have barely merited a raised eyebrow had she been a man, put her beyond the social pale as a woman. Du Maurier is just as incisive in her portrayal of the British class system in operation, with the squirearchy ready to build a defensive shield round one of their own regardless of his merits or otherwise.
That corner in the drive, too, where the trees encroach upon the gravel, is not a place in which to pause, not after the sun has set. When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter, patter, of a woman’s hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.
But as always with du Maurier it’s the atmosphere of growing tension that gives the book its true greatness. Even though we more or less know how it ends within the first two chapters, du Maurier holds enough secrets in reserve to ensure the reader is kept in suspense all the way through. The descriptive writing is fantastic, creating strong visual images and making both the house and grounds of Manderley become living things, playing their own role in the unfolding drama. If there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t already read this masterpiece of psychological suspense, then I highly recommend you grab it as soon as you can!
I part read/part listened to the book this time round. Anna Massey’s narration is very good – she has just the right kind of posh English accent for the subject matter, and every word is enunciated clearly. She does it as a straight reading; i.e., she doesn’t “act” the parts, though she does differentiate the voices to some extent. I wasn’t always totally thrilled by her “voices” – Maxim, for example, sounded a little gruffer than I would have gone for. But that’s simply a matter of personal interpretation. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed her reading, and would look out for her as a narrator again.
In Victorian England, a group of friends have gathered for dinner to find that their host is absent. He soon arrives, dishevelled and grubby, and starving. Once he’s cleaned up and eaten, he tells them why he was late. He has invented a machine that allows him to travel through all four dimensions – a time machine – and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels…
While this is a book that says a whole lot about loads of things, first and foremost it’s a great adventure yarn and none of the over-analysis (with which I’m just about to join in!) should take away from the fact that at heart it’s simply a jolly good story – the kind of thing at which the Victorian adventure writers, like Wells himself, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and others, excelled. It’s full of great imagery and dire danger, and is hugely imaginative. On the other hand, it tells us a great deal about Victorian concerns regarding science and society at the time of writing in 1895. Evolution was a subject being much debated, as was the rising political philosophy of communism, and Wells works concerns about both of these into his story.
As he tells his tale, the Time Traveller muses on why mankind should have evolved as it has by the year 802,701, and with each new piece of information that comes to him, he reassesses his theories. The Eloi, he thinks, might prove that mankind needs challenge in order to develop – having achieved a perfect life with nothing left to strive for, the Eloi’s intelligence has faded and they have become less than their ancestors. The Time Traveller thinks they may be the outcome of a move towards an egalitarian, communist society at some time in the past… until he meets the Morlocks. Were the Eloi, he speculates, descended from the wealthy – the ruling classes – living comfortable existences while the workers struggled? And are the Morlocks therefore the descendants of those workers, forced into intolerable conditions in mines and factories, with no time to enjoy sunshine and the finer things of life? The point he’s making about Victorian society and working conditions is clear but he doesn’t labour it to the point of distraction from his tale. (It reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s discussion of contemporary Victorian fears about “degeneration” in her book The Wicked Boy – the idea that if the theory of evolution is accepted, then logic dictates that regression is as possible as advancement, and that some believed that the criminality of the poor was proof that this might already be happening.)
Given that the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, over whether evolution should be banned from being taught in American schools, was still some thirty years in the future, the question of geological time versus Biblical time was still a matter of controversy in some quarters (still is!), but Wells tacitly accepts the science of geological time’s vastness – that the world has existed long enough for evolution to have happened at all. But then the Morlocks steal the time machine, so the Time Traveller has to put philosophising to one side and get on with the adventure…
I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book, which is edited by Roger Luckhurst, Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. His introduction is excellent – clear, concise and jargon-free. He starts with a mini-biography of Wells, then goes on to discuss his style, putting his early books more into the category of scientific romance than science fiction which hadn’t really got under way back then, although Wells was to become influential on future writers in the genre.
As well as discussing the scientific and social points I’ve mentioned above, Luckhurst also shows how Wells was referencing and responding to literary and artistic movements of his time, especially the then popular trend for utopian novels. Luckhurst discusses Wells’ position in relation to other contemporary writers, suggesting a class divide (almost inevitable in Britain), with relatively lower class, less elitely educated writers like Wells and Haggard being looked down on by the snobby modernists – Woolf, James et al. Wells himself apparently poked fun at the convoluted sentence structure and internalisation so beloved of the snobs modernists, eschewing their elitism in favour of telling a darn good yarn. I know whose side I’m on!
The book also includes two essays by Wells on scientific issues of the day, plus an alternative version of the vision of the far future in The Time Machine – Luckhurst explains that the story was printed in a variety of different forms, as Wells continued to tinker with it throughout his life, never fully satisfied with it. There are also great notes, clearly explaining any terms that may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, and indicating where Wells is referencing other works or artistic or scientific movements.
The story of course is brilliant – it’s a classic for the reason that it’s hugely enjoyable to read. But I must say the reading this time was greatly enhanced for me by the extras included in this excellent little volume, just as I found with my other encounter with Roger Luckhurst as editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Reading this reminded me that, while it’s great to be able to download classics free of charge, sometimes it’s well worth investing in a well put together and informatively edited edition instead. Highly recommended – story and book both.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.
When Chloe Emery returns home early from a visit to her dad’s new family, she is horrified to find her house covered in blood and her mother missing. Maeve Kerrigan has been promoted to Detective Sergeant, and is called to the scene by Una Burt, who’s still acting head of the team. The sheer volume of blood suggests there’s no hope the victim could have survived, so they’re treating it as a murder case, with the first item on the agenda being to find the body.
I was quite unhappy with the way the previous book ended, with Maeve and Josh turning into typically unbelievable vigilante-style mavericks, so I’m delighted to say that in this one Maeve’s back on track. There are lots of reasons this series stands out from the herd, and one of the major ones is Maeve’s refreshing normality. Of course she’s affected by her experiences, but she’s basically a good cop who works well within a team and tries to stick within the rules as much as possible. And for my money, the books are better when she does.
Now that she’s a sergeant, Maeve has supervisory responsibilities and in this one is looking after the newest team member, Gloria, a graduate entrant. Maeve’s not finding it easy – Gloria’s pretty annoying, ready to feel herself slighted for the smallest reason. But she also seems ready to develop a bit of hero-worship for Josh and Maeve’s horrified to find herself feeling a little bit jealous. It’s professional jealousy though – Maeve is still hoping that she and Rob can get back together, and every girl’s favourite male chauvinist Josh (amazingly!) has his own little family now, having taken on the role of father to his girlfriend’s young son. (My mind still boggles at the idea of him giving the boy dating advice a few years from now!)
Plotting is another of Casey’s major strengths and this one is particularly convoluted. It soon transpires that the street is filled with people with secrets and jealousies, and Kate, Chloe’s mum, seems to have been at the centre of many of them. Chloe is staying with her friend Bethany and her parents, an ultra-religious family who belong to a church that’s not quite a cult, but is tending in that direction. Chloe herself is, perhaps, a bit slow intellectually – certainly her mother had been keen to have her diagnosed as such – but some people think she’s more intelligent than she seems. She’s also physically attractive, all of which makes her vulnerable to any unscrupulous predators she might meet.
As always, the writing is excellent and there’s plenty of humour to lighten up the tone. It’s narrated by Maeve in the first person, past tense, so that we’re privy to her thoughts and her rather spiky comments about her colleagues. Her relationship with Josh is more equal now that she’s been promoted – he’s still her superior, but she’s no longer the new girl. He’s still just as protective towards her though, which she appreciates even though it annoys her sometimes. And it’s nice to see his softer side peeking through now that he has his little family to humanise him.
This one would work fine as a standalone, though as usual I’d recommend reading this series in order, starting with The Burning, to get the full benefit of the characterisation, and especially the development of Maeve’s unlikely friendship with Josh. Great to have them back in action, and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too long to see them again!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.
Kiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…
I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.
The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.
I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.
The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.
I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.
One thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.
All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.
Well, the TBR briefly touched the magic 200 but fortunately I managed to finish a few books quickly (not Trotsky obviously – the book is longer than the Revolution). So phew! I’m back down to 198 and totally confident that a downward trend is just around the corner… if only I could get to the corner past the stacks of books in the way…
Here are a few that will hit the top of the heap soon…
Gosh, I think that’s the closest poll I’ve ever held! But this one took the lead right from the beginning and held on all the way through. Thanks to everyone who took part! I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing Siren in March, and will get to the other books over the next few months…
The Blurb says: Róisín Burns has spent the past twenty years becoming someone else; her life in New York is built on lies. A figure from her Belfast childhood flashes up on the news: Brian Lonergan has also reinvented himself. He is now a rising politician in a sharp suit. But scandal is brewing in Ireland and Róisín knows the truth.
Armed with the evidence that could ruin Lonergan, she travels back across the Atlantic to the remote Lamb Island to hunt him down. But Lonergan is one step ahead; when Róisín arrives on the island, someone else is waiting for her…
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Courtesy of NetGalley. I once had the great good fortune to see the wonderful Diana Rigg perform as Medea in a brilliant stage production and have been fascinated by her story ever since. So this book has quite a lot to live up to…
The Blurb says: In Bright Air Black, David Vann transports us to 13th century B.C. to give a nuanced and electric portrait of the life of one of ancient mythology’s most fascinating and notorious women, Medea.
In brilliant poetic prose Bright Air Black brings us aboard the ship Argo for its epic return journey across the Black Sea from Persia’s Colchis – where Medea flees her home and father with Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece. Vann’s reimagining of this ancient tale offers a thrilling, realist alternative to the long held notions of Medea as monster or sorceress. We witness with dramatic urgency Medea’s humanity, her Bronze Age roots and position in Greek society, her love affair with Jason, and her tragic demise.
Atmospheric and spellbinding, Bright Air Black is an indispensable, fresh and provocative take on one of our earliest texts and the most intimate and corporal version of Medea’s story ever told.
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Courtesy of Amazon Vine. I’ve read a few of Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s books now and I’ve always liked and sometimes loved them, so I’m looking forward to this one. And it’ll be nice to actually start a series at the beginning for once!
The Blurb says: The murder was meant as a punishment – but what sin could justify the method? The only person who might have answers is the victim’s seven-year-old daughter, found hiding in the room where her mother died. And she’s not talking.
Newly promoted, out of his depth, detective Huldar turns to Freyja and the Children’s House for their expertise with traumatised young people. Freyja, who distrusts the police in general and Huldar in particular, isn’t best pleased. But she’s determined to keep little Margret safe.
It may prove tricky. The killer is leaving them strange clues: warnings in text messages, sums scribbled on bits of paper, numbers broadcast on the radio. He’s telling a dark and secret story – but how can they crack the code? And if they do, will they be next?
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Fiction on Audio
Courtesy of Audible. Regular visitor underrunner recommended this book to me some months ago. Although it’s not about the Revolution as such, it looks at the history of the USSR and Russia over most of the last century so I’m hoping it will fit in with my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge. From the sample, the narration sounds as if it will be great… and isn’t it a fab cover?
The Blurb says: This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.
It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings live in the house of their recently deceased mother in the city. They are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, the Hetman Skoropadsky, and the Ukranian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement, under their leader Petlyura. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.
Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.
I found the beginning of this book rather difficult because I had no idea who all the various factions and real-life characters were, nor what they were attempting to achieve. But I soon realised that in this I differed less from the fictional characters than I first thought. This is a book about confusion and betrayal, shifting allegiances, chaos and fear. Bulgakov takes a panoramic approach, following one character and then panning off to another. This gives it an episodic feel and adds to the sense of events moving too quickly for the people involved ever to fully grasp. The Turbins actually aren’t in it a lot of the time, but they provide a thread for us to catch at in the maze, and a human side to the story for us to care about.
One of the early episodes tells the story of the soldier Victor, a friend of the Turbins, who with 39 companions is ordered to defend the city from the approaching forces of Petlyura. Ill-equipped and insufficiently clothed for the extreme cold, two of the men die of frostbite and the rest are lucky to survive. They achieve nothing. While reading this, I was simultaneously reading the beginning of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, where he talks of the mass mobilisation of workers and peasants into the Russian army to fight against Germany in WW1. His description of the ill-trained, poorly-equipped troops dying needlessly in vast numbers is chillingly similar and I found that each book lent verisimilitude to the other.
Although the Turbins are on the side of the Tsar, the book itself doesn’t seem to take a political stance. If anything, it paints an equally despicable picture of all the various faction leaders, as cowards hiding behind the men they send carelessly to their deaths. As senior officers on all sides run into hiding, middle-ranking officers are left to decide whether to make a stand or disband their troops, many of them no more than young boys in cadet corps. It gives an only too credible feeling for the chaos in the city, for people not knowing what’s happening, and for each new rumour spreading like wildfire. Amidst all this, we see odd glimpses of life continuing – boys out playing in the snow, workers making their way to their jobs, people shopping. Through the Turbin brothers, Nikolka and Alexei, we see the battle each man must individually face between fear and heroism, while Elena, their sister, must wait at home, praying for their safety.
In the gaps between scenes of extreme brutality, Bulgakov lets us glimpse his love for the city. He describes the streets his characters pass through, the alleyways they use to escape, the ancient cathedral, the huge statue of Saint Vladimir on the hill above the city. But we are never allowed to forget the approaching threat…
But the brightest light of all was the white cross held by the gigantic statue of St Vladimir atop Vladimir Hill. It could be seen from far, far away and often in summer, in thick black mist, amid the osier-beds and tortuous meanders of the age-old river, the boatmen would see it and by its light would steer their way to the City and its wharves. In winter the cross would glow through the dense black clouds, a frozen unmoving landmark towering above the gently sloping expanse of the eastern bank, whence two vast bridges were flung across the river. One, the ponderous Chain Bridge that led to the right-bank suburbs, the other high, slim and urgent as an arrow that carried the trains from where, far away, crouched another city, threatening and mysterious: Moscow.
As the chaos worsens, so we see the atrocities that are never far from war – the criminals jumping on the lack of order to terrorise an already demoralised citizenry, the bodies left unidentified and unclaimed in the City’s morgue, the wounded frightened to seek help for fear of capture. Not quite knowing who every faction was made it even more unsettling, though I wondered if Bulgakov’s first readers would have known, and so might have read it differently.
A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution. And here we are, one hundred years later, with Moscow again invading the Ukraine – this troubled and divided territory still fighting what is essentially the same war…
The snow would just melt, the green Ukranian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.
The Classics Club is holding its 15th Spin, and my second. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before this Friday, 10th March. On Friday, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by May 1, 2017. Frankly I have no idea how I’m going to fit another book into my over-stuffed schedule over that period, but I’m sure it will all work out somehow! I shall stock up on medicinal chocolate (for energy, you know) and warn my therapist to be on stand-by…
So here’s my list. I’ve selected it on the basis of mostly including books I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’m in the mood for some of these more than others, in truth, so here’s hoping for a good spin…
If I had to choose, I’d like to see The Tiger in the Smoke come up, or The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. There are some I’d love to read but are quite long so will be tough to fit in, but the wheel is already spinning and my bets have all been placed…
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 Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…
Nick Hornby has been a football fan since the moment he was conceived. Call it predestiny. Or call it preschool. Fever Pitch is his tribute to a lifelong obsession. Part autobiography, part comedy, part incisive analysis of insanity, Hornby’s award-winning memoir captures the fever pitch of fandom — its agony and ecstasy, its community, its defining role in thousands of young mens’ coming-of-age stories.
Ugh! Football!! No, thanks! Though at least proper football is played with the feet, unlike American Football. Which reminds me of…
SC Gwynne’s The Perfect Pass. SC Gwynne was the winner of my FF Book of the Year Award in 2014 and the “prize” is that I will read the author’s next book. Imagine my delight when his next book turned out to be about American Football! This is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed the “unstoppable” Air Raid offense, changing the very nature of the game.
Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.
Amazingly, this book was a surprise hit with me, proving that a great writer can make any subject fascinating! Plus it was the cause of me finding one of my favourite pics to ever appear on the blog…
Gwynne’s award-winning previous book was Rebel Yell, a biography of Stonewall Jackson, one of the great US Civil War generals. This reminded me of…
King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard, which culminates in the great civil war amongst the Kukuanas. A book I consider to be the best adventure story I’ve ever read, this tells the tale of Allan Quatermain and his companions setting out on a journey across Africa to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon…
“It is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross; save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hand counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or to lose it as Providence may order.”
Another book that involves climbing mountains is…
Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. This chilly ghost story takes place in 1935 during an expedition to climb Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. Although it starts and ends rather slowly, the bit in the middle where the horror actually happens is excellent. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. A good one for a dark evening.
I couldn’t visit the Himalayas without thinking of…
Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. This is the story of a group of nuns who make their way to a palace high in the Himalayas to set up a convent and school there. But they are not prepared for the isolation they will feel in this place of majestic grandeur, constantly windswept, and with a population who have their own spiritual beliefs and no desire to change. Soon the nuns will find themselves challenged, not only physically, but emotionally, even spiritually, struggling to maintain their faith amidst the emptiness that surrounds them.
This GIF from the movie gives me vertigo each time I look at it…
Nuns and convents made me think of…
Stav Sherez’s Eleven Days. When a fire engulfs a convent in London, the ten nuns who make up the Order are all killed. But there is another body too, and it’s up to Detectives Jack Carrigan and Geneva Miller to find out who she was and why she was there. This is a complex, somewhat sprawling thriller that looks not just at the underbelly of crime in London but also at politics within the Roman Catholic church, and across the world to the impact of big business on the peasants of Peru.
An “Eleven” is the traditional name for a cricket team, which made me think of…
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. Back to sport to end on, but a decent sport this time! (Though not as good as tennis obviously.)
This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai. He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but he also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature.
“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.
“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”
* * * * *
So Hornby to Adiga, via football, civil war, mountain passes, the Himalayas, nuns and elevens!
It’s 1920, thirteen years since the first Martian attack ended in their defeat. Now astronomers have noticed ominous signs on the Red Planet – they’re coming back to try again! But this time England has been expecting them, and has made every effort to prepare…
It’s been a long time since I read The War of the Worlds, but I remember loving it – the descriptions of the Martian ships, the heat ray, the terror of the people, the rather quirky ending. So when I saw this sequel had been endorsed by HG Wells’ estate, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, as so often, I came away from it wishing that sometimes (most times) great books could just be left to stand as they are.
The basic plot of the original is that when the Martians arrive, the humans try everything they can to defeat them, but the Martians are so technologically superior they can overcome any of humanity’s weapons. These repeated failed attempts go on, interspersed by the narrator telling of his own experiences and describing the devastation and fear caused by the attack, until finally something entirely unexpected by either Martian or human comes along to break the cycle.
Baxter replicates this approach. He starts by creating an alternative history, speculating how the First Martian War would have altered the course of the next couple of decades. This is quite fun – WW1 happens very differently, Britain has turned into a kind of martial state, Churchill is involved in the plans to defeat any future Martian attack etc. We also meet the two people through whose eyes we mainly see the story develop – Julie, a journalist and ex-wife to Frank, a doctor and brother of the narrator in the original. At this early stage I was quite enjoying it in a mild kind of way.
But then the Martians arrived. We attacked them with our little guns. They killed us. We attacked them with bigger guns. They killed us. We attacked them with great big guns. They killed us. We attacked them with their own guns… well, you get the point. Now, as I said, this is pretty much what happened in the original too. But there is one huge, major difference. The original is 208 pages long – this one is listed as 464 according to Goodreads, but my ARC from Amazon Vine actually comes in at roughly 540 largish pages. I’m sure you’ll all have memorised my literary laws – I fear this book fails the first one badly…
FF’s First Law The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story.
Apart from the length issue, I found I hadn’t developed any concern for the major characters. Partly this is because I found the writing a little flat, and the female character rather unappealing. But largely it’s because within the first few chapters the author lets us know through some clumsy foreshadowing that they both survive! And furthermore, that they meet up again after the war and collaborate on this book – hence we know straight away that mankind clearly isn’t massacred after all! Telling me about the sudden deaths of thousands of fictional soldiers I’ve never been introduced to doesn’t have the same emotional impact as would fear for one character I’d grown to care about. (Hmm! Perhaps that should be FF’s Fifth Law…) If memory serves me right, in the original the narrator and, therefore, we were concerned about the whereabouts and welfare of his missing wife.
I’m afraid that by the time I reached page 150 the basic premise (we attack – they kill us) had already been repeated three or four times, and I decided I couldn’t face hundreds more pages. Usually I’d give an abandoned book 1 star, but truthfully this is reasonably well written and the spirit and style of the original have been largely maintained. I didn’t hate it, it was just too long for its content and too repetitive to maintain my interest. Pity.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.
The lovely Cathy over at 746 Books is again co-hosting Reading Ireland Month 2017 with the, I’m sure, equally lovely Niall at Raging Fluff . This is one of my favourite blogging events in the calendar, even if it does throw my already shaky schedule into major disarray each year.
I told Cathy I didn’t have many Irish books on my TBR this year because I’d read them all last year. But when I actually began to look, lo and behold! Somehow zillions seem to have crept back on over the last few months. This may be down to the fact that I tend to love Irish writing – partly because it’s often such high quality, of course, but also partly because Irish culture and the culture of my own West of Scotland are so linked and intermingled that I feel at home when reading about Ireland – the characters are familiar to me and the society is wholly recognisable.
So I have one novel by an Irish author already scheduled for March, and a couple of short story collections that I’ll at least dip into…
The Begorrathon Poll!
But that still leaves several books by Irish authors on my TBR and sadly there’s no way I can fit them all into March, though I will read them all eventually. So I thought I’d ask for your help in picking just one of these for a Begorrathon read. Some of them are review copies and haven’t been published yet. I’ve shortlisted down to five…
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The Blurb says:Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
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The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
The Blurb says:Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he? In this, Boyne’s most transcendent work to date, we are shown the story of Ireland from the 1940s to today through the eyes of one ordinary man. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a novel to make you laugh and cry while reminding us all of the redemptive power of the human spirit.
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House of Names by Colm Toibin
The Blurb says: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.
In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in fours parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.
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The City of Shadows by Michael Russell
The Blurb says: Dublin 1934: Detective Stefan Gillespie arrests a German doctor and encounters Hannah Rosen desperate to find her friend Susan, a Jewish woman who had become involved with a priest, and has now disappeared. When the bodies of a man and woman are found buried in the Dublin mountains, it becomes clear that this case is about more than a missing person. Stefan and Hannah traces the evidence all the way across Europe to Danzig. In a strange city where the Nazi Party is gaining power, Stefan and Hannah are inching closer to the truth and soon find themselves in grave danger…
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Siren by Annemarie Neary
The Blurb says:Róisín Burns has spent the past twenty years becoming someone else; her life in New York is built on lies. A figure from her Belfast childhood flashes up on the news: Brian Lonergan has also reinvented himself. He is now a rising politician in a sharp suit. But scandal is brewing in Ireland and Róisín knows the truth.
Armed with the evidence that could ruin Lonergan, she travels back across the Atlantic to the remote Lamb Island to hunt him down. But Lonergan is one step ahead; when Róisín arrives on the island, someone else is waiting for her…
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Please vote for the novel you would most like to read a review of as part of Reading Ireland Month, or vote for more than one if you like. The book with most votes overall will win a coveted place in my March reading schedule, and if a miracle happens I might fit in number 2 as well.
Be sure and pick good ones, now!
The winner will be announced on my next TBR Thursday post.
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And then why not pop on over to Cathy’s or Niall’s (links at top of post) to find out more about Reading Ireland Month 2017… it’s a lovely relaxed event and there’s always tons of variety in the various posts.
Ah, go on, now! You must have at least one Irish book tucked away on your TBR…
The narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim. Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level.
The film begins by showing us Billy typing a letter to a newspaper, explaining that he is ‘unstuck in time’, travelling backwards and forwards through his own life. This is quite an effective short-cut, though unlike in the book it’s not really expanded on later to show why Billy had decided to make his story public. In the book, we are told Billy’s story by a narrator who makes us aware that it’s a fable, a form he is using because he feels he wants to say something profound about the bombing of Dresden. This isn’t mentioned in the film, so that the viewer is put in the position of having to assume that Billy’s life is “real”, which in turn means that the events perhaps take precedence over the meaning – the reverse of what happens in the book.
Then the film starts to move through Billy’s life, concentrating on his experiences in WW2 as a prisoner of war first in the camps and then later in Dresden before and after the bombing of the city. Although it shifts in time, the film feels as if it takes a more linear approach to Billy’s life – more or less starting at the beginning and ending at the end, but with detours along the way. The book seems more jumbled, more fragmented, and therefore gives, I feel, a clearer picture of Billy’s disorientation.
When I look at the notes I took while watching, it turns out it’s primarily a list of things the film misses out. This is a pity, since I’d say it’s a brave and partially successful attempt to bring a complex and difficult book to the screen. Michael Sacks as Billy gives a good performance though I felt that somehow he made film Billy fit his life better than the Billy in the book did. He doesn’t seem as scared in his early army career, nor as disconnected in the later scenes, and he’s played a little more for laughs – and is perhaps more likeable, in fact. For example, in the book we know he doesn’t ever really love his wife – the major reason for him marrying her is that she happens to be the daughter of his boss. I didn’t feel that came across much in the film – she is made rather annoying, but we don’t get inside Billy’s head to know how he feels about her. I’m not normally a fan of having a narrator doing a voiceover in a film, but with a book that is so concerned with what’s happening inside the main character’s head, I began to feel it would have helped to fill some of the gaps.
While I don’t think the book is really science fiction, nonetheless Billy’s visits to the planet Tralfamadore are central, and I was surprised at how underplayed this aspect is in the film. For a start, Hill has wimped out of showing the odd-looking Tralfamadorians, turning them into an invisible species instead. And, rather annoyingly and completely in line with ’70s cinema (my unfavourite decade of film), Billy turns up on the planet in his respectable night wear, whereas the girl turns up nicely naked and with plenty of pert nipple action, so that the lascivious males in the audience have something to drool over while the lascivious females have to make do with their imaginations, unless they happen to have a dressing gown fetish. And then they wonder why we became feminists…
The science fiction author from the book doesn’t appear either, though I didn’t feel this was a great loss since he seemed a bit extraneous anyway. Much more oddly, the phrase “So it goes” is entirely missing from the film. Anyone who has read the book will know that it’s used as a chorus every time a death occurs, as a sort of semaphore to mark both the inevitability and futility of war. I can see that, without a voiceover, it would have been quite difficult to shoehorn this in, but without it, I felt the point was left rather unclear. In fact, the film seems to send another message, focussing on a small (and rather trite) part of the Tralfamadorian philosophy, that life is made up of moments and we should concentrate on the good ones. Very little is made of the, to me, deeper part of their philosophy – the part that draws Billy into this particular delusion – that if one can travel backwards in one’s life, one can in a sense keep people alive by visiting them in the past, thus reducing the finality of death. Part of this message comes from another scene that’s also missing – where Billy sees old war movies running in reverse, so that it appears that the dead come back to life, and that the Germans, rather than shooting planes down, are in fact lifting them back into the sky. The omission of this central and moving scene is a strange decision indeed.
Unfortunately the film left me entirely unmoved in the end. While it’s quite entertaining in parts, and has its shocking moments, overall it lacks the depth and power of the book. It’s too linear, we don’t get a real idea of what’s going on in Billy’s mind, and I felt that some of the major points in the book were either omitted entirely or weren’t sufficiently explored. The rather odd “happy ending” that is tacked on therefore came as less of a surprise than it should have done.
One of our newer bloggers, notsomoderngirl, has come up with this great idea for a tag, and I’m delighted that’s she’s tagged me! My own schooldays are…ahem… a few years ago now, but fortunately I don’t think my answers are going to be graded, so even the Chemistry section doesn’t intimidate me!
1. Maths – What’s a book that left your head spinning in circles?
It’s got to be Children of Dune! I loved Dune andDune Messiah, but this third one is seriously weird. My suspicion is that it wasn’t only the characters in the book that were indulging in mind-altering substances. This extract from my review will give you an idea of my befuddlement…
…has Paul really died in the desert? Who is the mysterious Preacher who keeps popping up and calling Alia names? If he is Paul, why is he trying to undermine his family’s rule? Why do Leto and Ghani want to get to Jacurutu? How come Leto is having prescient dreams if he’s not taking spice? What is the Golden Path that Leto keeps banging on about as the way to save something? Save what? Or who? Seriously – if you know the answers, do tell – personally I’m baffled!
2. English – Which book do you think has beautiful written expression?
Oh, so many! Hmm… I think I’ll pick this beautifully crafted metaphor from John Knowles’ book about boys preparing to go off as soldiers in WW2, A Separate Peace…
Winter’s occupation seems to have conquered, overrun and destroyed everything, so that now there is no longer any resistance movement left in nature; all the juices are dead, every sprig of vitality snapped, and now winter itself, an old, corrupt, tired conqueror, loosens its grip on the desolation, recedes a little, grows careless in its watch; sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins to withdraw from the ruined countryside.
3. Physics – Who is your favourite scientifically minded character from a book/film?
Ah, that would have to be Dr Jekyll, I think, from both the book and the film. He proves conclusively that one should always experiment on other people before drinking the potion oneself…
4.Biology – Who is your favourite book/film/series character?
That would have to be Andy Dalziel, and frankly they don’t come much more biological than him! I love his attitude to life and his larger-than-life persona. But even though he does things his own way , he’s by no means a stereotypical maverick. And I love the way he and his junior colleague Peter Pascoe develop an unlikely friendship over the years, despite being almost polar opposites to each other in every way.
5.Chemistry – Who is your favourite literary couple?
Oh, come on! This can’t even be multiple choice!
6. French – What is your favourite foreign book/film/programme?
Oh dear, if there’s one thing reviewing has taught me, it’s that I’m incredibly insular when it comes to books, and with films 99.999% of everything I watch is either British or American. But I do have a real weakness for Indian novels, even though again they feel like a bit of a cheat since a) they’re written in English (the ones I read, that is) and b) I most enjoy them because of India’s connection to us via the British Empire and later the Commonwealth. I’ve enjoyed some Nordic crime in translation, though I’m not quite as hooked as a lot of the crime reading community. A difficult one… I’m going to say…
…The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny. I read this very recently and haven’t reviewed it yet, but it’s fair to say I was blown away by it.
7. Art – Have you ever judged a book by its cover, even if you weren’t meant to?!
I truly don’t think I’ve ever picked a book purely on the basis of its cover. But I’ve rejected millions! All those cheesy romances with bare-chested men dressed in everything from kilts to cossack outfits – ugh! And the fifty-seven million identikit “psychological thrillers” with a girl (oh yes, never a woman!) in a red jacket walking or running away, and a giant sticker saying “the next Gone Girl/Girl on a Train etc” – double ugh! If they can’t be original on the cover, what hope is there for the content?! But here are a few covers I love…
8. History – What was the last historical book you read?
Hmm… that would be The White Guard again, so I won’t duplicate. And the one before that I didn’t like, so no to it too. Which takes me back to…
…The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth. I really enjoy this crime series set just after WW2. Slower and more thoughtful than a lot of current crime fiction, and with a definite nod to the Golden Age. (Oh, and I adore this cover, too!)
9. Drama – What’s a book that you think has a lot of over-dramatic hype?
Nearly every new psychological thriller!
“A brilliant new original thriller that’s just like that last great thriller you read and has 48,932 twists including one that involves the supernatural because the writer couldn’t get out of the hole she’d dug without ghostly intervention!”
It always come with quotes from authors who share a publisher with the author of this book, and are desperate to hang on to their book deals…
“This author’s use of language is brilliantly innovative! She completely ignores the rules of grammar (and spelling, and the correct definition of words) and uses the “f” word in ways that will astound you!”
“Brilliantly original, the angst-ridden, alcoholic, drug-addicted protagonist of this story must battle sexism, racism, and homophobia while trying to recover from the grief of losing her entire family and six friends in a freak tornado in Auchtermuchty!”
“I loved this book so much – who’d have guessed that the dog actually contained the spirit of the murdered child back from the beyond to lead the police to the murderer? What a brilliant twist!”
10. Geography – Which literary destination would you really like to visit? (They can be real or fictional!)
I’d love to go for a night out in The Green Dragon pub in Hobbiton – hobbits seem to know how to have fun!
Ideally that would be the one in Middle Earth, but if for some reason I couldn’t get there, I’d settle for the one on the movie set in New Zealand…
Join me? Bloggers Night Out – BYOB*
*(Bring Your Own Book).
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Thanks again, notsomoderngirl – I had fun doing this! And as usual, I tag anyone who’d like to answer these questions… 😀
On a hot summer day in Paris when most people are on holiday, Maigret receives a visit from a tall woman who says he once arrested her. Ernestine tells him she is now married to a well-known safe-breaker, nicknamed Sad Freddie, who has been in and out of prison for years. On his latest job, according to the woman, Freddie discovered the body of a murdered woman in the house he was burgling, and has fled and gone into hiding, fearing he’ll be suspected of killing her. Ernestine wants Maigret to find the real killer so her husband feels safe to come home. The only problem is no murder has been reported…
It’s been many years since I last read a Maigret novel, but the recent Penguin re-issues in new translations have led to a spate of reviews around the blogosphere that piqued my interest in re-visiting him. Also, Inspector Maigret is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for his Top Ten Golden Age Detectives. This is the 38th in the series, so the character is well-established, and Simenon doesn’t spend much time in this one filling in details of his personal life. It works perfectly as a standalone, as I believe most if not all of them do.
Simenon creates an authentic picture of a semi-deserted Paris sweltering in a summer heatwave. Partly due to this, and partly just because he seems to like to drink, Maigret spends an inordinate amount of time popping into cafés for a little glass of wine, or beer, or Pernod – lots and lots of Pernod, in fact. I had to stand back in awe at his sheer capacity – not many men start the day with a glass of white wine before heading off to work, and it must surely be a French thing for the police office to have an account with the nearby café to have regular supplies of Pernod sent round during an investigation. One can’t help but feel Rebus would have been in his element over there…
However, joking aside, happily none of this constant imbibing leads to Maigret being a drunken detective – if anything, it all sharpens his brain. He is shown as doggedly persistent, worrying away at small clues until by sheer force of will he squeezes their meaning from them. The first thing he has to do in this case is establish that there has actually been a murder, and Ernestine helps by explaining how Freddie selects the houses he burgles. Even with this information, Maigret can find no victim and eventually begins to suspect that Ernestine is lying, or at least mistaken. But then he comes across a small inconsistency in the story of one of the people he has interviewed, and from there on it becomes a matter of breaking his suspect down through some pretty dodgy interviewing techniques – he’s not averse to a bit of mild psychological torture to achieve his ends. The eventual solution is not quite as straightforward as it seems as if it’s going to be, though, and along the way Simenon creates a chilling atmosphere of evil at work, and family dynamics gone horribly wrong.
Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read. It falls somewhere between novella and short novel in length, which again I think is standard for the Maigret series, so perfect to read in one evening. To contrast with the darkness of the crime, Maigret himself is rather laid-back and we get a great feeling of the delightful café culture of Paris. He loves his wife, and they regularly meet up (for drinks!) during the case – Maigret is quite capable of working all night if he has to, and making his men do the same, but he doesn’t let work absorb him to the extent of neglecting his family life. In truth, the detection element relies on little more than guesswork and it all works out a little too easily perhaps, but the story is interesting for all that. It’s well written with some humour to lighten the overall tone, and I found the translation by David Watson excellent. I’ll certainly be keen to read more of the series and happily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried Maigret before.
(This novel has been published in previous translations as Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife.)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK.
When her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.
Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…
Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.
Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.
Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.