Well, dear friends, I can honestly say it’s been many a long year since my gast was last so flabbered!! Imagine my surprise, on clicking through from the lovely Jo’s post to the voting page for the 2nd Annual Bloggers Bash Award, to read the following…
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First is Funniest Blogger. The nominees are as follows:
The criteria, in case you forgot is: Which blogger continually makes you laugh out loud? Has someone made you laugh so hard you cried? Maybe you snorted drink through your nose at one of their jokes. Who’s the funniest blogger of them all?
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Yes!!! That’s me in there!!! Ooooooooh!!!! *performs double back-flip with a half-twist and phones osteopath*
I have absolutely no idea who nominated me, and in fact wasn’t aware of the Bloggers Bash before today, but whoever you are, here’s a great big hug and possibly a soppy, sloppy kiss too (depending on how closely you resemble Rafa).
I’m genuinely thrilled to bits! Not just because I got nominated, but because I’m so glad you guys enjoy my occasional detours away from serious book talk towards the sillier end of life! Though I do sincerely apologise if I’ve ever made you snort your drink through your nose…
I’m also thrilled to see several of my besties nominated in other categories…
In Hidden Gem, the lovely and talented MarinaSofia at Finding Time to Write, book reviewer and poet extraordinaire! Hmm… a bright and sparkling gem, for sure, but hidden? She’s part of the glue that holds the bookish blogosphere together…
The Best Pal award seems custom made for the wonderful Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist! Generous to bloggers and crime authors new and old, Margot is always there with the encouraging comment just when it’s needed – I’m sure many bloggers, including myself, only stuck it out through those early days of talking to a seeming void because Margot took the time to pop in, comment and introduce them to the wider book blogging community.
So get on over there and get voting for these amazing people or for some of the many others on the nomination lists whom I don’t yet know, but whose blogs I’m looking forward to snooping round in the near future.
But think carefully before you decide whether to vote for me… remember those sloppy wet kisses!!!
And for the third week in a row, the TBR is stuck on 165. It’s not so much that books are being added this time, though, as that my reading has begun to drop off as it always does when the summer tennis season begins to build up. Somehow my mind just doesn’t seem to be on books…
Erm…what was I saying? Oh, yes – books! Well, here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…
I know nothing about Douglas MacArthur and generally speaking wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in a biography of a US general. But this one is written by the fabulous Arthur Herman, whose previous books on philosophy, the Scottish Enlightenment and Gandhi and Churchill I have loved, so if anyone can interest me in MacArthur, I bet Herman can! Courtesy of NetGalley…
The Blurb says: Douglas MacArthur was arguably the last American public figure to be worshipped unreservedly as a national hero, the last military figure to conjure up the romantic stirrings once evoked by George Armstrong Custer and Robert E. Lee. But he was also one of America’s most divisive figures, a man whose entire career was steeped in controversy. Was he an avatar or an anachronism, a brilliant strategist or a vainglorious mountebank? Drawing on a wealth of new sources, Arthur Herman delivers a powerhouse biography that peels back the layers of myth—both good and bad—and exposes the marrow of the man beneath.
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Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve seen several very positive reviews of this around the blogosphere, plus I have to admit I love the cover a lot!
The Blurb says: London, November, 1960: the Cold War is at its height. Spy fever fills the newspapers, and the political establishment knows how and where to bury its secrets. When a highly sensitive file goes missing, Simon Callington is accused of passing information to the Soviets, and arrested. His wife, Lily, suspects that his imprisonment is part of a cover-up, and that more powerful men than Simon will do anything to prevent their own downfall. She knows that she too is in danger, and must fight to protect her children. But what she does not realise is that Simon has hidden vital truths about his past, and may be found guilty of another crime that carries with it an even greater penalty.
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Fabulous title, fabulous cover, fabulous Sharon Bolton! Fabulous! Strange blurb though… Courtesy of NetGalley again. I love NetGalley…
The Blurb says: Famous killers have fan clubs.
Locked up for the rest of his life for the abduction and murder of three young women, Hamish Wolfe gets countless adoring letters every day. He’s handsome, charismatic and very persuasive. His admirers are convinced he’s innocent, and that he’s the man of their dreams.
Who would join such a club?
Maggie Rose is different. Reclusive and enigmatic; a successful lawyer and bestselling true-crime writer, she only takes on cases that she can win.
Hamish wants her as his lawyer, he wants her to change his fate. She thinks she’s immune to the charms of a man like this. But maybe not this time . . .
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This one is Cleo’s fault – it was her review that sent me scuttling off to… you’ve guessed it… NetGalley! Honestly, I reckon it’s a conspiracy, don’t you? And I think it’s becoming clear who is the chief suspect…
The Blurb says: We’ve all seen him: the man – the monster – staring from the front page of every newspaper, accused of a terrible crime. But what about her: the woman who grips his arm on the courtroom stairs – the wife who stands by him?
Jean Taylor’s life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. Until he became that man accused, that monster on the front page. Jean was married to a man everyone thought capable of unimaginable evil. But now Glen is dead and she’s alone for the first time, free to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Taylor is going to tell us what she knows.
Brothers Phil and George Burbank are an odd couple but have always lived quite happily together, running the ranch they’ve taken over from their parents. Phil is the smart one, who could have been anything he chose, while George is quieter and not as bright as his brother. They rub along together well, though, each with their own tasks, and George’s stolid character gives him a level of immunity to Phil’s sarcasm and cruel comments. But when out of the blue George falls in love and marries, Phil’s sadism comes to the fore as he sets out to destroy George’s new wife, using her son as his weapon.
There is much to like and admire about this book but I’m going to start by mentioning something I wish I had known before choosing to read it – namely, that there are repeated episodes of animal cruelty throughout, that escalate towards the end of the book to a level where I had to skip a chunk of it completely. I’m not talking about the normal cruelty that happens as part of ranching – the castration scenes, for example. These I could accept as part of the story. But the detailed descriptions of animals being deliberately tortured for fun were too much for me, regardless of relevance.
However, for the right reader, this is a fascinating and powerful study of a sadistic personality, looking below the surface cruelty to find the causes. Phil’s parents always thought there was something not right about him, but seem more concerned with reassuring each other that his problems are not their fault than trying to deal with them. By the time the book starts, they have taken the easy option and gone to live in Utah, leaving their sons to run the ranch in their stead.
George doesn’t make any effort to prevent Phil’s cruelty, but his natural kindness leads him to try to put things right for the people Phil hurts. And it’s this that draws him to Rose in the first instance, after Phil had publicly ridiculed her son Peter for being a ‘sissy’. Like Phil’s parents, Rose has also always known her son is not like other boys but, unlike them, if anything that increases her love for him, and her fear of how he will cope with life. But as Phil’s constant sneering and contempt wear Rose down, the roles reverse and she finds herself relying more and more on her son’s seeming strength.
Written in 1967 but set further back in the 1920s, the book is really an examination of society’s attitudes towards homosexuality and ‘manliness’ at that time, particularly in the very male world of the cowboy. There’s a bit of stereotyping in the way Peter’s ‘sissy’-ness is portrayed, but this is offset by the otherwise excellent characterisation throughout. Phil is monstrous, but believably so, while the different weaknesses of Rose and George are convincing. The more peripheral parts of the book were, for me, some of the most interesting – the story of Peter’s father, failing as a doctor in this small place, and gradually diminishing; the episode of the “Indians” travelling back to visit the land of their fathers and becoming unwitting pawns in the power struggle on the ranch; and the lives of this traditional ranching community as the era of the cowboy was drawing towards an end.
So, if it weren’t for the animal cruelty, I’d be recommending this quite highly – probably 4 stars. As it is, 2½ – and you have been warned…
😐 (but probably more for the right reader)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
I’ve never been a particular fan of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, but I stumbled across this story in Michael Sim’s anthology of detective stories, The Dead Witness, (full review to follow), and felt that it was about time he made his first appearance in…
The Hammer of God
by GK Chesterton
The Rev. and Hon. Wilfred Bohun was very devout, and was making his way to some austere exercises of prayer or contemplation at dawn. Colonel the Hon. Norman Bohun, his elder brother, was by no means devout, and was sitting in evening dress on the bench outside ‘The Blue Boar,’ drinking what the philosophic observer was free to regard either as his last glass on Tuesday or his first on Wednesday. The colonel was not particular.
Wilfred notices that Norman seems to be watching the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith is a strong giant of a man, upright and Puritanical, but Wilfred has heard some scandalous reports about the behaviour of his beautiful wife. As they pass each other in the street, Norman calls out to his brother…
“Good morning, Wilfred,” he said. “Like a good landlord I am watching sleeplessly over my people. I am going to call on the blacksmith.”
Wilfred looked at the ground, and said: “The blacksmith is out. He is over at Greenford.”
“I know,” answered the other with silent laughter; “that is why I am calling on him.”
In despair at his brother’s shameful conduct, the devout Rev. Wilfred hurries on to his gothic-style church to pray. As he often does, rather than praying at the altar, he chooses another spot in the church for his private devotions – on this occasion, the gallery, where there is a rather beautiful stained glass window. He is still there sometime later when the village cobbler rushes in to inform him that a tragedy has occurred. Norman is dead, his head smashed by a single heavy blow…
He could only stammer out: “My brother is dead. What does it mean? What is this horrible mystery?” There was an unhappy silence; and then the cobbler, the most outspoken man present, answered: “Plenty of horror, sir,” he said; “but not much mystery.”
“What do you mean?” asked Wilfred, with a white face.
“It’s plain enough,” answered Gibbs. “There is only one man for forty miles round that could have struck such a blow as that, and he’s the man that had most reason to.”
But it turns out the blacksmith has an unshakeable alibi. There are plenty of other people who may have had reasons to kill the wicked Norman – the village idiot whom he taunted, other husbands, perhaps women he had toyed with. But who could have struck such a mighty blow – and with the fairly small hammer that is found to have been the weapon?
Fortunately, there is one man in the village who may be able to work it out – Father Brown. Using his commonsense and his knowledge of human sinfulness, it’s not long before he confronts the amazed villain…
“How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?”
“I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
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As always, there is a strong moral content to the story, and it’s this really that puts me off these stories. It’s not that I object to the battle between good and evil as a basis for a story – quite the reverse actually. It’s that I don’t enjoy the moralising tone that Chesterton employs through his priestly character. In this one (mini-spoiler alert) Father Brown plays on the conscience of the killer, preferring to give him the chance to do the right thing rather than handing him over to the police. All very well in fiction, but in reality I’d suggest the majority of murderers would take the opportunity to make good their escape and be on the next flight to Brazil or the Costa del Sol. So Father Brown’s uncanny ability to bring the bad guys back to the path of righteousness with just a few well-chosen words always leaves me unconvinced.
However, the story is very well written as Chesterton’s always are, with a good deal of strong characterisation considering its brevity. And the puzzle, while not too hard to work out, is intriguing. One that I’m sure would be enjoyed by existing Father Brown fans, and would be a good introduction to him for newcomers, who should not be put off by my personal lack of enthusiasm for the character.
Peter Pascoe and his girlfriend, Ellie Soper, are off for a weekend break to visit old university friends now living in the village of Thornton Lacey. But when they get there, they are met with tragedy – three of their friends lie dead from shotgun wounds and the fourth, Colin, is missing. Not surprisingly, Colin immediately becomes the chief suspect, but neither Peter nor Ellie can bring themselves to believe he could have done such a horrific thing. Meantime, back in Mid-Yorkshire, Dalziel wants Peter back as soon as possible, since they are in the middle of a major investigation of a string of burglaries that seems to be escalating into violence.
First published in 1973, this is the third book in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and shows a big leap in the development of some of the characters. Pascoe has changed out of all recognition from the rather commonplace young man of the first book. He’s now showing the intelligence and sensitivity that make him such an enjoyable character, both in his own right and as a contrast to the brash and arrogant Dalziel. Dalziel still has some way to go in terms of development – he’s still not quite the larger than life figure he will become. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing in his character so far, but am looking forward to spotting it as the series progresses. I think it may be his touch of omniscience, or that he hasn’t quite fully become the ‘big fish in a small pond’ of later books.
Ellie, too, has developed a good deal from the last book, but is also not yet fully the Ellie of the middle and later ones. With her character, Hill gets away from the, to modern eyes, outdated portrayal of women as little more than sexual temptresses that he gave us in the first book. Ellie is a mixture of strength and softness – a feminist at a time when feminism hadn’t quite worked out what it wanted to be when it grew up. Volatile and feisty, politically on the left and therefore deeply ambivalent about Peter’s job in that tool of capitalist oppression, the police force, she often gives him a hard time. But deep down she knows he’s one of the good guys and agrees, though she might never say it, that his job is one that needs to be done, and is better done by honourable, intelligent men than by thugs like Dalziel (it’s the ’70s, chaps, so forgive the inbuilt sexism in that sentence – Hill will introduce women police detectives later). In this book, though, she also begins to get to know Dalziel better and starts the slow process of realising that maybe his thuggish exterior hides a more complex and nuanced morality than she’s ready to give him credit for.
Pascoe’s relationship with Ellie and this trip back to his university days highlights his intellectual side, which in turns allows Hill to start what becomes a feature of later books – references, some subtle, some humorous, to the greats of English literature, especially Jane Austen. The title is from Pope and his poem Eloisa and Abelard plays a minor role in the plot. If you spotted that the name of the village comes from Ms Austen’s Mansfield Park, well done! Some of the characters’ names are also from Austen, often her juvenilia. If you like these sorts of references, it can be fun trying to spot them, or googling them; but, if the thought makes you go cross-eyed with boredom, I can reassure you that they’re completely incidental to enjoying the books. When I first read them, long, long, ago, I was unaware that Hill liked to play these games, never spotted them, and never felt that I was missing anything.
The plot in this one is deeply confusing with too many people playing minor parts and too much coincidence coming into play. I’m finding on this re-read that the plot tends to be the weakest part of each of the books so far. It’s always set up interestingly, as with this one in the triple murder scene, but somehow it tends to get a bit over complicated as the book progresses. However, it’s the quality of the writing and characterisation that lift even these early books above the average. There is always plenty of humour to offset the darkness of the storylines. Hill gives a believable picture of Ellie and Peter’s grief at the deaths of their friends, but without wallowing in it. And their growing relationship is handled beautifully, showing all the compromises that have to be made when two strong characters collide, but also the rewards that come in a partnership of real equals. This one works fine as a standalone, as they nearly all do, but I must say that reading them in order gives extra pleasure in seeing both the characters and Hill’s writing style develop as the series progresses.
Liberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book’s real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases. In each chapter, Stratmann looks at one aspect of these and gives one or more examples to show their impact in practice.
Stratmann opens with the case of Eliza Fenning, a maidservant hanged for the attempted poisoning of her employers. This case came to be seen as a major miscarriage of justice, highlighting the inadequacies of the justice system as it related to poisoning cases. Cases were dependant on proof of two things – that the victim had in fact been poisoned, and that the accused had deliberately administered the poison. The science at the time was so weak that proof of the first part was almost entirely dependent on observation of the victim’s symptoms, and the second was complicated by the fact that poisons were readily available without any safeguards, and in fact were often used in small doses as medicines.
Arsenic was the poison most often suspected in the early days of the period, and at this time women were the ones most likely to be accused of using it. Although the focus of the book is on the science, Stratmann also touches on the social conditions behind many of the cases she discusses. Arsenic was easily obtainable and simple to use, and its use as a rat poison meant that there was nothing particularly suspicious about women buying it. At the time, divorce was difficult, especially for the poor, and especially for women. While men could divorce an unfaithful wife, a woman could only divorce her husband for much worse things; for example, if he was violent or deserted her. Married women had no property rights – whereas a widow could inherit her husband’s property. So the temptation to do away with a brutal (or sometimes just boring) husband was always there…
But it wasn’t only inconvenient husbands who could be disposed of with relative ease. During this period, the Government changed the law so that an unmarried mother could no longer get maintenance from her child’s father through the court. Add to this the rise of ‘burial clubs’ – an insurance scheme where payouts greater than the cost of the funeral would be made on the death of the insured – and it’s hardly surprising there was a rise in the number of cases of infanticide amongst the poor. Stratmann makes two interesting points about these cases – firstly, that women murdering their children tended to use laudanum rather than arsenic because it was a ‘kinder’ death, causing less suffering to the victim; and, secondly, that juries, who probably had a good understanding of the impossible poverty some women found themselves in, tended to take a more sympathetic and lenient view of such cases than we might expect from Victorian men.
Stratmann makes the point that, although there were indeed many poisoning cases in the period, much of the hysteria around the apparent prevalence of poisoning was due in large part to the effect of ‘moral panic’, as the media and special interest groups whipped up fear amongst the populace for their own advantage. The new Pharmacists Association and the forerunner of the British Medical Association saw panic over poisons as a means to boost recognition of their own professions as the best people to sell and control drugs, while nothing sells more newspapers than a horrific murder and, preferably, a good public hanging to follow.
As the science of detection gradually improved and the Government slowly began to take measures to make the purchase of arsenic a little harder, the focus changed somewhat to vegetable alkaloids, such as the infamous strychnine. Since these poisons were harder to get hold off and in some cases required a bit of knowledge to use effectively, the ‘moral panic’ pendulum swung and it was now men who were seen as the main poisoners, especially well-educated, respectable men. Again Stratmann raises some interesting points here, such as the reluctance of doctors called in to such cases to suggest poisoning because of the elevated social positions of the ‘suspects’. She gives us examples of cases where a wife would be slowly poisoned, with her attending physicians suspecting poison for days, even weeks, before death but doing nothing constructive to stop it. The British class system at play as usual – isn’t it great?
Meantime, the science was improving but unfortunately the egos of the scientists were growing alongside. Now both prosecution and defence would call ‘expert witnesses’ who would battle it out in court, more interested sometimes in their own reputations than in the guilt or innocence of the accused. This had the double effect of making it next to impossible for jury members to decide on scientific points they didn’t understand, while undermining public faith in science in general. In some of the examples Stratmann cites here, I was frankly glad I hadn’t been on the jury, as both sides set out to destroy the reputation of the other. She also compares the British system to the French, where the court would appoint its own expert, thus avoiding this kind of courtroom confrontation (but also meaning that perhaps too much reverence and faith was placed on one man’s opinion).
So, interesting stuff. Unfortunately overall, I found the interesting bits were pretty deeply submerged under a lot of scientific stuff I didn’t really understand and didn’t think was explained clearly enough for the layperson. Also, there are far too many examples of cases given, all complete with very similar gruesome descriptions of vomiting, bodily excretions, autopsies and horrific scientific experimentation, mainly on dogs. All the cases eventually merged into one mass of yuckiness – a few cases more carefully chosen would have been much more effective, in my opinion. By the final few chapters, I was skipping over the cases, and the science, I must admit, to get to the little bits of interest to me. In the end, I felt it was all too detailed and had too much repetition of points already made. However, it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and well written book which will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the science, justice system or social conditions of the time.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
A few days after returning from her honeymoon, Teresa leaves the room in the middle of dinner, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. Years later, in the present, as our narrator Juan is getting used to the changes brought about his own marriage, he becomes fascinated by the mystery of why Teresa killed herself. He has a personal connection – his father Ranz was married to Teresa at the time and later married her sister Juana, Juan’s mother. So Teresa would have been Juan’s aunt – though had she lived, of course she wouldn’t have been…
There are several themes going on in the book – the uncertainty of memory, the inability to forget something once heard, the increasing unknowableness of truth when stories are relayed from person to person. Both Juan and his wife Luisa are interpreters and the sections where Juan talks about listening and conveying meaning are fascinating. The title is a reference to Macbeth, specifically to Lady Macbeth’s reaction on being told of Duncan’s murder, illustrating a major theme – the complicity forced upon someone to whom a tale is told. Marías is also playing with the idea that events that are major in the present fade into insignificance as time passes, so that eventually all will be the same whether an event happened or didn’t. An interesting thought.
In fact, there are lots of interesting thoughts hidden in Marías’ prose – well hidden. This is yet another in what seems to be becoming my accidental theme of the year – stream of consciousness novels or, as I prefer to call them, badly punctuated. I admit this one is nowhere near as bad as Absalom! Absalom! But it’s up there with Mrs Dalloway for sure, although Marías does at least manage eventually to get to the end of his sentences without completely losing track of where he was heading. There is no doubt that this style of writing lends the prose an air of profundity which, once one breaks the sentences down into their constituent parts, often evaporates, as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.
Another recurring feature of the few stream of consciousness novels I have waded through (or not, as the case may be) is the constant repetitiveness that the authors tend to employ, as if somehow repeating a thing a few dozen times will make it more meaningful. Perhaps it does, if one likes this style of writing – for me, it simply makes it tedious. An idea that intrigues on first mention requires expansion rather than repetition to hold this reader’s interest, I fear.
To be fair, I hate this style in general, but I do think Marías does it much better than most. Much of what he has to say is perceptive, as for example in this quote about getting used to being married. (The style means any quote has to be a long one, so apologies.)
As with an illness, this “change of state” is unpredictable, it disrupts everything, or rather prevents things from going on as they did before: it means, for example, that after going out to supper or to the cinema, we can no longer go our separate ways, each to his or her own home, I can no longer drive up in my car or in a taxi to Luisa’s door and drop her off and then, once I’ve done so, drive off alone to my apartment along the half-empty, hosed-down streets, still thinking about her and about the future. Now that we’re married, when we leave the cinema our steps head off in the same direction (the echoes out of time with each other, because now there are four feet walking along), but not because I’ve chosen to accompany her or not even because I usually do so and it seems the correct and polite thing to do, but because our feet never hesitate outside on the damp pavement, they don’t deliberate or change their mind, there’s no room for regret or even choice: now there’s no doubt that we’re going to the same place, whether we want to or not this particular night, or perhaps it was only last night that I didn’t want to.
This is an example of both what I liked and didn’t about the book. It’s an interesting perspective and casts a good deal of light on Juan’s uncertainty about the married state, but the style drives me up the wall even though it’s one of the least waffly passages in the book.
In terms of substance, the book is pretty much plot free. There are several set-piece scenes, some of which are very well done and give an air of menace or perhaps impending doom, and illuminate Marías’ themes. But nothing much actually happens. And I must admit that by the time we finally got to the stage of discovering the reason for Teresa’s death, the thing had been so stretched out and the themes beaten into the reader’s head so often, that I couldn’t imagine anyone actually being surprised by it.
I’m sighing with frustration because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Written in normal prose, it would have made an excellent, thought-provoking novella or short novel. As it is, it’s overlong, repetitive and filled with unnecessary waffle, all of which diminishes rather than adding to its impact. I found I could only read it in short sessions because the style frankly bored me into a dwam, and I would discover I’d read several pages (approximately half a paragraph) without absorbing any of it. So, recommended to people who enjoy stream of consciousness writing and not recommended to people who don’t.
It’s a foggy night in Milan when Inspector De Vincenzi is called out to a murder scene. A banker has been found shot dead in the flat of Gianetto Aurigi, who by coincidence is an old friend of the Inspector. Aurigi has been dabbling unsuccessfully on the stock market and becomes the obvious suspect. But De Vincenzi isn’t convinced – partly he feels there’s more to the whole thing than meets the eye, and partly his loyalty to his friend makes him determined to investigate every other avenue before condemning him…
The Murdered Banker
by Augusto De Angelis
Written in 1935, this novella length story is the first appearance of Inspector De Vincenzi in a series that was apparently hugely popular in Italy and gained De Angelis a reputation as father of the Italian mystery novel. De Vincenzi (who apparently has no first name) is a thoughtful detective with the soul of a poet, who is as interested in the motivations of the suspects as in the physical evidence. His style is to get at the truth by a combination of interviewing and of playing weirdly cruel tricks on people, such as sending them into the room where the corpse is lying without warning them. This has the effect of creating a good deal of melodramatic reactions, from screaming fits to people sinking into coma-like states of shock. It’s not Miss Marple, that’s for sure.
“Tell me, commendatore, what’s in there? What’s happened?” “There’s a dead body. What’s happened is that a man’s been killed.” A tremor convulsed the little man. He clutched at Maccari’s arm, his terror rendering him pitiful. “Oh my God! This house is cursed! Do they know that this house is cursed?”
Melodrama is something of a feature throughout. In fact, I kept expecting a heftily bosomed soprano to burst in singing an aria from Tosca. The stiff upper lip approach doesn’t seem to have figured heavily in Italian society at this time, if De Angelis’ portrayal is authentic. However in other ways the society is very similar to that in British crime fiction of the same period, full of class divisions and with an emphasis on money being, as usual, at the root of at least some of the evil. But we also have love – not reserved, quiet, British love, oh, no! Soaring, dramatic love – the kind where ecstasy is only ever an inch away from suicide! It must all have been quite exhausting…
I’ll be honest – I didn’t enjoy the writing style much, or perhaps it was the translation. It feels clunky and sometimes sentences need to be read more than once to glean the meaning. (I did have a lot of fun trying to see if I could get my “lips trembling with indignity” though.) Often dialogue isn’t clearly attributed to the speaker so that it isn’t immediately obvious who is expressing a particular opinion, which really breaks the reading flow. I also found the dialogue unconvincing – again it has a tendency to sound a bit like an opera script. And every time a climax is approaching, De Vincenzi stops the action and sends everyone away for a few hours, so he can think calmly.
“The atmosphere in this room has reached white heat – a bad temperature for keeping one’s brain working and a clear head. I myself fear that the very rhythm of your pulses is influencing my judgement. You’ll understand, therefore, if I ask you to leave me alone with my thoughts. I must organise them and master them. All right?”
Being a murder detective seems a strange choice of profession for someone who can’t take a bit of excitement, really.
But overall, it’s an enjoyable look at the mystery writing from another country to compare with our own Golden Age writers from the same period. I would be interested in reading more from later in the series to see if De Angelis maintains the high melodramatic style or if this is simply a feature of what is after all a debut novel.
There is also a short but interesting afterword, setting the book into the context of its time, in an Italy under the control of Mussolini’s Fascists. De Angelis eventually ran foul of the regime by writing a number of anti-Fascist articles; and, after having been arrested and then released, died as a result of being beaten up by a Fascist thug in 1944. So perhaps melodramatic tragedy was never far from real life in the Italy of that period after all.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.
Two women have been murdered – the mother brutally, the daughter left posed as if she were sleeping. Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is called in to review the case when another psychologist who had been working on it, an old student of his, reveals details of the crime to the press. It’s not clear from the differences between the two murders whether this is the work of a psychopathic killer or something more personal. But when another murder happens, linked to a series of vicious attacks, Joe begins to suspect that there’s a connection…
Meantime, Joe’s estranged wife, Julianne, has asked Joe to come and spend the summer with the family in their holiday cottage. Joe has never stopped hoping for a reconciliation so jumps at the chance, although he knows that Julianne won’t be happy that he’s got involved in another police investigation. It’s only as time passes that he will discover the reason for Julianne’s invitation.
The story is told from Joe’s perspective in the dreaded first person present tense, but at least Robotham is skilled enough to handle it well. The focus remains primarily on the investigation throughout, with Joe’s personal life forming a secondary strand.
Feeling responsible for his old student’s behaviour, Joe is driven to find the killer before there are any more victims, so he calls in his old friend Vincent Ruiz, now retired from the police, to help him investigate. They do so in the ‘old-fashioned’ way, by interviewing suspects and getting to know the background of the victims. The plotting is excellent as always – I didn’t guess the solution, but felt it made sense when revealed, though looking back I’m not sure there were enough clues for the reader to work it out.
However, as with so much modern crime fiction, the book is far too long for its content, meaning that it drags in places with the same ground being covered more than once, and it takes way too long for Joe and/or the police to work out the obvious connection between the victims. The old cliché of the protagonist’s family becoming targets is trotted out again – one can quite understand why Julianne gets a bit fed up with Joe taking on cases since every time the murderer ends up trying to kill one or all of them! In line with current trends, there’s the obligatory prologue from the mind of the killer, and in this case it’s pretty sleazy and a bit gruesome – to be honest, if this had been my first Robotham novel, I may well have abandoned it before chapter 1, but experience led me to expect, rightly, that the salacious elements wouldn’t be allowed to take over the whole book.
I also wasn’t keen on the personal story arc in this one, which becomes fairly traumatic. Robotham handles it sensitively and well, but nonetheless I’m not an enthusiast for this kind of wallowing in misery, soap opera approach to the protagonist’s life in contemporary crime.
Despite the clichéd elements, Robotham’s excellent writing always makes his books very readable and this one is no exception. Joe is an interesting and likeable protagonist, his battle with Parkinson’s disease always handled well, again never being allowed to dominate the story, and his working partnership with Ruiz is one of two equals with differing skills who respect each other. His relationships with his ex-wife and daughters always feel authentic too – he is at heart a family man, and although he and Julianne are separated, the family unit is still strong and both parents work together to give their daughters the support they need. The plot finally leads up to an exciting and scary thriller ending, but Joe never turns into an unbelievable superhero, so that it all feels perfectly credible.
So, for me, not quite the best, but still a strong entry in a series that is a long way above most contemporary crime. The plot works fine as a standalone, but to get the best out of the background story I’d recommend reading the books in order – unlike me! – starting with The Suspect.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.
Regency London 1810: Bow Street detective Stephen Lavender and his colleague Constable Ned Woods are called to a derelict building about to be demolished. A neighbour insists there’s a woman in the building, but when Lavender’s men search it, they find no one. The demolition proceeds and when the wall falls down, the corpse of a beautiful young woman is revealed beneath the floorboards. It’s not long until she is recognised as one of the actresses at the Sans Pareil theatre…
This is a light-hearted romp, as much a romance novel as a crime novel really. In the beginning it looks as though April Divine has been murdered during a botched attempt to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, but gradually the plot widens out to take in aspects of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with spy rings and secret documents a-plenty. The plotting is undoubtedly the best bit of the book, though it’s not a mystery as such – the reader learns and understands what’s going on at the same time as the detectives.
I look for a couple of things in historical crime fiction. Firstly, the detection element must be in line with the time it’s set in – no amazing foresight to 20th century science, for instance. Secondly, the time period must feel right – the characters should either fit in to the contemporary rules of society or they should be obviously misfits and seen as such by the other characters. Sadly this book fails fairly spectacularly on both of these requirements. I stuck it out for about 70% and then couldn’t take any more, so skipped ahead to the end… I was interested enough in the plot to want to know who the baddies were, hence my generous 1½-star rating.
The whole thing around the Bow Street runners felt completely inauthentic somehow. It’s not something I know anything much about, especially in this period, but I couldn’t believe in Lavender’s character. He is highly intelligent and well educated, mixing with the aristocracy on terms of near equality, and yet working as a policeman in 1810? And also mixing socially with the constables who are clearly way down the social ladder? Even the use of the word “detective” feels all wrong for that period. Dickens was still hesitant enough to be using quotation marks around the word decades later than this period, long after Bow Street had given way to Scotland Yard. The Oxford Dictionary dates it to mid-19th century. That piece of in-depth research took me roughly 30 seconds.
The female lead is Dona Magdalena, a Spanish lady who has fled the war and is living in near-penury in a run-down part of London. Despite her aristocratic background, she is the love interest for Lavender. This is just so wrong for the class-ridden British society of the time. She too mixes with both nobs and the hoi-polloi – I’m guessing the book must have been set in a parallel universe, because it simply couldn’t have happened in this one.
The book is stuffed full of anachronisms in manner, behaviour and speech. The aristocratic women are all feisty, independent types out there in the world earning their own living. The amount of public kissing and canoodling that goes on would have shocked Ms Austen’s heroines into fits of the vapours, and I get the impression that more than kissing went on during the bit I skipped. My question is – why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people? Surely the point of historical settings is to show us how different society was, not to pretend it’s the same but have them in horse-drawn cabs rather than cars? People talking about feeling “challenged” by their jobs, aristocrats offering to help out the hoi-polloi in the kitchen – ugh!
And, you know, if you’re going to talk dirty, at least get it anatomically correct. Propositioning Constable Woods, a good-hearted prostitute offers him a special deal for quantity…
“Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”
Er… three backs. And I hasten to add the only research I did for that one was to learn arithmetic.
Enough already. Not my kind of thing, and I fear I can’t recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction to feel well researched and authentic. But it’s probably fine as a light-hearted romance in Regency frocks.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.
Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 again this week – to 165! I knew it was the start of a trend! I shall be in single figures any time now, I’m convinced of it! So long as nothing unforeseen happens…
Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…
Courtesy of NetGalley, from the author of the brilliant The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (and the slightly less brilliant Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace)…
The Blurb says: In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbours they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When eventually she forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.
At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes’s case crystallised contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.
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Next up for the GAN Quest. I’m not expecting this to be The Great American Novel but I’m hoping it will be A Great American Novel. Can’t be worse than Absalom! Absalom!, right?😉
The Blurb says: As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
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Recommended by the lovely Raven way back in 2013, it’s taken some time for this one to reach the top of the heap…
The Blurb says: New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin. Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.
But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.
But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?
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And NetGalley again. Not exactly a Holmes pastiche, more a riff on a theme, I think. It’s had mixed reviews so far, so we’ll see…
The Blurb says: As snow falls on Baker Street, the wintry city is abuzz with rumour and excitement: the Malabar Rose – a fabled and frankly enormous ruby – has been sent as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the Marharajah of Marjoudh. An extraordinary condition is attached to the gift, though: the gem must be displayed at London’s sumptuous Blenheim Hotel to be admired by all. How can the safety of this priceless jewel be assured? The authorities wisely enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr Watson… but fortunately for them, they are also on the receiving end of help from Holmes’s redoubtable housekeeper Mrs Hudson and her able assistant, Flotsam the housemaid.
In a few short days in 1904, young Tomàs loses his lover, his child and his father to unexpected deaths. In the turmoil of emotions that follows, he begins to walk backwards everywhere he goes. People think this is his way of dealing with grief, but Tomàs sees it not as grieving but as objecting. Objecting to the unfairness of life and of God. Tomàs works in a museum and has come across an old journal written by a priest who lived amongst the slaves in one of Portugal’s African colonies centuries earlier. Father Ulissis was building something he referred to as ‘a gift’. Tomàs believes this gift ended up in a church in the High Mountains of Portugal, and decides to track it down…
So begins the first section of this three part novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache. This first section also has lots of humour as Tomàs sets off on his journey in a borrowed car – a newfangled thing in 1904 that causes consternation everywhere he goes, especially since his driving is reminiscent of Mr Toad’s.
Beneath the humour, though, Martel never lets us forget Tomàs’ grief, showing it with great empathy but never descending into mawkishness. The search for the gift has become an attempt for Tomàs to find some kind of catharsis. On the death of his beloved Dora, Tomàs found himself feeling that at such a time one must either accept or reject faith totally. His search is as much to find the answer to that question as the gift itself. The journey gradually darkens and takes on elements of the surreal before Tomàs reaches his destination, physical and emotional. The middle of this section drags a little, but the end makes up for the length of the journey.
If a job was left unfinished at the end of a day – the coop not repaired, a row of vegetables not weeded – we knew that one of us had sat down and wept. That’s the nature of grief: it’s a creature with many arms but few legs, and it staggers about, searching for support. Frayed chicken wire and a profusion of weeds became expressions of our loss. I can’t look at chicken wire now without thinking of my lost son. There’s something about the warp and weft of it, so thin yet strong, so porous yet solid, that reminds me of how we loved him. Later, because of our neglect, chickens died at the jaws of a fox that slipped into the coop, and the crop of vegetables was not so bountiful – but so it goes: a son dies and the earth becomes barren.
The second section is considerably more surreal. Normally surrealism and I don’t get along, but Martel’s storytelling is so beautiful my cynicism was swept away. Late one evening in 1938, Eusebio Lozora, a pathologist, is visited in his office by his wife, who has come primarily to discuss Christ’s miracles, which she does by comparing the gospels to the works of Agatha Christie. In the context of the book, this is not as off the wall as it sounds – well, it is! But her argument makes a kind of sense – she suggests that the importance of both is in the witnessing. When she leaves, another woman turns up, a woman from Tuizelo, who wants Eusebio to carry out an autopsy on her dead husband.
It’s always difficult to know how much to say in a review, and I’m not going to reveal any more about this section because the wonder of it is in the revelations that come about as it progresses. I found the whole section stunning. It flows superbly, and the fundamental ludicrousness of it is entirely dispelled by the excellence of the writing and the insight into love and grief. Quite beautiful.
They never look very big on the table, the bodies. It’s built to accommodate the largest frames, there’s that. And they’re naked. But it’s something else. That parcel of the being called the soul – weighing twenty-one grams, according to the experiments of the American doctor Duncan MacDougall – takes up a surprising amount of space, like a loud voice. In its absence, the body seems to shrink. That is, before the bloat of decomposition.
And yet still not as wonderful as the third section. It’s 1981 and Canadian Senator Peter Tovy is grieving the death of his wife. On a trip to Oklahoma, he visits the Institute for Primal Research, where he makes a sudden connection with a chimpanzee, Odo – the chimp looks straight into his eyes in a way people have avoided doing since his bereavement. He buys the chimp and the two of them set off to make a new life in Tuizelo, where Peter’s family originated.
It’s in the observation that this section excels. Odo is not anthropomorphised; in fact, if anything, it is Peter who tries to ape the lifestyle of the chimp. Their interactions are beautifully realised – Odo always projects an element of slight menace to Peter; although the chimp is happy to share his life with the human, he retains his fundamental wildness. In time the villagers, who initially feared him, begin to accept Odo as a unique presence within their community. Again I don’t want to reveal too much, except to say that links between this section and the others are gradually revealed, and the ending is a thing of perfect beauty that left me sobbing – not for sorrow, but for joy.
In Portugal the sunshine is often pearly, lambent, tickling, neighbourly. So too, in its own way, is the dark. There are dense, rich, and nourishing pockets of gloom to be found in the shadows of houses, in the courtyards of modest restaurants, on the hidden sides of large trees. During the night, these pockets spread, taking to the air like birds. The night, in Portugal, is a friend.
The whole book is deliciously enigmatic and I’m sure could be read in a hundred different ways. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, but symbolically rather than actually, except in the third. I feel Mantel is suggesting that the two sides of the debate are not irreconcilable, and that faith itself is the thing that is required to reconcile them. Small miracles are possible, but we will only see them as that if we let reason take a back seat for a bit. Perhaps he’s also reminding us that religion and faith are not always the same thing. And ultimately it seems to me he is saying that just because we are risen apes doesn’t mean we couldn’t be fallen angels too. I did feel some aspects of the chimp symbolism might offend some Christians, but I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader.
But meaning aside, the sheer quality of the writing along with the more overt themes of grief and love make it a wonderful read. It gets my highest recommendation – one that has left some indelible images in my mind and will undoubtedly be in the running for my book of the year.
PS I have tried to avoid revealing too many details in this review. If you’re planning on reading the book, I strongly advise that you avoid the various press reviews, which seem to have been vying with each other to ruin it by giving details of the endings of each of the three sections. Fortunately I didn’t read any of them till after I’d finished the book, and thus had the joy of discovering it unspoiled.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.
“…get us out of here, for God’s sake get us out of here quick!”
She was still staring wildly into the scrub. Her fear seeped into his spine. There was something there in the low trees, something terrible…
It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…
Woo! A non-stop thrill-fest indeed! The author jumps right into the story so that from the first paragraph the tension starts ratcheting up. John’s driving a Honda, not built for this terrain. The Man has taken Katie’s Land Cruiser – bigger and tougher. The only advantage John and Katie have is that their car is faster, so long as the road is good. But this road doesn’t sound good at all…
Neither of them have any idea why the Man wants to kill them. In fact, they can’t even be sure he’s a man – he’s huge and hairy and smells rancid, like decaying flesh. (I think I met him up the dancin’ once.) And he doesn’t seem to be in a very good mood. They don’t have time to speculate – all they can do is keep driving and hope they can put enough distance between them to get to safety before they’re caught. But they’re heading the wrong way – straight into the danger zone – and they can’t turn round because HE’S BEHIND THEM!!!
Brilliant stuff – pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Fortunately John knows cars and is a skilful driver. Once Katie gets over her initial terror, she pulls her weight too, and she knows more about the Outback than John. But neither of them is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. Phew! A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff! I’m off to lie down in a darkened room for a while now…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Text Publishing.
Not long after the end of WW2, London-based journalist Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea to follow up on the success of her humorous war-time columns. Coincidentally, she is contacted by Dawsey Adams, a man from the Channel Island of Guernsey, who has found her name and address in a second-hand volume of Charles Lamb, and asks for her help in finding more of his work, since the only bookshop on Guernsey closed during the German occupation of the island. He mentions the importance that the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society had in keeping up morale during the Occupation. Fascinated, Juliet asks for more details, and so starts a correspondence that gradually spreads to include more of the Guernsey residents. And after a time, Juliet realises that she wants her book to tell the story of the islanders and their Society…
The entire book is told in the form of letters, mostly between the Guernsey people and Juliet, but also including her existing friends and publishers. This technique works pretty well for the most part, though it does begin to feel a bit contrived, especially once Juliet decides to visit the island for herself. In the early part of the book, the tone is light, with a lot of humour, and Juliet’s letters give what feels like an authentic description of post-war London beginning to rebuild after the war – authentic, but with the tragedy carefully sanitised. The letters from Guernsey are equally light at first, as the islanders tell Juliet how the Society came about, and how they each found books that helped them in the dark days.
And the days for the islanders got very dark indeed under the German Occupation, as the food they farmed was taken by the occupiers, leaving them hungry to the point of near starvation, while other necessities became unobtainable with the islands being cut off from mainland Britain. The islanders tell about the sadness of the children being evacuated just before the Germans arrived, a separation that lasted till the war was over. And any infringement of the rules laid down by the Germans could lead to severe punishment, including being sent to the prison camps in Europe in the most serious cases.
The book is an odd combination of almost sickly sweetness combined with tales of terrible inhumanity and suffering. The characters are all too good to be true, dripping with 21st century political correctness, except for the baddies who are very bad. Not, as you may expect, the Germans, who when they’re not being cruel and vicious are all oddly nice, sensitive chaps – sending the islanders off to prison camps one minute and sharing their last potato with them the next. No, the real baddies are the ones who show what felt to me like more authentic 1940s attitudes – the ones who aren’t deeply sympathetic to women who had affairs with the German occupiers or had children out of wedlock, or who don’t think that homosexuality is a wonderful thing, etc. Whatever one might think of these attitudes, they ring truer to the time than the attitudes of tolerance and unselfish sweetness the authors give to the main characters. So that overall the Guernsey side of the story feels too fictional – inauthentic – even if the historical events are described accurately, as I assume they are. All the saccharin lessens the impact of the tougher stuff – an uneasy mix.
The characters are quirky, almost caricatures in some cases. The voices in the letters are all very similar, so that I constantly had to check the headings to see who was writing. There is a love story at the heart of the book which is quite enjoyable so long as your disbelief in the compatibility of the participants can be left to one side.
Overall, the humour and writing style make it entertaining enough to help the reader past the difficulties in character and credibility. I didn’t love it as much as the literally thousands of people who have given it glowing reviews, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it as a light, heart-warming read for those grey days when grim realism may not be what you’re looking for.
Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.
Sarah and Emily Grimes have a disrupted childhood, moving from place to place as their feckless, alcoholic mother struggles to settle anywhere. Their father, who loves them, is mainly absent from their lives and they give him a kind of mythic quality, believing him to be a more important man than the reality suggests. The girls come to adulthood around the time of WW2, and their lives diverge. Sarah follows the conventional route of marriage and motherhood, while Emily has a succession of sexual relationships of varying depth and intensity, but never lasting long. In a sense, there’s a sibling rivalry going on, with each of the women somewhat envying the lifestyle of the other. But as the first line, quoted above, makes clear, both are destined to miserable existences.
I loved Revolutionary Road, declaring it almost the equal of Gatsby for what it had to say about the American Dream. That book was certainly not a happy one, but Yates’ insight into his characters and their society, combined with his starkly beautiful prose, made it a profoundly emotional and intelligent read. I came to this one, then, with high hopes and expectations.
To be honest, I’m not sure what Yates is trying to say in this one at all. Simplistically, the message seems to be that children from broken homes are doomed to misery, doomed to repeat the failures of their parents. He seems to be doing a compare and contrast exercise, conventional versus unconventional lifestyle, and concluding that whatever choices the sisters made, the end result would be the same – to die unhappy and unloved.
The writing is fine, plain and with no stylistic flourishes, but somehow I felt it lacked the penetrating beauty of the prose in Revolutionary Road. When reading a paper copy for review, I stick little post-it notes at passages I may want to quote, usually because I think they’re either beautiful or profound or, with luck, both. To my own surprise, when I finished this book, I found I hadn’t marked a single passage. The problem is not that it’s in any way badly written, it’s just rather unremarkable.
I also struggled to accept the characterisation. The main viewpoint is Emily’s, the unconventional sister. We follow her as she fails at one relationship after another, always because she seems to pair off with damaged men – the failed poet, the man who still loves his ex-wife, the man who has issues with his own sexual performance, etc. But I found that rather annoying and, dare I say it, a little misogynistic. Emily is intelligent, educated and successful in her career, but Yates makes it clear that this isn’t what a woman needs. She needs a successful relationship with a man, otherwise she will go to drink and the devil, probably ending up mad. Emily is doomed, however, never to find a decent man, though why this should be so is entirely unclear.
But meantime Sarah, who has gone the conventional route by marrying, has a husband who beats her – so she spirals into drink and despair, ending up in a psychiatric home. The same home as their mother – abandoned by her man – ended up in when she spiralled into drink and despair. (One wonders if they got a discount for quantity.) I’m pretty sure that Yates didn’t mean to imply that the only hope for women to escape the clutches of insanity is to marry well, but that leaves me wondering just exactly what he was trying to say.
I suspect the book may have been written at the height of the great ‘it’s all the parents’ fault’ craze, which people used as a method of absolving themselves of responsibility for their own actions; and, of course, at the height of the great psychiatry phase, when going to a ‘shrink’ was seen as the fashionable norm, rather than the exception, for the richer portion of society (a particularly American craze, that one – never took off to quite the same degree over here). In that sense, perhaps it does say something insightful about the time of writing, but it never felt wholly authentic to me.
I did find it very readable – the quality and flow of Yates’ writing ensured that. But when I got to the end, I felt I had simply spent time watching two sad and failed lives spelled out in great detail for no particular purpose, and without that sense of truth and insight that raised Revolutionary Road from commonplace misery to devastating tragedy.
Ooh, the TBR has dropped 2 this week – to 167! So tchah! to all you gloaters who were trying to push me up to 200 – your nefarious schemes have failed!! (So far…)
Here are some of the ones that are getting close to the top of the heap…
A re-read from many years ago, by one of my favourite authors, this will take me on a journey on the Orient Express for the #AW80Books challenge…
The Blurb says: Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at what he supposes to be his mother’s funeral. Soon after, she persuades Henry to abandon Southwood, his dahlias and the Major next door to travel her way, Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay. Through Aunt Augusta, a veteran of Europe’s hotel bedrooms, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society: mixing with hippies, war criminals, CIA men; smoking pot, breaking all the currency regulations and eventually coming alive after a dull suburban life.
In Travels with my Aunt Graham Greene not only gives us intoxicating entertainment but also confronts us with some of the most perplexing of human dilemmas.
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Well, this is listed on Amazon as “Religious and Inspirational Women’s Fiction” so you may well wonder why it’s turned up on my TBR! Because it’s edited by our very own Susan P, regular commenter, fellow cat-lover and all round good chap… how could I resist? I’ll be keeping a close eye on the grammar…😉
The Blurb says: A mail-order bride, a town overrun with tourists, and illegal art ~ How on earth will Claire and Chapel Springs survive?
With the success of her Operation Marriage Revival, life is good for Claire Bennett. That is until the mayor’s brother blabs a secret: Claire’s nineteen-year-old son, Wes, has married a Brazilian mail order bride — one who is eight years older than him. When Claire tries to welcome her new daughter-in-law, she’s ridiculed, rebuffed, and rejected. Loving this girl is like hugging a prickly cactus. Will Claire and her family survive her son’s marriage? From the first sighting of a country music star in Claire’s gallery, The Painted Loon, to the visit of a Hollywood diva, Chapel Springs is inundated with stargazers, causing lifelong residents to flee the area. When her best friends, Patsy and Nathan, put their house on the market, Claire is forced to do something or lose the closest thing to a sister she’s got. With her son’s future at stake and the town looking to her to solve their problems, it’s Claire who needs a guardian angel.
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Continuing my gradual re-read of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, this is book 3…
The Blurb says: From Yorkshire to the sleepy village of Thornton Lacey is only a morning’s drive, but for Detective-Sergeant Peter Pascoe, the distance will close off part of his life forever. Motoring down for a reunion with old friends, he arrives to find not a welcome but a grisly triple murder. Out of his jurisdiction, Pascoe is in an untenable position: one of his oldest friends is wanted for murder, his boss is ordering him back to Yorkshire, and his instincts are telling him that the local constabulary will never suspect that the crime’s true motive lies not in the obvious places…but in the unexplored zones of passion within a twisted heart.
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I think this is the last of my Christmas books – and I have the film to go with it! I’ve tried watching the film in the past but never made it all the way through – I’m hoping reading the book will help…
The Blurb says: Written when landing on the moon was still a dream, made into one of the most influential films of our century, brilliant, compulsive, prophetic, 2001: A Space Odyssey tackles the enduring theme of man’s place in the universe. On the moon an enigma is uncovered. So great are the implications that, for the first time, men are sent out deep into the solar system. But, before they can reach their destination, things begin to go wrong. Horribly wrong.
Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.
The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.
Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.
Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.
Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.
Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.
And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.
The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.
NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!
The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing…
Apparently the making of the film has been a long-term labour of love for director Terence Davies, his first attempt to bring it to the screen having failed in 2003. It has been one of the films I’ve been most eager to see since I fell in love with the book all over again when I recently re-read it after a gap of many years. The book is a profound and deeply moving portrait of a rural society caught up in the changes brought about through modernisation and war at the beginning of the 20th century, culminating with the characters coming together to face an uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.
I wish I was about to rave about the film, but I’m not – well, not in a good way, at least. It’s the most disappointing adaptation I have seen on either big or small screen for years. The book is widely recognised as one of the most significant Scottish novels of the 20th century, and I hoped the film would faithfully reproduce the themes and culture that give it that deserved status.
Imagine my disappointment then to discover that Davies had decided to cast an English actress in the central role of Chris Guthrie – a 32-year-old English actress at that, to play a character who is a child at the start of the book and no more than mid-20s at its end. Agyness Deyn does her best in the role, and her accent is reasonably authentic sounding at points – enough to fool a non-Scottish audience anyway, I would think – but she is totally miscast. She is a former model – tall, fragile and delicate looking. Hardly what one expects an early 20th century Aberdeenshire farmer’s daughter to look like, I fear. However, there’s no doubt she looks good in her underclothes or naked, which is presumably why that’s how she appears for a goodly proportion of the time. But the young girl’s sexual awakening is handled in the book with a kind of harsh integrity which is lost completely by having a mature actress play the role.
Many of the other cast members are Scottish and some of the performances are excellent. Peter Mullan as Chris’ harsh and brutal father is entirely credible, and Kevin Guthrie does well with the character of Chris’ lover and husband, Ewan Tavendale – though Davies’ interpretation of Ewan’s character gives him an innocence and charm in the early days of their relationship that he doesn’t really possess in the book, making his later transformation about as realistic as Jekyll and Hyde. Daniela Nardini, one of our finest Scottish actresses, stands out as Chris’ mother – unfortunately, the character’s early death means this is a tiny role. And Ian Pirie works wonders with the severely reduced role that Davies leaves for Chae, one of the central characters in the book, perhaps as much its heart as Chris herself, but here sidelined to the periphery, as Davies converts the ensemble piece of the book to a narrow concentration on Chris’ early life and love for Ewan.
One of the central themes of the book is the loss of Scottish language and culture due to the anglicisation of the education system, forcing children to speak English rather than their native dialects. What an utterly odd directorial decision then for Davies to anglicise the speech in the film! He uses a rather annoying voiceover to explain all the bits of the book that he fails to portray on the screen, and mentions the question of anglicisation in that, so clearly he didn’t miss the point in the book. He gives as his reason that using authentic dialect would have made the film difficult for viewers unfamiliar with it – I suggest that’s why they invented subtitles. Would he make an Icelandic film in English too? Sadly, perhaps he would.
I won’t even bother to mention my horror at finding that much of the film was shot in New Zealand.
The real disappointment though is the narrowness of the focus of the film, it’s concentration almost entirely on Chris. The book also has Chris at its centre, but through her lets the reader see the whole community. It’s the discussions between the men that show the beginnings of the rise of socialism, the attitudes towards the war in this community so detached from the seat of power, the social strata and structures that must yield to change. Davies allows us about three minutes of this in one scene of the community getting together, with the result that when some of the men decide either to go or refuse to go to war, the viewer is left baffled by their motivation, unable to differentiate between cowardice and principled pacifism. And he takes the community completely out of the ending, leaving us with Chris standing alone – totally wrong and distorting the entire point of the book.
Perhaps it works as a standalone war-time love story for non-Scots. There is some lovely scenery and some of it is even Scottish, but it crawls along from one set-piece scene to another with the camera lingering far too long on overly staged tableaux, never flowing nor achieving a true portrayal of the characters or the culture. By all means, see the film, but please don’t think it is anything other than the palest reflection of the excellent book.
You won’t be surprised to learn that by a huge margin…