The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

I blame the parents…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Penn starts this history of the three York brothers with the background story of the weak King Henry VI, surrounded by venal lords and constantly threatened by Richard, Duke of York, father of the three brothers, who had a competing claim to the throne through the female line. He then takes us in a linear fashion through the downfall of Henry, and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, ending with Richard’s downfall and the rise to power of Henry VII, the first of the Tudors.

Penn writes very well, avoiding academic jargon and taking plenty of time to fill in the characters of the people he’s discussing. He assumes no prior knowledge, which as a newcomer to the period I found extremely helpful since it meant I never found myself floundering over unexplained references, as can often happen with history books.

Edward IV

The bulk of the book concentrates on the reign of Edward IV, which makes sense since he ruled for over twenty years whereas the middle brother George, Duke of Clarence, never got to be king and the youngest brother, Richard III, managed a mere two years before he lost his crown, and his life along with it. Unfortunately, Richard is by far the more interesting king (in my opinion), so I’d have been happier to spend more time in his company and rather less on Edward’s interminable taxes and squabbles with France and Burgundy. I have a feeling this says far more about my dilettante approach to history than it does about the book, however! But after an excellent start with all the intrigue and fighting leading up to Edward’s final power grab, I found my interest dipped for quite a long period in the middle of the book as Penn laid out the detail of his long reign.

George, Duke of Clarence

It picks up again when Edward finally dies, and the nefarious Richard usurps the throne from his nephew. Richard’s reign might have been short but it’s full of incident and Penn tells it excellently. Intriguingly, although of course he relates the story of the Princes in the Tower, Penn doesn’t tell us his own opinion as to whether Richard was guilty of their murder or not. I suppose this makes sense, since (weirdly) there are still strong factions on either side of that question and he’d have been bound to alienate half his readership whichever position he took. He gives enough detail of the event and the contemporaneous rumours around it for the reader to make up her own mind, if she hasn’t already. (Yes, of course Richard was guilty, if you’re wondering… 😉 )

Richard III

Penn finishes as Richard’s reign comes to its tragic/well-deserved* end, rounding the story off with an uber-quick résumé of Henry VII and the Tudors, explaining how the Yorkist divide gradually diminished over time.

Thomas Penn
(photo: Justine Stoddart)

Overall, this is an excellent history, plainly but well told. I’d say it’s aimed more at the general reader than an academic audience, and is particularly good as an introduction to the period – I’m not sure that there’s much new in it for people who already have a solid understanding of the time of the York kings. It’s clearly well researched, with plenty of detail, and it covers all the major personalities of the time, not just the brothers. I came out of it feeling much clearer about how all the various well known names – Warwick, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou, etc. – fitted together, and what parts they played in the Yorkist story. I did struggle with the long middle section of Edward’s rather dull reign, but a historian really can’t be expected to make something exciting if it isn’t. But the first and last sections had more than enough treachery, betrayal and general skulduggery to satisfy even me! Recommended.

*delete according to preference

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

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Brother by David Chariandy

The failure of the dream…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A young man goes to meet an old friend who is returning to visit the neighbourhood where she grew up and he still lives. Aisha’s visit prompts Michael to think back to his childhood and teen years in the 1980s, when he and his older brother Francis were being brought up by their mother, an immigrant to Canada from Trinidad whose husband had deserted her when the boys were young. She is strict with the boys, with the usual immigrant dream that they will make successful lives in this society that is new to her. But she has to struggle hard to make ends meet, working several jobs, often having to leave the boys alone and usually exhausted when she finally gets home. So the boys, good at heart, have too many opportunities to drift into the ‘wrong’ crowd. When they are caught up in an incident of street violence, it begins a chain of events that will ultimately lead to tragedy.

This is a short book with no unnecessary padding, and its brevity makes it all the more powerful. It’s a story of how the immigrant dream can go wrong, but it’s not overtly hammering polemics at the reader nor too heavily making a ‘point’. I found it eye-opening, though, because I’d never really thought of Canada as having the kind of immigrant neighbourhoods described so vividly in the book.

Some of our neighbours have memories of the events that began with the shootings that hot summer. But new people are always arriving in the Park. And they often come under challenging circumstances, from the Caribbean, from South Asia and Africa and the Middle East, from places like Jaffna and Mogadishu. For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours. It is a story, effectively vague, of a young man deeply “troubled” and of a younger brother carrying “history,” and of a mother showing now the creep of “madness.”

Chariandy brings the neighbourhood of Scarborough to life, showing it as a place where a constant influx of immigrants from different countries around the world first settle when they arrive in Canada, seeing their life there as a stage on the road to either them or their children one day making it in their new world and moving on to more desirable areas. The city of which the neighbourhood is a suburb is, I think, Toronto, but really it could be any big city, in almost any Western country. There is poverty here, both financial and of expectations, and there’s the violence and insecurity that usually goes with that; and the exploitation of these incomers as a ready supply of cheap and disposable labour by unscrupulous employers. But Chariandy also shows the kindness that can exist among people when they all face the same problems and share the same dreams.

David Chariandy

I found the portrait of the neighbourhood utterly believable, drawn without the exaggerated over-dramatisation that often infests books about the failure of the immigrant dream, making them feel like an unnuanced and often unfair condemnation of the host nation. Although this book centres on a tragedy, Chariandy also allows the reader to see hope – to believe that for some, the dream is indeed possible to attain; and this has a double effect – it stops the book from presenting a picture of unrelenting despair, and it makes the events even more tragic because they don’t feel as if they were inevitable.

There’s also a short section of the boys and their mother visiting Trinidad – her home, but a new country to them, full of relatives they’ve never met and a lifestyle that is as foreign to them as Canada is to their mother. Again beautifully done, Chariandy shows the freshness of the immigrant dream through the eyes of the Trinidadian relatives, who assume that the mother’s life in Canada is one of comfort and ease in comparison to their own, while the reader has seen the reality of constant days of struggle, hard, poorly-paid work and exhaustion.

We brushed our teeth at a pipe outdoors that offered only cold water. And trying to pee one last time before bed, I stepped on something hard but moving, an insect, prehistoric big it seemed to me, that clicked angrily and flapped away.
Francis and I lay down on our mat, but when the lights were turned off, we couldn’t sleep. Wild creatures called in the dark, and the air was filled with the hum of insects, louder than any traffic we heard at home. The living room window framed a full moon that shone like a cool white sun, and billions of stars, a universe we had never even imagined.

An excellent novel, insightful, beautifully written, and with some wonderfully believable characterisation. And happily, unlike too much Canadian literature, available in the UK! Highly recommended.

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

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TBR Thursday 251…

Episode 251

Another drop in the TBR this week – down 2 to 203! At this rate I’ll soon be below the magical 200 figure for the first time in centuries… millennia, even!!


Here are a few more that should make me wag my tail soon…

History

The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill

It tends to be assumed that Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature mostly as a gesture of gratitude for his wartime leadership. However, apparently his histories are very readable and give an insightful insider account of events. This first volume covers the lead-up to the Second World War and therefore the period of the Spanish Civil War, so it might fit loosely into my challenge. 

The Blurb says: This book is the first in Winston Churchill’s monumental six-volume account of the struggle between the Allied Powers in Europe against Germany and the Axis during World War II. Told from the unique viewpoint of a British prime minister, it is also the story of one nation’s heroic role in the fight against tyranny.

Having learned a lesson at Munich they would never forget, the British refused to make peace with Hitler, defying him even after France had fallen and it seemed as though the Nazis were unstoppable. What lends this work its tension and power is Churchill’s inclusion of primary source material. We are presented with not only Churchill’s retrospective analysis of the war, but also memos, letters, orders, speeches, and telegrams, day-by-day accounts of reactions as the drama intensifies. We listen as strategies and counterstrategies unfold in response to Hitler’s conquest of Europe, planned invasion of England, and assault on Russia. Together they give a mesmerizing account of the crucial decisions made as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

The Gathering Storm covers the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Adolf Hitler, the capitulation of Munich, and the entry of Britain into the war. This book makes clear Churchill’s feeling that the Second World War was a largely senseless but unavoidable conflict—and shows why Churchill earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, in part because of this awe-inspiring work.

* * * * *

Classic Science Fiction

Earth Abides by George R Stewart

Hmm… when I chose this one for my Classics Club list back in 2016, I had no idea that it would seem so relevant by the time I got to it. Not sure that reading about plagues is a good idea at the moment, but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: In this profound ecological fable, a mysterious plague has destroyed the vast majority of the human race. Isherwood Williams, one of the few survivors, returns from a wilderness field trip to discover that civilization has vanished during his absence.

Eventually he returns to San Francisco and encounters a female survivor who becomes his wife. Around them and their children a small community develops, living like their pioneer ancestors, but rebuilding civilization is beyond their resources, and gradually they return to a simpler way of life.

* * * * *

Fiction

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

After loving For Whom the Bell Tolls so much, I’m keen to see if Hemingway can blow me away again with this novella – one of my 20 Books of Summer

The Blurb says: The last novel Ernest Hemingway saw published, The Old Man and the Sea has proved itself to be one of the enduring works of American fiction. It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Maigret and the Reluctant Witness by Georges Simenon

Another for my 20 Books, and another Maigret. I had actually put Maigret and Monsieur Charles on the list but when I looked up the blurb I discovered it’s the last in the series, and since I’ve only read a few I’m not sure I want to read the last one yet. So I’m swapping it for this one…

The Blurb says: When the head of a powerful Parisian family business is murdered in his bed, Maigret must pick apart the family’s darkest secrets to reveal the truth.

Maigret is called to the home of the high-profile Lachaume family where the eldest brother has been found shot dead. But on his arrival, the family closes ranks and claims to have heard and seen nothing at the time of the murder. Maigret must pick his way through the family’s web of lies, secrets, and deceit, as well as handle Angelot, a troublesome new breed of magistrate who has waded into the case. And it’s the estranged black sheep of the family, Veronique, who may hold the key to it all with her knowledge of the depths to which the family will sink to protect their reputation.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Journey’s End…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is Wednesday, 2nd October, 1872, and as he does every day, Mr Phileas Fogg is playing whist with his friends in the Reform Club. But this day the conversation turns to how the world is shrinking as more and more places become linked by fast steamships or railroads. Fogg claims that it is now possible to go around the world in eighty days. His companions pooh-pooh this notion, and Fogg offers to prove his point by making the journey. A wager is hastily arranged for the massive sum of £20,000 – half Fogg’s entire fortune. He intends to use the other half to cover any unforeseen expenses on his travels. And within hours he’s off, accompanied only by his French manservant, Passepartout, whom he had hired just that morning. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being followed…

I started my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge back in March 2016, so it has taken me considerably longer to make the trip than Phileas Fogg allowed himself! When I got close to the end I realised this was the only possible book I could choose to bring me back to London where my journey started all those years ago. And a perfect choice it proved to be! Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it also took me to all the places I’ve read about in the books I picked for my challenge. So when we got to Bombay I thought of playing cricket; when Fogg and his companions travelled by elephant I remembered Solomon’s journey; when they reached Omaha I thought of the World Fair. Anyway, I shall do a proper round-up of the challenge soon, but meantime, back to this book!

Fogg is a man of rigid habits and an obsessive concern with punctuality and exactness in all things. The narrator suggests his background is rather unknown, but that he must have travelled in the past to give him his fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. He is unflappable to an extraordinary degree given that his entire fortune is in the balance, but we eventually see that he has hidden depths. Passepartout, in contrast, is volatile and constantly getting into scrapes, but on the other hand he soon develops strong feelings of loyalty to his master and shows true bravery on more than one occasion. Then there is Detective Fix, trailing Fogg whom he suspects of having robbed Baring Brothers bank on the day he left London so suddenly. Fix spends half the time trying to slow them down and the other half trying to speed them up since he can only arrest Fogg on British soil – and the book reminds us that British soil spreads fairly extensively across the world at this period. The fourth character is an Indian woman they pick up along the way, but I won’t say more about her because to tell her story would be a bit too spoilery.

The book starts a little slow, with a lot of concentration on timetables and dates and so on, and Fogg is not initially a very endearing character. He is interested only in achieving his aim of proving that the journey can be done in the time – he has no interest in the places to which they travel other than how quickly he can get out of them again on the next leg of the trip. Europe gets barely a mention, Egypt is a passing blur, and it’s only really when they reach India that they begin to have adventures. But by that time, Passepartout and Fix have developed into entertaining characters, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, and they give the story the life and liveliness that Fogg’s cold mechanical persona lacks. It’s in India too, though, that for the first time we see signs of humanity beneath that British stiffness, and from there on gradually Fogg also becomes someone we care about.

From India to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, across America – sometimes ahead of the clock, sometimes behind. One adventure after another holds them back, each time throwing Passepartout into gloom and desperation but leaving Fogg unruffled and determined. And each adventure is more fun than the one before – storms and Sioux warriors, acrobats and opium dens, trains and steamships, polygamists and Parsees, and oodles of luck both good and bad. Will they make it back in time? Even though I knew the answer, I must admit I found the last fifty pages or so pretty heart-pounding, and joined Passepartout on his emotional roller-coaster ride between despair and euphoria. And the end is brilliantly done, misdirection and twists abounding!

Jules Verne

The new translation by William Butcher in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent – flowing and fun. His rather scholarly introduction left me somewhat befuddled, in truth. As always, I read the book first, and imagine my surprise on being told that it’s full of sexual innuendo and “brazen homosexual overtures” between the three male characters. I missed all of that! Even though he’s now told me it’s there, nope, I don’t see it. Maybe he’s right – in fact, since he’s a Verne expert and I’m not, I’m willing to assume he is right – but then, on the other hand… sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Butcher goes so far as to say “the book is not designed for callow adolescents”. Hmm, I was probably a callow adolescent when I first read it, and I don’t think it corrupted my innocence! I did enjoy Butcher saying that Verne had portrayed the Mormons as an “erotico-religious group” though – I missed that too…

So an excellent adventure story suitable for all ages, or a walk on the wild side of sexual psychology, depending on whether you believe me or Butcher. Either way, highly entertaining – great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Book 5 of 20

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Confession time…

…aka The TBL List…

Whenever I mention that I don’t include audiobooks on my TBR list, some of my dear blog buddies respond with derision, pointed fingers and accusations of cheating. And, do you know, I do think they have a point! I tend to go through little spates of listening to audiobooks, very slowly, and then I get fed up and stop for a while. I suspect when I originally created my notorious TBR spreadsheet I was in one of these off-periods, so it simply didn’t occur to me to include them.

Also, I don’t really think of listening to audiobooks as reading, as such. It’s a different art form for me, more akin to films or TV, where the performance of the narrator is at least as important as the text they’re narrating. This is why I so often listen to audio versions of books I already know well and love, because the art of a good narrator gives them back some of the freshness that repeated re-readings may have staled. It’s also why I abandon audiobooks very quickly if the narrator and I don’t gel – in those circumstances, I’d far rather be reading a paper book.

However, a (joking) comment from Sandra questioning the fairness of me omitting audiobooks from my TBR but including them towards achievement of my various targets and challenges got me thinking. I don’t think I’m ready to put my unlistened-to audiobooks into my TBR, but I should probably confess to being the proud possessor of a To-Be-Listened-to spreadsheet to complement the To-Be-Read one.

Over the years, I’ve taken out and cancelled an Audible subscription several times, as the slow speed at which I get through audiobooks means that even at the most basic level of subscription I quickly build up a backlog of books and unused credits, especially since I tend to pick up loads of the Daily Deals while I’m a member. I’m in the middle of a subscription period at the moment so the TBL is rising exponentially! The current figure is…

47

That may not sound too bad until you consider that I rarely listen to more than maybe ten or twelve books in a whole year.

So what’s on the list? Primarily lots of classics, mostly ones I’ve read before, where the narrator appeals. I still have several Joan Hickson readings of Miss Marple books but have run short of Hugh Fraser’s readings of the Poirots so have to restock on them. I have quite a few of Jonathan Cecil’s versions of the Jeeves and Wooster books, which are a standby for grey days. I also have a few contemporary novels, but these rarely work as well for me in this format, so I try to avoid giving in to temptation.

The Longest

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy read by David Horovitch – 38 hours. Added on 25/8/2012 and frankly may remain on the list for a good while yet!

The Shortest

The Tales of Max Carrados by Ernest Bramagh narrated by Stephen Fry – 1½ hours. Added 16/12/2015. I think there are only four stories in this short audiobook. I believe the written version contains more and coincidentally is on my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge list, so I’ll listen to these ones while reading the others.

The Oldest

Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse narrated by Jonathan Cecil – 7 hours. Added 16/10/11. I’ve listened to this one before, but put it back on the list for a re-listen because I love it so much!

The Newest

The last two I’ve acquired kinda work as a pair…

Dracula by Bram Stoker narrated by Greg Wise with Saskia Reeves. 18 hours. The reviews rave about Wise’s narration and I’ve been meaning to re-read this for ages. One for spooky season, I think!

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor narrated by Barry McGovern with Anna Chancellor.

The blurb says: Shadowplay explores the characters whose loves and lives inspired Dracula.

1878. The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.

This turned up as a Daily Deal just after I’d acquired Dracula, so seemed too serendipitous to be resisted!

Other highlights

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy narrated by Alan Rickman. 15 hours. Alan Rickman! Need I say more?

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome narrated by Ian Carmichael. 6 hours. Carmichael, who used to be my favourite TV Bertie Wooster till Hugh Laurie stole that honour, seems perfect for this book.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë narrated by Patricia Routledge. 14 hours. Routledge, however, seems totally wrong for this one, but the reviews overwhelmingly rave about her performance, so I’m more than ready to be won over!

Just started

Dark Fire by CJ Sansom narrated by Steven Crossley. 19 hours. The second book in the Shardlake series, my favourite historical fiction series of all time. Having loved Crossley’s narration of the first book, Dissolution, I’m proposing to listen to the entire series, although, since each book is longer than the last, this could well take some time!

The Blurb says: It is 1540 and the hottest summer of the 16th century. Matthew Shardlake, believing himself out of favour with Thomas Cromwell, is busy trying to maintain his legal practice and keep a low profile. But his involvement with a murder case, defending a girl accused of brutally murdering her young cousin, brings him once again into contact with the king’s chief ministerand a new assignment.

The secret of Greek Fire, the legendary substance with which the Byzantines destroyed the Arab navies, has been lost for centuries. Now an official of the Court of Augmentations has discovered the formula in the library of a dissolved London monastery. When Shardlake is sent to recover it, he finds the official and his alchemist brother brutally murderedthe formula has disappeared. Now Shardlake must follow the trail of Greek Fire across Tudor London, while trying at the same time to prove his young client’s innocence. But very soon he discovers nothing is as it seems…

So there it is – the TBL!

Are you a fan of audiobooks?
Do any of the ones on my list take your fancy?

The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

Book 65 of 90

In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake 1) by CJ Sansom

Monastic murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is the time of the Reformation, when Henry VIII has ordered his henchman Thomas Cromwell to strip the monasteries of everything valuable and then destroy them. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and one of the commissioners who are tasked with inspecting the monasteries prior to their dissolution. But now Cromwell has a different task for him. While acting as commissioner at the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Robert Singleton has been brutally murdered and an act of sacrilege has been carried out in the church. Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate…

This is the first of the Shardlake books, a series which has been a firm favourite of mine for many years. Sansom seemed to spring fully formed onto the stage of historical fiction, setting exceptionally high standards with this first novel. As a historian, he clearly knows the period inside out, and Shardlake – a decent man trying to navigate his way through the murky manoeuvrings of the Tudor monarchs and their ever-shifting cast of right-hand men – is an excellent guide.

In this first book, Shardlake is a convinced Reformer. Cromwell may be rough and ready, a rare commoner in the corridors of power, but Shardlake believes that Cromwell too is working for the cause of reform, although he understands that Cromwell has to compromise occasionally to keep his Royal master’s favour. However, during his time in Scarnsea, Shardlake will learn many things that make him question Cromwell’s integrity and the morality of his own role in doing Cromwell’s bidding. He will also see the human cost of the dissolution of the monasteries – elderly monks and monastery servants thrown out onto the streets to fend for themselves in a world with no place for them. While intellectually he feels that the Catholic church has long abused its power and should be brought down, he finds himself sympathising with those of the monks who refuse to recant from the form of religion to which they have devoted their lives, even in the face of the King’s wrath.

But Sansom also shows us the corruption within the monasteries, both financial and moral, which Henry used as an excuse for his campaign against them. And in turn, we see how Henry used the fabulous wealth he looted from the Church to consolidate his own power by lavishing his cronies with the land and great houses that had belonged to the abbeys and monasteries. While Shardlake remains true to the new religion, we see the first signs of the doubts that will eventually lead him to take a more cynical view of the process of Reformation.

All this history is mainly why I love the Shardlake books, I’ve learned more from them than from all the weighty history books I’ve read over the years because Sansom has a true gift for humanising the history. His characters are of their time – he never allows anachronisms to creep in, either in language or in his characters’ thoughts. In this one, homosexuality features, since it was one of the accusations regularly used against the monasteries. Sansom avoids giving Shardlake 21st century opinions on the subject, but also allows him to have a level of sympathy with what he sees as a moral weakness rather than an unforgivable sin. It’s done very well, so that it feels true to the time but doesn’t make for uncomfortable reading for a modern audience.

CJ Sansom

However Sansom also realises the importance of strong plots and this one is excellent. He rarely takes us directly into court circles, but the plots usually have something to do with the main events of the Tudor period. I won’t go into this one too deeply for fear of spoilers, but one of the monks is related to the recently deceased Jane Seymour, giving a certain sensitivity to the investigation, while later it appears that there may be some kind of link back to the time of Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell’s betrayal of this woman who helped him come to power. Shardlake has the first of several assistants who appear throughout the series – Mark Poer, a young man whose career is already blighted by a scandalous liaison with a lady of the court. We also meet Brother Guy, the Moorish monk whose discussions with Shardlake allow Sansom to lay out the religious differences of the time.

I listened to it this time round, narrated by Steven Crossley who does an excellent job, providing the monks with a wide range of regional accents all sounding completely authentic. There are few women characters in this one, but those that there are, he does very well. Having thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this one through audio, I’ll now be happily looking forward to listening to the rest of the series over the coming months – or years, perhaps, since each book is exponentially longer than the last!

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Six Degrees of Separation – From Hustvedt to…

Chain links…

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

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. I haven’t read it but the blurb tells me…

This is the story of two men who first become friends in 1970s New York, of the women in their lives, of their sons, born the same year, and of how relations between the two families become strained, first by tragedy, then by a monstrous duplicity which comes slowly and corrosively to the surface.

Sounds rather good! Nothing like a bit of monstrous duplicity to get a plot going!

My first pick is to another book set in New York…

Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell. It’s 1958, and in the hipster scene of Greenwich Village we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden, a young woman determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff who thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big. And Miles, a black man just about to graduate from Columbia, and working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. When their lives intersect, a chain of events is started that will change the courses of their lives. Great writing from one of my favourite young authors.

Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.

An entirely different kind of meal in my next choice…

The Dinner by Herman Koch. Paul and Claire meet for dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette quite often but, on this occasion, things are more tense than usual because the two families need to talk about an incident involving their children. When it becomes obvious they’re not going to agree on how to handle the situation, the tension begins to grow and the conventions of polite behaviour begin to fall apart. The question the book asks is – how far would you go to protect your children? Disturbing, morally twisted and darkly funny.

Now that we’re at dinner, it’s time to pick the meal…

Braised Pork by An Yu. One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred. An excellent debut!

Even vegetarians would admit that the pigs in my next selection deserve to become pork…

Animal Farm by George Orwell. Inspired by a dream, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

This allegorical fable didn’t work quite as well for mature FF as it did long ago for young FF. But on both readings it was the story of Boxer the horse who caused the most sniffling. There’s another Boxer in my next choice…

The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens. We meet little Mrs. Peerybingle, Dot as she is known affectionately to her husband John, as she waits for said husband to return home from his work as a carrier. Dot is a young thing, very young indeed, and John is well into middle-age, but despite this disparity they seem an idyllically happy couple, especially now they have their own little Baby to make their lives complete. The little house is blessed by having a resident Cricket which lives on the hearth and chirps merrily when all is well. But this contented little household is about to be shaken to its core. A stranger arrives who seems to disturb Dot’s usually cheerful state of mind…

Boxer is Mr Peerybingle’s lovely dog, who adds much fun to the proceedings…

He had business elsewhere; going down all the turnings, looking into all the wells, bolting in and out of all the cottages, dashing into the midst of all the Dame Schools, fluttering all the pigeons, magnifying the tails of all the cats, and trotting into the public-houses like a regular customer. Wherever he went, somebody or other might have been heard to cry, “Halloa! here’s Boxer!”

My last pick involves a different kind of cricket…

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga. Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. Adiga’s writing is always pure pleasure to read, insightful and serious but always uplifted by delicious touches of humour…

“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 from Hustvedt to Adiga via New York, mealtimes, meals, pigs, Boxers, and cricket.

Hope you enjoyed the journey! 😀

Flemington by Violet Jacob

Clash of loyalties….

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Archie Flemington was brought up at Ardguys in Fife by his grandmother, Christian. She has made him into a Whig, violently opposed to the deposed Stuarts whom she once served but now hates. Under cover of his real talent as a painter, Archie is a government spy. Now Bonnie Prince Charlie is in Scotland once again, leading the Jacobites in rebellion against the Hanoverian king (or usurper, depending which side you were on). Archie inveigles his way into the household of Lord Balnillo, a retired judge who is known to have Jacobite leanings, although he hasn’t come “out” for the rebels. It’s actually Lord Balnillo’s brother, James Logie, who is Archie’s real target, though – a man suspected of actively aiding the rebellion. It’s for Archie to find out what Logie is up to, and to get proof of his treason if he can. But Archie finds in Logie a decent, honourable man, the type of man he would be proud to call friend, and suddenly he is torn between duty and this unexpected liking for his enemy…

This is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but with enough depth to make it rather more than a simple romance. The Jacobite rebellions were such a major event in Scottish history that they have been used over and over by authors, and are often reinterpreted according to the contemporary view of Scotland’s relationship with England. Jacob sits somewhere in the middle – writing in 1911, some 160 years after the events, she isn’t obliged to look nervously over her shoulder at a Hanoverian government still wary of a Stuart comeback, but she also avoids the over-romanticisation of the Jacobites in which many authors have indulged over the years. Although I felt she was rather on the side of the Hanoverians overall, she shows that there was honour, and dishonour, on both sides.

Christian Flemington is a great character, cold and autocratic – a Lady Macbeth using her grandson as a weapon to get revenge for old grievances. She loves Archie but expects total obedience to her will and sees any opposition as personal disloyalty. So when Archie begins to sympathise with Logie, she has no hesitation in giving him a choice – do as she bids or be cut off from her and from his home forever. Archie also loves his grandmother, making his choice doubly hard.

Book 64 of 90

Archie himself is a likeable character and brings some humour and lightness to what is essentially a dark story of civil war and betrayal. He and Christian together give an idea of the differences between the generations – the old guard still strongly divided over the deposition of the Stuarts; the younger ones, despite this being the time of the last desperate throw of the Stuart dice, perhaps looking more to a future where those divisions can be forgotten and the country united.

The story is well told, with Archie’s dilemma giving it a good deal of moral ambiguity. The writing is excellent, in standard English with only a tiny amount of Scots appearing occasionally in dialogue. Jacob is a little weaker in the action sequences, failing on the whole to create an atmosphere of drama, but this is a small part of the book so it didn’t drag it down overall. The main strength is the characterisation, not only of the lead characters, but of the several secondary characters who play a part in the plot. Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night, with Logie and the marvellous Skirlin’ Wattie, the bagpiping beggar who has his own secret – a character almost Dickensian in his eccentricity, and a wonderful mix of comic and tragic.

The occupant of the cart was an elderly man, whom accident had deprived of the lower part of his legs, both of which had been amputated just below the knee. He had the head of Falstaff, the shoulders of Hercules, and lack of exercise had made his thighs and back bulge out over the sides of his carriage, even as the bag of his pipes bulged under his elbow. He was dressed in tartan breeches and doublet, and he wore a huge Kilmarnock bonnet with a red knob on the top. The lower half of his face was distended by his occupation, and at the appearance of Flemington by the gate, he turned on him, above the billows of crimson cheek and grizzled whisker, the boldest pair of eyes that the young man had ever met. He was a masterly piper, and as the tune stopped a murmur of applause went through the audience.

Violet Jacob
(c) Angus Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It reminded me throughout of The Flight of the Heron, a trilogy I loved in my teens. However this one came first, so it’s possible that DK Broster, writing in the 1920s, may have been influenced by this. Each book is basically about the friendship between two men on opposite sides of the rebellion, but this is darker and less romanticised. In truth, I enjoyed The Flight of the Heron more, but I think this one is probably truer in terms of characterisation and culture, and the writing probably has more literary weight, though it’s a long time since I read The Flight of the Heron so I may be doing it an injustice. Both books have what seem to modern eyes like unmistakeable gay subtexts, but truly I think it used to be possible to actually love people of the same gender without sex coming into it. Who knows what the authors intended? And, frankly, who cares? Both are great stories whichever way you choose to read them. I enjoyed Flemington very much and recommend it, but if you only intend to read one book about the Jacobites in your life, then make it the Broster trilogy – OK, that’s three books, but you know what I mean…

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TBR Thursday 244…

A ninth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge, and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far. Here’s the second batch for 2020 and the ninth overall – some well known names in this batch!

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

This will be my introduction to Hugh Walpole. It sounds dark and pretty terrifying – I may need to wake the porpy up for company…

The Blurb says: As boys, Jimmie Tunstall was John Talbot’s implacable foe, never ceasing to taunt, torment, and bully him. Years later, John is married and living in a small coastal town when he learns, much to his chagrin, that his old adversary has just moved to the same town. Before long the harassment begins anew until finally, driven to desperation, John murders his tormentor. Soon he starts to suffer from frightening hallucinations and his personality and physical appearance begin to alter, causing him increasingly to resemble the man he killed. Is it merely the psychological effect of his guilt, or is it the manifestation of something supernatural—and evil? The tension builds until the chilling final scene, when the horrifying truth will be revealed about the killer—and the slain.

Challenge details

Book No: 101

Subject Heading: The Way Ahead

Publication Year: 1942

Martin Edwards says: The Killer and the Slain is a compelling novel, very distantly reminiscent of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), yet distinctive in its treatment of cruelty and murderous obsession…

* * * * *

The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

The British Library has re-issued several books by Bude now. It took me a bit of time to warm up to him but I loved the last couple I’ve read, so am looking forward to this one with great anticipation…

The Blurb says: Two brothers, John and William Rother, live together at Chalklands Farm in the beautiful Sussex Downs. Their peaceful rural life is shattered when John Rother disappears and his abandoned car is found. Has he been kidnapped? Or is his disappearance more sinister – connected, perhaps, to his growing rather too friendly with his brother’s wife?

Superintendent Meredith is called to investigate – and begins to suspect the worst when human bones are discovered on Chalklands farmland. His patient, careful detective method begins slowly to untangle the clues as suspicion shifts from one character to the next.

Challenge details

Book No: 35

Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden

Publication Year: 1936

Edwards says: “The Rother family farmhouse, Chalklands, and the surrounding area are convincingly realised, and in keeping with Golden Age tradition, a map is supplied to help readers to follow the events of the story after John Rother goes missing, in circumstances which at first (but deceptively) seem reminiscent of the disappearance of Agatha Christie…

* * * * *

Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by H Bustos Domecq

I’m not sure about this one at all – it sounds like a bit of a mish-mash from the blurb, and perhaps trying to be too clever. But low expectations mean that if it surprises me, it can only be in a good way!

The Blurb says: The first fruit of the collaboration of Borges and his long-time friend Bioy-Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi appeared originally under the pseudonym of H. Bustos Domecq. “Bugsy’s” prose style is not quite the style of either of the collaborators, but in this volume, at least, “he never got out of hand,” as Borges complained he did later.

In the first story, Parodi, who is himself in jail for homicide, is visited by a young man who seeks his help in solving a particularly baffling murder. In the second story, a killing takes place aboard an express train. One of the characters is a writer named Gervasio Montenegro, whom the discerning reader will identify as author of the book’s expressive foreword. In “Tadeo Limardo’s Victim,” a murdered man prepares for his own death. “Tai An’s Long Search” is a variation on Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” In “Free Will and the Commendatore,” a cuckold takes elaborate and invisible revenge.

Challenge details

Book No: 98

Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes

Publication Year: 1942

Edwards says: “In-jokes abound; some are lost on a modern British reader, while Montenegro’s anti-Semitism represents the authors’ scorn for racism; Nazi-supporting extremists had previously suggested that Borges was secretly Jewish, and not a ‘true’ Argentinian… 

* * * * *

The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham

I’ve never learned to love Margery Allingham though I don’t hate her stuff either. Maybe this will be the one that turns me into a wholehearted fan. Certainly the title is a major attraction!

The Blurb says: Private detective Albert Campion is summoned to the village of Kepesake to investigate a particularly distasteful death. The body turns out to be that of Pig Peters, freshly killed five months after his own funeral. Soon other corpses start to turn up, just as Peter’s body goes missing. It takes all Campion’s coolly incisive powers of detection to unravel the crime.

The Case of the Late Pig is, uniquely, narrated by Campion himself. In Allingham’s inimitable style, high drama sits neatly beside pitch perfect black comedy. A heady mix of murder, romance, and the urbane detective’s own unglamorous past make this an unmissable Allingham mystery.

Challenge details

Book No: 25

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1937

Edwards says: “…the story is an example of Margery Allingham at her best. Its high spirits are not a means of disguising a thin plot, but complementary to an intriguing mystery. She was an unorthodox novelist, whose work was correspondingly uneven, but her admirers remain legion…”

* * * * *

All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When all the world was gay…

😦

I normally start a review with a little blurb giving an idea of what the book’s about. Unfortunately, despite having read 53% of this immensely overlong tome, I’m not at all sure if it’s about anything much at all. And I’m not enthusiastic enough to read the other 47% in the hopes of finding out.

It starts off pretty well, with a lengthy section set before World War 1. Young George Sawle has invited a fellow student from Cambridge to visit his family. Cecil Valance is already making a name for himself as a poet and George’s younger sister Daphne is romantically thrilled at the idea of meeting him. It’s quickly clear however that she will have to compete with her brother for Cecil’s attentions. At every opportunity the two of them, Cecil and George, go off to find a place they can be private together for a bit of still-illicit rumpy-pumpy. This doesn’t stop the lovely Cecil from flirting with 16-year-old Daphne and even on one occasion sexually assaulting her. Though maybe that was supposed to be a seduction scene – I can’t be sure. These things are often a matter of perspective. Meantime a friend of the family, Harry, whom everyone thinks is courting Daphne’s widowed mother, is in fact attempting to seduce Daphne’s other brother, Hubert.

It’s beautifully written and very evocative, not only of the period, but of all the books that have already been written about that period. Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between sprang immediately to my mind and other reviews mention Forster, Woolf, DH Lawrence, et al. Is it derivative, then? I’d say certainly, though I gave him the benefit of thinking it’s deliberately so. The idea that all the men were either actively gay or being pursued by gay men seemed a bit unlikely on a purely statistical basis, but I made allowances for fictional licence. At this point I thought it had the potential to be excellent.

Then suddenly it skips forward to 1926. Cecil, our main character, is dead. And yet there’s still 80% of the book to go. Not to worry! George is now married though still gay. Daphne is married too, but wants to have sex with another probably gay man, whom, let’s be honest, George wouldn’t mind having sex with either. But please don’t be thinking Hollinghurst discriminates – Daphne is also hit upon by a gay woman. I was still interested enough at this point since some of the original characters were still central, and this section is largely about how they all felt about Cecil, alive and dead. And the writing is still beautiful.

Then whoops! 40% and suddenly we leap forward again, this time to around 1960, I think. And all of a sudden we have two new central characters, Peter and Paul. They’re both gay, you’ll be amazed to learn. The descendants of the original families are still around but they’re mostly new to the reader too, since many of the original characters are now dead.

I simply lost interest at this point. Long descriptions of Paul’s job at a bank and Peter’s life as a master at a prep school did nothing for me, and frankly, just as much as it’s unrealistic to have no gay characters in fiction, it’s equally silly for the vast majority of the men to be gay. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance, but balance is a tricky thing – it’s so easy to lose, and credibility along with it. But much more importantly than that, there appears to be very little connecting plot holding the various sections together. Yes, Cecil’s house appears each time and yes, some characters continue to be related to him, but more distantly with each passing time jump. I suspect Hollinghurst may be making points about how society’s treatment of gay men changed over the last century, and perhaps also about how the reputations of poets tend to fluctuate as each new generation of critics re-assesses them. Maybe if I was willing to read the other six hours’ worth (according to my Kindle) all would become clear, but, I ask myself, do I care enough to do that? And I answer – nope. Oh, well. Still, it’s beautifully written.

It probably deserves four stars for the quality of the characterisation and lovely prose, but since it bored me into abandonment, one star is all it gets.

This was the winner of the inaugural People’s Choice poll, but since it was my fault for buying the thing back in 2012, I promise I don’t hold it against you, people. At least it’s off my TBR now. 😉

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Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

They do things differently there…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amina is the wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, married to him before she was fourteen. Now with her own children approaching adulthood, Amina prides herself on her docility and spends her life trying to be a perfect wife to Ahmad, a bullying husband and tyrannical father. This is the story of Amina and Ahmad and their five children, set to the backdrop of the end of WW1, the rise of nationalism and the dying days of colonial Egypt.

First published in 1956, it’s a historical novel, the first in Mahfouz’ Nobel Prize-winning Cairo Trilogy, describing a way of life that was already changing then and now seems positively archaic in its attitudes regarding the place of women and paternalistic power over children, even for a region that still has a very different cultural approach to these things than the West. It’s written in the third person, but the perspective shifts between the various family members so that we come to understand the inner thoughts and feelings of each. It’s remarkably unjudgemental – I can’t remember another book where I felt such a complete lack of the author’s personal views coming through. Mahfouz tells and shows every aspect of the society the characters operate in – the middle-class of Cairo, educated, prosperous but not rich, strictly traditional; but he leaves all evaluation of the characters to the reader. It took me quite a while to get used to this – I wanted anger against Ahmad and sympathy for his wife and children, but gradually I came to appreciate Mahfouz’ neutrality; it’s as if he’s saying, this is how it was, I merely show it to you with no modern interpretation to obscure it.

This is a family saga, the story concentrating mostly on the development of the characters of the children as they approach adulthood and the all-important question of marriage. Ahmad is old-fashioned even in his own time, and exerts strict control not only over his daughters but his sons too, determined that they will marry as he directs, for the honour and enrichment of the family. Happiness is something Ahmad doesn’t consider – his daughters should be docile enough to be happy with any man he chooses for them, and if his sons don’t like their wives, they can simply follow his example and lead most of their lives pursuing one exotic mistress after another. If the wife objects, then the matter is simply solved by the husband’s unilateral declaration of divorce and returning the obstreperous wife to her unwilling family. In Ahmad’s mind, and his society appears largely to agree with him (even the women), women neither have nor deserve any rights. This is not to say he doesn’t love his wife and daughters – he does, so long as they fulfil their duty of obedience to him.

Amina has two daughters, and has brought them up to see the life she has led as the desired and only possible life for a respectable woman. Marriage is essential – an unmarried woman serves no purpose in life and is merely a financial drain on her relatives. It is the fathers who arrange the marriage, or occasionally a mother if she is a widow and financially independent. Girls are selected primarily for their family connections, but beauty and feminine talents like housework and singing are important too. Aisha is the younger and prettier daughter and doesn’t lack suitors, but Ahmad is determined that his older, rather unattractive-looking daughter, Khadija, should marry first. When one of them is finally chosen, we see the mix of pride and fear of a girl making a good match, but to a husband she has never met. She will be removed from a home where the only men she has been allowed to meet are her father and brothers, and where her father has controlled every aspect of her life, to the home of a husband who will now become effectively her owner. Mahfouz does a wonderful job of showing all this from the female perspective – I never had that feeling of wrongness that sometimes comes through when an author of one gender writes from the perspective of the other. Mahfouz also shows through the daughters’ marriages that things are beginning to change – both girls find a little more freedom in their new homes than their old.

The sons, while still under strict control of their father, go out into the world, first to school and university and then into jobs. The youngest son is still a schoolboy in this first book of the trilogy, so although he plays his part, it’s relatively minor. The oldest son, Yasin, from Ahmad’s first marriage, struggles with the shame he feels is brought on him by his mother’s failure to be submissive enough to keep her husband. He is a chip off the old block – a womaniser with a penchant for exotic mistresses, and no interest in much beyond his own pleasure. The middle boy, Fahmy, gets involved with the Nationalist movement at university, so it’s through him that we catch a glimpse of the political situation. It’s a fairly understated glimpse though – I think Mahfouz probably assumed his readership would know the history of Egypt’s struggle for independence, so he doesn’t go into it in any great detail, using it instead to show its impact on the people we’ve come to know, especially Fahmy.

Naguib Mahfouz

It took me a long time to feel involved with this family and their community but once I did I became completely absorbed in the slow telling of their lives. Usually I’d be more interested in the out-going, more political lives of the sons, but in this case I found myself fascinated by Mahfouz’ depiction of the lives and feelings of the women – the total seclusion and lack of agency, and the way that the mothers themselves trained their daughters to accept, conform and even be contented with this half-life. Generational brainwashing, of course, but then aren’t we all subject to that? Mahfouz left me reflecting uneasily that we too are brainwashed – that we see our Western values as better simply because our mothers and our society teach us to, and most of us individually never question that nor dispute it for fear of being ostracised. I felt it was the power of Mahfouz’ neutrality that in the end made it impossible for me to judge this society as harshly as I was ready to do when I began. A deserved classic, and for once a Nobel Prize-winning novel that I feel merits that accolade. I look forward to reading the other two volumes in the trilogy.

Apologies for the length of the review but, in my defence, it’s a long book!

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The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – This edition isn’t out yet in the US but can be pre-ordered here

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Why hadn’t the explorers known by looking at the sky that the world was round? The sky was curved, like the inside of a huge glass ball, very dark blue with the sprinkles of bright stars. The night was quiet. There was the smell of warm cedars. She was not trying to think of the music at all when it came back to her. The first part happened in her mind just as it had been played. She listened in a quiet, slow way and thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear and she would not forget them.

~The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

* * * * *

….Through the window of the bar parlour the short red face of Mr. Clark could be seen peering after the lorry. It carried some country policeman in uniform. As near the pond as it could get, it stopped. The policemen clambered down and hauled out a cumbrous apparatus of iron and rope.
….The Chief Constable strode up to the pond. “It’s not so big, Mr. Fortune. We’ll soon make sure one way or the other.”
….“Yes, yes.” Reggie walked around the bank and measured distances with his eye. “We’re going to make quite sure. They couldn’t throw him further than this. Begin from here and work towards that end.”
….The drags were put in and the constabulary hauled and the black water grew turbid and yellow. The ropes strained. “Got something,” the Chief Constable grunted. “Go steady, lads.” Out of the depths of the pond into the shallows came a shapeless mass of cloth. Policemen splashed in and lifted on to the bank something that had been a man.

~The Football Photograph by HC Bailey, in Settling Scores

* * * * *

….“We want a cheap loaf, cheap bread and provisions cheaper!”
….From the back came a song, quiet at first then louder as we all joined in.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common off the goose.

….All of us singing. I hadn’t known the words before I went in, but they were fixed pretty straight by the time I came out.
….I crossed the street, humming the tune and the thought of a good roast goose dinner in my head. I’d have it with sausages or a thick slice of bacon. I didn’t mind. Bacon. My tummy near collapsed at the thought. And peas. All the peas I could eat.
….It was punishing to think of.
….All the singing in the world couldn’t hide a thing. I was hard hungry. And I was no nearer to being fed.

~The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

* * * * *

….When he writes of the siege of St Andrews Castle Knox can be pacily exciting, but here his tone is warmly hagiographical. He dramatizes Wishart’s words effortlessly. Knox’s plain prose is quickened by biblical phrasings, spiced by local and temporal details like the dyke at the edge of the moor and the pleasant sunshine. In such vignettes Knox writes like a proto-novelist. His wish to manipulate history seems to prepare the soil for the historical novel which would take strong root in Scotland centuries later in the age of Walter Scott. Elsewhere, as Knox delights in flourishing long transcripts of his own arguments and speeches, the reader is soon wearied by his hectoring egotism and realizes that for this man a three-hour sermon might have been on the short side.

~Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

* * * * *

….At last we were at the cathedral. Its great grey front, embellished with hundreds of statues and boasting a pair of the finest oak doors in Europe, rose for the first time before me, and the sudden sense of my audacity almost overcame me. Everything was in a mist as I dismounted. I saw the Marshall and Sapt dimly, and dimly the throng of gorgeously robed priests who awaited me. And my eyes were still dim as I walked up the great nave, with the pealing of the organ in my ears. I saw nothing of the brilliant throng that filled it, I hardly distinguished the stately figure of the Cardinal as he rose from the archiepiscopal throne to greet me. Two faces only stood out side by side clearly before my eyes – the face of a girl, pale and lovely, surmounted by a crown of the glorious Elphberg hair (for in a woman it is glorious), and the face of a man, whose full-blooded red cheeks, black hair, and dark deep eyes told me that at last I was in presence of my brother, Black Michael. And when he saw me his red cheeks went pale all in a moment, and his helmet fell with a clatter on the floor. Till that moment, I believe that he had not realised that the king was in very truth come to Strelsau.

~The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

* * * * *

So… are you tempted?

Six Degrees of Separation – From Treloar to…

Chain links…

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

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. Haven’t read this one but here’s what the blurb tells us…

For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

It has glowing reviews, but I don’t think it’s one for me. Ignoring the pesky ‘e’, I’m jumping to another title with a wild creature in it…

The Lion Wakes by Robert Low. Set in the turbulent period of Scottish history of Wallace and Bruce, this book gives an unvarnished and unromanticised picture of the still almost barbarian life in Scotland then. No great patriots here, fighting for independence. The picture instead is of a group of scheming aristocrats, plotting how best to gain more land and wealth for themselves, and willing to destroy both the land and the common people to achieve their ends. I thoroughly enjoyed this claymore-and-kilt adventure, especially since it has a lot of excellent Scottish dialect.

And following a theme, on to another with a wild creature in the title…

Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell. When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. Earl offers two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada, jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage citizens as more than a comic-book threat. A great book from one of my newest favourite authors.

Next in this month’s menagerie…

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago. King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that the elephant Solomon would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna. Not much depth to this one, but it’s quite entertaining…

Not sure which of these counts as the wildest – man or beast…

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. Great fun – full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama!

One of my many grievances with the next one is that it takes 93% of the book before we finally catch sight of the eponymous creature of the wild ocean…

Moby-Dick; or, The White Whale by Herman Melville. Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick. Off we go, searching for that pesky whale through every ocean, sea and puddle in the world, talking cod Shakespearian and fantasising about the sensual aspects of whale blubber! Gosh, I enjoyed dreading this book, then hating it and writing a scathing review – not to mention the fun I had pastiching it! I miss that old monster of the deep…

And back to the jungle for my last wild beast…

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness.

* * * * *

So Treloar to Choo, via wolves, lions, eagles, elephants, apes, whales and tigers!

Hope you enjoyed the safari. 😀

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Now, thirty years after it all ended, the Slow seemed the most natural thing in the world. It felt quaint to imagine people reacting to it with shock.
….Hopper knew she was one of the last ‘before’ children: born four years before the planet’s rotation finally stopped. She was a rarity. There had been plenty born since, of course, but the birth rate had plummeted in those final years. The world had paused, waiting for the cataclysm, and those children already young had been treated like royalty – fed well, treated whenever possible, as if in premature apology for a spoiled planet their parents could not mend.
….But during those years, new children were perceived at best as an extravagance, at worst as a cruelty. Why bring a child into a world winding itself down? The chaos and shortages at the end of the Slow had kept the planet’s libido in check.

~The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

* * * * *

….Mrs. Dreed was not a housekeeper; she was an atmosphere. She was a chill wind blowing down a corridor. A draught under the door. A silence descending on a cocktail party. A shadow on the grass. Mrs. Dreed was always present before she was actually noticed. A premonitory shiver went down the spine, a turn of the head, and there she was – tall, gaunt and usually disapproving. Her dresses were severe and tubular. She wore them with the air of a prison wardress. If Sam’s theatrical guests, in a general sense, be looked upon as Royalists, then Mrs. Dreed was without question the Roundhead in their midst.

~Death in White Pyjamas by John Bude

* * * * *

….The divisiveness of the new ideologies could turn brothers into faceless strangers and trade unionists or shop owners into class enemies. Normal human instincts were overridden. In the tense spring of 1936, on his way to Madrid University, Julián Marías, a disciple of the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, never forgot the hatred in the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down onto the pavement. ‘We’ve really had it,’ Marías said to himself. ‘When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.’

~The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor

* * * * *

….His wife replied very emotionally, “No man has ever seen either of my daughters since they stopped going to school when they were little girls.”
….He struck his hands together and shouted at her, “Not so fast…. Slow down. Do you think I have any doubts about that, woman? If I did, not even murder would satisfy me. I’m just talking about what will go through the minds of some people who don’t know us. ‘No man has ever seen either of my daughters…’ God’s will be done. Would you have wanted a man to see them? What a crazy prattler you are. I’m repeating what might be rumoured by fools. Yes… he’s an officer in the area. He walks along our streets morning and evening. So it’s not out of the question that people, if they learned he was marrying one of the girls, would suspect that he might have seen one of them. I would despise giving my daughter to someone if that meant stirring up doubts about my honour. No daughter of mine will marry a man until I am satisfied that his primary motive for marrying her is a sincere desire to be related to me… me… me… me…”

~Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

* * * * *

….“Well, let me tell you, Jeeves, and you can paste this in your hat, shapeliness isn’t everything in this world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the more curved and lissome the members of the opposite sex, the more likely they are to set Hell’s foundations quivering. Do you recall telling me once about someone who told somebody he could tell him something which would make him think a bit? Knitted socks and porcupines entered into it, I remember.”
….“I think you may be referring to the ghost of the father of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, sir. Addressing his son, he said ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’”
….“That’s right. Locks, of course, not socks. Odd that he should have said porpentine when he meant porcupine. Slip of the tongue, no doubt, as often happens with ghosts.”

~Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse

* * * * *

So… are you tempted?

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

Downfall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of Ira Ringold, a Jew from Newark who becomes a big star on radio and then is destroyed in the period of the McCarthy witch-hunts. This is the story of a failed marriage; of toxic family relationships; of male adolescence and male role models and masculinity; of morality and its lack; of ageing; of literature; of anti-Semitism; of politics; of fanaticism; of hypocrisy; of betrayal. This is the story of a particular America in a particular time and place; a story that presages the America of today.

I Married a Communist is the second volume of what is known as Roth’s American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral, which I declared to be The Great American Novel, and followed by The Human Stain. They are not a trilogy in the sense that the word tends to be used today – each of these stands complete on its own, connected only in the sense that the three together are Roth’s attempt to make sense of America at the end of the 20th century by looking back over the decades of the mid-century. In each the story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a barely disguised alter-ego of Roth himself.

When Murray Ringold, once Nathan’s English teacher and later friend, and now an old man, attends a summer school at the university where Zuckerman, himself now a man in his 60s, teaches, they spend the evenings together, and over the course of the week Murray tells Zuckerman the story of his younger brother, Ira. Nathan knew Ira too once, when Nathan was young and impressionable and Ira was at his peak as a star and as a man. Ira was a formative influence on the young boy, a second father figure, and for a time he was the most important person in Nathan’s life. But as Nathan grew up he grew away from Ira, so although he knew in broad outline what had happened to him, this is the first time he has heard Ira’s later story in detail. As Murray fills in the gaps of Ira’s earlier and later life, Zuckerman also tells the reader of the man he knew, looking back with the eyes of age and experience and reassessing his youthful judgement of the man.

The story is simple and we are told near the beginning how Ira’s downfall came about. At the height of his stardom he married Eve Frame, once a Hollywood starlet and now also a radio star. The marriage was disastrous, for which Ira placed the blame squarely on Eve’s grown-up daughter Sylphid and on Eve’s weakness in letting Sylphid domineer over her. Eve may have felt that Ira’s penchant for infidelity had something to do with it, though. When Ira leaves her, Eve publishes a memoir of their marriage in which she claims he is a communist taking orders from the Kremlin and betraying America. In the McCarthy era, this accusation alone is enough to destroy Ira’s career. Part of what Murray will tell Nathan is how Ira reacted to his downfall and how the rest of his life played out.

But the story is to a large extent a vehicle for Zuckerman/Roth to dissect the various characters and the wider society. The question is not whether Ira was a communist – we know that he was – but why. He too, as Nathan with him, was influenced by an older man that he loved as a friend and mentor. But there’s a feeling that to him being a communist was an ego thing – something that separated him from the common herd, that allowed him to feel superior. Yes, he cared about those in society who were disadvantaged, but he also enjoyed the luxury and celebrity that came with his marriage to Eve even as he ranted against her and her friends. Nathan’s outgrowing of him is beautifully observed – as Nathan matures and goes off to college where he spends time with really educated and intelligent men, Ira diminishes in his eyes. Perhaps Ira’s tragedy is that he never outgrew his own mentor.

It has been claimed that Ira’s marriage to Eve is based on Roth’s own failed marriage to Claire Bloom, and that the book is a vicious response to Bloom’s memoirs in which she painted an unflattering picture of Roth. This may be so, but I don’t think it matters – it works at a literary level and in truth the reader – this reader, anyway – sympathises slightly more with Eve than with Ira, although both are weak and selfish. Through Eve, Roth goes into the question of Jewish self-hate – anti-Semitism practised by Jews themselves. I found this aspect fascinating – it was something I’d never considered before. Roth shows how this is a response to society’s anti-Semitism, where some Jews find it easier to try to hide their identity and join in rather than spend a lifetime battling prejudice. It made me think of African Americans “passing”, which in fact is the subject of The Human Stain.

Philip Roth
(Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Overall, this book doesn’t have quite the power or broad scope of American Pastoral. In some ways it feels more personal, as if it reflects Roth’s own life more intimately. The depiction of Nathan’s journey through adolescence feels lived – some at least of these reflections surely arise from Roth’s experiences as much as his alter-ego’s. Although Ira is the main focus, Zuckerman is very much central too, which isn’t really the case in American Pastoral. The young Nathan is an aspiring writer, allowing Roth to digress into his formative literary experiences, while the older Zuckerman is rather reclusive – an enigma left unsolved. It’s always dangerous to make direct links between fictional characters and their creators, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the literary aspects of Nathan’s development at least are drawn from Roth’s own, and they are full of interest and insight. I came away from it wishing that Murray Ringold, or Zuckerman, or Roth, had been my English teacher.

And I came away from the book wishing that Roth were here today to make sense for us of what has happened to bring America to its current state. This book goes some way to that, showing already the faultlines that have now become a gaping chasm into which the moderate centre seems to have fallen. A great writer, and an excellent book. It may not be The Great American Novel, but it’s certainly a great American novel.

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The Mugger (87th Precinct 2) by Ed McBain

Second book syndrome…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The detectives of the 87th Precinct are trying to catch a man who is mugging women in the streets of Isola, a district of the city that is clearly a fictionalised version of New York in which the series is set. The man is becoming more violent, often hitting the women even after he has stolen their valuables, and has the strange habit of finishing his assault by bowing and saying “Clifford thanks you, madam.” So far the detectives have little to go on, and the pressure ramps up when one girl, assumed to be Clifford’s latest victim, is found dead.

Having loved the first book in the series, Cop Hater, when I read it a couple of years ago, my expectations of this one were high. It is very readable, but suffers a bit from second book syndrome – McBain seems to be working out what to do with the characters he introduced us to in book 1, and there are so many detectives flitting in and out that it’s quite hard to keep track of who’s who. McBain’s plan was to have the series work as a kind of ensemble, with different detectives coming in and out of the spotlight in each story, and from my memory of reading several of the books long ago, he does succeed in this to a degree. But eventually he succumbed and made Steve Carella the recurring lead – the detective who was the main character in Cop Hater. Carella isn’t in this one, being off on his honeymoon, and his lack is felt.

As the story progresses, Patrolman Bert Kling comes to the fore. He was friends long ago with the brother-in-law of the dead girl, and the girl’s sister asks him to look into her murder. Although this is not the job of a patrolman, Bert feels obliged by friendship to try at least, and he also hopes that it might help him in his ambition to be promoted to detective.

The major problem with the story is that the solution is screamingly obvious. Maybe it wouldn’t have been back then – it’s always a problem to know with older books whether this was perhaps the first time a writer took a plot in this direction, but I fear it’s a plot we’ve all read too often now. My secondary problem was with the amount of violence in the book and its lack of credibility. My dad, who was a boxer, always used to scoff at Hollywood cowboy films where a man would be punched repeatedly in the face, hit over the head with a chair, be thrown over a bar and crash head-first into a wall lined with glasses and then get up, jump on his horse and gallop off after the bad guys, stopping only to kiss the heroine on his way out. While there are no horses nor indeed chairs in this book, the effect of the excessive violence and the characters’ reaction to it had the same effect on me. McBain seems to be using violence and police corruption to give the book its noir tone, whereas in Cop Hater he relied much more on creating an edgy atmosphere through great descriptions of the city.

So one for fans, but not one I would suggest as an introduction to the series for newcomers. The series ran for approximately ten thousand books – well, OK, over fifty – so there are plenty of others to choose from.

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Friday Frippery! The Case of the Twelve Red Roses

from the lost files of Sir Arthur Donan Coyle

My notes show that it was a raw, foggy February morning in 1893 as I hurried to my old friend Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in Baker Street in response to his urgent summons. The sun had given up the attempt to penetrate the sooty vapours that were choking the city, leaving it in a deep gloom despite the early hour, and the street lamps still burned. I was glad to reach my destination.

“Good morning, Holmes,” I said, as I made my way quickly to the welcoming fire in his room.

Holmes started, disturbed from a deep reverie. “Ah, Watson,” he said, “what do you make of this?”

I took the item from him and laughed. “Well, Holmes, a dozen red roses is not an unusual thing to see on February 14th, but I admit I am astounded that you should indulge in such a romantic gesture! May I enquire who is to be the lucky recipient?”

Holmes shook his head. “That, Watson, is the question! No, no, happily I am immune to the epidemic of love which plagues London at this time of year. These were brought to me by our old friend Lestrade. They were found earlier this morning in Piccadilly Circus, lying beside the body of a dead man. I have high hopes that Lestrade is finally developing some skill in detection.”

I looked at him enquiringly, and he continued:

“The obvious inference is that the roses belonged to either the victim or the murderer, but for once Lestrade has looked beyond the obvious! The signature on the card is “Richard” and a check of the victim’s pockets showed that his name was George Marshall, discounting him as the purchaser of the flowers. However, he was killed by an arrow and, with an astuteness I would not have expected, Lestrade realised that the murderer would therefore have been some distance from his victim, hence it would be improbable for him to have dropped the roses beside the body.”

“But, then, who…”

“Exactly, Watson. Who, indeed? If not the giver of the roses, then surely the recipient must have been present when the crime was committed. Come, Watson! An excellent day for a hunt! Cherchez la femme, my dear fellow, cherchez la femme!”

Stopping only to throw on his greatcoat and muffler, Holmes rushed from the house and hailed a passing hansom cab. We bundled in and the cabbie asked the question I too wished to have answered: “Where to, sir?”

“Mademoiselle Millie’s in Covent Garden,” Holmes replied, adding quietly to me “the florist whose name is on the card.”

The flower shop was an oasis of colour and scent in the dreary city and Mademoiselle Millie herself was the brightest bloom of all, her copper hair and sparkling green eyes giving a promise of spring after the long winter. She was able to tell us immediately who had bought the roses.

“Yes, sir, that would be Mr Richard Hillson, the young lawyer from the firm across the street. He’s a regular, sir – always roses, and always the same message ‘To my darling Jessica, whom I hope one day to call my wife. All my love, Richard.’ So romantic, sir!”

There was something about the way she blushed when she said romantic that made my heart beat a little faster. I was sorry when Holmes rushed me out of the shop, but I made a mental vow to purchase flowers for my surgery more often in future. The lawyer’s office was only a few steps away. We entered a bright and pleasant room and were greeted immediately by a polite, well-dressed young clerk. It was clear this business was flourishing. On enquiring after Mr Hillson, the clerk asked us to wait for a moment while he checked if the lawyer was free.

“Mr Hillson will see you now, gentlemen,” he said, and leading us along a panelled corridor, showed us in to a well-appointed office. As Mr Hillson rose to shake hands, two things were immediately apparent: firstly, that the young lawyer was an exceptionally handsome fellow and, secondly, that he was in a condition of some distress. Despite his best endeavours, he was unable to disguise the tremor in his hands nor the shocked expression in his eyes.

“I am Sherlock Holmes and this is my colleague, Dr Watson,” my companion said. “We have come to discuss the matter of the twelve red roses you bought this morning.”

He got no further. Hillson gave a great groan and buried his face in his hands. “I did it, Mr Holmes,” he said. “I killed him!”

Holmes frowned slightly and there was a short silence. Then he said: “Tell me the whole tale, young man. Who was this man to you? Why did you kill him? And how?”

The lawyer took a deep breath and stammered out his story as best he could. In short, George Marshall was the half-brother of Jessica, the woman Hillson had adored since they first met four years ago. On the death of their father, George had become Jessica’s legal guardian, and had refused outright to agree to allow the young couple to wed so that he could retain control of her inheritance. Hillson had waited patiently since under the terms of her father’s will, George’s guardianship would end on Jessica’s twenty-fifth birthday, still three years in the future. But, said Hillson, during a chance meeting in Piccadilly Circus, his patience had finally broken and in a moment of insanity, he had killed George.

“How?” asked Holmes again.

The young man looked up at Holmes’ stern face and for the first time seemed to hesitate. “Why… why… I stabbed him, Mr Holmes. In the chest.”

“With what?” Holmes’ demeanour remained unrelenting.

“With… with a pocket knife.”

Suddenly Holmes threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Come, come, Mr Hillson! It is as well you have taken to the legal profession and not to the stage. Though I suspect your career will be cut short if you will insist on confessing to crimes you did not commit! Now, tell me the truth – what happened this morning?”

“I cannot tell you more than I have,” said the young man with an air of quiet desperation. “I killed him and I will say so in court!”

“Then if you will not tell me, I must seek the truth elsewhere. Come, Watson! We must pay a visit to Miss Jessica Marshall.”

“There is no need, Mr Holmes – I am here.” A young woman had slipped quietly into the room unnoticed as we talked. Her lovely face showed signs of recent tears, but as she walked towards Holmes, her look and bearing were quietly resolute. “Richard is telling an untruth, but you must forgive him for he does it for my sake. I know you will understand the foolish things men sometimes do to protect those they… love.” She blushed prettily as she spoke the word, and glanced up at Holmes with a look of honest trust.

“Well, well, Miss Marshall. He shall be forgiven if, between you, you now manage to give a true account of this morning’s affair,” Holmes said kindly, leading the young woman to a chair by the small fireplace. Hillson sat next to her and clasped her little gloved hand in his. “You must say nothing, my dear,” he said. “You must trust entirely to me to know what is best in this matter.”

Miss Marshall smiled gently and patted his hand. “Oh, Richard. If you trusted me more, you would not have felt the need to lie. I didn’t kill George, and I know you didn’t either, so there is nothing to fear.” Then turning to Holmes, she began her statement.

Hillson had asked her to meet him at Piccadilly Circus early that morning – their usual rendezvous each Valentine’s Day, when the young lover would give her roses and they would remake the vows they had first given each other so long ago. But this year, George had followed her, and just as she arrived at the centre of the Circus where workmen were installing a new fountain, he had overtaken her, and insisted that she come home with him immediately. When she refused, he grasped her arm so tightly that she cried out in pain and one of the workmen approached to enquire if she needed assistance. At that, George released his grip and Miss Marshall took the opportunity to run into an alleyway and hide. Some minutes later, she crept back to see if Hillson was at the appointed place, and was horrified to see George lying on the ground with blood seeping from beneath his cloaked body.

Hillson took over the story at that point. Arriving just at that moment, he first saw George lying dead in the street, then, dropping the roses in his shock, he glanced up and saw Miss Marshall in the entrance to the alley. Making an entirely erroneous and, in less fraught circumstances, unforgivable assumption, he hissed at her to run away quickly and meet him later at his office and, shocked too, she complied. Hillson then saw that the workmen had begun to notice that something was amiss, so he fled too, and knew no more.

“You have both been foolish beyond words,” said Holmes, but then his sternness dissipated as he chuckled. “However, if there is one day in the year when lovers must be forgiven their folly, this is surely it. I promise you are safe from the law, and may I be the first to congratulate you? There is no longer a bar to your marriage, and that will cure your absurd romanticism as nothing else will!” We left them, seated with their hands clasped and heads close together, still stunned but with new joy budding in their hearts.

“But, Holmes,” I said rather peevishly, as we hailed a cab outside, “who killed George Marshall? And why?”

Telling the driver to take us to Piccadilly Circus, Holmes laughed. “I shall not tell you – I shall show you!” he replied.

The new fountain was to be a fine addition to the Circus. Atop the structure would stand wingèd Eros, God of Love, pointing his bow down Shaftesbury Avenue in honour of the old Earl.

When we arrived, we saw that the workmen had raised the statue onto the base and were in the process of making it secure. Holmes approached them and asked to speak to the man who had come to Miss Marshall’s assistance that morning. “That was me, sir,” said a middle-aged man with full whiskers which could not quite hide the anxiety on his face.

“So, my good man,” said Holmes, “tell me how Eros’ arrow found its way into the chest of the unfortunate George Marshall.”

The man gasped. “But how could you possibly know that, sir? It was an accident pure and simple. As our young apprentice was fixing it onto the statue, it just… slipped from his hand and flew through the air. Such a tragedy, and the boy so young. We all agreed to remove the arrow from the poor gentleman’s chest and say nothing – poor people like us don’t find much pity once the law becomes involved. Oh, sir, can’t you save him? We all know your reputation as a man who is kind to those who meant no harm.”

“Well, well, I daresay I’ll be able to come up with a story that will satisfy the police. But tell the lad to be more careful in future!”

“I will, sir, and thank’ee! Thank’ee!”

“So, Watson,” Holmes said as we began our walk back to Baker Street, “it may not be quite as tradition suggests, but once again Eros’ arrow has been the means of bringing together two young lovers. The Gods work in mysterious ways…” And he set off at a brisk pace, chuckling.

* * * * *

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!