Looking forward to…

Episode 12

Another selection in my occasional looks back at old reviews which I finished by saying something along the lines of “I’ll be looking forward to reading more of her work/this series/his books in the future” to see if I actually did read more and, if I did, did I like the ones I looked forward to as much as the ones that made me look forward to them?

Let’s see then…

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

First reviewed 24th June 2013. A story of hard men, violent crimes and deep humanity played out on the mean streets of 1970s Glasgow. McIlvanney’s use of language and dialect is brilliant, and his Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice. A place of contradictions, where love exists but doesn’t flourish, where loyalty is a product of fear and betrayal is met with uncompromising brutality. I said “I now fully understand why this book is considered the progenitor of the Tartan Noir genre – I can see it’s influence on so many of the current crop of Scottish crime writers, not to mention the early Taggart series – and I’m duly ashamed that it took me so long to get around to reading it.” Its five glowing stars ensured I’d be looking forward to reading more. But did I?

I certainly did! I started by reading the other two books in the Laidlaw trilogy – The Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties, and loved them just as much. I then moved on to McIlvanney’s literary fiction, for which he was perhaps better known in his heyday. I loved Docherty, the story of Tam Docherty, a miner at the beginning of the 20th century, determined that his son would rise out of the poverty of his heritage. The Kiln takes up the story of that original Tam’s grandson, another Tam, in the decades after WW2 – the first generation of his family to go to university. The two books combined are a wonderful study of the struggle of the Scottish working classes to use the twin tools of education and politics to drag themselves out of poverty. His wonderful short story collection, Walking Wounded, set the seal on his place as my favourite modern Scottish writer. I currently have The Big Man waiting on my TBR.

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The Square of Revenge by Pieter Aspe

First reviewed 30th June 2013. Commissioner Pieter Van In of the Bruges police is called in to a robbery in a jewellery store, and is stunned to discover that the burglars haven’t stolen anything; instead they have dissolved the jewellery in a vat of aqua regis and left behind a note with a mysterious Latin inscription. This is a fairly light-hearted crime novel, and although I only gave it four stars I said “I certainly found this one enjoyable enough to look out for more in the series when they are translated” But did I?

I did! And I wish I hadn’t! The next and last one I read was The Midas Murders, and I titled my 1-star review “Dull and Derogatory”. I don’t know what happened between the two books but this one was not only tedious and badly written, but also salacious and misogynistic. I offer you one quote that I think will prove my case…

Van In shrugged his shoulders indifferently. The thought of Veronique made him horny. What was he to do? His body reacted to the bitch like a hungry baby to a juicy breast.

Needless to say, Aspe was immediately evicted from my Looking Forward list – ugh! An argument for book-burning.

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The Never List by Koethi Zan

First reviewed 3rd July 2013. Darker and more disturbing than my usual crime fare, I nevertheless found this one a real page-turner. It’s about two women, survivors of abduction, imprisonment and abuse, who set out to prove that their abuser is also a murderer. I said “One of the best thrillers I’ve read this year, it’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Highly recommended, and I’ll be adding Zan to my ‘must read’ list.” But did I?

I did! Unfortunately her second novel, The Follower, wasn’t nearly as good. It started out well but then lost all pretence at credibility until it eventually became almost farcical at the end. I described the problem as being “too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation”. I gave it what I feel in retrospect was a generous 3 stars and hoped that now she’d got the tricky second novel out of the way she’d get back on track in the next one. But she dropped off my list. That was in 2017, and on checking now, I see she hasn’t published anything since. That’s a pity – I do think she has a lot of talent and practice makes perfect! I hope she hasn’t given up entirely.

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After the Lockout by Darran McCann

First reviewed 5th July 2013. Victor Lennon, hero of the failed Easter Uprising of 1916, returns to his home town in Armagh to look after his drunken father at the behest of Stanislaus, the local priest. Through the microcosm of this small town, we are shown the various tensions existing in Irish society at this period – the iron rule of the Catholic church, those who desire independence from the English, those who are fighting alongside those same English in WW1, those who, like Victor, are inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to bring about a socialist republic. I thought this was a wonderfully written debut from a writer with great potential. I said “A first-rate debut novel which I hope will be followed by many more. The 5-star rating put him firmly on my list to read his next. But did I?

I didn’t! The reason is simple – there hasn’t been a next one. For a while there was an untitled pre-publication one listed on Amazon but it eventually disappeared, and nothing since. I’m deeply disappointed – I felt he had the potential to become a favourite author. I still keep him on my list and check periodically, but ten years is a long time and eventually I’ll have to give up hope.

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Well, that’s a strange and somewhat depressing batch this month! One author who turned into a misogynist and has been banished from my list, and two authors who seem to have given up, both with potential and one at least of whom I felt was destined for a long and glittering literary career. Thank goodness for McIlvanney!

Have you read any of these authors?
Are they on your “looking forward to” list?

The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

A war to end all wars…

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Elizabeth Smith has lodged with the Armstrong family in Tufnell Park in London for several years, becoming a friend to them all, and especially to Grace, the daughter of the house. While Grace is away from home on a visit, Elizabeth receives a letter – a highly unusual occurrence for this rather isolated woman – and a visit from a strange man, whom the servants felt was threatening. By the time Grace returns, Elizabeth has destroyed all her personal property and left, leaving no forwarding address. Grace is a little hurt, but mostly she’s concerned – it all seems so out of character for Elizabeth. And then a body is found in the Thames. When it is confirmed that it is Elizabeth and the police seem content to call it suicide and let the matter drop, Grace finds she can’t let go – she must find out more about Elizabeth’s past and what drove her to leave as she did.

Set just after the end of the Great War, this is as much an examination of the impact of the losses so many endured as it is a mystery. Scarlett evokes her post-war setting excellently, both physically and emotionally. She shows a society where no person has been untouched by loss – even those lucky enough to have their sons or husbands return to them have to deal with the psychological aftermath, or in many cases with lives shattered by life-changing injuries. But she also shows the resilience that somehow allows people to go on, to start fresh and to begin the slow process of rebuilding lives or building new ones. She shows society changing, with the working classes unwilling to go back to the rigid class systems of before and less deferential than they once were. Servants are hard to come by, since women have had the experience of doing more exciting and better paid jobs in factories and offices during the war, and don’t relish returning to the drudgery of domestic labour. For the middle and upper classes, the old rules of social interaction between the sexes are gone too – no more chaperones, nightclubs springing up, ladies drinking cocktails and smoking! For by far the most part, it’s entirely credible and free of anachronism, with just an occasional word choice that doesn’t quite feel right.

Unfortunately near the end two of the compulsory themes of the decade are dragged in – homophobia and sexual abuse. I assume authors can’t get publishing contracts without them, a bit like the new Oscar rules. At least racism was omitted for once. It’s not that I object to any of these themes – I’d just like them not to be quite so ubiquitous. I love chocolate fudge cake, but I don’t want it with every meal. Believe it or not, there are other aspects of the human condition worth exploring. And in this case, I felt the subjects of loss and renewal were more than sufficient, especially since she dealt with them so well.

Apart from that box-ticking exercise, I found the story interesting and compelling. Grace, who is our main character, has herself lost both a brother and her fiancé, and the story of her slow process of grief and gradual recovery is sensitively done. She too has had grim wartime experiences, working with severely injured men as a VAD nurse, and is now, still only at the age of 22, working with a nursing magazine, hoping it might lead to an opening into journalism. She is a strong, resilient and likeable character whose investigations stay well within the limits of believability throughout. With the help of her friends and the family servants, she begins to trace back through Elizabeth’s life on the basis of the few scraps of information they have all gleaned from this very private woman over the years. As Elizabeth’s past is slowly uncovered, we are led to some dark and shocking revelations.

Helen Scarlett

It’s a slow unravelling of the mystery, but steady, so that I didn’t feel it dragged at any point. The pace allows for plenty of space to explore different reactions to the cataclysm of the war, from those men directly affected trying to deal with mental and physical injuries, to those who had endured a long wait ending perhaps with the awfulness of the telegram telling them their son or brother or lover would not be coming home. Scarlett reminds us that for many the verdict was missing, presumed dead, leaving a tiny glimmer of hope that cruelly drags out the process of acceptance. She shows us how this feeds into the rise of spiritualism, as people desperately seek some kind of closure – the possibility at least of saying goodbye, when there isn’t even a grave to visit. We see how society is divided into those who find comfort in the belief that the fallen had died gloriously for a great cause and those who feel it had all been an unforgivable waste, and how each side of that divide unintentionally adds to the hurt of the other. And yet through all this, Scarlett avoids mawkishness and over-sentimentality.

So, despite my mild disappointment at the late introduction of over-used themes, overall I loved this one. A strong mystery contained within an authentic in-depth look at a specific and significant period in time, and peopled by characters I grew to like and care about. I will certainly be reading more from this talented author, and recommend this one highly.

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

Amazon UK Link

Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston

Death of a sadist…

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Bill Brent is disturbed in the middle of the night by what sounds like a scream coming from outside the window of the room below his. He rushes down and discovers the body of his host, Horace Manning, stabbed in the back as he sat at the desk in his study. Outside a storm rages, the storm that has forced a reluctant group of guests to spend the night in the house, and Bill finds the phones are down. Then when two of the younger guests offer to drive through the storm to fetch the police, they discover all the cars have been immobilised, with their tyres slashed and their tanks emptied. The guests must spend the next twenty-four hours in the house waiting for the storm to blow over, knowing that one among them is a murderer. We are then taken back twenty-four hours to meet all the characters, discover why they were in the house and learn that many, if not all, of them had good reason to want Manning dead…

Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction that sometimes books are forgotten for good reason, a sentiment with which I heartily concur. But I’m happy to also agree with him wholeheartedly that this is not one of those – this one fully deserves to be re-introduced to a new generation of readers. I can only assume it has been allowed to lapse into obscurity because it was the author’s only novel. Billie Houston was apparently one half of a very successful vaudeville act along with her sister Renée, in which Billie tended to play a boy to Renée’s girl. She wrote this novel backstage during performances. Unfortunately her stage career was cut short by illness, though she lived to a good age and in later life became a championship level chess-player. I’m also delighted that she and her talented sister, who had a much longer career that took her into the world of movies, hailed from my home town of Glasgow. I’ve spent far too much time in the last week looking both sisters up on the internet and searching for rare clips on youtube – again it’s surprising that two people who were big stars in their day now seem to be almost entirely forgotten, even here where they were presumably most famous.

Renée and Billie Houston

Anyway, the book! It’s remarkably well written and, perhaps unsurprisingly from someone used to writing comedy sketches, there’s quite a lot of humour amidst the darkness. The characters are rather stock ones for the most part but nonetheless very well drawn, and most of them are likeable. The exception is the victim, who is a horrible sadist, and so we need not waste tears over him. In fact, one is only surprised that it took so long for someone to do the world a favour and do away with him! Horace Manning is a scientist, working on a deadly gas to be used as a weapon of war. He has only one child, his daughter Helen, and although he has never physically abused her he has ruled her by psychological terror – he reminded me of Mrs Boynton, Christie’s wonderful sadist in Appointment with Death.

Now Helen is in love and Tony Fane, her young man, has sought Manning’s approval for their engagement which, to everyone’s surprise and disbelief, he has given. He invites the whole group over for dinner – Helen and Tony, Tony’s parents, Tony’s sister Kay (whom I couldn’t help feeling was something of an alter-ego for the author), and a couple of assorted friends who were present at the Fanes – Bill Brent, who along with Kay plays the role of amateur ‘tec and hero, Teddy Fraser who is in love with Kay, and Dr Henderson – Hendy – who is an old friend of Manning and Helen. The servants also play their part in the story, more so than is often the case in Golden Age mysteries – Mrs Geraint, the sleep-walking housekeeper who also lives in terror of Manning and stays only out of love for Helen, the two maids, Alice and Mary, and Strange, the chauffeur,

But it is clear that Manning doesn’t intend to let Helen go as easily as that, so a feeling of impending doom hovers over the dinner table, while outside the storm that will trap them in the house approaches. And after dinner Manning does something so awful that everyone’s distrust of him turns to hatred, giving everyone a motive.

(Slight spoiler: this awful thing involves animal cruelty. It is a short episode and not too graphic, and despite my hatred of animal cruelty in books I was able to read on past it without feeling too upset. I think the fact that all the other characters had the same reaction of horror as I did made the author’s own opinion of it clear, and it is an important part of the plot. But be warned!)

Billie Houston

I admit it becomes ridiculous in the last thirty pages or so, but by that time I was having far too much fun to care. I guessed early whodunit and why, and was proved right, but again didn’t mind. The characterisations are so enjoyable, from blustering Sir Anthony Fane to his long-suffering wife, constantly shocked by the very modern manners of her children, to the young people with their various romantic entanglements that all need to be worked out by the end. Kay is delightful, and Bill is true romantic hero material. The rest of the women spend an inordinate amount of time fainting and swooning and being told to lie down and have a nice cup of tea, but it all added to the fun! I am truly sorry that Houston never wrote another, but I’m very glad the British Library has given us all the opportunity to enjoy this one.

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 380…

Episode 380

Three new books arrived this week while I’ve been stuck for what feels like forever in two lengthy reads – both done now, happily! So the end result is the TBR has jumped up by 1 to 169. Not complaining for once – the three that arrived were another batch from HarperCollins’ gorgeous new hardback editions of Agatha Christie. I just have to find time somehow to read them all…

Meantime, here’s a few more that will be exercising my little grey cells soon… 


Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Courtesy of Penguin Viking via NetGalley. At the beginning of every year I’m horrified by how little new fiction I read the year before, so in a fit of masochism enthusiasm I request a ton of new stuff from NetGalley. Then by the time I come to read them, I wonder what on earth could I have been thinking? This book sounds so like something I am programmed to hate that if it surprises me it can only be in a good way…

The Blurb says: An exhilarating new novel about fathers and sons, faith and friendship from the award-winning, No.1 bestselling author of Open Water.

Dancing is the one thing that can solve Stephen’s problems.

At Church with his family, the shimmer of Black hands raised in praise. With his band, making music speaking not just to their hardships, but their joys. Grooving with his best friend, so close their heads might touch. Dancing alone to his father’s records, uncovering parts of a man he has never truly known. His youth, shame and sacrifice.

Stephen has only ever known himself in song. But what becomes of him when the music fades?

Set over the course of three summers, from South London to Ghana and back again, Small Worlds is a novel about the worlds we build for ourselves. The worlds we live, dance and love within.

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Paranormal(!) Mystery 

Grave Expectations by Alice Bell

Courtesy of Corvus via NetGalley. The same applies to contemporary crime! To be fair, this one does sound like it might be fun (or possibly toe-curlingly awful), but reviews suggest it’s aimed at the younger end of the youth market and I’m not sure I still match that profile. What’s “My Favourite Murder”??

The Blurb says: How do you solve a murder when the ghost of a 17-year-old keeps telling you you’re doing it wrong?

Claire Hendricks is a hapless 30-something true crime fan treading water in the gig economy working as a medium. When she is invited to an old university friend’s country pile to provide entertainment for a family party, her best friend Sophie tags along. In fact, Sophie rarely leaves Claire’s side, because she’s been haunting her ever since she was murdered at the age of 17.

When the pair arrive at The Cloisters, they find themselves drawn to a tragic and unrecognizable ghost, clearly an unquiet spirit who met an untimely end. Teaming up with the least unbearable members of the Wellington-Forge family – depressive ex-cop Basher and teenage reactionary Alex – Claire and Sophie determine to figure out not just whodunnit, but who they killed, why and when.

Together they must race against incompetence to find the murderer before the murderer finds them, in this funny, modern, media-literate debut mystery for the My Favourite Murder generation.

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Thriller on Audio

The Accomplice by Steve Cavanagh read by Adam Sims and Laurel Lefkow

Cavanagh’s plots usually veer well into preposterous territory but they’re usually fast-paced fun anyway, and I suspect that might make them perfect for audio. It’s certainly got high ratings on Audible!


The Sandman killings have been solved. Daniel Miller murdered fourteen people before he vanished. His wife, Carrie, now faces trial as his accomplice. The FBI, the District Attorney, the media and everyone in America believe she knew and helped cover up her husband’s crimes.


Eddie Flynn won’t take a case unless his client is innocent. Now, he has to prove to a jury, and the entire world, that Carrie Miller was just another victim of the Sandman. She didn’t know her husband’s dark side and she had no part in the murders. But so far, Eddie and his team are the only ones who believe her.


Gabriel Lake used to be a federal agent, before someone tried to kill him. Now, he’s an investigator with a vendetta against the Sandman. He’s the only one who can catch him, because he believes that everything the FBI knows about serial killers is wrong.


With his wife on trial, the Sandman is forced to come out of hiding to save her from a life sentence. He will kill to protect her and everyone involved in the case is a target.

Even Eddie Flynn… 

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Fiction on Audio

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood read by Shelley Thompson

I read this one long ago, and I think I enjoyed it! But I really don’t remember much about it, so a re-read seemed in order… 

The Blurb says: Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Great and Horrible News by Blessin Adams

There’s been a murder!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In early modern England, crime was often brutal and so were the punishments. The public were fascinated and enthralled by the secrets and scandals behind the crimes and turned up in their thousands to watch the resulting executions. Their appetite for true crime was fed by the cheap news pamphlets that sensationalised the stories and whipped up public anger against individuals or sections of society. In this book, Adams uses examples culled from court and coroner records, news sheets and from letters and journals to examine how crimes were dealt with investigatively and through the criminal justice system, and how victims and criminals were perceived by the public. She argues that this period, 1500-1700, saw the beginnings of a secular, scientific approach to investigation, with increasing reliance on physical evidence, influenced by the cultural changes that accompanied the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. And she shows that, while we may no longer gather to watch gruesome public executions, the public fascination with crime and punishment hasn’t altered much in the intervening centuries.

As with all the best true crime, the crimes are merely a starting point. Adams uses each of the nine cases to highlight one or more aspects of the justice system and of the society of day. She has clearly researched the period thoroughly and writes very well, moving me more than once to anger or even tears, and using the scant records available to her to build convincing pictures of the people involved. If I have a criticism, it’s that sometimes I felt she perhaps embellished the bare bones a little to improve the storytelling aspects – I wondered more than once how she could have known what someone’s motivation was or how she could be so sure what had happened when she didn’t cite a specific source. But these moments were rare and I never felt she extrapolated unreasonably – I always felt her assumptions, if that’s what they were, were more likely to be true than not. And certainly her storytelling skills made this a fascinating read, humanising the history in a way that makes it more effective than a dry recounting of facts and statistics ever could.

There’s so much packed into each of the nine cases that I’m not even going to try to cover it all here. Instead I’ve picked a few examples to try to give a flavour of how Adams tells each story and uses it to take us deep into the culture of the period. Given that the stories cover 200 years, there’s plenty of scope for her to show us some of the changes that were happening, especially with regards to the change from religious to secular approaches to crime.

The first story is of John, a young apprentice murdered by his friend Nathaniel so that Nathaniel could rob the shop of John’s master. Adams tells us about Cheapside and the traders who worked there, specialising in luxury goods like gold and silk. She shows how the street names in the surrounding area originated from the various markets held there – Milk Street, Bread Street, etc. The murder is gruesomely told as it was in the pamphlets of the time, and the investigation seems efficient and surprisingly similar to modern investigations, relying on physical clues, witnesses, background checks on suspects, etc. She takes us beyond Nathaniel’s conviction to his time in Newgate, describing the appalling conditions in which prisoners were kept. She explains the need for him to be “converted” to satisfy the prevailing religious agenda, and how this was achieved. As she takes us through his eventual confession, guilt and remorse, and his execution by public hanging, Adams shows how the public, again very similar to today, soon lost interest in John, the victim, and became fixated on Nathaniel, the murderer, even feeling sympathy for him as his remorse was reported in the news sheets.

Elizabeth was a young girl sent as a maid to a man who repeatedly raped her then threw her out when she became pregnant. Elizabeth was one of the lucky ones – her mother and sister hid her so she was saved from life on the streets. The baby died at birth and she was tried for infanticide, but found innocent. This story is used as a basis to discuss women’s vulnerability to their masters, the horrific misogynistic laws around bastardy and infanticide, and early forensic ways of differentiating between stillbirth and infanticide. Adams shows the importance of midwives as expert witnesses at this time in deciding on how the death of a newborn occurred. I found this story particularly heartbreaking despite the fact that Elizabeth was found innocent. The lack of records means we don’t know what happened to her in her future life.

Blessin Adams

A couple of the stories involve suicide, and Adams shows the inhumanity of the laws surrounding this subject. Suicide was considered a crime and those found guilty would have their property forfeited, leaving their families destitute. This led desperate families to try to make suicides look like accident or murder in order to avoid forfeiture, and of course this had to be done immediately while the family was still dealing with shock and grief. Forfeiture was not enough for a harsh religiously-influenced state – the body of the suicide would then be desecrated before being buried in an unconsecrated pit, which of course at that time meant no hope of eternal salvation. Adams shows that suicide then, as today, often arose out of depression and mental illness, but she also gives an example of what was thought of as “honourable suicide”, a hangover from the days of chivalry, when a man who had failed in some way, especially in public life, would take his own life. Adams shows that while in general the public strongly disapproved of suicide, honourable suicide often met with a more sympathetic reaction.

Baby farms, political crimes, religious mania – these and many more aspects of crime and justice are also covered in this fascinating book. I found every story interesting and felt Adams got a really great balance between facts and the human traumas behind them. One I heartily recommend both to true crime fans, and to people more generally interested in the social and cultural aspects of the early modern period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate, via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

Bookish Selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….Later, he would not admit that he was scared, but just then, at that instant, he had never been more terrified in all six years of his life. A lady was lying in wait for him. She was on her back, staring straight up at him with her eyes wide. His first instinct was to flee before she caught him playing here when he wasn’t supposed to be. Maybe she would force him to tell her where he lived and then drag him home to Mamma and Pappa. They would be so furious, and they were sure to ask: how many times have we told you that you mustn’t go to the King’s Cleft without a grown up?
….But the odd thing was that the lady didn’t move. She didn’t have any clothes on either, and for an instant he was embarrassed that he was standing there looking at a naked lady. The red he had seen was not a piece of cloth but something wet right next to her, and he couldn’t see her clothes anywhere. Funny, lying there naked. Especially when it was so cold.

~ The Preacher by Camilla Läckberg

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….There was a small fountain in the middle with two trees on either side. The trees had been pruned down to their essentials: gnarled branches which seemed deformed and grotesque like arms and legs with bits chopped off. It was impossible to imagine how they could grow again.
….The square was irregular and dimly lit; there seemed to be another narrow passageway at the other side and I made a note that I would go out that way, although I did not know where it would lead. There was a small church on one side, its walls all damaged by what looked like bullet marks or shrapnel marks. I went over to the opposite side and sat on a ledge. I had been in Barcelona for about a week and suddenly I felt as though I had found the place I had been looking for: the sacred core of the world, a deserted square reached by two narrow alleyways, dimly lit, with a fountain, two trees, a church and some church buildings.

~ The South by Colm Toibin

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….Uncle Sam and Britannia were the god-parents of the new Japan. In less than two generations, with no background but the remote past, the Japanese people advanced from the two-handed sword of the Samurai to the ironclad ship, the rifled cannon, the torpedo, and the Maxim gun; and a similar revolution took place in industry. The transition of Japan under British and American guidance from the Middle Ages to modern times was swift and violent. China was surpassed and smitten. It was with amazement that the world saw in 1905 the defeat of Czarist Russia, not only on the sea, but by great armies transported to the mainland and winning enormous battles in Manchuria. Japan now took her place among the Great Powers. The Japanese were themselves astonished at the respect with which they were viewed. “When we sent you the beautiful products of our ancient arts and culture you despised and laughed at us; but since we have got a first-class Navy and Army with good weapons we are regarded as a highly civilised nation.” But all they had added was the trappings and panoply of applied science. All was on the surface. Behind stood Old Japan. I remember how in my youth the British caricaturists were wont to depict Japan as a smart, spruce, uniformed messenger-boy. Once I saw an American cartoon in quite a different style. An aged priestly warrior towered up, august and formidable, with his hand upon his dagger.

~ The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill

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….“Why, it’s everything you want,” Halsey said. “View, air, good water and good roads. As for the house, it’s big enough for a hospital, if it has a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne back,” which was ridiculous; it was pure Elizabethan.
….Of course we took the place; it was not my idea of comfort, being much too large and sufficiently isolated to make the servant question serious. But I give myself credit for this: whatever has happened since, I never blamed Halsey and Gertrude for taking me there. And another thing: if the series of catastrophes there did nothing else, it taught me one thing – that somehow, somewhere, from perhaps a half-civilized ancestor who wore a sheepskin garment and trailed his food or his prey, I have in me the instinct of the chase. Were I a man I should be a trapper of criminals, trailing them as relentlessly as no doubt my sheepskin ancestor did his wild boar. But being an unmarried woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime will probably be my last. Indeed, it came near enough to being my last acquaintance with anything.

~ The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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So… are you tempted?

The Third Man and The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene

The Third Man

😀 😀 😀 😀

Rollo Martins is a writer of Western novels, which are reasonably successful but not particularly lucrative. So when he is contacted by an old school friend, Harry Lime, offering him a job in Vienna he jumps at the chance. But when he arrives, he is met with the news that Harry is dead, and his funeral is arranged for that day. Rollo goes to the funeral and meets Colonel Calloway, who had been investigating the scheme that Harry was involved in – a scheme that showed Harry to be morally repugnant, if true. But Rollo doesn’t believe it – he knows Harry sailed close to the wind and wasn’t above scamming and cheating people, but the scheme as described by Col. Calloway is too cruel, too inhumane. So Rollo sets out to do his own investigation, in reluctant cahoots with Calloway but with a different motivation. But has Harry carried out a bigger scam than any of them suspect? And what will Rollo do when he finds out the truth?

There’s an interesting introduction from Greene in which he explains that, when asked to write a “film play”, he finds it necessary to first set the story out in novel form, before condensing it for the screen. Then he gets together with the director – in this case Carol Reed – to hammer out the changes needed to make the story work on screen, taking account of casting and locations, etc. Greene tells us that we should not therefore think that the eventual changes were made by the director – they were all things agreed to and sometimes suggested by Greene, and worked by him into the final screenplay.

Effectively, therefore, this is a first draft, and it shows. The story is there, substantially as it will finally remain. But there’s not the usual depth in the setting and characterisation of most Greene novels – clearly he has left much of the nuance to be brought out by director and actors. I did, however, feel that the basic plot is much clearer in the book – I’ve always found the film to be a bit murky as to what Harry Lime’s scheme actually was.

In the film, Orson Welles’ wonderful performance lights up the screen, lifting a good film into great territory in the last half hour or so when he finally appears. This also has the odd effect of throwing the viewer (this viewer, anyway) rather onto Lime’s side, despite his supposed nefarious actions. In the film also, Joseph Cotten makes an attractive and reasonably heroic Holly Martens (the name changed because Cotten is American, not English as Greene originally envisaged the character, and Carol Reed felt the name Rollo would sound silly for an American. Weirdly, he didn’t seem to feel the same about the name Holly!) In the book, Rollo/Holly is a drunken womaniser with few redeeming qualities, his loyalty to his old school friend being about his only likeable feature. And Lime is much more clearly a money-grubbing opportunist with zero conscience or compassion.

Book 18 of 80

The setting of post-war, partitioned Vienna gives both book and film a noir feel and an atmosphere of danger and tension. In the book, however, Greene makes much use of snow, and of the city full of buildings still damaged by bombing, some to the point of ruin, to add to the atmosphere. The film, presumably for technical reasons, omits the snowy winter element, and while Reed does show some shots of damaged buildings I didn’t feel this was quite as prominent as in the book.

The film, however, is better in many ways. The music, of course! The girl Anna – Harry’s girlfriend and soon to be Holly’s love interest – is so much better in the film. Reed has taken Greene’s limp rag of a man-dependent female and given her a strength and moral core she simply doesn’t have in the book. The performance by Alida Valli is one of the film’s major strengths – I felt she and Welles completely outshone Cotten, although he is the nominal hero. And the end of Anna’s story is changed entirely for the better – to use a fashionable term, she is given “agency” which she lacks completely in the book.

The short comedy interlude, where Holly gets roped into giving a talk to a group of people who think he writes heavyweight literature rather than Westerns, is better in the film, though still out of place in both book and film in my opinion. The scene in the sewers is a marvel of film-making – it’s in the book, but not nearly as effective, and Reed gets a truly emotional element into it that the book doesn’t quite achieve. Welles – what can I say about Welles’ performance that hasn’t been said before and better? Nothing, so I’ll limit myself to saying he makes the film. Without him, it wouldn’t be a classic.

So overall, the basic story is the same but there are some significant differences and, in the end, the book is good while the film is great. And, as Greene tells us in the introduction, that was the plan all along.

The Fallen Idol

This is another story later adapted into a screenplay by the pairing of Greene and Reed, this time for a film I haven’t seen. A young boy, Philip, is left in the care of the butler and his wife while his parents go away for two weeks. (Already my credibility meter is in overload.) He witnesses something that he only half understands, and by revealing it, inadvertently betrays the butler, whom he saw as a friend. His confusion, the betrayal and the impact on Philip’s future life are all portrayed well. However, the depiction of the two women characters in this is so deeply misogynistic that the whole thing left a bad taste (and explains my temporary reluctance to read more Greene till the effect wears off) – I can only hope these characterisations too were improved in the process of making the film. Interesting to learn of Greene’s process for writing for the screen, but I wouldn’t recommend this one at all in its written form.

Book 4 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for April (I’m still so behind with reviews!) and a good one – I enjoyed both the reading and the watching, and learning about how the original story was developed for the film. Thanks, People!

Amazon UK Link

The Black Spectacles (Gideon Fell 10) by John Dickson Carr

Why do Golden Age criminals keep poisoning chocolates??

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Inspector Andrew MacAndrew Elliot of Scotland Yard has been sent to the village of Sodbury Cross to look into a case that has baffled the local police for some months. Several people who had bought chocolates from the local sweet shop one day had fallen ill, and one child died. It transpired that some of the chocolates had been poisoned. The local gossip has fixed on Marjorie Wills as the guilty party – the young niece of a local peach farmer, Marcus Chesney. The local police don’t object to this suggestion but haven’t been able to find any evidence that Marjorie, or anyone else for that matter, switched the chocolates in the shop. When Elliot arrives in Sodbury Cross, he discovers that he has met Marjorie before, or seen her, at least, while on holiday in Pompeii, and he’d developed a bit of a fancy for her. So that gives him an added motivation to find the real culprit… assuming Marjorie is innocent. Marcus Chesney, meantime, thinks he’s worked out how the chocolate switching was done, and sets up a dramatic performance to prove his theory to his assembled relatives and friends. It all goes wrong when, during the performance, Chesney dies – poisoned! Everyone involved in the case was watching at the time, but they all saw different things…

While this is mostly a howdunit, there’s plenty of interesting characterisation and focus on the psychology of poisoners to stop the how aspects from making it too dry. The initial poisoning appears to have been completely random – anyone could have bought and eaten the poisoned chocolates. This suggests insanity on the part of the murderer. However the second poisoning, of Chesney, suggests a much more intricately planned and deliberately targeted murder, more indicative of a sane, intelligent mind. Along the way Carr has his characters discuss many real life cases as they try to get at the root of what is behind the crimes and whether the murderer is insane or not, and this is an added interest although some of the cases he mentions, which were probably well known at the time this book came out in 1939, have faded from the public consciousness now – or my consciousness, at least! But he gives enough information about each of these cases for the reader to be able to follow the discussions about them.

The howdunit aspect is more interesting than I usually find them. It depends less on fantastical devices and crazy methods than most “impossible crimes”, which made me quite happy! Instead the focus is on the unreliability of witnesses, sleight of hand, misdirection, etc., and, while it’s all a very complex way to commit a crime as howdunits usually are, it actually makes sense once all is revealed, for once. And because it’s not about widgets that miraculously open windows when an arrow is shot up a fireplace at the moment the clock strikes a quarter past nine (yes, I do get fed up with that kind of nonsense in Golden Age howdunits!), but instead is about what people have seen as opposed to what they think they have seen, it’s quite possible for the reader to follow along with the various theories and revelations.

Elliot is a likeable detective, although his decision to hide his pre-existing attraction to the chief suspect is a bit morally dubious. However, he reveals all to Gideon Fell, who happens to be in the neighbourhood. I haven’t quite got my head around who exactly Gideon Fell is. The police seem to use him on a semi-formal basis as some kind of consultant, but is he an ex-policeman? Or a private detective? Or simply a gifted amateur? The two or three books I’ve read so far don’t seem to clarify this – one day I might have to read the first in the series to find out. Anyway, everyone seems quite happy to have him involved. His personality in this one is rather less annoying than sometimes, and again I think that’s because the psychology is more important than the widgetry on this occasion.

John Dickson Carr

I enjoyed this one a lot. While I always admire Carr’s writing, especially his ability to create a tense, sometimes creepy, atmosphere, I sometimes find he gets too bogged down for my taste in the how at the expense of the why, which always interests me more. This one focuses about equally on both aspects, allowing me to admire the intricacy with which he plots while also having a proper mystery around motivation and psychology to keep me interested. I still feel his criminals could find much simpler methods to commit their crimes, but I know lots of people love the puzzle aspect of his books. I love him much more when, like here, the questions of who and why are at least as important as how.

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 379…

Episode 379

The TBR seems to have stabilised since I last reported – three out, three in, leaving the total steady at 168…

 Here are a few more that should ride off the TBR soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

An exciting race this month! Ragtime took an early massive lead that looked as if it would be unassailable, but gradually both Our Man in Havana and The Lost World began to creep up behind – real hare and tortoise stuff! A couple of very late votes pulled Our Man in Havana right up alongside Ragtime and the end result is a tie! So the casting vote is mine, and I’ve opted for Ragtime, for two reasons: I’ve read quite a lot of Greene recently and never like to read too much from one author too close together; and secondly, I’ve never read anything by Doctorow and would like to try him. So the responsibility for this month’s choice is shared. Thanks for voting, People – it will be an August read!

The Blurb says: Welcome to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where the rhythms of ragtime set the beat. Harry Houdini astonishes audiences with magical feats of escape, the mighty J. P. Morgan dominates the financial world and Henry Ford manufactures cars by making men into machines. Emma Goldman preaches free love and feminism, while ex-chorus girl Evelyn Nesbitt inspires a mad millionaire to murder the architect Stanford White. In this stunningly original chronicle of an age, such real-life characters intermingle with three remarkable families, one black, one Jewish and one prosperous WASP, to create a dazzling literary mosaic that brings to life an era of dire poverty, fabulous wealth, and incredible change – in short, the era of ragtime.

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In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

I’ve enjoyed several of Larson’s other books, and since I’m steeped in WW2 at the moment courtesy of Churchill, it seems like a good time to tackle this one. 

The Blurb says: The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamoured of the New Germany, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honourable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Goring and the expectedly charming—yet wholly sinister—Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

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Foreign Classic 

The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher

I loved Rudolph Fisher’s only other novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, so much that I had no choice but to include this one on my Classics Club list! Can’t wait to meet Jinx and Bubber again! My expectations are pretty stratospheric…

The Blurb says: When Black lawyer Fred Merrit purchases a house in the most exclusive white neighbourhood bordering Harlem, he has to hire the toughest removal firm in the area to help him get his belongings past the hostile neighbours. The removal men are Jinx Jenkins and Bubber Brown, who make the move anything but straightforward.

This hilarious satire of jazz-age Harlem derides the walls people build around themselves—colour and class being chief among them. In their reactions to Merrit and to one another, the characters provide an invaluable view of the social and philosophical scene of the times.

First published in 1928, The Walls of Jericho is the first novel by Rudolph Fisher, author of The Conjure-Man Dies, whom Langston Hughes called ‘the wittiest of the Harlem Renaissance writers, whose tongue was flavoured with the sharpest and saltiest humour’.

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Vintage Crime Anthology

Crimes of Cymru edited by Martin Edwards

Courtesy of the British Library. I thoroughly enjoyed their Scottish themed anthology a while back, so am looking forward to finding out if the Welsh are just as deviously criminal! (Two extras for subscribers to the Crime Classics series this month – a bookmark with the cover design on it, and a pamphlet containing an additional short story!)

The Blurb says: Mystery and murder runs amok amidst ominous peaks and icy lakes. In hushed valleys, venom flows through villages harbouring grievances which span generations. The landscapes and locales of Wales (“Cymru”, in the Welsh language) have fired the imagination of some of the greatest writers in the field of crime and mystery fiction.

Presenting fourteen stories from ranging from the 1909 through to the 1980s, this new anthology celebrates a selection of beloved Welsh authors such as Cardiff’s Roald Dahl and Abergavenny’s Ethel Lina White, as well as lesser-known yet highly skilled writers such as Cledwyn Hughes and Jack Griffith. Alongside these home-grown tales, this collection also includes a handful of gems inspired by, or set in, the cities and wilds of Wales by treasured authors with an affinity for the country, such as Christianna Brand, Ianthe Jerrold and Michael Gilbert. 

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Fiction on Audio

The South by Colm Tóibín read by Aoife McMahon

Another one for my Looking Forward challenge, and this also sounds as if it should be an interesting addition to my recent Spanish Civil War reading…

The Blurb says: “This was the night train to Barcelona, some hours before the dawn. This was 1950, late September. I had left my husband. I had left my home.”

Katherine Proctor has dared to leave her family in Ireland and reach out for a new life. Determined to become an artist, she flees to Spain, where she meets Miguel, a passionate man who has fought for his own freedoms. They retreat to the quiet intensity of the mountains and begin to build a life together. But as Miguel’s past catches up with him, Katherine too is forced to re-examine her relationships: with her lover, her painting and the homeland she only thought she knew. . .

The South is the book that introduced readers to the astonishing gifts of Colm Tóibín, winning the Irish Times First Fiction Award in 1991. Arrestingly visual and enduringly atmospheric, it is a classic novel of art, sacrifice, and courage.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Darkest Room (Öland Quartet 2) by Johan Theorin

Who ya gonna call?

🙂 🙂 🙂

Joakim and Katrine Westin have come to live on Öland with their two young children, in a house built at Eel Point where twin lighthouses stand, one still operational, the other now deserted. The house was built long ago by the man responsible for the construction of the lighthouses, and he used the timbers from a deadly shipwreck. This is seen as bad luck, and the house has its own history of tragedies which will slowly be revealed to us through a journal Katrine’s mother has sent her. She too had once lived in the house at Eel Point with her own mother, whose paintings of the blizzards that afflict the coast in winter have become posthumously famous and valuable. When Joakim returns from a final trip to their old house in Stockholm to pick up the last of their stuff, he learns that Katrine has drowned, having apparently slipped from the rocks below the lighthouses. Meantime, there are three men who are systematically burgling the houses left empty for the winter by summer visitors, but they’ve now decided that the pickings will be better from inhabited houses…

I’ve loved two of the four books in this quartet, The Voices Beyond and Echoes from the Dead. (The first four books are still being listed as a quartet, even though Theorin seems to have added a fifth now.) One of Theorin’s main strengths is his ability to use the harsh weather conditions and isolation of the island to create a creepy, tense atmosphere, and he certainly does that again in this one. There are parts that truly deserve to be called spine-tingling. However in this one, unlike the other two, he introduces the supernatural – Eel Point is full of ghosts, and not metaphorical ones. You’re either a person who can go along with the idea of ghosts existing, or you’re not. I’m not, not in contemporary fiction anyway, so sadly this book didn’t work for me as well as the others did.

Book 5 of 14

It’s as much about Joakim’s grief as it is a mystery about Katrine’s death, though the mystery element does come more to the fore towards the end. It’s well written, and gives a real sense of the bleakness of life here during the harshest months of winter, even today with modern heating and communication methods. The flashbacks via the journal show how much harder things were when the winters led to almost complete isolation. The almost total darkness that lasts for months and the occasional severe blizzards have taken their toll in human life, and shipwrecks have left their mark on the coast and its people.

The grief motif is never my favourite – I prefer rather more cheerful murder mysteries! But it’s done credibly, and the book takes place over a long enough timescale for us to see Joakim and the kids begin the process of healing. The solution happily is grounded in reality, and the motivations of the dark crime at the heart are fully human, if perhaps a little over the credibility line. Gerlof is the character who links the quartet – an old man now living in an assisted living facility who has lived all his life on the island, and knows some of the dark secrets of its history. This one also features his great-niece, Tilda, who has come to the island as a rookie cop, and we see the particular challenges of that task in such a bleak, isolated spot. The two strands – Katrine’s death and the burglaries – will eventually come together in a rather over-dramatic thriller finale. Overall, though, there’s plenty to enjoy, especially the setting and the descriptions of the harsh conditions.

Johan Theorin

But those ghosts! Nope! When the solution of a mystery comes about through hints given by ghosts, I fear it loses me. I stuck with it to the end, although it was touch and go for the latter half. And I will probably go on to read the fourth (which is actually the third since as usual I’m reading them out of order). But I’ll check reviews first to be sure that it stays firmly in the real world. As always, my middling rating is a subjective measure of my lukewarm enjoyment, not an objective measure of quality – this is a simple case of wrong reader, wrong book. I’d happily recommend it to the many readers who don’t mind a ghostly element in crime fiction.

Amazon UK Link

Bookish Selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….At Fane Court, fifteen miles away, the two-seater containing Anthony Fane and his friend Teddy Fraser was coming to a snorting stop at the top of the drive. The two occupants slung long legs over the sides and made their way over the lawns to where a number of people sat in low deck-chairs about a tea-table. Doctor Henderson, the local general practitioner, and one of the family in every house for miles around; Helen Manning, lovely, quiet, and with little of the carefree laughter which should be in the eyes of every young girl of twenty; Kay Fane, nineteen, Eton-cropped, too red-lipped, too saucy altogether about the face, and making one think whenever one looked at her how much more piquantly attractive she might have been with the big crop of unruly curls which would have grown on her head if only she would let them; big Bill Brent, solemn, and as wise as an owl, as became the private secretary of so important a public man as Sir Anthony Fane; Lady Fane, who spent most of the time saying “Yes, Anthony” to her husband and the rest of it hoping for her son to grow up, and her daughter to grow younger again; and finally Sir Anthony himself, portentous, important, and withal just sufficiently brainless to make even these qualities likeable.

~ Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston

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….She keeps mentioning the sea – her sea, the place she came from, far from this northern moor. When they were courting, and when they were first married, she used to tell him stories of her youth in Penzance, the lively little port on the soft under-tip of Cornwall. The great glittering bay, the coming of the pilchard shoals with their miraculous millions of fishes, her father’s warehouse smelling of tea and pepper. Hard to recall now when she stopped mentioning it. (He is a busy man, with a large scattered parish to see to, and he must ration his attention.) Perhaps indeed it was when they came here . . . His old parish of Thornton, where the children were born, had been a gentler and kindlier place altogether – but this was a better living and a bigger parsonage-house. He was pleased with it from the beginning. Cool sturdiness, stone stairs – no flammable timber, thank heaven, for he had a horror of fire – and a roomy study. He has always spent a good deal of time there, separating himself from the messy contingencies of six young children. It is necessary to him; and he is sure his wife has always understood. She is nothing if not dutiful.

~ The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

(Sadly, despite the great writing and a good narrator, I found this audiobook didn’t hold my attention, and abandoned it. My fault – I can’t imagine why I thought I’d be interested in the lives of the Brontës. Not my thing.)

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….Bernard Freyberg and I had been friends for many years. When as a young volunteer from New Zealand in the First World War he had made his way through many difficulties to England he had an introduction to me, and met me one day in the Admiralty in September 1914 and asked for a commission. I was at that time forming the Royal Naval Division, and I soon made the necessary recommendations. In a few days he became a sub-lieutenant in the “Hood” Battalion. Here is no place to describe the long succession of glorious deeds of valour by which he rose in four years of front-line war to the command of a brigade, and in the crisis of the German summer offensive of 1918 was placed in command of all the troops, amounting almost to a corps, which held the gap in front of Bailleul. The Victoria Cross and the D.S.O. with two bars marked his unsurpassed service.
….Freyberg, like his only equal, Carton de Wiart, deserved the title with which I acclaimed them of “Salamander”. Both thrived in the fire, and were literally shot to pieces without being affected physically or in spirit. One day in the 1920s when I was staying at a country house with Bernard Freyberg I asked him to show me his wounds. He stripped himself, and I counted twenty-seven separate scars and gashes. To these he was to add in the Second World War another three. But of course, as he explained, “You nearly always get two wounds for every bullet or splinter, because mostly they have to go out as well as go in.”

~ The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill

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….Mira was scowling. It annoyed her, almost as a matter of principle, that anyone of this man’s age, race, gender, wealth, and associated privilege should have used his power – allegedly – for good, should have built his business – allegedly – up from the ground, from nothing, and should possess – allegedly – the very kind of rural authenticity that she herself most envied and pursued. Even more annoying was the fact that she had never heard of the orange-fronted parakeet, which she now searched for, still scowling, in a separate tab. Like all self-mythologizing rebels, Mira preferred enemies to rivals, and often turned her rivals into enemies, the better to disdain them as secret agents of the status quo. But because this was not a conscious habit, she experienced only a vague feeling of righteous defiance as, unable to dismiss Owen Darvish, she told herself instead that she disliked him.

~ Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

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So… are you tempted?

Chocky by John Wyndham

Imaginary friend?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When David Gore sees his 12-year-old son Matthew having an argument all by himself, he assumes the family is being visited by another “imaginary friend”. His daughter had had a very annoying invisible friend when she was younger, who insisted on having her own seat at table and demanded glasses of water in the middle of the night and so on, so the thought is not a welcome one. Matthew is a little too old for an imaginary friend anyway, David thinks, and hopes the phase will soon pass. But Matthew begins to ask odd questions, like where exactly in the universe is Earth, and why are there two sexes, and why do some forms of life have less capacity to learn than others? And he seems to be developing odd skills – like suddenly being able to draw, even though his pictures are distinctly odd, or understanding binary maths. As David gently questions him, he discovers that Matthew’s friend is called Chocky, and it appears Chocky isn’t so imaginary after all…

For an alien invasion novel, this is remarkably quiet and thoughtful. Chocky may be an alien intelligence and her species may even be considering Earth’s potential as a future colony, but there is no overt threat to humanity. She has contacted Matthew to learn more about life on Earth and also to teach – to try to develop his young mind with skills that will one day enable him to make some of the scientific advances that her species already made long ago.

David is concerned for Matthew, but intrigued too. His wife, Mary, however, sets up an instant mental barrier, refusing to believe that Chocky is anything more than a figment of Matthew’s imagination. She insists on him being seen by a psychiatrist, and David goes along with this. He too would be happier to believe there was an easy explanation, but is already half-convinced that Chocky is both real and benign. As Chocky’s influence over Matthew grows, the wider world begins to get hints that there’s something odd going on – at first, just teachers asking why he seems to be developing so quickly in some areas and learning things they’re not teaching him, but gradually Matthew becomes something of an unwilling celebrity, hounded by newspapers looking for a story, and eventually coming to the attention of people with even less pure motives.

As is the case with most good science fiction, the premise is used as a means to look at our own society from a different angle. Chocky is intrigued by the idea of family – binary sex is not a concept she is familiar with. In fact, she is only a she because David decides it would be easier to assign her a gender than for Matthew to be confused all the time about which pronouns to use when discussing her. (Nothing is new under the sun, and the wokerati would love this aspect! They could get all outraged at David pigeon-holing her as a single gender for the sake of grammatical ease!) The human reaction to Chocky is another theme – is it easier to dismiss what we don’t understand as a symptom of a mental disorder than to consider that there may be more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our current philosophy, to misquote the Bard? Then there’s the question of blood – Matthew is adopted, and for Mary’s family that makes him somehow less than their own self-produced children. As David puts it, “Some babies confer a little more equality than other babies.” Even Mary, though she loves Matthew as much as she loves her natural daughter, wonders if his strangeness is a sign of a kind of taint in his biological inheritance. And there’s also an ongoing theme of communication and how we learn. Often Matthew becomes deeply frustrated to the point of anger because he can’t understand the concepts Chocky is putting into his head, and at the same time she is frustrated by his limited vocabulary and knowledge of how things work, either mechanically or in terms of society, making it hard for him to give her the information she is seeking. Chocky’s species is perfectly willing to share their advanced knowledge, but unless there is a common level of understanding of science, it’s an impossible task. Try explaining nuclear power to a five-year-old. (Or, indeed, to me!)

John Wyndham

There is a plot of sorts, but it’s a very minor part of the book, there merely to pull the story along to a conclusion. Mostly it’s a slow meander through the questions raised by Chocky’s visit, and a rather downbeat assessment of humanity’s readiness to accept new ideas that are outwith our experience. As always with Wyndham, it’s well written and thought-provoking, and will linger in the mind well beyond the few hours it takes to read.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Damien Lynch, who does a very good job, bringing every character to life and managing the children’s voices well – not something every narrator can pull off. His unhurried approach suits the tone of the book and allows the listener time to absorb the themes.

Audible UK Link

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

But solving them isn’t…

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As he travels to London by train, Luke Fitzwilliams finds himself sharing a carriage with an elderly lady who reminds him of his favourite aunt. Miss Pinkerton chatters in the way elderly people do (in Christie books, anyway), and Luke listens with half an ear as young men do (ditto). She tells him that she’s going to London to visit Scotland Yard, and then shocks him by saying she’s going to report a series of murders in her village of Wychwood. He doesn’t believe her, of course, but encourages her to go to the Yard anyway since he thinks they probably know how to deal with dotty old dears with vivid imaginations. A couple of days later he is sad to read in the paper a notice of her death, killed by a car on that day in London. But then a couple of weeks later he reads another death notice, this time of Dr Humbleby in Wychwood, the man Miss Pinkerton had mentioned as being the murderer’s next intended victim. So Luke decides to go to Wychwood to investigate…

Luke is an ex-policeman of the colonial kind, so investigation is something he’s used to. He manages to get an invite to stay with the local bigwig, Lord Whitfield, by pretending to be the cousin of Lord Whitfield’s fiancée, Bridget Conway, who happens to be the cousin of a friend of his. Complications ensue when he immediately falls for Bridget. He soon tells her the real reason he’s there and she helps him with local knowledge and introductions to the various people who might have been in Miss Pinkerton’s social circle. Because the whole story is so nebulous he doesn’t contact the police till quite late on, at which point Superintendent Battle plays a very small role. In the way publishers do at the moment, this is now listed as one of the “Superintendent Battle series”, but it really isn’t – it’s a standalone and Luke is the central character. Both Luke and Bridget are enjoyable leads, and there are lots of interesting secondary characters, many of them acting suspiciously in one way or another.

Agatha Christie

The plot is up there with her best, fair-play but still baffling, and with a great motivation for the murderer who, as Miss Pinkerton promises in Chapter 1, is “just the last person anyone would suspect”! There are two different kinds of pleasure for me when re-reading Christie. Either I’ve forgotten the plot and the solution, so have the fun of being baffled all over again, or I remember whodunit so have the pleasure of spotting the clues as I go, and admiring the way Christie deploys them. This was one of the latter for me, and it has some of her very best clues! In fact, the crucial clue almost equals the brilliance of the one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which I have often declared to be my favourite piece of misdirection of all time. It’s right there, in front of the reader’s face, and yet not only does the poor reader miss the significance, it actually sends her off in completely the wrong direction. I don’t know any other writer who can do that with the apparent ease of Ms Christie – it truly is a joy to see such skill in action.

Great stuff, and Hugh Fraser’s narration of the audiobook is as wonderful as always. Pleasure guaranteed!

Audible UK Link

P.S. I’m running dramatically behind this week – will catch up with all your posts and comments over the weekend. Apologies!


TBR Thursday 378 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 378

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, People, time for another batch of four, still all from 2021. I like to run three months ahead with these polls, so the winner will be an August read. Ragtime by EL Doctorow is a leftover from my long-ago Great American Novel Quest. I picked up Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana when it was on a Kindle deal. The last two were both included in Mike Ashley’s history of early British SF, Yesterday’s Tomorrows, and since I owned them already in Kindle collected works, I shoved them onto the TBR. Conan Doyle’s The Lost World will be a re-read and is also on my Classics Club list. I had no idea Rider Haggard had written SF, so I’m intrigued by When the World Shook. An unusual batch this month – not sure which one I’d choose myself!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…


Ragtime by EL Doctorow

Added 29th September 2021. 42,280 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.89 average rating. 258 pages.

The Blurb says: Welcome to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where the rhythms of ragtime set the beat. Harry Houdini astonishes audiences with magical feats of escape, the mighty J. P. Morgan dominates the financial world and Henry Ford manufactures cars by making men into machines. Emma Goldman preaches free love and feminism, while ex-chorus girl Evelyn Nesbitt inspires a mad millionaire to murder the architect Stanford White. In this stunningly original chronicle of an age, such real-life characters intermingle with three remarkable families, one black, one Jewish and one prosperous WASP, to create a dazzling literary mosaic that brings to life an era of dire poverty, fabulous wealth, and incredible change – in short, the era of ragtime.

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Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Added 26th October 2021. 33,523 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.95 average. 256 pages.

The Blurb says: Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts. His adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that amazes him, so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he’s tempted. In return all he has to do is carry out a little espionage and file a few reports. But when his fake reports start coming true, things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place.

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Classic Science Fiction

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Added 30th October 2021. 64,240 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.93 average. 224 pages.

The Blurb says: There’s only one way for Professor George Edward Challenger to prove that dinosaurs still roam the earth. He invites sceptical journalist Edward Malone to accompany him and a group of adventurers to see the creatures with his own eyes. But when they arrive at the fantastic volcanic plateau in the Amazon where time stands still, their expedition quickly becomes one of survival.

With its cliff-hanging escapes, rousing humour, and nailbiting suspense, The Lost World is a pioneering work of fantasy-adventure that paved the way for every thrill ride to follow.

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Early Science Fiction

When the World Shook by Sir Henry Rider Haggard

Added 30th October 2021. 166 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.69 average. 272 pages. 

The Blurb says: Haggard’s When the World Shook is a bit of science fiction made before the form had a name. Humphrey Arbuthnot, Basil Bastin, and a physician, Bickley, are off on just such an adventure — and where it leads them is a SF-style land of the weird. Somewhere in the south Pacific they take refuge in a cave on a forbidden island, and there they find skeletal ruins of machines — flying machines. In the ruins they find two tombs with crystal lids: One contains the body of an elderly man — and the other holds a beautiful young woman. Naturally enough, our heroes open the coffins, resurrect the entombed . . . and begin a great and remarkable adventure. Haggard was a heck of a writer, and the book tells a whopper of a tale: When the World Shook is not a thing to miss.

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

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(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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Shorts & Abandonments May 2023…

A Bunch of Minis…

My last bumper batch of minis consisted of five books I enjoyed and heartily recommended. So to restore the order of the universe this batch contains three books I disliked, abandoned and heartily don’t recommend! Trigger warnings: extreme grumpiness, controversial opinions and foul language (the author’s, not mine).

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The Close (Maeve Kerrigan 10) by Jane Casey


I used to love this series because it used to be about crime. Now it is about the deeply uncomfortable relationship between Maeve, who has turned into a pathetic needy sub-1950s woman who must have a man to be complete and yet can’t find or keep one, and her boss Josh, who has turned into her stalker and repetitive sexual harasser, which she seems to find both repellent and attractive simultaneously. I was never one of Josh’s legions of fans since sexual harassers have never attracted me – odd, I know – and I said books ago that I really hoped Casey would pull back from trying to portray this abusive relationship as romantic or titillating, but I fear my hopes have finally been destroyed. The vision of Josh forcing his physical attentions on a traumatised survivor of domestic abuse, which is sadly what the once-fun Maeve has become, in the pretence of it being necessary for work nauseates me. And I don’t want to read hundreds more pages of it. I’m abandoning the book at 15% and the series at book 10. Thanks for the good times, Maeve – I hope you get over your sick obsession with your revolting boss some day, make a complaint and have him thrown out of the Met, but I won’t be around to find out.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

Book 4 of 14

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Doom Castle by Neil Munro


Victor, Comte de Montaiglon, has come to Scotland from France on the hunt for a man who is suspected of spying on the exiled Jacobites for the Hanoverian government, and whom Victor also holds responsible for the death of a woman he had once been fond of. The problem is no one knows who the man is. It is rumoured that he is in the Argyll area, so Victor makes for Doom Castle, the home of a Jacobite sympathiser, Lamond of Doom. There he finds the castle dilapidated and nearly empty, the laird’s only servants being a loyal, if odd, old retainer, Mungo Boyd, and a mysterious woman called Annapla, who is often talked about but never seen.

Never in the first 27% anyway, at which point I gave up. It’s hard to believe this is by the same author who wrote the wonderful The New Road. This is clearly supposed to be an adventure in the vein of Walter Scott, but it doesn’t stand the comparison for a moment. The writing is clunky, deliberately full of archaic words that this archaic Scot would have had to google, so heaven help anyone younger or less Scottish! I couldn’t be bothered to, though, because the story failed to grab me – in fact, it failed to move at all in that 27%. By the time he was describing Doom Castle for the third time my boredom level peaked, and while there is action of a sort, Munro keeps it deliberately unclear what is going on which I found intensely irritating. Throw in some overworked dialect and plenty of little bits of French, and it’s more like a bad pastiche of Scott than a novel.

Maybe it improves, but the fact that it is out of print and has a pretty dismal average from the small number of ratings it has garnered on Goodreads makes me suspect it probably doesn’t. And I’m not enthusiastic enough to find out.

This was on my Classics Club list, but I’m swapping it out and replacing it with another Scottish novel, Mrs Ritchie by Willa Muir.

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The Guest by Emma Cline


Dear me, if I’m ever found dead and they can’t find the cause, please tell them I probably died of boredom while reading what passes these days for contemporary fiction. Is everyone really a drug-addicted, damaged, amoral loser, having empty sex with passing strangers? Or do authors just think that’s what society is like? Does the world need any more descriptions of what it feels like to get high, have sex, or vomit? Are these the parts of human experience that authors think are the most interesting things to write about?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s age that makes me so depressed about the current state of “literature”, but I honestly don’t think it is. I might have been titillated by a book like this when I was thirteen, though it’s too sordid to be titillating really. But by eighteen I’m sure I’d have found this foul-mouthed, storyless litany of drugs, sex and amorality just as tedious as I do now. Abandoned at 28%, just as I had reached this amazing, immortal line of prose poetry…

“Fuck,” he said, his cock surging.

No doubt that line will be treasured in books of quotations for generations to come. One feels the author must have spent hours carefully polishing it to get such beauty into her prose, such depth, such insight into the human soul.

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

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Three you really don’t need to add to your TBR – you’re welcome! 😉

Onwards and upwards!

Bookish Selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….On the morning of April 6 German bombers appeared over Belgrade. Flying in relays from occupied airfields in Roumania, they delivered a methodical attack lasting three days upon the Yugoslav capital. From roof-top height, without fear of resistance, they blasted the city without mercy. This was called Operation “Punishment”. When silence came at last on April 8 over seventeen thousand citizens of Belgrade lay dead in the streets or under the débris. Out of the nightmare of smoke and fire came the maddened animals released from their shattered cages in the zoological gardens. A stricken stork hobbled past the main hotel, which was a mass of flames. A bear, dazed and uncomprehending, shuffled through the inferno with slow and awkward gait down towards the Danube. He was not the only bear who did not understand.
….Operation “Punishment” had been performed.

~ The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill

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….It was sleeting, and Jussiaume had taken shelter for a moment in a doorway on the corner of Rue Fontaine and Rue Pigalle. Picratt’s red sign was one of the few in the neighbourhood still to be on, its reflection leaving what looked like splashes of blood on the wet cobbles.
….It was Monday, a slack day in Montmartre. Jussiaume could have told you the order in which most of the night clubs had shut. He saw Picratt’s neon sign go out in its turn, and the proprietor, short and stout, a beige raincoat over his dinner-jacket, came out onto the pavement to wind down the shutters with the crank.
….A figure – a street urchin, it looked like – slid along the walls and went down Rue Pigalle towards Rue Blanche. Then two men, one of them with a saxophone case under his arm, headed up towards Place Clichy.
….Almost immediately another man set off towards Carrefour Saint-Georges, his overcoat collar turned up.
….Officer Jussiaume didn’t know their names, he barely knew their faces, but these figures, and hundreds of others, meant something to him.

~ Maigret at Picratt’s by Georges Simenon

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….The ship inside the bottle was a little work of art, in Henrik’s opinion: a three-masted frigate with sails made out of scraps of white fabric, almost six inches long and carved from a single piece of wood. Each sail had ropes made of black thread, knotted and secured to small blocks of balsa wood. With the masts down the ship had been carefully inserted into the old bottle using steel thread and tweezers, then pressed down into a sea of blue-coloured putty. Then the masts had been raised and the sails unfurled with the help of bent sock needles. Finally the bottle had been fastened with a sealed cork.
….The ship in the bottle must have taken several weeks to make, but the Serelius brothers destroyed it in a couple of seconds.
….Tommy Serelius swept the bottle off the bookshelf, the glass exploding into tiny shards on the new parquet flooring of the cottage. The ship itself survived the fall, but bounced across the floor for a couple of yards before it was stopped by little brother Freddy’s boot. He shone his torch on it with curiosity for a few seconds, then lifted his foot and smashed the ship to pieces with three hard stamps.
….“Teamwork!” crowed Freddy.

~ The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin

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….The dawn spread itself slowly across the sky, the horizon merging with the dull waters of the Thames. It had been oppressively hot for weeks, and the river had shrunk, revealing the mudflats by the water’s edge, which were strewn with empty bottles, sandwich papers and cigarette ends – souvenirs of the cheering crowds that had thronged London’s streets on Peace Day. They had long gone now, in a haze of alcohol and good humour, taking the lonely journey homewards to the far shores of the Metropolitan line.
….At first the body had been indistinct, a bundle of rags that the currents nudged rhythmically back and forth against the brick supports of London Bridge. But as the sun climbed slowly into the sky, it resolved into an outstretched arm, a crumpled blue coat and finally a face. An early morning commuter, pausing to light a cigarette by the side of the bridge, had been shocked to find that he was gazing down into a woman’s blank stare, and his shout of horror brought a crowd of curious onlookers.

~ The Lodger by Helen Scarlett

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So… are you tempted?

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

A question of identity…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1903, during a torrential and deadly flood in monsoon season, an Englishman and an Indian woman both seek shelter in a cave beside a raging river. With death hovering, they find themselves carried away by the moment. When the Englishman comes to his senses and realises he has done something no honourable, upright Englishman of the Empire should do with a native woman, he flings himself into the river and drowns. The woman, Amrita, is rescued and continues on her journey to her arranged marriage, keeping secret that she is pregnant with the Englishman’s child. She dies in childbirth but the child, Pran, lives, growing up as the pampered and spoiled son of a rich man. Everyone admires his beautiful pale skin, almost as white as the whites. But one person knows the secret of his origin – Amrita’s maid – and when Pran, now a teenager, attempts to ravish her daughter, the maid tells Pran’s “father” the truth about him. A few days later the father dies of the influenza which is sweeping the world, and the family eject Pran from the home he expected to inherit, leaving him destitute and alone. This is the story of Pran’s life, and through him a satirical look at the impact of colonialism and the position of the “blackie-whites” – the mixed race Anglo Indians, caught between two cultures, not fully accepted by either.

The book is written in a series of separate sections, which is how Pran lives his life. The pampered rich kid becomes a desperate beggar, who is taken in by a brothel-keeper and forced into male prostitution. From there he is sold to a rich Indian as a Hijra – a transgender eunuch, more or less – which is not an identity he chooses for himself. Fortunately for him, this phase of his life is over before the eunuch bit is carried out. I’m not going to go through all the phases since that’s the story really, so too much detail would be spoilery. But in essence, he eventually ditches his Indian identity and embraces his Englishness, becoming Robert, then Jonathan along the way. He is intelligent, resourceful and chameleon-like, able to seem as if he’s fitting in by a process of learning and mimicking the manners of those around him wherever he happens to be.

Book 3 of 14

I found some of the sections more successful than others, which I feel is probably down to my subjective preferences rather than any unevenness in the book. It is satire, and my track record with satire is distinctly wobbly. Sometimes while I could see the humour in situations Pran found himself in, the darkness of them made me unable to feel amused. Pran starts out distinctly unlikeable and while I grew to have a lot of sympathy with the way he was treated by both cultures, I never fully got over that initial dislike.

However, in every section it’s a wonderful portrayal of a different part of society, be it among the sex-workers of India, the missionaries of the Raj or the students of Oxford. In the lighter sections, I could fully enjoy the humour and appreciate the insight into each culture. For me, the Indian sections were the more interesting, although also the darker, because the book goes well beyond the familiar territory of most British colonial fiction into the worlds of the immensely rich and the devastatingly poor of the “real” India of the time, living alongside but not part of the world of the Raj. Kunzru mocks the Raj pretty mercilessly, though subtly, but he also mocks the rich and powerful Indians, so it doesn’t ever feel like a polemical anti-British rant. As a result, it is a much more effective critique of the impact of colonialism on individuals, both colonised and colonisers, than most of the unsubtle post-colonial diatribes we’ve been subjected to in recent years. The divide here, as it always is in life, is between the rich and powerful, whether British or Indian, and the people they exploit.

Hari Kunzru

But the main subject he is examining is identity and belonging, and how intertwined and inseparable those two things are. Pran/Robert/Jonathan is a shapeshifter, a permanent outsider who is skilful enough to appear as an insider in any setting. But who is he? If there comes a point when his wardrobe-full of identities falls away and leaves him naked – who is he then? And Kunzru makes this question wider – can the identity of a culture survive intact when subjected to old-style colonialism or the newer colonialism of enforced capitalism, or will it break and be lost? He doesn’t give us answers – he simply makes us ponder the questions.

Another excellent, entertaining and thought-provoking book from Kunzru, one of the most intelligent authors of our time.

Amazon UK Link

Death of Mr Dodsley by John Ferguson

Highs and lows…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When a beat policeman stops a man running down the road late one night and demands to know what he’s up to, the drunken young man tells a rambling story of a door that opened and closed as if by itself in a shop that should have been locked up for the night. The policeman investigates, and discovers the body of Mr Dodsley, shot in the head, in the office at the back of his bookshop. Meantime, the House of Commons is having a late sitting amid an air of anticipation – “coming man” David Grafton is scheduled to lead the debate on an amendment which, if successful, may bring down the government. While waiting for the debate to begin, he is reading Death at the Desk, the new debut mystery novel written by his daughter, Margery, who happens to be engaged to the son of Mr Dodsley…

This one is a real mix of high and lows. The best bits are great, but the bits between are a real slog to get through. It starts with the lengthy conversation between the drunk and the policeman, that seems to go on and on for ever. Then it jumps to Parliament, where Ferguson skilfully evokes the late-night atmosphere in the gentleman’s club-like environs of the Commons, as the MPs discuss Grafton’s chances of success in the debate. Next day we meet the Grafton family at home, and they are a bunch of interesting, well-drawn characters – the ambitious Grafton himself, his social-climbing second wife, his son, just reaching adulthood and more interested in cars than politics, his secretary, who is also a friend of the son, and we learn that Margery’s engagement to Dick Dodsley has caused an estrangement, since the son of a bookseller is in the wrong social class for this upwardly mobile family.

Sadly, we then leave the Graftons and they almost entirely disappear for most of the rest of the book, except for Owen, the secretary, and Margery, the estranged daughter. Now we move to the police investigation, and I’m afraid that’s where it becomes a slog. Far too much time is spent on cigarette ends, timings, etc. There are too many clichés, such as the broken watch fixing the time of the murder (or does it?), the mysterious code in Mr Dodsley’s diary, and so on. It becomes ever more convoluted and less interesting as it progresses. The police are joined in their investigation by a private investigator, Francis McNab, who had been hired by Mr Dodsley to look into the theft of some valuable second-hand books.

There continue to be highs – it comes to life when various people are being interviewed by the police, since Ferguson has a knack for characterisation and is good at setting people within their social class, always so important at that time. But these highs are always followed by another of the interminable bits where the police and McNab discuss the same clues again and again. The basic plot is well worked out. However, despite the fact that I wouldn’t say it was fair play, somehow the guilty party seemed fairly obvious from early on, as did the probable motive, and neither of these were as interesting as the early Parliamentary setting suggested they might be.

On the whole, then, I feel this one can be summed up as ‘unfulfilled potential’. I’d be willing to read more from Ferguson because of his skill with setting and characterisation, but in the hopes that next time he’d avoid too many clichés in his plotting and cut out some of the repetition and drag in the investigation.

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

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 377…

Episode 377

Well, after being subjected to what can only be described as a horrific and traumatising co-ordinated campaign of online bullying in response to my trilogy question, I admit defeat – three it is. And I thought you were my friends!

So last week the TBR leapt up to 170. This week it has dropped by two (Hah! That’ll show you!) so it’s now 168!

Do you ever look at Goodreads’ ‘because you’re reading this, you might enjoy this’ recommendations? They often leave me baffled as to whether their algorithm designer is… well… sober. This week I felt they excelled themselves with this one…

Haha, I’m still trying to decide whether they think Alex Jones is a great politician and war leader, or whether they think Churchill is a discredited crazed conspiracy theorist! I can cheerfully assert I will not be following their recommendation on this occasion!

Anyway, here’s a few more that should melt off my list soon… 

Psychological Thriller

A Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates

Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail via NetGalley. A random pick based on the blurb, this one is getting pretty mixed reviews so I’m not sure how it will go. It sounds as if it has potential though…

The Blurb says: A nephew. An uncle. A psychopath – but which of them is it? Gil knows his nephew Matthew is dangerous. The signs were there early – on a family holiday Gil’s daughter was discovered nearly drowning at the bottom of a swimming pool, while Matthew looked on from the deck. Now seventeen, Matthew is orphaned when his parents die in a car crash. He must leave his Upper East Side Manhattan life behind, to live with Gil, his wife and daughters in rural Vermont. He is insolent, bored, disconnected. At least that’s Gil’s take. To the women in the family he is charming, intelligent, wry. But when he disdainfully joins Gil’s writing classes at the local university, Matthew’s fiction shows a vivid and macabre imagination spilling onto the page. Matthew is clearly announcing his intentions to Gil, taunting him before he does something awful to his family. But why is Gil the only one who can see this? As Gil begins to follow Matthew around, his own behaviour becomes increasingly unstable. Is he losing his mind? Which of the two of them is likely to kill someone?

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Literary Thriller

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Courtesy of Granta Publications via NetGalley. It’s been a long, long wait for a new book from Catton, after her 2013 Booker-winning The Luminaries, which I loved. This sounds very different, but intriguing!  

The Blurb says: Birnam Wood is on the move…

A landslide has closed the Korowai Pass in New Zealand’s South Island, cutting off the town of Thorndike, leaving a sizable farm abandoned. The disaster presents an opportunity for Birnam Wood, a guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops wherever no one will notice. But they hadn’t figured on the enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine, who also has an interest in the place. Can they trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust each other?

A propulsive literary thriller from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, Birnam Wood is Shakespearean in its wit, drama and immersion in character. It is a brilliantly constructed tale of intentions, actions and consequences, and an unflinching examination of the human impulse to ensure our own survival.

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Scandi Crime 

The Preacher by Camilla Läckberg

One for my Looking Forward challenge. This has been sitting on my TBR since 2015, so it’s probably about time I read it! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of Läckberg’s novels, and thoroughly not enjoyed others. Let’s hope this falls into the former category! 

The Blurb says: Twenty years ago, two young women disappeared whilst holidaying in the peaceful Swedish resort of Fjällbacka. Now their remains have been discovered, along with those of a fresh victim, sending the town into shock.

Local detective Patrik Hedström , whose girlfriend Erica is expecting their first child, has personal reasons for wanting to find the killer. And when another girl goes missing, his attention focuses on the Hults, a feuding clan of misfits, religious fanatics and criminals. Which of this family’s dark secrets will provide the vital clue?

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Vintage Crime on Audio

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart read by Cathleen Fuller

I’ve seen many enticing reviews around the blogosphere of books by Mary Roberts Rinehart so felt it was time that I tried her for myself…

The Blurb says: Rachel Innes, a middle-aged spinster, has barely settled in at the country house she has rented for the summer when a series of bizarre and violent events threaten to perturb her normally unflappable nature. A strange figure appears briefly in the twilight outside a window. At night, a rattling, metallic sound reverberates through dark halls, and–most disconcerting of all–the body of a strange man is found lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of a circular staircase.

Before this spine-tingling tale ends, five connected deaths shatter the normally placid atmosphere of the vacation retreat. Rachel’s devoted niece and nephew are among the prime suspects in one of the murders; stolen securities and a bank default threaten the young pair’s financial security, and Aunt Ray ultimately fights for her life in an airless secret room.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards

Encyclopaedia of villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Any reader of vintage crime fiction is likely to be aware of Martin Edwards as the editor of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, including editing many themed anthologies of short stories. He is also a successful crime writer in his own right, and is a past Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association and current President of The Detection Club. He has previously written a short history of vintage crime fiction, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and a history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, which includes short biographies of many of the Golden Age authors who were early members. All of which surely makes him the ideal person to write a new up-to-date history of crime fiction!

This monumental book runs to over 600 pages in hardback plus bibliography and index, and is divided into 55 chapters, each focusing on one aspect or sub-genre of crime fiction or occasionally on the work of a particular outstanding author, like Agatha Christie or PD James. In each chapter he discusses his chosen subject – for example, early detective fiction, recurring rogues like Raffles, crime writers in Hollywood, noir, etc. – putting it into context in the timeline of crime writing and giving plentiful examples of authors and specific novels to point readers in the right direction if they wish to explore further. Each chapter is bite-sized – easily absorbable in one short reading session, and each has copious notes which are well worth reading, since they add both anecdotes and further authors and books to look out for. In general, the book is laid out chronologically, roughly from Edgar Allan Poe to modern crime fiction, though the selection of subjects means there is some overlap in time between chapters. The short chapters make this an ideal dipper.

Martin Edwards

Indeed, I rarely review a book I haven’t finished unless I’m abandoning it, but I’m making an exception for this one. While I find each chapter interesting, it feels like too much to absorb all at once, so I have been dipping into it when the mood takes me. It may be a long time before I “finish” it on that basis, but I feel I’ve read enough so far to make a fair assessment of the style and level of content.

I have mentioned already the two books Edwards has previously written on aspects of the history of crime fiction. This one differs in three respects: it goes into each aspect in a greater level of detail, it widens out beyond British writers to look at international trends in crime fiction, and it brings the history on far past the Golden Age and post-war period, well into the modern era. My own view is that the three books will appeal to different readers’ preferences: if one simply wants some pointers to vintage crime, then The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books is excellent and has the advantage of being relatively concise. (Since I’ve been running a personal challenge to read all 100 of the books in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, I found that this time I could feel a bit smug that I had met a lot of the authors under discussion in this later volume, which made me feel I could bring my own opinion to the subject.) The Golden Age of Murder is rather more focused on the authors than their novels, so would appeal to readers who enjoy literary biographies. However, if one wants to know more about the entire history of crime writing from its earliest days until now, then this is the one for you! Reading this one eliminates the need to read either of the others, in my opinion, since most of the information in them is incorporated into this.

So far I’ve only read chapters on the earlier period – vintage crime – but I’m looking forward to exploring the chapters on modern British crime fiction (where I’m rather better read, so should recognise a lot of the authors) and on American and international crime fiction (which I know considerably less well). Spy fiction, domestic suspense, private investigators, comedy, legal mysteries, whodunits, howdunits and whowasdunins – it’s hard to think of a subject that isn’t covered! And the extensive index makes looking something up easy, so once read this will have an afterlife as a great reference book for the crime fiction lover’s shelf. And for anyone daft enough to make the attempt, imagine the fun of a challenge to read every book Edwards mentions….

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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