TBR Thursday 257…

Episode 257

The TBR has been fluctuating wildly during my break but has settled back to exactly where it was last time I reported – 198! I’m still working on it though…

Here are a few more that will be falling off the edge soon…

Fiction

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster UK via NetGalley. I’ve loved a couple of Hari Kunzru’s earlier books, especially White Tears, so a new release from him is a major event in my reading diary, especially since there’s usually a long wait between books. The blurb of this one makes it sound as if it’s been written specially for me…

The Blurb says: When a Brooklyn writer leaves behind his young family to take up the offer of a three month residency at the Deuter Centre on the shore of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee, he arrives with romantic dreams of days devoted to total artistic absorption. However, The Deuter Centre turns out to be anything but the idyllic writerly retreat he imagines and, rather than study at the clinical and closely monitored desk assigned to him, he opts to spend much of the time holed up in his bedroom watching Blue Lives, an ultraviolent cop show with a bleak and merciless view of the world.

One night, while at a glamourous party in the city, he meets Anton, the charismatic creator of Blue Lives, and they strike up a passionate and alcohol-fuelled conversation about the pessimism at the show’s core. It is a conversation that marks the beginning of the writer’s obsession with Anton and leads him on a journey into the heart of moral darkness that threatens to destroy everything he holds most dear, including his own mind.

Red Pill is a novel about the alt-right, online culture, creativity, sanity and history. It is the story of the 21st century, told through the prism of the centuries that preceded it, and it shows how the darkest chapters of our past have returned to haunt our present. More than anything, though, Red Pill is a story about love and how it can endure in a world where everything else seems to have lost all meaning.

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Fiction

The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Courtesy of Atlantic Books via NetGalley. To be honest, I can’t remember why I requested this one, since it doesn’t totally sound like my kind of thing – a glowing review I saw around the blogosphere perhaps? However, it’s got a very high average rating on Goodreads, so I’m willing to be persuaded…  

The Blurb says: A regular weekday morning veers drastically off-course for five strangers whose paths cross in a London café  their lives never to be the same again when an apparently crazed gunman holds them hostage. But there is more to the situation than first meets the eye and as the captives grapple with their own inner demons, the line between right and wrong starts to blur. Will the secrets they keep stop them from escaping with their lives?

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Thriller

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joël Dicker

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. Again, not sure about this one, but I’m trying to get back to reading at least some contemporary crime before I lose touch completely. Maybe this will revive my enthusiasm… or crush it! It’s 640 pages long, so it will have to be really special to justify the length. We’ll see… 

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of two brutal murders.

Confounding their superiors, two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and arrest the murderer, earning themselves handsome promotions and the lasting respect of their colleagues.

But twenty years later, just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still out there, perhaps ready to strike again. Before she can give any more details however, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears without trace, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the awful possibility that her suspicions might have been proved horribly true.

What happened to Stephanie Mailer? What did she know? And what really happened in Orphea all those years ago? 

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Horror on Audio

Dracula by Bram Stoker read by Greg Wise and Saskia Reeves

I’ve been meaning to re-read Dracula for years, so couldn’t resist the idea of the lovely Greg Wise reading it to me… and Saskia, of course! Should keep the porpy and me entertained as we get into the swing of spooky season!

The Blurb says: Young lawyer Jonathan Harker journeys to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count Dracula only to discover that his nobleman client is a vampire who is thirsty for new blood. After imprisoning Harker in his castle, Dracula travels to England to seduce Jonathan’s fiancée, Mina, and the battle against an ineffable evil begins.

Led by philosopher and metaphysician Professor Van Helsing – Dracula’s most indomitable adversary – Harker, Mina, and a band of allies unite, determined to confront and destroy the Count before he can escape.

Bram Stoker ingeniously modernized gothic folklore by moving his vampire from traditional castle ruins to modern England. With Dracula, which has been interpreted and dissected by scholars for generations, Stoker changed the vampire novel forever.

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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 Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

All that glitters…

😐 😐

When Philip Marlowe helps out a drunken Terry Lennox one night, it starts a kind of casual friendship between the two men. So when Lennox’s wife is beaten to death, it’s to Marlowe that he turns for help, not to investigate the crime, but to assist him to flee the country. Hearing later that Lennox has confessed to the murder, Marlowe doesn’t believe it – he can believe that Lennox might have killed his serially unfaithful wife, but not that he would have done it so brutally. Meantime, he has been approached by the publisher of Roger Wade, a successful writer now struggling with bouts of drunkenness which are making it impossible for him to finish his latest book. The publisher wants Marlowe to keep Wade sober, if he can, and to try to find out what is causing Wade to behave this way. Marlowe refuses, but soon gets sucked into Wade’s troubles anyway, partly because of Wade’s beautiful, golden wife.

This one didn’t do it for me at all, I’m afraid. Admittedly, it has several of the elements I most dislike about American noir fiction – the constant drunkenness, the casual violence, the ubiquitous Great God Gun at whose altar all America worships, apparently. The women exist purely as sexual beings, the men (despite the constant availability of women and drink – or maybe because of it) are all existentially miserable, corrupt and violent – even the good ones. Society as a whole is also corrupt, bleak and hollow. No one does a normal, honest job, or has a happy family life. Only old people have children, and that purely so they can despise them. Love only appears as lust, and even the fulfilment of that lust usually ends in tears, literally. Makes me wonder why anyone would choose to go on living and, indeed, one of the recurring themes of the book is suicide. Somehow this kind of depressing noir vision of life works quite well on screen for me, but not in books, maybe because I have too much time to get bored with it.

Book 68 of 90
CC Spin 24

As if specially to annoy me further, Chandler, obviously in autobiographical mood, chose for another of his themes to write about how hard it is for writers to write, a subject that writers too often find far more fascinating than I do. My feeling is that if writers hate writing, the solution is simple – don’t do it. The world will not run short of books. And fewer books about the plight of poor struggling writers would be a major bonus for poor struggling readers.

The writing itself is fine, though without the slick snappiness I generally expect from American noir of this era. I did not however find it as “literary” as many other reviews suggest. Of course, we all define “literary” differently, but for me it means it has something to say about society or “the human condition”. This speaks only about the drunk, the corrupt and the violent. Chandler suggests that his characters had often been damaged by their experiences in the recent WW2, but I didn’t find he handled this aspect convincingly – except in the case of one character, it seemed more like an excuse than a cause. Some of the descriptive stuff paints wonderfully evocative pictures, though…

The bar was filling up. A couple of streamlined demi-virgins went by caroling and waving. They knew the two hotshots in the booth farther on. The air began to be spattered with darlings and crimson fingernails.

Raymond Chandler

The biggest problem, though, is that the book is bloated to a degree where the actual story gets almost completely overwhelmed by the rather pointless padding, repetitive dialogue and occasional mini-essays on what Chandler feels is wrong with the world. I had to make a huge effort to keep going, in the hope, not fulfilled, that at some point the reason for the book’s reputation would become clear. I can only assume that it’s a mismatch between book and reader, since undoubtedly it is almost universally loved by those who read it. Personally, I vastly preferred The Big Sleep, the only other Chandler I’ve read. Although it’s a long time since I read it, I seem to remember it was tighter, slicker and more entertaining, with Marlowe operating as a proper private eye. In this one, the amount of actual detection Marlowe does is pretty much zero – he just gets caught up in events and wanders somewhat aimlessly around annoying people till they punch him. Sadly, I could see their point.

“I’ve got five hundred pages of typescript here, well over a hundred thousand words. My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there’s a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold.”

Not all of us, Mr Chandler, not all of us.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! Schalken the Painter by Sheridan Le Fanu

Men! Tchah!

The evenings have grown long and dark, the porpy is awake from his summer hibernation and practising his quivering, the ghosts have donned their freshly laundered sheets – it’s time for terror! And what better way to start than with a classic tale from a master of horror, taken from this brand new collection, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, issued by Oxford World’s Classics just in time to scare us all into fits this spooky season…

Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter
by Sheridan Le Fanu

J Sheridan Le Fanu

Our narrator is admiring a painting of a lovely young girl, painted years before by the Dutch painter, Schalken, and now owned by the narrator’s friend…

In its hand the figure bears a lamp, by whose light alone the form and face are illuminated; the features are marked by an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practicing some roguish trick;…

But there is another figure in the painting…

…in the background, and, excepting where the dim red light of an expiring fire serves to define the form, totally in the shade, stands the figure of a man equipped in the old fashion, with doublet and so forth, in an attitude of alarm, his hand being placed upon the hilt of his sword, which he appears to be in the act of drawing.

The painting’s owner tells the tale which is said to have inspired the painting – the tale of Rose, whom Schalken, when young, loved and lost.

Rose Velderkaust was very young, having, at the period of which we speak, not yet attained her seventeenth year, and, if tradition speaks truth, possessed all the soft dimpling charms of the fair, light-haired Flemish maidens.

“Young Girl with a Candle”
by Gottfried Schalken

Rose was the niece of the painter under whom Schalken was studying, Gerard Douw. She soon grew to love Schalken too, but he was poor and could not aspire to her hand until he had made his mark in his chosen career, so he set to at his studies with a good will, and the two young people were content to wait.

But one evening, while Schalken had stayed late to continue his work after all the other pupils had left, he was disturbed by the arrival of a sinister stranger, half-hidden in the gloom of the room…

There was an air of gravity and importance about the garb of this person, and something indescribably odd, I might say awful, in the perfect, stone-like movelessness of the figure, that effectually checked the testy comment which had at once risen to the lips of the irritated artist.

The stranger asked Schalken to arrange for Douw to meet him there the following night. This Douw duly did, and the stranger revealed his name, Wilken Vanderhausen, and his purpose…

“You visited the town of Rotterdam some four months ago, and then I saw in the church of St. Lawrence your niece, Rose Velderkaust. I desire to marry her, and if I satisfy you as to the fact that I am very wealthy, more wealthy than any husband you could dream of for her, I expect that you will forward my views to the utmost of your authority.”

Blieck Church of St. Lawrence in Rotterdam

Now, Douw knew nothing about this man and was repelled by his appearance and manner, but when the stranger handed him a box full of pure gold ingots, he immediately decided Vanderhausen would make a perfect husband for his beloved niece, for, as he explained to the appalled Rose…

“Rose, my girl, it is very true he has not thy pretty face, but I know him to be wealthy and liberal; and were he ten times more ugly” – (“which is inconceivable,” observed Rose) – these two virtues would be sufficient” continued her uncle “to counterbalance all his deformity, and if not of power sufficient actually to alter the shape of his features, at least of efficacy enough to prevent one thinking them amiss.”

…and what are women, after all, if not chattels to be sold to the highest bidder? And so within the week, Rose is married off to Vanderhausen, and whisked away by him to Rotterdam. Weeks pass, and no word is heard of the newlyweds, and a worried Douw can find no trace of them at the address Vanderhausen had given them. But one dark night, a frantic knocking is heard at the door, and Rose is admitted, in a state of profound terror. She begs her uncle to bring her a minister of God…

“Oh that the holy man were here,” she said; “he can deliver me: the dead and the living can never be one: God has forbidden it… Do not, do not leave me for a moment,” said she; “I am lost for ever if you do…”

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The odd thing is that I’ve read this story before and thought it was okay, but this time I loved it! This is apparently the original version of the story from 1839, whereas it’s usually a later revised version that shows up in collections. I haven’t directly compared them and it’s quite a while since I read the later version, but it seems to me that this version fills in more of the blanks, and gives it more depth. Le Fanu uses the real Schalken’s painting style, of showing figures in dark rooms lit only by a single candle or lamp, to great effect, with most of the scenes in the story being full of shadowy corners and menacing gloom.

Although Schalken gets the billing in the title, it’s really Douw, as a man who equates money with worth, and poor Rose, the victim in different ways of each of the three men in her life, who are the stars. Douw is a decent man by the standards of his time, behaving merely as his society expects, and Schalken is a weak one, putting up no fight for his love. They both fail Rose, leaving her with no protection against the horror of Vanderhausen. When the story reaches its climax, they have a last chance to save her, but will they? You’ll have to read it to find out…

It’s nicely creepy without being terrifying, very well written as you’d expect from Le Fanu, lots to analyse if you’re that way inclined, and the porpy and I found it a great way to kick off our annual spookfest! The revised version is available online, but I couldn’t find this original version.

The porpy has had his hair done ready for the new season.

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall rating is for the story’s quality.

Dark Fire (Matthew Shardlake 2) by CJ Sansom

Cromwell’s secret weapon…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1540, and lawyer Matthew Shardlake has taken on the case of a girl who has been charged with the murder of her young cousin. The girl, Elizabeth, is refusing to speak, partly from shock perhaps, but she also seems to be full of rage. If she won’t plead she knows she will be subjected to torture, but still she keeps her silence. At the last moment, Shardlake finds that she is to be given a temporary reprieve – twelve days more in the Hole at Newgate prison before the torture begins, unless Shardlake can get to the truth of what happened before then. But then Shardlake learns that the reprieve has been the work of the King’s vicar general, Thomas Cromwell. And in return, Cromwell wants Shardlake to do a job for him – one that may save Cromwell from the King’s growing displeasure…

The two cases in this story are completely separate and quite different from each other, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Shardlake books so enjoyable. While the Cromwell strand takes us deep into the machinations of the powerful men vying for the King’s favour, Elizabeth’s story is far away from politics, set in her merchant uncle’s home. This allows Sansom to roam widely through the streets of London, and the various types and classes of people who populate them.

Cromwell provides Shardlake with a new assistant, a tough young commoner by the name of Jack Barak who was once helped by Cromwell and now feels a great loyalty to him. Shardlake’s feelings are more mixed – he has been appalled by some of the things Cromwell has done in the name of Reform, including torturing and burning heretics, and is no longer as enthusiastic a Reformer as he once was. However, when Cromwell demands service a man has to be very brave or very foolish to refuse, and Shardlake is neither, plus he knows it’s the only way to gain time to investigate Elizabeth’s case.

Greek Fire, known in the book as “dark fire”

Cromwell has been told that the formula for an ancient weapon once used by the Byzantines, known as “dark fire”, has been rediscovered. Having told King Henry, he has now discovered that the men who promised to supply it to him have been murdered. Cromwell is already on extremely shaky ground with the King since it was he who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves, which turned out to be a disaster, and he knows that if he fails to provide the promised new weapon the King will be even more furious. Now the King has set his amorous sights on young Catherine Howard and Cromwell fears that, if she becomes Queen, then her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, will take Cromwell’s place as the second most important man in the land. So he tasks Shardlake with finding the murderers and, more importantly, with finding either the supply of dark fire he has been promised or at least the formula for it.

Elizabeth had been recently orphaned and sent to live in her Uncle Edwin’s family. She never fitted in with her cousins, two girls and a boy, all of whom seemed to enjoy teasing her about her less refined manners. But when she is accused of having killed the boy by throwing him down the well, her other uncle, Joseph, refuses to believe her guilty. It is he who begs Shardlake to take her case, and as Shardlake and Barak investigate, they will find that there are dark secrets in this family – dark and dangerous.

Both stories are very well told, and Sansom keeps the balance between them well, never losing sight of either for too long. Although Barak’s job is to help Shardlake with the dark fire investigation, he is happy to help with Elizabeth’s case too, especially since in some ways she reminds him of himself when he too found himself in trouble at a young age. Despite having little in common, the rough commoner Barak and the cultured lawyer Shardlake gradually begin to find a mutual respect for each other, and even the beginnings of friendship.

CJ Sansom

As always, the historical setting feels completely authentic, both in terms of the high events surrounding the King and court, and in the depiction of how people lived and worked at this period. Sansom gives an amazing amount of detail about all sorts of things, from the dinner-tables of the high and mighty to the inns and brothels of the poorer parts of the city, and manages to do this seamlessly as part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. It becomes an immersive experience, and I always feel a sense of dislocation when I return to the modern world. Both plots in this one are interesting, although I found myself more involved in the more personal one of Elizabeth and her family than in Cromwell and his political shenanigans. Brother Guy from the first book is now in London working as an apothecary. He and Matthew have become firm friends and he plays an important role in this book, which is an added bonus for me since he’s one of my favourite characters.

I listened to the audiobook this time, which is wonderfully narrated by Steven Crossley. I will admit his voice for Barak didn’t chime with my own idea of how he should sound at first but I soon got used to it. His Shardlake is perfect, though, and he uses a huge variety of tones and accents for the other people in what is a pretty vast cast of characters. It makes such a difference to ease of listening when each character is so clearly differentiated, especially in such a long book.

So, an excellent second outing for Shardlake and, in common with all the books in this series, gets my highest recommendation.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

A Greek idyll…?

🤬

A woman dies on a Greek island and it is put down to accident or maybe suicide. But a mysterious stranger arrives from Athens – Hermes Diaktoros (isn’t that name hilarious with its hilarious reference to Greek mythology? What? You don’t get it? No, me neither, but fear not, the author will explain it – every single time he introduces himself to another character. Hilariously.) “The fat man” thinks there is more to the woman’s death than has been revealed…

I put up with the dirt, the rain, the storms and howling winds. I put up with the unpleasant small-minded people. I put up with the misogyny. I put up with the author constantly referring to the detective as “the fat man”. I put up with the use of the c-word. I even put up with the gratuitous and graphic description of incestuous sex between one man and two sisters. But when it comes to pages of revolting detail about how to hang a goat up alive by its back legs and then slaughter and eviscerate it, I must resort to misquoting Churchill – up with this I will not put.

Maybe an accurate depiction of the more backward areas of the Greek islands, but not a place I want to spend any time, either really or fictionally. The author clearly missed the class at writing school where they tell the pupils crime novels are supposed to entertain, not disgust. Abandoned at 39%, but highly recommended to anyone who wants to know how to gut goats.

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Oops, People! Another People’s Choice hits the wall! I’m coming to the conclusion that the reason these books have lingered on my TBR for so long is that subliminally I must have picked up enough information about them from reviews to know at a subconscious level that they wouldn’t work for me. However, the upside is that at least they’re coming off the TBR at last, so I hope you’ll forgive me for this string of negative, grumpy reviews. Thanks to all who voted – I really do appreciate it, though it may not always seem that way… 😉

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Due to having fallen behind with life, the universe and everything, I shall be taking a short break to catch my breath! Back soon – be good!

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TBR Thursday 256…

Episode 256

All you people who’ve been worried about my shrinking TBR can breathe a sigh of relief this week – it’s gone up 2 to 198! Still below the magic 200, though, and of course it wasn’t my fault. I tried to stop the postman delivering the box of books, but he insisted, so what could I do?? I’m sure I’ll be back on track soon…

Here are a few more that will be tripping my way soon…

Factual

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of Summerscale’s earlier books, loving her mix of true events and social commentary. This one sounds like a great way to kick off spooky season too…

The Blurb says: London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap. Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems. By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed. With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.

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American Classic

The American by Henry James

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a few of James’ ghostly novellas before, and am not at all convinced his style won’t drive me insane in a full-length book. But we book bloggers must sometimes suffer for our art, so I shall gird up my loins (do women have loins? I should have paid more attention in anatomy classes. I know men have them… and pigs…) and face him bravely!  

The Blurb says: During a trip to Europe, Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, asks the charming Claire de Cintre to be his wife. To his dismay, he receives an icy reception from the heads of her family, who find Newman to be a vulgar example of the American privileged class. Brilliantly combining elements of comedy, tragedy, romance and melodrama, this tale of thwarted desire vividly contrasts nineteenth-century American and European manners. Oxford’s edition of The American, which was first published in 1877, is the only one that uses James’ revised 1907 text.

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Vintage Crime

Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

Courtesy of HarperCollins. To celebrate the publishing centenary of Freeman Wills Crofts, HarperCollins are reissuing three of his books and I was thrilled to receive a surprise box containing them all! I’ve only read one of the Inspector French books before, The 12:30 from Croydon, and loved it, and have been meaning to read more, so here’s the first. Couldn’t wait, so I’ve started it already…

The Blurb says: The Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company on the Solent is in serious financial trouble. Its rival, Chayle on the Isle of Wight, has a secret new manufacturing process and is underselling them. Having failed to crack the secret legitimately, two employees hatch a plot to break in and steal it. But the scheme does not go according to plan, resulting in damage and death, and Inspector French is brought in to solve one of the most dramatic and labyrinthine cases of his entire career. 

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Dalziel & Pascoe on Audio

Child’s Play by Reginald Hill read by Colin Buchanan

I enjoyed Colin Buchanan as narrator of these books more than I was expecting in Exit Lines (review soon), so decided to go for the audiobook again for the next one in my slow re-read of this great series… 

The Blurb says: Geraldine Lomas’s son went missing in Italy during World War Two, but the eccentric old lady never accepted his death.

Now she is dead, leaving the Lomas beer fortune to be divided between an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. As disgruntled relatives gather by the graveside, the funeral is interrupted by a middle-aged man in an Italian suit, who falls to his knees crying, ‘Mama!’

Andy Dalziel is preoccupied with the illegal book one of his sergeants is running on who is to be appointed as the new chief Constable. But when a dead Italian turns up in the police car park, Peter Pascoe and his bloated superior are plunged into an investigation that makes internal police politics look like child’s play…

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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 Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

A puzzling mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀

A plane crashes en route to Dublin. Four men were supposed to have been going on the trip, but only three boarded the plane. There were no survivors and no bodies have been found. The first problem is that no one knows which of the four men is the one who is, presumably, still alive. The second problem is that he hasn’t turned up, explaining why he missed the flight. Inspector Lewis and his assistant, Sergeant Young, have to backtrack through the last day or two to see if they can identify the man who didn’t fly, and find out why he has disappeared…

This is a very odd crime novel. I assumed the crime would be that the plane had been deliberately destroyed, meaning that the pilot and passengers had been murdered. But this idea never seems to feature much. Maybe back in the 1950s, planes were always falling out of the sky en route to Dublin so it didn’t seem so suspicious? Instead, Lewis and Young seem to be merely trying to identify the dead and the living, for the sake of the inquests. And yet I couldn’t quite swallow the idea that two relatively high-level officers would be assigned to such a task. Fortunately, however, it soon transpires that all four of the men had secrets, so the lack of an obvious crime soon fades into the background as the investigation begins to centre on what they’d all been up to in the days before the flight.

Some of the early part follows the usual detective story format of Lewis questioning locals, but soon he hones in on the Wade family, who seem to have had connections with all four of the men. From then on it’s told partly through members of the family giving their recollections, mixed with a straight third-person narrative of what they’re telling. Again odd, but it does work eventually, after a rather slow and confusing start. Mostly we see the action from the perspective of Hester, the older of Mr Wade’s two daughters. She’s a sensible young woman, who is worried that her father seems bent on speculating his small remaining fortune on the advice of one of the plane’s passengers. Another is the Wade’s lodger, a strange, nervous man who seems almost paranoid at times. A third man is a neighbour and long-time friend of the family. And the fourth is Harry, a ne’er-do-well with poetical aspirations, with whom young Hester is beginning to fancy herself in love. So the family is as keen to know who has survived as the police are, and readily co-operate in telling all they know of the days leading up to the crash.

Margot Bennett

The basis for the plot is all a bit silly really, and not terribly credible. But the actual plotting of the mystery element is excellent – it’s a real puzzle, based on clues and logic and elimination. The reader has as much chance as the police to work out the identities of the men on the basis of the clues given. Needless to say, I didn’t, although some parts of the story were easier to guess at than others. The characterisation is a bit contrived to serve the plot, and I must admit it took me ages before I could tell most of the missing men apart without checking back each time to remind myself which was which. Harry the poet and the Wade family members are much better drawn, especially Hester, who provides a rare character to care about amidst the many unlikeable and unscrupulous people in the cast.

Overall, I have rather mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed the second half much more than the first, and suspect it would greatly appeal to people who enjoy the challenge of a clue-based logic puzzle. It’s not quite as successful in terms of character and motive, but these aspects are still strong enough to give an enjoyable background for the puzzle elements. One for the mind rather than the emotions, I think.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Around the World in 80 Books Challenge – Wrap!

“The Road goes ever on and on…”

Way back in March 2016, I decided to participate in the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge, created and hosted by Sarah and Lucy at Hard Book Habit. Here’s what they said:

Here’s the deal. You’ll need to read 80 books set or connected with the random destinations of your choice, then you blog about each book that you read en route. You can choose any books you like – this challenge is not limited to fiction – and the only catch is that you must read at least one book connected to each continent, one sea-based book, and a book that involves travel – think the Orient Express, flight, hot-air balloons, train journeys, car trips, etc… the rest is up to you.

(Sadly in the intervening years Hard Book Habit has ceased to exist, and as far as I know Sarah and Lucy are no longer blogging.)

Four and a half years later, I limped wearily home, having visited every continent, sailed every sea, travelled through time and even ventured into space.

My original plan, which for once I stuck to, was to go back to the book that inspired the challenge, Around the World in Eighty Days, and see if I could find books for each stage of Phileas Fogg’s original journey. Wikipedia not only told me where Fogg and his faithful servant Passepartout stopped, but they provided a map which became my logo for the challenge…

That would fill 27 of the 80 slots, and the other 53 would be detours – taking me anywhere and everywhere, but making sure to meet each of the requirements of the challenge.

So here it is – the final list, with links to all my reviews:

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express – Travels with My Aunt
  3. France – The Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps – Crossed Skis
  5. Venice – Titian’s Boatman
  6. Brindisi – That Summer in Puglia
  7. Mediterranean Sea – Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas
  8. Suez – Something to Answer For
  9. Egypt – Palace Walk
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea – Lord Jim
  11. Bombay – Selection Day
  12. Calcutta – A Rising Man
  13. Kholby – The Jewel in the Crown
  14. Elephant Travel – The Elephant’s Journey
  15. Allahabad – The Sign of the Four
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea – A Dangerous Crossing
  17. Hong Kong – How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square
  18. Shanghai – Death of a Red Heroine
  19. Yokohama – Around the World in Eighty Days
  20. Pacific – Moby-Dick: Or, The White Whale
  21. San Francisco – The Dain Curse
  22. Sioux lands – Days Without End
  23. Omaha – The Swan Gondola
  24. New York – Three-Martini Lunch
  25. Atlantic Ocean – Treasure Island
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland – Dead Wake
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The Detours

  1. The Hebrides – Coffin Road
  2. Florida – Their Eyes Were Watching God
  3. Iceland – Snowblind
  4. Himalayas – Black Narcissus
  5. Ireland – The Heather Blazing
  6. Channel Islands – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  7. Australian Outback – Fear is the Rider
  8. Portugal – The High Mountains of Portugal
  9. Milan, Italy – The Murdered Banker
  10. Havana, Cuba – A Heart So White
  11. Saturn – 2001: A Space Odyssey
  12. Kabul, Afghanistan – The Kite Runner
  13. Vatican City – Conclave
  14. Dresden, Germany – Slaughterhouse-Five
  15. Scottish Highlands – Murder of a Lady
  16. The French Riviera – Death on the Riviera
  17. Kiev, Ukraine – The White Guard
  18. North Korea – The Accusation
  19. Chechnya – The Tsar of Love and Techno
  20. Japan – Penance
  21. Beijing, China – Braised Pork
  22. Ancient Greece – House of Names
  23. Bosnia and Herzegovina – Testimony
  24. Moscow, Russia – Doctor Zhivago
  25. Republic of the Congo – Brazzaville Beach
  26. Thailand – Behind the Night Bazaar
  27. Antarctic – Endurance
  28. Wales – The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories
  29. Spain – The Man Who Loved Dogs
  30. New Zealand – The Ice Shroud
  31. Gibraltar – The Rock
  32. Canada – Brother
  33. Jordan – Appointment with Death
  34. South Africa – The Good Doctor
  35. Lebanon – Pearls on a Branch
  36. Colombia – The Shape of the Ruins
  37. Uruguay – Springtime in a Broken Mirror
  38. Ancient Rome – Imperium
  39. Norway – The Katharina Code
  40. South Korea – The Plotters
  41. Europe – Europe: A Natural History
  42. Colonial Malay – The Night Tiger
  43. Istanbul, Turkey – 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World
  44. Papua New Guinea – Mister Pip
  45.  Zululand – Nada the Lily
  46.  East Germany – The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
  47.  Mexico – The Pearl
  48.  Nigeria – Things Fall Apart
  49.  Öland, Sweden – Echoes from the Dead
  50.  Sicily – The Leopard
  51.  Ruritania – The Prisoner of Zenda
  52.  The Arctic – Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus
  53.  Romania – Sword

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Highlights

I loved doing this challenge – probably the one I’ve enjoyed most of all the ones I’ve participated in. While I filled a lot of the spots on my journey from books I’d have been reading anyway, I also kept a weather eye open for books set in places I hadn’t yet visited, and that led me to read many books that probably would have otherwise passed me by. So to celebrate the end of the challenge, I’ve decided to highlight just five of the books, each of which I loved and probably wouldn’t have read without this incentive.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

A family saga, set in Egypt to the backdrop of the end of WW1, the rise of nationalism and the dying days of colonial Egypt. It took me a long time to feel involved with this family and their community but once I did I became completely absorbed in the slow telling of their lives. Usually I’d be more interested in the out-going, more political lives of the sons, but in this case I found myself fascinated by Mahfouz’ depiction of the lives and feelings of the women – the total seclusion and lack of agency, and the way that the mothers themselves trained their daughters to accept, conform and even be contented with this half-life. A deserved classic, and for once a Nobel Prize-winning novel that I feel merits that accolade.

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

There are three distinct sections in this novel, each very different but with common themes running through them, and all linked to a small town in the High Mountains, Tuizelo. It is a subtle discussion of the evolution vs. faith debate, with the old evolutionary saw of “risen apes, not fallen angels” appearing repeatedly. Chimps appear in some form in each of the sections, sometimes symbolically, sometimes actually. I found the whole thing an original and insightful approach to the question that provokes thought without forcing any specific answers on the reader. The writing is nothing short of brilliant. It flows smoothly, feels light and airy, but is full of insight into grief and love and heartache, and has left some indelible images in my mind.

Endurance by Alfred Lansing

This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. I found myself totally caught up in the men’s adventure, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. Talk about emotional rollercoaster! As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

Santiago is a political prisoner in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the 1970s. His family and friends are scattered, exiled from the country they call home. Although the book is based around the revolutions of South America, it is not about politics as such; rather, it is about the impact that political upheaval has on the individuals caught up in it. It’s about home and exile, loneliness, longing, belonging. It’s about loyalty and love, and sometimes despair. It’s profoundly moving – full of emotional truth. And, in the end, it holds out hope: that the human spirit has the resilience to find new ways of living when the old ones are taken away. A wonderful read.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but her brain has not yet shut completely down. As her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves and, most of all, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them. The prose is wonderful, the many stories feel utterly true and real, and they are beautifully brought together to create an intensely moving picture of a life that might pass unremarked and unmourned by society, but showing how remarkable such a life can be in its intimate details and how mourning is a tribute gained by a loving, generous soul regardless of status.

This was an incredibly hard choice, since I tried hard to fill most of the slots with great books, and there are very few in the final list that I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend. And I thoroughly enjoyed rounding the whole thing off by reading the wonderful Around the World in Eighty Days itself, which not only filled the impossible Yokohama spot but was an excellent way to bring my travels to an end.

Thanks for joining me on my epic journey. 😀

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Wealth of nations…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the harbour town of Sulaco, on the coast of the South American country of Costaguana, the silver mine of San Tomé is a source of great wealth to its English owner, Charles Gould, as well as to the local economy and the Costaguanan government. When yet another political upheaval threatens to bring down the dictatorship of President Ribiera, Gould’s first inclination is to provide support to shore up Ribiera’s tottering regime. But other voices in the multinational community of Sulaca have another suggestion – to break up the nation and set up an independent state with the mine at its heart. As reports arrive that the forces of the leader of the latest revolution are about to arrive in the town, Gould orders Nostromo, the incorruptible, indispensable “Capataz de Cargadores” (Overseer of the Dockers) to take the latest batch of silver offshore in a lighter ship so the revolutionaries can’t get their hands on it. But an accident occurs which leads Nostromo to hide the silver on an island in the bay, while he returns to the town only to be given another dangerous mission… to journey over the mountains to summon aid for the beleaguered town.

Set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, this isn’t about the impact of political colonialism as in Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Rather it’s a look at the even more destructive and insidious economic colonisation by capitalist countries of those nations whose resources they exploit while taking no responsibility for the adverse impacts of their actions. The major capital investment in the mine comes from America, giving us an early warning of the way the wealthy and powerful US would abuse their neighbours and distort their political development for their own greedy purpose – a situation that continues to the present day, giving the book an unsettling relevance. However, it’s not the Americans alone whom Conrad shows as exploiters – Britain, through the Englishman Gould, and Spain, through the old aristocracy of the town, are both shown as earlier waves in the continuous rape of the southern continent. All the major characters in the book, and in Sulaca, are foreigners either by birth or heritage, while the indigenous Costaguanans are relegated, quite intentionally, to being nothing but helpless pawns and onlookers, dirt poor amidst the fabulous wealth being extracted from beneath their land.

Men ploughed with wooden ploughs and yoked oxen, small on a boundless expanse, as if attacking immensity itself. The mounted figures of vaqueros galloped in the distance, and the great herds fed with all their horned heads one way, in one single wavering line as far as eye could reach across the broad potreros. A spreading cotton-wool tree shaded a thatched ranch by the road; the trudging files of burdened Indians taking off their hats, would lift sad, mute eyes to the cavalcade raising the dust of the crumbling camino real made by the hands of their enslaved forefathers. And Mrs. Gould, with each day’s journey, seemed to come nearer to the soul of the land in the tremendous disclosure of this interior unaffected by the slight European veneer of the coast towns, a great land of plain and mountain and people, suffering and mute, waiting for the future in a pathetic immobility of patience.

Costaguana is apparently geographically based on Colombia, but in terms of its political identity, it could be any one of a number of South or Central American states, or African, or indeed anywhere else that the West has exploited in its rapacious history. I found it completely believable, both physically and culturally, and gradually described with such detailed clarity it’s hard to believe that Sulaca isn’t real.

Nostromo is an intriguing character, although I found he was a little too caricatured to ring wholly true. Italian, he too is an incomer, but for him wealth is not the major motivation. He wants to be respected, for his character, integrity and courage, and to a large degree he is. The leaders of Sulacan society turn to him whenever they have a problem, and trust him absolutely. But they never treat him as one of themselves – his nickname, Nostromo, could be taken to mean “shipmate”, but it also could be a contraction of “nostro uomo”, meaning “our man”, and this is how the upper-classes treat him, as a faithful servant to be used as required. Eventually this treatment will have its effect on Nostromo, threatening that very integrity for which he is valued.

With Gould, Conrad shows how this class of economic colonialists see themselves as always separate from and above the countries in which they choose to make their fortune. Gould is third generation Costaguanan in terms of where his family has physically resided, but sent home to England to be educated, utterly English in his national allegiance, and of course, when it’s time to marry, selecting an English bride. None of this makes him feel he doesn’t have the right to use his economic power to influence the politics of this country to which he has no real loyalty, and he uses that power solely for the benefit of himself and the foreign elite who run the town, with no concern whatsoever for what might benefit or harm the indigenous Costaguanans.

Conrad’s portrayals of Gould and particularly of his wife, Emilia, are more nuanced, I feel, than that of Nostromo, and several of the secondary characters are very well drawn too: the Frenchman Degoud, who drifts into involvement in politics rather unintentionally because of his developing passion for the daughter of one of the leaders of this society; that leader himself, Don José Avallanos, descended from the old Spanish conquistadors and now part of the decaying aristocracy of Costaguana; Giorgio Viola, the old Italian innkeeper who once fought alongside Garibaldi; the various Generals on all sides of the conflict, all only too recognisable to the modern reader as representative of the type who would as easily start a coup as defend against it, for their own political and personal gain.

Joseph Conrad

In terms of the writing style, this seemed to me more straightforward than the other few Conrads I’ve read. It does jump about in time and requires constant concentration and occasional back-tracking, but for once it isn’t told as a narrated story within a story, so thankfully none of those nested quotation marks that turn some of his other books into brain-frazzling puzzles to follow. There are lots of Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, so the included glossary in my Oxford World’s Classics edition was very welcome – indeed, essential. But his prose is so wonderful and he is so insightful about humanity in its individual and social state that I forgive him totally for being hard to read. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read, and gets my highest recommendation.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison

Fictionalised history…

😐 😐

Kirstie Haldane has returned to her childhood home at Gleneagles to visit her family, bringing with her her new husband, Black William Macintosh of Borlum. Although Black William didn’t come “out” for the Young Pretender two years earlier in the uprising of 1745, his Jacobite sympathies are well documented – indeed, he spent several years exiled in America following the failed uprising of 1715. Most of the Haldanes are Whigs, so there is bound to be some political tension among the company, although all sides have now finally accepted that the Jacobite cause is lost, and all are agreed it’s time to begin healing the wounds. However, the government is still hunting rebels from the ’45, and when one such rebel turns up at the house seeking refuge, Kirstie’s young cousins hide him in the attic.

Oh, dear, I wish I was going to be saying how wonderful this book is, but I fear I’m not. I gave up just over halfway through because it was becoming a struggle to pick it up and read even a few pages each day. It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome. At the point I abandoned it, the only questions to be resolved were, firstly, will the young Jacobite be caught? I don’t care because he has been given no personality or involvement in the story. He has merely been stuck in the attic and left there. Secondly, will Kirstie discover that William once went through a form of marriage with a Native American woman during his exile? I don’t care, because I know enough about Kirstie to know she’ll easily forgive him, so what does it matter whether she finds out or not? And lastly, will young cousin Catherine and young cousin James, casting lingering glances at each other over the dinner table, get it together in the end? I expect so.

Book 67 of 90

However, as I said, it has strong points in its favour too, which is why I stuck with it for as long as I did. Mitchison is a descendent of the Haldanes of Gleneagles, and really this is more a fictionalised history of her family than a novel, hence, presumably, the lack of a strong plot. Many of the characters are real people, and the family is prominent enough that there would be documentary evidence of much of their lives, so I presume most of the background facts are true, such as allegiances during the rebellions, and the work that Mungo, the current head of the family, was doing to improve the estate. Kirstie and Black William are apparently inventions, however, although they have been given the names of people who appear on the real family tree, but about whom nothing much is known. Talking of the family tree, it covers four full pages and I never truly got to grips with how the innumerable cousins who appear were connected to each other.

Mitchison has clearly researched the period thoroughly and well, and gives a very credible account of the lives of the minor Scottish aristocracy of the time. She has her characters discuss all kinds of political and cultural changes that were taking place at this time – the land improvements that would soon become the basis of the Highland Clearances, the ongoing debate over the benefits or otherwise of the still new political Union with England, the repression of the Highland clans following the failed uprisings, the appalling conditions of the new class of industrial workers, the ongoing blight of serfdom in the mining industries, the still lingering superstitions around witchcraft, the impact of Enlightenment thinking on life in Edinburgh, and so on. She also gives very detailed descriptions of the everyday things of life – the food people ate, how they dressed, the kind of religious practices that would have been observed in Haldane’s Whig household and how they would differ from those held in Black William’s episcopalian home.

Naomi Mitchison

At first, I found this all quite interesting, although I did wonder how much of it would be comprehensible to anyone without a reasonable understanding of this period already – for instance, when she has her characters bicker over the relative merits of short leases and long leases in farming. But it soon palled, as Mitchison repeats and repeats – I lost count of how often she had her characters discuss the benefits of tree-planting, for example.

So I have mixed feelings about it. I rather wish she had simply done what she clearly wanted to do: that is, tell a straight history of her family at this period of time – the post-Jacobite era. In that way, she could have structured the discussions better and avoided the rambling and repetitive nature of them. I felt she did create a great picture of how they would have all lived, but the plot, such as it was, added nothing. Her use of language is great, though – standard English, as would indeed mostly have been spoken by this class at that time, but with plenty of Scottish flavour and rhythm to give it an authentic feel. But in the end, it’s too unstructured and messy to be a history, and yet doesn’t have a strong enough story to stand up to the weight of historical detail.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 255…

Episode 255

Another drop in the TBR since I last reported, despite having received more book post from lovely publishers! Down two to 196 – I’m getting worried…

Here are a few more I’ll be fretting over soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

There was never any doubt about which book would win this time – it took a commanding lead straight away and pulled further ahead as the race was run. Most of you picked it because you hoped I’d enjoy it, but *looks accusingly over top of reading glasses* some of you voted for it because you think I’ll hate it and you’re hoping for a grumpy 1-star review! Don’t try to look innocent – you know who you are! Either way, good choice, People – it’s one I’ve been intending to read for years. I’m falling behind, so it will be December before my review appears…

The Blurb says: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

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Scottish Classic

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

One from my Classics Club list – I’m in a race for the deadline now so the classics will be coming thick and fast! And this one is certainly thick…  On the upside, it’s not about the Jacobites! 

The Blurb says: Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land.

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Vintage Crime

Checkmate to Murder by ECR Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. Hurrah! Another from ECR Lorac, one of my favourites of the authors the BL has introduced me to…

The Blurb says: On a dismally foggy night in Hampstead, London, a curious party has gathered in an artist’s studio to weather the wartime blackout. A civil servant and a government scientist match wits in a game of chess, while Bruce Manaton paints the portrait of his characterful sitter, bedecked in Cardinal’s robes at the other end of the room. In the kitchen, Rosanne Manaton prepares tea for the charlady of Mr. Folliner, the secretive miser next door.

When the brutal murder of ‘Old Mr. F’ is discovered by his Canadian infantryman nephew, it’s not long before Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called to the scene to take the young soldier away. But even at first glance the case looks far from black-and-white. Faced with a bevy of perplexing alibis and suspicious circumstances, Macdonald and the C.I.D. set to work separating the players from the pawns to shed light on this toppling of a lonely king in the dead of night.

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Classic on Audio

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë read by Patricia Routledge

Having mentioned this on my recent post about the audiobooks on my To-Be-Listened-to list, I decided it had to be bumped up the priority list, mainly because I simply can’t imagine Patricia Routledge “doing” Heathcliff, and yet the reviews are great! I’ve already started it and… well, I’ll leave you in suspense…

The Blurb says: As darkness falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to shelter at the strange, grim house Wuthering Heights. It is a place he will never forget. There he will come to learn the story of Cathy: how she was forced to choose between her well-meaning husband and the dangerous man she had loved since she was young. How her choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge – and continues to torment those in the present. How love can transgress authority, convention, even death. And how desire can kill.

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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?

A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

Sex, lies and audiotape…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Every detail you ever wanted to know about the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and several that you didn’t. This is more than a salacious recounting of the affair that nearly brought down a President, however. Jeffrey Toobin argues convincingly that politicians on both sides of the aisle had gradually been using the courts more and more to decide political questions, and that the Clinton scandal was a clear indication that the balance of power had shifted, and that the legal system was from now on to be the arbiter of all political questions in the US. He also suggests that it was the beginning of the sordid game beloved by politicians and the media (but not so much by the public, he implies) of dragging political opponents down, not by dissecting their poor performance as politicians, but by pretended moral outrage over their private behaviour.

The book was originally published in 2000, so long before the MeToo movement but at a time when questions of sexual abuse in the workplace were being raised by feminist groups. In his introduction, Toobin admits that he may have treated Lewinsky differently had he been writing now, when terms like “power imbalance” are part of the everyday lexicon. To be honest, I’m glad he wrote it when he did then, for two reasons. Firstly, my opinion then (when I was still a fairly young, ambitious, working woman) and now is that a 22-year-old woman is a grown adult, perfectly capable of making her own decisions, and therefore morally responsible for her own behaviour. There was never a suggestion that Clinton forced himself on Lewinsky – quite the reverse – so while I think he’s a disgusting and rather pathetically inadequate adulterous pig, I’m not willing to see her as his victim. (Her treatment later, by her tape-recording “friend” and the lawyers investigating Clinton, seems to me far more abusive than anything Clinton did to her.) Secondly, because Toobin wrote it in the heat of the moment, more or less, it gives a much clearer picture, I think, of the attitudes prevalent at that time than any later history, trying hard to tell the story through the filter of a 2020 lens, could ever do. Although Toobin is pretty tough on Lewinsky, he also shows no mercy to Clinton, so this is in no way an apologia.

The happy couple…

Toobin spares us none of the intimate detail, and I fear I learned far more than I wanted or needed to about Clinton’s anatomy and sexual preferences, not to mention Lewinsky’s underwear and performative techniques. (It made me realise that, back in the day, although the case was reported on at extremely boring length over here too, our dear BBC must have decided to leave out the most salacious details, for which I belatedly thank them.) However, in terms of the book I do think it was necessary to include them, because part of Toobin’s argument is exactly that public interest arguments shouldn’t justify this level of intrusion into the minutiae of sex between consenting adults. This case opened the door to the constant diet of sleaze that is now common currency in what we laughably call political debate. Does the public have the right to know their President paid a porn star for her silence about their affair? Probably – it goes to questions of character and vulnerability to blackmail. But do we really need a detailed account of the act complete with anatomical measurements? I think not.

The other woman…

The bulk of the book, however, is about the Starr investigation, and how incestuous the whole relationship between the legal and political systems of the US has become, with partisan lawyers and judges acting to down political opponents and circumvent the laws of the land, rather than behaving as impartial administrators of justice. This provides a lot of insight for outsiders, and I expect for many Americans too, on why the most important agenda item for many politicians seems to be to pack the courts with their own appointees. One only has to see the reaction of the left to the appointment of Kavanaugh (who plays a bit part in the Clinton story), or the desperation with which the Democrats are praying that Ginsberg will be able to remain in her role until next January, or the disgust of Republicans that Chief Justice Roberts has “betrayed” the right in a couple of recent judgements to know that this politicisation of the legal system is corrupting even the Supreme Court. Toobin shows us the origins of this, and the collusion of all sides in allowing it to happen. There were several chapters where, had the names been omitted, the book could as easily have been about Trump, Mueller, and the biased and polarised media of today’s America.

The real US Government…

So despite all the sleazy details, I found this a fascinating and illuminating scrutiny of the modern American political system. It also surprised me that so many of the political players back then are still influential now – Kavanaugh, George Conway, Ann Coulter were all linked to the Starr investigation, while many of the Senators and members of Congress on both sides, mostly not young or junior even back then, were trotting out opposite arguments during the Trump impeachment two decades later. It made me wonder why the US seems to have stuck – these same people have been running it, badly, for decades. Maybe it’s time for a generational shift, though since the major question in this year’s election seems to be which of the candidates is less senile I’m not expecting it to happen soon. Recommended to Americans who want to understand how and why their system fails them, and to Brits and others as a stark warning not to follow them down the road of giving lawyers and judges more power than our elected politicians.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

20 Books of Summer 2020 – Wrap!

Beating the slump…

Hurrah! I did it! I did it!! I DID IT!!! All twenty books read and reviewed within the time limit!

Given that I was in the midst of a major slump when the challenge began, the plan to read loads of short books turned out to be the perfect way to get back into the swing, and amazingly, for only the second time ever, I’ve actually beaten this fun but surprisingly difficult challenge, hosted by the lovely Cathy at 746 Books.

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So here’s a little summary of how it went…

Of the original 20 books, I read 16 in full and abandoned four, of which I reviewed two and replaced two. There is no doubt that, although my reading quantity is more or less back to normal, I’m still not enjoying books with my usual enthusiasm, and the high number of abandonments and lower than usual ratings reflect that. Pesky plague!

I mostly stayed in Britain, but I had little trips to Italy, Japan, Tanzania, Havana, the US, Argentina and Paris! And then I topped it off by travelling completely Around the World in Eighty Days. Along the way I met up with detectives and murderers, sabotaged a German gunboat, spent time with the prostitutes of Elgin, fished for marlin, and dug for bones – phew! No wonder I’m shattered! I need a holiday to recover from my holidays!

Despite my relative lack of enthusiasm compared to previous years, the combined star total of the 20 that make up my final list is a respectable 75, or an average of 3.75 per book. Not too bad, eh?

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
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The Lowlights

The Killer and the Slain and Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi were two of the abandoned books, but they annoyed me enough to inspire grumpy 1-star reviews. The dull Watergate satire, The Abbess of Crewe, scraped a miserly two, while the “humorous” vintage crime, Weekend at Thrackley, gained a retrospectively generous 2½.

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The Middlelights

Only one in the three-star category this time around…

Thirst by Ken Kalfus

A variable selection of short stories in Kalfus’ first collection, but showing the promise he has since fulfilled in his more recent work.

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The Uplights

A stonking ten books achieved 4-star ratings, meaning I liked and recommend them, but just didn’t quite love them. I’m certain that in another year and a better reading mood several of these would have got the full five…

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac
The African Queen by CS Forester
The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
Lady Susan by Jane Austen
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses by Georges Simenon
The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths
Sula by Toni Morrison
A Month in the Country by JL Carr

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The Highlights

And that just leaves the final five books which achieved Five Glorious Glowing Golden Stars! I loved and highly recommend all of these – a nicely mixed bunch too! Here they are, in no particular order:

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
Maigret and the Ghost by Georges Simenon
The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson
Silent Kill by Jane Casey

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So, a mixed summer but with more good than bad! If… IF… I do this again next year, I must get off to an earlier start – I’ve spent the last couple of weeks frantically finishing books and writing rather sketchy reviews just hours before they’re due to be posted. Frazzled is the word that springs to mind! But now it’s all over, I’m feeling delightfully smug…

* * * * *

And finally..

The Book of the Summer

is

Around the World in Eighty Days

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Thanks for joining me in my reading adventures! 😀

A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A pastoral…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Tom Birkin is still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock as a result of his experiences at Passchendaele. His personal life also in disarray, he gladly accepts a commission that will take him out of London for the summer, to the village of Oxgodsby in Yorkshire, where a recently deceased parishioner has left a bequest to the local church, contingent on the uncovering of a wall painting she believed was concealed beneath centuries of whitewashing. The same parishioner has also requested that a search be made for the burial site of a long dead ancestor, excommunicated and therefore denied burial in the churchyard. Archaeologist Charles Moon, another survivor of the war, will become Birkin’s first friend as they both immerse themselves in the past and present of the village.

A pastoral, this is a beautifully written novella full of descriptions of the countryside at the last point of the horse age, before farming became an industry like any other. Birkin is badly damaged by his wartime experiences, not physically, but mentally, and he will find a kind of healing as the long summer passes and he reconnects with the long-distant past as he slowly reveals the work of the artist who, in medieval times, painted the Last Judgement on the wall of the church.

As he works, he also comes to know some of the villagers. The Ellerbecks take him under their wing, with Mrs Ellerbeck making sure he is well fed and the young daughter of the family, Kathy, keeping him organised and ordering him around, showing herself already a mini version of the backbone of community life she will undoubtedly grow up to be. Mr Ellerbeck preaches at the Wesleyan chapel, and out of a sense of gratitude for their hospitality, Birkin becomes involved in the chapel community although he is a non-believer, perhaps because of the scenes of horror he witnessed in the war.

JL Carr

Rev. J.G. Keach, the minister of the church in which Birkin is working, feels the uncovering of the wall painting is a nuisance – a waste of time and money, tolerated solely to satisfy the requirements of his late parishioner’s will. His wife is young and beautiful, and Birkin gradually comes to fall in love with her, but in a romantic rather than a passionate sense, almost as an obligatory part of a summer idyll.

I enjoyed this, especially the writing and the slow uncovering of the wall painting, and all the seemingly knowledgeable information Carr provides about medieval church art. However, I found it rather slight overall, like a pretty piece of pastoral music, pleasant but not soul-stirring. It is written from Birkin’s perspective, looking back as an old man to a golden summer of his youth, an interlude between the horrors of war and the resumption of his real life; a brief period of suspended time given to him to heal his mind and perhaps his soul. And for the reader, it also provides a pleasurable escape for an hour or two, to a simpler time when the sun always shone and people were intrinsically good. Did that time ever exist? Perhaps it only seems that way when enough years have passed for harsh reality to have been hidden beneath several layers of whitewash.

Book 20 of 20

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Sula by Toni Morrison

Who needs enemies?

😀 😀 😀 😀

Well, I might as well be up front – if this book has a point, it sailed straight over my head. Two girls grow up, lots of people kill other people and themselves, everyone has sex all the time with anyone who happens to be passing. And in the rare moment when they stop to catch their breath, they think about sex.

I’ll leave it to Morrison scholars to analyse it. I loved Beloved and A Mercy, because I felt I understood what she was trying to say. Song of Solomon and this defeat me. She portrays black life as animalistic, where people eat and rut and rut and eat; and resent, neglect and beat their children; and betray and kill each other for little or no reason. She writes about black culture in a way that, if it were written by a white author, would be rightly trashed as the peak of racism. I’ve tried both times to assume she’s saying that white oppression has made black Americans behave this way, but I’m not convinced – neither that I’m right about her intention nor that it’s a realistic portrayal of black American culture. I hope it isn’t, anyway.

Morrison does make a couple of points about the subjugation of black people, legally free in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the book is mainly set, but still excluded from all the benefits of freedom, including well-paid jobs and the possibility of a career, leading to a kind of crisis of masculinity in the men. She also makes reference to the black men whom white America called upon to fight their wars for them, and then abandoned on their return to deal with the after-effects without help (though I expect that was true of a lot of white men too, especially after WW1. It certainly was in the UK). These were the strongest parts of the book for me, but they were merely side issues.

Toni Morrison

The writing is as wonderful as her writing always is, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. The characters are entirely vile, especially Sula, who starts out bad and gets progressively worse as she ages. Her friend Nel is more ambiguous but, while I started out quite liking her, it wore off, and I felt they were a pretty good match for each other – a real illustration of the old phrase, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Many things are left unexplained, but it’s entertaining and at points even amusing, with a couple of well-done shock moments. But I felt nothing for any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as real people.

Entertaining, then, and maybe you’ll do better at finding a meaning in it than I did. Or maybe there isn’t one, and the entertainment is the point. In which case, job well done!

Book 19 of 20

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TBR Thursday 254 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 254

(A reminder of the People’s Choice plan. Once a month or so, 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.)

* * * * *

OK, time for the next batch of four! I’m well into 2015 now, strictly in order of acquisition or addition to the TBR in the case of re-reads. I seem to have had a buying splurge in April, nearly all books that were being recommended by fellow bloggers at that time. I’ve read and enjoyed John Grisham’s two novels set in Ford County, but don’t remember reading any short stories by him before.  The other three would all be new-to-me authors. Still quite crime-heavy, but overall I think it’s a nicely mixed bunch this time.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Fiction

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Added 1st March 2015. 653,288 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.06 average rating. 546 pages.

The Blurb says: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

* * * * *

Crime

A Perfect Match by Jill McGown

Added 20th April 2015. 808 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.76 average. 184 pages.

The Blurb says: A young woman is found murdered in a small English town, while the main suspect has spent the night drinking, and denies any involvement. It looks like an easily solved case for Detective Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill, but it soon proves more complex than they originally thought.

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Crime

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

Added 20th April, 2015. 3,321 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.01 average. 314 pages. 

The Blurb says: Reduced to near penury by the iniquitous demands of the Inland Revenue, young barrister Julia Larwood spends the last of her savings on an Art Lovers holiday to Venice.

But poor, romantic Julia – how could she possibly have guessed that the ravishing fellow Art Lover for whom she conceived a fatal passion was himself an employee of the Inland Revenue? Or that her hard-won night of passion with him would end in murder- with her inscribed copy of the current Finance Act subsequently discovered just a few feet away from the corpse…

* * * * *

Crime Short Stories

Ford County by John Grisham

Added 20th April, 2015. 20,153 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.62 average. 308 pages.

The Blurb says: Ford County. The heart of the American deep South. A place of harsh beauty, of broken dreams and final wishes.

From legendary legal thriller author John Grisham comes a unique collection of stories connected by the life and crimes of Ford County, the setting of his iconic first novel A Time to Kill.

From a hard-drinking, downtrodden divorce lawyer looking for pay-dirt, to a manipulative death row inmate with one last plea, Ford County features a vivid cast of attorneys, crooks, hustlers, and convicts. From their stories emerges a rich picture of lives lived and lost in Mississippi.

Completely gripping, frequently moving and always entertaining, Ford County brims with the same page-turning quality and heart-stopping drama of his previous bestsellers.

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VOTE NOW!

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

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

Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares

Recommended to old Argentinians…

😦

Don Isidro Parodi is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but for which the police found it convenient to frame him. He now is known as a kind of consulting detective, to whose jail cell people bring their insoluble mysteries, and he tells them the solution. Like The Old Man in the Corner, of whom Parodi is clearly a parody (geddit?), there is no investigation in the middle. And I didn’t even like The Old Man in the Corner much…

Oh dear, another of Martin Edwards’ 100 Classic Crime books that I’m abandoning – I fear he and I simply have very different tastes at times. I rarely enjoy spoofs even when they’re well done, and for my money these are not well done, though perhaps that owes something to the awfulness of the translation. Six supposedly humorous tales, they are in fact overly wordy, condescendingly knowing and gratingly arch, with every client (of the three I read, at least) having exactly the same characterisation – a narcissistic simpleton who “hilariously” reveals his own foolishness while attempting to show how superior he is. Sadly, I quickly began to see the authors as being not significantly differently from these clients, although obviously I’m aware Borges has God-like status in the literary world. One day maybe I’ll look up wikipedia to find out why – it certainly can’t be because of these stories.

Challenge details:
Book: 98
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1942

The stories reference the famous detectives of the Golden Age and have lots and lots of winking references to people and events I assume were well known in the Argentina of the time, so that, to be fair, maybe they’re more fun if you’re an old Argentinian. But I doubt it.

* * * * *

Having had a run of 1- and 2-star abandonments in this challenge, I’ve been debating whether to continue with it. However, looking back, in fact of the forty books I’ve read so far, I’ve given twenty 5-stars, and several more 4. So I’m going to assume I’ve just hit an unlucky patch and soldier on for a while longer. I mention this merely because I wouldn’t want my deeply unenthusiastic recent reviews to put anyone off reading Edwards’ book, which I enjoyed very much, or trying some of his recommendations for themselves. As always, my reviews are simply my subjective reaction, not a critical evaluation. You may love the ones I hate…

Silent Kill (Maeve Kerrigan 8.5) by Jane Casey

Georgia on my mind…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Detective Constable Georgia Shaw is sent to a murder scene, she’s shocked to discover the victim is a teenage schoolgirl. Minnie Charleston had been on the bus for a while, earbuds in and seemingly asleep, while a succession of other passengers took the empty seat beside her. But when one passenger finally noticed blood, it became clear that at some point on the journey she had been stabbed. Georgia will be part of the investigation team, under her sergeant, Maeve Kerrigan, and Inspector Josh Derwent, as they try to discover which of the passengers had a reason to kill Minnie…

This novella length story is very definitely one for existing fans, rather than an entry point for newcomers to the series. Georgia has appeared in the last couple of books, as a fast-track entrant whom Maeve finds irritating and unreliable – not the kind of person you want to depend on when lives are on the line. This time we hear the story from Georgia’s point of view, discovering more about her life and getting a better understanding of why she behaves as she does. Since the books are usually told in the first person from Maeve’s perspective, this is also the first time we get another person’s impression of her, and her increasingly complicated relationship with Josh.

For a novella it’s quite long, and there’s a surprisingly strong plot, with several suspects and a full investigation, all of which I found to be just as good as the plots of the full-length novels. Minnie, it turns out, was an unpleasant girl – a bully and a manipulator. However, as Georgia and Maeve dig deeper into her family circumstances, they begin to see that she may not have been wholly to blame. Left largely to her own devices by uncaring parents, she has got involved with a far-right group, and the detectives have to discover if that has anything to do with the murder. Or there was a teacher she drove to resign from her posh school, or the girl she bullied so badly the girl had to change schools. The solution has a lot of depth considering the brevity and, as always with Casey, the reader has a reasonably fair chance of working it out, although of course I failed!

Jane Casey

I was glad to get to know Georgia better. In fact, I’ve always felt that Maeve treats her unfairly and hasn’t shown the support and guidance a boss should to a younger, inexperienced subordinate. Georgia is perhaps more accepting of this – she clearly admires Maeve, though she resents her too for the effortless way Maeve seems to deal with things that make Georgia anxious. Georgia also has a major crush on Josh, making her rather jealous of his clear preference for Maeve. (What is it with all these female detectives, not to mention the readers? Am I the only one immune to this sexist bully’s charms??) A cold word from Maeve or Josh stings this sensitive girl more than they seem to know, but they should know – it’s their job to know. I grew to like Georgia considerably more, but seeing Josh and Maeve through her eyes made me like them a little less. I expect bullying and insensitivity from Josh, but I can see why Georgia finds Maeve’s behaviour hurtful too. If Maeve realised that the smallest compliment from her is treasured by this insecure young woman, maybe she’d encourage her more often, rather than making her feel like a fool. Time for Maeve’s mother to give her a talking-to in one of their famous phone conversations, I feel!

As usual, Casey has me arguing about the behaviour of her characters, which is why I love these books. Maeve and Josh feel entirely real to me, and so they entertain me sometimes and annoy me sometimes just as real people do. I’m glad to be able to add Georgia to the list of characters I now care about – I’m sure she’ll still annoy me too, often, but I’ll feel more ready to make excuses for her next time she does. I also think it’s good that Casey is bringing forward new recurring characters – something Reginald Hill did to great effect – since it helps to stop the staleness that sometimes creeps into long-running series. In short, this novella is a bonus that fans won’t want to miss!

Book 17 of 20

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The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

Life in the Lane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Janie McVean has grown up on Lady’s Lane, a place ruled over by the women for most of the time, till the men come home from work and make it theirs for a while. No man comes home to Janie’s house though – or perhaps too many. For although Janie is too young to understand, the reader soon discerns that her mother, Liza, is a prostitute, along with some of the other women who live in the Lane. Janie doesn’t care – to her this is the only possible life, and though she has only one dress and often goes hungry and dirty and has nits in her hair, she’s happy. She has friends who are just like her and an interest in people of all sorts, and she loves to watch and listen to the women of the Lane. So when the Cruelty Man comes calling, to Janie the real cruelty is the threat of being taken away from the mother she adores, however bad a parent she may be.

Largely autobiographical, the book is set in the town of Elgin in the north of Scotland in the 1920s. Because it’s so well known to be based on Kesson’s own early life, there’s a feeling of reassurance for the reader – however painful it is to watch the neglect of this child, we know she survives and pulls herself out of the poverty of her beginnings. This makes it an easier, less tense read than it might otherwise have been, allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.

Book 66 of 90

“About that doll you’re to get, I’ve got an idea it might be lying under some bits of things that’s come from America. Some bits belonging to my cousin’s bairn; just your size she is. And my word there’s some bonnie bits that will fit you. There’s a blue velvet frock for one thing. And a ribbon to go with it. I’m having a sort out just now. And when I’ve sorted out, you’re the queanie that’s going to get the fine surprise, or my name’s not Annie Frigg!”

Janie emerged as always, empty handed but full-visioned after an encounter with Annie, and with but one small doubt, how to share the delight of this new promise with Gertie, who could never see that something to look forward to, and something to dream about, were such glad things, even when you knew within yourself that they might never come true.

The writing is wonderful, managing to give a real flavour of the local speech without ever becoming hard for standard English speakers to understand. It’s told in the third person, in the language of adults, but the perspective comes almost entirely through the lens of eight-year-old Janie’s observant but sometimes uncomprehending eyes. So it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks, and sometimes it’s in these spaces that the true pathos of Janie’s life is shown – a pathos Janie doesn’t feel at this young age. Her mother comes from a respectable and rather well-off family, and sometimes they visit Janie’s grandmother – another warm and loving, if occasional, presence in Janie’s life. But her grandfather’s reaction to Liza and Janie lets the reader know how badly the family feels Liza has disgraced them, and gives us pointers as to how she fell from here all the way down to the Lane. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson.

Jessie Kesson

As well as her clear-sighted but sympathetic portrayal of the Lane and its inhabitants, Kesson also has an excellent eye for the landscape and nature of the area, and the ability to weave her fine descriptive prose seamlessly so that it becomes part of the story. Their mutual love of the countryside is part of the bond between mother and daughter.

The wind had begun to threaten the air. Passionately she had longed for the wind to come. To blow herself and the landscape sky high into movement and coherence again. Almost she had been aware of the wind’s near fierceness. Ready to plunge the furious hillside burns down into the Cladda river. To hurl the straws all over the dykes. To toss the chaff into the eyes of the protesting people, bending before it, flapping in their clothes like scarecrows. To sting the trees in Carron wood into hissing rebellion. To give the land some loud, loud cry, other than that of pain.

When the Cruelty Man takes Janie off to the orphanage, the story suddenly contracts, with years covered in just a few pages. This feels a bit disconcerting, but actually I think it probably works better than it would have if Kesson had devoted more time to that section. One gathers that her time there was neither wonderful nor terrible – she was just stuck in a kind of limbo until her life could resume. The real story is of the Lane, and of the love between child and mother that transcends the things that society determines to be good parenting. The ending is bittersweet – the tragedies of Janie’s young life tempered always by the knowledge that she will survive and rise. A beautiful book that challenges the reader to be slow to judge – to accept that love and even joyousness can sometimes be found in the darkest circumstances. Highly recommended.

Book 16 of 20

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The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway 2) by Elly Griffiths

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When the bones of a child are discovered under a doorway in a building about to be demolished, Ruth Galloway is called in in her capacity as a forensic archaeologist to determine how old the bones are. She suspects they’re not ancient and Nelson, as detective in charge, starts working on the hypothesis that they must have been placed under the doorway during the period the building was being used as a children’s home, run by the Catholic church, just a few decades ago. This assumption is strengthened when he learns that two young children went missing from the home – a brother and sister – and have never been heard of again. Ruth’s part in the story isn’t over once she’s finished analysing the bones however. It appears that someone is trying to frighten her, but who? And why?

This is the second book in the Ruth Galloway series, which now runs to twelve books and is still going strong. I started in the middle, as usual, read several as they came out and eventually gave up on the grounds that I felt the series had run out of steam, but before then I had acquired a couple of the earlier books, including this one. Since it’s quite a while since I last read one, I wondered if the old magic could be rekindled, and to a certain extent, it was.

The same things irritated me as had always done – the clunky use of present tense, Ruth’s obsession with her weight, the romantic tension (or lack thereof) of Ruth’s and Nelson’s never-ending non-relationship, the plot-stretching that is always required to make it seem in any way normal for an archaeologist to be so involved in a police investigation. Add in that in this one Ruth is pregnant, so we’re treated to all the usual stuff that goes with that, including much vomiting – always a favourite feature 🙄 – and I must admit I seriously considered giving up after the first few chapters.

However I decided to power on through the pain barrier and eventually found that the things I used to enjoy about the series were still enjoyable too. The plot is interesting and well done, and the element of Ruth being deliberately frightened has some nicely spine-tingling moments. There’s the usual humour amid the darkness, and the old regulars are all there – Ruth’s friends and colleagues, Nelson’s team, and, of course, Cathbad the druid. There’s also a new man on the scene who looks as though he might provide a new romantic interest for Ruth – Max Grey, a fellow archaeologist, unmarried and handsome to boot!

The plot involves elements of Roman mythology. It did rather niggle me that Ruth was apparently ignorant of this subject and unable to read even straightforward Latin inscriptions, since I find it hard to believe that anyone teaching archaeology at university level in the UK could possibly have avoided learning something about these, given that so much British archaeology is of Roman remains. But it allows Griffiths to tell the reader about the mythology via the device of Max, a Roman expert, explaining it all to Ruth.

Elly Griffiths

The setting adds a lot to this series – Ruth’s isolated cottage looking out over the salt marshes of Norfolk provides plenty of room for spooky occurrences, and Griffiths gives a real feel for the brooding beauty of the place, and for some of the myths and superstitions attached to it.

So overall I enjoyed this return visit to a past favourite, although not quite enough to make me want to read the other ones that I’ve missed.

* * * * *

(This was the winner of the 3rd People’s Choice poll and hurrah! I actually enjoyed and finished it! Well done, People – you’re clearly getting better at this… 😉 )

Book 15 of 20

(This wasn’t on my original 20 Books list but I’m falling behind, so it is now! Just….
DON’T TELL CATHY!!)

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