TBR Thursday 281…

Episode 281

Since I feel as if I’ve hardly finished anything this week being stuck yet again in the middle of several massive books, it’s a surprise to me that the TBR appears to have gone down 1 to 198! I’m sure my spreadsheet has a life of its own.

Confused spreadsheet gif

Here are a few more that should be coming up soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunWell, Dear People, for the fifth time in six months you have chosen the approximately 600-pages option, and this time sadly also the one I least wanted to read! The vote was neck-and-neck all the way through, and how I hoped that Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye would win (304 pages and sounds great). But it was not to be – a very late vote broke the deadlock, and Adichie won. Oh well! A lesson to me to delete books I’ve gone off! Maybe I’ll love it. (Or maybe I’ll just pretend A Dark-Adapted Eye won and read it instead… 😉 )

The Blurb says: Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university professor. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. And Richard, a shy English writer, is in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. As the horrific Biafran War engulfs them, they are thrown together and pulled apart in ways they had never imagined.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterpiece, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a novel about Africa in a wider sense: about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class and race – and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things.

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Classic Crime Fiction

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

The Conjure-Man DiesCourtesy of the Collins Crime Club – Harlem imprint. This wasn’t on my original Classics Club list but it seems perfect to fill one of the remaining slots, so I’ve bumped Anatomy of a Murder to make room for it… 

The Blurb says: A unique crime classic: the very first detective novel written by an African-American, set in 1930s New York with only Black characters.

When the body of N’Gana Frimbo, the African conjure-man, is discovered in his consultation room, Perry Dart, one of Harlem’s ten Black police detectives, is called in to investigate. Together with Dr Archer, a physician from across the street, Dart is determined to solve the baffling mystery, helped and hindered by Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins, local boys keen to clear themselves of suspicion of murder and undertake their own investigations.

A distinguished doctor and accomplished musician and dramatist, Rudolph Fisher was one of the principal writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but died in 1934 aged only 37. With a gripping plot and vividly drawn characters, Fisher’s witty novel is a remarkable time capsule of one of the most exciting eras in the history of Black fiction.

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Fiction

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

NightshiftCourtesy of Picador via NetGalley. Continuing my bid to read more contemporary fiction, I picked this on the basis of the blurb. Must admit so far I have abandoned more of my contemporary fiction choices than I’ve finished, so I’m hoping this one fares better…

The Blurb says: Nightshift is a story of obsession set in London’s liminal world of nightshift workers.

When twenty-three-year-old Meggie meets distant and enigmatic Sabine, she recognises in her the person she would like to be. Giving up her daytime existence, her reliable boyfriend, and the trappings of a normal life in favour of working the same nightshifts as Sabine could be the perfect escape for Meggie. She finds a liberating sense of freedom in indulging her growing obsession with Sabine and plunges herself into another existence, gradually immersing herself in the transient and uncertain world of the nightshift worker.

Dark, sexy, frightening, Nightshift explores ambivalent friendship, sexual attraction and lives that defy easy categorisation. London’s stark urban reality is rendered other-worldly and strange as Meggie’s sleep deprivation, drinking and obsession for Sabine gain a momentum all of their own. Can Meggie really lose herself in her trying to become someone else?

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Vintage Crime

The Man from London by Georges Simenon

The Man from LondonCourtesy of Penguin Classics via NetGalley. This will be my first experience of one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels. Though Maigret is what he’s best remembered for, a lot of bloggers over the years have praised some of his other books at least as highly, sometimes more so. The blurb certainly makes it sound appealing…

The Blurb says: On a foggy winter’s evening in Dieppe, after the arrival of the daily ferry from England, a railway signalman habitually scrutinizes the port from his tiny, isolated cabin. When a scuffle on the quayside catches his eye, he is drawn to the scene of a brutal murder and his once quiet life changes forever. A mere observer at first, he soon finds himself fishing a briefcase from the water and in doing so he enters a feverish and secret chase. As the murderer and witness stalk and spy on each other, they gain an increasingly profound yet tacit understanding of each other, until the witness becomes an accomplice.

Written in 1933, soon after the successful launch of the Inspector Maigret novels, this haunting, atmospheric novel soon became a classic and the inspiration for several film and TV adaptations.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Volcanoes, geysers and spies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chill FactorIt’s 1971, and post-war Iceland is a somewhat reluctant host to the American military, there ostensibly to protect Iceland under the NATO banner, but in reality because Iceland’s geographic position makes it a strategically important part of the Western bulwark against Soviet Communism. When the Americans fear that a Soviet spy ring is operating in the country, NATO sends in a British agent, Bill Conran, to investigate. Meanwhile, a young girl has been found dead after a drunken night out and a young American soldier is suspected to be responsible. The Icelanders, already resentful towards what some see as an American occupation, are outraged…

Sometimes, rather than reading historical fiction, it’s interesting to read a book written at the time – you tend to get a much clearer feel for the prevalent attitudes without the filtering of hindsight. This book is a great example of that. No one writing today about Iceland in the 1970s would generalise, exaggerate and affectionately mock it in quite the way this British author of the time did. Falkirk reminds us that Britain and Iceland had recently emerged from the Cod Wars – i.e., a long-running dispute over fishing territories in the North Atlantic. (In fact, he spoke too soon – the dispute would be resurrected in the following years and not finally settled till the late 1970s.) As a result, Brits of the time would probably have quite enjoyed seeing Iceland made fun of a little – the Cod Wars never really made us all-out enemies but they were certainly serious enough to cause tension and a degree of animosity.

And Falkirk has fun with his Icelanders – the drinking, the sexual permissiveness (he sounds quite jealous of that aspect) and the obsession with the weather. This 50th anniversary edition of the book has an introduction by Ragnar Jónasson, a very familiar name to fans of Nordic crime fiction, who says that Falkirk got a lot right, especially the descriptions of Reykjavik and the landscape, but tactfully suggests that some of the commentary on the Icelandic character needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Jónasson also tells us that the book was popular in Iceland at the time, partly because it was so rare for a foreign author to set a book there.

The other historical aspect that’s interesting to see from a contemporary perspective is the on-going Cold War. Falkirk has no doubt about the standing of the various players in that – the Brits are morally good and intellectually superior, the Americans might be a bit naive but they have lots of useful guns, the Icelanders should be grateful for NATO’s protection, and the Commies are evil! (Actually I suspect British attitudes today might be pretty similar to that, but moving swiftly on… 😉 )

The main strengths, as Jónasson suggests, lie in the descriptions of Iceland itself, with its active volcanoes, geysers and mud pools, the small, clean towns and the lack of poverty. Falkirk portrays the people as fun-loving, friendly souls with none of the repressed hang-ups of the stiff upper lipped Brits, so although he does make fun of them it is broadly affectionate. He talks about the extremely low crime rate, which is apparently true, showing that therefore an individual crime takes on a much greater importance in the public mind than it usually does in more crime-ridden societies.

Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert
Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert

I found the story itself somewhat less interesting. It’s a rather standard Cold War thriller and I felt it was too easy to spot the various double-crossers. However it was entertaining enough to keep me happily turning the pages, and Conran is a good, typical fictional spy even if he does seem to spend considerably more time chasing women than Russians! There is a bit of a twist at the end which obviously I won’t reveal, but it again arises from the recent history of Europe and perhaps would have felt more credible to readers at the time than it did to me now. There’s a fair amount of mild humour in it to lift the tone, and at just over 220 pages, the book doesn’t outstay its welcome.

So overall I enjoyed it a lot, though more for the descriptions of Iceland and the historical context than for the story itself. Recommended for fans of spy thrillers, and also for fans of Icelandic crime fiction who might enjoy, as I did, getting a different perspective on the island’s recent past.

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

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Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Alien visitors…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Way Station 2As a young man, Enoch Wallace fought at Gettysburg. When the war was over, he returned to his parents’ farm in Wisconsin, soon finding himself alone there after the death of his father. One day, he met a stranger who put a strange proposition to him. Ulysses, as Enoch named him, was a being from another world, a representative of the Galactic Council, who wanted to set up a way station on Earth for intergalactic travellers wishing to explore this remote sector of the galaxy. Ulysses had chosen Enoch to be in charge of the way station because of his interest in the stars and his readiness to accept new ideas. Enoch accepted, and now, nearly a hundred years later, Enoch is still running the way station, and he’s still a young man. It is his seemingly eternal youthfulness that has at last attracted the interest of US Intelligence…

First published in 1963, this, like much of the science fiction of the Cold War era, is steeped in the fear of nuclear holocaust. The world is on the brink of another war, about to hold a last-ditch Peace Conference that no one expects to succeed. Enoch longs for Earth to be able to join the Galactic Confraternity because he has glimpsed some of the wonders out there and wants his fellow humans to be able to access the accumulated knowledge of a myriad of civilisations. But he knows that war will destroy the chance of that – only worlds that have moved beyond constant wars are invited in.

Enoch lives a solitary life on the farm. When he is inside the station – which used to be the family home and still looks that way to the outside world – he doesn’t age, but outside he does, so he restricts his outings to an hour a day, and his only real contact is with the mailman who brings him whatever he needs in the way of supplies. It’s an isolated, sparsely populated community, who keep themselves to themselves, so his apparent non-ageing is quietly ignored by his neighbours. But when an incident brings him into conflict with one of those neighbours, his anonymity is threatened. And on top of this, something has happened on Earth that has offended an alien race and the Galactic Council are threatening to withdraw from the sector. Enoch must decide whether to stay with humanity, and age and die, or leave Earth forever.

classics club logo 2Book 76 of 90

This starts out slowly with a lot of information about the way station and Enoch’s life, all of which is interesting and much of it highly imaginative. After a bit, though, I began to long for the appearance of a plot, and happily it turned up just before I lost patience. As we get to know more about the Galactic Confraternity, we see that it isn’t quite as perfect as Enoch had thought – things are beginning to go wrong, and just like on Earth there are squabbles and power struggles arising within it.

Clifford D Simak
Clifford D Simak

The writing is excellent and the characterisation of Enoch is considerably more complex than is often the case in science fiction of this period. The concept of the way station allows for all kinds of imaginative aliens to visit, and Simak makes full use of the opportunity, plus the actual method of intergalactic travel is both fascinating and disturbing – personally I’ll wait till they get Star Trek-style matter transference working, I think! Although Enoch often has alien company, we see his desire for human contact too, and the impossibility of this without endangering his secret. As the plot progresses, it develops a kind of mystical, new-age aspect – an odd mix of the spiritual with the technological, and a hint of supernatural thrown in for good measure, but although that makes it sound messy, it all works together well. The ending is too neat, but the journey there is thought-provoking in more ways than one. The book won the 1964 Hugo Award for Best Novel – well deserved, in my opinion.

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The Corpse in the Waxworks (Inspector Bencolin 4) by John Dickson Carr

Chamber of horrors…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Corpse in the WaxworksInspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle take on a case involving a woman who walked into the Musée Augustin waxworks one evening and was never seen alive again. Her body later turned up in the Seine. Before they can discover who killed her, they must find out why she went to the waxworks, and why so many other unlikely people seem to find it a place worth visiting late in the evenings…

This is the fourth in the series about the Mephistophelian Bencolin, head of the Parisian detective force, and his American sidekick Marle. The plots are always intricate versions of the “impossible” crime subgenre for which Carr was apparently famous, and this is just as fiendish as the others. But what makes them stand out most from the crowd is Carr’s ability to create wonderfully macabre settings, steeped in horror and decadence and the gruesomeness of the Grand Guignol.

The idea of being in a waxworks late at night is pretty creepy to begin with, but these waxworks have been made by a master of the art and, in the dim green light of the basement, one could be forgiven for imagining that one or two of them are real. But is it imagination? Is that movement you glimpsed out of the corner of your eye a trick of the light, or…? Carr is brilliant at spooking both poor Jeff and the reader too, and the decadent evil at the heart of the plot seems right at home in this world of shadows and horrors. Yes, the story veers wildly over the credibility line as it does in all of the Bencolin books, but much in the way of Edgar Allen Poe – there is a madness underneath most of the crimes.

John Dickson Carr
John Dickson Carr

Bencolin himself is a bit too over the top to be believable – he is all devilish mystery and almost mystical insight. But Jeff is a great foil who provides the humanity that Bencolin lacks. There are only five books in total in the Bencolin series, I understand. Four of them, including this and the other three the BL has previously re-published, were written early in Carr’s career, and he revisited the characters just once years later – I’m hoping they issue it too sometime for completion’s sake. I love the way he mixes the various horror genres into the standard mystery novel and comes up with something quite unique in my experience. Since I still haven’t read anything else by him I don’t know how they compare to the later work he is better remembered for, but they’ve certainly whetted my appetite to find out. This one is excellent and there’s no need to read them in order so if a creepy night in a waxworks sounds like your kind of thing, go for it!

The book also includes a bonus Bencolin short story, The Murder in Number Four – another impossible crime, this time the murder of a man alone in a carriage of a moving train. Witnesses confirm no one could have gone along the corridor to the carriage without being seen, and yet the deed was done. Obviously this doesn’t have the same intricacy as the novels, but it has the same atmosphere of creepiness and Bencolin is as mysteriously brilliant as ever. An added treat!

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

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TBR Thursday 280 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 280

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

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OK, time for the next batch of four! At last we’re moving into 2016, and I have far fewer books from that year than from 2015 – I must have been attempting to get hold of my ballooning TBR by this stage. However, there are plenty to take us through the next few People’s Choices. As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a July read. Most, but not all, of these still appeal to me, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself so as not to sway yours! I missed a few of Sharon Bolton’s early books and always intended to go back and read them, hence Blood Harvest. Half of a Yellow Sun is one of those books everyone seemed to be reading except me, and was added to my TBR as a result of all the glowing reviews. I’ve meant to try Barbara Vine’s books for centuries, and A Dark-Adapted Eye comes recommended as one of her best by the blogosphere’s resident crime expert, Margot Kinberg. And Grey Mask marks the first appearance of a vintage crime novel on The People’s Choice – this must have been the point where I finally snapped with contemporary crime and time travelled back to the Golden Age.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

Blood Harvest by Sharon J Bolton

Blood HarvestAdded 2nd March 2016. 5,948 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.96 average rating. 576 pages.

The Blurb says: Psychologist Evi is worried about one of her patients – a woman who is convinced her little girl is still alive. Two years after the fire that burnt their house down.

Meanwhile, the new vicar in town is feeling strangely unwelcome. Disturbing events seem designed to scare him away.

And a young boy keeps seeing a strange, solitary girl playing in the churchyard. Who is she and what is she trying to tell him?

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Fiction

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunAdded 23rd March 2016. 115,829 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.31 average. 562 pages.

The Blurb says: Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university professor. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. And Richard, a shy English writer, is in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. As the horrific Biafran War engulfs them, they are thrown together and pulled apart in ways they had never imagined.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterpiece, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a novel about Africa in a wider sense: about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class and race – and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things.

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Crime

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

A Dark-Adapted EyeAdded 23rd March 2016. 7,692 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.97 average. 304 pages. 

The Blurb says: Winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award

Like most families they had their secrets . . .

And they hid them under a genteelly respectable veneer. No onlooker would guess that prim Vera Hillyard and her beautiful, adored younger sister, Eden, were locked in a dark and bitter combat over one of those secrets. England in the fifties was not kind to women who erred, so they had to use every means necessary to keep the truth hidden behind closed doors – even murder.

A Dark-Adapted Eye is modern classic. If you enjoy the crime novels of P.D. James, Ian Rankin and Scott Turow, you will love this book. Barbara Vine is the pen-name of Ruth Rendell.

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Vintage Crime

Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

Grey MaskAdded 1st April 2016. 4,620 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.71 average. 320 pages.

The Blurb says: Furious at being jilted at the altar by his once-fiancé Margaret Langton, Charles Moray left England behind him. Now, four years later, he returns to his family home, only to find it unlocked and with a light burning in one of its abandoned rooms.

Eavesdropping, Charles soon discovers that a criminal gang has been using his house to plan a vicious crime. The target is the beautiful Margot Standing, who is due to inherit a considerable fortune. And what’s more he recognises the voices of one of the conspirators – his lost love Margaret Langton.

How did Margaret come to be involved? And who is the terrifying masked man who has her in his thrall? Charles contacts Miss Silver to unravel the mysteries of the case and, if she can, save Margot Standing’s life.

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

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The Silence by Susan Allott

Strength of character…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The SilenceIn 1997, in her flat in London, Isla Green gets a phone call from her dad in Sydney. He’s worried. He tells her that the police have been looking into the disappearance of Mandy Mallory, who used to be their next-door-neighbour back in 1967 when Isla was a very little child, and they seem to have him in their sights as a suspect in her possible murder. His long-troubled relationship with his wife is reaching breaking point, because he thinks she believes the police’s suspicions. Isla has always been closer to her dad, so she decides to go home to Sydney to support him through all this – the first time she has been home in years. At first she is convinced her father could never have killed anyone, but once she’s home old memories begin to resurface and she sees the people she thought she knew through different, more experienced eyes, and suddenly she’s not so sure any more…

The book is told in the third person throughout. The 1967 strand forms the bulk of the book, is told in past tense, and mostly centres on Mandy’s life in the few months running up to her disappearance, with occasional sections showing us Isla’s rather fragmentary child’s-eye memories of Mandy and her own family. Unusually for the time, Isla’s mother worked outside the home, so Mandy often looked after Isla, watching her while she swam off the beach at the back of their properties, giving her snacks, chatting to her, and generally being a kind of aunt figure to her. As Isla’s memories of her slowly revive she realises how much she loved Mandy, who gave her a kind of emotional sanctuary at a time when her parents’ fraught relationship was making her home life unhappy.

Isla also begins to remember Mandy’s husband Steve, and how all the local children were a bit afraid of him, though Isla had forgotten why in the intervening years. As the story unfolds, we discover that Steve was with the police, and part of his job was to remove Aboriginal children from their families as part of the government policy to break their links with their communities and ‘merge’ them into white society. Steve, though, is finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the children benefit from this policy – he knows they often end up in children’s homes rather than loving adoptive families. While for most it’s an invisible problem or not a problem at all, some people, like Steve and also Isla’s father, are beginning to question the cruel racism that underlies the forced removals.

The later strand in 1997 doesn’t take up so much space, and as so often happens in dual timeline books, I mostly felt it was a distraction from the main story, although it’s equally well written. It’s written in present tense, and mainly focuses on Isla as she gradually begins to discover what happened back in 1967. Isla is a recovering alcoholic, a trait she has inherited from her dad who, however, is decidedly unrecovered. We gradually learn how his alcoholism has affected the family over the years.

So, dual timeline, parts in present tense, two alcoholics, and a trendy “worthy” subject – by rights I should have hated this. But I didn’t! The writing is terrific, the pacing is perfect, and Allott handles the subject of race and forced separations with a great deal of subtlety, showing the differences in society’s attitudes between the two timelines and indeed with our current attitude too. There are no anachronisms in either of the time periods, and she doesn’t preach or belabour the message. She makes the correct assumption that most people didn’t think they were doing wrong back then, or didn’t think at all. They’re not monsters even if to our modern eyes the acts they committed may seem monstrous. She also avoids giving too many descriptions of drunkenness and hangovers – just enough to remind us of Isla’s underlying struggle with her addiction.

Susan Allott
Susan Allott

All that makes it good, but what made it great for me is the character of Mandy. She’s not perfect and makes some foolish choices, but never with bad intent. She reminded me, oddly, of the character of Ida in Brighton Rock, not that the stories have any similarities at all. But both women are kind, open-hearted, generous souls, slow to judge, quick to comfort, who attract the troubled and damaged and then become snarled in their problems. They each have a sense of impending tragedy in their stories, too, since society judges harshly and treats cruelly those who give love and comfort too freely – especially women, especially back then. I loved her – an excellent creation who makes it hard to believe she came from the pen of a début novelist.

The story itself is straightforward, never stretching credulity, and told with deceptive simplicity – all the complexity is in the characterisation. Allott shows you don’t need twelve sudden twists at the end or an “I did not see that coming” moment – she proves that even if there is a sense of inevitability there can still be true suspense. I cared deeply about what Mandy’s fate would be, but never felt like rushing to the last page to find out – I savoured every step of the journey. Highly recommended, and Allott has leapt straight onto my list of must-read authors. I hope she’s working hard on her next book…

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

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Don’t go into the woodshed!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Cold Comfort FarmOrphaned at the age of 20, Flora Poste discovers her father was not the rich man the world thought. Once his debts are paid off, Flora only has an income of £100 a year. Her friend suggests she should take some kind of training and get a job, but the idea of this holds no appeal for Flora. So instead she writes to all her relations, most of whom she has never met, asking if she can come and live with them. All respond, and remarkably each of them offers her a home, though none of the homes sound terribly appealing to Flora. But the letter from her cousin Judith Starkadder intrigues her – the address, Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, Sussex, conjures visions in itself, and Judith’s vague hints of some kind of dark deed having being done to Flora’s father for which the Starkadders owe atonement is too tempting. So off she sets to meet the huge extended family of Starkadders who live on the farm…

At first I feared this was going to be one of those many books that infest English literature where the sophisticated, upper-class, urbanite author mocks the unintelligent, uneducated and uncouth rustic yokels. But it quickly reveals that in fact it’s parodying just that kind of novel, and also the novels then in vogue showing the reverse – the kind of noble savage of the modernists, where those rustics are born with an innate honour and a stolid kind of decency as opposed to the sophisticate’s shallow decadence. Frankly, if I were DH Lawrence, I’d have sued her! (If I hadn’t been dead at the time, obviously.)

Flora is not decadent – she’s far too well brought up for that. She is however supremely self-confident in her ability to sort people’s lives out for them, and the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm offer her plenty of opportunities to indulge her passion for turning messiness into order. There’s brooding Seth, shirt unbuttoned half-way down his chest to reveal bulging muscles and an ultra-masculine lustiness irresistible to all women (except Flora). Reuben, obsessive about improving the farm, but thwarted at every turn by his father and brother. Amos, the father, who is a terrible farmer, devotes his free time to hellfire preaching in the local town. Young Elfine, wild as a woodland sprite, struggling to win the man she loves. Old Mrs Starkadder, living her life in her room, haunted by the memory of when she was two and saw “something narsty in the woodshed”, is a kind of matriarchal tyrant, refusing to allow any of the younger family members to leave the farm and make different lives for themselves. Even the farm animals merit Flora’s reforming zeal, as she is determined that the bull be allowed out of the barn where he seems to spend his entire life.

There is a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. DH Lawrence, I felt, was never far from her thoughts – all that intensely brooding animal sexuality and profound angst. But Thomas Hardy is surely in there too, with his somewhat idealised but simple rural characters. I’m not well read or analytical enough to catch all the references, and there might be a tendency to start creating links that don’t exist – for instance, when Flora meets the hot weather by donning her green linen suit, I couldn’t help wondering if Ted Burgess from The Go-Between might have played his part in influencing Seth’s character. Wikipedia informs me that the main influences are apparently two authors I haven’t read, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb – I’ll take their word for it, although to me it’s so DH Lawrence that I can’t imagine he wasn’t one of her major influences too. Gibbons also occasionally veers outside her own remit of literature to take a pop at her modern world, and these bits are very enjoyable, such as when we meet a Hollywood producer and hear his opinion on the qualities required in a romantic male movie-star.

Stella Gibbons
Stella Gibbons

Despite all the good things it has going for it, it also has some weaknesses that stopped me from whole-heartedly loving it. There are so many characters I was still struggling to remember who was who well into the later stages, except for the three or four main characters. It gets a little repetitive – the joke begins to wear thin after a while and there’s a lot of repetition, for example, of the references to “something narsty in the woodshed”. There are things that I simply didn’t get – possibly my fault, possibly they are referencing some book I haven’t read and would have been hilarious if I had. For instance, the various cows around the farm keep losing legs or horns with no explanation – this baffled rather than amusing me. And, while I kept reminding myself it was humour and not to be taken too seriously, I found Flora’s solutions to various people’s problems probably made her happier than the characters whose lives she was supposedly improving.

Overall, though, the good certainly outweighs the less good parts of it. An enjoyable read for anyone who has dipped their toes into early 20th century English literature, and I’m sure would be even more entertaining for people who are widely read in it.

People's Choice LogoBook 4 of 12

This was a People’s Choice winner, and hurrah, you picked a good one! You’re definitely getting better at this, People! 😀

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Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

Dynamic duo…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Murder's a SwineAir-raid warden Clem Poplett scurries out of the rain to enjoy a quick smoke in the well of a block of flats which has been designated as an air-raid shelter. He discovers it’s already occupied by Agnes Kinghof, a resident of the block, who has locked herself out and is waiting for the caretaker to come home so he can let her in with his spare key. As the two chat, Agnes becomes aware of an unpleasant odour. Investigating, they discover a very dead body hidden beneath the sandbags in the shelter. Agnes, truth to tell, is rather thrilled – there’s nothing she and her husband Andrew enjoy more than a little amateur detecting! That same evening, Mrs Sibley, who lives in one of the upper flats, is woken by a tapping at her window and is shocked into hysterics when she sees a pig’s head apparently staring in at her. This delights Agnes even more…

Set in the period of the “phoney war” when nothing bad had started happening to the people of London, and with a delightful detective duo in Agnes and Andrew, this is a light-hearted, frothy entertainment, written for humour but with a surprisingly decent mystery underneath. It is soon discovered that the dead man and Mrs Sibley are connected, and the probable identity of the murderer is also soon known. But for various reasons it appears that that person may be disguised as someone else – one of the people who lives in the block of flats or someone who has easy access to the building. So Agnes and Andrew decide to assist the unfortunately named Inspector Eggshell with his enquiries, whether he wants them to or not. Andrew’s cousin Lord “Pig” Whitestone is a high-up in Scotland Yard, and he very definitely doesn’t want them involved – especially Agnes, since he believes a woman’s place is in the home, looking attractive. Agnes is a modern woman, though, who thinks nothing of shinning up a ladder in the middle of the night in pursuit of a possible murderer, even if it means her sheer Couleur de Rose silk stockings may be ruined!

I couldn’t make up my mind whether the influences for this duo were Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford or Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man movies. In the intro, Martin Edwards suggests the latter, and I’m happy to go along – there’s the definite cocktail-drinking life’s-a-lark feel about the young couple. Had it been set later in the war this may have jarred, but the authors show that apart from some shortages the war hadn’t started to feel real to the people on the home front this early on. The authors are another married duo – Gordon Neil Stewart and Pamela Hansford Johnson, writing as “Nap Lombard”. It’s very well written with some great comic timing, and quite racy for the period in an entirely innocent and inoffensive way, with lots of mostly humorous hints of sex and stuff going on behind the blackout curtains. In one sense it’s quite sexist, with all the young women trying to be attractive to catch their respective men and all the men being big tough protectors to the little women in their lives. But, like Tuppence Beresford, our intrepid Agnes is the driving force in the partnership so it has a reasonably modern feel too.

It frequently stretches credulity and the ending is quite ridiculous, but honestly it doesn’t matter – the book isn’t aiming for gritty slice-of-life stuff. It’s the kind of thing to pick up when you want a few hours of pure entertainment in the company of some very enjoyable characters. Unfortunately, “Nap Lombard” only wrote two mystery novels – I do hope the BL will publish the other one some day. Great fun! 

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 279…

Episode 279

The TBR has been see-sawing during my little break – up, down, up, down, up – finally coming to rest down 1 to 199. However, it looks like the bookshops might be re-opening next week and I may be forced to go on a pilgrimage…

book buying gif

Here are a few I should be getting to soon…

Historical Fiction

The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits

The Slaughterman's DaughterCourtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. I normally avoid books with titles that make women seem like adjuncts of men – The Gigolo’s Wife, The Undertaker’s Widow, The Comedian’s Mother-In-Law, etc., etc. – but the blurb of this one broke through the barrier of my antipathy…

The Blurb says: An epic historical adventure novel—Fiddler on the Roof meets Tarantino—set in the Pale of Settlement during the final years of the Russian Empire.

The townsfolk of Motal, a small town in the Pale of Settlement where nothing extraordinary ever happens, are shocked when Fanny Keismann—devoted wife, mother of five and celebrated cheese farmer—leaves her home at two hours past midnight and vanishes into the night. True, the husbands of Motal have been vanishing for years, but a wife and mother? Whoever heard of such a thing. What on earth possessed her?

Could it have anything to do with Fanny’s missing brother-in-law, who left her sister almost a year ago and ran away to Minsk, abandoning his family to destitution and despair? Or could Fanny have been lured away by Zizek Breshov, the mysterious ferryman on the Yaselda river, who, in a strange twist of events, seems to have disappeared on the same night? Surely there can be no link between Fanny and the peculiar roadside murder on the way to Telekhany, which has left Colonel Piotr Novak, head of the Russian secret police, scratching his head. Surely that could have nothing to do with Fanny Keismann, whatever her past, whatever her reputation as a wilde chayeh, a wild beast . . .

Surely not.

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Thriller

The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

The Chill FactorAnother unsolicited one courtesy of the good people at Collins Crime Club, this appears to be a re-release to mark the 50th anniversary of the original publication. I’ve never heard of the book or the author, but the blurb makes it sound just my kind of thing… fingers crossed! 

The Blurb says: Iceland. In the winter it gets light at 10am and dark at 2pm. The daily announcement of the Chill Factor allows you to calculate how quickly you could die from exposure…

Iceland is erupting – and not just its volcano.

It is 1971, the height of the Cold War, and anti-American feeling among Icelanders is running high. When a teenager is found dead after a drunken night out, her clothes torn and face bruised, anger is directed towards the military personnel at the NATO air base at Keflavik who outnumber the local population.

British agent Bill Conran, invited by the Americans to uncover a Russian spy ring, comes to realise that this is no routine assignment. Unsure who can be trusted, and targeted by an unknown assassin, he discovers that Iceland, for all its cold beauty, has never been hotter.

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Crime

The Survivors by Jane Harper

The SurvivorsCourtesy of Little, Brown Book Group UK via NetGalley. I’ve enjoyed all of Jane Harper’s books so far, though to varying degrees. Her settings are always one of her main strengths so I’m all packed for a trip to the beach…

The Blurb says: Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on a single day when a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that haunts him still resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal town he once called home.

Kieran’s parents are struggling in a community which is bound, for better or worse, to the sea that is both a lifeline and a threat. Between them all is his absent brother Finn.

When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge in the murder investigation that follows. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…

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Shardlake on Audio

Revelation by CJ Sansom read by Steven Crossley

RevelationContinuing my re-read of the Shardlake books via audio, this is the fourth in the series, again narrated by Steven Crossley. These books get longer as the series progresses, and this one clocks in at over 21 hours, so at the glacial speed I get through audiobooks I may be listening to it for several weeks!  

The Blurb says: Spring, 1543. King Henry VIII is wooing Lady Catherine Parr, whom he wants for his sixth wife. But this time the object of his affections is resisting. Archbishop Cranmer and the embattled Protestant faction at court are watching keenly, for Lady Catherine is known to have reformist sympathies. Meanwhile, a teenage boy, a religious maniac, has been placed in the Bedlam hospital for the insane. When an old friend of Matthew Shardlake is murdered, his investigations lead to connections to both, and to the prophecies of the book of Revelation. Shardlake follows a trail of horrific murders that are igniting frenzied talk of witchcraft and demonic possession. For what else would the Tudor mind make of a serial killer…?

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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 Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope 1) by Ann Cleeves

Is there an editor in the house?

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Crow TrapThree women are staying at Baikie’s Cottage to carry out an environmental impact study on land which is earmarked to be turned into a quarry. Rachael is the leader of the team, and knows the area well – her friend Bella lives on the neighbouring farm. She knows Bella loves her life in this harsh landscape so when she arrives only to find Bella dead, hanged in the barn, she finds it hard to accept the official verdict of suicide. The other two women on the team are strangers to Rachael and to each other. Anne is an extrovert, and has had a string of affairs, most recently with the man who wants to turn the land into a quarry. Grace is the complete opposite – introverted, quiet, clearly unhappy. When a body is found on the land, it will be up to Inspector Vera Stanhope and her right-hand man Joe Ashworth to work out motives and opportunity, and to connect the dots between the murder and Bella’s suicide…

Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, but at well over 500 pages this novel is ridiculously over-long – repetitive and padded to the point where I several times considered abandoning it. The underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character – another of these detectives one feels would have been quietly shuffled to a desk job long ago since she is incapable of following rules and doesn’t mind putting herself, her colleagues and even members of the public at risk in pursuit of her case. But hey-ho! That’s modern crime fiction for you, and plenty of people seem to like these damaged detectives. At least Vera is functional.

The book starts off well enough, telling of Rachael’s arrival at the cottage, her finding of Bella, and then of the next few days as the three women get to know each other a little. It’s already far too drawn out at this stage, but eventually the body is discovered and we can hope the police procedural element is about to begin. Only for those hopes to be dashed! Back we go to the very beginning, this time following Anne through those same few days, learning more about her life, and seeing things from her perspective. And then… you’ve guessed, haven’t you… we do it all again, this time in the company of Grace. It’s not that any of the three women’s stories are uninteresting in their own right, but to cover the same period again and again had me feeling as if I was in Groundhog Day.

Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves

Finally, about halfway through, this introductory stage is at last over, and Vera arrives on the scene. It picks up a bit after that, although there’s so much backstory about Vera’s life interspersed among the plot that the pace never gets out of second gear. Vera’s method is to set the women up to be bait in the hope the murderer will return, while sending these civilians off to ask questions of suspects and bring her back the information. Extremely odd method of policing, far more suited to the Golden Age of the amateur detective than the modern police procedural. However, it’s reasonably enjoyable, and well written.

Overall, I can’t say this one thrilled me much – a crime novel requires far more plot and less repetition to hold my interest for so long. However I see that the next book is considerably shorter (though still longer than a crime novel should be) so hopefully Cleeves reined in her desire to cover every detail three times. I’d consider reading more of them, but I fear Cleeves, with two less than enthusiastic reviews out of three from me so far, is perhaps never going to make it onto my must-read list. Given her huge popularity, I don’t expect that will bother her much!

People's Choice LogoBook 3 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for March. Thank you, People – I know you meant well… 😉

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

The civilian war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In Diamond SquareOne evening in the early 1930s in Barcelona, young, motherless and naive Natalia dances with a young man at a fiesta in Diamond Square. They fall in love, though it seems an unequal love, more as if Natalia has fallen under Joe’s ultra-masculine power. They marry and have children, but the political situation is deteriorating and soon the nation will be plunged into civil war…

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life, before, during and after the war. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited.

The first section shows us Natalia’s marriage before the war. Initially overwhelmed by her rather bullying husband, we see her grow until they gradually become a more equal partnership, although still in a society that is very much a patriarchal one. She becomes a mother, and we see the traditions of the women around the subject of childbirth. Joe, a carpenter, decides to build a pigeon loft on the roof, and Pidgey, as he calls Natalia, soon finds her home full of pigeons who, like her children, seem to become solely her responsibility. Then war comes, and Joe – partly because he believes in it and partly because his business is failing – gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, leaving Natalia, the children and the pigeons to fend for themselves in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before.

SCW LogoBook 5

I don’t want to give too much of the story away, so I’ll leave you to find out what happens to Natalia and Joe for yourself (which reminds me, do NOT read the prologue before you read the book, since it’s really an introduction explaining why the author wrote it and reveals far too much about how Natalia’s story works out). The rather undramatic way the story is told works very well at allowing the tragedies inflicted on civilian populations during civil war to come through with a real feeling of truth and integrity. We see the random violence carried out by both sides, often on nothing more than suspicion – a man may have been thought to do business with the “other side” and this will be reason enough for him and his family to be terrorised and worse. We see how this gradually forces people on both sides more and more to the extremes, each seeing the other side as evil. And we see how impossible it is in this broken society for a woman to earn enough to keep her children above the starvation line. The tragedy is quiet here, but it is as devastating to the civilians as the guns and bombs are to the fighters.

We didn’t get up on Sundays so as not to be so hungry. And we took the kid to a [refugee] camp in a lorry Julie sent our way after I’d done a lot of persuading. But he knew he was being lied to. He knew better than I did that it was a lie and I was the liar. And we talked about sending him to a camp, before we actually did, and he’d look down and clam up, as if we grown-ups didn’t exist. Mrs Enriqueta promised she’d visit him. I told him I’d go every Sunday. The lorry left Barcelona with us in the back and a cardboard suitcase held together by a piece of string, and it turned down the white road that led to the lie.

And in the last section, we see the aftermath – the war over, but the impact on those involved reverberating through the following years. For some there is a future, but only when they can come to terms with what they had to do to survive.

Although, or perhaps because, Pidgey is an unremarkable woman who simply wants to be a wife and mother, I found myself fully absorbed in her story. Rodoreda shows how strong and resilient people have to be just to survive when society fractures and neighbour comes to mistrust neighbour. For little, ordinary, unheroic Pidgey, it may be too much to ask – as she nears the point of desperation, my heart broke for her and for all those civilians caught up in wars not of their own making.

Merce Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda

Well translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush, the book is quite short but packed full of power and emotion. There is no need to know anything about the Spanish Civil War in order to appreciate the book. It could, in a sense, be any civil war. However, it gives a great insight into the lives of women in Barcelona at this point in time, and adds some real depth to an aspect that is often somewhat overlooked in formal histories of the period – the impact of the war on non-aligned non-participants. Natalia didn’t care whether the Communists or the Fascists won, so long as whoever did provided bread for her children.

The sections set before and during the war are excellent but for me the final section, after the war, is a little too dragged out. It is an interesting picture, though, of the world resettling like a shaken kaleidoscope into a new pattern, not entirely dissimilar to the old, leaving unspoken the question of what it was all for – did anyone win? I will remember Natalia’s story.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 278… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Now that last year’s slump seems to be a thing of the past, I’m storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the first check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Mar 2021

On the whole, I’m pretty OK with these figures. The shortfall in new releases will be made up very quickly since I have tons on the TBR now, which also explains why the TBR total has gone up rather than down. Of course, that will make it harder to fit other challenge books in, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed three of them so far…

73. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – The only Dickens novel I hadn’t read before, and happily I loved the story of Little Nell and her grandfather, evil Daniel Quilp, and the usual myriad of quirky characters Dickens has created to delight us. 5 stars

74. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – A rom-com that neither thrilled me with the rom nor amused me with the com. Cluny’s coming-of-age story meanders unrealistically through the social classes of pre-war Britain. Just 2 stars.

75. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – unfortunately the humour didn’t work for me in this cosy wartime tale of Hebridean highlanders and a shipwreck full of whisky. An excellent narration lifted it, though. 3 stars.

So a couple of disappointments this quarter, but Dickens more than compensated!

75 down, 15 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Doing slightly better on this challenge this quarter – I’ve read three, though I’ve only reviewed 2 so far…

41. Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch – During a garden party, the host turns up dead, face down in a pond with a knife in his back. The local vicar quickly deduces it’s murder! Quite enjoyable, but with nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd. 3 stars.

42. At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason (link to be added) – When an elderly widow is murdered and her beautiful young companion goes missing, her lover (the companion’s, not the widow’s) begs Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté to take on the investigation. Oddly structured, but I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

42 down, 60 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Finally getting into this challenge properly and enjoying it greatly so far, and I’ve got some interesting fiction to come now that I’ve got a bit of an understanding of the factual history. I read two this quarter and had one still to review from last year. Only two reviews though – my reviewing is very behind at the moment.

3. The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan. Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so. 5 stars.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell fought with the Trotskyite POUM faction against Franco’s Fascists, and later was involved in the left’s in-fighting during the Barcelona May Days. This is his personal memoir of his time in Spain. An excellent read, with the politics reserved for the appendices. 5 stars.

4 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m just finishing March’s pick so haven’t reviewed it yet, so just two reviews so far – did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JanuaryThe Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey – Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy-ish murder mystery, set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma. 4½ stars.

FebruaryThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The four daughters of the family tell us of their time there and how it affected their future lives, and along the way show us the impacts of modern colonialism. A wonderful book, well deserving of all the praise and plaudits it has received. 5 stars.

Well done, People – you did great!

2 down, 10 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo March 2021

I haven’t stepped out of my usual UK beat much yet this year, and will probably juggle with this a lot as I go along to slot things into the various categories. I’ll be spoiled for choice for books set in Scotland and England so will leave them to the end and see which boxes I’m struggling to fill. Here’s what I’m considering so far…

CongoThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into River at the moment, but it could also fit Africa or Forest.

SpainIn Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (review to follow) – set in Barcelona, I’ve put this in City, but it could also fit Europe.

Hmm… lot’s of work to do on this one, but I have a few interesting locations coming up on the TBR.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A much better quarter, in terms of both quantity and quality, not to mention enjoyability. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

PS I appear to have gone on an unintentional break by virtue of not having written any reviews! So I’m going to take that as a sign and have a couple of weeks off to get ahead of myself again. Be good, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie

Slàinte mhath!

🙂 🙂 🙂

Whisky GaloreDespite their remote location, the Hebridean islands of Great Todday and Little Todday are not untouched by the ongoing Second World War. Some of the islands’ sons are far away serving in the forces, while various servicemen are stationed around the various islands. Rationing is in force, although the islanders always have their livestock and fishing to fall back on. But when there’s a prolonged shortage of whisky, things begin to get serious! When, after a few weeks of drought, a cargo ship full of whisky is shipwrecked just off one the islands, the temptation to steal the whisky before the authorities get there is overwhelming.

Humour is one of those things that is entirely subjective. Many people, according to the Goodreads reviews, found this hilarious. I’m afraid I found it occasionally mildly amusing, but mostly repetitive and rather dull. It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures – an English writer’s affectionate idea of what Hebridean islanders should be like – and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky. I grant you that alcohol plays a large role in Scottish social life, and even more in our anti-social life, but not to the extent of it being the sole subject of conversation. I tired of it long before the ship hove into view.

There are a couple of other strands, both regarding romances. One is of an English soldier who has returned to the islands to claim the girl he proposed to a few years earlier, before he was posted abroad. But before they get married, they must have the ritual rèiteach – a kind of pre-wedding party. This leads to the running joke that I swear must have been repeated at least fifty times – that the Englishman can’t pronounce the Gaelic word rèiteach. He’s not alone – nor can I, but nonetheless the humour wore thin after the first dozen times he attempted it and failed. The islanders can’t imagine a rèiteach without whisky though, and so the couple can’t wed till the drought is over.

classics club logo 2Book 75 of 90

The other couple are both islanders, and the joke here is that the man is completely under his mother’s thumb, so much so that he’s afraid to tell her that he’s got himself engaged. He needs whisky to give him courage. (Mild spoiler: personally I felt the girl should be warned that the meek and mild model of sobriety she thinks she’s marrying turns into a bullying monster when he has a drink in him, but I think Mackenzie thought his drunken behaviour towards his admittedly irritating mother was admirable. Maybe that’s how men saw things back in those days…)

Mackenzie paints a picture of the lives of the islanders in which his characters seem to have endless amounts of free time and to do very little work, and, while he touches on the religious divides that have plagued Scotland for centuries, he does so in a way that makes them seem playful – I wish! However, despite its lack of realism it’s all in keeping with the cosy tone of the book.

Compton Mackenzie
Compton Mackenzie

I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Rintoul, who does an excellent job with the accents, and I assume also with the Gaelic pronunciations – I fear my ignorance of Gaelic means I wouldn’t know. There’s a fair amount of Gaelic sprinkled through it, which I would probably have found less annoying in a paper book with a glossary. But in an audiobook, not only did I not understand the words, I couldn’t work out how they would be spelled so that I could google them – it took me ages even to find the word rèiteach, despite it having been repeated umpteen times. Like a lot of Gaelic it is not pronounced how it looks! (My post title Slàinte mhath!, for example, is pronounced roughly slan-ja-va and means Cheers!)

Overall, then, a reasonably entertaining read, mildly amusing but, for me, not funny enough to make up for the lack of substance underneath. It could have made a great novella, but at full novel length there feels like far too much repetitive padding. Maybe I should have read it after a few drams of Glenfiddich…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason

Villain or victim?

😀 😀 😀 😀

At the Villa RoseMr Julius Ricardo is enjoying himself at the casino in Aux-les-Bains, people-watching. This night the person he’s most interested in is a beautiful young girl, who at first seems to be in the depths of despair. Later in the evening, Ricardo sees her again with a friend of his, Harry Wethermill, and now she appears to be quite happy, and the two give every indication of being very much in love. So Ricardo is duly shocked when Wethermill rushes into his room a couple of mornings later to beg for Ricardo’s help. A wealthy elderly widow, Mme Dauvray, has been found murdered and Celia Harland, the beautiful girl who, it transpires, was Mme Dauvray’s companion, is missing. Everything points to Celia having been in cahoots with the murderer and having made off with Mme Dauvray’s fabulous jewellery collection. But Wethermill cannot believe this of her, and begs Ricardo to use his influence with another friend, Inspector Hanaud of the Paris Sûreté, to take on the case…

This was first published in 1910, before the standard Golden Age mystery formula of crime-investigation-solution had been fully developed, and so the structure is odd and a bit disjointed. Here, we get the crime, followed by Hanaud brilliantly catching those responsible. Then, as a kind of lengthy epilogue, we are taken back into the past and shown what happened in a narrative supposedly developed from the various witness testimonies. After that, Hanaud briefly tells Ricardo how he worked it out, but by that time the reader ought to have spotted all the clues for herself, so it’s a bit of an anti-climax.

Despite this “lop-sided” structure as Martin Edwards describes it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, the long section where we see the crime unfold before our eyes manages to be dark and tense even though we know the outcome. The characterisation of the victim, villains and suspects is very well done, and there’s a real sense of innocence meeting evil.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 8
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1910

Mme Dauvray is a kindly soul with lots of money, and so is often taken advantage of. She is a believer in spiritualism, and her long-serving maid and confidante operates as a kind of guard-dog, keeping away those who would prey on the widow. But when Mme Dauvray takes a fancy to Celia, who is an accomplished medium, and moves her in as a favoured companion, the maid is not unnaturally jealous. Her description to the police of Celia as a calculating fraud is wildly at variance with Wethermill’s idealised picture of her as a lovely innocent – it’s up to Hanaud and the reader to decide who’s right. However it’s obvious that the crime involved more than one person, so even if Celia was involved, there’s still a mystery as to who were her accomplices.

AEW Mason (2)
AEW Mason

The investigators aren’t quite such good characters in my view. Inspector Hanaud and Ricardo, who quickly becomes his sidekick, are rather caricatured versions of Holmes and Watson (far more than Poirot and Hastings, in my opinion, although it has been suggested they gave Christie the inspiration for her characters). But Hanaud is one of those superior detectives who likes nothing more than to humiliate his sidekick, and since I felt Ricardo didn’t deserve it (even though he is pretty dense sometimes), I found it hard to like Hanaud. However, we do get to see the clues that allow Hanaud to identify the culprits so it ought to be possible to work it out. By chance I happened on the right suspect, but for all the wrong reasons, so I don’t feel I can take much credit for it! The solution, although credible, isn’t straightforward, so that even when we discover halfway through whodunit, there’s still plenty left to reveal.

Undoubtedly it could have been improved by changing the structure, but fortunately I enjoyed the second half – the storytelling of the crime – more than the first half, so felt far more warmly towards it in the end than I initially thought I might. I believe Mason wrote several Hanaud books, and I’d be happy to meet him again.

I downloaded this one from wikisource.

TBR Thursday 277…

Episode 277

Oh, no! Despite all my efforts, somehow the TBR has gone up again by one this week to… oh, no! 200!! It’s not my fault though! It’s all those horrible publishers and book-sellers ganging up on me!

browse-me-books

Here are a few I’ll be browsing soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet CaressAn excellent choice, People, though you surprised me – I was sure that Louise Penny’s Still Life would run away with it this time. It was very close – just one vote between them, with the other two lagging a few votes behind. I plan to read this one in June…

The Blurb says: Born into Edwardian England, Amory Clay’s first memory is of her father standing on his head. She has memories of him returning on leave during the First World War. But his absences, both actual and emotional, are what she chiefly remembers. It is her photographer uncle Greville who supplies the emotional bond she needs, who, when he gives her a camera and some rudimentary lessons in photography, unleashes a passion that will irrevocably shape her future. A spell at boarding school ends abruptly and Amory begins an apprenticeship with Greville in London, photographing socialites for the magazine Beau Monde. But Amory is hungry for more and her search for life, love and artistic expression will take her to the demi monde of Berlin of the late ’20s, to New York of the ’30s, to the blackshirt riots in London, and to France in the Second World War, where she becomes one of the first women war photographers. Her desire for experience will lead Amory to further wars, to lovers, husbands and children as she continues to pursue her dreams and battle her demons.

In this enthralling story of a life fully lived, illustrated with “found” period photographs, William Boyd has created a sweeping panorama of some of the most defining moments of modern history, told through the camera lens of one unforgettable woman, Amory Clay. It is his greatest achievement to date.

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Classic Science Fiction

Way Station by Clifford D Simak

One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a couple of Simak’s short stories before in various anthologies, but I’ve been impressed, so I’m looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Enoch Wallace is an ageless hermit, striding across his untended farm as he has done for over a century, still carrying the gun with which he had served in the Civil War. But what his neighbors must never know is that, inside his unchanging house, he meets with a host of unimaginable friends from the farthest stars.

More than a hundred years before, an alien named Ulysses had recruited Enoch as the keeper of Earth’s only galactic transfer station. Now, as Enoch studies the progress of Earth and tends the tanks where the aliens appear, the charts he made indicate his world is doomed to destruction. His alien friends can only offer help that seems worse than the dreaded disaster. Then he discovers the horror that lies across the galaxy…

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Crime

The Silence by Susan Allott

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another unsolicited review copy and I feel this could go either way for me. Dual time story from the looks of it – when will that trend end? But it has pretty high ratings on Goodreads, so fingers crossed…

The Blurb says: It is 1997, and in a basement flat in Hackney, Isla Green is awakened by a call in the middle of the night: her father phoning from Sydney. Thirty years ago, in the suffocating heat of summer 1967, the Green’s next-door neighbor Mandy disappeared. At the time, it was thought she fled a broken marriage and gone to start a new life; but now Mandy’s family is trying to reconnect, and there is no trace of her. Isla’s father Joe was allegedly the last person to see her alive, and now he’s under suspicion of murder.

Isla unwillingly plans to go back to Australia for the first time in a decade to support her father. The return to Sydney will plunge Isla deep into the past, to a quiet street by the sea where two couples live side by side. Isla’s parents, Louisa and Joe, have recently emigrated from England – a move that has left Louisa miserably homesick while Joe embraces his new life. Next door, Steve and Mandy are equally troubled. Mandy doesn’t want a baby, even though Steve – a cop trying to hold it together under the pressures of the job – is desperate to become a father.

The more Isla asks about the past, the more she learns: about both young couples and the secrets each marriage bore. Could her father be capable of doing something terrible? How much does her mother know? What will happen to their family if Isla’s worst fears are realized? And is there another secret in this community, one which goes deeper into Australia’s colonial past, which has held them in a conspiracy of silence?

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Christie on Audio

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

After a couple of long audiobooks, I feel I need to feed my Christie/Fraser addiction, and the cats feel it’s too long since their namesakes Tommy and Tuppence got a mention on the blog. I’m a bit surprised the blurb says “six short stories” since I think there are thirteen in the print collection, and the length of the audiobook suggests it’s unabridged. I’m hoping it’s a blurb error… 

The Blurb says: Six short stories from the Queen of Crime, telling, amongst other things, of Pink Pearls and Sinister Strangers.

Bonus Feature: Includes an exclusive Q&A session between Hugh Fraser and David Brawn, Publishing Operations Director at HarperCollins.

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford were restless for adventure, so when they were asked to take over Blunt’s International Detective Agency, they leapt at the chance. After their triumphant recovery of a pink pearl, intriguing cases kept on coming their way: a stabbing on Sunningdale golf course; cryptic messages in the personal columns of newspapers; and even a box of poisoned chocolates.

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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?

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One man’s war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Homage to CataloniaOrwell’s memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. I assume that’s an indication of how influential this book was on forming British opinion at the time and in the years since. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Orwell was present first when POUM were part of the force fighting Franco’s Fascists, and later during the Barcelona May Days, and gives his personal account of both. In the bulk of the memoir there are surprisingly little polemics – he saves the political analysis for the appendices. This makes it a very readable account regardless of whether one agrees with Orwell’s political standpoint or not. In fact, the book is almost entirely about the left – the Fascists are there in the background as the enemy to be beaten, but the political foreground is taken up by the factional infighting on the Republican side.

He starts his account with his experiences as an international recruit, driven by his desire to defeat Fascism. He describes the conditions the recruits faced – ill-equipped, incomplete uniforms, a shortage of guns and ammunition. He suggests that his fellow Spanish recruits were motivated like him by an idealistic belief in their cause, and of course there is truth in that. But he’s also honest enough to recognise that the shortages of necessities, including bread, in civilian life drove many to join up simply as a way of getting food. Mothers, he tells us, sent their sons into the army so that they could smuggle bread out to their families. Orwell was horrified by the youth of many of the recruits – boys as young as fourteen or fifteen, with no real idea what they were fighting for. He describes the filth and squalor within the troop quarters, where there was a basic lack of sanitation and a permanent stench of human waste, and rats – lots of rats.

SCW Logo

Book 4

But he contrasts this with his enthusiasm for the principles of equality that pertained at this early stage of the war. There were no Sénors, only comrades. Orders, he suggests, were obeyed because the soldiers agreed to them rather than for fear of punishment. Not so on the Fascist side, he tells us, filled with forced conscripts rather than willing volunteers and desperate to desert given the slightest opportunity. I wonder. I am old and cynical and stopped believing long ago that good and evil are ever quite so clear cut, and I had to keep reminding myself that Orwell was just thirty-three when he arrived in Spain – still young enough for his cynicism to be held at bay by his idealism. He tries to defend the left against claims that their military indiscipline led to their repeated defeats, but he failed to convince me of that.

In reality, he saw very little fighting. He was positioned in trenches, facing Fascist forces in their own trenches, but neither advancing. He doesn’t make any effort to explain the military course of the war – that’s not his aim. Rather this is a personal description of what it was like to be there. As such, it adds colour, but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. On the one occasion when he is involved in more than a skirmish, he describes very well the mix of fear and bravery that he felt, although with a little of the gung-ho hubris that often pervades British war memoirs.

When his division is sent back to Barcelona, he describes the changes in the six months since he was last there. Then it seemed to him a truly socialist city, everyone equal. Now it is already reverting to normal – the rich able to get anything, the poor living with desperate shortages. He recognises himself as one of the wealthy, eating well, able to buy smuggled American cigarettes, etc.

Then the left factions start fighting each other, over nothing much, it seems. Orwell himself seems rather disillusioned by this stage, but still believes anything will be better for the workers than a Franco win, with a return to clericalism and a class-ridden society. He makes it clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on in Barcelona at the time – newspapers were either full of propaganda or heavily censored.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Back at the front, he is shot through the neck by a sniper. This allows him to see first hand and describe the medical treatment received by the injured – rather better than I’d have expected in truth, and happily he recovers well. Finally released from hospital, he discovers POUM have been suppressed, and some of his friends have been killed or imprisoned, so again this allows him to see the inhumane conditions of prisons, and the complete lack of any pretence of rule of law. He is forced into hiding until the British Consul can arrange for him and his wife to leave Spain. He writes very well about the atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and betrayal, and I found this account of the failure of his cause and his dreams beautifully and movingly written towards the end.

George Orwell
George Orwell

The first appendix gives a good summary of the politics on the left – the split between the anarchists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, et al. He is succinct and fairly clear-eyed about the chaotic nature of the left, and also about the journalistic propaganda being used by every faction. The second appendix is a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the factional infighting in Barcelona. His analysis obviously has to be treated with the caution that any participant account should receive, especially one written long before the fog of war had had time to clear. It’s interestingly done, though, with lots of references as to how it was being reported at the time in the leftist press, especially in England.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Existential crisis…

🙂 🙂 😐

Red PillOur unnamed narrator, a writer of academic literary criticism, is going through a mid-life crisis. He is seemingly happily married and with a little child, but he’s finding it hard to write. So when he is offered a residency at the Deuter Institute in Berlin, he jumps at the chance to spend a few months working in luxurious surroundings, even though his wife is not thrilled at him leaving her to cope alone. But when he gets to the Institute, he discovers that they have odd and strict rules on how their visitors should work and associate, and he finds himself even less able to write than before. And so begins his existential crisis, tied in with the work he is, or isn’t, doing on the ‘lyric I’ as exemplified in the work of Heinrich von Kleist, a poet of the German Romantic school…

My reviews are entirely subjective and are rarely meant to be a quality judgement. The quality of this book may be wonderful if you happen to know anything, and care, about the philosophies underpinning German Romanticism. I don’t, and I don’t. As a result, I found some of this incomprehensible, and most of it tedious.

hari kunzru
Hari Kunzru

Kunzru uses his narrator’s philosophical musings and descent into madness to consider the current rise of the alt-right and to make comparisons to the totalitarian regimes of both left and right in the mid-twentieth century. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this would have been more interesting if the book had come out in the pre-Trump era, as a warning – not unlike Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, which met with harrumphs of disbelief from some quarters on its publication in 2013, particularly from Americans who then believed their democracy and fundamental freedoms were so strong they could not be overturned. The timing of this one, as the Trump era ends, or at least pauses, felt to me as if it had rather missed the bus. Most of us have been angsting for years over the question of whether America would pull back from the brink of fascism before it was too late, and so the questions raised in the book felt somewhat stale, as if looking ahead to a future that is already receding into the past (hopefully).

So, unfortunately, the combination of lots of self-indulgent lit-crit which didn’t interest me, combined with political questions which I feel have been done and done again in recent years, meant that I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as I have enjoyed Kunzru’s previous books. I hesitate to use the word pretentious, because perhaps it only feels pretentious to me because it’s so heavily immersed in a subject about which I am profoundly (and yet happily) ignorant. I’m sure people who are interested in German Romantic poetry and philosophy will have a different reaction. My opinion is, therefore, even more subjective than usual – the book didn’t work for me, but may work for you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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Inspector French and the Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Croft

Robbery and murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Renowned jewellery company, Nornes Ltd., is in trouble. The long recession has driven them into losses and now that it’s over business isn’t picking up as much as they’d hoped. The directors have to make a decision quickly – to raise extra cash to allow them to struggle on in the hopes of better times ahead, or to go into voluntary liquidation, sell off their stock, and each take a financial hit. They decide to hold a secret meeting at the home of the managing director in Guildford to discuss matters, and invite the company’s accountant along to give them his advice. But things are about to get worse. First the accountant is found dead – murdered – the morning after he arrives, and then they discover that somehow the company’s safe has been emptied of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels. Chief Inspector French is in charge of the investigation into the theft, and must work with his colleagues in Guildford to see if the two events are linked, as seems likely…

As with the other Crofts novels I’ve read, this is as much howdunit as whodunit, with two separate mysteries to solve. Firstly, how could the accountant have been murdered when it appears no one could have gone to his room without being seen around the time of death determined by the doctor? And secondly, how could anyone have been able to bypass the strict security measures surrounding the keys to the safe in order to steal the jewels? French feels that he has to answer these questions before he has any hope of discovering who did the crimes.

These books are extremely procedural police procedurals, probably more true to life than most crime novels. Unfortunately I find that tends to make them a bit plodding. French goes over the same questions again and again, worrying away at tiny bits of evidence, painstakingly checking statements and alibis, following trails that lead nowhere, until eventually he has a moment of inspiration that puts him on the right track, and from thereon it becomes a matter of finding sufficient evidence to prove his theory in court.

In two of the three French books I’ve read so far, I’ve also had the unusual experience for me of working out at least part of the howdunit long before French gets there, a thing I’m usually rubbish at, which suggests to me they must be relatively obvious. In this one, I had spotted how the murder must have been done by about the halfway mark, although I’d never in a million years have worked out how the robbery was carried out. As French suspected would happen, though, working out how the murder was done pointed directly at the villain, so I also had a good idea of whodunit from early on too. So I spent a good deal of the book waiting for French to catch up. All of this rather made the long middle part of the book drag for me.

Freeman Wills Croft

However, the beginning is interesting as we meet the various suspects and learn about the company’s difficulties. The solution to the safe robbery is ingenious and certainly something I’ve never come across before. And the end takes on mild aspects of the thriller as French and his colleagues try to trap their suspects into giving themselves away. Again it’s done strictly realistically, showing how the police would actually operate. This is interesting and gives the book credibility, but I must admit it doesn’t make for heart-pounding excitement.

I think it’s probably a subjective taste thing – I can see how this detailed investigative technique could work well for the puzzle-solvers among us, but for me there wasn’t enough concentration on the characterisation, while the motive – straightforward robbery for financial gain – is never one that interests me much. So a middling read for me, but one that will doubtless be more appreciated by true howdunit fans.

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

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TBR Thursday 276 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 276

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

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OK, time for the next batch of four! This is the very last batch from 2015 – a year when I was clearly buying far more books than it was possible to read. As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a June read. A particularly varied bunch this time, and they all still sound potentially great to me so you really can’t go wrong! Although I’ve been a Rebus fan for years I’ve always dipped in and out, so that there are still a few I haven’t read – A Good Hanging is one of them. I’ve read about a million glowing reviews of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, of which Still Life is the first. William Boyd is an excellent storyteller when he’s on form, but sometimes he isn’t, so Sweet Caress could go either way. And A Tangled Web made it onto my TBR when Rose reviewed it way back when the world was young!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin

Added 9th December 2015. 2,835 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.86 average rating. 320 pages.

The Blurb says: Twelve remarkable, gritty stories starring Detective Inspector John Rebus in his home city of Edinburgh, as only Ian Rankin can portray it: not just the tearooms and cobbled streets of the tourist brochures, but a modern urban metropolis with a full range of criminals and their victims–blackmailers, peeping Toms, and more than one kind of murderer. It’s a city like any other, a city that gives birth to crimes of passion, accidents, and long-hidden jealousy, and a city in which criminal minds find it all too easy to fade into the shadows. As dedicated readers of the series well know, nobody is better equipped to delve into Edinburgh’s back alleys and smoky pubs than Rebus, and no one better able to illuminate his world than Ian Rankin.

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Crime

Still Life by Louise Penny

Added 22nd December 2015. 164,211 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 321 pages.

The Blurb says: As the early morning mist clears on Thanksgiving Sunday, the homes of Three Pines come to life – all except one…

To locals, the village is a safe haven. So they are bewildered when a well-loved member of the community is found lying dead in the maple woods. Surely it was an accident – a hunter’s arrow gone astray. Who could want Jane Neal dead?

In a long and distinguished career with the Sûreté du Quebec, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has learned to look for snakes in Eden. Gamache knows something dark is lurking behind the white picket fences, and if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will begin to give up its secrets…

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Fiction

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Added 23rd December 2015. 8,172 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.93 average. 464 pages. 

The Blurb says: Born into Edwardian England, Amory Clay’s first memory is of her father standing on his head. She has memories of him returning on leave during the First World War. But his absences, both actual and emotional, are what she chiefly remembers. It is her photographer uncle Greville who supplies the emotional bond she needs, who, when he gives her a camera and some rudimentary lessons in photography, unleashes a passion that will irrevocably shape her future. A spell at boarding school ends abruptly and Amory begins an apprenticeship with Greville in London, photographing socialites for the magazine Beau Monde. But Amory is hungry for more and her search for life, love and artistic expression will take her to the demi monde of Berlin of the late ’20s, to New York of the ’30s, to the blackshirt riots in London, and to France in the Second World War, where she becomes one of the first women war photographers. Her desire for experience will lead Amory to further wars, to lovers, husbands and children as she continues to pursue her dreams and battle her demons.

In this enthralling story of a life fully lived, illustrated with “found” period photographs, William Boyd has created a sweeping panorama of some of the most defining moments of modern history, told through the camera lens of one unforgettable woman, Amory Clay. It is his greatest achievement to date.

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Fiction

A Tangled Web by LM Montgomery

Added 30th December 2015. 4,464 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 257 pages.

The Blurb says: Over the years sixty members of the Dark family and sixty Penhallows have married one another—but not without their share of fighting and feuding. Now Aunt Becky, the eccentric old matriarch of the clan, has bequeathed her prized possession: a legendary heirloom jug. But the name of the jug’s new owner will not be revealed for one year. In the next twelve months beautiful Gay Penhallow’s handsome fiancé Noel Gibson leaves her for sly and seductive Nan Penhallow; reckless Peter Penhallow and lovely Donna Dark, who have hated each other since childhood, are inexplicably brought together by the jug; Hugh and Joscelyn Dark, separated on their wedding night ten years ago for reasons never revealed, find a second chance—all watched over by the mysterious Moon Man, who has the gift of second sight. Then comes the night when Aunt Becky’s wishes will be revealed…and the family is in for the biggest surprise of all.

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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.

P.S. Note for The Silver Darlings review-alongers – due to Rose’s copy not having arrived yet, the review date will be postponed. I’ll post the new date once it turns up. Keep your notes!

Transwarp Tuesday! The Society of Time and Other Stories by John Brunner

Paradoxically…

:mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: 

This new volume in the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series contains three stories. The title story is the longest and rests somewhere between novella and short novel in length. The other two would probably be best described as novelette length. Each story deals with the idea of time in some way, but they are very different from each other, showing Brunner as an imaginative and thoughtful writer who, like many of the SF greats, often used his stories to reflect on issues within his own society. My limited reading of science fiction meant I hadn’t come across him before, but the introduction by Mike Ashley tells me that he was a well-regarded British writer of the second half of the twentieth century, though his major successes all came early in his career, mostly in the 1960s, the period from which all three stories in this collection date.

The Society of Time – itself a trilogy of sorts, but with an overarching storyline that binds the three parts together, this tells of an alternative history where the Spanish Armada won and Britain became a colony of the Spanish Empire. The story is set in 1988, coming up for the 400th anniversary of that victory, and Brunner does a good job of showing the ascendancy of an essentially Spanish aristocracy ruling over a still recognisably British population. A method of time travel had been discovered almost a century earlier, but is strictly controlled by the Society of Time to avoid the kind of paradox that could arise by people from the present interfering with and changing their own history. Don Miguel, new licentiate of the society and our hero for the story, is attending a social function when he spots an artefact that he recognises as Aztec and as being so new looking that he fears it has been transported into the present from the past. Is there some kind of smuggling going on? This would imply corruption within the Society. As Don Miguel finds himself caught up in the investigation, he learns much about the fluidity of time and the possibility that time travel is causing fluctuations in human history.

In the second part, a quarrel leads to an irruption into the present of a race of warrior women from a possible past, while the third part widens the idea of the Society out to show that there is another grouping of nations known as the Confederacy who are the adversaries of the Empire and have their own time travelling society. As the two forces go back in time to compete for ascendancy, the present and future are put at risk. It’s very well done, although I admit that sometimes the complex paradoxes left my poor muddled brain reeling – this is my normal reaction to time paradoxes though! Although I felt the ending was a bit too neat and obvious, it is an interesting look at how our present is very much determined by our past – we are a product of our history whether it’s a history to be proud or ashamed of.

Father of Lies – a group of young people have found a strange place where no one seems to enter or leave and where modern technology doesn’t work. They set up a base just outside the area and investigate. As Miles (our hero) enters the area on foot (since cars don’t work) and carrying an axe (since guns don’t work), he first spots a dragon flying overhead. Then he sees a young woman in peril… While there are aspects of the fairy tale about this one and lots of references to Arthurian legends, there is a real darkness at the heart of it. It’s very imaginative and Brunner does an excellent job of giving a full picture of the strangeness of this place in a short space. Again, my one criticism would be that the ending feels a little too pat and convenient.

The Analysts – I found the first half of this very strange and intriguing, and again felt that the ending didn’t quite match up to the quality of the bulk of the story. A society called the Foundation for the Study of Social Trends wants a building built to their exact specifications but the architect to whom they take their plans thinks it’s all wrong. He calls in Joel Sackstone, an expert visualiser who can imagine from plans how a building will work for its purpose. When Joel considers the plans for this building, he begins to see that it is not flawed as the architect thinks – rather it is designed to achieve a very specific purpose. He makes a mock-up from the plans and… well, I’ll leave you to find out for yourself what happens then. In this one, Brunner is using an imaginative story to look at racism within his own time – just beginning to be recognised as an issue in Britain at that time. As might be expected, some of the language and attitudes are out-dated now and feel somewhat offensive to our current sensibilities, but his anti-racism intent is quite clear, so I gave him a pass on that.

John Brunner

I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the stories. They show a lot of originality in dealing with what has long been an overcrowded sub-genre of time travelling stories, and he moves well between the somewhat harder edge of science fiction and the softer fantasy elements. In the first, longer story, he has room for some good character development in Don Miguel, and all of the stories are very well written. A good introduction for newcomers like me, while existing fans will be pleased that this is the first time The Society of Time has been collected in its original, unabridged form.

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

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