Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

A Reading Diary

Day 1

Off to a mixed start! Three bodies, frozen under the snow in Gorky Park in Moscow, faces and fingertips mutilated to prevent easy identification. Bit of tension between our hero-to-be, Arkady Renko, and the boo-hiss stereotypical baddie from the KGB. The writing is messy with sentences quite often requiring more than one reading to try (or fail) to work out what the author is trying to communicate, but maybe it will improve. Or maybe it won’t.

“Vodka was liquid taxation, and the price was always rising. It was accepted that three was the lucky number on a bottle in terms of economic prudence and desired effect. It was a perfect example of primitive communism.”

Eh?

Day 2

No movement in the plot whatsoever. I say plot, but I fear one has yet to appear. We’ve had our first naked woman though, complete with nipple description! Arkady’s wife, who seems to stroll around their apartment naked despite the Arctic weather outside – who knew Muscovites had such effective heating systems in the 1980s? Impressive! And fortunate, since she and Arkady generate no heat of their own, clearly disliking each other quite a lot. Arkady meets another girl, though – a weird and quirky twenty-one-year-old, with whom our middle-aged hero is obviously destined to have sex at some point. I wonder what her nipples will be like…

Day 3

Still no identification of the corpses. Still no movement in the investigation. Arkady and his wife have split up after Arkady got into a punch-up with her lover. Arkady has been beaten up by someone whose identity we also don’t know, but despite being punched in the heart twice and kicked in the head, next day he’s fine. To summarise – three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule (because presumably we didn’t know that). To quote Chandler Bing, could I be more bored?

Day 4

Apparently I could.

* * * * *

Abandoned at 19%. Life is too short and the book is too long.

* * * * *

This was The People’s Choice winner for November. Thanks for getting it off my TBR, People! 😉

Book 11 of 12

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The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

Run, Rabbits, Run…

😦

Hugh Everton bumps into some old acquaintances in a hotel bar and accepts an invitation to dine with retired Judge Bath and his much younger and glamorous wife, Lucy. Tensions are high, since it becomes clear that Everton and Lucy once had a fling, and the other two guests, Atkinson and Cady, both seem to be watching the clock carefully, as if waiting for something to happen. And something does! A few minutes after the Judge has retired to bed, a shot is fired, and he is found dead on his bedroom floor. But by the time the police arrive, the body has disappeared…

While the world of vintage crime is a wondrous thing in which I’ve spent many happy hours over the last few years, occasionally I’m reminded that some authors become “forgotten” for a reason. I had a mixed reaction to Bennett’s earlier entry in the BL’s Crime Classics series, The Man Who Didn’t Fly, but this time my reaction was pure – this has to rank as one of the worst books in the series to date. I got so tired of it that I more or less gave up two-thirds of the way through, skimming the last few chapters to find out whodunit, although I can’t say I cared much.

There are three problems with it – major problems, that don’t leave much in the way of positives. The first is the truly dreadful style. The second is the convoluted and overly complicated plot. The third is the clumsy characterisation of a bunch of truly unlikeable, pretty despicable people – and that includes the hero. Some writers have a natural flow that may not be especially literary but is great for telling an interesting story. Others write so well that the writing itself can make up for some weaknesses in plot or characterisation. And then there’s Bennett. It seems to me as if she thought up a story (I’m sure there must be one buried in there somewhere) and then decided to experiment with style, with the end result being that the whole thing reads like a pastiche of the more realist mystery novels that were just then, in 1952, coming into vogue. It’s not dark enough to be noir, but she has attempted to give it that noir atmosphere of amorality and a kind of existential despair. She makes everything deliberately vague, not in a plot sense but in a writing sense, so that the book never flows – all the time the reader is left trying to catch up with things that should be made plain, but aren’t: for example, starting chapters with ‘she’ rather than a character name so that for the first couple of paragraphs we don’t know which character we’re reading about. I found it all intensely irritating.

Margot Bennett

Although it’s written in third person, we see the action almost exclusively through Everton’s eyes. Everton is a weak and cowardly man with a criminal background and a depressed and depressing outlook on life. He doesn’t respect anyone, and so it’s hard for the reader to get past his self-pity and misanthropy to see any good in any of the other characters. Most of the other characters sneer at him, and he sneers right back. But he also sneers at the one or two who try to be nice to him, which makes him deeply unpleasant to spend time with. I’m convinced Bennett thought that having an unlikeable lead character was terribly “modern”, and in that she’s right – that’s exactly why the Golden Age died as authors began to despise the conventions that had made the genre golden.

The plot starts out as a straightforward mystery, a mix of whodunit and howdunit, but soon descends into a convoluted mess, incorporating everything from blackmail to fugitives from the failed Fascist regimes of Europe. If she’d stuck to the basic plot it might have been a fairly good, if run of the mill, murder mystery, but each new chapter seemed to be adding another rabbit for the reader to chase, with the result that this reader lost all interest in trying to keep track of the original bunny.

No, I’m afraid this one was a major miss for me.

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

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False Witness by Karin Slaughter

Nothing bad happens to the cat…

😦

Back when they were teenagers, sisters Callie and Leigh committed a terrible crime, although they had good justification for it. Since then, Callie has spiralled into drug addiction, partly because of this early experience, and partly from getting hooked on pain medication after an accident that has left her with all kinds of physical problems. Leigh, on the other hand, has lifted herself out of their deprived beginnings, becoming a lawyer now working in a prestigious firm. One day she is asked to defend a man who has been charged with a horrific rape. She doesn’t recognise Andrew at first, but he recognises her – and he knows what she and Callie did that night. And it soon becomes clear he’s enjoying the power this gives him over both sisters…

I’ll admit it straight away – I found the subject matter of this sordid and the graphic descriptions of rape, extreme drug abuse, violence and gore more than distasteful. The constant, casual use of the foulest of foul language didn’t help matters. By the time I finished I felt that I needed to scrub my mind out with a brillo pad to get rid of the slime. Slaughter and I are clearly not kindred spirits.

Trying to be objective, it is well written for the most part and the characterisation of the two sisters is done well, even if that meant that I disliked both of them to the point of not wishing to spend time in their company and not caring what happened to them. Andrew, the rapist client of Leigh, is a stock psychopath from central casting, caricatured way past the point of credibility. But all three of them are merely vehicles for Slaughter to use her clearly well-practised shock tactics on the reader. The plot is entirely secondary to the horrors she shows us along the way, from repeated descriptions of both child and adult rape of the most violent kind, to the lovingly detailed and very lengthy descriptions of Callie’s drug taking, including how best to inject oneself through an abscess to get the thrill of added pain, to violent beatings in which she lingers on the crushed bones, detached eyeballs, etc., etc.

Karin Slaughter

Apart from my general disgust, the real problem from a literary point of view is that it’s incredibly repetitive. We revisit the original event many, many times – not gradually learning more, we already know what happened, but just going over it again and again which, since it involves child rape, I could seriously have lived without. We are told the same things about Callie’s physical problems every time her name is mentioned, and yet, despite their apparently debilitating effects, they never stop her when she wants to beat up someone much larger than herself or climb over a fence or in some other way channel Superwoman – heroin must be a miracle drug! Slaughter incorporates Covid, so we get masking and social distancing thrown at us constantly, as if we haven’t all heard enough about that in real life already. The whole book could have been cut by at least a third simply by removing the worst of the repetitions. If she had also removed the foul language and the loving instructional handbook on how to get the most out of drug abuse, I reckon she could have lost another hundred pages. Take out the graphic descriptions of rape and violence and we’re down to novella length…

Nope, not for me, though since she has a massive following I don’t expect that will bother her too much. If you haven’t already gathered, trigger warnings for just about everything you can think of and several things you probably can’t. But, on the upside, nothing bad happens to the cat.

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

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Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Why not Bulgaria?

😦

Sweet CaressIn the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decided to emulate her uncle Greville and become a professional photographer. Many years later, Amory reminisces about where her profession has taken her over the years. And of course it has taken her to all the places we’d expect – the decadence of ‘30s Berlin, the rise of the Nazis, WW2, Vietnam, in most of which places, this being a Boyd book, she has sex with a “scandalous” edge – married men, women, etc.

I’m afraid I abandoned this halfway through, after it taking me over a month to get to that point. I used to love William Boyd and still think his earlier books, and an occasional later one, are great stories well told. But recently I’ve found myself struggling to get up any real interest in the lives of his characters or in their stories. This one has been told before and told better by Boyd himself, in Any Human Heart, the story of a man who lived through all the major events of the twentieth century (and had lots of sex). Why Boyd felt it would be a good idea to do it again with a female lead beats me, but even if I wasn’t having strong feelings of déjà vu I doubt if Avery would have won my heart.

The thing about her is that she goes to these interesting places – Berlin, London, New York – and seems to miss everything interesting about them, perhaps because she spends so much time in bedrooms. I found myself wearily wishing that just once an author would find somewhere new to explore rather than the overtrodden path of Nazis/WW2, etc. Not to labour the point, but the twentieth century lasted for a hundred years and involved countries other than the UK, the USA and Germany. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if some author leapt into the unknown and took us to, say, Bulgaria, or Bahrain, or Venezuela? I assume something must have happened in these countries over the course of a century. I know, I know – plenty of authors have gone further afield, but I was feeling bored and a little bitter while I was musing. Boyd used to be one of the authors to whom I looked to expand my fictional horizons, but recently his books feel safely settled in the overly familiar.

He also uses an odd device in this one, which I feel doesn’t work at all. Over the years in real life, he has collected random photographs from sales, etc., which he presents here as Amory’s work. This meant that, firstly, it often felt to me that he was manipulating the story to fit round the photos so that oddly random episodes would be included, like Amory briefly working as a fashion photographer, which didn’t sit well with the character or the overall thrust of her life. Secondly, the photos are not particularly special – for the most part they are rather mundane snaps of people doing random things. I felt that if these were supposed to highlight Amory’s talent, then the poor girl clearly didn’t have much.

Boyd, William
William Boyd

My other major complaint is that Amory comes over as such a passive character, which I don’t think was Boyd’s intent at all. I think he was trying to portray her as adventurous, daring, ahead of her time – an early example of a woman playing men at their own game. But at every step of her life (up to the halfway mark when I gave up), every job she gets is arranged for her by a man – her photographer uncle, her rich lover, and so on. Even when she crosses to Berlin to photograph the seedy side of life with a view to gaining some notoriety, she does so at her uncle’s suggestion and funded by his money, and on her return, it is he who arranges her exhibition and tempts the interest of the press. Amory fades to near invisibility in terms of her own input to the trajectory of her life.

So, bored and dismal, I gave up. Sorry, Mr Boyd!

People's Choice LogoBook 6 of 12

Oh dear, People! This was Your Choice for June, and I don’t blame you at all – I had high hopes for it myself. But I fear it turned out to be a major fail. Oh, well! 😥🤪😥

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The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

Enough to drive a girl to drink…

🤬

The CaskAs a cargo ship is unloading at the docks in London, an accident causes a cask to fall and split. Two employees of the shipping company spot that some gold coins have fallen from it so not unnaturally they decide to have a little poke around inside to see if there are more. There are, but more shockingly there is also a dead hand which appears to be attached to an equally dead woman! So begins this ridiculously over-complicated, utterly tedious investigation into the death of someone I didn’t care about at the hands of one of the tiny group of suspects about whom I cared even less. If only the cask had been full of red wine, I could have got paralytically drunk and been happy…

Dear me, that’s the nearest I’ve come to death by boredom in a while! I’ve read a few of Crofts’ extremely procedural procedurals now, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or lack thereof, but this one is in a class of its own. Pages and pages and pages of shipping routes of casks, three detectives going over and over and over the same pieces of evidence again and again and again, zero characterisation of victims, suspects or detectives – truly it is a mystery to me how anyone manages to make it all the way through to the end of this with their sanity intact. I gave up at 53% when it became clear to me that I would soon be screaming out loud rather than just inside my head. I was “interested” enough to flick to the last chapter to find out which of the suspects had done the deed, and when I got there I realised I’d been right along – I really didn’t care!

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book:
16
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1920

And since I’m moaning, let me have a brief rant about the dialogue. People do not speak as if they are a business letter. No one – NO ONE – ever – in the history of the universe – has ever said in conversation, and I quote:

“That cask, as you see, was invoiced out via Havre and Southampton on the 30th ultimo, and yet it turned up in London on Monday, the 5th instant,…”

Good grief! And then there’s the convoluted journey of the corpse-containing cask, which turns up in Paris, London, Southampton, Le Havre and Rouen, some of them several times. Why? WHY?? Why would a murderer go to these ridiculous lengths to get rid of a body? What’s wrong with burying it in the woods or, since it crosses the Channel at least three times as far as I could gather, dumping it in the sea? And I don’t wish to lower the tone, but would a corpse travelling about in a cask for days in the height of summer remain… ahem… fresh??

(I realise the answers to the above may be given in the 47% of the book I didn’t read, but despite my mouth-frothing ranting, I DON’T CARE!!)

icrofts001p1
Freeman Wills Croft

This was apparently Crofts’ first book, so a very strong argument against reading books in order. He undoubtedly did improve, even if his later books occasionally also bore me into fits of the screaming abdabs. At least he got over the desire to make his characters talk as if they were dictating letters to their secretaries. Apparently writer and critic Julian Symons classed him as one of “the humdrum school” of mystery novelists – on the basis of this one I feel Symons was being too kind. But Martin Edwards is even kinder when he uses the euphemism “meticulous” to describe the endless mind-numbing tediosity of repeated details. Amazingly the book has sold over 100,000 copies. I downloaded my copy free and yet still feel I’ve been overcharged…

If you’ve been having too interesting a time recently and feel the desire to be bored rigid for a change, you too can read this – it’s available here. But get your own cask of medicinal wine first – I’ll need all of mine…

The Invention of China by Bill Hayton

And the point is…?

😦

The basic premise of the book is that China, as a nation-state, only came into existence as an invention of a few intellectuals in the 19th century, and that therefore its claims to a 5,000-year-old civilisation are somehow false. It’s the “therefore” in the proposition that is the problem – the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premise. Take the UK – a construct of a few power-brokers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Does that somehow negate the shared history of the four nations prior to the Union, even if that history was often one of strife? Or take the EU, if it survives in the long-term – will future generations suggest that Europeans don’t have a shared history prior to the end of WW2?

Hayton argues that the intellectual underpinning of the idea of a Chinese nation-state was absorbed from European ideas in the 19th century – agreed, of course. He also seems to suggest that the idea of an ancient nation of “China” is used still today to promote the idea of a Chinese race, as distinct from a Chinese nationality. Well, OK, perhaps – but, in reality, is that much different to the West? We’re so tied up in questions of race and nationality that people now often need several hyphens to describe themselves – Kamala Harris, first Asian-African-American woman to become VP, etc. If we haven’t learned to think of Brits as simply Brits rather than Asian-British, Afro-Caribbean-British, etc., can we afford to be too sniffy about China’s failures on racial integration? We may talk the talk, but the year of race protests and riots we’ve just endured suggests that perhaps we don’t walk the walk much better than China.

Hayton suggests that part of China’s foreign policy is to keep the diaspora feeling that it is Chinese in order to promote China abroad, partly by automatically allowing citizenship to those descended from a Chinese ancestor. Well, while it’s not (as far as I know) British policy to exert some form of British control over its diaspora now, it certainly was in the days of Empire – we fought wars over it, eh, America? And we certainly still give priority paths to British citizenship to people descended from a Brit – my greatest fear is that Trump will remember his Scottish mother and decide to seek residency here, which we would be hard put under our rules not to grant, I believe. As evidence of China’s desire to influence its diaspora, Hayton discusses events held abroad to promote Chinese culture and heritage to emigrants of Chinese descent. Hmm, not so different, I felt, to St Patrick’s Day parades, beloved far more by the Irish diaspora than at home, and heavily promoted by Ireland nowadays to boost the tourism industry, and used in the recent past to garner Irish-American support for the IRA terrorist campaign against the UK; or Burns Night, a knees-up that is more enthusiastically attended among descendants of Scots abroad than it is here in Scotland. We even have an annual Tartan Day parade in New York, specifically promoted by the Scottish government to try to make Scottish-Americans so nostalgic about the old country they will spend lots of American money on Scottish goods. Not sure it works.

Chinese New Year – Melbourne-style

So the more I read about how different China supposedly is, the more I felt that it was pretty much the same as all the other nation-states with imperial tendencies – perhaps it just took a little longer for it to adopt an essentially European idea. And I don’t think that its modern nation-state status in any way means it shouldn’t be allowed to lay claim to its 5000-year-old history. We do. We look on Roman Britain as our heritage – iron age Britain, Viking Britain, Norman Britain, Empire Britain, multicultural modern Britain – all parts of what makes us us, for good or ill. And for most of that long history, we weren’t a nation-state either.

Hayton suggests, though, that the Chinese desire to maintain control over places like Taiwan and Tibet arise out of an untrue history that all these regions (or nations) are historically part of a nation of China which he suggests never existed before the 19th century. Again, simplistically true, but is not that always the way of Empire? China is simply at a different stage than Europe – we have been forced unwillingly to accept the loss of our Empires and redefine our nation-states and re-write our histories accordingly; China is still grimly hanging on to its claims over its ancient tributaries and, as we did, using distorted narratives and racial arguments to justify them. Let’s face it, fan though I am of the Commonwealth, it exists merely to tie together the countries that were once part of the British Empire. Is that a bad thing? The only difference is that states can leave the Commonwealth if they choose, but that’s only been the case for half a century or so. No doubt in time the Chinese Empire will go the same way, and who is to say if the breakaway parts won’t find, as with the old colonies of the European Empires, that there is a benefit in maintaining historical, cultural and economic ties once the shackles of enforced domination have been thrown off?

I gave up on the book halfway through, since I found the arguments tenuous, shallow and not particularly well laid-out. And, to be honest, I’m not sure if the point is one that it was worth the effort of making. China is a fascinating nation with many facets, good and bad. It does many things I find objectionable, especially in terms of its human rights abuses. But this effort to deny it its claim to its heritage seems odd – a throwback to the days when we in Europe looked sneeringly down on the rest of the world. We don’t still do that. Do we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher Yale University Press via Amazon Vine UK.

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Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

If this is the lost generation, don’t send a search party…

🤬

A teenager develops a crush on a married man, and he simply can’t help himself, darlings – what’s a devilishly handsome, utterly charming, autobiographical alter-ego of a narcissistic author to do? Especially since women exist only for their men – to deny Rosemary her opportunity to slavishly adore him would surely be cruel? And so long as the wife, Nicole, never finds out that her husband and her young friend are up to hanky-panky, she won’t be hurt by it, right? So Dick reasons, anyway. (Yes, he is called Dick… a moment of subconscious insight on Fitzgerald’s part, perhaps?).

Gosh, I hated this. So much so that I abandoned it at 32%, thus happily missing out on the promised descent of Dick into alcoholic self-indulgence and Nicole into madness over his unfaithfulness (I assume). The odd thing is that I read this when I was around twenty, just after loving The Great Gatsby, and while I didn’t think it was anywhere near as good, I don’t remember having the kind of visceral antipathy to it that I experienced this time around. Admittedly that would have been sometime in the ‘70s, so my extreme youth coupled by the fact that back then women were still routinely treated as pathetic little accessories to strong, purposeful men might have made it seem almost quite romantic. But surely even young FF couldn’t have overlooked the fact that it’s immensely, seriously dull? Pointless people leading pointless lives pointlessly. Maybe I envied them their wealth and glamour? I hope not!

Book 70 of 90

Let me give you a few quotes to try to show why I hated it so much – bear in mind that Dick Diver is largely Fitzgerald himself, and Nicole is his wife, Zelda:

… the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to every one at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree.

Uh-huh! OK, but that’s probably a one-off example of how wonderful Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – thinks he is, eh?

But Dick Diver—he was all complete there. Silently she admired him. His complexion was reddish and weather-burned, so was his short hair—a light growth of it rolled down his arms and hands. His eyes were of a bright, hard blue. His nose was somewhat pointed and there was never any doubt at whom he was looking or talking—and this is a flattering attention, for who looks at us?—glances fall upon us, curious or disinterested, nothing more. His voice, with some faint Irish melody running through it, wooed the world, yet she felt the layer of hardness in him, of self-control and of self-discipline, her own virtues.

Yes, well, OK, maybe this is just teenager Rosemary’s idea of him, and not Fitzgerald’s own. Let’s see what the third-person narrator thinks…

But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognising the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world.

Maybe he’s being ironic? Please tell me he’s being ironic…

But Fitzgerald’s self-obsessed narcissism is only part of the problem. The other part is his opinion of women…

Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world – they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

Not misogynistic enough, you say? Well, how about…

Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel.

Funnily enough, I’d really like to be able to tell Dick – I mean, Fitzgerald – exactly how I feel right at this moment…

Dick Diver came and brought with him a fine glowing surface on which the three women sprang like monkeys with cries of relief, perching on his shoulders, on the beautiful crown of his hat or the gold head of his cane. Now, for a moment, they could disregard the spectacle of Abe’s gigantic obscenity. Dick saw the situation quickly and grasped it quietly.

While the vision of Dick quietly grasping Abe’s gigantic obscenity set me howling with welcome laughter, I fear the narcissism, misogyny and accidental (I assume) massive double entendre in this final quote was the end for me. If I allow myself to grow to hate Fitzgerald – I mean, Dick – any more, I shall never be able to read Gatsby again – it’s already looking shaky – and that would be a pity since up till now I’ve always declared it one of my most treasured novels.

Note to authors: if you must include yourself in your novel, probably best not to praise yourself too highly.

A few of us were reading this simultaneously with a view to doing a review-a-long today, so I’ll add a link to Eva’s review if she posts it later, and check out the comments section below for Alyson’s and Christine’s opinions. I sincerely hope they all enjoyed this considerably more than I did!

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Earth Abides by George R Stewart

When only the dull survive…

😦

Isherwood Williams has been on a field trip in the wilderness for a while when he is bitten by a snake. For a few days he’s out of it, feverish as the poison works through his system. On recovering, he drives to the nearest town only to discover that while he’s been in isolation, a plague has destroyed nearly all human life. He sets out on a road journey through America, looking for other survivors and gathering material for his forthcoming travelogue…

OK, I made up that last bit, but honestly that’s what this feels like – a guide book to America written by someone rather boring. Maybe it would resonate more if these were places I knew or had some kind of emotional response to, but I don’t, and so it’s just a list of street names interspersed with amazing insights like, in the absence of man, weeds sprout between paving stones, and dogs go hungry.

A few pigeons fluttered up at Rockefeller Center, disturbed now by the sound of a single motor. At Forty-second Street, yielding to a whim, he stopped the car in the middle of Fifth Avenue and got out, leaving Princess shut up.

He walked East on Forty-second Street, the empty sidewalk ridiculously wide. He entered Grand Central Terminal, and looked in at the vast expanse of waiting-room.

“Waugh!” he called loudly, and felt a childlike pleasure as an echo came reverberating back from the high vault, through the emptiness.

I believe later in the book he finally meets some people and sets up a kind of back-to-nature life, but I gave up at the 20% mark – rapidly becoming the standard point where I abandon books for boring me to death. To be fair, this may have seemed more original when it first came out in 1949, but it’s been done so many times since, and done better. It doesn’t compare in any way to the brilliance of The Day of the Triffids, for example, published just two years later, or more recently to the unsettling starkness of The Road. Where both those authors recognised that the primary thing that makes even post-apocalyptic novels interesting is the interaction of humans, Stewart chooses to have Ish, as he’s known, feel superior and judgemental towards the few remnants of humanity he encounters, and quickly decide he’d rather be on his own than with them. So all that’s left is endless unemotional descriptions of the effects of nature returning to a world without humanity, sometimes through Ish’s eyes, and sometimes through annoying little inset sections in italics where Stewart chooses to give a kind of running lecture on the subject.

Book 69 of 90

And perhaps because our own pandemic has allowed us to have a tiny insight into how the world reacts when man retreats, I didn’t even feel he’d got it right. He says, for instance, that wildlife continues to shun the cities – not what happened during our various lockdowns when the internet was awash with pictures of all kinds of creatures revelling in our absence and dancing in our streets. He also has Ish constantly fearing he’ll come across piles of the dead, but he doesn’t. Where are they all? If everyone suddenly got sick all at the same time, so sick that most of them died, who on earth buried them? Stewart hints that everyone died in hospitals so has Ish avoid them, but no hospital system in the world has capacity to take in the entire population simultaneously, a fact of which we have all recently become only too aware. Ish wanders round New York and sees no corpses, smells no putrefaction, etc. It’s as if humanity has been vaporised by aliens rather than killed by disease (which frankly would have been a more fun story).

Perhaps, not being a housekeeper, he had not previously noticed dust, or perhaps this place was particularly dusty. No matter which! From now on, dust would be a part of his life.

Back at the car, he slipped it into gear, crossed Forty-second Street, and continued south. On the steps of the Library he saw a grey cat crouched, paws stretched out in front, as if in caricature of the stone lions above.

At the Flatiron Building he turned into Broadway, and followed it clear to Wall Street. There they both got out, and Princess showed interest in some kind of trail which ran along the sidewalk. Wall Street! He enjoyed walking along its empty length.

George R Stewart

I’ve been abandoning an excessive number of books this year, due to my own plague-inspired blues, so perhaps I’d have had more patience with this at another time, and perhaps it becomes more interesting once Ish finally becomes part of a community. But right now it’s simply boring me, so I’m giving up the struggle and don’t see myself ever returning to it. As post-apocalyptic books go, this is the dullest I’ve ever tried to read. In a world full of interesting people, what a pity that tedious Ish is the one who survived…

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The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

A Greek idyll…?

🤬

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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

Recommended to old Argentinians…

😦

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

Accountably neglected…

😦

John Talbot always hated Jimmie Tunstall from the time they were boys at school and extrovert Jimmie would torment the introverted John. Now, years later, Talbot writes down the story of their relationship to prove, so he tells us, that he is not mad. Of course, whenever a narrator tells you he’s not mad, then you kinda know he is. After several years of absence, Tunstall returns to the town where Talbot still lives, now with a wife he adores but who doesn’t love him, and a young son who’s not fond of him either. They both quite like Tunstall though. Unable to put up with Tunstall’s overbearing personality any longer, Talbot murders him. But soon he begins to feel that Tunstall is still around – is, in fact, in some way controlling Talbot’s behaviour, making him do things he would never have dreamed of – bad things! Guilt? Madness? Or is something supernatural going on…?

I don’t know. I got bored with being bored halfway through and decided I didn’t care. I often wonder why already successful authors sometimes decide to rip off a great classic and then do it so badly. It must be the ultimate in hubris. “Aha!” I imagine Walpole thinking to himself one day, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll take the basic premise of Jekyll and Hyde, tell it sort of from the perspective of Hyde, fill it with lots of sex and endless, repetitive and exceptionally dull padding, and everyone will see what a great and original talent I am!” Poor Walpole, with your 27 ratings on Goodreads – looks like the reading public felt that the greatness and originality all belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson (373,463 ratings).

Challenge details:
Book: 101
Subject Heading: The Way Ahead
Publication Year: 1942

Martin Edwards must see something in this that I missed, since he included it in his 100 Classic Crime novels. As well as mentioning Jekyll and Hyde, he also says it’s reminiscent of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and yes, there is a similarity, but again, that was original and great, whereas this is a rip-off and dull. Edwards says it’s “unaccountably neglected” – I would argue that it’s accountably neglected, very accountably…

Book 12 of 20

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The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Give me strength…

😦

An old man in Penang, the half-English/half-Chinese Philip Hutton, is visited by a woman who once loved Endo-san, Hutton’s one-time friend, martial arts teacher and platonic lover. At her request, Hutton tells the woman the story of his friendship with Endo-san, back in the 1930s.

She must have regretted asking. I started this utterly tedious bore-fest on 25th May and by 9th June had made it through just 33%, with every word a penance – clearly I committed some horrible sin in a past life and am being forced to pay for it in this one by reading overlong plotless contemporary fiction. Perhaps a plot develops later – I understood the book was going to be about the Japanese invasion of Malaya during WW2 but there was still very little sign of this at the point I abandoned it, except for some clumsy foreshadowing usually based on fortune-tellers’ hints and warnings.

The younger version of Hutton has all the ingredients to be interesting, and yet isn’t. Mixed race in a society where this was rare and frowned upon, he is something of an outsider even in his own family. But then he meets, as if by accident, a middle-aged man who offers, out of the blue, to become his sensei – a teacher in martial arts and a kind of spiritual guru. Not thinking this in any way odd, Hutton within a few weeks is pretty much an expert both at fighting and at all the mental discipline that comes with it. Who knew it was all so easy? I always thought it took years to master these skills. I think I might spend the rest of June becoming a master of aikido myself. I’m sure it’ll come in handy.

Tan Twan Eng

Along the way we are bored to death by treated to endless descriptions of fights – all stylised, of course, not real ones. This comes amidst the even more endless descriptions of every physical object or bit of landscape we come across, not to mention the historical factlets which are presented as just that – like extracts from a guide book to Penang.

What can I say? This book was longlisted for the Booker in 2007 and has thousands of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, with only 123 1-stars. Make that 124. Clearly it must be me, but I’ve suffered enough. I regret that I’m so old-fashioned as to expect stories to contain an actual story, but so it goes. One day I too may be enlightened enough to be able to appreciate hundreds of pages of nothingness – once I’ve mastered Zen in July perhaps. I believe one of the skills of Zen is being able to empty one’s mind completely. This book has given me a head start…

* * * * *

*coughs embarrassedly* This was the second winner of the People’s Choice poll, and the second I’ve abandoned. It’s not you, though, People – it’s me! I’m sure I’ll love the next one… 😉

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The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When all the world was gay…

😦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton

A mystery to me…

😦

This is the first collection of Chesterton’s stories about the little Catholic priest who not only solves inexplicable mysteries but also cures souls as he goes along. There are twelve stories and I made it through almost four of them before I decided I’d rather be cleaning the cats’ litter tray.

Sometimes when I dislike a popular book or author, I can see why the world loves them even although I don’t. But not with Father Brown, I fear. Nonsensical plots, frequently poor writing and ridiculous scenes of the priest with a few words bringing hardened criminals to repentance leave me struggling to find anything to admire in these. Throw in Chesterton’s supercilious disdain for anyone from a creed other than his own – i.e., Roman Catholicism – with his sanctimonious sneering reserved especially for atheists and Jews, and I find the stories often actively unpleasant as well as unentertaining.

Let me give you an example, which includes major spoilers for one of the stories, The Queer Feet. A group of rich gentlemen have a monthly dining club during which they use their own valuable set of fish knives and forks. On this evening, while they dine in one room of a restaurant, Father Brown sits locked in in another, writing a letter on behalf of a dying man. (Why locked in? No idea, other than that the plot requires him to be unable to open the door and look out.) Hearing footsteps outside in the corridor, he miraculously extrapolates from the sound of them a) that something queer is going on b) that it must be someone pretending to be a gentleman part of the time and a waiter the other part and c) that therefore this individual must be stealing the valuable cutlery about which Brown miraculously seems to know and d) that the criminal is getting way with this imposture because gentlemen and waiters all wear black jackets and it is therefore impossible to tell them apart. Having worked all this out on the basis of the sound of the footsteps, and having then discovered that there’s a second door in his locked room which has been unlocked all along *eyeroll*, Brown tackles the dangerous criminal, and with a few words persuades him to repent, turn over the loot and depart to lead a better life. I think my favourite line, showing Chesterton’s poor grasp of either writing or arithmetic – perhaps both – must be:

The proprietor knew all his waiters like the fingers on his hand; there were only fifteen of them all told.

Challenge details:
Book: 7
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

Still, at least that line made me smile, unlike this, from the following story, one of several snide remarks about Jews and their supposed love of money:

…squires should be swindled in long rooms panelled with oak; while Jews, on the other hand, should rather find themselves unexpectedly penniless among the lights and screens of the Café Riche.

Other reviews inform me he’s even worse later about Indians and Chinese people. Of its time, of course, and I’d doubtless have been able to overlook it had I been enjoying the stories more.

Then there are the moments when he reaches for the heights of grandiose melodrama, and misses by a mile:

Lady Galloway screamed. Everyone else sat tingling at the touch of those satanic tragedies that have been between lovers before now. They saw the proud, white face of the Scotch aristocrat and her lover, the Irish adventurer, like old portraits in a dark house. The long silence was full of formless historical memories of murdered husbands and poisonous paramours.

What can I say? Obviously other people see something quite different when they read these stories or they wouldn’t be as lastingly popular as they are. For me, they’re a 1-star fail, but statistically speaking there’s a good chance you’d love them. Go figure.

Goodreads ratings

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The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Maybe it’s an off day…

😦

Nope, 25% and I can’t go on. I know Cleeves is extremely popular and I enjoyed the only other book of hers I’ve read, the first in her Shetland series. This one feels as if it’s written by someone else, someone with considerably less skill.

Briefly, my major complaint is that this reads like a book written by an older person trying to prove her liberal credentials and sound as if she’s hip to current trends. (I’m roughly the same age as Ann Cleeves so I hope that excuses my bluntness a little. I try not to pretend I’m hip, though, as my use of the word “hip” proves.) The team is made up of a rapacious, predatory, heterosexual female, a sexist, over-ambitious, heterosexual male, and an idyllically happily married, decent, kind, faithful and loving gay man. (Is there such a word as heterophobic? I really object to it as much as I do to homophobia.) The aforesaid gay man is the son of parents who belonged to a strict Christian sect or, as Cleeves prefers to refer to them, “religious bigots” or “God-botherers”. I can’t help wondering if she would have used those terms if he was the son of strict Muslims or Jews. (Is Christianophobic a word? This actual liberal objects to it as much as I do to Islamophobia or anti-Semitism.)

The story drags along, padded to the extreme with unnecessary nothingness. For example, I don’t need to hear about the predatory middle-aged female’s lust for men so young they could equally be termed boys. Would Cleeves expect me to empathise with a middle-aged male officer who lusted after women young enough to be termed girls? I don’t need to hear in detail about how two of the characters watch TV over breakfast – if they danced naked on the roof as the sun rose over the hills, worshipping the Great God Pan, that might merit a paragraph or two, but watching TV rates no more than a line, surely.

It probably deserves a three-star rating, but since I couldn’t bring myself to read on, one-star it is. I own a couple of Cleeves’ earlier books from her previous Vera and Shetland series which I have yet to read, so I can only hope that this one is a blip in her standards – we all have off days. And after spending a couple of hours in the company of this book, this has turned into one of mine…

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

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Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.

Have pity on the bears…

😦

A bunch of sad losers hang around getting drunk, drugged and beating each other up, with added sexual depravity.

Well, I stuck it out for 17%. It is disgusting, violent, depraved, designed to shock – all as advertised. But what no-one told me is that it’s also immensely dull. I’ve always found being sober in the company of drunks or the drug-addled tedious, both in reality and fiction. There are lots of good people in the world and plenty of interesting bad people, so why would I want to spend time with moronic, foul-mouthed losers? Who cares if they all kill each other? Not me. Sorry and all that – I know political correctness demands that I look mournfully guilt-ridden and wring my hands over how awful society is for forcing people to turn out this way, etc., etc., but I don’t buy it. I couldn’t care less what consenting adults might get up to in private, but I do demand a certain level of public decency. In life, and in fiction. No wonder the youth of today can’t get out a sentence without spouting vile hate, sexualised abuse and foul-mouthed invective if this is really what schools think should be on curricula.

Caldonia was just so high – I mean she had been drinking like crazy for hours and she struts around Broadway and 45th st. crowing like a rooster, COCKadoodledo COCKadoodledo – Im not shittinya, he was caught fuckin a stiff. He was in the El witme. He worked inna hospital, you know, in the morgue, and this nice lookin young head croaks so he throws a hump inner – Rosie refilled all the cups and ran back to the kitchen when Harry lunged for her snatch, and sat in the corner with her head on her knees…

(NB The stylistic horror of the spelling and punctuation is presumably meant to be “Art”.)

Book 51 of 90

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to
dance to, when all the
time we long to move the stars to pity.
~Gustave Flaubert.

My bears are tired out from dancing to the beat of this kind of dross. I shall go off and read something less vile and less dull now, and then I’ll come back and apologise to the youth of today, some of whom, amazingly, have managed to turn out well despite the morass of unfiltered sewage that passes for art and literature in these debased end-times for Western “civilisation”. That end can’t come soon enough for me. I blame rock’n’roll. Where did I put my medicinal chocolate?

Recommended as a great gift idea for someone you really hate.

One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie 2) by Kate Atkinson

Nope!

😦

After thinking Case Histories was really pretty poor, I had low expectations going into this, and Atkinson has limbo-danced effortlessly under them. I wouldn’t have tried it at all except that in a moment of supreme foolishness I acquired the first four books in the series from NetGalley on the mistaken assumption that I’d like them. You’d think I’d know better by now.

11% in, and no plot has peeked through the miasma of tedium that Atkinson exudes so well. Character sketch after character sketch, all of characters who would bore me to a frenzy in real life. Especially when her supposedly adult characters think, talk and have sex twelve times a minute. Most people lose that ability round about the same time as their teenage pimples clear up! The only time this bunch aren’t thinking about sex is when they’re obsessing about death. Admittedly I was kinda obsessing about death too – or fantasising might be a better word. Some characters really deserve to become the next victim. The blurb mentions Dickensian – what an insult! Dickens could never have produced characters as banal as these! Nor would he resort to swearing every few minutes in a failed bid to sound hip…

(Oliver held up his little bowl. “I effing want effing more!” Mrs Bumble slapped him with her spoon absentmindedly, as she remembered how last night Mr Bumble had made the earth move for her – six times! – and all without removing his hat! Oh, she thought, sensing a sudden glow beneath her unmentionables, I effing want effing more too…)

Nope! Abandoned, and books 3 and 4 will have to struggle on without me. An author to strike from my list of future temptations – hurrah! Hopefully the next crime novel I read will actually be about a crime.

NB This book was provided for review by Random House Transworld.

Book 13 of 20

* * * * *

As a result of this debacle, I’m removing the third book, When Will There Be Good News?, from my 20 Books of Summer list (which ironically feels very much like good news to me!), and replacing it with:

Murder in the Mill-Race written by ECR Lorac who, unlike Ms Atkinson, understands that crime fiction should be about crime.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

It all began that day

😦

Alice and Lucy were once best friends, students together at the expensive Bennington College in Vermont. Now Alice is in Tangier with her newish husband. He loves the life there, the seedy bars, the feeling of danger in the streets as Morocco demands its independence from its French colonisers. Alice hates it, scared to go out alone and miserable when she goes out with her overbearing and unsympathetic husband (mind you, he’s also pretty miserable at having to go out with the whining, pathetic Alice). Suddenly one day, out of the blue, Lucy turns up at their door. This is the first time Alice and Lucy have met since that day… but no, of course we don’t get told what happened that day. As Lucy and Alice take turns at the narration, carefully ensuring their voices are indistinguishable to add an element of confusion, they each dance round the subject of what happened that day while being very careful not to tell the poor put-upon reader.

I made it to the 25% mark before deciding I could take no more. I don’t want to be unfairly brutal – this is a début, and it shows some promise. Regulars will know that I’ve spluttered with annoyance often over the whole “that day” faux-suspense thing that seems to be an essential part of so-called thrillers these days – presumably because the authors can’t actually think of anything thrilling to write about. (FF’s Tenth Law: having the narrator constantly refer to ‘what happened that day’ without informing the reader of what did happen that day is far more likely to create book-hurling levels of irritation than a feeling of suspense.) So Mangan is merely following the herd, and sadly it’s a big herd, getting bigger by the day. I was sucked in by the great cover – had this had the ubiquitous girl in the red jacket on it I’d have known to avoid it like the plague.

Had it just been the “that day” tedium, I would probably have stuck with it, though. The picture Mangan gives of Tangier at this point in time (1956) is quite well done, bearing in mind that we see it solely through the eyes of white colonials. This means there are some rather demeaning depictions of the locals that smack a little of good old white superiority, but I felt that was appropriate to the time and social status of the main characters.

Over a year now, and it was still cast in a hazy fog that I could not seem to work my way out of, no matter how long I tripped through the labyrinth. It’s better that way, my aunt had said afterward, when I had told her about the vaporous sheen my memories had taken on, how I could no longer remember the details of that horrible night, of the days that followed. Leave it in the past, she had urged, as if my memories were objects that could be packed away in boxes secure enough to ensure they would never let loose the secrets held within.

Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t tolerate the style of writing. Some people have praised it, so I’ll admit that’s a subjective thing. It’s well-written in a grammatical sense, and thankfully it’s in the past tense, except for the obligatory foreshadowing prologue. But it’s written in a kind of mock-Gothic manner, all overwrought and hyperventilating, that gradually began to drive me insane. I had company in my insanity however – in true Gothic fashion, both women have strange “nervous” conditions that cause them to have imaginary symptoms and so on, and we know from the prologue that at least one of them has totally lost her marbles by the time the story ends. It was at the point that one of them actually fainted – Mangan resisted the temptation to say “swooned” but I bet it was on the tip of her pen – that I gave up. I discovered when I looked at her author bio that Mangan did her PhD on 18th century Gothic literature, and was unsurprised. Nor was I astonished to learn she had then topped that off with a degree in creative writing…

Christine Mangan

I didn’t hate it and I don’t think it’s awful. It’s as good as most of these identikit “that day” thrillers and better written than many. It probably deserves three or even four stars. But it’s not for me, and since I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading, then I’m afraid one star it is. Oddly, I’ll still be intrigued to see how Mangan develops – if she can learn to match her style to her subject matter and free herself from the feeling that she must follow the herd, I feel she has the talent to evolve into an interesting writer. I wish her well in the attempt.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

… that shape being an amorphous mass… 

😦

A man, who shares the name and life of the author, tells the story of umpteen real assassinations in Colombia and America. I abandoned it at page 270 – just after the halfway mark – so maybe a fascinating plot emerges after that. One thing’s for sure, it didn’t emerge before it!

It starts off quite well, telling the story of how the narrator got sucked into a little group of conspiracy theorists who believed that there was more to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitan, a leading left-wing Colombian political figure, than the authorities had allowed to be revealed. At this point I thought I was going to love it, and I raced through the first 150 or so pages, during which the book compares Gaitan’s assassination and associated conspiracy theories to those surrounding the assassination of JFK, and discusses how both events adversely affected the nations in which they happened; in the case of Colombia, leading to years of violence. Then suddenly the book moves back in time to tell, in detail, of the assassination (and associated conspiracy theories) of Rafael Uribe Uribe, another leading left-wing political figure, in 1914, with a bit of comparison to the assassination carried out by Gavrilo Princip that provided the trigger for WW1. Okay, I could go along with that, though it was beginning to feel very much like a history of Colombia told backwards.

Then suddenly the book moves back in time again to tell, in detail, of the attempted assassination of some other guy whose name escapes me but was doubtless another leading left-wing political figure, at some date which I couldn’t care less about. By now I had reached about page 250 – a week that took me. The following three days saw me advance by twenty pages, so I had to conclude that the book had well and truly lost my interest, and I abandoned it.

My theory of fiction writing is – find a story, tell it, then stop. All the other meanings one wants to explore should be incorporated into that basic format. If there is no story, or as in this case, if the author loses track of the story for hundreds of pages while he recounts in immense detail lots of history backwards, then it’s not a novel. If one wants to write a history of assassinations and their impact, do that. If one wants to write an essay on why conspiracy theories arise and how they affect the political life of a country, do that. If one wants to write a novel, stick to the story. Great writers can include all three, but only the first two are optional.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Some reviewers have compared the writing to Javier Marías. Some see this as a good thing, others not so much. I fall into the latter camp. I’ve only read one book by Marías and I agree the rambling circuitous over-wordy style is similar. However, Marías’ writing, while it rather drove me up the wall, at least contains some beautiful prose and some truly thought-provoking ideas and images. The writing in this one is plain to the point of being monotone, with fifty words for every ten that are required; and for the most part is a straight recounting of (I assume true) facts, including photos and extracts from documents. I tried to assume that perhaps it was my ignorance of Colombian history that was causing me to lose all interest, but frankly if a British writer started by telling a story about Thatcher, then backtracked to Churchill, then Disraeli, I’d have found it equally tedious, interesting though I find each of those people individually. Given that there were another 240 pages to go, I was concerned we might end up back at Cain and Abel and the associated conspiracy theories that no doubt grew up around that…

The book probably deserves more, but since it failed to maintain my interest enough to keep me turning pages, one star it is.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Sometimes tomorrow never comes… 

😦

This is now the third post I’ve written about this book, though the other two will remain unpublished. The problem is that as soon as I start writing about the portrayal of the black characters, I feel I’ll be offending the many, many Americans who consider this a great novel. Clearly, American attitudes to race are quite different to mine, reflective of our different histories; and slaves and their descendants being depicted as devoted domestic pets seems to be a theme that runs through a great deal of American fiction hailed as “great”, even sometimes incomprehensibly (to me) cited as anti-racist. I doubt a smugly superior lecture from me will change anything, so why even try to explain just how distasteful I find it, in this, in Huckleberry Finn, yes, even to a much lesser degree in Mockingbird. It’s not as if we don’t have our own problems with racism here in the UK, albeit of a different style, and some of our own classic literature makes me feel equally queasy.

With unerring African instinct, the negroes had all discovered that Gerald had a loud bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him.

It isn’t just the portrayal of race that led me to abandon the book at 15%, however. I bored rapidly with the endless, vapid descriptions of dresses and waist-sizes. Interesting once – not interesting after the first twenty times. I thought at one point I might actually escape from Scarlett’s tedious wardrobe to go to war with the men, but sadly not. A couple of paragraphs dispensed with a year of history, and back we were, trying on widows’ frocks.

The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there had never been a slave sold from Tara and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald’s pet horse after a long day’s hunting.

(Am I alone in wishing Mammy had keep tightening till Scarlett croaked?)

I find it quite incomprehensible that this book is still rated as highly as it is. I admit I loved the film when I watched it nearly half a century ago, but times change, and the attitudes expressed in the book (by the author, not just by the characters) make it feel horribly outdated now. Even putting the race question to one side, though, I found the writing unremarkable, the characterisation shallow of the main characters and non-existent of the others, the over-padded length tedious, and the concentration on frocks and dances a total trivialisation of a subject that deserves so much more. Maybe the other 85% is brilliant, but I’m not willing to waste any more of my time on the off-chance. I’d rather be reading Toni Morrison. Heck, I’d rather be reading William Faulkner!!!

Prissy had never been more than a mile away from Twelve Oaks or Tara before, and the trip on the train plus her elevation to nurse was almost more than the brain in her little black skull could bear.

Since obviously this will not be achieving Great American Novel status in my quest, and given that it’s the latest in a lengthening line of GAN contenders that have left me with a bad taste, I’ve decided to ban all other books about slavery and race written by white Americans prior to, say, 1950 from my TBR. Goodbye, Uncle Tom! I fear that re-read will never happen now. I shall leave you decently buried in the long-ago, where I wish I’d left Gone with the Wind. Sadly my love affair with Rhett and Scarlett is officially over…

Book 26 of 90

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To cheer us all up and remind us that some white people even back then had at least a little more insight about black lives…