The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King

A mystery to me…

😐 😐

A collection of eight mysteries starring the mysterious Trevis Tarrant, ably assisted by his manservant, Katoh, who is actually a Japanese spy.

I must admit that sometimes the most baffling mystery to me is why a book has been included in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and this is one of those cases. Edwards says: The Curious Mr Tarrant is one of the most renowned collection of stories focusing primarily on impossible crimes.” It appears the stories were admired by Ellery Queen and Dorothy L Sayers, amongst others, so clearly they saw more in King than I. Apparently he never achieved popular success in his native America, though, and had difficulty finding publishers there. I’m kinda with the Americans on this one, and think it’s unfortunate this has been chosen to fill one of only four slots in the Across the Atlantic section.

It actually starts off pretty well. I gave a couple of the early stories 5 stars and another 4. But the rest ranged from mediocre to dire, getting progressively worse as they went along. The final story slumped all the way to one star.

Tarrant is an amateur detective, but his interest is purely in the bizarre. He investigates for the intellectual thrill, and has no particular interest in achieving justice. In the early stories the narrator is Jerry Phelan, a young man about town who meets Tarrant during the first case in the collection, The Episode of the Codex Curse. Jerry and the girl he loves, Valerie, are quite fun, as is Jerry’s sister, Mary – all three of them have a Wodehouse-ish vibe. They gradually play smaller and smaller roles and eventually all but disappear, and the later stories badly miss the element of humour they bring to the earlier ones. Tarrant himself is one of these annoying geniuses with a remarkable gift for working out what seems unfathomable to the mere mortals around him. I liked him well enough at the beginning but tired of him quite quickly. And the last few stories introduce a strange kind of supernatural or mystical element, which is too nonsensical to be taken seriously, but not nonsensical enough to be amusing.

Challenge details:
Book: 92
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1935

When reviewing a collection, I usually highlight a few of my favourite stories. Here I’m afraid there are only two that I really enjoyed, although, in fairness, both of them are very good:

The Episode of the Tangible Illusion – Valerie is refusing to marry Jerry because she thinks she’s going mad. She hears footsteps in her house when no-one is there, and sees strange images in her room at night. Jerry, having met Tarrant in a previous case and admiring his talent for explaining the inexplicable, asks him to investigate. This is the second story in the book and is very well told, with a great mix of humour, spookiness and a lovely little romance. The solution is ingenious and the detective element is stronger than in most of the other stories.

The Episode of “Torment IV” – Torment IV is the name of a small yacht, and the story is based on the idea of the Mary Celeste. One day the yacht is found abandoned, and it transpires that the family who were on it all drowned. Tarrant investigates what happened to drive them all into the sea, given that the sea had been calm and nothing seems to be amiss on the boat. This is as much horror as detection and it has a great element of suspense. Although the solution is actually a bit silly, the ending is quite effectively scary.

C Daly King

And that’s it. There’s another one, The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem – a traditional locked room mystery – which seems to be highly thought of. I fear I found it dull. The characterisation is non-existent and the whole thing hinges purely on the technical details of how the deed was done.

Overall, I couldn’t recommend this collection, although the couple of stories I’ve highlighted are worth reading should you ever happen across them. A disappointment.

(The Kindle version I’m linking to has an extra four stories that King wrote later which weren’t originally included in the collection. I’m afraid I couldn’t get up enough enthusiasm to read them.)

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Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Inevitable comparisons…

😐 😐

When an uprising on the small island of Bougainville, part of Papua New Guinea, leads to the school in Matilda’s village being left with no teacher, the one white man in the village, Mr Watts, takes on the role. Unqualified, he decides to inspire the children’s imaginations by reading them a chapter of Great Expectations each day. He also invites the mothers of the village to come to class and impart nuggets of local wisdom. But the uprising is coming ever nearer and soon violence will sweep into the village, changing life for some of the characters irrevocably…

This book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2007. Astonishing. I can only assume this was for the worthiness of the message rather than any literary merit. The message is simple: literature provides a means to interpret life and to escape from reality. Oh, and war is hell.

I’ve said this before but clearly Mr Jones wasn’t paying attention. If, when you start to write your novel, you decide to constantly remind your readers of one of the greatest writers of all time, you’d better be sure your own writing will bear up to the inevitable comparisons. Jones not only reminds us of Great Expectations, he spends much of his book recounting large swathes of that one in grossly simplified terms. Even although Great Expectations is one of my least favourite Dickens’ novels, I spent most of my time wishing I was reading it rather than this. Where Dickens is marvellously imaginative, Jones is not. Where Dickens uses language with a lush extravagance, Jones does not. Where Dickens creates characters who, although exaggerated, contain an essential truth, Jones does not.

Not content with reminding us of Dickens, Mister Pip has many of the elements of the Dead Poets Society running through it too – the teacher who opens his pupils’ minds to a new way of thinking through unconventional teaching methods. I always found that film mawkish, and Mr Watts comes over as no more credible than the Robin Williams’ character. Heart Of Darkness pops up too in a rather odd way – since the book is written from the perspective of Matilda, one of the native islanders, it struck me as clumsily colonial that the most important, most influential character should be the one white man.

Book 8 of 20

I’m really not a believer in the ‘write what you know’ school of thought. I believe all authors should be allowed to imagine themselves into different genders, races, cultures, ages, etc., if they choose. I prefer to say you should ‘know what you write’; that is, do your research, get beneath the skin of your characters, make them speak and think and act as they would rather than as you would. So in principle I have no problem with a middle-aged white man writing in the voice of a teenage black girl from an entirely different culture to his own. However, I never for one moment felt that the voice of Matilda rang true. In Great Expectations, Dickens writes as Pip, but tells us about his childhood in retrospect using an adult voice. Jones can’t seem to make up his mind – sometimes Matilda’s voice is clearly that of an educated adult looking back, but sometimes he tries to create a teenage voice for her and fails badly by allowing her to be aware of things her life experience would not have revealed to her at that time.

There were so many things that annoyed me about this. Matilda mentions her blackness about a million times, leaving me to wonder if black people living in almost exclusively black communities with little or no contact with the outside world really talk about their black arms, black skin, black feet, all the time. As a white child growing up in an exclusively white community, I certainly have no recollection of ever thinking of myself as white. Every time Matilda reminded me that she was black, it had the odd effect of reminding me that the author was white – he seemed more fascinated by Matilda’s skin colour than I could believe she ever would have been. I remember reading somewhere Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying that she never thought of herself as black until she went to live in America.

Lloyd Jones

Then there’s the stuff Jones doesn’t explain, and the bits we’re presumably supposed to accept without thinking through how unrealistic they are. Matilda acts as interpreter at points between Mr Watts and various Papuans. How did this teenage girl who has never left her village and who has had a basic education at the local school acquire this ability? Why her, rather than any of the other kids who grew up alongside her? She finds it hard to explain the meaning of ‘black shoe polish’ to the villagers but oddly has no difficulty with the concept of ‘the coats of parking attendants’.

Pah! Enough! The story itself is fine – a straightforward account of the devastating effects of living through a brutal war. It therefore has some graphically violent scenes which some readers may find disturbing although, given the context, I didn’t feel they were inappropriate or overdone. (If anything, I felt he copped out in the end, choosing to avoid the worst brutality at the expense of realism.) But overall, I found little to admire in this one and find it hard to recommend.

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Case Histories (Jackson Brodie 1) by Kate Atkinson

Nor fish nor fowl nor good red herring…

😐 😐

A child goes missing one night from the tent where she is sleeping. A girl is murdered, seemingly as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young mother is driven to her wits’ end by her fractious baby and we all know what happens during periods of temporary insanity. These three cases from years ago are suddenly all brought to the door of ex-police detective and current private investigator Jackson Brodie, and he must try to find the explanations his clients are seeking while juggling his own messy private life.

The first three chapters of this are stunningly good, as Atkinson lays the groundwork to each of the three cases. The last few chapters are fairly good as she wraps them all up, not neatly nor particularly skilfully, but at least to a reasonably satisfying level. The vast swathe of repetitive sex and death obsessed tedium in the middle is unfortunate.

I realise that many people love this book, so obviously as always this is merely my subjective opinion, but I found it a complete mess. I’m not at all sure what Atkinson was attempting to do with it. It’s certainly not a crime novel – there is almost zero detection in it. Brodie simply wanders around bemoaning his lot and eyeing women up to see if they’re sexually attractive, then jumps miraculously to the right conclusions. Well, I say miraculously, but actually since I’d already guessed the solution to two of the cases hours earlier, maybe it wasn’t that amazing after all.

It’s not really insightful enough to count as literary fiction either – I hesitate to use the word banal, but I fear it is the one that was running through my mind while I was reading. Contemporary fiction? Well, perhaps, but it really has nothing much to say about contemporary society. There’s plenty of sex and sexual fantasies, but more in the “ooh, aren’t I naughty and daring for writing dirty words and talking about naked bodies” sense than anything that could push it into the romance category! There were moments when I wondered if Atkinson had been spending too much time with fourteen-year-olds since most of her adults seemed to think like them.

Book 1 of 20

The number of deaths described is extraordinary. Not just the cases, but nearly every character’s fathers, mothers, children, siblings, pets – all dead, all dead! Murders, suicides, cancer, road accidents – life in Cambridge is clearly nasty, brutish and short. It gives new meaning to the phrase “ghost town”. And of course, we get all the grief to go along with all these deaths, which isn’t what you’d call cheery exactly. And for those who have managed so far to maintain a precarious hold on life, their loving relatives spend all their time imagining all the horrible deaths that might happen to them. Jackson himself must imagine at least five horrible deaths for his daughter and can barely look at a piece of grass without seeing it as a potential deathbed for her.

The characterisation is reasonably good of a few of the main characters, but there is also what feels like a cast of thousands who never become filled out in any way, so that I found myself having to search for previous mentions of them to find out who they were when they suddenly re-appeared briefly a hundred pages later. To be honest, it felt to me like three pretty good short stories that for some reason Atkinson had clumsily attempted to tie together to make a novel, filling all the rest of the space with weary and pointless meanderings. And there’s a limit to quite how often coincidence can be used before it becomes annoying.

Kate Atkinson

Nope, I don’t get it. Clearly other people are seeing something in this that I’m not. The potential is there – Jackson could be a decent character if he ever stopped brooding about sex and death and did a bit of detecting, and the basic stories are certainly interesting even if the resolutions are weak. However, since I foolishly requested the next three books in the series from NetGalley on the assumption that I was certain I’d love them, I’ll read the next one in the hopes that the series improves, although my expectations are now in the basement. Apologies to all who loved it!

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

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Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey 2) by Dorothy L Sayers

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

The fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey is found shot dead outside the Yorkshire shooting lodge her brother, the Duke of Denver, has taken for the season. The subsequent inquest finds that Cathcart’s death was murder, and points the finger firmly in the direction of the Duke. Lady Mary had found the Duke standing over the corpse of Captain Denis Cathcart as she had been on her way out of the house at 3 a.m., for reasons she refuses to specify. Added to this is the indisputable fact that the Duke and Cathcart had had a quarrel earlier in the evening, loud enough to be overheard by the various guests staying in the house. When his faithful batman Bunter shows him the report of the murder in the newspaper, Lord Peter Wimsey, brother of the Duke and Lady Mary, rushes to Yorkshire to save his brother from the gallows.

I’m not a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but this is one of the books in my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge to read the novels listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Happily for me, it’s one of the earliest books in the series, the second, before the arrival on the scene of Ms Sayer’s tedious alter-ego, Harriet Vane, and Peter’s interminable courtship of her. Unhappily, the snobbery which infests her books is already present – cultural, intellectual, economic, geographic: you name it, she’s snobbish about it.

Still, at least at this early stage Sayers does concentrate more on the detection than on Lord Peter’s tiresome character, though there’s more than enough of that too. He’s the type of amateur detective to whom the dull police are delighted to hand over their cases, especially this one, since the main desire of the policeman in charge of the case is to languish after the lovely Lady Mary, whose exalted birth means she is far above the reach even of this cultured, well-educated gentlemanly plod.

Challenge details:
Book: 19
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1926

I’m by no means alone in often mentioning the sexism that pervades early detective fiction, but it always stands out particularly for me when the author is female (which, ironically, is quite sexist of me, I suppose). I can’t help feeling that Dorothy L didn’t think much of her fellow women. Here we have a wife so dull she apparently deserves to be cheated on, a couple of mistresses, one out for sex, the other out for money, and a dippy aristocratic type dabbling with those outrageous socialists who threaten the moral fabric of Good Old England, with their uncouthness and revolutionary ideas (like preventing the rich from exploiting the poor). Fortunately, all socialists are, as we know, snivelling cowards, plus their table manners and dress sense are terrible, so she’ll surely be saved from her girly silliness and be “persuaded” to marry a pillar of the establishment and breed up new generations of true blue-blooded Englishmen, just as she should!

Dorothy L Sayers

Oh dear, my reverse snobbery is showing again – I do apologise! What I meant to say is that the book is quite entertaining in some respects, and some parts of it are well written and quite atmospheric, such as when Wimsey and Bunter find themselves lost on the moor in a fog. But the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out, and, in case you haven’t spotted it, I do find Lord Peter’s insufferable superiority… well… insufferable. Thankfully this is the only Wimsey novel on Martin Edwards’ list, so I shall be spared reading any more of them, and you will be spared reading any more reviews of them. Win-win!

PS If you’ve never read a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, in fairness I feel I should say my reaction is purely allergic. Many, many people love these books, and you really shouldn’t rely on my opinion of them.

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How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square by Rea Tarvydas

Empty vessels…

😐 😐

This is a collection of linked short stories set in modern Hong Kong which, the blurb tells us, “collectively capture various versions of the expat life that share the feeling of being between two worlds, that experience of being neither here nor there and trying to find a way to fill that space.” The way the characters mostly fill the space is by having empty, meaningless sex, usually with strangers.

The stories are well written, but terribly repetitive, filled with too much swearing, drink, drugs and the aforesaid empty sex. The overall impression is of a sordid, seedy place, where people go to make money and seem to lose their souls in the process. I suspect that’s the point, and therefore in that sense the author succeeds in her aim. But I certainly didn’t find them an entertaining bunch to spend time with nor, if I’m truthful, did I really buy the whole idea that expat life is quite this vacuous and pointless, except perhaps for people who have no internal resources to fall back on. I also felt that the picture of Hong Kong was extremely narrowly drawn, never letting us see beyond the restricted vision and lack of cultural curiosity of the characters. These expats could have been anywhere.

I don’t want to be too harsh. Many people have a higher tolerance level than me for reading about whiny, foul-mouthed, addicted, entitled, poor little rich kids having sex, and for them I’m sure these stories will seem less tedious.

NB I won this book in a giveaway from the lovely Anne at ivereadthis.com – sorry, Anne! I tried to love it… 😉

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

Adolescent obsession…

😐 😐

Brodie Moncur works for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer, Channon, at the turn of the 19th century. He started out as a piano tuner but now helps out with the general running of the saleroom, so when the new Paris branch is struggling the owner asks him to go over and see what he can do. Brodie has long been at odds with his father, a bullying hellfire preacher, and has no real ties in Scotland, so happily agrees. Once there, he falls in love with Lika Blum, the girlfriend of an Irish pianist. Then he stays in love with her for the rest of the book, has sex with her quite a lot, and fantasises about having sex with her most of the rest of the time. He has sex with her in Paris, the South of France, Scotland and St Petersburg. And maybe other places – I forget.

Oh dear! I remember jokingly making a note to myself in a previous review that I must stop reading books written by major male authors once they reach the age of 60, since hormonally they appear to revert to a kind of adolescent obsession with sex. William Boyd is 66 now, and let’s face it, he was reasonably obsessed even in his prime. It’s not that the sex is graphic, nor even particularly erotic. It’s just that it’s not nearly as interesting as a subject to this reader as it appears to be to the writer. Sex as a literary side-dish, fine, but it makes for an unsatisfying main course.

There’s so much potential in the story too, but very little of it is realised. None of the locations come to life, and the bits I’d have liked to know more about – his relationship with his father and family, for example, or what life was like in St Petersburg around the time of the Revolution – seem to be introduced and then sidelined and forgotten about. Brodie’s passion for Lika doesn’t burn up the pages, probably because she hasn’t got much personality – his desire for her is purely physical, although he calls it love. The stuff about the piano tuning is actually the best bit of the book, although even here one can tell Boyd has researched it to the nth degree and is determined to name every part.

William Boyd

There is a plot of sorts, around musical plagiarism and the rivalry of Brodie and the Irish pianist for the body love of the fair Lika. But when I tell you that, as it reached its climax, the three words I wrote in my notes are “ludicrous”, “laughable” and “dire”, you’ll be able to tell I wasn’t wholly impressed by it.

I am a long-time fan of William Boyd and when he’s on form he’s one of the all-time best storytellers out there. Unfortunately, sometimes his form seems to desert him, and for me this is one of those times. If you’re new to Boyd, don’t be put off him by this review. Read Brazzaville Beach instead – there’s sex in it too, but there’s also a good story…

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

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No Name by William Wilkie Collins

Money, money, money…

😦 😦

When Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are left orphaned by the sudden and unexpected deaths of their parents, they are further shocked to discover that their parents had not been married when the girls were born. Not only does this make the sisters illegitimate – a shameful thing in itself – but due to a quirk of the law it also prevents them from inheriting their father’s wealth. The money goes to their father’s estranged brother, Michael Vanstone, who resolutely refuses to help them. Norah accepts this but the fiery Magdalen cannot. She decides she will regain their lost inheritance, whatever the cost…

It’s many years since I read Collins’ two most famous books, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, neither of which became a favourite. I thought perhaps the passing of time would have made me able to appreciate him more, especially since so many people hold him in such high regard. I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot.

As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically. He suggests the book is going to address a social injustice, as Dickens does so well, but in reality his treatment of the stigma of illegitimacy is superficial. He attempts to create characters with that kind of caricaturing Dickens does so well, but they come off like pale imitations. We have the swindler, Captain Wragge, who helps Magdalen with her revenge scheme. He’s given little quirks like recording all his swindles as carefully as if they were legitimate business deals, or having certain mannerisms in the way he talks. But he doesn’t have either the humour of Dickens’ minor characters nor the truly sinister feeling of Dickens’ villains. His wife is a simple-minded giantess, whom he treats despicably. In a Dickens story, she would either be tragic or comic. Here, she’s merely a plot vehicle – pitiable but irritating when she’s on the page, and forgotten when she’s not required.

Millais frontispiece to 1864 Sampson Low edition

Admittedly Magdalen is a more rounded character than some of Dickens’ many insipid young girls. Unfortunately, she’s such an unpleasant little money-grubber I found it impossible to get up any liking or concern for her. Yes, it must be sad not to be rich if you thought you would be, but frankly she’s hardly poor either in comparison to the true poverty of so many at that time. Norah is considerably more likeable – she decides to earn her living and gets on with it. She and Miss Garth, the girls’ old governess, were the only two characters I cared about at all, and unfortunately Collins dumps them a third of the way through and from then on we only hear little snippets about how they’re getting on, while we spend far too much time with whining Magdalen, the Wragges and the Vanstone household. The problem for me was that the villains were no more despicable than the ostensible heroine of the novel.

William Wilkie Collins
Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann

But OK, so he’s no Dickens, and his characters’ sole obsession is with acquiring and hoarding money. I could probably still have squeezed some enjoyment out of that if only it hadn’t been so unnecessarily long! I hear you, Collins’ fans – no, it’s not as long as some of Dickens’ books, but Dickens would have had a cast of thousands, each described to unique perfection, with a dozen sub-plots all being juggled masterfully. Here we have one dull plot – “Give me back my money!” – and a handful of unattractive characters, and it’s dragged out for over 700 tortuous pages! Do we all know how it will end? I think we have a fair idea! It’s a Victorian novel after all and there are conventions. So the journey matters since the end is barely in doubt. And this journey is like being on a train for twenty hours with the blinds drawn, and nothing good to read…

Oh dear! I was going to try to make this sound more balanced but sometimes reviews take on their own momentum. There is an interesting introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Virginia Blain, Associate Professor in English at Macquarie University in Sydney. Unsurprisingly, she’s considerably more enthusiastic about the book than I, and I enjoyed reading (and disagreeing with) her opinion!

I’m sure fans of Collins’ style will enjoy the book. But for those of us who prefer the flamboyance and genius of a Dickens, then I fear this will taste as thin and unappetising as a plate of Scrooge’s gruel…

Book 36 of 90

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

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Tuesday Terror! Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe

Don’t forget to floss…

When discussing classic horror stories, it’s not possible to omit Edgar Allan Poe. Plus his stories are always great. Aren’t they? Time to find out in this week’s…

Berenice
by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

 

Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch, as distinct too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow! How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? — from the covenant of Peace a simile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born.

After this cheery start, we learn that our narrator is Egaeus, the last of his line (thankfully), who grows up in the family mansion with his cousin, Berenice. He suffers from a mental condition, monomania he calls it though the opium might have something to do with it, that causes him to focus excessively on whatever grabs his attention to the exclusion of all else. She, once beautiful and agile, now suffers from an unnamed illness that causes her to waste away whilst having epileptic-style fits that leave her in a kind of trance. So they decide to get married. It’s a true romance…

During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her. In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind. . . And now—now I shuddered in her presence, and grew pale at her approach; yet, bitterly lamenting her fallen and desolate condition, I called to mind that she had loved me long, and, in an evil moment, I spoke to her of marriage.

However, Berenice does have one feature which takes our dashing hero’s fancy…

The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupilless, and I shrank involuntarily from their glassy stare to he contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!


Unfortunately, he does not die. The same cannot be said for poor Berenice, who having smiled her ghastly smile, quietly goes off and becomes deceased. But a little matter like death isn’t enough to undo the effect of her toothiness on our lovely narrator. He carries out a horrific deed, and then, like so many before and since, pleads amnesia…

Yet its memory was replete with horror—horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. It was a fearful page in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. . . I had done a deed—what was it? I asked myself the question aloud, and the whispering echoes of the chamber answered me,—“what was it?”

Harry Clarke illustration

* * * * * * *

Well, if you want to know what it was, here’s a link – but take my advice and don’t! Ugh! I reckon Poe must have been having a bad day when he wrote this one! I can’t say it scared me exactly, more disgusted me. Apparently it also disgusted the first readers too, and even Poe himself later said “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste…” Approaches?? It walks right up and punches it on the nose!

Combine that with his constant insertion of bits of untranslated French and Latin…

Of Mademoiselle Salle it has been well said, “Que tous ses pas etaient des sentiments,” and of Berenice I more seriously believed que toutes ses dents etaient des idees.

Quite so!

The words were the singular but simple ones of the poet Ebn Zaiat:—”Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.” Why then, as I perused them, did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins?

Why indeed?

On the upside, there’s lots of traditionally Gothic stuff about the gloomy old mansion and the library filled with ancient, unspeakable tomes and so on. But I’m afraid this won’t figure in my list of top Poe stories. His narrator was opium-sozzled throughout and by the end of this I was kinda wishing I was too…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😐 😐

The porpy’s teeth are nearly as lovely as Berenice’s…

NB I read this in the anthology Horror Stories, which was provided for review by Oxford World’s Classics.

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* * * * * * *

Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

Then…

😦 😦

When Bert Pierce loses everything in the Great Crash, he turns to another woman to soothe his bruised ego. This is understandable, since the woman he has married, the eponymous Mildred, is not someone you’d really look to for sympathy or support, though on the upside she bakes good pie. So when Bert leaves/is thrown out, Mildred decides to make pies for a living and astonishingly this enables her to become incredibly rich despite the Depression. Mind you, when I’m depressed, pie always helps, it’s true. However, this amazing success isn’t enough for her snobbish daughter who spends all the money while sneering at her mother’s method of earning it. As Veda grows up, their relationship becomes increasingly fraught…

Nope, couldn’t get on with this one at all. I stuck it out to the bitter end, and boy, was it bitter. But I spent most of it wishing that a plague or asteroid would hit, wiping them all from the face of the earth. The only thing that makes Mildred remotely likeable is the fact that Veda is so horrible. Having a mother as dull and tedious as Mildred couldn’t have been any fun though, especially since she veered from pathetic weakness to beating her child viciously. The best I could say about either of them is that they deserved each other. I, however, felt that I didn’t deserve either of them.

The fact that I found neither of them psychologically convincing was a major part of the problem, as was my extreme doubt over the unbelievable success of Mildred’s business ventures. Was it really so easy for a rather stupid, completely inexperienced woman to get thousands of dollars of credit during the Depression even if she did bake good pies? If so, I wonder why so many people suffered. They should just have gone to the bank and got a suitcase full of dosh and set up a small business. Apparently the whole depressed world was just longing to go out and spend money on pie and other such essentials of life. I don’t know what Steinbeck was whining on about in The Grapes of Wrath – the Joads could have just borrowed some money and set up their own orange juice business.

(Hopefully the movie will be better…)

But, in truth, neither of these was the real issue. I’d have accepted Mildred’s and Veda’s dodgy and unexplained rivalry and their easy-to-acquire wealth without much thought, had it not been for my struggles with the actual writing. When you find yourself searching your Kindle to find out how often an author uses the word ‘then’, then you know he’s lost you. Books don’t often make me resort to Trumpesque Twitter storms, but this one did – I had to relieve my feelings somehow or I’d have thrown the Kindle at the wall, and then have had to sell enough pie to buy a new one. The question of how many ‘thens’ there are will remain forever unanswered – the Kindle could merely tell me it was ‘over 500’. Now at least I know the maximum the Kindle will count up to.

…Mrs Gessler went to work. She pinned Mildred’s dress up, so it was a sort of sash around her hips, with a foot of white slip showing. Then she put on the galoshes, over the gold shoes. Then she put on the evening coat, and pulled the trench coat over it. Then she found a kerchief, and bound it tightly around Mildred’s head. Mildred, suddenly transformed into something that looked like Topsy, sweetly said goodbye to them all. Then she went to the kitchen door, reached out into the wet, and pulled open the car door. Then she hopped in. Then she started the motor. Then she started the wiper. Then she tucked the robe around her. Then, waving gaily to the three anxious faces at the door, she started the car, and went backing down to the street.

If I’d handed something like that in to my primary school teacher, I’d have been rapped over the knuckles with a ruler (yes, they really did things like that back in the dark ages) and sent away to rewrite it. What a pity Cain’s editor didn’t do the same! I’d even have lent him/her my ruler.

And the endless, tedious descriptions of how the business worked, down to the last tiny details, meant that I spent most of my time bored rigid. As I’m sure you probably are too by this lengthy whingefest of a review, so I shall cease. Needless to say, not one of my favourite books, and I truthfully don’t understand why it’s considered a classic. I’d have thought quality writing would have been an essential criterion for a book to acquire that status. But apparently not.

Book 31 of 90

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1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman

Save me from the exceptional…

😐 😐

In 1917, the USA finally entered World War I after years of pusillanimous dithering, and Russia threw its revolution after years of poverty and imperialist wars. In this book, Herman looks at the two men who led those events, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, and suggests that out of their respective philosophies of power grew the 20th century and all of its horrors.

Normally, when reviewing a major history book, I find that even though I might not like the style or may feel the author hasn’t entirely convinced me with his or her arguments, I still feel at the end that I have gained enough from reading it to have made it worthwhile. Sadly, this is the exception. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Arthur Herman’s books which I’ve read to date, so fully anticipated that this would be a great book to finish my Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Herman is often biased, but usually openly, so that I feel the reader can allow for his bias in forming her own judgements. Here, however, his bias seeps into every analysis he makes and it seems as if he’s perhaps not even aware of it. American capitalism is good, Russian communism is bad. Wilson is an idealist, Lenin is a cynic. America is a shining beacon on the hill, the USSR is a blot on the escutcheon of history. I realise these are standard viewpoints on the other side of the Atlantic, and some parts of them would be accepted over here too, though perhaps less so after the last couple of years. But a history book with this level of bias teaches nothing, except perhaps that history should never be written by those with a dogmatic belief in the superiority of one particular nation or form of government.

It’s not that Herman is uncritical of Wilson and America – in fact, sometimes he’s almost sneeringly contemptuous of Wilson. It’s more in the language he uses. Some of his statements are simplistic and unnuanced in the extreme, and his facts are carefully selected to support his basic argument that both Wilson and Lenin were more interested in forcing their worldview on the rest of the world than in acting in their own nations’ self-interest. He speaks of “American exceptionalism” with a straight face, clearly believing the propaganda which has done so much damage in convincing so many Americans (but not many other people) that they are somehow intrinsically superior to other races, nations, etc. And yet this is exactly the kind of propaganda he condemns in his despised USSR. His conclusion, broadly summarised, is that everything bad in the 20th century comes from Russia, while America could have done better in the world, but did pretty well. An arguable stance, and I’d have appreciated an argument about it rather than it being presented as if it were an indisputable statement of fact.

Please don’t think I’m an apologist for the extreme communism of the USSR, nor the horrors carried out in its name. But nor am I an apologist for the extreme capitalism of the USA, complete with its own murky history of horrors. Unfortunately Mr Herman is, and appears to believe that America must stay engaged with the world to save it by exporting its form of capitalism to the rest of us. Personally, I think the world needs to be saved from all nations who think they have the right to force their views on other people and from all extremists who believe they are “exceptional” in any way. I find it difficult to recommend this one – the overwhelming weight of bias prevents it from adding any real insight into the subject.

PS Yes, I’m aware my own biases show here, but I’m not writing a history book. Nor am I advocating that the world should submit to the exceptional superiority of Scotland.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A world without Darcy…

😐 😐

Three young men are part of an expedition in some obscure unexplored corner of the planet when they hear rumours of a country where all the inhabitants are women. They don’t believe this, of course. Firstly, they’ve heard all about the birds and the bees and they know such a society couldn’t exist for more than one generation. But more importantly, they know that women are too silly and incompetent to run a whole country on their own. If the country exists at all, they decide, the men must live elsewhere and visit for… ahem… a bit of the old nuptials every now and again. However, the prospect is tantalising – all those women must be pretty desperate for a bit of male company, what? So they decide to investigate…

The book starts off quite well, rather in the broad wink-wink tone of my introduction, full of male stereotypes of females, and incidentally managing to stereotype the three males pretty heavily at the same time. Then, unfortunately, they arrive in the country they dub Herland. And from there on in it’s an utterly tedious description of how this all-female society operates. Gilman even remarks at one point, in the voice of the male narrator, that nothing much actually happened to them during their stay, so presumably she was well aware of the narrative deficiencies of the book as a novel. Pity she felt a glancing reference to them was sufficient.

And odd! Because what I learned from this book is that women are perfect in every single way, excel at everything they do, and the only thing that causes misery, disease or turmoil in the world is men! Horrible men. Gosh, don’t you just hate them all? With their cruelty and their grubbiness and their greed, and all that nasty, nasty sex business. Women build nicer houses in beautifully clean, well-ordered cities, and they never fight or quarrel or get unhappy. They are naturally far, far better than men, because their capacity for motherhood makes them want to make the world a better place for their children. Unlike nasty men, who only see children as an unfortunate by-product of sex.

The unfortunate thing about some strands of feminism, this included, is the tendency to go well beyond the desire for equality and harmony, towards replacing a world where women are subject to men with one where men are disparaged and despised by women. I’m more of a happy-medium kind of girl myself. At risk of being drummed out of the sisterhood once and for all, I’ll admit my guilty, shameful secret. I like men. Not all of them, obviously – Trump, Hitler and Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be my idea of a fun night down the pub – but then, Thatcher, Kellyanne Conway and Myra Hindley wouldn’t be my first choices for dinner guests either. But on the whole, I think most men are just bumbling along, behaving the way society has taught them, and most women are doing much the same. And most of us, of both genders, are trying to do better.

The idea of a world with no men in it (or no women) is my idea of hell. Most of our art and ninety percent of our literature is in some way about the interaction of the sexes, even going back past Shakespeare and on to the Bible. Flirting is fun, as is the whole falling in love thing. I’ve even heard the occasional woman admit to enjoying sex! Motherhood is brilliant and for some women it is indeed the most important thing in their lives (just as fatherhood is the most important thing for some men) but it’s not the only or even necessarily the ultimate ambition for womankind. In fact, I thought part of feminism was to get us away from the idea that women are incapable of thinking about anything except having babies and bringing them up, important roles though those are.

So some feminists may see this as a great feminist tract. I saw it as adding fuel to the worst of feminism – the kind that aims to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, where women rule and men become the subjects. Of the three men in the book, one is utterly convinced of male superiority and that women are primarily sex toys; one wants to worship at the feet of femininity; and the third is shown as rational, considering both sides of every argument. (Not that women ever argue, of course, because we’re all lovely when we’re not being jealous over silly men.) He, the rational one, becomes convinced along the way of the innate superiority of women and realises that what all men really want to do is surrender to a mother figure. And that that’s what all women aspire to be. Yeah.

(I have never wanted to be Darcy’s mother…)

But apart from the inanity of the ideas expressed in the book, which I try to forgive because I’m sure Gilman must have had some bad experiences to have become quite so misandristic, it commits the even worse sin of being almost entirely dull. It’s like reading a Rough Guide to Herland, without the humour and the photographs. I kept expecting her to tell me how much I should tip restaurant staff. Interesting, if you want to have nightmares about a world with no quarrelling, no disputes, no politics, no ambition beyond motherhood and child-rearing; and worse – no Anne and Gilbert, no Jane and Mr Rochester, no Cathy and Heathcliff, no flirting, no sex, no dancing, and no Darcy! Me, I’ll stay in this world and just keep striving for equality, thanks very much. I’d rather be driven up the wall by pesky men than bored to death by these unrealistically idealised Herland women.

Book 27 of 90

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Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

Define “witty”…

😦 😦

It’s the opening night of the new show at the Grosvenor Theatre – Blue Music, produced by the great theatre impresario Douglas B Douglas and starring perennial juvenile lead and heart-throb Brandon Baker, a combination designed to guarantee box office success. The theatre is filled with the great and the good in the dear seats, and the members of the Brandon Baker Gallery Club in the cheap ones. The scene where Brandon Baker is shot takes on an unexpectedly dramatic twist when it turns out the bullet was real, and he collapses onto the stage, dead. Fortunately Inspector Wilson of the Yard is in the audience, along with his journalist son Derek, so the pair are in prime position to investigate the murder.

This is billed as being “witty”. Wit can wear very thin very quickly if it’s not done well. It’s not done well. The Wilsons must have a claim on the title of most annoying crime fighting duo in history. Perhaps if they spent less time being “funny”, they might have been better detectives. I found myself speculating as to the mysterious lack of a Mrs Wilson – I concluded that if I were married to one of these and the mother of the other, I’d probably have run off to a different continent leaving no forwarding address, but perhaps the poor lady simply died of tedium after having to listen to them do their cross-talk act at breakfast once too often.

Realism simply doesn’t exist in this novel. Inspector Wilson acts like an amateur detective, using his son as his sidekick. They don’t interview any suspects or do any real investigation. They simply come up with a theory and then mangle the “facts” to fit. “Facts” is a term that must be used loosely in regard to this novel, since there are glaring continuity errors throughout, such as a man having a wife and children at one appearance and then being an unmarried loner next time he’s discussed. One feels that some editor at some point in the 80-odd years since it was first published would have picked up on these issues, but perhaps they were all laughing too hysterically to concentrate.

Challenge details:
Book: 47
Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder
Publication Year: 1934

To be fair, it starts out quite well with some gentle lampooning of the whole business of putting on light musicals. Stars, producers, theatre critics and fans all come in for their share of mockery, but it’s done quite affectionately. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Melville was himself a successful playwright and this shows through in his credible, if caricatured, portrayal of the life of theatricals. It’s really the arrival of the Wilson duo that brings the whole thing down – in fact, it’s the attempt to make it into a crime novel that fails badly. Had Melville written some other kind of theatre based froth, then it may have come off better, but a crime novel really requires at least some pretence at a proper plot and investigation or it becomes nonsensical – and not in a good way. Edwards tells us that Dorothy L Sayers, a regular reviewer of the work of her contemporaries, had similar reservations as my own, saying Inspector Wilson “does all his detecting from his private house with the sole aid of his journalist son. Light entertainment is Mr Melville’s aim, and a fig for procedure!”

Alan Melville

So I guess it comes down to whether the reader finds this kind of arch humour entertaining. Some will, I’m sure, and will therefore be better able to overlook the major flaws in the plot and structure. Sadly I found myself getting progressively more irritated and bored as it went along and was frankly delighted to make it to the deeply unsatisfactory and rather silly end. Not an author I will be pursuing further, I’m afraid. Sometimes authors become “forgotten” for a reason…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

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The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

And still they come..

😐 😐

the-massacre-of-mankindIt’s 1920, thirteen years since the first Martian attack ended in their defeat. Now astronomers have noticed ominous signs on the Red Planet – they’re coming back to try again! But this time England has been expecting them, and has made every effort to prepare…

It’s been a long time since I read The War of the Worlds, but I remember loving it – the descriptions of the Martian ships, the heat ray, the terror of the people, the rather quirky ending. So when I saw this sequel had been endorsed by HG Wells’ estate, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, as so often, I came away from it wishing that sometimes (most times) great books could just be left to stand as they are.

The basic plot of the original is that when the Martians arrive, the humans try everything they can to defeat them, but the Martians are so technologically superior they can overcome any of humanity’s weapons. These repeated failed attempts go on, interspersed by the narrator telling of his own experiences and describing the devastation and fear caused by the attack, until finally something entirely unexpected by either Martian or human comes along to break the cycle.

Baxter replicates this approach. He starts by creating an alternative history, speculating how the First Martian War would have altered the course of the next couple of decades. This is quite fun – WW1 happens very differently, Britain has turned into a kind of martial state, Churchill is involved in the plans to defeat any future Martian attack etc. We also meet the two people through whose eyes we mainly see the story develop – Julie, a journalist and ex-wife to Frank, a doctor and brother of the narrator in the original. At this early stage I was quite enjoying it in a mild kind of way.

war-of-the-worlds
But then the Martians arrived. We attacked them with our little guns. They killed us. We attacked them with bigger guns. They killed us. We attacked them with great big guns. They killed us. We attacked them with their own guns… well, you get the point. Now, as I said, this is pretty much what happened in the original too. But there is one huge, major difference. The original is 208 pages long – this one is listed as 464 according to Goodreads, but my ARC from Amazon Vine actually comes in at roughly 540 largish pages. I’m sure you’ll all have memorised my literary laws – I fear this book fails the first one badly…

FF’s First Law
The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story.

Apart from the length issue, I found I hadn’t developed any concern for the major characters. Partly this is because I found the writing a little flat, and the female character rather unappealing. But largely it’s because within the first few chapters the author lets us know through some clumsy foreshadowing that they both survive! And furthermore, that they meet up again after the war and collaborate on this book – hence we know straight away that mankind clearly isn’t massacred after all! Telling me about the sudden deaths of thousands of fictional soldiers I’ve never been introduced to doesn’t have the same emotional impact as would fear for one character I’d grown to care about. (Hmm! Perhaps that should be FF’s Fifth Law…) If memory serves me right, in the original the narrator and, therefore, we were concerned about the whereabouts and welfare of his missing wife.

Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter

I’m afraid that by the time I reached page 150 the basic premise (we attack – they kill us) had already been repeated three or four times, and I decided I couldn’t face hundreds more pages. Usually I’d give an abandoned book 1 star, but truthfully this is reasonably well written and the spirit and style of the original have been largely maintained. I didn’t hate it, it was just too long for its content and too repetitive to maintain my interest. Pity.

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

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The Good People by Hannah Kent

The story of a changeling…

😐 😐

the-good-peopleWhen her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.

Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…

Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.

Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.

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

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The Traveler’s Guide to Space by Neil F Comins

Turning dreams into nightmares…

😐 😐

the-travelers-guide-to-spaceThe ultimate adventure of space tourism is likely to become a reality within the next few decades, at least for the very, very rich. It’s not something I ever actually anticipate doing now – too old, too poor – but a girl can still dream! And I’ve dreamed of going into space all my life, having grown up during the great space race era of the ’60s and early ’70s. One of my most wonderful memories is of crowding round a small TV in a boarding house (we were on holiday at the time) watching the grainy pictures of the first moon landing. I anticipated that, by the time I was an adult, we’d be visiting the moon as easily as popping over to Europe.

In this book, Neil Comins sets out to describe the realities of what a space tourist might expect. He starts off with a clear, simple description of the objects in the solar system that we may one day soon be able to visit, from sub-orbital flights, to the International Space Station or commercial equivalents, to the Moon, comets, the moons of Mars, and possibly Mars itself! Inspiring, huh?

Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek
Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek

Well, no, unfortunately. Comins clearly is one of those travellers (I’ll revert to the correct British spelling of the word now) who is so busy thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong, he forgets to stop and look at the view. From sick-bags to radiation poisoning, no potential pitfall is left unexamined. It all starts OK, with him giving a realistic idea of the training a traveller would be expected to undergo, what they would wear, eat, etc. But then he starts a catalogue of woe. Where it might be sufficient to say that people on long flights would have to contend against boredom, Comins goes on to talk about the features and symptoms of boredom at great length (somewhat ironically, I felt). While it might be useful to point out that group dynamics have to be carefully controlled, he chunters on about all the various personality clashes that might make life intolerable. When talking about the type of food that will be available, he doesn’t neglect to point out the dangers of flatulence. From speeding particles piercing the optic nerve to the symptoms of PTSD, no misery is left unexplored.

picard-ryker-facepalm

He picks it up towards the end by talking about space photography and the joys of sex in microgravity, but sadly by that time I was exhibiting all the symptoms of anxiety, depression and boredom, so was incapable of anything other than a desire to get back to terra firma. So when he went on to explain that the effects of microgravity might make sex quite problematic for both men and women, I barely had enough strength left to be disappointed. I’m afraid I skim-read the last third or so.

Given my undying love for Star Trek and my belief that life on Mars crab-cartoonhas to be better than life on Earth (no Brexit, no Trump, no soccer – bliss!), it amazed me that Comins could actually make a wet weekend in Bognor sound exciting in comparison to space travel. Though I’m sure if he wrote a book about Bognor, he’d warn of flu germs, the drying effects of the salt in seawater, and lethal crabs lurking in the sand to nip unwary toes.

More seriously, the book is extraordinarily dull, with lengthy bullet point lists of symptoms of everything from anxiety to bipolar disorder, and even of things you should try to see from space, starting with

  • the Earth
  • the Moon
  • the Sun…

Gosh, that’s helpful! I’d never have thought of looking out for any of those things! He has taught me one invaluable thing should I ever be lucky enough to go into space – to check the passenger list to make sure Comins isn’t going on the same trip. I fear those group dynamics may well task the most conciliatory captain. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out to gaze at the stars and resume my dreaming…

apollo-17-launch

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Columbia University Press.

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GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…

moby-dick

Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)

moby_dick_final_chase

The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So, is it a Great American Novel?

No.

* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

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The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

The naked emperor…

😦 😦

the schooldays of jesusAfter fleeing from Novilla at the end of the last book, Simón, Davíd and Inés arrive in Estrella. While there, Simón will agonise endlessly over how to get a decent education for Davíd, Inés will get a job in a dress shop, and Davíd will become even more obnoxious than he was in The Childhood of Jesus. The pseudo-religious symbolism will be replaced by a load of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo about numbers. And the hollowness of book 1 will turn into a vacuous vacuum in this one.

When I slated The Childhood of Jesus for being essentially empty of all meaning, many Coetzee fans told me not to give up on him – they assured me that really he was a wonderful, intelligent writer with plenty to say. So I gave him a second chance. I find it hard to believe, but this book is actually even more meaningless and shallow than the previous one. If ever there were a case of the emperor’s new clothes, this is it – Mr Coetzee is running naked through the streets, hoping people will still think he’s dressed in robes of gold and purple. Ironic really, since if this book does have a point, it is that the people of this strange country in which our tedious trio have washed up seem willing to worship Davíd despite him being an obnoxious and rather unintelligent spoiled little brat, who frankly should have been sent to bed with no supper at the end of chapter 1, book 1, and not allowed out till he apologised for existing.

Since this is a sequel, the following paragraphs will contain some spoilers for the first book.

emperor-no-clothesAt the end of The Childhood, it was left with Davíd and his surrogate parents fleeing Novilla because the authorities there wanted to put Davíd in some kind of institution, considering his behaviour disruptive. The suggestion, subtly given in the title, was that Davíd was some kind of Messiah, perhaps even actually Jesus, and as he fled he began to pick up followers who recognised his frequently touted but never shown exceptionality. This second book promptly drops all that, and drops other “important” symbolism from book 1 too, such as Inés, the virgin mother in The Childhood, now apparently being a sexually experienced woman (without having had sex in the interim I might add – miraculous!).

Simón, devoted to Davíd and convinced of his exceptionalism in book 1, is now finding that the child is simply difficult – something I feel the rest of us had worked out long before. Davíd shows no affection for these adults who have cared for him and promptly demands to become a boarder at his new school, where they are teaching the children how to call down numbers from the stars via dance. (That sentence alone should surely be enough of a warning to avoid the book at all costs.) Davíd instead gives his love to a weird caretaker, whose main attraction seems to be that he shows the schoolboys lewd pictures of women. But things all go horribly wrong and we have some jejune philosophising on justice and rehabilitation. After avoiding the overt but silly religious symbolism of the first book throughout nearly all of this one, Coetzee then reverts to what must surely be mockery by having Davíd offering redemption if only people would believe in him.

JM Coetzee
JM Coetzee

It is readable because Coetzee is a good storyteller. He manages to create a constant impression that he’s just about to say something meaningful, which keeps the reader turning the pages in hope. But sadly he has nothing meaningful to say, so he fills the space with a lot of pseudo-philosophical absurdity, occasionally humorous but always with a kind of supercilious sneer hidden not very thoroughly between the lines. When discussing book 1 with a fellow reviewer, I joked that Coetzee was probably having a good laugh at all the thousands of people vainly trying to find a coherent meaning in the novel – the joke’s on me for being daft enough to read book 2! Ugh! Needless to say, it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker… an institution always willing to see gorgeous robes where none exist, so long as the emperor has a well-known name.

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

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The Seeker by SG MacLean

They seek him here…

🙂 🙂

the seekerOliver Cromwell has set himself up as de facto monarch of England, living in Charles Stuart’s palace surrounded by luxury. Surrounded also by plots and plotters, he has a spy network to look after his safety and that of the Commonwealth. Amongst them is Seeker, aka The Seeker. When a man apparently loyal to Cromwell is killed, it falls to Seeker aka The Seeker to find out whodunit and why.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I didn’t have a clue what was going on for most of this book. Maybe if I knew the history of Cromwell’s England in depth, it might have worked for me, but all the factions left me baffled. As did passing mentions of various religious sects – Ranters, Levellers, Seekers (of whom, amazingly, Seeker aka The Seeker appeared to have once been one). The book is well written and MacLean’s research is clearly extremely thorough, but I never got to grips with it and never felt any connection to the myriad of characters who flittered mysteriously across the pages, some of them going by more than one name. One minute we’re in London investigating a murder, next we’re in Oxford foiling some Royalist plot or other, but not the Royalist plot presumably that we’re still trying to foil in London, assuming that is a Royalist plot and not something to do with the slave trade, or maybe opium!

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts...
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
I fear the only things I know about Cromwell are that he was no fun and had warts…

I stuck it out to 80% and then threw in the towel, realising that I couldn’t care less who did what to whom or why, and positively couldn’t spend any more of my ever-shrinking remaining life-span reading the rest. Part of my problem was that Seeker aka The Seeker (who, if you remember, used to be a Seeker) actually seemed to be the equivalent of the head of the Gestapo, quite happy to take anyone who threatened Cromwell to the Tower for a quick bit of torturing and then a disembowelment or perhaps a dismemberment. I found it hard to see him as a hero – not sure why! The fact that his love interest was the sister of a man, Elias aka The Sparrow, who was possibly a Leveller and maybe a Royalist, or perhaps a disaffected Roundhead who objected to Cromwell behaving like a King (it might have helped if I knew what Levellers were. I’m pretty sure they weren’t Seekers, though.)… *takes a deep breath* Where was I? Oh yes, so Elias is not a fan of Cromwell but while he languishes in the Tower, where Seeker aka The Seeker put him, awaiting almost certain horrible death, his sister manages to fall in love with S aka T.S. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

SG (aka Shona) MacLean
SG (aka Shona) MacLean

Meantime, there are Dutchmen and invisible Welshmen, and Scotsmen, including one called Zander Seaton, though whether or how he was connected to Alexander Seaton, the hero of MacLean’s other series (the one I understood and liked), I have frankly no idea. Or was he just there as a kind of self-referential in-joke? I don’t know. I simply don’t know!

So I gave up and flicked ahead, and discovered that even when I knew whodunit, I still didn’t care.

Having said all that, it paints a good picture of plots, secrecy and the murky goings-on in Cromwell’s London. And I’m quite sure it would work much better for someone familiar with that period of history, or perhaps someone with more ability/willingness than I to follow nineteen different strands simultaneously while admiring Seeker aka The Seeker. But sadly, not for me.

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

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Book 14
Book 14

The Sans Pareil Mystery by Karen Charlton

The Regency world in a parallel universe…

🙂 😐

the sans pareil mysteryRegency London 1810: Bow Street detective Stephen Lavender and his colleague Constable Ned Woods are called to a derelict building about to be demolished. A neighbour insists there’s a woman in the building, but when Lavender’s men search it, they find no one. The demolition proceeds and when the wall falls down, the corpse of a beautiful young woman is revealed beneath the floorboards. It’s not long until she is recognised as one of the actresses at the Sans Pareil theatre…

This is a light-hearted romp, as much a romance novel as a crime novel really. In the beginning it looks as though April Divine has been murdered during a botched attempt to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, but gradually the plot widens out to take in aspects of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with spy rings and secret documents a-plenty. The plotting is undoubtedly the best bit of the book, though it’s not a mystery as such – the reader learns and understands what’s going on at the same time as the detectives.

I look for a couple of things in historical crime fiction. Firstly, the detection element must be in line with the time it’s set in – no amazing foresight to 20th century science, for instance. Secondly, the time period must feel right – the characters should either fit in to the contemporary rules of society or they should be obviously misfits and seen as such by the other characters. Sadly this book fails fairly spectacularly on both of these requirements. I stuck it out for about 70% and then couldn’t take any more, so skipped ahead to the end… I was interested enough in the plot to want to know who the baddies were, hence my generous 1½-star rating.

The whole thing around the Bow Street runners felt completely inauthentic somehow. It’s not something I know anything much about, especially in this period, but I couldn’t believe in Lavender’s character. He is highly intelligent and well educated, mixing with the aristocracy on terms of near equality, and yet working as a policeman in 1810? And also mixing socially with the constables who are clearly way down the social ladder? Even the use of the word “detective” feels all wrong for that period. Dickens was still hesitant enough to be using quotation marks around the word decades later than this period, long after Bow Street had given way to Scotland Yard. The Oxford Dictionary dates it to mid-19th century. That piece of in-depth research took me roughly 30 seconds.

The female lead is Dona Magdalena, a Spanish lady who has fled the war and is living in near-penury in a run-down part of London. Despite her aristocratic background, she is the love interest for Lavender. This is just so wrong for the class-ridden British society of the time. She too mixes with both nobs and the hoi-polloi – I’m guessing the book must have been set in a parallel universe, because it simply couldn’t have happened in this one.

Karen Charlton
Karen Charlton

The book is stuffed full of anachronisms in manner, behaviour and speech. The aristocratic women are all feisty, independent types out there in the world earning their own living. The amount of public kissing and canoodling that goes on would have shocked Ms Austen’s heroines into fits of the vapours, and I get the impression that more than kissing went on during the bit I skipped. My question is – why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people? Surely the point of historical settings is to show us how different society was, not to pretend it’s the same but have them in horse-drawn cabs rather than cars? People talking about feeling “challenged” by their jobs, aristocrats offering to help out the hoi-polloi in the kitchen – ugh!

And, you know, if you’re going to talk dirty, at least get it anatomically correct. Propositioning Constable Woods, a good-hearted prostitute offers him a special deal for quantity…

“Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”

Er… three backs. And I hasten to add the only research I did for that one was to learn arithmetic.

Enough already. Not my kind of thing, and I fear I can’t recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction to feel well researched and authentic. But it’s probably fine as a light-hearted romance in Regency frocks.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.

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Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon

Mushrooms and tree-hugging…

😦 😦

uprootedThe book starts with Lyon being intrigued by the proliferation of the Green Man and other obviously pagan carvings on early churches. Making the point that early Christianity needed to incorporate some aspects of existing spiritual beliefs in order to attract adherents, she then goes on to speculate that worshipping, or at least respecting, the natural world and assuming it has some kind of power is at least as rational as contemporary conventional religion. So she decides to start a sex cult.

There is a vein of humour running through the book, which sometimes works but more often makes it difficult to know exactly how seriously Lyon expects the reader to take her arguments, such as they are. She’s clearly superficially knowledgeable of both nature myths and philosophy, and in the early chapters she uses this knowledge quite effectively. She’s humorous about being unable to find willing participants for her sex cult, but is incredibly dismissive of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. At first, I admired the writing and intelligence, though I felt from a very early stage that she hadn’t really thought through what, if anything, she was trying to say.

As the book progresses, she takes superficial looks at various aspects of things that she seems to associate with paganism or nature cults; for example, witchcraft, shamanism, Alesteir Crowley’s beliefs, etc. Half the time I wasn’t even convinced of their relevance to the argument she seems to be attempting to make – namely, that conventional religion is on its way out and we need to revert to some kind of paganism, a belief in a single consciousness, from which some kind of mystical power does (or perhaps doesn’t) derive. It’s possible that I’m over-simplifying – I did lose the will to live fairly early on – but I don’t think so. It all has a hippy, undergraduate feel – drugs and drink seem to feature quite heavily at the points of her ‘insights’. She cherry-picks the bits of philosophy that she thinks give some intellectual grounding to her rather unstructured rambling, but they really don’t. The whole thing is too sloppy and unfocused to shed much light on anything. And, being honest, I never felt she was convinced of her own arguments.

The Green Man at Kilpeck Church, where Lyons journey began...
The Green Man at Kilpeck Church, where Lyons journey began…

I wondered, fleetingly, at the fact that the two people I have known reasonably well who have been diagnosed with psychotic disorders were, variously, raised by academic metaphysicians or philosophy students at the time of diagnosis. Perhaps overthinking makes you mad. Perhaps mad people are merely thinkers.

Ignoring the clumsiness of the sentence structure, this is her reasoning for why people with psychotic illnesses should seek treatment from shamans rather than conventional resources. One wonders if she considered the possibility that, since she’s spent her life in and around academia, she probably meets a disproportionately high number of academic types, perhaps just possibly skewing the results of her in-depth survey.

Partly, the problem is that she makes assumptions to suit her agenda with no corresponding evidence. For example, she makes a big point about how conventional religion has destroyed the traditional way in which early pagans actively joined in with ritual celebrations (though how she knows they did this is an unexplained mystery – time travel? Mystical messages from the great beyond? Perhaps a tree told her…), so that now they tend to be made up of performers and audience, rather than participants. She, of course, sees this as a loss, so much so that she assumes that’s unarguable.

Still from the movie "The Wicker Man" Brrrrr! No wonder the director let them keep their undies on...
Still from the movie “The Wicker Man”
Brrrrr! No wonder the director let them keep their undies on…

But I reckon that even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts her assumptions about pagan rituals, lots of people would argue that sacrifices and orgies might not be such a loss, and perhaps our more reserved behaviour is a sign of civilisation – or in Scotland, perhaps just a response to it rarely being warm enough to encourage us to get our kit off outdoors. Also, she frequently repeats that she is an atheist which, therefore, would obviously make her feel like an onlooker at a Christian ceremony. (I’m trying so hard not to say “Duh!”) I’m an atheist, too, but I’m willing to bet that true believers probably feel like participants in their religious practices rather than audience members.

Nina Lyon is currently completing a PhD about nonsense and metaphysics at Cardiff University. It figures...
Nina Lyon is currently completing a PhD about nonsense and metaphysics at Cardiff University. Yeah, figures…

As the book wears on, Lyon rambles around England and bits of Europe in a totally unstructured way, going to visit tree-hugging shamans and attending festivals at Stonehenge and other such trite remnants of hippy culture, where she learns that apparently the best way to celebrate life is to get stoned out of your head. When she started nostalgically bleating on about how Ecstasy had been a brilliant thing in the ’90s for bringing young people together in shared experiences, I realised with a twinge of pity that she really didn’t have a clue it’s the youthfulness that achieves that, not the drugs.

In conclusion, good prose style, some averagely decent nature writing, occasional shafts of humour, but the bulk of it is basically twaddle. As she neared the end, Lyon admitted she’d kind of lost interest in her original aim of creating a new Green Man sex cult. She wasn’t alone.

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

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